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

Anatomy of a Murder (1959), 160 minutes, D: Otto Preminger
Army officer Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) was charged with the murder of the owner of Thunder Bay Inn, Barney Quill. Manion turned himself in after shooting and killing Quill, and was arrested for murder. Manion alleged that Quill had raped his attractive wife Laura (Lee Remick). Country-styled Paul Biegler (James Stewart), more interested in jazz piano and fishing than trying cases, was hired to represent and defend Manion. During questioning, the couple claimed that Quill beat and raped Laura - and afterwards, under an "irresistible impulse," calmly strode to the tavern and committed the crime. Was Manion legally sane or insane? The tough prosecutor was Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), who tried to paint Laura as a trampy, provocative woman. There was a long debate about "missing panties" (allegedly torn off by Quill) - later verified by the inn manager Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who found them in Quill's laundry chute, and shockingly revealed that Quill was her father.
Manion was found not guilty. He unexpectedly left town with only a note for Biegler, explaining that he was seized by an "irresistible impulse" to leave.

Ben-Hur (1959), 211 minutes, D: William Wyler
Renowned, Best Picture-winning Biblical epic of enormous scale about friendship and then adult enmity between boyhood pals, filmed in Italy. The winner of 11 Oscars. The 1880 novel by Lew Wallace had previously been made in 1927 as a silent film with Ramon Novarro. A character-driven, action-filled, star-studded extravaganza and one of the cinema's greatest epics -- a compelling human story of revenge, bitterness, redemption and forgiveness. Charlton Heston is the Prince of Judea, Judah Ben Hur, who confronts the conquering Romans and tyrannical boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). His actions send him and his family (Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell) into banishment and slavery - and an inspirational encounter with Jesus. As a galley slave, he saves the life of Roman nobleman/admiral Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), is adopted and becomes a respected citizen and a famed chariot racer under the tutelage of an Arabian horse racer (Hugh Griffith). Heston finally meets his rival Messala in a justly famous chariot race - often regarded as one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. Upon his return to Judea, Ben-Hur also rescues his suffering, leprous family and witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus - on his way to Golgotha, and is inspired to convert to Christianity.

The Best of Everything (1959), 121 minutes, D: Jean Negulesco
Jean Negulesco's glossy, explosive, and ahead-of-its-time soap opera was an underrated CinemaScopic campy melodrama. Adapted from Rona Jaffe's 1958 best-selling novel, it was the urban equivalent of Peyton Place. One of its most famous quotes was: "Here's to men! Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds!" The influential film was advertised as a cinematic work that: "Nakedly Explores the Female Jungle Where Women Fight and Love Their Way to the Top - To Get the Things and Men They Want!" It also stated in the trailer that: "It undresses the ambitions and emotions of the girls who invade the glamour world of the big city, seeking success, love, marriage, and the best of everything...and who often settle for much less." It was Hollywood's look at the new sexual morality of the time ("This is a story of the female jungle, of the girls who didn't marry at twenty, and of the men who wanted them - but not as wives"). It told about three aspiring young starlet-secretaries in the glamorous world of publishing in New York City, at the Fabian Publishing Company. Its social themes included the world of working women and adultery, love vs. career, unwed pregnancy, abortion, casting couch seduction, and alcoholism. The three struggling yet ambitious working women looking for men to marry (and fulfillment) included secretary Caroline Bender (Hope Lange), naive and virginal April Morrison (Diane Baker), and aspiring actress Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker). The film also implied what might happen to a working woman if she never married - the result would be the ruthless, bitter, unhappy, sterile and calculating editor Amanda Farrow (aging star Joan Crawford), who was engaged in an unsatisfying affair with a married man. The chain-smoking Amanda eventually married an old acquaintance, a widower from Illinois, but was dissatisfied with her new life of domesticity and returned to the work world.

Black Orpheus (1959, Braz./Fr./It.) (aka Orfeu Negro), 100 minutes, D: Marcel Camus

Compulsion (1959), 103 minutes, D: Richard Fleischer
This film-noirish biopic was a modified version of the Nathan Leopold-Richard Loeb case from the mid-1920s, when two 18 year-old killers, law students at the Univ. of Chicago, were defended by famed Clarence Darrow. Likewise in the film set in 1924, two University of Chicago law students, Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Arthur "Artie" Straus (Bradford Dillman) were both rich, spoiled, and elitist genuises, with a dominant-submissive relationship to each other - Artie was the bullying and sadistic one. [Note: There was also the strong possibility of a homosexual relationship, although that had to be avoided due to censorship of films at the time.] They kidnapped young Paulie Kessler as a thrill, as an attempt to commit the "perfect crime," and as a way to taunt law-enforcement. During the incident, Paulie was killed (by a blow to the head from a blunt instrument), and afterwards his body was drowned in a park. However, Steiner lost his glasses at the crime scene - a crucial piece of evidence. The case was helped by the investigation of their law school colleague Sid Brooks (Martin Milner), who worked part-time for the Globe newspaper. The two killers continued their crime spree - after Straus challenged Steiner to rape Sid's girlfriend Ruth Evans (Diane Varsi), although he didn't carry through with the sexual assault when Ruth reacted with compassion rather than resistance. A tough DA Henry Horn (E.G. Marshall) traced the glasses back to Steiner. The two made a detailed confession and blamed each other, before the case went to trial.
Legendary socialist lawyer Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) was hired by the defendants' wealthy parents to defend them. During the trial, Horn delivered an opening statement, which was followed by Wilk's shrewd change of the clients' plea to guilty, to eliminate trial by jury. He realized there was overwhelming evidence against his clients, that would assure them of a harsh punishment. For ten days, Wilk introduced psychological evidence to show how mentally ill the two remorseless defendants were, but not insane. He did not want to plead an insanity case (which would also require the jury). He wanted to plead their case solely before the judge. The film's most dramatic and flamboyant moments came during Wilk's closing argument (the longest true monologue in film history) - an eloquent diatribe against capital punishment ("I'm pleading for love"), when he stated that the barbaric practice should be ended. He conceded that his clients were guilty and made an impassioned plea against the state being able to execute the two youths regardless of the severity of their pre-meditated crime. The judge was persuaded - he sentenced the two to life imprisonment, plus 99 years.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), 180 minutes, D: George Stevens

Floating Weeds (1959, Jp. (aka Ukikusa), 119 minutes, D: Yasujirô Ozu

The Four Hundred Blows (1959, Fr.) (aka Les 400 Coups, Les Quatre Cents Coups, The 400 Blows), 97 minutes, D: Francois Truffaut

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Fr./Jp.), 90 minutes, D: Alain Resnais

Imitation of Life (1959), 125 minutes, D: Douglas Sirk

North by Northwest (1959), 136 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock's great suspense thriller, another mistaken-identity case involving a Madison Avenue ad executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). He is targeted as a US government agent (who doesn't actually exist) by international spies, abducted, framed for murder, and chased cross-country. On the run throughout the entire film, he is pursued by the foreign operatives, the head of the spy ring Philip Vandamm (James Mason), the CIA, the police, and a mysterious blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). A literal plot-twisting cliff-hanger, with superb sequences including the famous cropduster scene in an open field, and the chase across the face of Mount Rushmore.

The Nun's Story (1959), 149 minutes, D: Fred Zinnemann

Pickpocket (1959, Fr.), 75 minutes, D: Robert Bresson

Pillow Talk (1959), 105 minutes, D: Michael Gordon

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) (aka Grave Robbers From Outer Space), 80 minutes, D. Ed Wood
Still an important film, although universally acknowledged as one of the 'worst' films ever made, with an incoherent plot, cheap production design (e.g., cardboard gravestones), inexcusable special effects, and horrible acting. It marked the final role for horror icon Bela Lugosi. The character of director Edward D. Wood Jr. was played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood (1994). Extra-terrestrial aliens in silk pajamas including space soldier Commander Eros (Dudley Manlove) and mate Tanna (Joanna Lee), directed by their Ruler (John Breckinridge), implement a plan known as "Plan 9" (after eight failed plans) to stop humanity from creating a doomsday weapon ("solarite bombs") and destroying the universe. They land in a flying saucer in a graveyard. The plan would resurrect the Earth's dead (ghouls), or undead zombies, from the graveyard as a catastrophic diversion. The graveyard was located in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. The army of the dead would march and conquer Earth before it destroyed itself. The first to be raised were Vampire Girl (Maila "Vampira" Nurmi), Ghoul Man (Bela Lugosi), and overweight Inspector Daniel Clay (Tor Johnson).

Ride Lonesome (1959), 73 minutes, D: Budd Boetticher

Rio Bravo (1959), 141 minutes, D: Howard Hawks

Room at the Top (1959, UK), 115 minutes, D: Jack Clayton

Shadows (1959), 81 minutes, D: John Cassavetes

Sleeping Beauty (1959), 75 minutes, D: Disney Studio

Some Like It Hot (1959), 120 minutes, D: Billy Wilder
Director Billy Wilder's wonderfully-satirical, funny comedy spoofed the gangster films of the 1920s (with speakeasies, mobsters, bootlegging, machine-gun fire, and gambling). It has been honored continually as one of the greatest comedies of all time. In the film's opening, two mostly unemployed, late 20's era Chicago jazz musicians in a speakeasy band: saxophone player Joe (Tony Curtis) and bassist Jerry (Jack Lemmon), accidentally witnessed the St. Valentine's Day Massacre (February 14, 1929), and were forced to flee from Chicago hitmen, ordered by notorious dime-flipping, spats-wearing crime-boss ringleader Spats Columbo (George Raft). To disguise themselves and elude the pursuit of retaliatory bootleggers, the two masqueraded as high-heeled, wigged women - Jo-sephine and Daphne - and they joined Sweet Sue's (Joan Shawlee) all-girl band ("Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators") with luscious, voluptuous singer Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) heading for Florida on a train. They soon met fellow band member Sugar (who sang and played a ukelele), revealed to be a lush. Jo-sephine quickly fell in love with Sugar, especially after she told him about her past bad luck with romance and her soft-spot for saxophone players. Once the train arrived in Florida and the band settled into the Seminole-Ritz Hotel, Jerry-Daphne (who was impressed with his own new sexy image) was coaxed by Joe to attract the attention of one of the hotel's guests - the real millionaire - a smitten, oft-wed Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) in his late 50s, so that Joe could then assume the identity of a wealthy, glasses-wearing Cary Grant-like oil man named "Junior" to manipulatively have Sugar fall in love with him on Fielding's yacht. In one of the film's more hilarious scenes, he pretended to have a problem with impotence to encourage Sugar to seduce him. At the same time, Jerry as Daphne underwent an identity crisis with his alter ego, and after a night of dancing the tango at a club with Osgood, he/she decided to marry him, and they improbably became engaged. Everything was turned upside down when the Chicago hitmen accompanied by Spats arrived at the same Florida hotel for a convention of "Friends of Italian Opera," to disrupt their various gender-bending escapades. In the madcap ending, Spats and his entourage were machine-gunned down by rival gangsters led by Little Bonaparte (Nehemiah Persoff) during a fake birthday celebration (one assassin burst out of a large cake). The film concluded with Joe (who had revealed himself) with Sugar, and Daphne with Osgood as they retreated to the yacht in a speedboat. When Jerry broke the news of his identity by ripping off his wig to the expectant Osgood, the unruffled millionaire replied non-chalantly that he didn't seem to mind: "Nobody's perfect" - the greatest fade-out line in film history.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), 114 minutes, D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The World of Apu (1959, India) (aka Apur Sansar, or Apu Trilogy 3), 105 minutes, D: Satyajit Ray

The Young Philadelphians (1959), 136 minutes, D: Vincent Sherman
This bold, lengthy drama was based upon Richard P. Powell's 1956 novel "The Philadelphian." In the film's opening, William Lawrence III (Adam West) of the upper-class Philadelphian family married Kate Judson (Diane Brewster). On their wedding night, he confessed that he was unable to have sex with her - due to his homosexuality (not stated directly in the film). Ashamed, he fled from her and died in an automobile accident. Kate sought comfort and sex with longtime working class friend Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith), and they had a child within the year. The boy, given the last name of "Lawrence" to maintain the family line, became known as Anthony "Tony" Judson Lawrence (Paul Newman), who would eventually become an aspiring lawyer. The secret of his father's identity (and the Lawrence fortune) was kept from him. In law school, Tony's playboy friend Chester "Chet" Gwynn (Robert Vaughn) introduced him to socialite Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush). Although they fell in love, Joan dumped Tony when she learned that her father Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams) had offered (or bribed) Tony with a position in the prestigious Dickinson law firm, in exchange for postponing marriage to Joan. In spite, she married aristocratic millionaire Carter Henry (Anthony Eisley). Tony acquired a summer law job with John Marshall Wharton (Otto Kruger), the head of another Philadelphia law firm, stealing the position away from fellow student Louis Donetti (Paul Picerni), and he soon acquired a permanent job (as a tax specialist) with the Wharton firm after serving in the Korean War. Due to his expertise and success with wealthy clients (such as Mrs. J. Arthur Allen (Billie Burke)), Tony was made a partner. Then, his often-drunk friend Chet was arrested for first degree murder of his uncle Morton Stearnes (Robert Douglas) - who had a tight clamp on Chet's inheritance. Without criminal trial experience, tax attorney Tony decided to represent Chet. Further complications arose when Tony's parents Kate and Mike revealed the shocking truth of his real parentage to him, and Morton's brother, family patriarch Dr. Shippen Stearnes (Frank Conroy), threatened to publically reveal that Tony's real father was Mike Flanagan if Tony didn't do well. During the trial, Tony took up Chet's defense, while DA Louis Donetti prosecuted the murder case. On the witness stand, one of the last witnesses - Morton Stearnes' butler George Archibald (Richard Deacon) stated that he assumed Chet was drinking alone in the study. Then, he heard a noise and a gunshot. Morton was found dead with a gun next to him, while Chet was nowhere to be seen. During Tony's cross-examination, the butler's testimony was discredited with a failed sniffing test of various drinking glasses. The butler also admitted that he never saw Chet and Morton together in the study. And George also agreed that the noise might have been Chet leaving through the garden gate, long before Morton committed suicide. Then, Dr. Shippen Stearnes revealed that Morton had a brain tumor and was mentally depressed - a major rationale for suicide. The jury ruled that Chet was not guilty of the murder. As a result of Tony's successful defense, a reconciled Joan (whose husband died in the Korean War) and Tony made wedding plans.

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