By John H. Foote
The year 1950 marked the beginning of an age-old war with the small box, television.
Television became the greatest enemy of cinema, a war that exists to this day, now led by streaming services. Ironically, COVID made TV necessary for the film industry’s survival when audiences were forced to stay home. But in the 50’s, audiences stayed home because TV was free programming. Hollywood’s answer was to fight back with a series of gimmicks.
Technical innovations emerged such as bigger screens, Vista-Vision, Todd A-O Widescreen, 3-D, and Smell-O-Vision. Hollywood began purchasing the rights to Broadway musicals and turning them into very popular films, lavishly produced works that were immediate box office hits. Big Biblical films emerged, as Hollywood raided the bible for its many tales, making huge movies out of the more famous stories from the good book. A new market was discovered when American International, a small studio started making films about and for teenagers that found an audience.
The most popular genre of the decade was the American western, outproducing all other films by a startling ratio of 6:1. The western proved just as popular on TV with no less than 23 prime time programs set in the old west.
But it was the small gritty, realist films that were considered the works of art through the decade. Movies directed by John Ford, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinneman stirred audiences with socially aware films, heavily influenced by the Neo-Italian cinema. And foreign language films weren’t only popular in their country of origin—they also out became popular in major cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
Marlon Brando forever altered the art and craft of acting with his stunning realistic performances in films for Elia Kazan, and his seething Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar (1953) forever silencing the critics questioning his range.
And Marilyn Monroe became the greatest sex symbol in the history of the movies, her lasting impact still present today. Sadly, her comedic gifts were under-appreciated during her lifetime.
Much was learned in the 50’s too, Method Acting became something exciting and gradually accepted, Elvis films were popular despite his acting deficiencies, films about teenage werewolves were a hit, Grace Kelly showed the world that being a star was not as important as being the Princess of Monaco, and socially exciting films became popular with audiences. Through all the lessons learned, everyone stilled enjoyed a good old mainstream hit.
10. (Tie) THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) — Yes, it is hokey, the writing often laughable, but the bold direction of Cecil B. DeMille (nearly 80 at that time) and that powerhouse, majestic Charlton Heston performance as Moses give this massive film its force. Seeking to remake his 1923 version of the film of the same name, DeMille spent three years with his researchers discovering the life of Moses. The film would be more than four hours, much of it shot on location in sweltering Egyptian heat, walking the same path Moses died. Everything about The Ten Commandments is huge, from the magnificent sets and production design, the gorgeous costumes, that powerful score through to the glorious cinematography and trail blazing visual effects. Heston gives a towering performance as Moses, an Egyptian prince reduced to Hebrew slave, banished from Egypt only to return as the long-promised deliverer of the slaves. Yul Brynner is a superb, sneering Ramses, the Pharaoh, who despises Moses. The Exodus from Egypt is a stunning sequence of movement of thousands, and the Parting of the Red Sea is astonishing. A bit dated, a little creaky, but prepare to be awed.
10. (Tie) THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) — Two men, one black (Sidney Poitier), one white (Tony Curtis), both prisoners in a jail, chained together at the wrists, escape, and flee into the Southern back water landscape. They share a common hatred, apparently just because of the skin color, making their escape a challenge at every turn. Knowing they are being hunted, knowing their capture returns them to a terrible existence in prison, they resolve to work together until a time they can be free of the other. Directed by former producer Stanley Kramer, his first film as a director, the black and white film is a masterpiece of acting and direction, with a strong supporting performance from horror actor Lon Chaney Jr. But the two actors chained together are the reason to see the film, and their carefully evolving relationship to the extent that they eventually like each other, need each other, and will not escape alone. Both Poitier and Curtis received Academy Award nominations and a tie for Best Actor would have been just. One of the first and finest films to deal openly with black/white relations in the United States, it set Kramer on the path to making socially aware and important films.
9. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) — Billy Wilder’s classic comedy is a farce, and a very good one, with the audience in on the joke. Two males on the run from the mob dress as women and hide out in an all-female band, hoping not to get caught or they are dead. So obviously men dressed as women, much of the comedy comes from no one else realizing they are men even though it is so OBVIOUS. This was not a farce like Tootsie (1982) where Dustin Hoffman is so convincing as a woman that we believe she is one. When compared to their co-star Marilyn Monroe, well they just do not pass the muster as girls. Sorry boys. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were splendid in their roles and Monroe gives her most luminous performance, light and airy, aware of who and what she is in the picture. Though Curtis hated working with her, claiming kissing her was like kissing “Hitler”, the actors possessed a chemistry with each other that was absolute kismet. And that final scene with Joe Brown as the poor sap who has fallen in love with Lemmon’s Daphne, doesn’t miss a beat before replying, “Nobody’s perfect”. Dazzling and funny, a wonderful film, not even nominated for Best Picture.
8. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) — Often hailed as the greatest musical ever made, this original work was directed by Stanley Donen and actor Gene Kelly and remains a much-loved film, and beautifully choreographed work. The film was an original work about the end of the silent film era and the beginning of sound, a superbly acted, directed and written comedy that was the finest work of Gene Kelly’s career. So few people recall his startling athletic prowess and directing skill, not to mention his robust dancing the title tune number as it pours down rain. Furious energy throughout, thrilling dance numbers, and excellent lead and supporting performances, this stands among the three best films ever made. Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen were each spectacular in the film, a love letter to movie musicals and a film that takes your breath away. Incredibly, shockingly, not a Best Picture nominee.
7. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) — Possibly the greatest backstage drama ever made, a superbly written film about the viciousness of the theatre world. Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a huge star on Broadway and takes under her wing, Eve (Anne Baxter), an unscrupulously ambitious young actress. She wants the career that Margo has and will do anything to get it. Davis was never better, commanding the screen as Margo, perhaps because she was being challenged and pushed by another actress, the excellent Baxter. George Sanders is superb as the caustic theatre critic who befriends both women, but this film belongs to the ladies. As Margo tells us, “It’s going to be a bumpy night.” All About Eve held the record of 14 Academy Award nominations until Titanic (1997) sailed in to tie it. I prefer Sunset Boulevard (1950) as the greatest film of 1950, but Eve cannot be denied.
6. SHANE (1953) — One of the greatest westerns ever made, Shane takes on mythical proportions. It’s about a gunfighter, riding down into the valley of homesteaders, coming to the aid of a hard-working farmer, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his family. Shane (Alan Ladd) is a gunfighter leaving behind his past and wanting to do some good. Little Joey (Brandon De Wilde) worships Shane, seeing in his innocence the goodness in him. When the men running cattle attempt to run the settlers off their land, Shane fights with them, causing the cattle barons to bring in Wilson (Jack Palance), a deadly gunfighter. From the second Wilson arrives, he and Shane are locked in step in a deadly dance of death. Beautifully shot, superbly directed, the film suggests so much with its cinematic language. The performances are superb, especially Ladd, De Wilde, Palance and Jean Arthur as Starrett’s wife. The cry “Shane! Come back!” echoes across the screen and forever sears itself into our minds. Timeless.
5. BEN-HUR (1959) — Hailed as the thinking man’s epic with its literate screenplay, superb direction from the great William Wyler and the outstanding performances of the cast, this remake was for years the most honoured film in Academy history with eleven awards. Based on the novel by General Lew Wallace, the movie explores the conflicts between two friends at the time of Jesus, one a Hebrew prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his childhood best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), now a rising Roman tribune. When Messala asks Judah for his help and is refused, he turns on his friend. He gets his revenge when accidentally the new Roman governor is injured as Judah’s sister knocks down some tiles that cause the Governor’s horse to rear up and throw the man off. Realizing imprisoning his once time best friend will make him feared, Messala sentences Judah to life in the galleys and sends his sister and mother to the dungeons. He know she is innocent but does this anyway. Fate enters Judah’s life so often, meeting Jesus Christ on the way to the galleys, saving the life of a wealthy Roman soldier who adopts him and takes him back to Rome as his son, and he is given the chance to train and race a magnificent team of white horses, who will race against Messala in the great race. The chariot race stands among the greatest action sequences ever filmed. It is stunning, the sheer motion of it all. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, a record that stood for many years until Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King (2003) tied it. William Wyler did sublime job balancing the intimate human moments with the stunning moments of epic splendor, capturing the time to perfection. A sprawling superb work of art.
4. SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) — Billy Wilder created a miracle in casting when he chose former silent screen queen Gloria Swanson as former silent screen star Norma Desmond in his Gothic nightmarish Sunset Boulevard. Filled with images of horror, suspense, the darkest of humour and a woman descending into murderous madness, the film remains one of the finest movies ever made, a daring, powerful picture. with one of the finest acting achievements of all time at its center. She lives alone in her run-down old mansion, waited on hand and foot by her faithful butler Max who is also her former husband, screening her old silent movies. That is until a handsome young writer, Joe (William Holden) stumbles onto her grounds on the run from bill collectors. He is taken in by Norma, hired to write her comeback work Salome, and eventually invited into her bed. The longer he stays, the more he realizes just how deluded she has become in her isolation. The film is very macabre at moments, with twisted dark comedy that cannot quite be believed, yet ultimately a frightening portrait of absolute madness. Her final descent down the staircase, thinking the news cameras are movie cameras shooting her film is haunting.
3. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) — Kazan. Brando. Leigh. Those three gifted artists, along with Karl Malden and Kim Hunter brought Tennessee Williams’ astounding play A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen after winning over Broadway. Having directed the play on Broadway with Brando, Kazan was the obvious choice to helm the film. No one understood the play better, no one knew the actors as he did, and his realistic approach was perfect. The camera only intensified Stanley’s (Brando) fury and permitted the audience inside the damaged mind of Blanche (Leigh), the visiting sister whom Stanley targets from the moment he lays eyes on her. Broken and damaged by her past, by the men in her past, Blanche comes to New Orleans to live with her sister and her the blue-collar husband Stanley. It is far removed from the mansions they grew up in, but Stella adores Stanley, and their sexual chemistry intoxicates her. Stanley sees through the façade Blanche puts on and decides to investigate her past, not liking what he finds. He hates the airs she puts on, not realizing she is mentally damaged by her past, left a nymphomaniac because of it with a penchant for very young men. It ends in shocking violence, with him raping her and sending her over the edge. Brando is astounding as Stanley, initially warm and welcoming, watch his gentle smile when he meets her, but gradually becomes angry and dangerous realizing the lies she is telling. Vivien Leigh is his equal as the damaged Blanche in an astonishing performance, clearly capturing a descent into madness. Karl Malden and Kim Hunter joined Leigh as Oscar winners but Brando, who gave a performance that revolutionized the art of acting, was only a nominee. An absolute masterpiece in every way, from acting, direction, writing, design, score and cinematography. Flawless.
2. THE SEARCHERS (1956) — “I’m John Ford” he said, “I make westerns.” That was how John Ford introduced himself at the most important meeting of the Directors Guild of America’s history. In attendance were the Directors, they all knew him, they knew what he did. John Ford fashioned the American western, not alone, though his were among the finest of the genre. His finest The Searchers, is also John Wayne’s finest performance. The towering actor known best for his westerns did the best work of his career under the direction of Ford, and here, against type, portrays the possibly psychotic Ethan Edwards. Returning to his brother’s farm after the war, while Ethan and company are away seeking cattle, his brother’s farm is attacked by the Indians, his brother slaughtered, his wife raped and killed, their son murdered, but the daughters, two of them are taken to be raised as Indians. Enraged and filled with hatred, Ethan gives chase, accompanied by Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who understands along the way that Ethan has no intention of bringing the girls home. They find one of them raped and dead in a canyon but continue to search for little Debbie. Across the vast landscape and across time, they pursue the tribe with the girl. Having realized Ethan intends to kill the girl when he finds her, Martin knows he must get between them. However, when they find Debbie, now a woman grown, and face to face with her raging uncle, Ethan finds he cannot kill her. Instead, he lifts her high above his head as we saw him do at the beginning of the film when she was a child, before sweeping her into his arms in a loving gesture, whispering to her, “Let’s go home Debbie.” And home they return, though as all of them go into the home Ethan remains outside; like the natives, his true home is the wilderness. Wayne is astounding as Ethan, a performance filled with toxic hate and rage, yet truthfully exactly the sort of man you would want with you on a search such as this. It was a towering performance that deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor, yet he was not even nominated. Not a single nomination was awarded the film, which was far and away the year’s very best.
1. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) — Elia Kazan had long ago earned his reputation with actors through his use of the Method and was recognized as one of the titans of film directing by mid-decade. With On the Waterfront, he used his substantial strengths as a filmmaker with his actors to create a work that remains monumental. Set on the docks in New York and Jersey, the film explores the corruption within the union, controlled by mobster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). When Terry (Marlon Brando) is used to lure a man to his death, the young man’s sister Evie (Eva Marie Saint) begins asking questions that open Terry’s eyes to what is really going on within the union and the docks. Has he been this naïve his entire life or merely this content to look the other way? But the deeper he goes the more he realizes he too has been a victim of the long arm of union corruption. But should he talk, he will become a target. Is there a greater acted scene in American cinema than the famous taxicab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger as his brother, the mob lawyer Charlie? A slow dawning hits Terry as they speak, and he knows that even Charlie betrayed him and is here in the car to threaten him or deliver him to the mob. But Terry’s words hit Charlie and he cuts him loose knowing it means his own doom. Terry falls deeply in love with Evie and she with him, Terry testifies against Friendly putting in motion his doom, and shows up for work on the docks, startling the other men. They are witness to a savage beating of Terry, after Friendly calls in his goons. But then, he rises, walks up the gangplank and goes to work, inspiring the others to follow him, the corruption of Friendly broken. There are those who think Kazan made the film as a way of explaining or justifying his actions in naming names at the vile McCarthy hearings. Brando is magnificent, arguably never better, dominating the film with his art. Watch his face when Charlie pulls a gun on him, and he whispers “wow”, finally realizing his brother had betrayed him, derailing his boxing career. Stunning. Acting at its greatest because not once does it feel acted. Kazan merged realism with art and took art in cinema to shocking heights, daring others to follow his lead. Karl Malden, again superb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J. Cobb each excellent, supporting Brando with their own magnificence. A miraculous work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
William C Brennan
How Paths of Glory and Vertigo fail to make your top 10 and The Ten Commandments slides in there is quite the mystery.