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The Top Ten Films of the 1950s

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles offering our collective picks (based on a polling of the entire staff of the site) on the top movies of each decade. This month we begin with the 1950s, and we’ll release a new top ten list roughly every month until we reach the 2000s sometime near the end of 2009. As always, whittling a decade of films into a top ten list (plus ten honorable mentions) proved agonizing, seeing many of our favorites fall to the cutting room floor for sake of decorum. There are literally dozens more films worthy of mention here, but there’s no doubt that the ones that made the list deserve their notoriety and recognition. Enjoy! -CN

The 1950s began with the Korean War and ended with the death of Errol Flynn. In between there were a few billion deaths and births, Sputnik was launched and, near the end, two guys named Che Guevara and Fidel Castro took over Cuba, effectively turning the country into the geopolitical equivalent of Them! And when people weren’t thinking of the Russians, the Cubans and the bomb, they were at the movies, attempting not to burst into communist pantomime. In America, there was John Ford, Billy Wilder, and a visiting Alfred Hitchcock, on loan from our forefathers in England. Globally, Akira Kurosawa hit his stride while, out of France, we were suddenly introduced to two film critics who decided to get behind the camera: Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

01. Sunset Boulevard
A body floats in a neglected pool and a posthumous voice wanders onscreen and begins to tell of his own murder; a ‘poor dope’ he calls himself. Thus begins Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s grand gothic cathedral built in the name of Hollywood and the world of addicts and parasites that lies just below its promises. Inflected with noir tropes and presided over by a smooth-talking corpse, Wilder’s cynical view of showbiz teased almost all genres, including horror and melodrama. Delivering her lines as if performing Greek tragedy, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, the aging silent-film starlet who takes in a handsome B-movie screenwriter (William Holden) who may just write the film who will put her back in the limelight. A nightmarish take on Hollywood’s power structure? The screaming banshee of silent film caterwauling from its deep grave? Either way, Wilder’s film remains the wildest and most revered of Hollywood autopsies, a peak at the morgue where fame and infamy rest when the audience fades. A decade before film would become the most popular of cultural communiqués, Sunset Boulevard delivered one of the first eulogies for the medium, defining dark comedy and redefining commercial filmmaking. -CC

02. Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock defies gravity in Vertigo, taking stock of what an audience expects out of a Hitchcock film and throwing it back at them. Instead of Hitchcock’s cool and calculating suspense films, Vertigo is two halves of a fractured soul mired in guilt, obsession, and madness. James Stewart, channeling his mania from the Anthony Mann westerns, plays a retired San Francisco cop with a fear of heights who is hired by an old pal to follow his troubled wife (Kim Novak), who is seemingly possessed by the spirit of a 19th century woman who looks just like her. This is one-of-a-kind Hitchcock — fetishistic, compulsive, crazed, romantic, and deeply disturbed. The final shot of Stewart teetering on a precipice will make an audience utter a collective gasp and stagger out of the theater blind. -PB

03. Some Like It Hot
Two Prohibition-era musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a mob hit and have to go deep undercover. How deep? They dress in drag, become ‘Daphne’ and ‘Josephine,’ join an all-girl orchestra, and travel to a Florida resort, with one of them falling in love with an especially luminous Marilyn Monroe along the way. Billy Wilder’s comedic masterpiece is pitch-perfect from beginning to end, an effervescent slapstick joyride that showcases its three stars to maximum effect. Lemmon and Curtis aren’t particularly attractive as women, but no problem. Just stare at Marilyn. ‘I wanna be loved by you,’ she sings. Mission accomplished! -DW

04. Seven Samurai
While Rashomon earned more critical accolades, Seven Samurai was likely the more influential picture. In his inherent genius, director Akira Kurosawa noted striking parallels between the American Old West and feudal Japan, then artfully blended the two into an epic tale of seven ronin hired to defend a peasant village from bandits. Its simple themes of adventure, loyalty, camaraderie and loss resonated so profoundly that movies were never quite the same again. Not only did Seven Samurai inspire a direct remake (The Magnificent Seven, considered a minor classic itself), but its themes and imagery reappeared in such diverse efforts as Star Wars, A Bug’s Life, Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels. -RV

05. North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film fandango is the ultimate theme park ride — a high energy screwball riff on The 39 Steps with Cary Grant at his best as Roger Thornhill, a Madison Ave. advertising executive, who is mistaken for a mysterious spy by the name of George Kaplan. This is enough to get Grant accused of murder
(pretty convincing — his photo is on the front page of every newspaper in the country wielding a knife at the U.N., standing over the dead body of an ambassador) and go on the run from the police and a suave group of foreign agents headed by the silky James Mason and the reptilian Martin Landau. He meets Eva Marie Saint, transformed by Hitchcock into an albino, aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, and all bets are off. Nobody in the film takes the thing seriously and it is all the better for that. North by Northwest is all high-energy, exhilarating fun. Seekers of the original James Bond formula may look no further — it’s all right here. -PB

06. The 400 Blows
Antoine Doinel was the original lost boy. Ignored at home and criticized at school, he finds his only solace in the beautiful, innocent act of discovering the world. As an adolescent, that translates as ‘getting into trouble.’ He is not a bad kid — he is merely a lonely soul whose only way to learn about the world is from the world itself. The culture shock is unpleasant, but this is Antoine’s life. Doinel was a favorite character of the great French auteur Francois Truffaut, and he appeared in a number of other Truffaut films. But The 400 Blows remains the most indelible glimpse into Antoine’s world, and the most painfully true work from one of the foremost progenitors of the French New Wave. -JM

07. Rashomon
Outside a castle gate, a bandit kills the husband of the woman he’s just raped. Later, four witnesses, (including, through a medium, the dead man), sit in a grove and relate their accounts of what happened and who is to blame. Each story contradicts the others and exposes agendas and self-interests. The exquisite tension of the writing (adapted by the director from two short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke), the inventiveness of director Akira Kurosawa, and the commanding genius of actor Toshiro Mifune combine to produce one of the most spellbinding dramas of the decade and one of the most influential. Here, Kurosawa devised camera techniques that were original even vs. his distinguished prior work and is a significant element of his legacy as one of the greats. The effect of Rashômon (‘the castle gate’) continues to this day and I can attribute some of my own camera moves as a cinematographer to this masterpiece, for which I pay everlasting homage. -JB

08. Rear Window
One of the most thorough metaphors for the voyeurism and hushed perversity of viewership, Rear Window remains one of Hitchcock’s most clear-sighted entertainments. James Stewart plays a photographer laid-up for a few months with a broken leg, his only human contact being his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and a home care nurse (Thelma Ritter). Neither of them is easily convinced when he witnesses, through the lens of his camera, a man murdering his wife in the apartment across the way. Smart and bizarrely straight-forward, every remake of this landmark has been an astronomical failure of craft but has, more times than not, yielded high commercial prospects. Hitchcock was, in the end, the most profound and clever of cinema entertainers. Unlike modern big-budget filmmakers, he saw commercial filmmaking as a real challenge: How does one entertain the masses while also making forward-thinking, expertly crafted pieces of work? He did, nearly every time, and never thought the public deserved anything less. -CC

09. All About Eve
The hunger for fame made great drama long before reality TV. This six-Oscar winner traces the path of a seemingly sweet woman starving for the spotlight, and her shrewd strategies to realize her dreams. Bette Davis was in her early 40s when she perfected the role of Margo, an aging, pissed-off actress being shadowed by Eve, a young fan (Anne Baxter) who would later take over Margo’s star in the celebrity universe. It’s a masterwork of backstage backstabbing by writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz — and a fine double-feature selection with Sunset Boulevard. -NS

10. Strangers on a Train
Hitch owned the ’50s with a string of psychological thrillers (and not only the four on this list) which forever defined the genre. Both Strangers and the subsequent Dial M for Murder are riffs on the ‘perfect murder’ theme. Of course, both murder plots go awry, but the films are nearly perfect. -DB

Honorable Mentions
Singin’ in the Rain
Touch of Evil
The Searchers
On the Waterfront
The African Queen
Sweet Smell of Success
High Noon
The Seventh Seal
Kiss Me Deadly
The Wages of Fear

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