With the spectre of the Italian neo-realism movement still fresh in their minds, American filmmakers gave themselves over to realism and elevated the art form. Method acting was exploding in New York, dominating the stage, so it was no surprise when realism on film throughout the 1950s seemed to be everywhere. Movies could still be escapist, entertainment fare, but the important films became realistic, honest, and truthful. Kazan would become the single most important and influential of directors in the 1950s, his work stunning in its beauty and raw purity. Not only him, others were achieving greatness as well. Wilder continued to demonstrate incredible versatility, walking easily between comedy and drama, consistently challenging himself. John Ford was doing some of the best work of his career, his darkest western ‘The Searchers’ (1956) being his masterpiece, though none of his Oscars were for his westerns and the legendary Cecil B. Demille created his masterpiece, the massive life of Moses in the remake of ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956). It was just an exceptional time to be going to the movies. Hollywood was at war with television, and though what they attempted did not always work, it was exciting to see them trying.
By now directors were masters of their craft, and in the last roar of the great directorial lions of movies, their work in the fifties spoke for them as artists. Toiling in television were the next generation, working their way towards feature films. The work they studied would be the work of the men on this list. Here is the list of top movies of the 50s.
11. Billy Wilder – Ace in the Hole (1951)
Released, then pulled from release, then sold to TV as ‘The Big Carnival’, discovered by critics in the early seventies and finally appreciated for the masterpiece it is, however dark. Humanity is seen at its worst in this film, filled with greed and self purpose. Kirk Douglas was at his intense best as a disgraced big city newspaper man who ends up drunk and working for a small town paper because that is all he can get. He does his best with it for as long as he can, and then a story drops into his lap. A man is stuck in a cave after a cave-in, and no one yet knows, meaning he can manipulate the national media. He schemes to keep the poor soul in the cave as long as he can, knowing the fellow will die if they do not get to him fast. All around outside, a carnival atmosphere is set up as they all believe there is a chance the man will be saved. Only Douglas knows what is happening, only he is aware that this will be his ticket back to the big league of reporting. He has a sexual relationship with the man’s wife, though she sees through his act and eventually calls him out on it. No one is good in this film, except the doomed man in the cave. Too late does Douglas realize what he has become, too late for self loathing. The film’s dark subject matter stunned audiences and critics who were clearly not ready for such repellent characters. That Wilder had the sheer courage to even make the film as he did shows his greatness, he saw life and mirrored it in his work. Rediscovered, it is a masterpiece.
10. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)