May 21, 2014
My 10 Coolest Movies, 1946-59
I know, there are a lot more, but if I have to be confined to 10, here they are, and rest assured I have left out some of my favorites.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This one actually won Best Picture, a rare moment for truly great movies in the period, when it was often forgettable blockbusters like The Greatest Show on Earth that got the Oscar. Three returning veterans — played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and the non-professional Harold Russell — try to reintegrate into peacetime society with mixed results. William Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s cinematography create a series of remarkable scenes, including the famous depth of field shot in Hoagy Carmichael’s café, a piece of cinematic style praised by André Bazin as the essence of visual democracy.
Red River (1948)
Only nine years after Stagecoach, John Wayne makes the transition from youthful bravado to aged intolerance in Howard Hawks’s epic story of the historical change from the men who won the West to the men who settled it and made it work. Montgomery Clift is Wayne’s adopted son, who chafes against his tyrannical ways as they move a vast herd of cattle from Texas to Abilene.
No Way Out (1950)
The best of the short-lived group of social problem films that characterized Hollywood’s effort to open up its story-telling possibilities before the Cold War gets hot with the blacklist and the Red Scare. Sidney Poitier is a young doctor at an urban hospital, Richard Widmark is the racist thug who thinks Poitier has killed his brother, and Joseph Mankiewicz, otherwise known more for his scripts than his direction, creates a palpable mood of tension and apprehension.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Another “small” film that nevertheless won Best Picture, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s Waterfront is that rarity in the history of American film, a feature that treats events happening while the movie is being made. Continuingly controversial because of Kazan and Schulberg’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the dazzling performances by Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and others in the cast both highlight the power of Method acting and cast doubt on any simplistic political interpretation of the film.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Okay, maybe I should have chosen Blackboard Jungle, since that was the one that moved me when I first saw it, living in a world where very few teenagers had cars, let alone enough for a chickie run. But Rebel holds up better over the years, Nicholas Ray’s use of color and wide screen is groundbreaking, and the sad tale of what happened to James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo just adds to the pathos on screen.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
In more ways than one, Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides blow up the myth of Mickey Spillane’s omnipotent and omnicompetent hero Mike Hammer in this astounding political and cultural critique of the solipsistic individualism of the detective genre. Maybe that makes the film sound too heavy. Most of all, it’s a hundred varieties of fun, from the credits that unreel backward to the final apocalyptic climax. Be sure to watch the alternate ending and decide which you like better.
Space aliens were everywhere in the ’50s, and with the exception of uplifting parables like The Day the Earth Stood Still, they were all out to get us. Body Snatchers sets its story in a bucolic small town where deviltry is afoot in the greenhouses, turning bland and benevolent citizens into strange versions of themselves, without emotion or affect and bent, it seems, on conquering the world. Variously considered to be both motivated by a fear of Communism and an attack on the excesses of that fear, the film unsettlingly suggests that fear of what comes from the outside can never fully be separated from the fear of what comes from within.
Written on the Wind (1956)
For all the talk of the economic boom and labor-saving devices in the ’50s, there was a widespread suspicion of the rich and leisurely along with an avid desire to peek into their lavish houses and eye their opulent possessions. Douglas Sirk, aided by Russell Metty’s lush cinematography, satisfies both the voyeuristic and the moralistic sides of this equation in this prime one of his many melodramatic films of the period. Robert Stack is the rich boy fearful of his masculinity, Rock Hudson is his sturdy close-to-nature friend, Lauren Bacall the woman they both love, while Dorothy Malone got an Academy Award for playing Stack’s sister, whose frenzied sexual activity (including dancing), in the film’s histrionic logic, gives her father a heart attack. The rich really don’t have more fun.
The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
Even low-budget films didn’t get rock and roll right, so what can we expect from a widescreen Technicolor version? Actually quite a lot. Frank Tashlin, who started his career as a cartoonist and later directed six films with Jerry Lewis, brings a remarkable talent for sight gags and caricature to this satiric story of how the traditional mobster-run music business meets the beginnings of rock. Edmund O’Brien is a former gang boss who wants agent Tom Ewell to make a star of Jayne Mansfield. The usual complications result, with songs by Little Richard, the Platters, Abby Lincoln, Julie London, and others interspersed.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
The ultimate gender-bending comedy, where everything is a façade behind which is — who knows? Script by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, direction by Wilder, and including a host of jokes about sex, gangsters, other movies, other movie stars, and Marilyn Monroe, who plays a singer for Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, an all-girl’s band joined by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, dressed as women to escape from Chicago in 1929, where they witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Monroe’s talent as a comedienne is on full display, along with that sense of inner sadness that made her unique as a ’50s sex symbol. Nobody’s perfect.
Leo Braudy is the author of Trying To Be Cool, published by Asahina & Wallace, "a smart, lucid, insightful tour of a world that is both long gone and inescapably still with us, an immersion in the early days of our media-saturated, electrified, youth-obsessed culture" (Peter Birkenhead in The Los Angeles Review of Books).