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The Top 15 Films of the Late 50's
Great Movie Moments from the Decade

The Top 15 Films of the Late 50's

This is my own personal list of the top films of the late 50's. It includes my own views, as well as views from e-mails, other critics and websites. I tried to include films from all the main genres; including, war, horror, sci-fi, romance, kid's, etc. As well as movies that were groundbreaking from a technology point of view or changed the industry in some way. I did not include foreign films. The top films are placed in alphabetical order. Each are great in their own way and would be quite difficult to arrange in a 1-15 list. The movie titles are linked to the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) which contains extra information on each film, including the cast and crew. To get back to my site from this link, you will need to use the "back" button. By viewing these 15 films, I believe you will have a great feel for what the American film was all about in the late 50's.

Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)

This film seems to be a "western" story set during the mid 20th century. A strange, one armed man (played by Spencer Tracy) arrives by train in a sleepy, little western town. He immediately begins to encounter suspicion and secrecy from the townspeople when he begins asking questions about a Japanese farmer who has disappeared. We later find out that the residents of the town are hiding a racist murder for which they all feel guilty. The entire movie takes place over a mere 24 hours and John Sturges does a wonderful job of directing the few scenes of violence. Ernest Borgnine gives a great performances as a local heavy. The film was thought to analyze the American guilt of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan and the growing fears of the McCarthy era that were creeping across the country.

Ben-Hur (1959)

The first of three Charlton Heston films appearing on this list. This vast $15 million epic set during the height of the Roman Empire, was a last ditch afford by MGM to make some money for the studio. The film was a remake of the 1929 classic film of the same name. The story tells of a young Jewish prince, Judah Ben Hur, whose childhood friendship with a Roman tribune named Messala turns into hated enemies when Messala destroys the Hur family for his own success. Ben Hur is reduced to manning a slave ship, but after rescueing a Roman admiral during a sea battle, begins a journey back to Jerusalem. He meets up with Messala during a climatic chariot race which became one of the best-known and exciting squences in movie history. Hur would go on to rescue his mother and sister who have now become lepers, only to be cured by Christ at the moment of the Crucifixtion. The movie would become a smash and win 11 Oscars and earn William Wyler his third Oscar as best director. Appears on AFI's best films list at #72.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

One of David Lean cinematic classics that swept the Oscars partly because of it's great acting and directing and partly because it had such little competition. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the story is set during World War II, but is almost more of a pychological drama than a "war" story. A British platoon, lead by Alec Guinness, is captured by the Japanese in Burma and placed in a POW camp. Sessue Hayakawa plays the Japanese Officer who begins a power struggle with Guinness, who still believes in the "gentlemen's war" and playing by the book. The Japanese commander finally orders the British to build a strategic bridge which the British officer goes along with thinking it will boost moral in his men and become a symbol of a British victory if they create a better bridge than the Japanese ever could. An American soldier (William Holden) who had escaped from the camp is coaxed to return and blow up the bridge. Guinness is so proud of his finished bridge he doesn't want anything to happen to it, even if it helps the enemy. By the end of the movie your not quite sure who to root for. The outcome of the film is the complete opposite of the book. One of the classic scenes from the movie shows the British platoon entering the POW camp whistling the tune "The Colonel Bogie March".

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

One of those simple "B" sci-fi/horror movies of the fifties that really outshines most films of the genre. The story centers around a doctor of a small town who can't quite explain the strange happenings to the residents of his community. People are waking up in the morning as emotionless shells of themselves. The doctor and his girlfriend start to believe that it is actually space aliens (space plants) who are stealing people's minds at night while they sleep. Together they begin a race against time to stop the sneak attack before they overtake the world. The movie didn't show half-rate special effects, laser guns or corny space aliens which most "B" sci-fi movies of the 50's were sporting. The only view of anything strange were the giant "space pods" which looked like big corn or coffee beans. The suspense was sustained by the fact that friends, family, plants and sleep were now our enemies. The film was believed to be an indictment against the McCarthy era blacklisting of Hollywood, disguised as a horror movie, but the writer and director say there was no such intention. It seems every 20 years, a new remake is made of this story each with their own certain paranoia.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

I had a few other more known films originally on this list, but this movie finally won out. Filled with lesser known stars and probably director Robert Aldrich's best film to that date, it was hailed by French critics as a masterpeice and would go on to become a major influence on the French New Wave films of the 60's. Adapted from a Mickey Spillane novel, Ralph Meeker stars as Mike Hammer, an L.A. private eye who after giving a ride to a young woman (Cloris Leachman) finds out she was murdered. He begins giving protection to the dead woman's frightened roommate and soon finds himself after a case containing a nuclear bomb. Hammer really has no morals what-so-ever and is badly wrong in all he does. He tries to rule by muscle just like most of the brutes he runs into. But it's really the direction, shots and editing that caused such a stir. The obscure camera angles and rapid, jolting edits help to symbolize the crazed world that these characters live in. Considered far ahead of it time. There are a few video versions that contain an extra 82 seconds of additional footage which completely changes the finale.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The one and only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton is a haunting tale beautifully filmed for the screen. Robert Mitchum stars as a psychopathic preacher who is hunting down his two stepchildren that know the whereabouts of hidden money. Lillian Gish stars as the old woman who works to protect the children. Stanley Cortez's photography is one of the most amazing and artistic visions ever made on film. The classic black and white cinematography, is littered with expressionistic lighting which is a character in itself. One scene shows the grandmother rocking on a porch, a shotgun in her lap, and the preacher eeriely standing outside. The children walk in with a candle, filling the room with light, and Gish angrily tells them to blow it out. Seconds later it's dark again and the preacher has now disappeared. Another scene depicts the preacher in pursuit of the children, joyfully singing spirituals, and still a third has the preacher telling about love and hate, who's letters are both tatooed on his fingers. The final result is a horror story, fairytale and religious parable that is absolutely fascinating. Doesn't appear on AFI's list of best films, but should have!

North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock returns once again to one of his favorite themes; that of the everyday man who, through a case of mistaken identity, is lead on a chase across country to prove his innocence. Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising man who is mistaken for a secret agent. A group of foreign spies, lead by James Mason, try to dispose of Thornhill repeatedly, but he manages to avoid death. During one of his escapes, he meets up with a beautiful stranger, played by Eva Marie Saint, who later turns out to be a double agent. Later he meets a UN employee, who ends up murdered right before Thornhill's eyes. Now being pursued by the police, spies and agents, the film climaxs on the top of Mount Rushmore in one of the classic "cliffhangers" of all time. This is possiblly one of the most enjoyable Hitchcock films combining wonderful sequences of suspense, humor and romance. The long scene showing Grant pursued across the flat, barren, Indiana fields by a crop dusting plane, is one of the most brilliant sequences in film history. Cary Grant was the prefect actor to star as the somewhat confused and bubbling Thornhill. The only thing I can say bad about this picture is the scene of the Drunken Thornhill, driving the car down the mountian, I find it a little too silly or corny to fit in with the rest of the film. Besides from that, it is one of the all time classics. Appearing on AFI's list of best films at #40.

Paths of Glory (1957)

One of those films that has just haunted me since the first time I saw it, but I guess Stanley Kubrick has a way of doing that. Kirk Douglas, in one of his best roles, plays a French commanding officer during World War I, who is ordered to send his men on a charge that he realizes is a suicide mission. After arguing with his superiors, he goes along with the orders. When the mission is a complete failure, his senior officers, played evilly by Adolphe Menjou and George Macready, orders Douglas to pick 3 of his men to be tried and executed for the cowardice of the company. The commander tries desperately and unsuccessfully to save his men. One of those anti-war movies that depicts the insanity of battle and the stupidity of the upper class when it comes to their "war games". Especially when you realize it is based on an actual event. Although the movie was nominated for absolutely nothing it is brillantly written, acted, directed and filmed.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

The late fifties gave us the James Dean triptych of films before he was killed in a car accident. All three movies, including "East of Eden" (55) and "Giant" (56) are special in their own way, but I choose this film to represent Dean and the 50's era because it's story is still so relavent. The film centers around a teenager, played by Dean, who feels alienated by his parents and in high school after moving to a new town. He tries to fit in by meeting the daredevil challenges of his peers. He also begins to fall in love with Natalie Woods. A third teen, played by Sal Mineo joins the small group on one fateful night, when one of the teens will not live to see the morning. After World War II, a major breakdown began to form between parents and their children. Known as the "generation gap", it continues until today. This film became the prototype of all teenage exploitation movies made since, and Dean's red windbreaker became a symbol of rebellion for years to come. Appears on AFI's list of best films at #59.

The Searchers (1956)

One of the best and most psychologically complex Westerns ever filmed. John Wayne plays one of his classic Cowboy roles who has such an intense hatred for Native Americans that it boils over on the screen. His niece was kidnapped as a child and the rest of his family killed by Indians. He decides to set off on a quest to find her no matter how long it takes. After many years, he finds her as a young woman (played by Natalie Wood) completely assimilated into the Indian way of life. John Ford just had a knack for directing classic Western film. His panoramic shots of the breathtaking vistas seem to overshadow the problems of one lonely man and makes them seem insignificant in the scheme of the world. One of the nationally registered films in the Library of Congress and appears on AFI's list of best films at #96.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

One of the funniest movie ever made. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play musicians in 1929 Chicago. When they stop by a garage to pick up a car, they witness the Valentine Day massacre and narrowly escape. Knowing that gangsters will be looking everywhere for them, they disguise themselves as two women, Daphne and Josephine, and join an all girls band heading to Miami. On the train the meet Sugar Kane, played wonderfully by Marilyn Monroe, the lead singer of the band who is always falling for male saxophone players. They arrive at the beautiful "Dell Coranado Hotel" (which is actually locted in San Diego) and the farce that pursue is clever and hilarious. The female personas that Lemmon and Curtis make up are not dumb, silly men in women's clothing, but become smart, fun broads who take nothing from men and are loyal friends to other women. It's said that Billy Wilder shot this film in Black and White because the make-up on the men's faces was alittle too much. I've seen some of the color PR photos and I must agree with him! Marilyn Monroe shines in her role even though she had a very difficult time filming the picture. With problems in her marriage, Wilder was never sure if she would arrive on set, and if she did, if she would know her lines. It took 47 takes for her to remember, "It's me, Sugar". But what appears on screen is simply heaven, especially appearing in the Oscar winning wardrobe by Orry-Kelly. The musical numbers are all first rate including "Running Wild" and "I Want To Be Loved By You". Joe E. Brown, who plays a millionaire in love with one of the "girls" ends the film with one of the best closing lines in the history of the movies. Appears on AFI's list of best films at #14 and on AFI's list of best comedies at #1!

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Cecil B. DeMille's remade his epic, silent classic on an even larger scale, with a bigger cast, more elborate special effects and now in vibrate color. The film tells the Biblical story, from the book of Exodus, of Moses. Starting in his infant days, when Pharoahs daughter found him in a small basket on the River Nile, growing up like a son to Pharoah, running away to become a farmer only to return and rescues the Isrealites from slavery (with the help of God). Charlton Heston played Moses in a noble way fitting for such a historical figure. Yul Brynner was also a force to behold as the Pharoah. Only the great Edward G. Robinson seems a bit out of place. DeMille would use state of the art special effects to show many of the miracles and plagues God sent upon Eygpt. Most noteable were the burning bush, that's on fire, but doesn't burn, and the parting of the Red Sea. A little crude by today's computer standards, the Red Sea sequence is one of the most famous in all of movie history, with Heston's long, grey, bearded face speaking as he reaches out with his giant staff. The water begins to bubble, than seperates, like waves crashing to opposite sides. The Isrealites flee through the opening to safety before the water crashes down onto the pursuing Eygptians. The film has become a staple for television viewing during Passover and Holy Week.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This was Orson Welles first film in over a decade after being blacklisted in Hollywood for "Citizen Kane". Welles also wrote the script which was loosely based on Whit Masterson's novel "Badge of Evil", and added enough sex, drugs, murder, corruption and racism he possible could into the story. The film begins with an American bigwig being blown up with a car bomb after passing over the U.S. Mexican border. Hank Quinlan, a "respected" cigar-smoking detective, played by Welles, accuses a young Mexican of the murder. Charlton Heston, a Mexican detective, believes Quinlan planted evidence to convict the man. Welles tries to discredit Heston by telling authorities that he and his wife, played by Janet Leigh, are drug addicts. This leads to more crimes and investigations into everyones past. Janet Leigh has never looked sexier and Marlene Dietrich has a great cameo as the only person who understands the Welles character. As director, Welles was masterful with his use of shadows, camera movement and framing. The way Welles filmed himself overemphasised his growing weight problem making an almost grotesque character on the screen. The opening tracking sequence is legendary as the camera continues through close-ups and long shots, high-angle and low-angle without an edit or cut of the film. After receiving the final print from Welles, the Studio butchered the film taking out scenes and rearranging other. It was recently reconstructed in 1998, according to Welles notes. It never won any awards and doesn't appear on AFI's list of best film even though it's better than most that made the list! A true classic of the cinema.

12 Angry Men (1957)

This is a rather simple film with a simple premise. A young Puerto Rican teenager is on trial for murdering his father and 11 members of the jury are quick to announce his guilt. One juror stands against the rush to judgment and begins to think out the crime carefully, slowly turning the tide. There are two elements that makes this film work so well, the first is the script. Reginald Rose adapted the script from his own television play that contained intense drama and great realistic dialogue that kept you on the edge of your seat even though most of the movie takes place in one small jury room (only 3 minutes are not set in the jury room). The second element is the acting. Henry Ford was heroic standing up to the other 11 men as he slowly thought out the crime and began changing the minds of the other jurors. The other actors, included Martin Balsam, Ed Begley, Edward Binns, Lee J. Cobb, John Fielder, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Jack Warden, and Robert Webber, each brought something special to the screen. Most of these actors Reginald Rose brought with him from television, but took to the film screen, holding their own against one of the Hollywood greats in Fonda. The movie was remade for television again in the 90's with another great cast, but doesn't quite have the same spark.

Vertigo (1958)

Although some people pick this as one of the best films ever made, Vertigo does not rank as high on my list. In fact there are five or six Hitchcock films I would put above this movie. But, as with anything Hitchcock does, it contains some amazing sequences and helped to push the ideas and boundries of the camera's eye ever farther. The film begins with a chase across the rooftops of San Francisco. Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart, slips and dangles from a gutter. When another cop tries to rescue him, the officer falls to his death and so begins Scottie's Vertigo. After months off the force, Scottie is contacted by an old school friend to follow his suicidal wife. He begins falling in love with her, but because of his vertigo can't stop her from jumping to her death. Later, he mets a woman with a striking resemblance to his old love. He becomes obsessed with the woman and begins making her over in the likeness of the dead woman. Only to have drastic consequences again. Put together though, the film is just a little too much for me. I can't quite explain it. I usually watch it every couple of years and I think to myself, this time I'll really love it, but there are parts of this film that always makes me nod off alittle. Maybe it's a little too psychological for me. Than suddenly I'm awaken again by a brillant scene. Maybe in another couple of years I'll really get it! Appears on AFI's list of best films at #61.

Great Moments from 55's Movies

These are those special moments from the movies that once you see them you will never forget them. The rest of the movie might not stay with you, but these shots or sequences are now emblazed in your psyche. It may be a special effect, or an actor or actress, or the cinematography, but these are the moments that movies were made for!

Where Do I Meet Mr. Dean? (55): James Dean makes his first appearance on the screen in "East of Eden".

Isn't It Romantic (55): One of the most romantic scenes in film history was actually drawn. As two dogs eat spaggetti in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp".

There's Hope For All Of Us (55): A homely man finds romance with a plain-looking woman in "Marty".

We Salute You (55): "Mister Roberts" brings the right blend of comedy and drama to revive the honor of the military.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas (56): A "Giant" epic brings us the last film of James Dean.

I'd Like To Meet The King (56): Yul Brynner gives his signature role in Roger and Hammerstein's great version of "The King and I".

"Que Sera, Sera" (56): Hitchcock's remake of his own film finds Jimmy Stewart as "The Man Who Knew Too Much".

Throwing the King In the Slammer (57): The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley makes one of his best films, "Jailhouse Rock". The title song's sequence would be one of the inspirations for the music video.

Me, Myself and I (57): Joanne Woodward stars as a woman with 3 personalities in "The Three Faces of Eve".

The Boat Still Sinks In the End (58): "A Night to Remember" is one of many classic films showing the sinking of the Titanic.

Will Someone Please Answer the Phone! (59): Rock Hudson and Doris Day star in a lighthearted romantic comedy that takes place over the phone in "Pillow Talk".

Oh Give Me A Home... (59): John Wayne is back in the west along with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson down in "Rio Bravo".

. The Early 50's in Movies - The 60's in Movies

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