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5 Favourite Films of the 1950s


Five Favorite Films of the '50s is a nice straightforward blogathon run by the Classic Film & TV Cafe, to coincide with National Classic Movie Day on 16th May. As the name suggests, writers are invited to choose their five favourite films of the 1950s and say a bit about their choices. So, as you probably guessed, these are my five picks.


Rear Window (1954)


In Rear Window James Stewart plays photographer "Jeff" Jeffries, temporarily confined to his apartment and to a wheelchair while convalescing from a broken leg. All he has to console him are his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and the fascination of watching the daily lives of his various neighbours opposite. Jeffries begins to take a particular interest in one of them, Mr Thorwald (Raymond Burr). Thorwald seems to be acting a little suspiciously, and where has his wife suddenly disappeared to?

Like Rope (1948) and Lifeboat (1944), Rear Window is one of Alfred Hitchcock's occasional experiments in making a film that takes place in a very restricted location, in this case the main character's apartment. But thanks to the excellence of the writing and direction, Rear Window's story and setting never feel contrived.

For a while I would have said this was Hitchcock's best film. I'm not so sure now because there are so many strong contenders, but it's certainly one of the best, a perceptive exploration of voyeurism, spectatorship and social alienation. And if that doesn't float your boat, it's a cracking good thriller too.


The Ladykillers (1955)


A gang of shady criminals led by Professor Marcus (a toothy Alec Guinness), and including Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Danny Green, descend on the dilapidated and eccentric house of the elderly Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). There they supposedly practice their chamber music together, but in reality they are using her as a dupe in their plot to make a daring robbery. Will the gang succeed in bumping off an apparently harmless old lady or will she get the last laugh?

The Ladykillers was written by William Rose (Genevieve) and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit), two Americans intimately involved with British comedy in the early 1950s. The film was one of the last comedies to be made by Ealing Studios, but its dark tone and macabre sense of humour are quite different from the gentler comedies produced in the studio's glory years, with an undercurrent even darker than that of Kind Hearts and Coronets. The Ladykillers is often beautifully played and has a unique atmosphere that makes it hard to forget.


12 Angry Men (1957)


Following the trial of a young man for the murder of his father, 12 jurors retire to the jury room to consider their verdict. It seems like an open and shut case, but maybe there's just an element of doubt about the kid's guilt. Who better to step in and make us all examine our consciences than Mr Integrity himself, Henry Fonda? Fonda is only one man among twelve, but he slowly tries to win around the other members of the jury, including Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Robert Webber and Martin Balsam.

This film is a master class in making a film set in a confined space and it barely leaves the jury room in its 96 minute running time. Brilliantly written by Reginald Rose, from his TV play, and directed by Sidney Lumet, with a pretty much perfect cast, including Henry Fonda at his most noble. Tense, intelligent and compelling, 12 Angry Men is one of the best films of any decade.


Night of the Demon (1957)


In Night of the Demon, Dana Andrews plays Dr John Holden, an American visiting England for a conference on paranormal psychology. There he incites the wrath of cult leader Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) for suggesting that he is a charlatan. Karswell tells Holden that he has placed a curse on him, a curse that will be lifted if he recants his claims. Karswell's previous critics have died in mysterious circumstances, but Holden shrugs it off. But then strange things start to happen. Has Holden really been cursed?

Night of the Demon, also known as Curse of the Demon, is an occasionally brilliant and atmospheric horror film. Based on M. R. James's story Casting the Runes, the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur and is fascinating and engrossing, despite its flaws. These include a wooden performance by Dana Andrews and the controversial decision to show the demon, instead of relying more on suggestion, as Tourneur famously did in his earlier film Cat People (1942). Not only is the demon shown, but it's shown in a huge close-up. Every time I see it I think "No, that looks ridiculous! Don't show it!" But I still love this film anyway.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)


James Stewart again, this time as a small town lawyer given the job of defending an army lieutenant, Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), on a murder charge. The case is made more difficult by Manion's admission of guilt. But Manion claims that the murder victim had beaten and raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). His only hope of avoiding the death penalty is a plea of temporary insanity.

In case you hadn't guessed, I love courtroom dramas. A trial is inherently dramatic, so much so that I think if you can't make a good drama out of a trial, then you've no business making films at all. Anatomy of a Murder is one of the very best, with a strong script, well developed characters and convincing performances, from James Stewart's world-weary lawyer and Lee Remick as the supposedly wronged woman, to a young George C. Scott as the hotshot attorney from the big city. I also think this is Otto Preminger's best film (sorry Laura).


Of course, if I wrote this next week I might choose a different five. But I decided not to over-think it and just choose five favourites without agonising over it. If I thought about it too much I'd also want to squeeze in Vertigo, Hobson's Choice, Les Diaboliques, North by Northwest, Genevieve, The Cruel Sea, Witness for the Prosecution ... well, you get the idea.

You can check out the other blogathon entries over at the Classic Film and TV Cafe.


Comments

  1. Jay, I adore your choices! NIGHT OF THE DEMON is probably my favorite horror film; Niall MacGinnis is brilliant as Karswell and I even like the demon that the director didn't want to show. ANATOMY OF A MURDER will be on my list, too. I am also a courtroom drama fan and I think it's the best one ever. I almost chose REAR WINDOW as well, but opted for another classic Hitchcock from the 1950s.

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    1. I did consider that one about fear of heights, but I was tempted by North by Northwest as well, and I didn't want it to be a whole list of Hitchcocks!

      If we exclude 12 Angry Men, because it's not really a courtroom drama, then I think Anatomy of a Murder must be the best one, although Witness for the Prosecution is pretty great too.

      Man in the Middle is an interesting courtroom drama I saw recently, not very well known, but definitely worth a look.

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  2. Each title here is a favourite for varied reasons. I enjoyed reading your insights on these five films.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

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  3. What an excellent list! “Rear Window” would have been my selection of a Hitchcock favorite as well though I adore “North by Northwest”, too. And if I am checking out viewing choices and “Anatomy of a Murder” comes up I can’t just look at it for a couple of minutes without having to see the whole movie again.

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    1. It's tough to choose only one Hitchcock for the '50s, when there's also North by Northwest, Vertigo and Strangers on a Train. But I had to opt for Rear Window in the end, it's been my favourite for a long time.

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  4. Ohh! I have not see all these films but there are some I love here (Rear Window, 12 Angry Men). In Night of The Demon sounds like an intriguing film!

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    1. It is intriguing, and well worth checking out. I hope you get to see it.

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  5. I also selected Rear Window as one of my "favorite five." I had considered Rope as an earlier example of Hitchcock experimenting with filming in one confined location, as was Dial M for Murder, the film he made just prior to Rear Window. But I'd forgotten Lifeboat. Now, that's a confined space! I suspect that one of the reasons Rear Window was the most successful of these experiments is that the confined space of Jeff's apartment was able to be "opened up" (cinematically speaking) with Jeff's forays via his binoculars, to include the apartments, yards and lives of his neighbors as well as the action in the alleyway and street below.

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    1. Yes, and it also makes Rear Window more thematically rich, I think, than some of the others, as well as offering more story possibilities.

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  6. Such a great decade. Love your list! Many great titles! Plus Night of the Hunter, Day the Earth Stood Still, Rio Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, etc., so many! Outside USA, Seven Samurai, Wages of Fear, etc.

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    1. And thats what makes it really hard to choose. This is why I went with my first thoughts, rather than making a huge list and then trying to eliminate films. That would drive me crazy!

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  7. Oooh some wonderful new ones! I feel like my classic movie fan credentials may be revoked if I admit to never having seen Anatomy of a Murder. I will get to it one of these days. And anything with Alec Guinness is sure to be worth watching. I recently discovered Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I'm ready for the next!

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    1. Kind Hearts is excellent. There's lots more great Alec Guinness films to look forward to as well. Father Brown is a very good one from this decade, but less well known than his Ealing films.

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    2. Great, thanks for the tips on Alec Guinness films.

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  8. Inspired choices! It's been so much fun reading everyone's choices. I love the out-of-the ordinary choices. Thank you for reminding us how great The Ladykillers is. I almost forgot!

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    1. Yes I agree. It turns out that lots of people chose Rear Window, but I like seeing the less obvious picks too.

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  9. I'm seeing "Rear Window" on a number of people's lists but The Ladykillers and Night of the Demon.....NICE PICKS. Those are two gems I never tire of either.

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    1. I think I'm particularly fond of those two because I warned up to them over time and they became favourites. I wasn't sure about Night of the Demon the first time I saw it and The Ladykillers is one that really grew on me.

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  10. We share two in common (Rear Window and 12 Angry Men)! However, I was especially happy to see The Ladykillers (I haven't seen it in far too long) and then a rep for the underrated master Mr. Tourneur. The breadth of his work never ceases to amaze me! It goes without saying, Anatomy of a Murder is great too!

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    1. I think you can't really go wrong with Ealing + Alec Guinness (I even like Barnacle Bill!) and I think Jacques Tourneur and horror films are a winning combination too.

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  11. There are two films on your list I haven't seen: The Ladykillers and Night of the Demon. If they're included in your Top 5, I think I'll enjoy them very much. Thanks!

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    1. If you don't, then you can always come back and complain!



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  12. Fantastic list. I'm loving seeing REAR WINDOW and 12 ANGRY MEN on so many fave lists and THE LADY KILLERS is a unique, but worthy choice.

    Aurora
    Once Upon a Screen

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  13. A great list of films, with two I was very close to adding to my own list - 12 Angry Men and Rear Window. Love Anatomy Of A Murder as well. It's been a very long time since I saw Night Of The Demon, which I didn't appreciate as a kid but I think I need to see it again. Thanks for a great list!

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    1. Yes, you should give it another try. I think you'd appreciate it more now.

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  14. I haven't watched The Ladykillers and Night of the Demon - in fact, iut's the first time I hear about this Dana Andrews film! This event is making me discover some films, and see how good some of my favorites are. I also wanted to squeeze in a lot of other films to my list!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Cheers!

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    1. Yes, it's difficult to narrow it down to just five! But I've really enjoyed seeing some of the more unusual choices people have made.

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