Nightman’s Top Ten Films Of The 1950s

*Note – I accidentally messed up my count when writing out the mini-reviews, leaving out my number 1st time around, hence this list being eleven instead of ten. More fun for you!

Greetings, glancers! Hopefully you have all been enjoying my Top Ten Lists by each year, keeping in mind that these are more representative of personal preference than quality. Now that I have completed each year of the 1950s, I thought I would give a quick overview of my Top Ten of the decade and maybe see if any particular year stands out.

11. Marty (1955)

10. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

9. Godzilla (1954)

8. The Thing From Another World (1951)

7. Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956)

6. Throne Of Blood (1957)

5. Dial M For Murder (1954)

4. Vertigo (1959)

3. Rear Window (1954)

2.  Seven Samurai (1954)

  1.  North By Northwest (1959)

As if there was any doubt, Kurosawa and Hitchcock owned the 50s. They make up the top six positions, and any one of those can be shown to someone who has never seen a Hitchcock or Kurosawa film before, and they’ll be converted. Maybe Throne Of Blood doesn’t quite fall into that category, but it’s a great one to show Kurosawa fans who haven’t yet experienced it.

Marty I saw in my late teens, and it’s probably a film I would not have bothered with for a long time, if not at all, had it not been for my brother’s love of Airwolf. He would seek out any movies or shows featuring the stars of Airwolf and in those early Internet days it wasn’t so easy getting a hold of those. Marty was one of the easiest as it was an Oscar winning film, compared to something like Damnation Alley. Ernest Borgnine of course won an Oscar for the film, well deserved too. It’s just a very sweet, underdog romance, with an unlucky in love guy and gal meeting each other and… you know the rest. It’s like Rocky, but without the fights.

Rebel Without A Cause is James Dean’s most famous, most iconic movie – it’s one of the films you kind of know all about before you ever watch it thanks to the pop cultural imagery. It’s arguably the first, and maybe still the best film about the generation gap as seen primarily from the youth’s POV. It’s basically about three messed up kids who end up in a police station together and we get to see what they’ve done, examine why they may have done it, and then we get all these classic scenes of 50s American teen life – school, fights, car races – almost every cliche in the book comes from this movie. Only the most iconic movies get banned or create a public outcry – this one seeing concerned groups freaking about their children (or neighbour’s children) becoming juvenile delinquents. Only the most iconic films have their own unique curse – stars Dean, Mineo, and Wood all dying in excessively tragic or mysterious circumstances. Throw in Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Ray directing, and it’s a film everyone should see, preferably at the age depicted.

Godzilla is Godzilla. Again, even if you haven’t seen the original, or any of the four million sequels or remakes, you know what it is. There are a lot of iconic movies this year, but the cool thing is that people are always surprised by how good they are when they watch for the first time. Godzilla is of course Japan’s answer to King Kong, with added nuclear paranoia thanks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and while both films look clunky now when you first see the creatures, the quality of the direction and storytelling quickly makes you forget and sucks you in. I saw this when I was young, and like many people who see Frankenstein when they are young, I sided quickly with ‘the monster’. It take a hell of a lot of skill to make you sympathize with a hundred foot city crushing dinosaur.

The Thing From Another World is not quite as iconic as others on the list, primarily due to it being overshadowed by Carpenter’s definitive version. You probably shouldn’t go showing The Thing to kids but Nyby’s version is a fantastic introduction to  sci fi and horror for kids. Again, you quickly forget the age of the film and get pulled in by the plot, the claustrophobia, and the tension.

Five years later and we get another sci-fi classic of paranoia and tension in Invasion of The Body Snatchers. It’s my least favourite of the film versions (excluding The Invasion because it is balls), but it’s still fantastic – showing how strong the 70s and 90s versions are. Cinematic sci-fi hit a peak this decade as technology began to catch up with ideas – it wouldn’t be till 1977 till the next major leap took place. In this version, which is by far the most hopeful, a Doctor keeps having patients who claim that their relatives and friends have been ‘replaced’ by someone else, even though they look the same – Capgras Delusion. What is initially dismissed as a group hysteria becomes more sinister as the evidence stacks up, and a silent invasion seemingly spreads throw the city. It’s a little on the nose at times, but it’s great fun and another fine introduction for younger viewers.

Throne Of Blood, as mentioned above, is fantastic. It’s shocking. It’s Shakespeare, but not as you know it. It takes the loose plot of Macbeth, transports it to some point in feudal Japan history, and features one of the all time great death scenes. Seriously, every single time someone who hasn’t seen that moment sees it, their mind is blown. Even though Toshiro Mifune is awesome here (he always is), it’s Izuza Yamada as his wife who steals the show – she is utterly terrifying.

Dial M For Murder is underrated. I feel like when critics and fans talk about Hitchcock’s best films, they always leave this out. Maybe because it isn’t as experimental groundbreaking as some of his other works, but few beat it on sheers thrills and tension building. It’s a familiar enough story, but wrapped around multiple double-crosses that by the end you’ll be tied in knots. In classic Sherlock style, it all takes a Wiley detective to unfurl the mess for us and it’s utterly compelling. Grace Kelly and John Williams are superb and it’s dripping with Hitchcock’s trademark wit.

Vertigo is one of the greatest films of all time. I’ve said it before, that there are four films that tick all the boxes from cultural impact to importance to money making to critical and fan acclaim that no others come close to – Star Wars, The Godfather, and this. The other just happens to be on this list too. These are, in my opinion, the four most important films ever made. Where do you begin with Vertigo? It’s probably Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, bearing in mind he also has three other films on this list, and also made the likes of Rebecca, Psycho, The Birds. The film concerns a detective (James Stewart) who retires after his fear of heights causes the death of a fellow cop. He takes on some freelance work from an old friend, tasked with following the friend’s wife around as the friend suspects she is in danger. Maddie, the wife, meanders around San Fransisco, making various deliberate stops before eventually, apparently trying to kill herself. Stewart rescues her, and falls in love with her, but love quickly becomes obsession, deception, death, rebirth, and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff happens. It’s another film which is great fun to watch with someone who knows nothing about it – like all of Hitchcock’s best movies, they keep you guessing, and second guessing – but you’ll be surprised at every turn.

Rear Window makes it three in a row for The Master. It’s a perfect film, a technical marvel, a sign of a man at the height of his powers and craft, a twisting, yet simple story laid out bodies on a slab, and stars Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter – three of the all time greats. You’ll hear people say that films from so long ago couldn’t possibly affect them, scare them, make them laugh – this will do all of those and prove them wrong.

I mentioned the four most important films ever earlier? Seven Samurai is the other one. Has there ever been a three plus hour black and white movie, in Japanese, that rattles by so quickly and holds your attention so closely? Hell, few modern 90 minute Hollywood movies can manager that today. When people are listing their favourite films, it’s easy to gush on about plot but the truth is that even the most complex plot can be boiled down into one or two sentences – Seven Samurai is as simple as it gets – a bunch of bad guys are antagonizing and hurting a bunch of peasant farmers, so the farmers group together and request that (insert title here) protect them and get rid of the bad guys. You’ve seen that movie a hundred times in a hundred different way, but never as good as this. It’s the characterization, the stylized fights which range from chaotic and fast, almost anti-cinematic and anti-Kurosawa, and therefore more realistic, to the ultra-slowed wide shots to show just how badass the Samurai are. You feel each death personally and by the end you look at the time and wonder if you can squeeze in another watch before bed.

What could possibly top all of those movies? Hitchcock doing Bond, before Bond was a thing. North By Northwest is one of those movies which has it all – drama, romance, thrills, laughs, action, suspense – every genre worth covering is covered. The plot is your standard Hitchcock ‘innocent man in wrong place at wrong time’ movie, and sees Carey Grant on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, and while the cops try to catch him and the criminals try to kill him, he just wants to clear his name and if he’s lucky, fuck Eva Marie Saint. Spoiler Alert – the train does enter the tunnel. There’s just so much to love here, mainly stemming from the script and the way the top drawer cast relishes it. You also have the iconic cornfield chase, the iconic Mt Rushmore fight, and a high octane pace that today’s action directors can only dream of.

Let me know in the comments what you think of these movies, and your reasons for not seeing any of them yet!

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TTT – Akira Kurosawa

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s been a while since my last Top Ten Tuesday list, so why not kick it off once more by looking at my 10 favourite films by The Master. Akira Kurosawa is frequently cited by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema as one of the greates directors of all time. His influence is seen in most movies today, from a technical point of view, from a storytelling standpoint, and simply because his sheer bulk of work made the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Fellini etc start making movies. His working has a lasting impact on Japanese Cinema and Western movie makers have taken his ideas and either remade them or added their own touches. There will be quite a few films not making this list as the quality and breadth of his work is stunning, but this is as good a place to start if you are interested in getting into Kurosawa.

10. Kagemusha

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We start with a latter day Kurosawa epic charting the downfall of one particular clan and their attempts to trick those they are warring with by replacing their dead leader with a thief who happens to look like him. Amidst the massive battle scenes we have the old questions of loyalty and honour coming back again again as the thief first only cares about himself but over time sees himself as a de facto leader and member of the clan. It’s that blending of the personal drama offset against the massive scope of warring armies all shot with Kurosawa’s flawless eye for detail which sets Kagemusha apart from the lay man’s epic.

9. Ran

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Continuing with the epic, perhaps Kurosawa’s biggest and most ambitious film, Ran may be the most beautifully shot piece the director created. In many ways it feels more like a Western movie than any other one Kurosawa shot, with a memorable score, vibrant colours, and a bleak and depressing outlook. A gorgeous film to look at, it is a tough watch due to the fact that almost every character is either ruthlessly self-interested or doomed to a needless death. It’s sad to note that at his age at the time of filming Kurosawa was viewing the world with such futility and fatalism, especially considering the heroism and hope in his previous works.

8. The Hidden Fortress

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A rip-roaring old school action movie with samurai fights, scheming, and plenty of laughs. You have the group journey of four characters, each individually has their own plot and life, and they additionally can be split into groups of two – a road movie without cars or spaceships where the quest for gold and honour clash and combine. Like other films on the list, this is a good one to surprise people with when they believe that old black and white or foreign movies can’t possibly be entertaining.

7. Stray Dog

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On the cusp of greater success, both Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made this noir detective thriller which stands out for most people as their finest non-Samurai work. Both borrowing from the US hard-boiled works of the 1940s and in turn adding a style which would be later adopted by the West, it is notable for the great rapport and performances of Mifune and Shimura. Both leads basically invent a thousand tropes as the hotshot rookie and weary veteran team up to chase Mifune’s missing gun around Tokyo as it continues to be used in increasingly barbaric crimes. Another wonderfully shot and well-paced movie

6. Sanjuro

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The partner to Yojimbo is perhaps the more entertaining film due its overall lightness. Mifune returns as the ‘unnamed’ Ronin who has a knack for appearing in the right/wrong place and the wrong/right time and using his wiles and considerable sword skills to sort out the rights/wrongs of a town. There is plenty of violent action here and a surprising amount of laughs, at least for me.

5. Rashomon

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The first true masterwork of Kurosawa’s career, this is a small piece utilizing the immense skill of a talented cast and crew. Most of the crew lived together throughout the shoot to create a sense of family and a one direction purpose to make something as good as it could possibly be. With experimental shots and storytelling techniques, an ambiguous plot, superb performances, rain, silence, light, Rashomon is one which continues to impress and is one of those films which all students of film should watch to vastly increase their knowledge and appreciation.

4. Ikiru

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A motivating tale, one of hope and laughs, of the difference between youth and old age and the impact one can have on the other, also a satire of the working life, of bureacracy, and a discussion on the anonymity and powerlessness we can feel being a cog in the wheel – all topped off with the message that we can each make a difference and overcome the odds and the uncaring world.

3. Yojimbo

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The more influential and more fondly remembered partner of Sanjuro sees Kurosawa and Mifune create an action hero archetype which remains to this day – the nameless wanderer, the anti-hero, the loner in search for person glory, the mysterious stranger. Forming the basis for Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, Mifune is masterful as the wily, fearless, and skilled unnamed ronin who visits a town under the thrall of two warring clans. He conspires with each group, turning them against each other for his own ends and to rid the innocents caught in the midst of the struggle of these gangsters. Even though Kurosawa was influenced by Western Literature in crafting the story, it is the style, tone, and look of his film which had Western filmmakers trying to emulate – the wide shots featuring a lone warrior in the distance, the wry humour, the lack of dialogue from the main character, the violence both on screen and implied – the dog carrying the severed hands in the opening moments telling us the town’s history without needing to hear about it.

2. Throne Of Blood

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One of Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and one of his most direct adaptations, this retelling of Macbeth remains the creepiest version yet committed to film and is perhaps still the closest at getting to the root of the lust for power and the stain of madness which ruins anyone who comes into contact with it. Again Toshiro Mifune leads the way with perhaps his finest performance as the tortured Taketoki Washizu, together with an absolutely terrifying Izuzu Yamada as his Lady Macbeth. We follow the loose plot of a mysterious force whispering honeyed prophecies into the ear of an ambitious warrior, a scheming wife eager for glory and power coaxing a husband into doing what must never be done, and the inevitable downfall – that sense of inevitability pervades every shot, with fog closing in, with shadows growing and becoming denser, until a rain of arrows courses down. The use of Noh imagery is suitable for the plot and adds another layer of mystery and unease for Western audiences, destined to be haunted by the vision of Yamada’s grinning death-mask like face. The climax is still among the most thrilling in movie history and that last arrow is still brutal and shocking.

1. The Seven Samurai.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I believe that the best films of all time must be a mixture of immediate and long-lasting critical and commercial success, be classed clearly as both entertainment and art, be influential on a number of levels both technical and otherwise, and retain ‘watchability’ for a wide audience over the decades. I’ve said before that I believe the best four films of all time which fit this criteria are Vertigo, The Godfather, Star Wars Episode IV, and The Seven Samurai. Its influence on multiple genres from action to drama is clear and it’s as entertaining and engaging today as when I first saw it – presumably it’s just as good as it was upon release. Its influence on filmmakers cannot be understated. It is Kurosawa’s signature film and whether or not you feel it is his best is a testament to his skills. At almost three and a half hours it is Kurosawa’s longest movie, but it flies by like a 90 minute movie. With a large cast we somehow manage to feel empathy and sympathy for all of them, we engage with them and love them, and feel a sense of loss when they fall. The plot on the surface is simple – a village abused by bandits recruits seven warriors to protect them, but the interactions between characters gives a snapshot of life like few films come close to achieving. Modern viewers should not be put off by the length, or the age, or the subtitles – if you watch it for the first time today, you won’t see anything better this year.

What are your favourite Kurosawa films – which ones are missing from my list? How do you convince friends to watch a fifty year old Japanese film? Let us know in the comments!