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Mike’s Top Ten of 1953

My favorite year of the 50s. 1953 has such amazing movies that are so near and dear to my heart. It just makes me happy to think about it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the strongest year of the 50s, though I think it does make a solid case for itself as such. There are some all-time great films in this year.

What I love about this top ten list in particular is how it’s full of great directors. The top ten has films from Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Sam Fuller, George Stevens, Vincente Minnelli, Fred Zinnemann and Howard Hawks. Not only that, but they’re all classic films of theirs. These are films that are among people’s favorite films of all time. And on top of that, there are two films on here that are such gems and films that I love so much that it makes me happy just to think that they’re here.

I really love 1953.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1953

The Band Wagon

From Here to Eternity

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Lili

Little Fugitive

Pickup on South Street

Roman Holiday

Shane

Stalag 17

The Wages of Fear

11-20: The Earrings of Madame de…, Houdini, How to Marry a Millionaire, Island in the Sky, The Moon Is Blue, The Naked Spur, Peter Pan, The Robe, Tokyo Story, Trouble Along the Way

Tier two: All I Desire, Beat the Devil, The Big Heat, Big Leaguer, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, Forever Female, The Glass Wall, Hondo, House of Wax, Jeopardy, Julius Caesar, Man in the Attic, Mogambo, Niagara, Titanic, Ugestu Monogatari, Vice Squad, The War of the Worlds, The Wild One, Young Bess

– – – – – – – – – – –

1. Roman Holiday

“The best thing I know is to do exactly what you wish for a while.”

This is the greatest romance ever made. Hands down. There is nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise. This movie is perfect and there has never been anything made in the genre that comes anywhere near this.

Audrey Hepburn is a princess on a European tour of sorts. She’s now in Rome, and is very, very bored with her situation. Here she is, going to all these world capitals, but she never actually gets to see any of them. She’s stuck in all these stuffy rooms meeting all these stuffy people. She longs to get away and actually enjoy the places she visits. So one night, she sneaks out. She encounters Gregory Peck, an American reporter. He quickly realizes he’s got the princess with him. Everyone else thinks she’s taken ill. So he hides her and pretends to be a guide for her, showing her around Rome, meanwhile he’s secretly planning to get the scoop of her sneaking out all for himself. However, along the way romance ensues.

I’m not kidding when I say this movie is perfect. This is one of those movies where, if someone doesn’t like this, I immediately find them suspect. I’ll say “they don’t make them quite like this anymore,” but in this case, I could not mean it any more. They do not come any better than this movie.

If I were given that crazy ultimatum decision where I could only have a finite number of movies to have with me, this would be on that list. It’s that good.

2. Stalag 17

“There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it.”

Billy Wilder again.

For those keeping score, this is ninth film. Six of them are top ten films. Two are 11-20. And only one didn’t make my list at all. ONE. (Spoiler alert: there are gonna be a lot more top tens of his to come.)

This is a POW film. It takes place entirely within a German POW camp. It could be a play. It was a play. It’s about soldiers who constantly try to escape, but are constantly thwarted. They begin to suspect they have a traitor in their midst. Suspicion immediately falls on William Holden, the man in the camp who can get anything for people but who is openly out for himself and no one else. Because he’s a loner and doesn’t hang out with the men, they assume he must be the traitor.

This movie is great. But it’s Billy Wilder, so that goes without saying. Holden won an Oscar for the film. This is one of the great war films of all time, and one of Billy Wilder’s best.

3. The Wages of Fear

One of the most thrilling movies ever made. This holds up better than almost anything that comes out nowadays.

In case the plot I’m about to tell you sounds familiar, William Friedkin remade it as Sorcerer, which is, in its own way, also an incredible movie. I prefer this version, but they’re both tremendous films.

It’s about a group of men in South America who are hired to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerine immediately to help put out an oil fire. However, because it’s an emergency, they don’t have time to load up the trucks with all the equipment that will make the journey safe. So these men are basically driving explosives over rocky terrain in the hot sun and hoping they don’t blow up.

It’s AMAZING. If you haven’t seen this movie and you’re reading these articles looking for stuff to watch, put this movie on immediately. One of the great thrillers of all time.

4. The Band Wagon

“It might be a fight like you see on the screen
A swain getting slain for the love of a queen
Some great Shakespearean scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat.

The guy who was waving the flag
That began with the mystical hand
Hip hooray! The American way
The world is a stage; the stage is a world of entertainment!”

One of my absolute favorite musicals. I love this movie so, so much.

This was, in effect, Fred Astaire’s answer to Singin’ in the Rain. Between An American in Paris and the centerpiece dance of Singin’ in the Rain, Astaire tried to one-up Kelly with the climactic sequence in this film.

The film is also one of the more interesting musicals ever made, because it’s presented in flashback. I’m not sure why it’s presented in flashback, but it adds a certain amount of melancholy that’s just not associated with the genre.

The film begins after Fred Astaire’s death. His will is being read and his possessions are being bequeathed. And one of the items is his top hat and gloves, which then brings us into a flashback that is essentially the rest of the film. We never come back to the framing device. And that, to me, is fascinating, because it adds a layer of depth and genre complexity that you normally see in westerns and things of that sort. The musical doesn’t really have that kind of paradigm shift. The western did have that period where it became about looking into the past, and the dying of the western heroes — the Butch and Sundance days, near the end. But the musical, it’s very strange that this decided to go there. But anyway, that’s the least of the film.

Astaire plays a fading star looking to make a comeback. He embarks on a comeback show written by his friends. Though they hire a pretentious director, known for doing heavy dramas, to do this light musical. And then, to make matters worse, the show’s leading lady, Cyd Charisse, can’t stand Astaire, and vice versa. And all this leads to disaster, as the show becomes one big mess. Though pretty soon everyone’s simpler, “put on a show” instincts kick in, and they turn it into a fun, rollicking good time, complete with great musical numbers.

The climax of the film is, essentially, a noir musical. Called “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” the film is about Astaire as a detective, working through a seedy underworld and encountering a femme fatale played by Charisse. Clearly an influence on the “Smooth Criminal” video, it’s an incredible piece of song and dance, and ranks up among the best of Astaire’s screen work.

This movie is best known for the use of the song “That’s Entertainment,” which became a musical standard. the color design of this movie is outstanding, and any movie where Cyd Charisse dances is all right by me. I can’t explain why I love this movie, but I really, really do. And I’ll put this on over just about any other musical out there.

This movie also contains one of my favorite in-jokes of all time. Astaire and Charisse are taking a carriage ride through Central Park. And they’re in the carriage and the camera is in a two-shot on them. And the park is shown in process shot behind them. It’s so obviously a process shot too. Which was the norm at the time. But Astaire, rather than let it slide, looks over and goes, “Oh look, trees!” The first time I heard that, I lost my shit. I’ve never seen someone point out the artificiality of the process shot like he did. It’s absolutely hilarious to me that he did that. One of my favorite screen moments of all time.

5. Lili

“A song of love is a sad song
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo
A song of love is a song of woe
Don’t ask me how I know
A song of love is a sad song
For I have loved and it’s so
I sit at the window and watch the rain
Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo”

One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made in my time as a hardcore movie buff. I talk this movie up like crazy any time it comes up.

The story behind it is — I was in the middle of my Oscar Quest and was knocking out six, seven movies a day. And I put this movie on, knowing absolutely nothing about it except that Leslie Caron was nominated for it. She was going up against Audrey Hepburn, so I knew I wasn’t really gonna take the performance seriously as a contender in my head, so I had this dismissive attitude toward it. “It’ll just be something I watch to finish off the category.” But then I put it on, and within fifteen minutes was absolutely enchanted by it.

Caron plays a naive young girl who shows up at seaside French town after the death of her father. She’s come to work for a baker her father knew, only to find out the baker died a few days prior. So now, she’s wandering around, with no place to go, and happens upon some circus folk, whose traveling show is in town at the moment. She follows them and they, taking pity on her, get her a job as a waitress in one of the tents. She ends up getting fired because she becomes more interested in watching the shows than doing her job.

Though, in her despair, she ends up talking to the puppets in the puppet show. And she begins talking to them as if they’re real. Almost as if she doesn’t realize there’s someone behind the curtain, operating them. And this is endearing to everyone else, so they hire her to become part of the show. And it’s like the actors on Sesame Street, interacting with the puppets. Meanwhile, she’s in love with the circus magician, and he doesn’t know she exists, meanwhile the man behind the curtain of the puppets begins falling for her. And there are these wonderful fantasy sequences interspersed throughout — I love this movie so much.

This is one of those movies that I wouldn’t vehemently push on anyone to watch, because I feel like not everyone is gonna get as into it as I did. But it is a really great movie and was nominated for six Oscars. (And given the year it came out, that’s impressive.) This is one of those movies that I wish someone remastered and put out on Blu-Ray, because I’d love to see this in its full glory.

For something I didn’t know existed — and something I know most of you don’t know exists — this is an absolute joy of a movie and I’m so glad it’s in my life.

5. From Here to Eternity

“A man loves a thing that don’t mean it’s gotta love him back.”

This movie just exudes class. It’s what you think about when you think of the phrase Best Picture.

It’s about dramas that play out among a group soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor in the days leading up to World War II. Montgomery Clift is a soldier who fought on his last unit’s boxing team, but now refuses to fight after accidentally killing his last opponent in the ring. As such, the officers punish him for refusing to fight and make his life a living hell. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra is a happy-go-lucky soldier who runs afoul of the officer who runs the stockade, and Burt Lancaster is the C.O.’s second in command and aide, who begins having an affair with Deborah Kerr, the C.O.’s wife. (Leading to the image above, one of the most famous in the history of cinema.)

It’s a terrific film. One of those classics that’s just a great watch. Top stars, well-directed by Fred Zinnemann (coming off High Noon, too). An all around great film.

7. Shane

“Shane. Shane! Come back!”

One of the most iconic westerns ever made. George Stevens made another great one (big surprise).

Alan Ladd is a gunfighter who rides into a small town and protects the homesteaders against a greedy cattle baron who wants to take their land away. The baron has hired Jack Palance, a gunman, to intimidate the homesteaders into selling their land. Meanwhile, Ladd is staying with one family and decides to help them out. He forms a close bond with the family and tries to live a simpler life, but is called into action when Palance’s tactics get way too violent.

The ending of this movie is fantastic. Unintentionally funny, but also very great for those into the western genre. There’s so much to talk about and unpack in this movie. The homoerotic tree stump removal scene being one of those things.

8. Pickup on South Street

“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”

Sam Fuller. The man made gritty, badass movies.

This is a straight up noir, and one of the best. Richard Widmark (there he is again) is a pickpocket who lifts what he thinks is some money from a woman on the train. Little does he know, it’s a message that’s supposed to go to enemy agents of a secret Communist spy ring. And now he’s a wanted man.

Widmark is great, as is Thelma Ritter. This is my favorite Thelma Ritter performance (and, strangely, the first time I ever saw her on screen). It’s one of Fuller’s best films and an all-around classic. This feels like a solid little gem for people to see that most people won’t have necessarily gotten to. This tends to be a good bet for me to recommend to people. They likely haven’t seen it, may or may not know about it, and are almost guaranteed to love it.

9. Little Fugitive

“What did you run away for? It was only a joke!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”

This is right up my alley on so many levels.

First off, this is a true independent movie shot in 1953. You know how rare that is? This movie is shot on real streets with real people all around, with handheld cameras with a verité style you just don’t see in the studio era. And to boot, the main stars of the movie are children.

It’s about two brothers in Brooklyn whose mother leaves for the day to go visit a sick relative. (Which is totally a New York thing to do. “I’m going to visit your grandmother. Stay near the house and be inside by 6 o’clock.”) The older brother wants to hang out with his friends, and the younger brother won’t leave them alone. So the brother and the friends devise a prank whereby the younger brother thinks he got the older brother killed because of something he did. Distraught, the younger brother runs away. He goes to Coney Island, and spends the day there. Meanwhile, the older brother has to rush to find him and get him back before Mom comes home and whips both their hides.

It’s such an amazing movie. This is the French New Wave before the French New Wave. The kids are not actors, the streets are real, and it feels entirely like real life. This film, as relatively unknown as it is now, is one of the most groundbreaking and important films in the history of American cinema.

10. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

“The French are glad to die for love
They delight in fighting duels
But I prefer a man who lives
And gives expensive jewels
A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend”

Most people early on in their movie watching will find themselves coming across this very quickly. It cross lists with just about everything else that you like.

To start, it’s a Howard Hawks film. And it’s one of Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic performances. Arguably the one that launched her into the stratosphere. It’s also Jane Russell’s most famous performance. And you get Charles Coburn to boot. Plus not only is it hilarious, it features one of the most famous musical numbers of all time, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (pictured above).

Russell and Monroe are showgirls. Monroe really only wants a rich husband who can buy her things and is engaged to some milquetoast. She gets on a boat to France for work, and is followed by a private detective hired by the guy’s father, who doesn’t think Monroe actually is in love with his son. Meanwhile the private detective falls for Russell, who has her eye on an Olympic team that’s sailing with them. And hilarity ensues.

It’s such a great movie. It looks gorgeous. Look at that screenshot. The late 30s and this period right here are when Technicolor (though at some point it became Eastman Color) looked the best on the screen.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

The Earrings of Madame de… — One of the great foreign films ever made. Possibly Max Ophuls’ best film. (I guess that would make it his… magnum Ophuls!) (I regret nothing.) It’s about a pair of earrings who go from owner to owner, and all the dramas that play out among the people in possession of them. It’s an amazing film. Actually one of the greatest movies ever made. This is #11 for this year and only misses the top ten due to lack of space and probably due to my not having seen it as recently as the other films above it.

Houdini — A biopic of Harry Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It’s fun.

How to Marry a Millionaire — Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable. They set out to marry rich guys, but instead find true love. Really enjoyable rom com that was one of the films that helped launch Monroe to stardom. One of the first films shot in CinemaScope.

Island in the Sky — One of my favorite hidden gems of the 50s. William Wellman film with John Wayne. It’s about a transport plane that has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Canadian arctic. Wayne is a pilot who has to find the ship before the men inside freeze to death. It’s terrific. I really like this film a lot. In another year this might have made a top ten.

The Moon Is Blue — One of the films that helped take down the Production Code. They weren’t gonna allow it to be released with a seal because of its frank conversations about sex and virginity, and Otto Preminger decided to release the film without a seal. Naturally that helped skyrocket its business, but it struck a crucial blow to the Code because it meant people were willing to release (and go see) a film without a stamp of approval. The film itself is about Maggie McNamara, a virgin, who is sought after by both William Holden and David Niven. I enjoy the film on its own. It’s not a classic. But it is still pretty important, historically.

The Naked Spur — Probably the greatest of the Anthony Mann psychological westerns. One of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances, too. Stewart is tracking Robert Ryan, who is wanted for murder, and obsessively chases after him, seemingly more for personal revenge than the reward and quest for justice. It’s a fantastic movie. It looks gorgeous and was shot entirely outdoors without any real sets. One of the great westerns of all time. There’s only like five actors in the entire film, too. Stewart, Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell.

Peter Pan — A classic. Still one of the most racist movies Disney’s ever made, but still a classic.

The Robe — The first narrative feature released in CinemaScope. Part of the Roman/religious epics craze of the 50s. Also a big influence on the general plot of Hail, Caesar! (the fake one, not the actual movie). Richard Burton is a roman soldier who doesn’t feel one way or the other about the Christians. But then he attends the crucifixion of Jesus and, after being wracked with guilt over Jesus’ death, he comes across a piece of Jesus’s shroud, and becomes a Christian (in a scene I still consider one of the most over the top, hilarious moments of all time. Wait til you see it. It’s like he just encountered a face hugger. I get that’s not what it’s about, but it’s still hysterical to me).

Tokyo Story — Generally listed among the top of the top when discussing the greatest films ever made. Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece. Broadly based on Make Way for Tomorrow, it’s about an elderly couple whose children no longer have time for them. It’s an incredible film.

Trouble Along the Way — Love this movie. A John Wayne family comedy. He’s a football coach at a university trying to raise a daughter on his own. Meanwhile, he’s gotta fight his ex-wife for custody and is in the middle of a recruiting scandal. Michael Curtiz directs, Donna Reed plays the social worker and love interest, and Charles Coburn plays the head of the college. With those names, I think you can feel pretty good about this one.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • All I Desire
  • Beat the Devil
  • The Big Heat
  • Big Leaguer
  • By the Light of the Silvery Moon
  • Dream Wife
  • Forever Female
  • The Glass Wall
  • Hondo
  • House of Wax
  • Jeopardy
  • Julius Caesar
  • Man in the Attic
  • Mogambo
  • Niagara
  • Titanic
  • Ugestu
  • Vice Squad
  • The War of the Worlds
  • The Wild One

Beat the Devil is such a fun film. Directed by John Huston and written by Huston and Truman Capote. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Gina Lollobrigida and Bernard Lee. The entire film was shot on location in Italy. And it’s a parody of crime dramas like The Maltese Falcon. The movie was basically written as they shot it, so it’s essentially a bunch of people on vacation in Italy who happen to be making a film. (Kind of like how Ocean’s Twelve was.) It’s about a bunch of con artists and such who are all trying to get rich. It’s a lot of fun. But the key is to realize it’s not taking itself seriously.

Ugetsu is a masterpiece of foreign cinema and generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. It’s about two men whose desire for wealth only cause them tragedy. It is a really great film. Plus a dude ends up fucking a ghost. So there’s that, too.

The Big Heat is one of the great noirs of all time. Directed by Fritz Lang, it has Glenn Ford as a cop who takes on a crime syndicate after his wife is murdered. Also starring Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. It’s great. Julius Caesar is the best version of Shakespeare’s play put to screen. It’s directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and has Re Harrison as Caesar, Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus. It’s loaded with stars, too. John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, Louis Calhern and Edmund O’Brien. This is a movie that further shows just how amazing Brando was. Because he was both an amazing actor but also known as a “mumbler.” None of that here. That dude could act. Vice Squad is a fun noir with Edward G. Robinson as a police captain solving all the cases put in front of him. That’s pretty much it. Really entertaining, and it has Paulette Goddard in it too.

Titanic is about some sort of major boat event. No one really remembers it now. And they definitely didn’t remake it 44 years later into a major film that everyone knows. It’s mostly a melodrama with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as a couple with marital problems who happen to be aboard the ship. It’s not directly about the sinking of the ship (even though it clearly is). There’s also a bunch of other big-name actors involved, like Robert Wagner, Thelma Ritter, Brian Aherne and Richard Basehart. The Wild One is an incredibly iconic film. Everyone know that image of Marlon Brando on the motorcycle. Less people could tell you specifically what this movie is about. Really all you need to know is that it’s motorcycle gangs. But still. It’s more about the image of Brando than the actual film. Though the film is a lot of fun. Lee Marvin plays the rival gang leader.

The Glass Wall is a noir about a stowaway on a ship to New York. He says he should be allowed to stay because he helped the allies during the war. Though he doesn’t know anything about the man he saved other than his first name and the fact that he was a paratrooper. They prepare to send him back to Europe, and he runs away. And the rest of the film is him on the run, trying to track the man down who can prove who he is. It’s a really solid film. Man in the Attic is a remake of The Lodger. Jack Palance is a mysterious man who rents the attic of a boarding house, and the couple who owns the house begins to suspect he may actually be Jack the Ripper. Directed by Hugo Fregonese, who made a handful of great noirs. One image I will never forget from this film is Jack Palance frantically driving a horse-drawn carriage, looking like an insane person. The War of the Worlds is one of the most sci fi films ever made. Yeah, people know the remake, but this is the classic version. They’re both good.

Mogambo is John Ford’s remake of Red Dust, from 1932. Both movies star Clark Gable as a game hunter who gets caught between two women. Here, it’s Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. It’s good. Looks great, lots of sex, and great performances by its actors. Jeopardy is a really fun noir. Barbara Stanwyck is on vacation with her family in Mexico when her husband gets trapped under a piece of wood that no one can move. And then the tide starts coming in. So she’s got to rush to find help for him before he drowns. Though the only person she can get to help is a man on the run from police. Niagara is one of the movies that launched Marilyn Monroe to superstardom. It’s a thriller. She and Joseph Cotten play one of a pair of couples on vacation in Niagara Falls. Things quickly escalate into murder.

Big Leaguer is a fun Robert Aldrich B movie with Edward G. Robinson as a baseball scout evaluating young talent to see if they’re worthy of signing. And the film is him scouting a bunch of people, trying to pick out which one is best. For you theater fans, this is the baseball version of A Chorus Line. It’s only 70 minutes, and it’s really entertaining. Forever Female is a Ginger Rogers movie about an aging actress who refuses to admit she’s too old to play the ingenue anymore. William Holden is a playwright who has written a play with roles for a mother and daughter. Rogers wants to play the daughter and refuses to admit that she’s more suited to play the mother role. It’s a nice romantic comedy. By the Light of the Silvery Moon is the sequel to On Moonlight Bay. It continues the story of Doris Day and Gordon MacRae. Another fun, Technicolor musical. No more, no less.

Hondo is so great. It is a 3D western that is only 80 minutes long, yet features an intermission. This probably means nothing to most of  you, but for me that’s the entire selling point and reason for recommending the movie. It stars Geraldine Page (in her first screen role) as a woman trying to protect her ranch and young son from Indians and outlaws. Meanwhile, John Wayne rides in to help her. Though we slowly find out that Wayne may have actually murdered her husband, and that’s why he’s there. All I Desire is a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Barbara Stanwyck is a woman who abandoned her family in order to follow her dream of becoming an actress. She returns, ten years later, after her daughter invites her to a school play she’s in. It doesn’t have the depth that his later films would have, but it’s very good in its own right.

House of Wax is a remake of Mystery at the Wax Museum from 1933. It’s in full Technicolor and looks great. Vincent Price is a sculptor of beautiful wax museum portraits whose business partner burns the museum down to collect on the insurance. Though this almost kills Price, who was working inside. Price surfaces, years after being presumed dead, with these absolutely vivid portraits of famous figures. Though people start to figure out that those max not be entirely wax figures. He may be abducting and murdering people who look like his subjects and turning them into the statues. It’s fun. Also a movie shot in 3D. Dream Wife is a romance with Cary Grand and Deborah Kerr.  They’re a couple who break off their engagement because he wants to get married and she’s business-minded. He then meets an Indian princess and becomes engaged to her. Though Kerr, a diplomat, is then sent to make sure the marriage doesn’t screw up some political dealings with the princess’s country, so she gets in there and begins educating the princess about women’s emancipation and all that stuff she knows will piss off Grant. It’s fun.

– – – – – – – – – –

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