- E: What am I watching? It just started, and I don’t know what’s happening.
- B: It’s symbolic.
- E: Yeah? Who’s that guy?
- B: That’s Death walking on the beach.
- E: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I’ve never seen Death walk on the beach.
From Diner (1982); written by Barry Levinson; set in 1959.
Growing up, I always had a negative impression of the 1950s (as far as film was concerned–it wasn’t until later I got a negative impression of reality in the 1950s). Anyway, that negative impression of fifties films has changed over the years, starting when I realized Hitchcock was making movies in the fifties, then Kubrick, then Kurosawa. Then I started seeing Hollywood movies from the fifties in my late teens, when I discovered Eleanor Parker, and I revised my opinion. The fifties have a lot of good stuff, even Hollywood.
So the early sixties must be the weak era.
I still catch myself being vaguely down on the fifties. Even as some directors rose to prominence, lots of the elder statesmen started churning it out, which is true of any era. Now, when a film from the 1950s provokes a derisive thought, I mentally walk it back and remind myself… the fifties aren’t just all right, they’re rather great.
And not just because it’s when Bergman got going strong.
Preparing this post I went through the Stop Button responses of the best fifties movies. I came up with thirty-five (though the number is since thirty-six, I hadn’t written about Stalag 17 when I made that list); then I thought maybe I could write about my childhood fifties favorites. Because even though I had a negative impression of fifties cinema, many of my favorite monster movies were from that decade. So the list could’ve included Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, the Raymond Burr version of Godzilla, and so on.
But then I decided to try to do the list straight. With the only asterisk being East of Eden. I haven’t seen it recently enough to include it with the others, but it might be on here instead of something else, it might not be.
Descending by year, the final list of five favorite fifties films.
- Touch of Evil (1958)
- Paths of Glory (1957)
- The Searchers (1956)
- Seven Samurai (1954)
- Detective Story (1951)
Call it a “desert island but with electricity to watch movies” list or a fifties beginner list, these five films hit most of the quadrants of the fifties cinema. Hollywood melodramas aren’t represented in whole, but definitely in part—all five films contain similar elements, while some of them also feature similarities to fifties Bergman. Not so much in content, subject, or tone, but feel. There’s a decided lack of humor; Mose Harper and his rocking chair are about it. Still, These five films “feel” like a fifties film should feel. At least to be an exemplar.
Touch of Evil. When I saw Touch of Evil in the theater (for the 1998 re-edit), I had already seen the film before. I might have even owned it on LaserDisc at that point. I didn’t exactly grow up with Touch of Evil, but I did spend my teens revering it. Even cutting it to shreds, the studio couldn’t excise the film of its greatness. I might have first seen it in 1992 or so, after The Player. I remember learning about complicated opening tracking shots around that time.
I’d definitely seen it by the time Get Shorty came out in 1995 because I’ve been laughing at that “Charlton Heston play Mexican” line since the first time I saw Shorty.
The only time I’ve watched the film since starting The Stop Button, I watched the original theatrical version, which came out in a DVD set with the 1998 cut and also the “preview cut.” I meant to watch all three of them, but still haven’t gotten around to it.
I watched it in one of my undergrad film classes—actually, there are two more coming up I watched in those classes—which would’ve been after the 1998 re-cut but before that version was on video. So it must have been the theatrical version. I really got to understand how the performances worked, how the script worked. I also got to see it with a better understanding of Welles.
Paths of Glory. I might have discovered Paths of Glory from my dad’s Criterion LaserDisc. One summer in high school, I went through most of his LaserDisc collection—the ones I knew nothing about—while staying up until four in the morning and then sleeping until noon. Or my dad might have just watched it with me when he got it.
I can’t remember.
I definitely was a big fan by the time I went to college, where I’d see it in one of those film classes, but also think about the film in the context of my World War I history classes. Paths of Glory is still, probably, my favorite Kubrick film. I like to say Barry Lyndon to be difficult, but for “bang for the (runtime) buck,” it’s definitely Paths of Glory. And, if Kirk Douglas is to be believed, he’s the reason Kubrick didn’t sell out with Glory. How different American cinema would’ve been had it not been for Douglas wanting to have an unhappy ending.
Glory was one of those films I watched to learn how to pick a film apart, how to understand structure. I had to write an essay on it, after all. I needed to understand how Kubrick used George Macready’s villain, for example, so I had to delineate his scenes. Or wanted to delineate his scenes in the essay and did.
The Searchers. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties and liked film and liked John Wayne, you did not like good films. I’m sure there are some childhood John Wayne fans who would argue, but if you were ever okay watching McQ and The Green Berets, you did not like good films.
I don’t think I started watching John Wayne movies until The Searchers in that college film class. I’d seen The Shootist but probably almost nothing else. After seeing The Searchers, I stuck to the John Ford ones, of course. When I did branch out—to McQ, to The Green Berets—they only confirmed my suspicions about his ability to give godawful performances.
Wayne didn’t really have a redeemable offscreen personality either. So I’ve always been really careful in considering his films, which just makes Searchers all the stronger. Ford knew how to use Wayne to best effect, particularly in this film. Wayne’s playing on type, struggling against the inevitable character development.
Searchers was another film where I learned a lot about how to consider present action. It’s the undergrad film essay the instructor made me stand up and read aloud. I remember he started reading it and I thought, that’s not mine. Only for him to call me up.
Forced public speaking versus ego boost. How grand.
The Searchers also made me think a lot about expectation. What the audience “deserves” to know, what they don’t, and ultimately why deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it.
Seven Samurai. It took me forever to see Seven Samurai. I checked it out from the college library my first year, didn’t watch it. I already had a copy of it on tape; I had dozens of EP tapes of movies to watch when I went to college. The quality was so bad I gave up on them almost immediately. But Samurai had come up in film class and the library had it, so I got it.
But didn’t end up seeing it for at least two more years, even as I would’ve probably watched more Kurosawa.
The first Kurosawa I saw was Dreams. Because Scorsese. Because color. I rented it once, didn’t end up watching it, rented it again, watched it. Have zero memory of it, soon enough saw Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran. I was a big Ran fan. But Samurai was always too daunting. Too long. Too big.
When I finally did see it, I thought it was great, but then sort of forgot about it. When I went back and watched it last year, I was blown away even more than I remember being the first time I watched it. Definitely one of those films where the more thoughtful you can be, the better your experience becomes. You’ve got to keep its 207 minutes constantly “in mind,” which isn’t necessarily easy but also is an imperative consumption skill.
Detective Story. I gave this one a lot of thought before putting it on the list. It’s earlier than any of the other films, it’s got far more in common with post-war Hollywood than mid-fifties Hollywood. It’s the only Eleanor Parker movie on the list (and only probably her best performance from the decade, not definitely). It’s nowhere near as epic as any of the others (Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory being epically produced). It’s quite the opposite. It’s got a single location and is the most exquisite filmed adaptation of a play… ever. There’s just something about the way director William Wyler does it.
I cannot remember how I first saw it, unfortunately. I think I traded for it because it didn’t air on Turner Classic Movies and had never had a home video released (I was real excited when it came out on DVD, back when Paramount seemed to just realize it had a deep back catalog). Then the DVD went out of print and it all of a sudden became rarer. But now it’s streaming and being able to watch Detective Story on demand is—compared to when I first wanted to see the film in the late nineties—incredible. When classic film accessibility works out, it works out.
And Detective Story is rather accessible. It can’t be as frank as it could be, but Wyler and the cast don’t need to be too frank. Euphemism works on stage and Wyler understands how to make Story play as though it’s… produced on stage. Sort of.
It’s an exceptional play adaptation, even without being great otherwise.
And all five films are great. Phenomenal. Exceptional. Singular. Exquisite. All the good adjectives. Lots of complexity, lots of layers, lots of lots.
They’re enough to make you forget you ever dismissed the fifties as racist Westerns, soapy Hollywood melodramas, and obnoxious musicals. The fifties has all those kinds of films, unfortunately, but they also have some of the finest films ever made. Like the ones enumerated above. Like the thirty-one others I didn’t mention. Like the two dozen I can’t remember seeing. Like the countless others I haven’t seen. Yet.
If only phenomenal started with an F.