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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1950s

Top 10:

1. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953)
Perhaps the greatest cinematic evocation of mono no aware (roughly, "the sadness of things"), which is a central concept of Japanese art and thought. Ozu's plotless, patiently naturalistic tale of an elderly couple that leaves the country to visit two of their grown children in Tokyo, only to be treated rudely and ignored, is a subtle, profound look at the distance between parents and offspring as the years widen. The most fascinating character, the couple's widowed, childless daughter-in-law, Noriko, embodies one of the central questions the film asks: Can a person sustain her humanity without the companionship of others? Tokyo Story offers no pat answers or easy resolutions as tragedy strikes the already emotionally fractured family. In its honest, difficult exploration of fundamental human relationships, it stands as a testament to the height and grace to which cinema can aspire.
 
2. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
One of the darkest big-budget Hollywood releases ever made, Vertigo is a window into the scary recesses of Hitchcock's soul. Every aspect of the film is meant to be disquieting, dreamlike (not in a "Pleasant dreams" kind of way), and dangerous. From the hilly, unbalanced geography of San Francisco to the violently contrasting color schemes, Hitchcock utilizes every visual element at his disposal to plumb the depths of obsessive love and, most importantly, the selfish desire to transform another person into that idealized object of affection. The surprising, utterly uncompromising ending, punctuated by the fact that the bad guy gets away with murder, may not be easy to accept, but it elevates Vertigo straight to the top of Hitchcock's impressive resume.
3. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1952)
Kurosawa's most humanist (and ultimately optimistic) film considers the question of what makes human life meaningful. Following a widowed mid-level bureaucrat dying of cancer as he spends his final months attempting to do something useful with his existence, Kurosawa achieves his first true masterpiece -- and emphatically proves that he doesn't need flashing swords or brash samurai to do so. Special mention must be given to the astonishingly powerful, yet poignantly understated performance of Takashi Shimura as the doomed Mr. Watanabe.
 
4. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
Without drawing explicit attention to the fact, Kurosawa deftly kills off four of the seven samurai defending a 16th century peasant village from the bandits by a relatively modern convention: the gun. That such an honorable class, known for confronting an enemy via the sword or bow, is slain in such an impersonally efficient manner speaks volumes about Seven Samurai's commentary on not just the changing tide of history, but also the introduction of terrible new technologies (the A-Bomb, for instance) born in the century in which the film was made. Kurosawa's execution of action sequences is top notch, and his appropriately unsympathetic ending ensures Samurai's place among the director's finest works, as well as among the greatest films in cinematic history.
5. The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955); Aparajito (1956); The World of Apu (1959) (Satyajit Ray, India)
Satyajit Ray's beautifully realistic yet lyrically evocative trilogy, based on the semi-autobiographical work of Bengalese author Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, celebrates the human experience like few films before or since. Ray utilizes the life of Apu -- born into an impoverished family but blessed with a keen intellect and artistic ambitions -- to reveal the great struggle that comes with trying to find one's place in the world. Ray's closing image from The World of Apu reveals an optimism and acceptance of life's burdens that is neither sympathetic nor cheaply earned, but is rather the perfect embodiment of growing into manhood and using adversities as steps to a higher plane of understanding, as opposed to immovable obstacles thwarting one's chance at long term happiness.
 
6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
Drawing from the supernaturally slanted Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain by highly regarded late 18th century Japanese writer and poet Ueda Akinari, Mizoguchi examines the effects of war on peasants and the non-fighting classes. Set during the later stages of the Warring States period, Ugetsu instructively follows two brothers, one craving wealth, the other glory. Both men abandon their spouses in search of fulfilling their respective personal desires, causing unnecessary hardship and tragedy for all parties involved. Whereas Kurosawa emphasizes elaborate and epic battle sequences, Mizoguchi employs non-confrontational, notably subtler means to illustrate the folly of men facing the lure of the seven deadly sins.
7. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France / Italy, 1953)
A masterpiece in spite of itself, Clouzot's Wages of Fear contains some of the most suspenseful sequences ever captured on film. Taking a contrived existential premise (four men with nothing to lose agree to transport nitroglycerine across treacherous terrain so that a greedy oil company can cap a burning derrick), Fear manages to deliver a scathing commentary of big business while examining the demons that drive and torment its expatriate Europeans, who've fallen on hard times in a squalid Latin American village. Yes, the politics slow down the proceedings in the beginning, and the ending too obviously wallows in smug fatalism. But the editing and pacing during the truck driving sequences are truly astounding, and, at times, almost unbearably excruciating in their intensity. Wages of Fear isn't perfect, but it is absolutely unforgettable cinema.
 
8. La Strada (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1954)
Fellini manages to turn the tables on his audience, as the unlikable, prone-to-violence circus strongman (Anthony Quinn) becomes a tragic and wholly sympathetic figure by the end of the film. But it's the road Fellini travels in reaching this unexpected but entirely logical dénouement that elevates La Strada to its place in the top rank of the great director's films. Symbolic links between Heaven, Hell and the often cruel Purgatory in which people are often trapped abound, but are masterfully layered where they might well be overplayed. This seemingly simple tale of a strongman and his woman companion (whose family he has paid off to allow her to accompany him) ultimately proves anything but simple, as the strongman moves from town to town, never settling long enough to examine the demons that torment and provoke violence from his baser nature.
9. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955)
Imagine a hyper-stylized child's dream of good versus evil, heavily influenced by expressionistic German cinema from the Silent Era, and you have a pretty good starting point in understanding what angle director Charles Laughton was coming from in this unique, audaciously brilliant masterpiece. From Robert Mitchum's demented false preacher stalking across the land, wreaking havoc wherever he goes, to the mesmerizing, eerie image of Shelley Winters' throat-slit corpse bound underwater, Hunter is a bizarre, melodramatically extreme work that taps deeply into the psyche of the young and impressionable like no film before or since.
 
10. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)
Billy Wilder's finest film benefits enormously from Gloria Swanson's peerless performance as faded star Norma Desmond -- one of the greatest Hollywood characters ever to grace the silver screen. Wilder tempers his glowering cynicism for the big studio system (which creates stars only to callously dispose of them when they reach a certain age or are no longer profitable) with uncommon wit and elegant craftsmanship. Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece of Hollywood self-examination, gazing unblinkingly into all that is good, bad and downright deranged in Tinseltown.
 
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, France, 1959) The title has been likened to both a French figure of speech meaning the maximum punishment that can be absorbed by a person and to the idiom "faire les quatre cents coups," meaning to get into a lot of trouble or to be a real troublemaker. Both apply to this absorbing examination of rebellious youth.
  • All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA, 1950) It’s the closing scene of the young wannabe starlet trying on Eve’s gown and holding her award that cinches the film’s greatness. Writer/Director Mankiewicz understood the obsession for fame that drives people to do just about anything to achieve their dream.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, UK / USA, 1957) David Lean’s WWII Japanese prison camp epic glides along the surface when it comes to character depth and development, but the pacing, acting and cinematography are top notch.
  • High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1952) Zinnemann’s inspired use of real time is the great technical achievement of High Noon. The minutes tick down for both audience and beleaguered Sheriff Gary Cooper and the tension generated is incredibly intense and utterly captivating.
  • Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1955) To better understand the origin of the "glowing Pandora’s Box" motif employed in Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), one need look no further than the most bizarre adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel ever committed to film.
  • Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1952) Mizoguchi dispenses with the satirical tone of the 17th Century novel savaging Japan’s inflexible class structure (from which Oharu is drawn), in favor of a far more melodramatic and heartbreaking adaptation of the source material.
  • Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, France / Italy, 1958) Tati addresses his larger concerns (the old world versus the new; technology run amok; social status) in an indirect and hilarious manner as his alter ego, the bumbling but endearing Mr. Hulot disrupts his married sister’s home life. Mon Oncle is a chaotic marvel of technical precision that never once draws overt attention to its complex inner workings, as Tati sets up repeated sight gags and then lets events unfold in seemingly spontaneous and delightful ways.
  • Mr. Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, France, 1953) There’s a touching sweetness to Mr. Hulot's Holiday that wouldn’t be as prevalent in later Tati films. Observing the idle bourgeoisie on holiday, Tati turns Mr. Hulot loose on a quiet resort community and the results are anything but sedate, from a bravura tennis exhibition to a spectacular fireworks bombing of the hotel. This is pure cinema, bursting with the joy of presenting beautiful images on the screen and mining genuine laughs without being mean-spirited or judgmental about it.
  • Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, France, 1955) Resnais masterfully intercuts between an abandoned concentration camp and shots of its victims a decade prior. Bolstering these powerful images (Night and Fog was one of the first films to reveal the true horror of the not-yet-widely-known scope of the Nazi extermination programs) is the voiceover of Michel Bouquet -- a Holocaust survivor – who wrestles with the fundamental question: Who is responsible?
  • Othello (Orson Welles, France / Italy / Morocco, 1952) Considering the trouble Welles had to go through in making Othello (stopping production when the cash ran out; taking acting gigs just to procure financing; having to overdub much of the dialogue in post-production) it's amazing how sturdy the film looks, and consistently brilliant the scene transitions are (aside from a few obviously choppy exceptions).
  • Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1951) In its incisive examination of the subjectivity of reality and truth (and by overcoming the obviousness of some of its symbols -- rain, sunlight, and a newborn), Rashomon stands as one of the most psychologically effective and emotionally engrossing films in the history of cinema.
  • Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954) "People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public," sums up Wendell Corey's Detective Doyle to Jimmy Stewart's bored, broken-legged voyeur and the hobbled photographer's wannabe wife Grace Kelly midway through Rear Window. It's that fascination with the mystery of the unexplained visual that drives this Hitchcock classic, a combination of morbid curiosity and a desire to connect with the lives of people you've never met -- if only to reinforce one's superiority over one's neighbor.
  • Rififi (Jules Dassin, France, 1955) The silent half-hour heist sequence may be this French crime noir's most famous calling card, but Rififi endures as a film classic because of the inevitable cost associated with a life of crime. There are no easy outs in Dassin's exploration of the criminal underworld and the adage that there is "no honor among thieves" idiom. The film's almost fatalistically resigned pallor is punctuated by the slaying of a snitch (proficiently played by the director himself) who grimly admits to understanding the "rules" when it comes to ratting out his friends just before the trigger is pulled.
  • Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) Mizoguchi takes the base elements of this classic tale set in 11th century Japan and imbues it with an overriding awareness of the transitory nature of all things. No matter how painful an experience may seem, the film reminds us, there's always the chance that good fortune will deliver a person into a better situation.
  • The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) Ford's harshest look at the Old West. The Searchers provided John Wayne with one of the most racist, brutal, yet honorable-to-a-fault characters of his long and storied career. In tracking a young girl who has been kidnapped by a band of Comanches, Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter embody the tense relationship between settlers and natives and the irreconcilable differences between the two cultures.
  • Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen, USA, 1952) The finest musical to come out of Hollywood, Singin' in the Rain is a masterpiece of form and execution for two key reasons: One, it was about more than the standard ho-hum musical plot of falling in or out of love, dealing instead with the key period in late '20s Tinseltown when talkies exploded onto the scene, signaling the death knell for silent films and those actors who were better off seen rather than heard; and Two, the unforgettable dance sequences.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, USA, 1951) Elia Kazan successfully adapts his Broadway version of Tennessee Williams' most famous play by accentuating the faces of his leads, lingering on the spaces between dialogue and allowing Alex North's brooding hothouse of a jazz score to wash over the film.
  • Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, USA, 1958) Here's the challenge: Saddle a great director with a low-grade budget and a hackneyed, potboiler plot and see if he can make something worthwhile. Well, if that director happens to be Orson Welles, the answer is a rousing and affirmative yes. Touch of Evil is the greatest, most artistically accomplished B movie ever made.
 
Outstanding Actors:
 
Toshiro Mifune - Key films: Rashomon (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), Samurai trilogy (1955-56), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958)   Deborah Kerr - Key films: Quo Vadis? (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), The King and I (1956), An Affair to Remember (1957), Separate Tables (1958)
 
Outstanding Director:
 
Akira Kurosawa - Key films: Rashomon (1951), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958)
 

Much thanks to Filmsite.org for having scans of many of these posters online: http://www.filmsite.org/posters.html

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