Mike’s Top Ten of 1955
Well, I guess there’s really only one thing to discuss for 1955 — James Dean.
Not necessarily Dean himself, though he did have an amazing, brief career, with three all-time classics as his only features in which he starred. We need to talk about both what he represents — method acting, the teen culture of the 50s — and also how it relates to the big cultural film of the year: Rebel Without a Cause.
The 50s started to represent a societal disconnect between adults and teenagers. This was the first time the term generational gap became a thing. Here you have adults that were raised on wholesomeness and here are these teens that are listening to rock ‘n’ roll, smoking cigarettes and all this other stuff. The disconnect between parents and children would be a major theme of the next few years. You can’t discuss 1955 without James Dean and the generational gap being front and center.
Outside of that, there are some real classics we’re gonna talk about here. There are heavy hitters all over the board, across every genre.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1955
All That Heaven Allows
Bad Day at Black Rock
East of Eden
Kiss Me Deadly
Lady and the Tramp
The Man with the Golden Arm
The Night of the Hunter
Rebel Without a Cause
11-20: Blackboard Jungle, The Desperate Hours, Les Diaboliques, Guys and Dolls, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, The Ladykillers, Not As a Stranger, Rififi, Summertime, To Catch a Thief, We’re No Angels
Tier two: A Bullet for Joey, Daddy Long Legs, The Glass Slipper, It’s Always Fair Weather, Killer’s Kiss, Land of the Pharaohs, The Long Gray Line, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Man from Laramie, Mr. Arkadin, Pete Kelly’s Blues, The Phenix City Story, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo, Run for Cover, The Seven-Year Itch, Strategic Air Command, Summertime, Trial, The Trouble with Harry
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“Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”
One of the great romance films of all time. This movie is so simple and so perfect.
Ernest Borgnine is a lonely New York butcher. He’s 35, and all the old ladies around the neighborhood keep asking him when he’s gonna find a nice girl and settle down. But it’s nor for lack of trying. He’s getting to the point where he’s starting to think that whatever he has, it’s not what women want. One night, he accompanies his friend to a local dance, and there he meets Betsy Blair, a similar lonely heart. They strike up a conversation and share a beautiful evening together, getting to know one another.
It’s absolutely lovely. The movie never oversteps its bounds and never tries to be anything more than it isn’t. Ernest Borgnine gives a career best performance and Betsy Blair is absolutely wonderful alongside him. One of those little gems that holds up just as well, if not better than the larger “classics” of the decade.
2. Mister Roberts
“Frank, I like you. There’s no getting around the fact that you’re a real likable guy.”
“Well, I also think you’re the most hapless, lazy, disorganized, and in general most lecherous person I’ve ever known in my life.”
“I am not!”
“You’re not what?”
I am not disorganized!”
One of the great 50s comedies. Technically co-directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Ford started the film, but after a fight with Henry Fonda (where Ford punched Fonda in the face), Ford left and LeRoy took over.
In case those two directors weren’t enough to get your attention, how about this cast: Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, William Powell. You in yet?
The movie is about the goings-on of a ship of no particular importance during World War II. They never see any action, so it becomes a sort of McHale’s Navy meets MASH situation. At least in MASH, they’re performing surgeries, but much of it is about all the shit they do during the down time. Here, it’s all down time. So some of the big arguments are about what they’re gonna watch for movie night each week. Shit like that.
Henry Fonda is the guy on the ship that everyone loves. He’s the liaison to Cagney, the captain. No one likes Cagney. He’s strict. Fonda typically allows the men to get away with some stuff and gets Cagney to lighten up on certain things. He desperately wants to see some action and is trying to get off the ship, even though he loves the guys on it. Powell plays the ship’s doctor. And Lemmon — who won an Oscar for this — is Ensign Pulver, a guy who has never once met James Cagney, the captain. Cagney has heard all about Pulver’s antics, but has never once laid eyes on him. And that allows Lemmon to go continue pulling all his scams and schemes and things.
It’s fucking hilarious, this movie. Anyone who remotely shares my taste in film, and gets excited when you see the six names I mentioned above, is going to love this movie.
3. The Man with the Golden Arm
“The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”
Sure, Frank Sinatra had an Oscar at this point, but I still feel like the people who only know him as a singer don’t quite realize how good of an actor he was. And this is the movie to watch if you still need convincing.
This is Otto Preminger in the beginning of his controversial phase, two years removed from The Moon Is Blue. This one had similar problems upon release, due to its frank descriptions and depictions of its subject matter.
Sinatra plays a guy named Frankie Machine, fresh out of prison. He used to be a dealer at an underground card game. He was also a heroin addict. He’s now clean and looking for a fresh start, having learned how to play drums and looking for a job as a musician. However, he returns to his wife, stuck in a wheelchair after an accident caused by him while on drugs, and his neighborhood, where the local mobsters try to get him back to dealing and his dealer tries to get him back on the stuff.
This movie is incredible. Sinatra’s best performance by far. He’s incredible here. Even the drug scenes are presented realistically and not really embellished that much. The scene where he goes cold turkey is tough to watch, even now. It’s great.
Definitely one of those movies that should be better seen than it is. I definitely feel like not enough people go back and watch this or even know it exists. But this is one of the best movies of the 50s.
4. The Night of the Hunter
“It’s a hard world for little things.”
This movie. This was the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed. And man, is he batting 1.000.
The minute you get into movies, you’re aware of the presence of this one. Just about anything you like when you get into film — it cross lists with this. Everyone who likes anything you like also loves this movie. Because it’s incredible.
This is also one of those movies that’s so iconic that you’ve seen it referenced at least a dozen times before you’ve even seen it. Look at the image above, you know what is.
Robert Mitchum plays a criminal who goes around pretending to be a preacher who cons his way into Shelley Winters’ life to try to get a bunch of money her former husband stole during a robbery and hid somewhere.
This movie is so good. It’s both terrifying and thrilling at the same time. Laughton hits every beat perfectly. There are shots in this movie that are so incredibly scary even now. This is a perfect noir and a perfect film. One of the greatest you’ll ever see.
5. Bad Day at Black Rock
“What’s all the excitement? What happened?”
“Thought it was something. First time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”
A noir in color. And in CinemaScope. This is one of those movies that even some serious film buffs don’t quite know about. But trust me, you’re gonna love this one if you haven’t seen it.
A train stops at the small desert town of Black Rock. A one-armed man (Spencer Tracy) gets off. The train hasn’t stopped at this town in four years. Tracy goes around, looking for a particular guy. Everyone there is extremely hostile toward him and refuses to help. Everyone tells him to leave and refuses to help. And it becomes a sort of potboiler mystery as Tracy goes around, trying to figure out where the guy he’s looking for is while the entire situation starts to build and build until an eventual climax of violence is going to occur.
John Sturges directed this, and alongside tracy, the cast includes: Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. It’s also, in the noir tradition, only 81 minutes long and makes damn good use of every one of those minutes, as well as the wide screen it was shot on.
The best part about this movie? Aside from being great and having great people in it and behind it — wait til you get to the actual reveal of what’s going on. That shit is progressive for 1955.
6. Lady and the Tramp
“I wonder what the leash-and-collar set does for excitement.”
Disney’s first film in CinemaScope. And man, is it gorgeous. They’ll top it in four years, but man does the aspect ratio of this movie make it so much better.
Everyone knows the plot of the film — a stray dog meets a dog from a nice family and they fall in love. The scene above is one of the single most famous scenes in all of cinema.
Also, those damn siamese cats…
7. East of Eden
“Man has a choice and it’s a choice that makes him a man.”
James Dean. He made three movies and all three are all-time classics.
This one is Elia Kazan and based on a John Steinbeck novel. I haven’t read the novel, but this only seems to be dealing with part of it. The second half, if I remember correctly. Kazan seemed to like to do that. Take novels and only focus on parts of them. But hey, if it works, it works.
Dean is a kid coming of age in a seaside California town. He longs for the approval and affection of his father, a deeply religious man who much prefers his other son, Dean’s brother, to Dean. Meanwhile Dean has figured out that his mother, who he long thought to be dead, is not only alive, but lives in a neighboring town as a prostitute. Not only that, he also starts to fall for his brother’s girlfriend.
It’s an incredibly powerful film. BEAUTIFULLY photographed by Ted McCord. Generally considered one of Kazan’s three best films. It’s definitely up there. The man made a lot of amazing films. This one — this one’s powerful.
8. Rebel Without a Cause
“You’re tearing me apart!”
Culturally the most important film of the 50s. A landmark film in so many respects. An all-around classic and one of those movies you can’t be into film and not come across. Hell, this movie is so iconic, people reference it and understand references to it even if they haven’t seen the movie!
The film is about three teenagers — mostly James Dean, but also Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as well — who are stuck in an age where their values are way different from their parents. Their parents think they’re troubled and such, meanwhile all they want is some love and affection from these people. They’re all looking for a family, and find each other.
There are so many great moments in this film. It may come across a little melodramatic today, but you have to understand just what a big deal this was sixty years ago. It’s really great, and so much of this movie has become iconic. From the scenes to the performances to the costumes. This movie continues to be an influence.
9. All That Heaven Allows
“I’m sorry Cary. I don’t know what got into me. I know you’re not like that. I apologize for what I said.”
“That’s all right, Howard.”
“But I don’t apologize for wanting you.”
Douglas Sirk again. The second of his four films of the 50s that are absolutely amazing.
This one had a plot that was heavily borrowed (albeit with tweaks and subversions) for Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven. So if you really liked that movie, you’re gonna love this one.
It’s Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson again, fresh off Magnificent Obsession. She plays a widower who falls in love with Hudson, her (much younger) gardener. She struggles with what her friends and neighbors would think about the relationship, even at the risk of her own happiness.
It’s a beautiful romance and a beautiful condemnation of 50s society. Sirk was a master at taking the melodrama and subtly sneaking in this undercurrent of scathing commentary about society. Even alongside that, the color and set design of this film is stunning. It’s, in its way, a masterpiece. A masterpiece of genre. There’s a reason people go back to Sirk’s films as much as they do. He takes a genre that can so easily be shallow and over the top and not only pushes how over the top it is but sneaks in this complex layer of themes and ideas that is just extraordinary.
10. Kiss Me Deadly
“Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me. If we don’t make it to the bus stop…”
“If we don’t, remember me.”
One of the great noirs of all time. This feels like the epitome of the pulp noir. Based on a Mike Hammer mystery novel, it’s a cross between a typical noir and a Sam Spade type of mystery.
This film has one of the great openings of all time. Cloris Leachman, running barefoot in the middle of the road. Not to mention one of the great endings in movie history, with all the radioactive materials and the apocalyptic imagery.
This is one of those movies that heavily influenced Pulp Fiction and films like it, the way it only shows the MacGuffin as a shining object just out of the camera’s view.
There’s something so cool about this movie. It exudes a certain attitude, and that’s what endures whenever you see it.
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Blackboard Jungle — This might be the first “teacher” film. If you like movies like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me, those movies about teachers trying to help inner city students, this is one of the great ones. Glenn Ford plays the teacher her. And Sidney Poitier is the main student. (Which is funny, since he’d make To Sir With Love in twelve years and become the teacher.) It’s one of those early films that shows just how bad certain schools are. The teachers don’t care because the students don’t care, and it takes a dedicated teacher to even get through to the kids, who really don’t want to be taught.
The Desperate Hours — A great thriller. William Wyler directed this one. Bogart leads two other escaped convicts into a family’s house and holds them hostage until both things cool down and some money from his girlfriend shows up that will allow them to escape. Meanwhile, the criminals and the family are stuck in a house together, and tensions begin to run high. Fredric March plays the father of the family and Arthur Kennedy is the sheriff looking for the men. It’s great.
Les Diaboliques — One of the great thrillers ever made. Clouzot directed this. The Wages of Fear is his masterpiece, but this one is right up there too. It’s about a mean teacher married to another teacher at the school (played by Clouzot’s wife) and having an affair with another teacher at the school (Simone Signoret). The wife and mistress actually know the situation, and are even friends. Though they get sick of his cruel treatment, so they plot to murder him to finally be rid of him. Only, after they do, that’s when things start getting interesting. This movie has one of the most famous/scary scenes of all time. It’s so good.
Guys and Dolls — Famous musical. Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. What more do you need, really? I think this is the only time Brando tried a comedy. He actually tried a lot of different genres over his career, some with more success than others. Here you get to see him sing and dance. And in a role that’s so clearly meant for Sinatra you can practically see the jealously coming off Sinatra in their scenes together. Still, it’s great.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow — A biopic of an actress nobody remembers. But a story you probably will. Susan Hayward plays a woman who is pushed to greatness by her domineering stage mother. Though she then becomes an alcoholic. And the film is about her difficult relationship with her mother, her bad decisions when drinking and her struggle to get sober. It might be Susan Hayward’s best performance and is one of those underrated gems that no one remembers nowadays.
The Ladykillers — One of the most famous British comedies ever made. One of the best comedies ever made. And yes, this is the film that the Coen brothers remade with Tom Hanks. The film is about a group of criminals planning a robbery who rent rooms from an old lady as cover. Though when she starts to suspect who they are, they decide they have to kill her. And things don’t quite go as planned, and some great (dark) comedy ensues.
Not As a Stranger — This is a Stanley Kramer movie about doctors. Stars Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. Mitchum is an an aspiring doctor who marries de Havilland, a nurse, just so he’ll have the money to pay for medical school. He doesn’t really love her, and has a hard time dealing with people he thinks aren’t smart or competent. Sinatra plays his best friend. The film is about Mitchum as this egotistical asshole who has to realize who he is and change. It’s really good. It also has Broderick Crawford, Gloria Grahame and Charles Bickford in it. It’s one of my favorite little gems of the 50s that no one knows about.
Rififi — One of the great crime films ever made. It’s about a group of guys who plan a heist. And the heist is the centerpiece of the film. It’s about thirty minutes long, with no dialogue, and no music. And it’s some of the most riveting screen time you will ever see. This was Jules Dassin’s first film after being blacklisted from Hollywood (after a string of amazing noirs) and it goes to show that he makes another crime masterpiece. He won Best Director at Cannes for this. This might actually be the greatest heist movie ever made.
To Catch a Thief — There’s Hitchcock again. This movie is usually put up there with his best. Cary Grant is a retired cat burglar who lives in the French Riviera. When a thief goes around, committing robberies that bear his hallmarks, he becomes a prime suspect. So he has to find the real thief to clear his name. Meanwhile, he starts wooing Grace Kelly. The fireworks scene is one of those classic Hitchcock moments with so-thinly veiled sexual references and imagery he might as well just have two people fucking right there on the screen.
We’re No Angels — A great comedy, and kind of a Christmas movie, too. Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov escape from prison into a nearby town. They get to a local shop and offer to fix the owner’s roof, just so they could have a place to stay and be able to rob it for supplies as they make their escape out of the country. However, they realize the family that owns the place is in deep financial trouble, and are actually really good people. So they begin to work for them for real, using their criminal specialities to help make the store profitable. It’s a really fun comedy, and it reunites Bogart with Michael Curtiz.
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- A Bullet for Joey
- Daddy Long Legs
- The Glass Slipper
- It’s Always Fair Weather
- Killer’s Kiss
- Land of the Pharaohs
- The Long Gray Line
- Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
- The Man from Laramie
- Mr. Arkadin
- Pete Kelly’s Blues
- The Phenix City Story
- The Rose Tattoo
- Run for Cover
- The Seven-Year Itch
- Strategic Air Command
- The Trouble with Harry
Land of the Pharaohs is a Howard Hawks movie about Egyptians. It seems so out of character for him, which makes it this really weird, wonderful movie. This movie is gigantic, and shot in CinemaScope. It’s about a pharaoh who is obsessed with preparing his tomb for when he dies. So he hires a guy who will prepare a foolproof tomb that cannot be robbed. This was a huge failure at the time, but it’s since become a cult classic. I think Scorsese has openly said he loves this movie. And I agree with him. It’s awesome. It’s so out of left center that I enjoy the hell out of it.
It’s Always Fair Weather is a Stanley Donen musical with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It’s about three soldiers who celebrate at a bar as their time in the army ends and make a vow to meet there exactly ten years later. Ten years later, their lives not having gone the way they anticipated, they meet in the bar. Only they quickly realize they don’t like each other anymore. They then end up being coerced into going on TV together, and there’s a subplot with gangsters — it gets crazy. But it’s a really good film, and not a particularly uplifting one, either. Which I like. Run for Cover is a James Cagney western directed by Nicholas Ray. Cagney and his pal are mistaken for train robbers as they ride into a town, causing some confusion. But after that, he becomes sheriff, and they pursue some men who rob the town bank.
Pete Kelly’s Blues is a noir in Technicolor. And it’s a jazz musical. It’s about a jazz band that plays at a speakeasy and are pressured by a mobster to pay for protection. It stars Jack Webb, Janet Leigh, Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine and Lee Marvin. Also a great supporting performance by Peggy Lee as an alcoholic gangster’s moll. And a cameo by Ella Fitzgerald! Killer’s Kiss is an early Kubrick. A boxing noir. It doesn’t reach the heights of his later work, but as far as noirs go, it’s a cut above most, owing to the strength of the filmmaker behind it. The Phenix City Story is one of the essential noirs. It’s told documentary style. It’s about a crusading attorney trying to clean up a small town rife with crime and prostitution by having his father run for office. It’s great. It’s also based on real events.
Daddy Long Legs is a musical version of a film that was originally made in the silent era with Mary Pickford. It’s about a rich man who encounters a young orphan girl, takes a liking to her and anonymously pays for her education. She writes letters to her mysterious donor, referring to him by the titular nickname. He comes to visit her after a couple of years, not telling her he’s her donor, and the two fall in love (despite their age differences). Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron star, making her one of the few people to dance with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. A Bullet for Joey is a nuclear noir. Communist spies in Canada pay a mobster to kidnap a nuclear physicist. Edward G. Robinson is a Canadian inspector who is on the case. The Glass Slipper is a musical version of Cinderella, done in the style of Lili. Leslie Caron also stars in this. It’s not Disney, but it’s good.
Summertime is a David Lean movie shot on location in Italy (it’s stunning). It’s about Katharine Hepburn (entering her spinster period) as a single, middle-aged teacher on vacation in Venice. She ends up finding romance with a local man. It’s a wonderful film. Very underrated and very much deserving to have a wider audience than it does. Picnic is an ensemble drama based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play. It takes place over Labor Day in a small town. William Holden is a guy who left the town to go to Hollywood and now comes in on a train, broke and a drifter. His arrival sets off a chain of events that escalate over the course of the day. The cast is loaded: Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Cliff Robertson, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Arthur O’Connell and Nick Adams.
Strategic Air Command is an Anthony Mann, Jimmy Stewart movie. They made a bunch together and they’re all good. He’s an Air Force reserve and a baseball pitcher who is called back into active duty. He and his wife have to deal with this new change, especially as he starts getting more and more to do. (Strategic Air Command was a military arm that controlled all the nuclear weapons and basically served as a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War.) The Rose Tattoo is based on a Tennessee Williams play. Anna Magnani (who won an Oscar for her performance) plays a seamstress whose husband dies. She then shuts herself into her home for the next three years, trying to have her teenage daughter do the same. But on the day of her daughter’s graduation, she is forced to come out, and she ends up starting a relationship with Burt Lancaster, while also finding out her beloved husband might not have been as pure as she thought.
The Trouble with Harry is that he’s dead. One of the few Hitchcock comedies. He didn’t really make any outright comedies except for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But he did make a few dark comedies. This and Family Plot are the two notable ones. The film is about the body of a man in a small town that turns up in the woods one day, causing everyone else to figure out what to do with him. This was Shirley MacLaine’s first film. The Long Gray Line is a John Ford film with Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara. It’s about an Irish Immigrant who comes to West Point to work as a dishwasher and stays there for over 50 years, eventually becoming a teacher there. It’s an immigrant Mr. Holland’s Opus, with all the Ford hallmarks. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a romance. Jennifer Jones is a Eurasian doctor who falls in love with William Holden, a married (though estranged from his wife) war correspondent. The film deals with a lot of racial politics, which is nice. And it’s a big romantic drama that looks great.
Mr. Arkadin is a movie that I always remembered because they put out a DVD with three different versions of it. I believe it was the original release cut, the European version, and the third, which is generally regarded as the one that Orson Welles intended to release. (It’s always the case with his films that they’re never put out the way he intended.) I made sure to watch all three when I first saw the film, and I can say with near certainty that they’re all essentially the same. The film’s about Welles as a mysterious millionaire who claims to remember nothing of his past. As an American begins to find out about his past, all the people involved start ending up dead. The Man from Laramie is an Anthony Mann western with Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy. Stewart is a guy who rides into a town basically owned by a rich cattle rancher who ends up working for the rancher’s biggest rival. It’s one of the first westerns shot in CinemaScope and looks great.
The Seven-Year Itch is Billy Wilder. No one remembers the plot. The title refers to the idea that after a certain amount of time within a marriage, the couple begin to lose interest in one another. The film is about Tom Ewell as a guy whose family is gone for the summer, and he’s left to his own devices at home. He soon strikes up a friendship with Marilyn Monroe, a neighbor, and is tempted to… you know, do things with her. This is the film that features the iconic subway grate scene with Monroe’s dress blowing up as the train passes by underneath. It’s one of the most famous screen images of all time. Leave it to Wilder — even if the film isn’t one of his absolute best, he still manages to have one of the most iconic images of all time in it. I love that guy.
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