Thursday, November 11, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: the 1950s

As reluctant as I am to re-hash an overused Dickens quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," really does seem fitting for this decade in cinematic history. Whole new frontiers were opening their doors, and at the same time studios were facing their most dire financial crises as their audiences were being stolen by television. Of course those two media would learn to get along eventually, but for the moment they were each other's worst enemies. The sad part about the conflict was that movies started getting gimmicky to draw people in instead of relying on the tried-and-true methods of good acting and storytelling. This Cole Porter written for 1957's Silk Stockings lyric describes the situation perfectly:

"Today to get the public to attend the picture show
It's not enough to advertise some famous star they know
If you want to get the crowds to come around,
You gotta have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound!"

Despite this, there were still plenty of good films made in that decade, and some even rank among the greatest of all time. I could probably fill this list just with memorable Hitchcock films made in this decade, but that would be unfair to the many other great movies that came out. I'm going to forget honorable mentions this time and simply list the films that have the greatest merit and watch-ability in my book. Please do not be offended if you think I've left out one of the many memorable films from this decade. I'm most likely aware of them, but they're not to my taste.

11. The Quiet Man (1952)
When John Ford made a sort of romantic comedy set in his beloved Ireland and decided to film it on location, everyone thought he was nuts. But he made it anyway, and 50 years later, it's still a great movie. John Wayne stars as an Irish-American prizefighter who hangs up his gloves and returns to his ancestral village in Ireland. He instantly falls for the local beauty played by Maureen O'Hara, but runs afoul of her surly brother, the town squire played by Victor McLaglen. Wayne's character has problems adjusting to this backwards, honor-based culture where fistfights are the only way to settle disputes, women can't marry without their guardian's permission, and dowries constitute a wife's self-respect. When Maureen's brother refuses to pay hers, John Wayne must either seriously reconsider his stance on renouncing violence or risk losing the woman he loves. Despite the seemingly dramatic plot, this move is quite funny, and all of the character actors are completely charming, especially Ward Bond as the parish priest, and Barry Fitzgerald as the town bookie and drunk. The brawl at the end was the longest fight every recorded for a movie, and it's hilarious. I really love this movie. The dialog is witty, the actors are great, and Ireland lives in all its verdant beauty.

10. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Based on an Agatha Christie play, this movie boasts a stellar performance from one of my favorite character actors, Charles Laughton. He plays an aging lawyer suffering from severe heart problems and takes on a case of an innocent man who seems to have a hopeless circumstantial case mounted against him. Marlene Dietrich is coldly brilliant as the defendant's wife who appears as a witness for the prosecution. This film made waves when it was released because of its shocking twist ending, and audience members were actually forbidden to tell anyone what happened, something that was parodied on an episode of The Honeymooners. The reason that this movie doesn't rank higher on this list is mostly do to Tyrone Power's hammy performance as the defendant.

9. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Being a woman, I had to include this film. I know it's sappy, but I cry every time I see the ending. Why is this film so great, though? What keeps people coming back to it despite its faults? Well, first of all Cary Grant breaks our hearts, especially in that final scene. The writing is really good. The script is witty and touching, and the music strikes all the right chords. Really the funny, charming beginning of the romance only highlights the tragedy that occurs in the middle and the glimpse of healing love we get at the end. Leo McCarey originally wrote this for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne back in 1939 but was unhappy with the result because he couldn't get Grant for the role. There's a lot of argument about the two films' comparative merits, but I like this one better because Grant does a much better job capturing our pathos, and since his character is the reformed rake, if that doesn't ring true for us, the rest of the film won't work.

8. North by Northwest (1959)
One of Hitchcock's most iconic films, North by Northwest follows the story of an innocent man who accidentally get implicated in a spy conspiracy, and must chase across the country to avoid their assassins. The two scenes that everyone remembers are the scene where Cary Grant gets chased by a crop-duster in a cornfield and the scene where he's hanging off Mt. Rushmore. It's certainly one of the best examples of the plotting and suspense for which Hitchcock is so rightly famous, but it falls down my list because Eva Marie Saint is such an abysmal actress in this film. She's just completely wooden, and it doesn't come off as being from her spy training. Also I feel like character is sacrificed in this in favor of action, and that's never something I can stomach. Still, it's a really good movie.

7.Some Like It Hot (1959)
I'm not much of a Marilyn fan, but I love this movie with Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. People who don't think that guys and drag are funny have obviously never seen this film. After witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two jazz musicians in 1920s Chicago go into hiding as women musicians bound for Florida. Situations just keep getting funnier as Tony falls for Marilyn and Jack finds himself with a rich suitor. We also get to see Curtis' famous Cary Grant impersonation when he pretends to be a millionaire in order to woo Marilyn but still maintain his female cover. "Well, nobody's perfect," it ends, and I'll leave you to find out why that line's so funny.

6. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Apart from making Passepartout Spanish instead of French, it's really a fairly good adaptation of Jules Verne's famous novella about a rich Englishman who embarks on a journey to go around the world in less than three months during the Victorian Era. David Niven is delightful as the punctilious and unflappable Phileas Fogg, and the film features the best array of cameos ever assembled. Old movie fans will be delighted to see Ronald Coleman, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Buster Keaton, Ceasar Romero, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, John Mills, and countless other famous faces flit across the scene in bit parts. And it's just fun to see the characters go everywhere from Bombay to San Francisco and back.

5. High Noon (1952)
There's a lot of cliches in the western genre, but none more iconic than the showdown at high noon. Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley star in this classic gunslinger filmed in real-time. That's right: all the action in this two-hour film takes place in the two hours leading up to the duel at high noon. There's 5something poignant about this situation where everyone in town is too frightened to stand up and do the right thing except one man. Even Cooper's wife is opposed to his fighting because she's a Quaker.  But in the end, there are things worth fighting for and sacrifices worth being made, and this film affirms that so well that most other westerns pale in comparison.

4. Ben-Hur (1959)
This is probably the best movie of the epic genre that was popular in the '50s and early '60s. It is not, however, a particularly faithful adaptation of the novel by Lew Wallace. It won Best Picture, and Charlton Heston took home the Oscar for Best Actor on the strength of the compelling narrative and the sweeping ultra-widescreen in which it was filmed. The journey of Judah Ben-Hur from wealthy Jew to Roman Slave to nobleman, and ultimately from revenge to forgiveness for the false friend who betrayed him had captured imaginations of of people for it to be made twice as a silent movie, the latter of these by DeMille, but this is the one that most people remember. It certainly doesn't let us down in capturing the emotion of the character as well as a spectacular visual tour of the known world of the time. And then there's the chariot race. That scene has inspired countless homages including the pod race scene in Star Wars: Episode I, which is pretty much a moment-by-moment recreation of the scene, especially at the finale.

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

I've only recently discovered the brilliance of this film, but I don't hesitate to tout its merits. Sir Alec Guinness won an Oscar for his role as the ranking British officer in a Japanese POW camp, forced to build a railroad bridge in Thailand to aid the enemy. Guinness struggles to maintain dignity for himself and his men while forced to labor under inhuman conditions. At first he refuses to do the labor himself, since it's against the Geneva convention for officers to do manual labor, but eventually he decides to go along with it if only to help his men, and his example grants them a modicum of self-respect needed to survive. Meanwhile William Holden and a band of Allied saboteurs trek across hostile territory to destroy the bridge before it's completed. Truly a fascinating film about how two men on the same side of a war can each be doing the right thing yet end up fighting each other. It really challenges our notions of what duty and honor mean.

2. Rear Window (1954)
This is without a doubt my favorite Hitchcock film, and arguably his finest of the decade--although people make cases for Vertigo and North by Northwest. James Stuart plays an invalid who believes he witnessed the murder of one of his neighbors from his apartment window, but his evidence is purely circumstantial. Thelma Ritter steals the show as Stuart's wisecracking nurse, and Grace Kelly is devastatingly beautiful and spunky as his girlfriend. Perhaps what makes this film so good is that it's got so many subplots in the lives of the many neighbors on whom Jimmy Stuart spies. In order to appreciate these nuances, though, this  movie requires a large screen preferably with an HD setting,

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
What can I say that hasn't been said or that I didn't already say last week in my Top 10 Movie Musicals? It's the greatest musical ever made, it made the top 10 of AFIs 100 Greatest Movies of All Time both the original time and for the 10-year anniversary. In fact it got bumped up five slots when it was re-assessed. The dancing is beautiful, the songs are great, the script is corny but really entertaining, and Donald O'Connor is way too funny for his own good. Jean Hagen is unbelievable as Lina Lamont and really fun to imitate with her squeaky, nasal voice. I just want to reiterate once more, however, that Gene Kelly is an inferior dancer to Fred  Astaire because he makes his audience feel how hard his dances are instead of making them free and effortless as the best dancers do.

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