A Century of Cinema: 1950-1959

Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1940-1949.

Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1950-1959:

 

Strangers on a Train (1951) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski

Strangers on a Train

We’ve all used some variation of the phrase “I’m going to kill you!” We’ve all probably thought about what it would be like to kill someone, or to have someone killed or removed from our life in a permanent way, etc. But not all of us have crossed paths with a psychotic stranger on a train who, instead of dismissing those thoughts as ridiculous and selfish and immoral, proposes you “swap murders” so no evidence matches up with the motive. Well at least I haven’t, I don’t speak for everyone I suppose…

Strangers on a Train is a noir-thriller made in 1951 by the genius himself Alfred Hitchcock, starring Farley Granger as a famous tennis player and Robert Walker as the crazy murder guy on the train. This film took a pretty simple concept and went, “what if we actually did that, but –“ and then threw a bunch of other spices in the mix and popped out a tasty, timeless film. It’s a lot more common today to have pretty complex characters in our stories, but I think it’s worth noting that writers Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde created interesting and complex characters in a time where the good and the bad were still fairly black and white in a lot of films.

Aside from a really interesting plot and excellent performances to carry it, Strangers on a Train always hooks and reels me in with how creatively it uses symbolism and the film noir aesthetic. Instead of telling a story and allowing people to use their imagination to see what’s happening like a book does, films have to use tools to show you what’s happening while letting you use your imagination in other ways, like getting inside the characters heads. From the famous cross-cut shots of the main characters feet as they walk into the train station and board the train, to the murder scene at the carnival, Strangers on a Train is known as one of Hitchcock’s best films for a reason. Go watch it.

 

12 Angry Men (1957) – Nick Potter

12 Angry Men

There is a wealth of great films from the 1950s that would normally require a lot of hard thought before deciding on just one, but I didn’t hesitate for a single second. When it comes to this decade, my favorite film by far is Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut, 12 Angry Men. This is the film I revisit more often than any other film older than Star Wars (you know me), and for good reason. Not only is it one of the best directorial debuts ever made (got my eye on you, Citizen Kane), but it is a film that manages to hold up more and more as time passes.

The basic premise follows a jury of twelve men as they work to decide the verdict on a murder trial. Upon the initial vote, only one juror (Henry Fonda) votes for not guilty, based mostly on the principle of “reasonable doubt”. The remainder of the film is essentially just twelve men arguing with each other and trying to convince the group of one side or another; while this may sound boring to some, it’s something I eat up as someone with a background in theatre. In only 96 minutes, Lumet’s camera manages to get to know all twelve jurors to the point where the audience understands why each man believes what they do, and why they may shift their opinions. It isn’t much of a spoiler 60 years later to reveal that the final verdict is not guilty, but watching the verbal battle try to reach that conclusion is still just as gripping as I imagine it must have been at the time.

12 Angry Men is a film filled with powerhouse performances, obviously led by the wonderful Henry Fonda, but he isn’t the only highlight. Lee J. Cobb’s violently stubborn antagonist is the dynamic spark that gets the whole room heated. Martin Balsam plays the jury foreman as a mediator who never reveals his motives for shifting opinions while trying to encourage middle ground. My personal favorite is Jack Klugman, the juror who grew up in a scary neighborhood and refuses to accept the judgement of the suspect based on his background.

In a world filled with rash judgements and constant hateful tirades, 12 Angry Men may be more important than ever. If Henry Fonda’s character can remain vigilant and earnest in the face of overwhelming opposition, hopefully we can all one day find a way to work together without rushing to conclusions. It’s rare that I find myself feeling so optimistic and hopeful, but that’s exactly what 12 Angry Men does to me.

 

Rear Window (1954) – Patty Williamson

Rear Window

There are few directors with a body of work with the breadth and depth of Alfred Hitchcock, so to call a film your favorite Hitch flick is saying something. For me, Rear Window has always held a special place in my heart. That’s why it’s my favorite film of the 1950s.

If you haven’t had a chance to see this classic film, here’s a brief synopsis. Jeff (L.B. Jeffries, played by Jimmy Stewart) is trapped in a wheelchair in his apartment, due to a broken leg. The photographer makes a living looking at beautiful women and beautiful scenery through a camera lens. Now that he’s stuck at home, he spends all of his time spying on his neighbors across his apartment courtyard, feeding his habit of voyeuristic pleasure. He’s so enraptured with what’s at the other end of his lens, he barely notices his beautiful girlfriend Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly. One day, while checking in on his usual suspects via his telephoto lens, Jeffries realizes that a woman he’s used to seeing arguing with her husband Thorvald (played by Raymond Burr), has disappeared. Because he’s observed the dysfunctional relationship for quite some time, Jeff comes to the conclusion that Thorvald has murdered his wife and hidden her body somewhere. Jeffries, immobilized, recruits his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and Lisa to investigate in person, leaving Lisa in a dangerous predicament.

To say more would spoil the classic thriller. Shot in Technicolor with a million-dollar budget, the film looks as fresh today as it did when it was released in theaters in 1954. Rather than a “whodunit,” Rear Window is more along the lines of a “did he do it?” mystery. Hitchcock knows how to reel in his audience, keeping them on the edge of their seats as the danger on-screen escalates. We feel as helpless as Jimmy Stewart in his wheelchair, unable to fight or flee, or come to the aide of his trusted female partners in crime. In fact, the entire film is an allegory about film viewership and the voyeuristic pleasure we receive watching movies. The pleasure we get from looking at the lives of larger-than-life characters, living dangerous, fulfilling and romantic lives on the big screen. Jeffries watches the “characters” in his apartment complex from a darkened apartment. The windows that face the courtyard serve as individual movie screens to keep his attention. When one show ends, Jeff moves on to another to bide his time.

Rear Window is brilliantly acted by Jimmy Stewart, who is absolutely convincing as the leading man who seems impotent in both the face of danger, and the face of a serious relationship with a stunningly beautiful and intelligent blonde. Grace Kelly is radiant in her role as Lisa, and Thelma Ritter’s comedy chops add spice to the banter between characters. The film moves along at an entertaining clip. Hitchcock knows just how to keep the audience guessing, and by 1954 had perfected the art of suspense. Rear Window remains one of the genius director’s best films.

 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Dylan Clauson

Singin in the Rain

Oh boy, what is there to even say about such a fun, classic film? Singin’ in the Rain is a musical about the film industry during it’s transition to “talkies” starring the dreamiest dreamboat to ever dream Gene Kelly, the wonderful Debbie Reynolds, and hysterical Donald O’Connor. Kelly plays Don Lockwood, one of Hollywood’s preeminent silent film actors who is struggling to adapt to making movies with sound. Lockwood has a reputation for bland films full of romance and adventure but wants to reinvent himself to survive in a world of sound, prompting his buddy Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) to urge him to “make ’em laugh”. Just one problem: Lockwood’s leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has a voice not even a mother could love. Enter Debbie Reynolds as the young, bright-eyed Kathy Selden to act as the voice-over artist for Lamont for everything from the film itself to even live appearances. The trio of Cosmo, Don, and Kathy eventually rid themselves of Lamont and sing a whole lot in the process (spoilers: sometimes in the rain).

Singin’ in the Rain is a movie that you simply can’t help but smile during. The music is so catchy and upbeat, O’Connor’s ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ is two and a half of most fun recorded on film, and Kelly and Reynolds are just plain wonderful. Does this movie challenge the viewer in new and exciting ways? No. But, does it revolutionize filmmaking in a time when film was evolving? Also no. Now I love the likes of Hitchcock and other insanely talented filmmakers of the 1950s, but sometimes all you need is a fun, lighthearted, and memorable film and Singin’ in the Rain is exactly that. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out and I guarantee you’ll get warm fuzzies. If you don’t then you’re probably dead inside, but that’s okay.

 

Honorable mentions for the 1950s, in no particular order:

  • Some Like It Hot (1959)
  • Roman Holiday (1953)
  • Rashomon (1950)
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Paths Of Glory (1957)

What are some your favorite films of the 1950s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1960-1969 coming up in two weeks.

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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[…] Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1950-1959. […]