TEN BEST MOVIES OF THE 1950's: End of One America, Beginning of Another.

Jul 5, 2006 (Updated Jul 10, 2007)

The Bottom Line The 1950's was the decade when America first felt fear in the Heartland, writhed in the first of a string of dubious "wars," began doubting its institutions. Movies were there.

Though we didn't realize it at the time, the decade of the Fifties was a period when Americans were sorting out what had been won and lost in World War II. Movies were still Hollywood, but British, Italian, French and other foreign films were being seen, even in little hinterland towns. {Lots of head scratching on a Wednesday night.] But the big threat was Television, and Hollywood was beginning its long decline, replacing good stories and established Stars with wide screens and special effects.

As America profited overseas, through a wise and generous foreign policy, by extending aid to a conflict-mutilated World, we also jockeyed our way into dominance as a World Power, nudging the British, French, and Dutch into the Colonial Dustbin of History. We created a covert intelligence complex the equal to those of our former enemy, Nazi Germany, superior to our new adversary (and former ally), Soviet Russia. And in certain ways, to finance it, we entered the drug trade, and began to build the World's largest arms industry to "maintain the Peace."

In those years, we reached out to, and then drew back from, the United Nations. We began the process by which credits built up in foreign nations made us more interdependent, not realizing that we would become profligate, needing eventually to borrow fortunes from the China and Japan to keep up the life style established in this period.

At home, still grieving over the deaths of over 400,000 service men and women, dealing with the nearly 700,000 wounded, we tried unsuccessfully to restore family to what we imagined it had been previous to the War. But married women were beginning to return to the work force, and the American family would never be the same again. As Foreign Aid credits brought innovative products and intriguing new ideas right into the heartland, our historically Puritan natures struggled against new freedoms which came with them, the bikini, for example, and we tended then as we do now to blame fresh evils on people in far off countries.

The nation's continental integrity was threatened by the Atom Bomb, and with the safety valve of the Frontier no longer available, we had to deal directly with pressures caused by family collapse, business failure, moral degradation, where in the past we had literally "moved on." In my little town in Northeast Ohio, four unforgivable sins were stipulated: Divorce, having a child out of wedlock, bankruptcy, and dying of syphilis. People afflicted with those problems just slunk away. In the 1950's, we began to see much more of them all -- would see worse -- and it became more difficult to escape.

Yet, amazingly little of these concerns were reflected directly in our Movies.


More than a few critics and social historians write that the !950's were dull both in history and at the movies. I lived through the period, and I was inclined to agree, until in the light of today, I took a close view of both the events, the social currents, and the movies they produced.

[Unlike a majority of my Best Movies Lists, I'm not necessarily going to list my favorites in order of importance (though all qualify, I believe) but by what they suggested of a changing America. What interested me most about these movies of the 1950's, in retrospect, was that they spotlighted shifts within our primal interests in terms of fantasy, our sublimated shames, and our vaguest but most crippling fears. Most of the best films were in black and white, the last decade that could be said. And with a few notable exceptions, the best films were not the most popular.]

Three of my choices wrestled with the problems of corruption in our increasingly magnetic cities, as foreign labor, machinery, and automation began is eat into the former huge opportunities for manual jobs in America. These three films bucked a trend to color, and two of them did not make money, for reasons having little to do with the trend:

Take #10 on my preliminary list of the TEN BEST MOVIES OF THE 1950's: TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) -- Orson Welles, in his last film completed in America, created the unforgettable Border cop, Hank Quinlin, who corpulently exuded racism and manufactured evidence in cooperating with a Mexican investigator of Organized Crime played by Charlton Heston. Not only was Welles' Noir Masterpiece savagely cut by Universal Pictures, making it like many of his later pictures an almost illogical experience to watch, but the subtext of racial prejudice and civil rights (way ahead of its time -- and worthy of an English Restoration Melodrama) was entirely ignored or sadly misunderstood.

Fortunately, long after Welles' death, in the late 1990's, Producer Rick Schmidlin and Editing Genius Walter Murch found two memos Welles had left pleading with executives for the picture he wanted. The film they restored now lists high in Welles' roster. Of course, not seen so clearly in 1958, the picture continues a cinematic autobiography of our ruined Shakespeare of Film, and his fight for the extension of democratic rights in America.

The 1950's question it ponders: In a nation which claims to be a democracy, may illegal police methods legitimately be used to bring bad guys to justice?



Alexander McKendrick's THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957), like TOUCH OF EVIL, came at the end of a twenty year Film Noir cycle that questioned the integrity of our urban institutions. The story, based on the seedy will to power of hugely popular Columnist Walter Winchell, contained the very corrupt essence in Post-War New York of the renewed rise of tabloid journalism, which brought us eventually Rush Limbaugh & Co. Superstar Burt Lancaster, who played "J.J. Hunsecker," formed his own company to make the film; hired famous Thirties playwright Clifford Odets to write the screenplay, and McKendrick (an American known for British satires like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS) to shoot the picture's action on the streets and in the clubs of New York City. Though it gave Tony Curtis "sleezy PR Agent Sidney Falco," one of two great acting roles in his lifetime, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was a disaster for almost everyone else. The film's true odor of decay, gossip, blackmail, bribery, corruption, manufactured celebrity and incest repulsed misunderstanding audiences: Lancaster lost money; Odets wrote only a couple more scripts for feature movies; McKendrick directed only one more film. One of the engenues, Marty Milner, after this sensitive debut, went into TV (Route 66),became hugely popular, but disappeared as an actor. The other, beautifully sulky Susan Harrison, disappeared entirely from serious theatrical movies. (She became the mother of Darva Conger of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" fame, which may or may not be her vindication.) Music by Elmer Bernstein, based on Jazz themes by Chico Hamilton.

Now regarded as a masterpiece.

The 1950's question: Can the corrupt save innocence in a world which hates hypocrisy almost as much as it does virtue?


The third film to deal with Big City corruption is John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), based on a novel by prolific W.R. Burnett about Huston's (and America's) archetypal subject, the plan which can't go wrong but does. Here it is illustrated in a jewel robbery supposedly financed by a highly successful criminal lawyer, Emmerich (Lewis Calhern), but secretly by his bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence). Emmerich has really poured his money into keeping his blonde mistress (Marilyn Monroe) in style. The conceptual plan is the brain child of Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a master criminal, who has a weakness . . . for young girls. The logistical plan will be guaranteed by heat provided in the person of Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a gunman unlucky at cards, no more so with women, who simply wants to go back to the horses he rode as a kid in Kentucky. Only one will get what he wants, but he will die for it.

The theme (as expressed by Emmerich), "Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor," has become a famous aphorism, and is brilliantly executed by the cast. The subtext is, of course, how thin is the line between society and the underworld.

The 1950's question: Are the motivations of the respectable any more valid than those of the criminal? In the last 25 years, we have come to realize that they are often the same. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was there first.


The conflict between Good and Evil takes many forms in the American mind. In the Heartland, we traditionally saw evil come from somewhere else. The immense center of America both embraced and drew back from what World War II had brought as we struggled out of the Great Depression.

One of the most haunting films ever made, set in one of those depressed countrysides, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1951), based on a novel by Davis Grubb, plays out in the desolation of West Virginia, along the Ohio River. It dealt with the conflict between Good and Evil in the person of an evangelical psychopath (acted brilliantly by Robert Mitchum), who has L-O-V-E tattooed on the fingers of one hand, H-A-T-E on the other. He murders the wife of his prison cellmate to get at a fortune stolen in a bank robbery but has to chase her two children, who really have the money, across a Depression wasteland. Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Jimmy Gleason and others do their finest work. Cinematography by Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS; directed by English actor Charles Laughton with an astounding sense of American time and place. It was not successful at the box office, and he never directed another film.

The 1950's question: How can we recognize Evil when it comes wrapped in holy cloth, carrying a black book, and uttering over-simplified pieties? We're still wrestling unsuccessfully with that one, as Shelly Winters did in the picture.


Then, Alfred Hitchcock, the most popular serious American director of the period, created his 1958 masterpiece, VERTIGO, which applied the above themes of corruption to obsessive love. Once again, as in TOUCH OF EVIL, the protagonist was a detective, but not the disturbingly obese Welles, rather the All-American boy of Jimmy Stewart, and the setting was not a New Mexico border town but San Francisco, "everybody's favorite city," and the clean ocean settings of Monterey and Big Sur. Yet good and evil thrashed about on Wellsian towers of Wagnerian love and male power, to one of Bernard Herrmann's three best scores, all for the soul and life of a dual Kim Novak.

The 1950's question: Does Father really know best? The news reports today do not give us confidence.



Though not many now alive would believe it, the 1950's were a time much like our own. Early in the decade the Republicans had taken power, and they held office for the next eight years. But unlike the experience of the present Republican Administration, they entered office with an unpopular war already on their hands in Korea. American voters wanted results, and to the credit of President Dwight Eisenhower, a campaign promise to conclude an armistice was promptly honored.

[It might be noted, however, that 52 years later, we still have over 30, 000 troops on the line in Korea where the fighting stopped, and no peace treaty has ever been signed by the United States (acting for the UN) and North Korea to actually end the war. It was our first of an unbroken string of undeclared wars, down to the present one; not popular" with Americans still smarting over the "loss of China" and believing somehow the UN had lured us into it.
Significantly, only a couple of B-movies about the Korean War were made in its duration.]

In honor of General Eisenhower, let us add a pair of War Films:

The first is THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1954), from a genre which solid box office. What I found interesting about David Lean's epic, then and now, isthat, like Pierre Boulle's novel on which it was based, THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI's study of British World War II heroism is a Black Satire on the Tradition of Arms in the form of a fable, by a Frenchman who spoke no English, credited with the ┼cademy Award winning screenplay really written by two Blacklisted American Communists. Alec Guiness's superb portrait of a British traditional Colonel of Engineers -- not unlike the straight arrow but preoccupied Dwight Eisenhower -- matches that of an opposite number, a Japanese Colonel (Sessue Hayakawa), who trained as an artist, flatters the flinty Guiness into building for him a bridge to carry the Japanese Army across Burma for a proposed invasion of India. Of course, doughty British Bomb Expert Jack Hawkins and dragooned American escaped prisoner, William Holden, are sent to blow up the bridge. Audiences thought that cynical Holden was the voice of reason -- he was an American, after all (not in the book, btw) -- but those audiences overlooked that, in the end, both Holden and Hawkins were caught up in the "madness, madness" (as the Doctor, James Donald, put it). Sir Malcolm Arnold's atmospheric but mocking score is a classic, and almost everyone won Oscars.

In keeping with its deceptively upbeat theme, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI was shot on location in blinding technicolor by Jack Cardiff (THE RED SHOES, 1948).

The 1950's question: What is war but a process of knocking things down in order to build them up again, and vice verse?


The second War film is Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY (1951), based upon Humphrey Cobb's anti-war novel of the 1930's, which takes us back to the First World War, and to suitable black and white, to tell the story of a failed offensive, and who paid for it. French Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is entrusted by General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) to lead his men against an impregnable strong point, but when the artillery of General Mireau (George Macready) fails to deliver, the men cut and run. Instead of accepting the blame themselves for faulty planning, the officers have troopers selected by lot to be shot for "cowardice in the face of the enemy." Probably Kubrick's best picture; their roles give Douglas, Menjou, and Macready the best work they ever had. Based on an historical incident.

The 1950's question: How can a democracy prevent its leaders from passing the buck for their mistakes to lowly subordinates? That question should probably haunt General Geoffrey D. Miller, who set up Guantanamo and abu-Ghraib, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who sent him to do it. Probably doesn't bother them; they have their rationalizations. Let little U.S. Army Reserve Private Lindsay England, a pregnant ex-chicken plucker, take the rap!


The appeal of the war genre palled as we struggled to escape Korea, and as the Cold War with its threats of Atomic Anihillation deepened. Modern viewers still do not see that THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a bitterly humorous anti-war film, nor that PATHS OF GLORY is as relevant today as it might have been in 1916 or 1957. Perhaps the subtext of the films, "Stay out of Southeast Asia," and "Avoid no-win wars" got through to some. In the event, President Eisenhower turned down the advice of his strategists (the Dulles Brothers, lawyers for Bush Family) and appeals from France to become involved in a place called Vietnam. Before leaving office Eisenhower, who was smarter than he seemed but knew the guys paying for his golf balls, warned Americans about "The Military/Industrial Complex" and turned on the scoundrels around him, like Senator Joe McCarthy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Where is an Eisenhower when we need him today?

Another reason that the Republicans replaced the Democrats in 1952 was that in 1948, the Communists drove the Nationalists (whom we had supported) from the vast, potentially rich mainland of China. [Treasonous Democrats had "given China away," said the Republican Right Wing, as vociferous then as today. They didn't accuse them of "cutting and running," but you get the idea.] The next year Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, driving American forces almost out of the country before a front could be stabilized. Americans were shocked (as they have been many times since) that a rag tag army of peasants could defeat the Army which had such a part in winning World War II.

And in 1949, Americans were further appalled when American detection devices recorded that the Russians had detonated an Atom Bomb. Again, the Russians were supposed to be dumb Communist vodka drinking peasants who could not equal the feat such a great industrial power as America had accomplished. The American Homeland was in real danger for the first time since the War of 1812, and there had to be a reason. Traitors in the Democratic Party, said the Republicans, and indeed, in the early 1950's, Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, head of a Russian spy ring, were arrested, tried and executed for transmitting atomic secrets.

But paranoia was loosed in the land.

Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Senator Richard M. Nixon, and others like them, launched "Red Witch Hunts," familiar operations in ┼merican History, which destroyed the careers, and in some cases the lives, of thousands of Americans in every walk of life. The number of spies and traitors turned up and actually prosecuted was negligible.

But Americans were chilled by a fear that they had not felt since December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (and would not feel again until 9/11), and that fear was to continue throughout the 1950's. A number of observers would say that it has continued like a low-grade fever ever since, and in the last five years has become a plague.

Hollywood of those years was caught up in the Communist Witch Hunt, and lives and careers there joined those ruined.

And in a puckish response, perhaps, Billy Wilder, another popular director of the 1950's, was ready to provide a Hollywood witch in the form of Gloria Swanson. Once more the Faustian theme, which runs through a number of these films was present in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Joe Gillis (William Holden), an "at liberty" screenwriter, trying to shake repo-men, zooms into the driveway of an old mansion one afternoon, and finds himself in a gothic situation worthy of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Once famous Silent Movie Star Norma Desmond (Swanson) has been living in a kind of suspended animation with her former director/ex-husband/chauffeur/factotum Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) for nearly 20 years. Spider-like, she seizes on Joe Gillis to finish a screenplay for a movie she had abandoned years ago. It will be her "comeback" and make Joe famous! It does neither, but this parable of how easily America tosses aside its celebrities, SUNSET BOULEVARD, is the greatest serious film about Hollywood.

[Gloria Swanson had a professional relationship with von Stroheim similar to the one shown, and a number of figures from "the old Hollywood" play themselves. Swanson, von Stroheim and Holden are peerless.]

The 1950's question: Can we really recapture the past? Billy Wilder said, no, but modern plastic surgeons are making a fortune trying.


Perhaps for that reason, Hollywood looked inward, remembering when a cigar was just a cigar, and a movie was just a movie. Possibly hoping the House Un-American Affairs Committee would forget them, MGM set Broadway's Compton and Green loose to find the essence of movie entertainment. And they did in SINGING IN THE RAIN (1953), the last and best Hollywood Musical of its carefree kind. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Cyd Charise sang and danced a satirical history of the Movies, which the darkening period ahead could not recapture. It is one of the few movies which never seems to grow old or stale.

The 1950's question: "Can Moses suppose eroniously?" Not if he has a cast like this, songs by Arthur Freed, and a director like Stanley Donen!



I might have brought in the European and Asian invasion which created the Art House, with such influential films as Fellini's LA STRADA, Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, and Kurosawa's ROSHOMON, but I decided that the constrictive nature of America in the 1950's required me to stay with English speaking, basically Hollywood films.

Perhaps as a compromise, let's add William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY(1953), a film which introduced the radiant Audrey Hepburn to American movie audiences and gave her an Oscar while celebrating the almost-wedding of the Post-War American male (Gregory Peck) to a European Royal Princess. In 1953, there was surprisingly great interest and speculation about the future of beautiful British Princess Margaret Rose. No LA STRADA surely, ROMAN HOLIDAY gave form to the fact that America still admired British Royalty, partially for the admirable example of class, in the best sense of the word, it set in World War II. Within a few years America began to turn her back on Britain and the Royal Family.

That was a watershed, suggesting the rise of America's New World Order, which would embody the worst of both worlds.



To name a few.

Not to mention THE BRAIN EATERS.

These "Movies are better than ever!"

Read all comments (12)

About the Author

Epinions.com ID:
Location: San Francisco, Ca.
Reviews written: 567
Trusted by: 375 members
About Me: 2/7/14: Having very much recovered, I want you to watch for Macresarf1's return to reviewing!