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

1958

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

Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Poland) (aka Popiół i Diament), 103 minutes, D: Andrzej Wajda

Auntie Mame (1958), 143 minutes, D: Morton DaCosta

The Big Country (1958), 166 minutes, D: William Wyler
William Wyler's spectacular widescreen, beautifully-photographed, Technicolored Western epic was based upon Donald Hamilton's originally serialized Saturday Evening Post magazine novel "Ambush at Blanco Canyon" that was published in 1958. The film opened with a memorable Saul Bass credits sequence, and Jerome Moross' sweeping and robust thematic score. Transplanted Maryland ex-sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) - a thoughtful, smart, and basically pacifist 'tenderfoot' arrived in the cattle town of San Rafael, TX. He was there to claim his fiancee-bride Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) (an only child, who had met McKay back East when she was in school); instead, he became caught up in her father's civil war feud over water rights at an adjoining ranch known as "The Big Muddy" (where a vital water source was located) - owned but no longer operated by the Maragon family. Various other main characters were introduced: patriarchal cattle-baron landowner "The Major" Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), his main rancher-rival and reprobate Rufus Hannassey (Oscar-winning Burl Ives), Terrill's cocky and rough-hewn foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Rufus' no-good drunken son Buck (Chuck Connors), and Patricia's schoolteacher friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who had inherited "The Big Muddy" from her grandfather, but no longer operated the Maragon ranch. The highly-disciplined McKay tamed a wild bronco stallion named "Old Thunder" - to meet the challenge given to him by Terrill's foreman Steve Leech. Early on, a confrontational scene occurred over access rights to water at "The Big Muddy" between Rufus Hannassey and his rich rival enemy Major Henry Terrill, when Rufus burst into Terrill's house (during a gala party to celebrate Patricia's engagement), berated Terrill, and delivered a major ultimatum - as well as calling him a hypocrite for harrassing his wild clan of women and children. McKay made private efforts to intervene and bring peace between the Hannasseys and the McKays by offering to buy the Maragon ranch land from Julie Maragon (as a wedding present for Patricia) where "The Big Muddy" was located - to continue to keep the river free and accessible for both ranchers. Patricia separated and essentially broke up with McKay by the film's conclusion due to her disenchantment with his perceived cowardice and peace-making efforts. At the end of a marathon pre-dawn, memorable outdoor fist-fight ("not with horses or guns") without witnesses (sometimes filmed in long-shot) between non-violent McKay and the dislikeable Steve Leech, McKay ultimately questioned the futility of their fight when it ended in a draw: "Tell me Leech. What did we prove? Huh?" The film concluded with Rufus Hannassey's planned ambush of Major Terrill in Blanco Canyon, by taking Julie Maragon hostage (not knowing that she had already sold her land to McKay). There, a gentlemen's duel (with dueling pistols) was instigated between Hannassey's hot-headed son Buck and McKay - with Rufus officiating; Buck fired early (and just grazed McKay's forehead) and was reprimanded by his father - ending with cowardly Buck's death by his own honorable father when Buck unfairly stole another man's gun and was about to kill the unarmed McKay. Rufus agonized over the death of his own disreputable son: "I warned you, you dirty little...I told ya! I told ya I'd do it. I told you, but you wouldn't believe me! Damn your soul, I told you!" Another final stalking and deadly showdown occurred in Blanco Canyon between the two sole warlord protagonists: Terrill and Hannassey. It ended with both unyielding men squaring off against each other and killing each other with rifles - one lying on top of the other (filmed from a high-angle long shot). This brought peace after the violent confrontation between the two families that eliminated the two old-men protagonists; McKay rode off with Julie to start their new life together.

Cairo Station (1958, Egypt) (aka The Iron Gate, or Bab el Hadid), 77 minutes, D: Youssef Chahine

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), 108 minutes, D: Richard Brooks

The Defiant Ones (1958), 97 minutes, D: Stanley Kramer
Liberal director-filmmaker Stanley Kramer, well-known for directing heavy-handed, social issues dramas (such as Inherit the Wind (1960) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)), helmed this social commentary film about racism. The film had 9 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Tony Curtis), Best Actor (Sidney Poitier), Best Supporting Actor (Theodore Bikel), Best Supporting Actress (Cara Williams), and Best Film Editing, and won two Oscars: Best B/W Cinematography and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith).
Two chain-gang convicts in the 1950s South - bigoted white Southerner John "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis) (convicted of armed robbery) and black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to star in mainstream Hollywood films in non-stereotyped roles) (incarcerated for assault and battery) were shackled together. When they escaped from an overturned transport truck during a rainstorm, they had to cooperate with each other and put aside their racial animosities as they evaded the oppressive search of the police. Held together by a 29 inch steel chain, they were manacled to each other, and only bound by their will and determination to escape. Their pursuit was headed up by a local "humanitarian" - the liberal and compassionate Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), with other more redneck state troopers and police officers with vicious tracking dogs. Although captured at Jackson's former place of work (a turpentine camp 60 miles to the north), they were confronted by Mack (Claude Akins) and a threatening lynch mob, although Big Sam (Lon Chaney, Jr.) stepped in and halted the bloodthirsty injustice, and then released the two to escape in the middle of the night. At an isolated farm house, they were cared for by needy, lonesome, abandoned and love-starved single mother (Cara Williams). Her devious plan to send Cullen off into the swamp while she ran off with Jackson to the city backfired when she betrayed his trust. Jackson chased after Cullen and told him: "That woman told you wrong." The film's classic image was of their clapsed white and black hands of the two desperately trying to help each other board a speeding train - Cullen reached back to pull Jackson up, but couldn't save him ("I can't make it! I can't make it!") and sacrificed his own freedom by jumping off. In the conclusion, Cullen defiantly sang the blues song "Long Gone" - with the wounded Jackson lying in his arms, before the two were apprehended by Sheriff Muller.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Fr.) (aka Ascenseur Pour l'échafaud), 88 minutes, D: Louis Malle

Gigi (1958), 115 minutes, D: Vincente Minnelli

Horror of Dracula (1958, UK), 82 minutes, D: Terence Fisher

I Want to Live! (1958), 120 minutes, D: Robert Wise
A film-noirish, low-budget, gritty biographical (yet heavily fictionalized) crime drama (with an original rhythmic jazzy score) that was an indictment of capital punishment. The screenplay was based on magazine and newspaper articles, court transcripts, and personal letters from the imprisoned and condemned defendant. Non-violent petty criminal (burglary, forgery, perjury), prostitute ("party girl"), and drug addict Barbara Graham (Academy-Award winning Susan Hayward) was also associated with West Coast low-life, underworld figures in San Francisco's Tenderloin area.
The street-wise seemingly tough female acted as a "shill" - bringing in unsuspecting men to be fleeced at a gambling parlor. Graham was charged by a grand jury with the brutal murder of crippled, 64 year-old widow Mrs. Mabel Monahan during a robbery attempt in her Burbank, CA home in March of 1953, along with three known criminal accomplices: Emmett Perkins (Philip Coolidge), John R. 'Jack' Santo (Lou Krugman), and Bruce King (James Philbrook). Reportedly, the murder victim had $100,000 hidden somewhere in her home, but wouldn't divulge where. Underground figure King was apprehended at the scene, turned state's evidence, and ratted on the location of Graham and her petty associates in Lynwood, CA. The three suspected murderers were now in custody. Although Graham was questioned thoroughly, she defiantly claimed her innocence, but her sordid past would cause her to be regarded as guilty from the start (without presumption of innocence). For the trial, she was defended by attorney Richard Tibrow (Gage Clarke). During the trial, King had been granted immunity, and claimed that Graham was a partner in the crime (she was nicknamed "Bloody Babs"). She had no solid or credible alibi - it couldn't be proved that she was home with her shifty, drug-addicted bartender-husband Henry/Hank Graham (Wesley Lau) and young child on the evening of the crime. Wired undercover police detective Ben Miranda (Peter Breck) entrapped the desperate and anxious Graham (fearing the death penalty) into confessing, when she was falsely promised an alibi. She was convicted of the crime in 1954, and sentenced to death. During the torturously-long appeals process, she was represented by San Francisco reporter-newspaperman Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), and defended by psychologist Carl Palmberg (Theodore Bikel), who claimed she was anti-social, but not violent. Her loyal friend Peg (Virginia Vincent) also testified on Barbara's behalf. However, her verdict could not be overturned ultimately, and she was not able to obtain clemency from the governor. After a few last-minute stays of execution were exhausted, 31 year-old Graham - who still claimed she was innocent, was sent to San Quentin's gas chamber in the late-morning of June 3, 1955. The death scene was memorable. When strapping her in a chair, preparing the sulphuric acid chemicals (and cyanide pellets), and masking her, the prison guard added: "When you hear the pellets drop, count ten. Take a deep breath. It's easier that way." Graham quipped: "How do you know?"

Man of the West (1958), 100 minutes, D: Anthony Mann

Mon Oncle (1958, Fr.) (aka My Uncle), 117 minutes, D: Jacques Tati

Separate Tables (1958), 100 minutes, D: Delbert Mann

Some Came Running (1958), 137 minutes, D: Vincente Minnelli

Touch of Evil (1958), 95 minutes, D: Orson Welles
An off-beat, twisted, dark and sweaty, film noirish thriller, with murder, police corruption, kidnapping, betrayal, perversion and more in a squalid Mexican-American border town. Opens with a daring, captivating single-take sequence, ending with the explosive, car-bomb murder of an American businessman on the American side of the border. A self-righteous narcotics agent 'Mike' Vargas (Charlton Heston) becomes snarled in the local investigation with a grotesque, police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), ignoring his honeymooning bride Susan (Janet Leigh) who is meanwhile being terrorized in an out-of-the-way motel by a menacing gang. The experienced, old-time cop Quinlan habitually fabricates evidence to convict the guilty (even though his instincts are usually correct) and frames a young Mexican for the murder, putting him into conflict with the narcotics detective. The corrupt, overweight police captain is finally brought down by Vargas' persistent, perilous efforts with the cooperation of Quinlan's long-time partner Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).

Vertigo (1958), 128 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Arguably Hitchcock's most complex, most analyzed, compelling masterpiece, involving a man's compulsive obsession to exploitatively manipulate and transform a woman to match his fantasy. Vertigo-suffering, acrophobic detective John 'Scottie' Ferguson (James Stewart) trails an old college friend Gavin Elster's (Tom Helmore) wife as she wanders around San Francisco - a cool, blonde named Madeleine (Kim Novak). Meanwhile, Scottie's friend 'Midge' Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) expresses unrequited love for him. Madeleine's obsession with a tragic ancestor Carlotta Valdez intrigues Scottie, and after saving her from a suicidal jump into the Bay, he falls in love with her. When she falls to her death from a tower in an assumed suicide, he spirals down into a deep depression. Haunted and obsessed with the dead woman, he meets her lower-class double Judy (Novak again) and manipulates her into changing into the dead Madeleine's image - with mad consequences in the uncompromising conclusion.


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