Mike’s Top Ten of 1954
1954 is notable for having three of the absolute greatest films ever made in it. Straight up, when people rank the best of the best — these movies will show up within the first 150.
Now’s also a good time to talk about the big elephant in the room as it relates to the 50s — television. The rise of television, coupled with studios having to give up ownership of their theaters meant they were increasingly nervous about the future of their product. (That’s right, this has been going on for years.) So they started making these gimmicks to get people into the theater. First, it was CinemaScope. And Cinerama. And all the different variants. Then it was 3D. There are a bunch of movies that were originally released in 3D spread around the 50s.
The other thing they did was find things TV couldn’t offer, like exotic locations. There was an increasing trend in the 50s of “runaway production,” which was essentially going off and shooting films entirely in other countries. The big one in this era was Italy. A lot of movies were shot on location in Italy in the 50s.
The other thing that happened as a result of TV was the industry changing itself. The studios no longer owned the theaters, so the theatergoing experience wasn’t what it used to be. There wasn’t a double feature, cartoon, newsreel and all that. Since they realized, with TV, people weren’t interested in spending a night out at the movies when they could just stay at home and watch stuff. So instead the studios realized who their new primary audience should be — teenagers. They were the ones with spending money who would want to go out and see the movies. So they changed the theatergoing experience to cater to them. What did that mean? Drive-ins. A lot of movies targeted for younger audiences. B movies. All those campy sci fi flicks teens could sort of watch while hanging out at the drive-in. There’s gonna be an increasing number of those types of films as the decade progresses.
Then, as for the year itself — aside from the big three, there’s a lot of cool shit. I said for one of the previous few years that it felt like cinema had switched entirely over to color. This seems to be that point where it’s clear that color is the norm. There will be notable black-and-white films for the next decade, but you’ll notice that more and more color is gonna be the case for the majority of films.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1954
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
On the Waterfront
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
A Star Is Born
11-20: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Brigadoon, Carmen Jones, Dial M for Murder, Executive Suite, Johnny Guitar, Susan Slept Here, Track of the Cat, Vera Cruz, White Christmas
Tier two: The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, The Barefoot Contessa, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Crime Wave, The Glenn Miller Story, Hell and High Water, The High and the Mighty, Hobson’s Choice, It Should Happen to You, Night People, Phffft, Pushover, River of No Return, She Couldn’t Say No, Silver Lode, Suddenly, Them!, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Three Coins in the Fountain
– – – – – – – – – – –
1. On the Waterfront
“It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night’! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.”
“Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.”
“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”
Masterpiece. That’s the only word you can think of to describe this movie. It’s absolutely perfect.
The film was Elia Kazan’s answer to people who criticized him for “naming names” in front of HUAC. But you don’t even have to watch it with an eye toward that. Because Marlon Brando is so great and so transcendent in this movie, that you can look at it as one man’s struggle against a guilty conscience, trying to do something right in his life after such a raw deal for so long.
Marlon Brando is a former boxer turned dock worker, who works for the corrupt bosses who run the docks and choose who can and cannot work. When some of the men try to stand up to them and form unions, they’re brutally murdered. The beginning of the movie is Brando helping the men murder one of the “stool pigeons.” He then gets a cushy job on the docks for his help. Meanwhile, he begins a relationship with the dead man’s sister, all while a local priest urges the men to stand up against the corruption and testify before a crime commission.
Brando — what more can be said about his performance here? The taxi cab scene is one of the greatest acting scenes of all time. Eva Marie Saint is amazing, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb — there’s not a wasted moment in this film. This is one of the 25 most important American films ever made.
2. Rear Window
“Tell me exactly what you saw and what you think it means.”
You can slice Hitchcock’s career however which way you want — no matter which way you choose, this ends up on the list of his five greatest films. This movie is astounding.
Everyone (should) know the story — Jimmy Stewart is a photographer who breaks his leg and is stuck in his apartment for the summer. He spends his time spying on his neighbors, creating these little fictions about their lives based on what he sees. He’s visited regularly by his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and nurse (Thelma Ritter). Pretty soon, he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife.
This is one of Hitchcock’s style exercises. He gives himself a limited scope with which to work and just plays. This entire movie takes place in Stewart’s apartment. Never once do we leave. The crazy thing about it, though, is that Hitchcock has all these other things happening in the different apartments across the courtyard. So over the course of the film, he actually plots out what each other apartment is supposed to be doing at that time and the continuity is there the entire time. It’s nuts how in control of the entire film he is.
This entire movie is incredible on so many levels. You could spend a month watching this over and over again and finding new things to talk about. It’s one of the absolute greatest films ever made, and for those looking to start in on Hitchcock, this is certainly one of the places to begin. One of those films people are guaranteed to love.
3. Seven Samurai
“The farmers have won. Not us.”
I’d call this Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but that implies that he didn’t make more than one of those.
This is that movie of his that just endures. Everyone loves this movie. As evidenced by — certainly back when I was looking at it (which admittedly hasn’t been for close to a decade), it was in the top ten on the IMDB list of top rated films. I’m sure it’s still somewhere in the top 15.
They’ve remade this movie a bunch, most notably as The Magnificent Seven. Which is great, since Kurosawa was influenced by the western genre when he made this movie. It’s about a village under siege by bandits who go out and hire (insert title here) to protect them.
This movie is in Japanese and is three-and-a-half hours and still is spellbinding to watch. You don’t notice either of those things when you’re watching it. This is one of the greatest films ever made, bar none.
“He’s still David Larrabee, and you’re still the chauffeur’s daughter, and you’re still reaching for the moon.”
“No, father. The moon’s reaching for ME.”
There’s Billy Wilder again. Ten movies for him so far, seven in the top ten. The man is my hero.
This is a romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Hepburn is a chauffeur’s daughter who lives in the servants’ quarters of a large estate owned by a rich family. Bogart and Holden are the two sons of the family. Bogart is the level-headed, responsible one who only has a head for business, and Holden is the playboy. Bogart runs the family business, and Holden goes around, carousing with women and drinking. Hepburn has been in love with Holden since she was a child, but he’s never given her the time of day. One night, after he unwittingly snubs her at a party, she tries to kill herself. It is then decided that she ought to go study abroad. She goes to culinary school in Paris for a few years and comes back way more sophisticated and worldly. (For those who understand Production Code speak, you know what that means.)
Now, upon her return, Holden is smitten with her. He wonders who this beautiful girl was he never noticed. Problem is, Holden is set to marry the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and if the marriage breaks off, so will the merger of the two families’ companies. So Bogart is tasked with keeping Hepburn occupied, essentially getting her to fall for him and not his brother. Which actually leads to the two falling in love for real.
It’s a wonderful film. One of the few times Bogart actually played a romantic lead. He might be somewhat miscast here, but he still gets the job done. Hepburn is great, as always, and Holden is his usual, charming self.
It’s Billy Wilder and these three stars, of course it’s gonna be amazing.
5. The Caine Mutiny
“I don’t want to upset you too much, but at the moment you have an excellent chance of being hanged.”
A double dose of Bogie. When ranking Bogart’s best screen performances, I feel like, no matter what order, the top five have to be: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place, The Caine Mutiny, The Maltese Falcon, and then number five would be either Casablanca, High Sierra or The African Queen. There’s probably room to mess around a bit with #5. But those first four I think are pretty definitive.
This movie is about a new captain to a naval ship (played by Bogart) who is sent to be more of a disciplinarian with the men, who have become a bit relaxed in their duties. And he does get very strict with them. The trouble is, he also starts showing major signs of mental instability, and the men begin to think he’s actually putting them in danger. So they forcibly remove him from command, and face a court martial for their actions. (It’s about one of the most famous mutinies in history. Right up there with the Bounty.)
The movie is terrific. Bogart is amazing, and it’s just one of those great ensemble films that everyone loves. Films about ship crews are usually good, plus you get the drama of Bogart going nuts, and a trial at the end. It’s got everything you’d ever want.
6. A Star Is Born
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
Suddenly you’re older
And all because of the man that got away”
We discussed in the 30s how this is one of the most iconic screen stories ever made. There are now four versions that have been made. This is the second and the most beloved.
Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a young girl who moves from the midwest to make it in Hollywood. There, she meets Norman Maine (played by James Mason), a fading, alcoholic movie star. The two fall in love and he arranges for her to get a screen test with the studio. Pretty soon she is rechristened into the next big star and her stock is rising while her husband’s continues to fade.
This is the full-on musical version of the story, and the entire film is carried by a tour-de-force performance by Judy Garland. Her performance was so good, Groucho Marks referred to her not winning Best Actress this year as ‘the biggest robbery since Brink’s’. You watch this movie in awe of how good she is. And James Mason more than holds his own opposite her. Though, understandably so, this is not his movie.
This film is a classic and needs to be seen by anyone who claims to love movies. Come for the story, stay for Judy Garland’s masterful work in that story.
7. Magnificent Obsession
“Don’t get excited. Not today.”
“May I… May I get excited tomorrow?”
“And you’ll be with me?”
“Yes, darling. I’ll be with you tomorrow.”
This is where Douglas Sirk became the filmmaker everyone knew him as. He’d been working in the U.S. for a decade, making thrillers and black-and-white melodramas, eventually moving into comedy during the early 50s. But from here through the end of the decade (when he ultimately left America), he made Technicolor melodramas that are among the greatest and most famous films ever made within the genre.
This film was originally made in the 30s, but this is the definitive version. It’s about Jane Wyman as the wife of the town doctor, and Rock Hudson as a rich, irresponsible playboy. Hudson crashes his speedboat on the lake after drunkenly taking some women for a spin and the emergency medical equipment is sent to save him. However, at that moment, Wyman’s husband has a heart attack and dies. They could have saved him, but the equipment they needed was saving Hudson. So the town doctor, who everyone loves, is dead, and Hudson, the rich guy no one can stand, lives. He soon realizes what happens and feels terrible. He tries to make amends, but this leads to an accident where Wyman is blinded. Hudson then decides to change his ways, and goes off to become a successful surgeon. He then returns, years later, and secretly tries to help her. Naturally, they fall in love, etc.
It’s such a wonderful film. Sirk really manages to bring out the melodrama with his use of color and staging. It’s wonderful. Even people who think they hate melodramas end up loving these movies. There are four movies Sirk made in the 50s that are all-time great films. This is only the start of the fun.
8. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
The greatest musical about Stockholm Syndrome ever made. (Though I guess some would argue Beauty and the Beast also fits that model. I would argue this one is more directly about Stockholm Syndrome in the traditional sense of the term.) There’s no earthly reason why I should love this film. But I do.
It’s about a woodsman who comes to town to find a wife. Within a few hours, he finds himself engaged to a woman. He returns with her to his cabin, and she gets introduced to his six brothers. The six then get the idea, “Hey, we should get wives too!” So they go into town and essentially kidnap six women and take them back to the cabin. Naturally, the women and their families don’t take too kindly to this arrangement. However, an avalanche covers the pass to their cabin, so the women are stuck in the cabin with all the brothers (and their families are stuck on the other side of the pass) until spring when the snow can thaw. And over the course of the winter, the women all warm up to the men and eventually decide they really do want to marry them.
It’s nuts. It’s actually about Stockholm Syndrome. But it’s awesome. Such a fun musical. And it looks great. Stanley Donen directed this. One of the classic musicals of all time. It was even nominated for Best Picture this year!
9. The Country Girl
“The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won’t happen again.”
I love this movie. Generally not well remembered outside of being the movie that won Grace Kelly her Oscar (in a very contentious category where she won over Judy Garland for the aforementioned A Star Is Born), but it’s great. I mean, it’s cynical, and very misogynist, but it’s still a really great movie.
William Holden is the director of a new musical who wants to cast Bing Crosby as the lead. Crosby is a fading star who is an unhireable alcoholic. Holden convinces his backers to put Crosby in the show, because he would actually be perfect for it. Though the question remains if he can actually handle the workload without falling off the wagon.
Crosby begins preparing for the role, and brings along his wife, Grace Kelly. Holden immediately takes a disliking to her, finding her cold and demanding, and exerting an influence over her husband that’s draining his confidence. He thinks she’s the reason for his problems. Some of this is due to his bitterness from a recent divorce, and some of it is due to an attraction to her. Though we soon find out there’s a lot more going on there than we thought.
It’s really great. Kelly is incredible, and this is the best dramatic work of Bing Crosby’s career. He’s wonderful. Holden is his usual great self. I just really love this movie. It feels more realistic than most films of this era. The dialogue feels one step away from people actually swearing at one another.
This is definitely one of those gems that’s out there that people really don’t watch as often as they should.
10. La Strada
“When you are born and when you die… Who knows? I don’t know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if its useless, everything is useless. So are the stars!”
Federico Fellini. He’ll be appearing a bunch more on these lists.
This movie won the very first category for Best Foreign Language Film. They’d been handing out honorary awards for about a decade, but this was the first time they put a category together. So this is the first Foreign Language winner to win in competition. (Humorously enough, the second movie to win in competition was Nights of Cabiria.)
Giulietta Masina is a naive girl sold by her mother to work with Anthony Quinn, a strongman working with a traveling circus. She’s very much a playful pixie of a woman, and Quinn is the exact opposite of that. He’s a brute, harsh and cruel. Pretty soon he begins to mentally and physically dominate her and put her through such awful treatment.
Anthony Quinn is always wonderful, and Masina (Fellini’s actual wife) absolutely shines here. This is the first film that showed just how great she is on the screen. (Nights of Cabiria is her definitive performance, but this was definitely one of those situations where everyone who saw this went, “Whoa, she’s great.”)
This movie is so good. Generally the two best Fellini movies are agreed upon, but I think this might be my third favorite. It’s really good.
– – – – – – – – – –
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — One of the great adventure films of the 50s. Captain Nemo and his ship, all that good stuff. James Mason plays Nemo and Kirk Douglas is the main character who encounters him. A lot of fun, 50s special effects. These movies are always fun.
Brigadoon — One of the great musicals. A fantasy about two Americans (Gene Kelly and Van Johnson) in Scotland who get lost and come upon a mythical village that only appears once every hundred years. The people there can never leave, or else the village will vanish forever. Kelly falls in love with Cyd Charisse, one of the villagers, and has to decide whether or not he wants to stay in the village forever. I love this movie.
Carmen Jones — This is a big budget all-black musical and one of the most important films of the 50s. It’s a remake of Carmen, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. It’s great. Otto Preminger directed it, too. Shot in CinemaScope, and it looks fantastic.
Dial M for Murder — One of the great second tier Hitchcock films. (Second, because the first tier is shit like Vertigo and Rear Window. His second tier would be most people’s best films.) He shot it in 3D. Ray Milland is married to Grace Kelly. But when he finds out she’s been having an affair, he plans to murder her. There are a lot of great twists and turns here, and this is one of those movies everyone enjoys because it’s so well made.
Executive Suite — What a great movie. One of those I first found out about because of a stray Oscar nomination. Robert Wise directed this. It’s about the president of a corporation who dies suddenly of a heart attack. Since he never named a successor, everyone in his company scrambles to figure out what to do. And all the top contenders start maneuvering to get the votes from the board to be named the new president. It’s great. Stars William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch, Shelley Winters and June Allyson. Talk about an all-star cast.
Johnny Guitar — One of the great westerns. This is one of those movies a lot of people will see and go, “What the hell was that?” And for other people, it’s as masterpiece. Directed by Nicholas Ray, which should give you a hint, the title is misleading. Since the film isn’t about Johnny Guitar (who is played by Sterling Hayden). The film is about the women. Namely Joan Crawford. She owns a saloon and has a pretty contentious relationship with everyone else in her town, many of whom (led by Mercedes McCambridge) keep trying to throw her out. Then into town rides Hayden, a former gunslinger and former lover of Crawford’s. Things… escalate from there. It’s not really a western. The western is subtext to a lot of other things. It’s a difficult film, and it’ll be easy for some people to dismiss it upon initial viewing. But make no mistake about it — this movie is great. It’s so much fun. This is the kind of movie that helped create the camp sensibilities of someone like Ryan Murphy.
Susan Slept Here — A fun rom com with Debbie Reynolds as a juvenile delinquent. She’s arrested for vagrancy and, rather than have her spend Christmas in a jail cell, the cop decides to be nice. She drops him off at Dick Powell’s apartment. He’s a screenwriter who’s had writer’s block since he won an Oscar. Comedy and romance ensue (and the age difference thing is only slightly creepy).
Track of the Cat — This movie is awesome. It’s a psychological western based on a book by the author who also wrote The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s about a bunch of family drama playing out in the mountains amongst a giant snowstorm an a panther that’s killing the family’s cattle. William Wellman directed it. Robert Mitchum stars, with Teresa Wright, Tab Hunter, Beulah Bondi and Alfalfa!
Vera Cruz — Classic western loaded with stars and directed by Robert Aldrich. First off, here’s who’s in this movie: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Cesar Romero. It’s about a group of guys in Mexico who are paid money to escort a countess to (insert title here). But along the way, they discover they’re traveling with a shit ton of gold, and plan to steal it. One of the later, Mexican Revolution westerns. This is where the genre went after there was nowhere west for them to venture.
White Christmas — Based on the most unintentionally racist Christmas song ever written. The film was originally written for the movie Holiday Inn, and this is a sort of spiritual sequel to that film. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a team act, and they meet Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, a sister act. The couples fall in love while trying to help their former commanding officer keep his failing New England inn afloat over the holidays. It’s an absolutely stunning film, and was shot in Paramount’s VistaVision. It looks gorgeous, and is just a fun holiday movie.
– – – – – – – – – –
- The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
- The Barefoot Contessa
- The Bridges at Toko-Ri
- Creature from the Black Lagoon
- Crime Wave
- The Glenn Miller Story
- Hell and High Water
- The High and the Mighty
- Hobson’s Choice
- It Should Happen to You
- Night People
- River of No Return
- She Couldn’t Say No
- Silver Lode
- There’s No Business Like Show Business
- Three Coins in the Fountain
We begin with two Jack Lemmon/Judy Holliday comedies. The first is It Should Happen to You, where Holliday plays a woman who wants to be famous, so she takes out billboards with her name on it across the city. Naturally, everyone becomes fascinated by who she is and starts seeking her out. The second, Phffft! (yes, titled after the sound), is about Lemmon and Holliday as a couple who divorce but can’t seem to meet other people. They’re both very fun.
Suddenly is an awesome noir. Frank Sinatra leads a band of assassins in an assassination attempt on the president, who is about to stop in a small town for a short time. He takes refuge in a house on a hill, with a perfect line of sight, holding the family who owns it hostage until the job is done. Sterling Hayden plays a local sheriff who starts to suspect something is wrong. It’s a nice little gem of a film. Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the great horror/monster/sci fi films of all time. It’s really just about a fish creature who wants to get laid. Who are we to deny him that right?
Night People is an awesome movie. It’s about a soldier that gets kidnapped in Berlin. Gregory Peck is the officer assigned to investigate, and has to use all his contacts to figure out where the kid is and help get him out safely. Broderick Crawford is the kid’s father who arrogantly tries to use his money and contacts to help as well, not realizing that’s not how these things are done in Berlin. Really like this one. Them! is a sci-fi movie with giant nuclear ants. River of No Return is an Otto Preminger western with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. He’s a farmer just released from prison who is reunited with his son. They go river rafting and soon pick up Monroe, a singer involved with a ne’er-do-well. The boyfriend soon steals Mitchum’s stuff, sending the three on a journey together. It’s good. Not a masterpiece but every solid entertainment.
Pushover is a B movie version of Double Indemnity, essentially. Fred MacMurray plays the same role, though as a cop instead of an insurance agent. Kim Novak (in her first role) plays the Stanwyck part. After a bank robbery, MacMurray and his partner are sent to stake out Novak, the girlfriend of one of the robbers, in order to retrieve the money. While watching her, MacMurray falls in love with her. She then persuades him to kill her boyfriend and make off with her and the money. What’s nice about the film is that it takes place almost entirely within a single apartment building. You can’t hear the title There’s No Business Like Show Business without hearing Ethel Merman sing the song. The film itself is a fun musical that looks great that also features Marilyn Monroe. Three Coins in the Fountain is a rom com about three American girls in Rome who all find romance. Nominated for Best Picture this year and a good example of the increasing prominence of runaway productions of the 50s and 60s — films shot on location, showing off exotic locations. Rome in particular was a major location for these films. The film is in CinemaScope and looks stunning.
The Barefoot Contessa is Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. He’s a film director and she’s a carefree dancer who he convinces to star in his next movie. They become fast friends, and she gets mixed up with two different men who both vie for her affection. The Bridges at Toko-Ri is about a bunch of Navy pilots sent to bomb some North Korean bridges. It stars William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Robert Strauss and Mickey Rooney. Solid war film. Crime Wave is a noir about a parolee whose former cellmate comes to him asking for help after a robbery. Features a young Charles Bronson and Sterling Hayden as the parole officer. The Glenn Miller Story is a biopic of the famous bandleader, played here by Jimmy Stewart. June Allyson plays his wife, and it was directed by Anthony Mann. Lotta cameos by famous jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa.
Hell and High Water is a Sam Fuller film about a submarine crew that tries to find a secret Chinese nuclear site and help stop a communist plot to start World War III. It’s cool. Shot in CinemaScope and takes place mostly within submarines. Richard Widmark stars. Hobson’s Choice is a David Lean film with Charles Laughton as a Scrooge-type figure who refuses to let his daughters get married because they’re essentially free labor for him to run his business. The High and the Mighty is essentially Airport, with a focus on the melodrama rather than the disaster aspects. Though it is very much a disaster movie. A bunch of people take a flight from Hawaii to San Francisco (unfortunately, no snakes), and we follow all their lives during the flight, until the plane develops engine problems, and John Wayne has to land it safely. William Wellman directed it, and also in it are Claire Trevor, Jan Sterling, Robert Stack and John Qualen.
She Couldn’t Say No is a rom com with Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum. She’s a rich woman who feels gratitude for the residents of a small town who helped her when she was a child. She was sick and needed an operation and the town got together and raised the money for it. Now, she wants to give back by quietly donating money to everyone. The only person who has a problem with it is Robert Mitchum, the town doctor, who realizes the problems a sudden influx of money to these people will cause. And romance ensues. Silver Lode is basically a B movie version of High Noon. John Payne plays the Cooper role and Dan Duryea plays the villain role. Nice bonus: Duryea’s character is a thinly veiled allusion to Joseph McCarthy. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a Luis Bunuel adaptation of the Defoe novel. Who thought you’d ever hear those words?
– – – – – – – – – –