Top Fifty Films of the 50s — An Introduction

And so our extended exercise in chronological backtracking through list-making and backward counting reaches the nineteen-fifties, which is the first decade of film covered that I didn’t come too with a clear vision of it. I had firsthand experience with the aughts, the nineties, and the eighties. As for the seventies and sixties, they loomed large in my understanding of cinema history, thanks to defining revolutions in American and French film. What’s more, the fifties don’t have quite the same automatic allure as the forties, which I associate with my beloved film noir, or the thirties, which virtually percolated with possibilities, as exemplified by the screwball comedy classics. In the middle of that, the fifties stood as this island of uncertainty. Right in line with that, this is the first time I couldn’t start the process of building the list by confidently writing in my choice for the top. Instead, even that was a process of discovery.

I think the main reason I didn’t have a clear picture of the defining features of this stretch of films stems from the way the medium was defined less by what its own artists were doing than an industry-wide fear over the potential usurper in their midst. In 1948, television sets were in a mere 2% of American homes. A mere eight years later, it had expanded to command a spot in 70% of households, utterly dominating the entertainment time of most families. Petrified of the impact on film attendance, studios scrambled to differentiate their product. Color became more and more of a necessity, and the aspect ratio of the screen itself shifted dramatically, all the better to draw a distinction between what could be seen after the purchase of a ticket as opposed to in the comfort of one’s own home, perched on a comfy couch with dinner on a metal fold-out tray. Correctly or not, fairly or not, I think of fifties film–American fifties film, anyway–as a prolonged example of artistic desperation. Yes, there were hints of anticipation of the major shifts in content that would begin in the sixties and welcome vestiges of the cynical gloom of the best offerings of the previous decade, but these qualities could be hard to notice through all the razzle-dazzle being flung at the screen.

Having pulled together my fifty titles, I stand by that passing assessment, but it’s also short-sighted. There were master directors operating at or near their peak during the decade, the art of film honed to perfection over the course of the twenty-plus years since Al Jolson first boasted, “You ain’t hear nothin’ yet,” forever altering the very nature of narrative storytelling. Naturally restless, some of the best directors started testing themselves in fascinating new ways. Simultaneously, everything that characterized American and global life in the aftermath of World War II was magnified onscreen. The pride, pain, reticence, prosperity and broken promises were all there, burned into celluloid.

Besides all that, all my usual caveats apply. The further back we go, the looser my grasp on the breadth of film becomes, especially when subtitles are required. I’ve done what I could to catch up, but I’m am surely lacking. And then there’s the film that will kick off the countdown. As per usual, its probably not truly the fiftieth best film of the decade, and a certain number of the titles that are unofficial runners-up are surely better. And yet, as with all the other films I have placed at #50, the selection is particularly special to me, arguably offering as clear an indication of my intellectual and emotional weak spots as any other entry on the list. So we’ll get to that tomorrow.

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