7 Great Films from the 1950s

The 1950s saw studios rushing to make things bigger and better, utilising the power of the epic to unleash a much more cinematic feel to their products. While post-war affects were still prominent, the 50s still felt like a change in pace and while epics were epitomised by the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), there was still room for the smaller spectacle to thrive with directors like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock still working at their full potential. Not just among Hollywood either, international cinema flourished with the likes of the European pioneers Godard, Truffaut and Bergman, as well as Japanese powerhouses Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu making a definitive statement on the cinematic landscape.

Rififi (1955)

director: Jules Dassin | Runtime: 1h 58min | Crime,Thriller | Language: French

In a time when Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc-Godard were making a name for themselves and reshaping the way people perceive cinema, another man busy making waves was Jules Dassin. Although his films stretch over 30 decades, probably his most emphatic triumph is his quintessential heist film – Rififi. The story of a group of men who plan a heist in such concise fashion that the only obstacle in the end, is the men themselves.

Although Rififi follows the same trajectory as most heist films, the element that sets it apart is it’s ‘concise fashion’. Dassin’s first instincts are not to make this film overly exciting to the point of unrealistic, but rather show a masterclass in tension by blending filmmaking craftsmanship with the already high-octane feeling of real criminality, along with the impeccable ability to ooze style consistently. Some argue that Rififi is slightly a one-trick pony, with it’s highlight being the heist itself that uses only the diegetic sound of each scrape of a chisel and pinch of a wire cutter to really drop you in the moment, leaving you in a state of unmatched tension (closely followed by Bressin’s A Man Escaped [1956] three years earlier). But the real argument should be that Rififi is a masterpiece from start to finish, and just so happens to have one of the best 30 minute sequences in cinematic history.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

director: Billy Wilder | runtime: 1h 50mins | Film Noir, Drama

Arguably one of the most influential and talented directors of all time, Billy Wilder’s sheer consistency could have filled this list. While Some Like It Hot (1959), Stalag 17 (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) all deserve a mention, it’s the film that started the decade off, Sunset Blvd. (1950), that deserves the plaudits and a place on the list. The film is about a screenwriter, played fabulously by William Holden, that enters into a very lucrative relationship with a fading silent-era actress, Gloria Stewart’s iconic Norma Desmond. This is not only one of Wilder’s best efforts, but it also shows the transitional capability that the legend has, upholding the style of a soon to be lost Noir, but also showcasing his potential for dark comedy that would define his work by the latter part of the decade.

Wilder’s tale of a fading actress may not be the most engrossing part for a modern audience, but the beauty of the story is that it still harbours, not only the glamour of it’s contemporary industry, but the cracks in ideals of fame and relevance. If you add the fact that every step of the way Wilder’s writing and directing is pitch perfect, along with two performances to match, you have yourself one of the best films of the decade. It’s also in a rare group of films (alongside Casablanca [1942]) that actually radiates a certain energy, allowing every frame feel iconic in the process.

12 Angry Men (1957)

director: Sidney Lumet | runtime: 1h 36Mins | Drama

In the current landscape of Hollywood it’s a major surprise that no one has attempted to tackle a remake of Lumet’s classic (other than the TV-Movie starring Jack Lemmon), with the roles being attractive to actors, and the budget probably being rather small considering the setting. But the reason is clear, 12 Angry Men is simply untouchable. Starring Henry Fonda in the ‘lead’ role, this film is about a jury who’s final verdict in a murder case is halted from being a clean sweep, as one juror (Henry Fonda) decides to choose ‘not guilty’. What follows is a lengthy stay in the jury room, as each man is forced to deliberate and consider the fact that this case isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it looks.

The beauty of 12 Angry Men is how much Lumet can fit into such an enclosed space, using every aspect of the 12 characters to structure his film perfectly, capturing the fatigue and opinion of every single character while also painting a bigger picture in the process. It allows the audience to question innocence, and uses it’s character building to commentate on other issues that are boiling in the pot, but never losing focus of it’s main goal. Every character has a part in this film as each of them parallel and contrast with each other as the films gradual build is in play, and although Fonda and Lee J. Cobb are the standouts, everyone flawlessly executes their role. But the most impressive part is that it only takes 96 minutes to create one of the most complete films in history, harnessing it’s themes and running them with such depth, in such a short amount of time, is a skill that seems almost lost in todays world. A true classic of the 1950s, one that will forever be considered as one of the best of all time.

Seven Samurai (1954)

director: Akira Kurosawa | runtime: 3h 27mins | Action, Adventure | Language: Japanese

Possibly one of the most prolific directors of all time, Akira Kurosawa marched his way from masterpiece to masterpiece without even a second glance. As another director that could have filled this list, it feels important to mention films like Rashomon (1950), Throne of Blood (1957), Ikiru (1952) and Hidden Fortress (1958), for their own unique place as classic Kurosawa, but the film that has left the biggest mark is his epic masterpiece Seven Samurai. It’s the tale of seven men, who vow to protect a small village from harm by, using their skills as samurai, fending off waves of bandits who terrorise the village.

With such a simple plot it seems odd, at first, that this film reaches the runtime of three and a half hours, but what Kurosawa does with his time is expertly apply depth, and a layered platform for one of the most epic presentations of all time. Seven Samurai is a tapestry delicately woven with theme, and more importantly large-scale battles that highlight the impeccable heroism of all seven characters. This may only follow a simple thought-process of good vs. evil, but Kurosawa allows his themes to be explored, and for all it’s fiction and grandeur he manages to find so much humanity within the confines of his story. Not only is it layered, but as an action epic it also has one of the greatest battles of all time, that captures it’s torrential pour down so beautifully, and also using it’s characters to expert affect. This masterpiece is truly one of the greats, and has become an iconic part of it’s countries cinematic legacy.

Rear Window (1954)

director: Alfred Hitchcock | runtime: 1h 53mins | Suspense, Thriller

Another iconic director working in his prime, Alfred Hitchcock’s taste for pioneering suspense has given us such iconic films that are often considered the best and while Vertigo (1958) seems like the obvious choice, Rear Window (1954) will always be a front runner for the best in the directors catalogue. In a story about a man reduced only to the confines of his apartment, due to a broken leg, Hitchcock manages to create a story of paranoia like no other. Lead by an always perfect James Stewart, the suspense comes in full force as curiosity turns to mystery when the man suspects criminal behaviour in the adjacent apartment.

There is something so enticing about the single location concept, as at their best they create such a unique experience and act as a beautiful canvas for many people to showcase their talents as directors and writers, and while films like this have become all too saturated in recent years, Rear Window (along with 12 Angry Men) is still the pinnacle of the style. For all it’s suspense what’s incredible is the journey getting there, Hitchcock is patient and allows us to be brought into the world of his main character using a gorgeous opening shot, and through the eyes of it’s main character, we get to experience every emotion and feeling that he does. It’s an extraordinary feat in world building and character, and there is still nothing as intoxicating as James Stewart working at his best.

Giant (1956)

director: George Stevens | runtime: 3h 21mins | Drama

With the displays of epic films becoming more and more prominent in the 50s, it felt wrong to not include one on this list. While the most famous ones are obvious to many, with David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) among the most revered and mentioned, one that is only a mere whisper in the conversation is George Stevens fantastic sprawling epic, Giant. Hitting nearly 3 and half hours, it follows the Benedict family over a number of years as they try to run both their cattle ranch and overcome problems both internally and externally, most notably from their previous employer, Jett Rink (James Dean).

The most notorious epics are one of scale and depth, and while Giant doesn’t necessarily cover a lot of ground geographically, it certainly makes up for it using it’s themes, covering as many aspects of life as you could possibly fathom. Love, death, wealth, greed, family – these are all essential practices for George Stevens turn at the epic, and each one is sufficiently touched upon without getting overrun or tangled. It adopts the strongest quality that all great epics have, and that is creating such an amazing experience for you and engaging you for the full depth it really has to offer, and while Giant may not have the perfection of something like Gone With the Wind (1939), it certainly deserves praise for being a staple of both American cinema, and American lifestyle. Not to mention the emphatic presence of such a starlit cast, with Taylor and Rock Hudson in some of their best roles, and most famously, James Dean proving once again what a thunderous presence he was becoming in Hollywood.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

director: Henri-Georges Clouzot | runtime: 2h 11mins | Thriller | Language: French

During the prominence of the French New Wave films were being released that would eventually shape the very foundation in which films were being perceived, and while Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut were almost instantaneously revered, another French director had the strongest spell of his career, Henri-Georges Clouzot. His most notable work came in the spell over 3 or 4 years, with Les Diaboliques (1955) being one of his best, but the one to make the list is his thrilling adventure, The Wages of Fear. It follows a group of down-on-their-luck men who decide to take a job delivering explosive nitroglycerine across country, without any particular safety precautions in the place to keep them safe.

What makes this film such a pure thrill is the tension build, instead of a slow descent Clouzot uses his time to build character and tell a story, and expertly applied craft to give each action scene the edge-of-the-seat feeling we know and love. It’s film at it’s most tense, but in retrospect this is just the icing on a very layered cake, with the films arching message coming from a place of low-key nihilism, about the instinct to survive and the sheer need that each character possesses to find work. It’s reminiscent of Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), but while that chased the American dream, Clouzot’s film is about the everyday struggle of survival. It’s an unflinching commentary with even more unflinching story, one that is paced to perfection, and boasts high-octane thrills with a fantastic depth to match.

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