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5 Best Films Of The 1950s

Through a paranoid and uncertain decade, the five best films of the 1950s reflected the insecurities of Society.

As the 1950s dawned, with the coming of the hydrogen bomb and the rise of global Communism, social fears, both real and imagined, began weighing on the public’s mind. Many of the decade’s best films revealed and studied those inner fears in great depth.

Films Of The 1950s

12 Angry Men (1957)
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  • Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb (Actors)

12 Angry Men (1957)

Set in a courtroom for nearly the entire film (a narrative device popularized by such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat), the film adaptation of 12 Angry Men provides an analytical cross-section of Society itself.

Each of the jurors is unique in some way, Liberal, Immigrant, Capitalist… each bringing their own perspective to the table as they decide the fate of a young black man accused of killing his father.

In addition to deftly discussing the race question, other themes (such as Society’s tolerance of immigrants, the view of the elderly in America, and the meaning of civic duty) are also explored.

The juror’s debate is held together by Henry Fonda’s character, a humanitarian who keeps his mind as open as he can while searching for the truth. Few movies have ever seemed so claustrophobic and intense, or so poignant in their message.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
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  • Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe (Actors)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Arms Race and Cold War instilled an intangible fear in Americans unrivaled throughout history. Allegorically speaking, films would manifest this fear by showcasing mutated monsters or malevolent alien beings representing the uncertainty of the future.

Robert Wise helped reverse the traditional narrative by portraying the aliens as benevolent and Humanity as barbaric.

The film posits that Humanity need not destroy itself, a strong theme that inspired such progressive Science Fiction as Star Trek (and it would be Wise himself who would helm Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979).

Despite its flaws, the most obvious of which is Klaatu’s seemingly contradictory seek-peace-or-we-will-destroy-you philosophy, the film’s marvelous acting and story have elicited an enduring fan base that has even managed to survive a remake.

Seven Samurai (English Subtitled)
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  • Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima (Actors)

Seven Samurai (1954)

While foreign films had always been available in the North American market, a true hunger and appreciation for them materialized in the 1950s. Along with such luminaries as Ingmar Bergman, legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa delivered some of the most moving and challenging foreign films in history.

Kurosawa crafted the heroic narrative that would later be adapted, nearly verbatim, into the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s (Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress would even serve as the foundation for the plot of Star Wars).

The story of mercenaries hired to defend a peaceful village has spawned numerous re-imaginings from the exceptional (The Magnificent Seven) to the putrid (Seven Magnificent Gladiators).

As well as launching the career of renowned actor Toshiro Mifune, this masterpiece has also become the best-known Japanese-language film of all time.

The Killing
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr. (Actors)

The Killing (1956)

Former Look Magazine photographer Stanley Kubrick burst onto the scene with his first major film, the story of a horse track heist engineered by a group of down-on-their-luck misfits looking to hit it big for their own personal reasons.

The brilliance of the story lies in the multiple perspectives which weave the complete story together using non-linear narrative, a device that would later inform modern films like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

While, at the end of the film, the audience understands the mechanics of the elaborate heist, very little is actually known about the characters themselves, apart from their motivations as individuals who were unable to get their hands on the promised American Dream the honest way, a cynical fear shared by many.

Elements of Kubrick’s brilliant camera work, such as long dolly shots and static character close-ups, are visible in this film.

North by Northwest
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Cary Grant, Eva Saint, James Mason (Actors)

North by Northwest (1959)

In a decade stained by the McCarthy Hearings, it was not uncommon for North Americans and Europeans to imagine they saw enemies everywhere they looked. Alfred Hitchcock took this fear and gave it substance in this story of mistaken identity, with an average American thrust into the shady world of international espionage.

Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill cannot get anyone to believe his innocence or growing peril. The film is wonderfully paced and is menacing and amusing in equal measure.

The film also features the iconic scene where Thornhill is attacked by a crop duster on an isolated country road, a sequence parodied over and over again, as in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety and the Family Guy episode North by North Quahog. Hitchcock has a cameo after the opening credits, missing a bus.

The 1950s spawned a decade of films exploring social fears, and it can be argued that as a result, movies had reached a new level of maturity with more adult themes and more violence than in previous years. An underpinning of hope was nevertheless present and would serve to drive the Cinematic Narrative in the years to come.

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