Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number One

#1 — A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
I would like to think that a satire of mass media — of television, in particular — wouldn’t still be pertinent some fifty years later, that five decades of intellectual evolution would have moved United States society past the point where it’s frighteningly susceptible to the sorts of opportunistic charlatans that populate A Face in the Crowd. Instead, the alarming relevance of Elia Kazan’s film has only swelled over the years. The film powerfully portrays genial hucksterism preying on the eager masses and a happily pliable audience ready to buy anything that’s being sold, as long as the pitch is settled in the right sort of homespun wisdom. Play to their good, moral, God-fearing common sense while maybe touching on a fearful nerve or two, and the suckers will follow absolutely anywhere. Indeed, the only part of Kazan’s film that has aged questionably is the end, when comeuppance arrives in the exposure of a core lie and the audience flees. These days the curtain between deceit and truth is in such tatters that successful subterfuge is inconceivable. And yet the assembled nod and cheer like never before. A Face in the Crowd isn’t cynical enough.

There’s an intriguing added layer to A Face in the Crowd, a bit of retroactive meta commentary that stems from the actor recruited to play lead character Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Andy Griffith was already a successful comic monologuist and Tony Award-nominated stage performer when he made his film debut as Rhodes, but his most famous work was ahead of him. Three years after this film was released, Griffith would start portraying small town sheriff Andy Taylor on television, and it’s difficult to view A Face in the Crowd with seeing the dappled colors cast backward by that prism. It becomes all too enticing to view the bulk of Griffith’s career as a version of the trickery plied by Rhodes and his team, feel good bumpkinism cooked up to win mass appeal while behind the scenes everyone counted money. I don’t actually think Griffith or anyone associated with the show that bore his name were actually as manipulative as that (the later Matlock may very well have been pure calculation). That the remainder of Griffith’s career rouses suspicion at all is less an indictment of him and more of a marker as to how effective he is as Rhodes. Griffith is savage in his forcefulness and surgical in his ability to slip from genial folksiness to black-eyed, mercenary chill. He’s perfectly teamed with Patricia Neal, playing the radio producer who effectively discovers Rhodes and serves as his manager on his climb to national stardom. Neal is the barometer of her charge’s blackening soul, initially charmed and impressed by him before growing ever more troubled as his influence grows. Neal’s ability to ground a performance in a subdued, naturalistic emotional honesty is precisely what’s needed against the raging tempest of Griffith’s work.

Working from a script by his On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg (the screenplay is based on Schulberg’s short story Your Arkansas Traveler), Kazan is at his most pointed and purposeful here. The stage whisper of sanctimony that sometimes dogs his other work is entirely absent. Even though the film has a clear point of view, Kazan presents the material as an exploration rather than an indictment. Maybe his gavel hand was stilled by an awareness of his own culpability as one who cunningly dictated to audiences, as any skilled film director must. Or perhaps Kazan felt a deeper empathy with those who let their political passions circle them away from a stable center, making him reluctant to cast too much fault on anyone, regardless of the side of the camera on which they resided. Then again, all that dollar bin psychology may offer no insight as to artistic purpose. The distinctive achievement of A Face in the Crowd may be nothing more than focused artistry naturally combined with the necessary fortuitous kismet to shift an accomplished film to the level of masterwork. No matter how it got to its finished form, A Face in the Crowd is a stunning, thrilling, sharply modern work.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Two

#2 — Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Some Like It Hot, a film routinely cited as one of the greatest straight comedies Hollywood ever produced, begins with an act of mass murder. And it’s not some gently softened version of rampant violence either, shifted into a safe, farcical mode. The depiction of the famed St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is tame by today’s standards, but it’s right in line with any given urban drama of the time. It’s a little detail of the film’s construction of which I remain forever fond. It’s not simply because of the enlivening incongruity of the scene, the splendid friction of an incident at odds with the action it provokes (the entirety of the plot is set into motion when a pair of musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, accidentally witness the crime). Instead, the distance between the grim tommy gun mayhem and the zippy comedic machinations that follow exemplifies the breadth of Billy Wilder as a filmmaker. Here was someone who could unspool the deftest of comedies and the gloomiest of dramas with equal skill and creativity ferocity, touching on every last variation between the two, seemingly without an ounce of uncertainty. Wilder may not have been as bold or as intensely innovative as other directors. But his ability to absolutely master wildly divergent films makes him one of the finest creators to ever cash a major studio paycheck.

Forced to evade the attention of gangsters bent on erasing any witnesses to their murderous act, the musicians don dresses to masquerade with a traveling all-girl band. Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) become Josephine and Daphne, respectively. Guys in drag was already one of the hoariest gags by the time Some Like It Hot hit movie screens. Milton Berle had already worn out the gimmick in his once wildly-popular television program, for example. And yet Wilder and his most dependable screenwriting collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, take what could and arguably should be a one-joke premise and build a stellar comic adventure out of it, defined by its inspired digressions. While both Joe and Jerry are immediately enamored with sexpot singer Sugar Kane and ukelele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe, in what may very be her defining role), it’s Joe who actively pursues her, engaging in yet another act of identity subterfuge at the Miami resort where the band has a gig. He poses as wealthy playboy who goes by the name of Junior, Curtis expertly aping the voice and mannerisms of Cary Grant as the apex of a robust masculine charm. Simultaneously, Jerry, as Daphne, is wooed by a genuine tycoon, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who engages in this romantic pursuit with the nonchalance of a man used to getting his way, who’s acquired previous wives like other magnates collect cars or properties. Fraught with potential narrative pitfalls, each of these story threads is abundant with charm, with, and sly truths. Either could actually be a little creepy, especially with fifty years of social progress between then and now. Instead, Wilder’s practically unparalleled sense of tonal balance keeps it light and winning.

While Some Like It Hot doesn’t possess the sort of stealth progressivism that elevated Tootsie a couple decades later, it’s remarkable how little of it feels dated by outmoded ideas. There’s very little of it — maybe none of it — that can viewed as transphobic or otherwise hostile to the sort of recalibration of exterior identity that is increasingly letting individuals represent their true inner selves in a way that would have been widely denigrating just a few years ago. Arguably, the rightfully revered final punchline, originally intended as a placeholder until Wilder and Diamond came up with something they felt better, is as forceful of a statement of acceptance as anything cooked up in activist meetings in the decades that followed. I don’t think this quality of the film betrays a hidden agenda on the part of Wilder. Tellingly, it is more a reflection of the common quality in all his best work: a resolute conviction in embracing the humanity of his characters, of being true to them. Some Like It Hot is unmistakably a comedy. It’s unimaginable to call it anything but. That doesn’t mean Wilder views the fictional people who populate it as subservient to whatever joke is propelled into the film like a pinball out of the chute. The story still belongs to them, and they merit respect, even when they lapse towards the buffoonish. Wilder clearly believes in them. Of course he wants the audience to do the same. Happily, he has the skill to insure that happens.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Three

#3 — Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
At the time Sunset Boulevard was released, Gloria Swanson hadn’t appeared in a film for nearly ten years. Between 1933 and 1950, she had roles in only two releases. In that respect, she was absolutely ideal to play Norma Desmond, the faded doyenne of cinema, still living in the palatial mansion she earned back in the days when she was part of the first wave of the American royalty hatched and nurtured in Hollywood. Forgotten by the world that once adored her, Norma is a victim of the sort of madness that can only come from unchallenged entitlement. She screens her old movies, snarls hungrily about an imminent comeback, and expounds on the relative size of pictures and the descending quality of faces included in them. She is hobbled by monstrous insecurity disguised as vicious certainty. Of all the many creations of Billy Wilder that are defined by a savagely comic cynicism, few are as potently realized as Norma, in part because of the words of the director with his credited co-writers, Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., and in part because of the fearless bravado Swanson brings to the role.

Norma Desmond is the lunatic core of Sunset Boulevard, but it was far more than a simple character piece. Deep into his cinematic career, this is Wilder brilliantly, boldly sinking his teeth into the hand providing his supper. With the bleakest of humor, announced right away with the little detail that the film is being narrated by a man floating dead in a swimming pool, Wilder offers an indictment of its profession, not just the callousness with which it throws away former stars, but for all its curdled opportunism. The dark neediness of the film business is embodied by Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who gloms onto Norma as a means of escaping his professional and financial destitution. He quickly ascertains the depths of Norma’s delusions, but finds it convenient to perpetuate her constructed myths, though not out of the same warped kindness that inspires similar enabling by Max (Erich von Stroheim ), her current butler and former director. Instead, Joe sees Norma as his lifeline, a buffer against a treacherous company town he hasn’t been able to successfully navigate on his own. To a degree, he pities Norma. To a greater degree, he exploits her.

Shot in the murky black-and-white of film noir, Sunset Boulevard captures a place and time with probing authority and blistering wit. It has a psychological astuteness and a prevailing morbidity (Norma’s home could house the Addams Family in ghoulish comfort) that set it apart from much of what surrounded it in the era. Wilder presents it all with enviable balance of divergent styles, one of his nearly unmatched skills as a filmmaker. No one else had quite the same adeptness with jokes so drenched in darkness. And yet the film is remarkably unassuming. Wilder had a sharp eye and thrilling creativity in shaping his images, but he somehow kept his brilliance from getting too showy, even with the post-mortem storytelling and an inspired closing moment that finds Norma effectively breaking the fourth wall in a manner that makes complete contextual sense. These narrative revolutions feel understated and almost simple. They are practically self-evident. Any other presentation is unimaginable. In Wilder’s hands, the pictures were more often than not exactly the right size.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Four

#4 — Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
The films of Alfred Hitchcock are ideally suited for clip reels, which can skew perception of them a bit. Moreso than Billy Wilder, John Ford, or any of his other rough contemporaries who presided over at least as many classic films, Hitchcock had an eye and a knack for that one master shot — often achieved through some revolutionary manipulation of the visuals — ideally suited to pulled out of context to stand on its own. By the time distinctive shots have been shown ad nauseum in aggressively stitched together celebrations of the best the history of cinema has to offer, it can start to feel like whichever Hitchcock films were the flashiest should be automatically held up as the peak of his craft. I’m probably susceptible to this trend, forgiving, say, the strained, borderline laughable closing scene of Psycho that explains Norman’s actions through a grandiose psychiatric diagnosis in part because the spectacular shower scene is embedded in my brain. And yet, when forced to name the Hitchcock film that I consider his pinnacle (acknowledging the only person forcing me is me, as these decade lists are a self-delivered assignment), I always defer to one of his leaner features: Strangers on Train.

Starting with the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, maybe the most formidable writer Hitchcock ever looked to for source material, the filmmaker and his collaborators (including, briefly, Raymond Chandler as a screenwriter) burrowed into the story’s edgy complexities, creating a intricate exploration of the way shadows can infiltrate the most comfortable of lives. It begins with a chance encounter, tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and wealthy layabout Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meet while riding the rails to their respective homes. Some idle conversation about the interpersonal challenges in their lives inspires Bruno to share his idea about committing the perfect murder, a trading of desired victims among individuals with no known connection to one another, eliminating any evident motive. Bruno takes Guy’s polite acquiescence to the twisted theory as an official go ahead to villainously seek out the person causing the tennis player grief, his cheating wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). The film settles into one of Hitchcock’s favorite grooves, that of an ordinary fellow desperately outmatched by the troubling circumstances he’s stumbled into.

There are a couple trick shot moments — notably, the grimmest sequence viewed largely through the reflection in a pair of eyeglasses — but Strangers on a Train mostly finds Hitchcock deploying a narrative with clockwork certainty. The Master of Suspense is preoccupied with that very quality, bringing the story along with a keen attention to every little detail and every tiny turn that will enhance the noose-tightening tension of the film. This is also one of the director’s craftier outings in terms of the performances. He plays to Granger’s limitations as an actor, heightening the stolidness of Guy. On the other side of the criss-cross, Walker develops an intense level of menace in his character more through insidious camaraderie and ease. He’s no maniac. He’s simply someone whose established comfort in getting what he wants has infiltrated the darker parts of his soul, like murky tide rushing up the beach. Hitchcock is uniquely attuned to the balance that’s needed in the film, achieving a sense of mounting trouble while also keeping it firmly grounded in the interplay between individuals, tangled somewhat in misunderstanding, but mostly engaged in a mutual triggering of base desires, some of them viciously brutal. Few other films, by Hitchcock or anyone else, get at the lurking malevolence of the human psyche.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Five

 

5 rash

#5 — Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A story about the making of Rashomon insists that the actors were regularly asking director Akira Kurosawa to divulge the “official” version of the story they were telling in the film. That likely went beyond a general curiosity. Since the film centers on the sharing of multiple, tellingly divergent versions of an encounter in the woods that left a samurai (Masayuki Mori) dead, the actors had some rationale for wanting to know what was truth and what was fiction in shaping their performances. Kurosawa never shared any real version of events, instead noting that a single truth represented the exact opposite of the film’s point. Indeed, the overwhelming takeaway of Rashomon isn’t that people conceal the truth to serve their own needs, but that the truth is entirely shaped by each individual, on the basis of whatever those needs may be. It’s likely that every storyteller fully believes their own recounting, the contradictions only evidence of the fallibility of others. There is no puzzle to be unlocked, no definitive answers at the back of the book. Everyone is wrong and so very very certain they are right.

Like the Shakespearean works Kurosawa repeatedly returned to for inspiration, Rashomon is brilliant because of the way it transforms the base psychology of human beings into insightful drama. Without turning his film into a purely intellectual exercise — the passionate performances of Toshiro Mifune (as a bandit who is a key player in the tale) and Machiko Kyō (as the samurai’s wife) nearly see to that through sheer force — Kurosawa creates something that meticulously explores the very nature of perception and honesty. In a way, it becomes a stand-in for filmmaking, as each of four characters (including the deceased samurai, communicating through a medium, played by Noriko Honma) takes their turn, they naturally finesse and embellish. There is an inherent, instinctive desire to persuade that takes over so completely that it builds its own opaque wall against the past. It becomes an expression of self rather than mere reportage. Similarly, the work of Kurosawa and other directors is about reformulating a story, usually investing it with personal passions, until it feels intensely right, more truthful than truth.

As usual with Kurosawa, the film is built with fascinating and subtle technique. Working with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa is extremely deliberate about the pacing of the film, down to the length of individual shots and the dynamics of edited segments. Kurosawa isn’t trying to tilt the film in one direction or another. Quite the opposite, most of the choices are intended to level the stories, creating parallels between the different versions that make them echoes instead of contradictions. It adds another level of mastery onto the film. If there’s no certainty in the shifting fiction of the film, there’s plenty in the creative process. This was still fairly early in Kurosawa’s long, storied career, released less than a decade after his debut. There’s no hesitancy to it, though. Kurosawa already had fully command of his art and his craft. He knew that he had many charges as a filmmaker. Providing a solid, unmovable answer was not necessarily one of them.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Six

#6 — Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
A few years back, when the American Film Institute followed their surprisingly successful AFI’S 100 Years 100 Movies special with annual companion lists of increasing insignificance (anybody really care what wound up on 100 Years 100 Passions?) I was a little surprised that they never hit on the concept of counting down the one hundred greatest movie scenes. As an actual exercise there are too many challenges to determining the parameters of said scenes for inclusion in the consideration process to make it anything but frustrating, so its possible that they saw it as inviting futility onto an already fairly silly endeavor. Though I clearly like pulling these sorts of backward counting games together, I would never want to try to condense the whole of American film into the ten, twenty, or even one hundred best scenes. And yet I have absolutely no doubt as to what I would put at the top of my list. A man in love turns away from a newly closed door, steps down a few slick steps, and waves away his driver in order to walk home in inclement weather. The music starts. Then comes the most joyful scene in the history of movies, made more so by it’s pronounced artistry disguised as spontaneous simplicity.

Singin’ in the Rain was something of a throwaway production, certainly not approached with the same aspiration nor viewed with the same esteem as the previous year’s An American in Paris, which also starred Gene Kelly. Producer Arthur Freed, of MGM’s vaunted Freed Unit, cooked it up as a way to make some use of the catalog of songs he’d written with Nacio Herb Brown for previous musicals. Most of the tunes were around twenty years old. The title song was one of the oldest, first appearing in Hollywood Revue of 1929. There is only one wholly original song in the film: “Moses Supposes,” by Roger Edens and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (It happens to be one of the very best in the production.) Befitting the long lineage of the songs, the story also reaches back to the early days of Hollywood, following a silent film star (Kelly) as he adapts to the coming of “talkies,” taking advantage of the new technology to transform his swashbuckler picture into a musical. Singin’ in the Rain is sweetly nostalgic for and sharply cynical about the bygone days of Hollywood, the opposing qualities infusing the film in roughly equal measure. In a movie overstuffed with fleet footwork, that paradoxical appraisal of the business may be the niftiest dance of all.

Credited to Kelly and Stanley Donen as co-directors, Singin’ in the Rain is a consistent marvel. The musical numbers aren’t just light, fun and festive. They are inspired, even jaw-dropping at times. I remember a TCM featurette that featured Donald O’Connor talking about his wild acrobatics in the “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene, remarking something to the effect of “That was a little tricky” as he watched himself run straight up planks and walls to perform backflips. He sounded like he was talking about a moderately challenging chip shot. That relaxed quality abounds in Singin’ in the Rain. Surely, that’s part of what makes it so special. For all the toil and ambition that once went into grand Hollywood productions, a more modest approach can reveal a greater creative wisdom. That’s not to imply that Kelly, Donen, and company didn’t care about what they were making or didn’t try to push themselves. The elegant “Broadway Melody Ballet” is counterargument enough to that faulty notion. But the relative humility of Singin’ in the Rain is a major part of its charm. After all, the familiar, natural occurrence of water falling from the sky can itself hold untold wonders.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Seven

It’s probably impossible to pinpoint the first Alfred Hitchcock-designed image I was exposed to, but I know the single shot that stands as the first I really saw. It’s arguably his most famous, certainly in a neck and neck race with the shower curtain being pulled back to reveal a shadowy figure with a gray-haired bun holding a knife or the blonde, drenched woman screaming in response. The shot that connected with me, for me, had a man in a suit running furiously along an expansive, arid field, a biplane bearing down on him from behind. The shot is dynamic, propulsive, beautiful framed, and intriguing in the manner of the best storytelling. I wanted to know how that situation arose. How did he get there? In truth, the eventual lesson I was able to take from the film is that it didn’t necessarily matter how he got there, with the antecedent for “he” either the character or the master filmmaker. As Paul Thomas Anderson recently observed: “North by Northwest? Tell me again how he gets to the middle of the field with a plane after him? I can’t. How does he get to Mount Rushmore? I don’t know, but it’s great.” Sometimes the art of storytelling is in making the details of the story irrelevant.

Hitchcock believed in the facility of the MacGuffin, an item that drives the plot without necessarily having a great deal of import or meaning. It is important because the story maintains it is important, because the narrative needs it to be. In the case of North by Northwest, the primary MacGuffin is microfilm containing devastating secrets that a secret organization is trying to smuggle out of the United States. In the midst of their efforts, there is a case of mistaken identity creating the favorite Hitchcockian trope of an everyday joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In this case, the normal fellow is hardly a schlub. Roger O. Thornhill is played by Cary Grant, and its a testament to the actor’s marvelous capabilities as a performing that he operates with his customary charm but still suggests all the ways Roger is plain as can be. As matters escalate around him — the previously mentioned biplane buzzing, a sudden knife in the back, side trips of varying intensity to the United Nations and Mount Rushmore, a bizarre scene of forced drunk driving — Grant is perfectly perplexed, always a half-step behind, his boldly unruffled demeanor showing the slightest sign of fraying around the edges.

Hitchcock delivered Vertigo one year earlier. While that is now routinely cited as the quintessential depository of all of the filmmaker’s creative obsessions, North by Northwest is the movie that was genuinely built to be the ultimate Hitchcock film. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has said as much, noting that he did everything he could to tilt the script to every one of Hitchcock’s considerable strengths. Informing that mission, no doubt, was an understanding that Hitchcock was above all a grand showman. Yes, he tapped into something primal in the human condition and could subtly paw at the darker parts of his own psyche to find his way to a troubling universality. At his core, though, he was an entertainer, a creator who had an inherent understanding of the rhythms of the audience — their desires, their anxieties, their passion — unrivaled until Steven Spielberg explored the waters surrounding Amity Island. Lehman set Hitchcock up gloriously, giving him everything he needs to spin up a buoyant thriller. Hitchcock may have made better films or more important films. I’m not sure he made anything else that is so plainly, perfectly joyful in its mastery of every stirring part of the movies.