It was in the 1950’s that we saw an evolution of the genre picture. The growth of genres led by people such as Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa would help seed the evolution of films for years to come up to the present. It was a time when the campy nature of most films was slowly fading away and the methodology of acting and directing was becoming more refined. Films gained scale and depth through color and budget as well as what we would then define as the true movie stars and icons of Hollywood.
I like to think that 50’s was very much one of the decades that spread the groundwork for what films could do beyond the silent films, noirs, and slapstick comedies we had been given from years prior. There was a heavy dose of rebellion and boldness that would churn the imaginations of filmmakers later on in the next seven decades that movies would reign supreme.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
There are films that, without them, we would not have had other films that followed. The western would change forever once Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai hit theaters and brought a whole new audience to Asian cinema. His techniques included working shadows and getting close up on character’s faces, but one underrated element Kurosawa brought to the table was the now iconic “horizon shot” which nearly every western and epic film drew inspiration from. George Lucas himself said there would be no Star Wars without the likes of Flash Gordon and Seven Samurai.
2. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Director: Billy Wilder
Like another film on our list, Sunset Boulevard delivers a surprisingly funny and mysterious look at what happens to an aging and outdated silent film star. It’s a classic LA mystery and drama revolving around the desperate acts of celebrities and the obsession to maintain that celebrity status. It’s an intellectually sound look at Hollywood made by Hollywood itself, a self examination that delivers finite results with the acting iconic status to match among cinefiles. The film is fiction, but feels almost to real to not wonder what inspired such a tale.
3. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Director: Sidney Lumet
There aren’t too many films in the history of cinema that can say they will always stand the test of time as a culturally relevant work of masterclass film-making. Based on the stage production of the same name, 12 Angry Men is Aaron Sorkin before there was Aaron Sorkin the way we know him. The intensity and drama through nothing, but words, looks, and puddles of sweat make for a remarkable standard of what drama can become. It defines the ideas of being a good person without hatred or bias even when it seems easier to just call it quits. It’s something that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of justice and the moral grayness we as people often face in everyday life.
4. North By Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Two of early cinema’s biggest icons, Hitchcock and Cary Grant, collaborate for what is probably one of Hitchcock’s best. A classic story of “You have the wrong guy” kicks into gear with one of Hitchcock’s more thrilling films (that’s saying a lot) and the performance by Grant and James Mason encapsulates the the film’s dramas. It can’t be undervalued for the iconic imagery that you have likely seen before via the poster of films that have spoofed the iconic plane chasing after Cary Grant. It’s a film you don’t realize was being plucked for it’s fruits that are it’s styling which also makes it one of the most influential movies that came from the 50’s.
5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean
Before David Lean brought to life one of the most iconic epics in history with Lawrence of Arabia, he was busy directing the sh** out of his other war film based on the novel of the same name. The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the epic story of a group of POW’s as they are forced to build a bridge to aid their Japanese captors. It’s a story about deception and insanity and the sheer will to live which is encapsulated by a terrific cast and thematic elements that challenge what you think you know. Morality is painted in many colors and different strokes through the film making a more brain required war film than most other films like it.
6. On the Waterfront (1954)
Director: Elia Kazan
Brando, Brando, Brando. Take any film from his catalog of expertly devised characters and films and you will see what makes him so iconic. Sure, the man was incredibly arrogant and lazy which prompted on more than one occasion a dramatic shift in scripts, schedules, and costumes, but while he was a huge pain in the ass for everyone that worked with him, he still delivered. Brando is terrific in this melodrama about the influences of the mob on the docks of New York and New Jersey where crime is like breathing and the last thing you do is cut the circulation. It’s a deep look into someone who adapted to his surroundings knowing that the world he is in isn’t a good one.
7. Ben Hur (1959)
Director: William Wyler
Before Lord of the Rings: Return of the King tied the record for most Oscars won by one single movie, Ben Hur was shattering and maintaining that record for nearly 50 years and stood the test of time as one of the most epic biblical films, if not just films, of all time. Charlton Heston and all his over the top glory works every time and somehow we eat it up regardless. His portrayal of Judah Ben Hur is chalk full of nuance and detail with a story that allows all this to show. A story of revenge, redemption, and religion, Ben Hur goes onto the Pantheon of films people need to see at least once and they all know about the Chariot Race.
8. Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock appears on this list again with icon and star James Stewart at the forefront of this riveting suspense thriller. To chilling atmosphere drips with tension as Hitchcock is known for only to strangle you with it’s layered story of the deeper aspects of lost love or just love in general. This is actually one of his most touching stories at the same token while presenting an artistic flare that stands tall as one of the most technically sound pictures, not just of it’s time, but in the history of cinema.
9. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
In this riveting, allegoric classic by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal brought Bergman to the mainstream without being afraid to keep him there. Visually compelling through shadows and minimal light, we get to see a young Max Von Sydow as the protagonist trek through medieval times as the discovery of morality blankets the story’s narrative. There’s something about the 50’s and their films that forced you to really use your brain when watching movies and this is the perfect representation of what film was trying to be during this time.
10. Singin’ In the Rain (1952)
Director: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Gene Kelly is the definitive classic movie musical icon arguably in films history and his magnum opus of sorts is without a doubt Singin’ In the Rain. It’s a film whose timing set a standard for itself as well as musicals in film for the future. With the setting taking place in an era where the silent film has faded off into the distance, Kelly and company take our breath away in what is without a doubt one of the iconic and important musicals of all time.