Aliens, Devil-Worshipping Cults, No-good Preachers, and Nazi Horror: the Best Movies of the 50's

Feb 3, 2002 (Updated Nov 9, 2006)

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The Bottom Line I'd love to hear from you re the list; please leave a comment, okay?

How do people do it? How do they pick ten favorite movies of all time? I mean I had a hard enough time trying to pick the ten best from the 1950's. I'm serious. I started with a list of 40 terrific films from the Truman/Eisenhower decade and had to really think hard to whittle it down to just ten (and I'm still not sure I got it right). In fact, I'm sure I’ve got it wrong. That's the one thing I am sure of.

And still I plod on. Why?

Ah, that gets to the heart of it. And the heart of it has to do with how we all love lists (well, I don't know about you, but at least I do).

Think about it. There are all these films out there. We're never going to see them all. Thus we need a tool to filter out the junk and cherry-pick the best. For many, the critic serves as that tool. Let some other schmuck wade through all that garbage and tell me what's worthy of my attention.

Life's too short, we're all too busy (as a friend of mine told me: I don't have the time, I'm only interested in four and five-star films from the most discerning of critics).

This friend of mine has lots of lists that he hoards away in a drawer in his room. Want him to watch a movie with you? It had better be on one of the lists (this guy literally carries them with him when he goes to the video store).

Here they are then, my choices—right or wrong, for better or worse, subject to change whenever I feel like it—for the best films of the 1950s:

10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Don Siegel doesn't get enough credit. I like Siegel because, like Sam Fuller, he deals in "termite art" (a term coined by critic Manny Farber). It's a no-nonsense approach that's compact, lean, tight. And Body Snatchers is a perfect example of that style. This movie has the creepiest and juiciest of themes: aliens come and take over a small California town in an evil, insidious way by invading our bodies and creating soulless duplicates who are incapable of love. One day you wake up and there's something odd, something different and something terrifying about a family member. Nicely remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman (who switched the setting to San Francisco) but I still prefer the original black and white version with Kevin McCarthy fighting to remain human. Tense, chilling, absorbing.

9. East of Eden (1955)

Icon James Dean made his debut in this Elia Kazan adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel. Dean gives his best performance here as the neurotic, troubled Cal in a variation on the "Cain and Abel" story. Looking for love in all the wrong places (his father loves religion, not him; his believed-dead mother is actually alive, but has a disgraceful occupation: whorehouse madam). To say this family is troubled is an understatement as Kazan goes for all kinds of off-kilter angles and tilted camera shots. Of his performance here, the late film critic Pauline Kael said, "Dean seems to go just about as far as anybody can in acting misunderstood."

8. The Searchers (1956)

Many consider this John Ford's best. The plot (a relentless search for John Wayne's neice kidnapped by Comanches) was the inspiration for writer-director Paul Schrader's Hardcore as well as Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (also written by Schrader). This ushered in a new type of Western because Wayne plays a less-than-charming character with a black, racist heart. And what happens when he finally does find his niece? Wayne hates Indians and, after being lost for literally years, here's his niece (played by Natalie Wood), turned Indian "squaw." What do you think Wayne wants to do? Shot around Monument Valley (a favorite locale for Ford) this is one of the Duke's best performances playing a deep and complex character.

7. Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock really did some of his best work in the 1950s and I could have just as easily picked North by Northwest, Vertigo, or Strangers on a Train, but this is the one I settled on. The concept is brilliant: James Stewart plays a nosey photojournalist confined to a wheelchair with nothing to do but spy on the neighbors. Hitchcock loved this voyeuristic theme and would come back to it in the 60s with Psycho. Raymond Burr is the spied-upon who may have murdered his wife if only Stewart could prove it. Grace Kelly is very good as the high-society girlfriend who wants a marriage ring on her finger and, in perhaps my favorite scene, breaks into Burr's apartment to locate such a wedding ring as proof of his guilt. What's fascinating about this scene is Hitchcock's cynical eye on the subject of marriage: are you sure you want a wedding ring, Grace? Didn't do much for Burr's wife, now did it?

6. The Thing (1951)

Christian Nyby gets credit for directing, but we all know who really directed this baby: Howard Hawks. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers this is another lean sci-fi pic. It's less than 90 minutes long and it flies at a brisk, economic, exciting clip. You probably know the story: flying saucer crash-lands with an eight-foot-tall alien on board in the frozen tundra. Scientists find the alien underground, frozen like a popsicle, and try and preserve it in a block of ice. Once it thaws out, the fun begins. While many seem to prefer the John Carpenter remake, I say Carpenter really doesn't add anything except repulsive special effects and should be thumped on the head and reminded that less is often more (as he seemed to well understand with "Halloween").

5. The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Akira Kurosawa also made "The Seven Samurai," "Rashomon" and "Ikiru" in this time period. And while I strongly recommend all three, this one makes the list. This one, George Lucas had to admit, was the inspiration behind Star Wars. That's evident all over the place. If only all the fans of that film could see this one. Its every bit as adventurous and epic and fun as "Star Wars" but it's in Japanese so you can forget it, right? Wrong. Must-see viewing for film lovers, one and all.

4. Curse of the Demon (1958)

A skeptical psychologist is pitted against a devil-worshipping cult leader in this Jacques Tourneur horror yarn. Tourneur, already famous for his 40s-era films for producer Val Lewton ("Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie," "The Leopard Man") loads up on style and misdirection. Our imagination comes to the forefront and he proves you don't need a big budget to scare an audience. A simple windstorm or a shot of Stonehenge will due. Loads of creepy fun.

3. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Robert Aldrich is another one of those unsung directors who really did a lot of terrific stuff (anyone recall "Flight of the Phoenix" or "Ulzana's Raid"?) Here we get an adaptation of the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer novel with Ralph Meeker terrific in the lead role. A film noir, with a classic monster-unleashed-from-the-box ending that Quentin Tarantino obviously remembered and utilized (somewhat) in Pulp Fiction. Remember the suitcase in the trunk of the car with the glowing contents?

2. Night of the Hunter (1955)

This was the only movie directed by Charles Laughton and it's a shame because it's a real gem. Starring Robert Mitchum (perhaps the coolest actor ever to grace the screen) in a uncharacteristically villainous role of a preacher with "L-O-V-E" tattooed on the fingers of one hand and "H-A-T-E" on the other. The screenplay is by James Agee—his last. And there's a lyricism and beauty in the wonderful Stanley Cortez photography (Cortez also shot Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons"). But most of the credit lies in Laughton's lap as he presents an allegory of good and evil. The innocent children see Mitchum for what he is, but most of the adults are easily fooled. Lillian Gish, the first lady of cinema so to speak, plays the exception: a not-to-be-messed-with paragon of strength and protectiveness.

1. Night and Fog (1955)

The writer Harlan Ellison once wrote that there are only seven directors in the world—only seven singular visions. All the rest are craftspersons with varying degrees of talent. I forget who all the seven were, but I do recall that director Alain Resnais was one of them. This documentary short, which I saw in a college film class, is one of the most powerful pieces of film I've ever seen. I sat in an absolutely stunned classroom after this was shown. Tears were shed. No one said a word. The teacher—who screens this film year after year—told me that's always the case. An anti-war documentary about Auschwitz—both then and now—has Resnais interspersing actual black-and-white newsreel footage with tranquil, present-day color shots of the same location. What are we to make of these unbearably painful images? Human beings bulldozed into pits; piles of eyeglasses; hills of hair. Resnais, always fascinated with the theme of time and memory, force-feeds us our collective past with pictures that speak of a horror difficult to accept. What's the saying? Time heals all wounds. But should it? We forget too easily, Resnais reminds us, as both memory—and film—fades.

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