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Mike’s Top Ten of 1951

I feel like there are two very important things to discuss for 1951. The first is color. I feel like 1951 is that year where we definitively reached the point where the majority of films were in color. I don’t think statistically that’s the case, but I feel like this year is the one where, after this, color is the norm for films and black and white is reserved for lower budgeted films or specific genres. That’ll definitely be the case once CinemaScope shows up in a couple of years.

The other major thing about 1951 is the beginning of a genre. Or at the very least, the beginning of a genre as we know it. And that’s sci fi. Sci fi existed in several forms before this, but this is the year where all the tropes we recognize — aliens, flying saucers, time travel, space exploration — this is when they all began. (And, as an added bonus, the sci fi films of this era also were Cold War-related.)

Outside of that, we’re starting to get into an era where most people would recognize the majority of my lists without needing much explanation as to what they’re about. Which means that all the hidden gems on the lists that people don’t know about are gonna be way more noticeable. Which is exciting.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1951

Ace in the Hole

The African Queen

Alice in Wonderland

The Day the Earth Stood Still

A Place in the Sun

The Steel Helmet

Strangers on a Train

A Streetcar Named Desire

The Tales of Hoffmann

The Thing from Another World

11-20: An American in Paris, Angels in the Outfield, The Blue Veil, A Christmas Carol, Come Fill the Cup, Decision Before Dawn, Detective Story, Fixed Bayonets!, Fourteen Hours, The Lavender Hill Mob

Tier two: Bright Victory, The Browning Version, Death of a Salesman, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, The Enforcer, Flying Leathernecks, The Frogmen, The House on Telegraph Hill, Jim Thorpe – All-American, The Magic Box, The Man in the White Suit, The Mating Season, On Moonlight Bay, Operation Pacific, People Will Talk, Quo Vadis, The Red Badge of Courage, Storm Warning, Thunder on the Hill, The Well

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1. A Streetcar Named Desire

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.”

One of the greatest films ever made. In terms of films shot from plays, this and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are, to me, the two that stand far and away above the best. This one, though — top 100 film of all time.

Stanley Kowalski, Blanche DuBois, Stella Kowalski. Everyone knows this movie. Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden. Elia Kazan directing. It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect all around.

2. The African Queen

John Huston, baby. Humphrey Bogart. Katharine Hepburn. Most people see those three names and they were in yesterday. Fortunately, this is also one of the great movies of all time, so we’re covered all around.

Bogart plays a drunk riverboat captain (the best kind of riverboat captain), and Hepburn plays the sister of a missionary in Africa, trying to bring religion to the natives. It doesn’t go well. Then ze Germans show up and ruin everything. The brother dies and Hepburn goes off with Bogart on his boat, (insert title here). They bicker and eventually fall in love and make a plan to destroy a German gunboat using their boat.

It’s awesome. It’s so good. One of Huston’s best films. Bogie won his Oscar for this. This movie also features one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema:

“By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William the Second I pronounce you man and wife – proceed with the execution.”

3. Ace in the Hole

“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”

Guess who. Billy Wilder again.

One of the great noirs of all time. Originally released as The Big Carnival, they later changed it back to the proper title, which is so much better.

Kirk Douglas is a ruthless big city journalist who got fired from all the big papers. He’s now stuck working in New Mexico in some shit paper and hates it. One day, there’s a mine collapse and a man is stuck inside. He sees this as his ticket back into the big time and begins writing sensationalist stories about the whole thing. He manipulates all the rescue workers into taking a circuitous route to get the man out so he’ll be in there longer, thereby allowing him more time to build the story up. And eventually the whole thing spirals out of control — it becomes a giant circus. People coming for miles, media outlets from everywhere.

This movie is so good. Kirk Douglas is one of those actors who had no problem playing awful people. Those were his best roles, usually. He’s a completely unredeemable asshole, and it makes the movie so much better.

4. The Steel Helmet

“If you die, I’ll kill you!”

My favorite Sam Fuller movie. This movie was shot for peanuts and used UCLA students as Korean soldiers. And yet, still amazing.

This movie grabbed my attention from the opening image. The credits play over the still image of a helmet with a bullet in it. And then, once the credits are over, the helmet moves. It’s a great way of subverting expectations. The film is about a bunch of soldiers who end up in a Buddhist monastery, hiding from communist troops. It sounds slight, but trust me, there’s a lot going on. The troops are very diverse, and there are a lot of discussions about race. It’s very ahead of its time.

The other great thing about this is in the first five minutes, when the main character encounters a young Korean orphan he takes with him. He gives the kid a nickname — Short Round. Which is exactly where Lucas got the name from.

It’s a down and dirty war film, and it’s great. No frills, but way more depth than you’d expect. Sam Fuller is a perennially underrated filmmaker.

5. Strangers on a Train

“You crazy maniac! Would you please get out of here and leave me alone?”
“But Guy… I like you.”

Hitchcock. One of his absolute greatest films.

Two men meet on a train and discuss their problems. One is a tennis player who wants to get rid of his wife so he can marry another woman. Another is a guy who desperately wants his father gone. They jokingly discuss switching murders — the tennis guy will kill the other guy’s father, and the guy will kill the tennis player’s wife. And no one will ever know, because there’s no motive and they’ll both have alibis. Only what the tennis player doesn’t realize is that the other guy was serious. He actually goes out and murders the guy’s wife. And now he expects the tennis player to hold up his end of the bargain.

This movie is so great. There are some absolutely brilliant shots in it — namely the one where the tennis match is going on and Robert Walker is sitting in the stands, not moving and following the play like everyone else is. Genius.

6. A Place in the Sun

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”

When I think of the term “American classic,” this is one of the films that immediately comes to mind.

Montgomery Clift is a poor kid coming to work for his rich uncle. He’s got an entry level job at one of his uncle’s factories. There, he meets and falls in love with Shelley Winters, a fellow worker. Over time, he works his way up within the factory and begins to improve his social status, which puts him in the sights of Elizabeth Taylor, a socialite. Clift, ambitious, and infatuated with Taylor and what she represents, falls in love with her. And things — get complicated from there.

It’s so good. George Stevens directed and won an Oscar for it. Clift, Taylor and Winters are all great here. This movie is a huge influence on so many actors and directors.

7. Alice in Wonderland

“But I don’t want to go among mad people.”
“Oh, you can’t help that. Most everyone’s mad here.”

This movie beats Pink Elephants on Parade for best Disney acid trip.

This is one of those movies everyone remembers, because it’s so memorable. The Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, Alice growing and shrinking, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Walrus and the Carpenter. This movie is great.

Another film where one of the songs became a jazz standard. Also, not necessarily a film that people have at the top of the all-time Disney films, but one that is regarded as a classic. It feels more like a cult favorite than a top tier favorite. And I think that fits.

8. The Tales of Hoffmann

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Powell and Pressburger made one of the most gorgeously shot films of all time. What is this, number three? Four? Five? It’s crazy what sustained brilliance these guys had over the course of a fifteen-year period.

This film is, yes, an opera. But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s so visually resplendent and rich with saturated color and beautiful scenery that it doesn’t matter what’s going on. The joy of this film is seeing the beauty they put on screen. It’s essentially a two-hour version of the Ballet of the Red Shoes.

I honestly couldn’t really tell you specifics about each of the numbers. But each is more stunning than the last. Just put this movie on and marvel at how beautiful it looks. You will not be disappointed. The things these men accomplish on the screen is nothing short of genius.

9. The Thing from Another World

“And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

In the first real year of the sci-fi genre, they made two of its most enduring classics. This film, while credited to Christian Nyby, is pretty openly known as a Howard Hawks movie. It’s generally regarded as a Hawks film, given his overall influence on the film and its style. Kind of like how Poltergeist is openly credited to Spielberg by a lot of people, since — look at it.

A flying saucer is found buried under the ice in Alaska. There’s some kind of a body recovered from the ice, and the men bring it back to their facility. However, it soon thaws and unleashes a creature that begins murdering them all. And they’re in a remote base in Alaska, so they can’t exactly call for help.

It’s a fantastic film. Part sci-fi, part horror. Very much both. It’s your Alien scenario, with a creature murdering people where no one can reach them, and it’s also your quintessential Cold War sci-fi movie. In case you didn’t understand that the alien was a metaphor for the potential “invasion” of Soviet forces, just wait until you get to that final monologue, where they tell you to “watch the skies.”

Most people prefer the Carpenter remake, but this and that film are two very different entities. This one is very much a product of the 50s, while the other is its own thing. So don’t just think this is gonna be like that. It’s really only the general premise of ‘creature kills people in a remote, snowy outpost’ that’s similar.

10. The Day the Earth Stood Still

“I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.

Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more… profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.

Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

So one night in college, I’m heading to my friend’s birthday party. I’m already drunk, and I’m walking along a back street that’s mostly used by people going to the school’s parking lot. And I’m walking up it, and driving toward me is the campus security officers in their car. Making their nightly rounds. And I immediately think, “Oh shit, I’m really drunk. I don’t want these assholes to see me and stop and give me shit.” So my response is to immediately stop walking and stand stone still until they pass. Which apparently everyone I told the story to thought was hilarious. Because arguably that was weirder than just walking and possibly looking drunk.

That has nothing to do with this movie. I just saw “stood still” and thought that would be a good way to begin this entry. Look, no one said you had to read all this shit I write.

This is one of the great sci-fi films of all time, and really the first one that epitomizes the genre as we know it today.

When you think about it — the sci-fi genre wasn’t really as we understand it before now. You had a couple of them in the 30s, like Things to Come, but they weren’t anywhere near the stuff like this. Then the 40s, you barely had sci fi at all. Things were gritty and realistic, and the most sci-fi it got was stuff like monster movies. 1950, however, was the year the sci fi genre was born. Movies about traveling to mars and encountering aliens. That’s the genre as we know it. And this became the first benchmark film of the genre.

The films is about a flying saucer that lands in Washington D.C. (the image above is one of the most iconic screen images of all time). And everyone freaks out and wonders what it means. An alien emerges, along with a potentially killer robot, and says he’s there to deliver a message to the world’s leaders. He then goes about, studying humans to see what they’re really like. And ultimately his message is: start living in peace, otherwise we’re going to murder you all. Which is always a nice way to get people to shut up and stop fighting.

The great thing about this film is that it’s not only a great sci-fi film, but it’s a Cold War sci-fi film. That’s the big sub-genre for the 50s for sci-fi. All these films, while being about aliens and things like that, were also about the threat of Soviet and communist invasion. So they all had that kind of undertone to them.

This one, though, is much more overt. Not so much about communist invasion, but more about, “Stop fighting because we’re all in this together.” There’s a really profound message to this movie that’s pretty great. Klaatu’s final speech is terrific and the movie doesn’t give you any time to forget about it. It ends right there, Great Dictator-style. It makes you sit with that message and really digest it.

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11-20:

An American in Paris — Your Best Picture winner of 1951. A great musical. Gene Kelly is (insert title here), a painter who strikes up a romance with Leslie Caron (in her first film role). Though his friend also falls in love with her. And to make matters more complicated, his donor, a wealthy woman, also wants him for her self. It’s fun, it’s colorful, and the finale is like 16 minutes of dancing without any dialogue. One Of Vincente Minnelli’s best musicals, and a classic.

Angels in the Outfield — The original version of the movie I grew up with in the 90s. Different entry angle, same general story. It’s about the foul-mouthed manager of a terrible baseball team who is visited by an angel. The angel tells him he’ll give the team a few miracles to help them out… if the manager stops cursing and fighting people. It’s a great comedy, with a great lead performance by Paul Douglas.

The Blue Veil — A lovely drama that I wouldn’t have known about if not for the Oscar Quest. Jane Wyman is a woman who loses a child and goes to work as a nurse for an infant child of another family. Thus begins many years of her caring for other people’s children. There are a lot of beautiful moments here and it builds to a great conclusion. This is the Mr. Holland’s Opus of 50s dramas. (Or maybe a pseudo, female Goodbye, Mr. Chips.)

A Christmas Carol — This is still the best cinematic version of the story. The alternate versions are all nice — Muppets, Disney, etc — but in terms of straight tellings of the story, this one is still the best. Alastair Sim as Scrooge is iconic. And it looks absolutely stunning.

Come Fill the Cup — A film about alcoholism. Very frank for its era. James Cagney is a drunk newspaper reporter who loses his job and his girlfriend because of his problem. He is taken in by James Gleason, a recovering alcoholic, who helps get him sober. He then begins helping his ex-girlfriend’s new husband to get sober. A really strong film with great performances by Cagney, Gleason and Gig Young. Also features one of the great lines in cinema: “Why don’t you go home?” “Don’t you see? I am home.”

Decision Before Dawn — A fantastic war film that was a Best Picture nominee this year, even though no one remembers it. It’s a World War II spy film that takes place in the waning days of the war, when it’s clear that Germany will lose. A group of German POWs are recruited by the Americans to spy behind German lines. One of those movies you watch and go, “This is really good. How come I didn’t know about this before?” Don’t worry, guys, that’s why I’m here.

Detective Story — Great movie. William Wyler. The entire film takes place over the course of a single day and is almost a play, the way everything weaves back and forth between stories. It takes place in a police precinct. A bunch of different perps and suspects go in and out, but the main story is Kirk Douglas as a crusading detective trying to put a doctor behind bars. The doctor has been performing illegal abortions which led to the death of a woman. He’s obsessed with putting this man away, but what he doesn’t know is that his wife was one of the doctor’s “patients” recently. Outside of that story, there are a lot of nice little vignettes that play out throughout. A really strong film.

Fixed Bayonets! — A badass Sam Fuller war film. It’s about a platoon left to defend a strategic point in Korea. And one by one, all the commanding officers keep dying. It’s mostly about the relationship between the soldiers. It doesn’t try to make a larger point about war, it’s just straightforward and shows you what it’s like to be a soldier.

Fourteen Hours — A great noir. It’s about a dude who stands on a ledge, threatening to kill himself. And he stands up there for (insert title here), as the cops try to talk him down. It’s awesome. Limited in scope, and just a great character piece. One of the hidden gems of the 50s.

The Lavender Hill Mob — A great comedy that earned Alec Guinness his first Oscar nomination. He plays a timid bank clerk who has been a model employee for years. He’s the person in charge of gold bullion shipments. Over his time, he carefully studies how the deliveries go and hatches the perfect plan to steal a bunch of gold and retire. So he enlists a couple of guys to help him and they pull off the robbery, which involves melting them down into miniature Eiffel Tower statues and sneaking them out of the country that way. It’s great. It’s part comedy, part crime. And it totally works. It’s great. And it has one of the great endings of all time. Also directed by Charles Crichton, who directed another famous crime comedy — A Fish Called Wanda.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • Bright Victory
  • The Browning Version
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel
  • The Enforcer
  • Flying Leathernecks
  • The Frogmen
  • The House on Telegraph Hill
  • Jim Thorpe – All-American
  • The Magic Box
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • The Mating Season
  • On Moonlight Bay
  • Operation Pacific
  • People Will Talk
  • Quo Vadis
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Storm Warning
  • Thunder on the Hill
  • The Well

The Magic Box is a very underrated film that I had no idea about until, quite randomly, I heard about it after the movie Hugo came out. I was looking up all the different cinematic references Scorsese used for that (since there are a shit ton), and this movie was mentioned. And I’d never heard of it. And I imagine, most of you still haven’t. Because it’s not all that remembered now. It’s a biopic of William Friese-Greene, who designed one of the earliest film cameras. The film positions him as an inventor who is all about innovation and is constantly left behind by those seeking only profit. He dumps all his own money into the creation of moving pictures. The film is terrific, and the scene where he actually manages to project a film he shot is absolutely wonderful. (It also features a great cameo that I did not notice whatsoever until I saw the credits afterward.) Robert Donat plays Friese-Greene and Richard Attenborough is also in it.

The Well is a race-oriented noir about a black girl who falls into a well while walking to school one morning. No one realizes this, so her disappearance causes racial tensions to run high. People assume she was kidnapped by a white man, and eventually the situation starts to get out of control, as rumors start spreading and violence begins to spread. This is a great movie that goes much deeper than the simple, B movie noir it seems to be. The Frogmen is about Navy divers. It’s the same kind of military film you’d expect. New commanding officer has to win the respect of the men and also lead them on an important mission. Richard Widmark (there he is again) stars, and it’s just a fun movie about a subject you don’t really see. The tagline of this says it’s the story of “Uncle Sam’s Underwater Commandos,” which is just a great term. If this title didn’t include the term “Frogmen” I’d be super pissed it wasn’t called Underwater Commandos.

The Man in the White Suit is a nice satire about Alec Guinness as a chemist who invents a fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out. Though he’s quickly pursued by textile manufacturers, who realize this will be the end of their business if something like this actually gets out there. He’s also pursued by people, who want this fabric for their clothes. This is one of the classic British comedies. The Mating Season is such a fun comedy. Thelma Ritter, in one of her only starring roles, plays the owner of a hamburger stand in New Jersey. Her son marries a socialite in the midwest. She gives up her stand and goes to visit her son. Though once she arrives, his wife mistakes her for the cook she hired. She doesn’t correct her, and ends up cooking for an entire party. Her son finds out and tells his mother to move in with them. Though she tells him she doesn’t want them knowing she’s his mother, because that would only cause problems. Of course, comedy ensues.

On Moonlight Bay is the first of two musicals with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae named after famous songs people sing when drunk. She’s a tomboy who romances the boy next door. It’s fun. It’s a lesser Meet Me in St. Louis. Also starring Leon Ames as the patriarch of the family. Quo Vadis is a big budget religious epic. The 50s are full of these. This one is not CinemaScope, though, which isn’t as fun. This is about a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian woman. And it touches of the persecution of the Christians by the Romans as well as Nero and the burning of Rome and all that stuff. I’m more interested in the Nero stuff than I am the persecution and being fed to the lions stuff. For what it’s worth, the film is lavish and looks nice. Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr star. Peter Ustinov is awesome as Nero.

Bright Victory is a solid drama. Arthur Kennedy is a man blinded by a sniper in World War II and has to come to terms with his new disability. Part of the film involves his befriending a fellow blind man, who is black. Which is great, because it allows him to look past the man’s race and like him for who he is. One of the few times Arthur Kennedy got to play a lead. Death of a Salesman is one of the most famous plays of all time, and this is one of the very few times they ever tried adapting it directly for the screen. It’s pretty much this and the Dustin Hoffman TV version in the 80s. This one has Fredric March as Willy Loman. It’s a solid adaptation, though it does feel a bit stagy and a bit overdone. Still a solid adaptation and a good film. The Red Badge of Courage is a John Huston adaptation of the famous novel. That about covers everything you need to know about it.

The Desert Fox is the story of Rommel (good job, Mike). James Mason plays Rommel. It’s a good film, though it does position Rommel as being ultimately opposed to Nazi tactics and being more of a military tactician only interested in that. Though it does show his participation in the plot against Hitler, which is just dope. Not the only time Mason played Rommel, either. Which is cool. Jim Thorpe — All American… I’m not gonna do it twice in a row. It’s a biopic of Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of all time, and a Native American. Burt Lancaster plays Thorpe, and it’s directed by Michael Curtiz. The Enforcer is a noir and a procedural with Humphrey Bogart as a DA looking to take down Murder Inc. Zero Mostel plays one of the gangsters in this, which is just great.

The Browning Version is about a teacher being forced to retire because of his health who has to come to terms with the fact that just about every one of his coworkers and students hates him. Not to mention, his wife is having an affair. Imagine coming to the end of your career, only to realize you were pretty much a failure the entire way through. That’s what this is about. Flying Leathernecks is a Nicholas Ray war film with John Wayne and Robert Ryan as Air Force pilots involved in the battle of Guadalcanal. Operation Pacific, meanwhile, is a submarine war movie with John Wayne and Patricia Neal. The House on Telegraph Hill is a Robert Wise noir about a woman who escapes a concentration camp with another woman’s identity and heads to America to claim the woman’s inheritance – and her son. Though that gets her embroiled in a bunch of other stuff too. It’s actually a really good movie, with some gorgeous shots of San Francisco.

People Will Talk is an interesting movie with Cary Grand as a character named Dr. Praetorius (which is the same character name as in Bride of Frankenstein, though this has nothing to do with that character). He’s the unorthodox head of a medical school who falls in love with a student who just got pregnant out of wedlock by her boyfriend. It’s an interesting movie. Part comedy, part drama, part romance. I like it. Joseph Mankiewicz wrote and directed it, his first movie after All About Eve. Storm Warning is a noir with Ginger Rogers as a woman visiting her sister who watches some KKK members murder a man. It’s really solid. Thunder on the Hill is a Douglas Sirk noir about a female murderer who ends up being held in a convent hospital due to inclement weather during a prison transfer to death row. Claudette Colbert, the head nurse/nun, becomes convinced the woman is innocent and sets out to find the real killer. It’s an awesome movie. A Douglas Sirk noir. How great is that?

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