Greatest Films of the 1950s
Greatest Films of the 1950s

Greatest Films of the 1950s
1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

An Affair to Remember (1957), 119 minutes, D: Leo McCarey

The Bachelor Party (1957), 92 minutes, D: Delbert Mann
Scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own 1953 teleplay (airing on The Philco Television Playhouse) for this feature-length male angst drama - an ensemble film. The intimate film told about the loneliness, insecurities, anxieties and frustrations of five middle-class, co-working male bookkeepers. At first glance, they appeared to be debonair and carefree. They held a bachelor party in a restaurant for thirtyish, timid and virginal Arnold Craig (Philip Abbott), who was about to be married to a war widow. The group included: protagonist Charlie Samson (Don Murray), older married asthma-suffering Walter (E.G. Marshall), swinging bachelor Eddie Watkins (Jack Warden), and henpecked married man Kenneth (Larry Blyden). During the party and night-clubbing/bar-hopping later on in the evening, all the characters began to reflect on their lives, concerns and issues about love and marriage. Staid, hard-working, struggling married man Charlie had second thoughts about his own marital ties (with newly-pregnant wife Helen (Patricia Smith)) - he felt trapped, restless and bored, and maybe not ready for fatherhood. The troubled Charlie was tempted to have a one-night affair with a young, footloose 'good-time-girl' bohemian - credited as the Existentialist (Oscar-nominated Carolyn Jones), whom he met on the way to Greenwich Village. After a few drinks, Walter revealed himself as a pathetic, despairing and self-loathing hypochondriac, who was sacrificing his health to keep his boy in school. The nervous groom-to-be Arnold also became ambivalent and fearful about his impending marriage and called off the nuptials (although he sobered up and changed his mind), and desperate bachelor Eddie (who was initially envied for his carefree, lady-killing existence) was still alone and struggling to pick up a woman at the bar.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), 161 minutes, D: David Lean
Director David Lean's spectacular, acclaimed, all-time great WWII epic drama, and Best Picture-winning film was about British P.O.W.'s forced to construct a railway bridge over the River Kwai in the Asian jungle of Burma to connect a rail-line from Bangkok to Rangoon. The anti-war film was based on an outstanding, psychologically complex adaptation of Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel. In its opening, British soldiers arrogantly marched into the sweltering jungle prison camp to the whistling tune of the "Colonel Bogey March." The prisoner-soldiers were led by an obstinate commander Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), and ordered to build a rail bridge by the camp commander Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). They would unwittingly aid the war effort of their Japanese captors. Through the film, an antagonistic battle leading to a standoff existed between the two stubborn wills of indomitable British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito, about whether officers should work along with the other men - after Nicholson called his attention to Article 27 of the Geneva Convention. Ultimately, Nicholson was allowed to take charge of supervising the bridge's construction, and he established a twisted sense of pride in his fortified creation to show up the Japanese as inferior. Major Clipton (James Donald) questioned Nicholson's objectives: "Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?" In the suspenseful finale, Nicholson discovered dynamite wires that had been secretly planted by his Allied (British and American intelligence) forces to blow up the structure, led by cynical American ex-prisoner and heroic escapee Commander Shears (William Holden) and British commando Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Overnight, the water level of the river had fallen and exposed the wires. There was unbearable tension as the Japanese troop train was heard approaching the bridge and the commandos prepared to blow up the bridge. Foolishly, Nicholson attempted to save his bridge, and then uttered his moral dilemma ("What have I done?"), and fell lethally-wounded on the dynamite plunger. The question arose: Had he deliberately fallen on the plunger or was it accidental? The railroad bridge and the train were climactically destroyed, with the film's final words spoken by Clipton: "Madness...madness, madness."

The Cranes Are Flying (1957, Soviet Union) (aka Letyat Zhuravli, or Летят журавли), 97 minutes, D: Mikhail Kalatozov

A Face in the Crowd (1957), 125 minutes, D: Elia Kazan
Director Elia Kazan's powerful and satirical political drama illustrated how a jailed, down-home country boy in the late 1950s could be transformed overnight into a media celebrity on the radio, and later become a mean-spirited political demagogue and megalomaniac on TV. In the opening sequence, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his film debut) - an opportunistic, smiling, drunken cornpone-spouting, back country homeless man, was first heard strumming his bluesy guitar in a rural jail-cell, in the fictional town of Pickett in northeast Arkansas. He had been taken in the previous night for being "drunk and disorderly." KGRK radio reporter/producer Marcia Jeffries (Neal) conducted her local radio show ("A Face in the Crowd") from the cell and became transfixed when she heard him sing the home-spun song "Free Man in the Morning." Afterwards, Rhodes was brought to Memphis, Tennessee to appear on TV, and introduced to bookish, well-educated staff writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau). Soon, the new con-artist/star would be making commercial pitches in New York for a product known as Vitajex - a dietary supplement promoted to increase energy and sexual virility. In a revealing bedroom scene with Marcia, Rhodes revealed his disturbing, arrogant and power-hungry intentions that his audience would sheepishly follow him anywhere, and be directed to wherever he wished: ("They're mine. I own 'em. They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the President, and you'll be the power behind me. You made me, Marcia. You made me. I always say that. I owe it all to you. I owe it all to you."). In a side story, although Rhodes proposed marriage to Marcia, he became infatuated with teenaged, 17 year-old baton twirler Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick in her screen debut), and eloped with her, and then engaged in a 50-50 business partnership with Marcia. On a number of occasions, Rhodes expressed how disrespectful, fraudulent and hypocritical he was. When concluding his national TV show ("The Cracker Barrel"), thinking that his microphone had been cut off (but was deliberately turned back on by Marcia to expose his duplicity), he showed his utter contempt for his mass audience by personally and nastily insulting them as stupid morons. In the stunning conclusion of his inevitable melt-down and spectacular downfall, drunken and delusional rabble-rouser Rhodes was in his swanky hotel two-floor penthouse for a fancy dinner party of political elites, to advance his own political agenda, where he found an empty room attended only by black butlers and servants, and he threatened to commit suicide after being disowned by his previous adoring public. Although Rhodes was finished for the time being, Miller predicted that it might only be a temporary setback.

Funny Face (1957), 103 minutes, D: Stanley Donen
Originally, Funny Face was a 1920s stage musical starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. When the production eventually reached Broadway in late 1927, it was a tremendous hit. The Stanley Donen-directed 1957 romantic comedy-musical again starred Astaire and featured winning songs by the Gershwins, although the plot was significantly changed. In this iteration, New York City's Quality fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) (based upon Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland) and her top fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire, about 3 decades older than Hepburn) (based upon Richard Avedon) were looking for a model (a "Quality Woman") who was both beautiful and intellectual. In a small Greenwich Village bookshop ("Embryo Concepts") that was used as a photo backdrop, the mess created during the impromptu and intrusive photo-shoot upset the store's shy, withdrawn and bookish clerk, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn in her first musical). Amateur philosopher Jo revealed her belief in "empathacalism" to Avery, and remained cool to his romantic advances and kisses. Dick was enamoured by Jo's fresh and intellectual look (her "funny face") and promoted her to Maggie, who was in the process of selecting a 'quality' woman to photograph in Paris. Jo reluctantly agreed to go to Paris (mostly to attend a philosophical lecture by her 'idol' - Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), empathacalism's founder). In addition, she would serve as a model for Paris-based Paul Duval's (Robert Flemyng) designer clothes. In the City of Lights during a touring travelogue of photos for the fashion event, Jo and Dick began to fall in love. Filmed in soft-focus in the green countryside at the Chantilly churchyard near Paris, Jo was photographed in a wedding bridal dress. She confessed her love for him and the two danced: ("He Loves and She Loves"). Ultimately, Jo's interest in Flostre fell apart when he was revealed to be more desirous of her physically than intellectually, and she knocked him over the head with a vase. She then wholeheartedly participated in the magazine's fashion show finale, and was able to reconcile with Dick (who became disconsolate when he thought Jo was no longer interested in him and was ready to leave Paris). In the fairy-tale ending, they again reunited in the garden at the small country church - and sang together "'S Wonderful."

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), 122 minutes, D: John Sturges

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), 81 minutes, D: Jack Arnold

Jailhouse Rock (1957), 96 minutes, D: Richard Thorpe
A great black and white B-film, and considered the best, most popular, and most famous of Elvis Presley's musicals (his third film out of over 30 films from the late 50s through the 60s) - and slightly paralleling the rocker's own life. Presley played cocky, quick-tempered Vince Everett, who was serving a one-to-ten year jail sentence for accidental manslaughter. While in jail, his cellmate Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a washed-up, former veteran country singer, mentored him to learn guitar and sing, and persuaded him to enter the prison talent show. After his release from incarceration, the budding rock star was introduced to the record business. Struggling to break into the music industry after being ripped off, he decided to form his own record label, and became an overnight sensation. After being seduced by the decadent lifestyle of a pop star, he became rebellious and unwilling to work with his former cellmate and Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler), his loyal and pretty girlfriend/talent scout/record promoter. [Note: Judy Tyler (formerly Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the Howdy Doody TV show) tragically died in a car crash before the film was released.] This pre-Army film was filled with Presley classics, especially the wonderfully-choreographed set piece for "Jailhouse Rock," as well as the other memorable numbers including "I Want to Be Free," "Treat Me Nice," "You're So Square (Baby, I Don't Care)," and the two tender ballads: "Young and Beautiful" and "Don't Leave Me Now."

Mother India (1957, India) (aka Bharat Mata), 172 minutes, D: Mehboob Khan

The Nights of Cabiria (1957, It./Fr.) (aka Le Notti Di Cabiri), 110 minutes, D: Federico Fellini

The Pajama Game (1957), 101 minutes, D: George Abbott, Stanley Donen

Paths of Glory (1957, UK), 88 minutes, D: Stanley Kubrick
This classic, powerfully bleak, anti-war drama from Stanley Kubrick was about the hypocrisy of militarism and power was based on Humphrey Cobb's factual novel. The film was an effective denouncement of self-seeking, pitiless WWI French military leaders whose strategy and mishandling of a failed mission were incomprehensible. In 1916 during horrendous trench warfare on the French front (filmed with realistic tracking shots) against the Germans, a vain and pompous French General Paul Mireau (George Macready) ordered his hapless group of soldiers to suicidally attack an obviously-impenetrable German stronghold, dubbed the Ant-Hill. Mireau had been promised a promotion - another military star - for his efforts by evil General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). The catastrophic attack was executed by infantry commander Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). When they predictably failed in the ill-conceived attack, Mireau angrily commanded his own artillery to fire on the 'cowardly' troops. As a cruel example to others, three blameless men were arbitrarily and randomly picked as scapegoats to stand trial and be court-martialed for cowardice. The three were: Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker), Private Pierre Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), and Private Maurice Ferol (Timothy Carey). Military commander and dissenting Army lawyer Colonel Dax, aware of the disgraceful cover-up and episode, volunteered to defend the condemned men. During the sham court-martial trial, held in a luxurious chateau, there were no prosecution witnesses, no indictment, and no stenographic record of the very unfair proceedings. After an unsuccessful yet eloquent defense by Colonel Dax, who claimed that the trial was a farce ("a mockery of all human justice"), the three faced execution by firing squad the next morning. Following the executions, Mireau was removed from command by Broulard, and the command job was offered to Dax - who refused to accept.

Peyton Place (1957), 162 minutes, D: Mark Robson

Sayonara (1957), 147 minutes, D: Joshua Logan

The Seventh Seal (1957, Swe.) (aka Det Sjunde Inseglet), 96 minutes, D: Ingmar Bergman

Sweet Smell of Success (1957), 96 minutes, D: Alexander Mackendrick
A caustic, dark film noir based on the short story by Ernest Lehman titled Tell Me About It Tomorrow, and filmed on location in NYC. MacKendrick's debut American film. Opportunistic, vicious, hustling, slimy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) provided publicity for showbiz clients, hoping for exposure in the syndicated columns. Ruthless, sadistic, monstrously-manipulative newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) unscrupulously plotted with Falco to disrupt and destroy the romantic relationship of his younger sister Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) with a jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Unethical and immoral but desperate to please Hunsecker, Falco smeared Dallas as a drug addict and Communist by planting evidence, but caused Susan to become suicidal. Ultimately vengeful, she walked out on her 'incestuous' and obsessed, overprotective brother, while a raging Hunsecker had Falco beaten up.

The Three Faces of Eve (1957), 91 minutes, D: Nunnally Johnson

Throne of Blood (1957, Jp.) (aka Kumonosu-jô), 105 minutes, D: Akira Kurosawa

12 Angry Men (1957) (aka Twelve Angry Men), 96 minutes, D: Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet's debut directorial film, a taut courtroom drama, was based on Reginald Rose's television play. In a hot summer courtroom in NYC after the trial, instructions by a Judge (Rudy Bond) were given to the jury, concerning the case of an 18 year-old, slum-dwelling Puerto Rican/Latino defendant (John Savoca), held on charges of murdering his abusive, ex-con father with a switchblade knife - he faced the electric chair if convicted. He had been defended by a poorly-paid, inept public defender. The entire film consisted of the deliberations of twelve male individuals (each un-named but with a number) held in a swelteringly-hot, bare-walled claustrophobic jury room, punctuated by flashbacks about the case and trial, to decide the fate of the minority defendant. They had been given instructions from the judge about 'innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.' One female witness testified that through her bedroom window and a passing elevated train, she had seen the murder. Another elderly witness claimed he heard the defendant say: "I'll kill you" - after which he heard the body drop and saw the defendant running down the stairs. As evidence, the long switchblade murder weapon was similar to the one the defendant had purchased. On the witness stand, the defendant's alibi was weak - he said he was at the movies during the night before returning to the scene of the crime, but couldn't recall the movies that he had seen. The case required a unanimous vote ("beyond a reasonable doubt") of 12 jurors to convict, and to send the defendant with a mandatory death sentence to the electric chair. It was a seemingly open-and-shut case. After the first rapid jury vote, it was eleven to one for conviction. Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda), an architect, was the sole doubting and dissenting vote. The tempers, prejudices and personalities of the cranky, smoking men were displayed as they examined the evidence and deliberated their verdict. After considerable deliberations and discussion, including # 8's display of an identical switchblade knife he had bought, a second vote was taken - # 8 was joined by Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) - and now it was ten to 2. Juror # 8 began to poke holes in the flimsy evidence, the inconsistent testimony of the unreliable witnesses, and the prejudices of some of the other jurors, especially Juror # 10 (Ed Begley). For one thing, the old male witness probably couldn't have heard the defendant yell at his father as the noisy six-car train passed on the tracks. And the elderly man, who was lame, couldn't have walked from his bedroom to his door in 15 seconds as he claimed. The woman who said she saw the crime through the passing train was not wearing her glasses. Eventually, revotes dwindled down the number of those calling for conviction. Only one Juror, # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) remained defiant, and he too changed his vote. The defendant was acquitted of the crime.

Wild Strawberries (1957, Swed.) (aka Smultronstället), 91 minutes, D: Ingmar Bergman

Witness For The Prosecution (1957), 114 minutes, D: Billy Wilder
Co-writer and director Billy Wilder's brilliant film had crisp dialogue, a complicated and intriguing plot, unique characters and excellent acting performances. It was a convoluted, twisting courtroom mystery based on Agatha Christie's 1933 four-character short story and celebrated 1947 stage play. It told about an aging, distinguished, near-retirement age London barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), with his overbearing housekeeper/nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife) tending to his near-failing health for a weak heart. The intelligently clever and incorrigible attorney was asked by solicitor Mayhew (Henry Daniell) to take on a perplexing case, the defense of the prime suspect - an unemployed, American expatriate inventor named Leonard Stephen Vole (Tyrone Power in his final film role). He was charged with the murder of wealthy widow Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), in order to inherit her property (80,000 pounds). The testimony -- and true identity -- of the mysterious, beautiful German-born 'wife' of the accused, Christine "Helm" Vole (Marlene Dietrich), held the key to solving the case involving marital infidelities and deceit. She was her husband's only alibi - but she could not, as the defendant's wife, be considered a credible witness. However, she WAS called as a 'witness for the prosecution' to damningly testify against him and cold-heartedly betray her husband. On the stand, she admitted that: (1) she wasn't really legally married to Leonard (and could therefore testify against him), (2) she was forced by him to provide a false alibi, and (3) her husband had admitted the murder to her, after returning home with blood on his clothes. When a mysterious Cockney woman (also Dietrich) called Sir Wilfrid claiming that she had surprise information to help his client, the film set up the twist ending. She offered to supply the barrister with love letters that the perjuring Christine had written to a mysterious lover named Max. When the trial resumed, Sir Wilfrid confronted Christine with the letters (so she could get rid of Leonard and be with another man) to prove that she had lied. Having proven Christine to be a liar and unreliable witness, Leonard was declared 'not guilty.' After Leonard had been acquitted, Christine revealed that she was disguised as the Cockney woman who had devised the ploy of love letters to get Vole acquitted. Only by being an entirely uncredible witness could she get her husband declared innocent. The defendant had obviously been guilty all along, and had committed the crime. He also declared that he was unfaithful and philandering with Diana (Ruta Lee), who arrived in the courtroom to run away with him. Then, with furious and jealous anger, Christine shockingly stabbed him to death for his double-crossing philandering! This climactic murder was followed by Sir Wilfrid's classic line when he corrected his nurse Miss Plimsoll about the killing: "Killed him? She executed him." Sir Wilfrid would now serve as Christine's defense lawyer.

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