In many ways, it’s difficult to look back on a decade in film through which one did not live and see the big picture. My view of the 1950’s is colored through black-and-white lenses – through the genres I love and turn to again and again no matter from which generation they sprang – the tales of the psychological, the thrillers, the noirs and all that seedy, dirty business. In the 1950’s that business was booming.
We had Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest) in his Renaissance period, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques) and Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd.) still in their prime, Jules Dasin (Night and the City, Rififi) at the height of his game, and Fritz Lang (The Big Heat) and Carl Theodor Dryer (Ordet) delivering their final masterpieces. Meanwhile, a new wave of filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet and Francois Truffaut) sought to define their own styles and first make a name for themselves.
The 1950’s were epitomized by the two big P’s – Prosperity and Paranoia. America had emerged victorious from the most horrific of events (WWII) and ushered in a new era of Middle Class superiority. But there was still much to fear. Hollywood was struggling against the decline of the Big Studio system and its Golden Era while trying to meet the conflicting needs of the first TV generation and their parents. As always, they held a mirror (or in this case a telescopic lens) and tapped into those fears in the most creative ways.
Love Thy Neighbor – Fear Thy Neighbor
Globally there was the Cold War, Communist subversion, and the threat of nuclear annihilation which manifested itself in tall tales of alien invasions and radioactive monsters that ran amuck in drive-in’s and Saturday afternoon matinées. On the home front, there was growing suspicion against one’s neighbors and a discomforting feeling that all of this prosperity: the 2.5 children, the new cars, the manicured lawns, the cookie-cutter houses and the white picket fences were perhaps covers for something more nefarious. There was a growing sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. We were drawn to the dark sides of the street, to peer over the fences, to look in through the rear windows…
Was Rear Window really the best film of the 1950’s? Arguments could be made left and right against that claim – Wages of Fear or Sunset Blvd. instantly pop into mind as better films while The Night of the Hunter always stands tall as the most overtly artistic. But no film better represents the decade than Hitch’s classic tale – and Hitch was the master of crafting wildly popular films that spoke to the times.
The plot of Rear Window represented the 1950’s in a nutshell: A renowned photographer (James Stewart) is holed up in his NYC apartment with a broken leg and amidst his “swamp of boredom” begins to spy on his neighbors. He thinks he witnesses a salesman murder his nagging wife and employs his socialite fashionista girlfriend (Grace Kelly) to help investigate. Thus we have the privileged who benefited from war in the previous decade, and perhaps are still a bit unsettled or shell-shocked, trying to settle in at home only to become besieged by fear and paranoia surrounding the shady activities of their neighbors. Rear Window has the added novelty of the two lead characters being loosely based on famed war photographer Robert Capa and 1940’s Hitchcock muse Ingrid Bergman, who had a notorious love affair at one point
In a “nation of peeping toms” one began to fear thy neighbor. Rear Window was an impeccably crafted piece of entertainment – from Hitch’s meticulously detailed mise-en-scene; to the screenplay rife with innuendo, banter, battles of the sexes and decidedly 50’s social mores; to the brilliant sound design that tapped into the rat-a-tat-tat of the Chelsea neighborhood; to the score that evoked that melancholy feeling of listening to music filter in from another room…from a stranger’s window. We’re given small voyeuristic glimpses into humanity – a lonely hearted woman’s rehearsal of a date night, a couple sleeping on the fire escape in the sweltering heat of summer, a musician feeling alone in a crowded room during his own party. There was Grace Kelly, never more beautiful, and James Stewart, never more reluctant a hero. Hell, at one point he’s so helpless the only way to save his paramour, who boldly snuck into the murderer’s apartment only to be trapped by the bastard’s arrival home, is by calling the police – a damning testament to the time. When in trouble, sit still – call upon the State.
James Stewart and Grace Kelly were two Movie Stars – IN TROUBLE! But it wasn’t trouble they were thrown into like the big troubles of Hollywood past – the wars or depressions (see all of the great films from the 1940’s) or all of those killer husbands (Sabotage!) and uncles (Shadow of a Doubt) and tenants (The Lodger) from Hitch’s earlier days who were already in our house. This was the intimate self-inflicted trouble people get into when they become too nosey, inquisitive and paranoid and insist on seeing what their neighbors are up to. What would’ve happened had they just minded their own business? As Americans, I think that’s impossible. In a decade of Prosperity and Paranoia we felt entitled to know what was going on. Rear Window fulfilled that sense of entitlement and made it seem like bold, glossy fun. Unlike many of the other great films of the decade – Rear Window was IN COLOR! – and most importantly, it was and still is fiendishly entertaining.
Hmmm…maybe it really was the best film of the 1950’s. Yeah, that’s it, that’s the ticket – Rear Window was the best film of the 1950’s!
There are plenty of honorable mentions, listed chronologically below:
- Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin)
- Sunset Blvd (1950, Billy Wilder)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
- The River (1951, Jean Renoir)
- Forbidden Games (1952, Rene Clement)
- Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
- The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang)
- Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
- Les Diaboliques (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
- Night and Fog (1955, Alain Resnais)
- Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
- Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
- Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)
- Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)
- Twelve Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)
- The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
- Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
- Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
- The 400 Blows (1958, Francois Truffaut)
- North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
Written by David H. Schleicher
Check out The Spin’s previous retrospectives:
- Revisiting There Will Be Blood – The Best Film of the 2000′s
- Revisiting The Sweet Hereafter – The Best Film of the 1990′s
- Revisiting Paris, Texas – The Best Film of the 1980′s
- Revisiting Network – The Best Film of the 1970′s
- Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Best Film of the 1960′s
And of course, here is my My Favorite Films Archive.
What are your favorite films from the 1950’s? Start the debate in the comment form.
Very very nice… As a literature graduate, this made me realize something about classic!
Thanks for stopping by The Spin! Your blog seems most intriguing…I’ll have to portion off some time to traipse through it more thoroughly. –DHS
I don’t have a big argument against your choice and consider it one of Hitch’s very best. It has that beautifully orchestrated point of view from the vantage of Stewart in the apartment, pretty much for the whole movie. What a brilliant choice from Hitch in doing this. I still prefer Vertigo and consider it better than Rear Window, but if you want to give it to Rear Window, like I said, I don’t have a big argument.
Jonny – I know many would pick Vertigo over Rear Window. I love Vertigo, too…but the “aww-shucks-guy-who-just-wants-to-be-entertained” in me prefers Rear Window. –DHS
I agree with your choice of Rear Window as the best, but I’m surprised “Sweet Smell of Success” didn’t make the list of honorable mentions.
Megan – Jumpin’ Jehosaphat! I’ve never see it! To the Netflix queue! –DHS
I find it puzzling that you do not have “Singin’In the Rain” on your list as I find it is one of the best musicals ever made, and that is laments the lost era of silent movies.
Nor do I see a single horror or sci-fi title from that era. Those are classic in working on our fears on interplanetary radiation.
Finally, where is “High Noon?” That movie lives and breathes paranoia.
I’m going to tell you a secret – I hate musicals. You’re right I overlooked all of the really good sci-fi and horror films from the decade. I just couldn’t narrow it down, and I don’t think they hold a candle to some of the other titles I chose. High Noon is one I need to revisit. –DHS
It is too bad you hate musicals. I understand some are dreadful but “Singin’ In the Rain” is not one of those. Glorious music and dance routines. But more interesting is the backstory of Gene Kelley being a complete ass on set and finding out his co-stars, Reynolds and O’Conner, hated him. Makes their work all that much better.
Some genres may not compete well against each other. But a movie such as Godzilla (1954) should be up here because of it’s message and warning of radiation. I also love how the movie makers created the sound of his roar.
I admit Singing in the Rain is one of the better musicals. It had a good plot and story. But it was still a musical. I did love Godzilla 🙂 Hey, what about Godzilla: The Musical? That would be an interesting update. –DHS
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) has to be one of the best sci-fi movies from the fifties, and Forbidden Planet (1956) is another good one. A lot of the science fiction of that era featured giant mutated spiders and ants. They’re good for a laugh these days, but I guess in the 1950s the fear of radiation was in part because they didn’t know what kind of harm it could do in the long run.
I haven’t seen the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. I avoid remakes in general, but I don’t know if I could deal with the political message. Of course, the original one had the message, too. I wonder what it was like to see that movie during the 1950s? It was a new idea then. I wonder if people took the message seriously or just ignored it as part of the movie plot.
Karen – you mention two really good ones there. Speaking of mutated bugs – I always loved Them! – those giant ants were pretty cool. The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was an abomination. It was one of the worst films of recent memory, and you are smart to have avoided it thus far. –DHS
Great opening shot indeed, and absolutely comparable to VERTIGO.
You may fondly remember that this was voted the “Greatest Film of the 1950’s” almost two years ago during the WitD polling of readers, and it’s always a glorious repeat watch!
Sam – yes, I do remember it getting the top vote in the WitD poll. I think it gets better each time I watch it. –DHS
David, one of the most important paranoia things about the 1950’s was HUAC, i.e. the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, or Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade. It infused all the arts for the entire decade, but Hollywood was especially hit hard…and there have been some good movies made about that time as well as the after effects. The Blacklist hurt everyone in L.A., a union town. A book about this is “The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower” by David Caute. There’s an entire section on the Blacklists in the arts. You simply cannot talk about film in the 1950’s without talking about the effect the Blacklist had on Hollywood. This happened in America, not some country thousands of miles away…. Have you seen George Clooney’s “Thank You, and Good Night”?
Cinda – you mean Good Night and Good Luck? Yes, I’ve seen it – very good movie. –DHS
Yes, thanks, David! “Good Night and Good Luck.” The heat we had in July here has apparently fried my memory….(smile)
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