Mike’s Top Ten of 1958
1958’s just a cool year. There’s nothing hugely specific that will define the year, but there are important things to talk about in terms of films. The noir genre basically ended this year, for example. Also, a film is now generally considered one of the actual two or three greatest films ever made was released. And there’s just a lot of cool shit about vikings, too.
What I like about this list is that it’s all over the map. Classic foreign film, suspense, campy horror, epic western, musical, classy drama, classic race film, ensemble, classic noir, and vikings.
Can you guys tell I’m really excited about the vikings?
Mike’s Top Ten of 1958
Ashes and Diamonds
The Big Country
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Defiant Ones
Touch of Evil
11-20: Auntie Mame, The Bravados, Elevator to the Gallows, Houseboat, I Want to Live!, Mon Oncle, Murder by Contract, A Night to Remember, Run Silent Run Deep, Some Came Running
Tier two: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Bell Book and Candle, Damn Yankees, The Fiend Who Walked the West, The Fly, The Goddess, High School Confidential, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Last Hurrah, The Lineup, Lonelyhearts, The Long Hot Summer, Macabre, Marjorie Morningstar, The Matchmaker, The Old Man and the Sea, Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys!, Teacher’s Pet, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Young Lions
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“One final thing I have to do… and then I’ll be free of the past.”
It took me a while to fully appreciate this one. But it’s impossible not to appreciate the level of artistry in this film.
There’s a reason this is considered Hitchcock’s best film. It’s really quite astounding. The single most beautiful film he ever shot, and one of the most complex, fascinating and utterly captivating films he ever made. It’s just a marvel.
Jimmy Stewart is a retired detective who gets involved with Kim Novak and becomes obsessed with her. I’ll leave it at that because — to get into detail with this movie is to ruin all the great stuff that’s in it.
Insert just about anything about this film and the answer is that it’s one of the most iconic examples of it in film history. Credit sequences, scores, endings, you name it. A couple years ago they began listing this as the single greatest film ever made. While I would respectfully disagree, they’re also not wrong. It’s that good.
2. The Defiant Ones
“How come they chained a white man to a black?”
“The warden’s got a sense of humor.”
A cultural masterpiece. Five years ago I might have said the concept might seem dated, but now, it seems as relevant as ever.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, who made a career of socially conscious material, this is the first of his masterpieces. It’s about Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, two prisoners chained together who escape a prison bus and run through the swamps, trying to escape. The symbolism of a white man and black man chained together is, of course, obvious. But the actuality of showing this on screen was revolutionary for the time. And the film is really good.
This movie cemented both actors’ statuses at the top of the industry, and remains an all-time classic. It’s got a great supporting turn by Theodore Bikel as the sheriff assigned to chase them. He’s got a demeanor a lot like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. It’s a great character.
This movie also doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s only 96 minutes. It moves. It plays almost like a noir. But the overtones are universal and it’s, to me, one of the most important films ever made.
3. Touch of Evil
“Come on, read my future for me.”
“You haven’t got any.”
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“Your future’s all used up.”
Sort of how The Maltese Falcon signaled the beginning of the noir genre, Touch of Evil signals the end of it. It’s The Outlaw Josey Wales of noirs.
Like most Orson Welles-directed films, it has an interesting story about how it came to the screen, was completely hated by the studios, dismissed upon release, got middling reviews, and then years later was looked at as a masterpiece by just about everyone.
The story about this one goes that Welles was working with a B movie producer who wanted to work with him. He gave Welles a pile of scripts and Welles went, “Give me the worst one.” He wanted to show that he could make a good movie about anything. He took no fee for the movie and got a bunch of big actors to be in it just because they all wanted to work with him. (This almost feels like when Terrence Malick came back to making movies and he got like every actor in the world to be in The Thin Red Line.)
Then of course they completely re-edited the movie and cut the shit out of it and barely released it. Because that’s the luck Welles had as a filmmaker. I feel like I also heard a story that Welles shot the opening as a single take just so the studio couldn’t cut the shit out of it. Which, if that’s true, is amazing.
The plot of this movie — honestly I have no idea. It doesn’t really matter. It’s deliberately confusing, and the point is to just enjoy the movie playing out as it does. It’s loaded with stars: Charlton Heston stars as a Mexican agent, Welles is the antagonist, a corrupt detective. There’s also Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, and cameos from Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge and Keenan Wynn.
One of the greatest noirs ever made, and one of the single greatest single-take tracking shots of all time. The opening three-plus minutes of this movie are absolutely perfect.
4. Ashes and Diamonds
One of the great foreign films ever made. One of the great films made, period. Often put near the top of the list of the greatest and most influential films ever made. I know people like Scorsese and Coppola hold this film in extremely high regard.
I saw this for the first time my freshman year of college. We watched the film to end one of our classes, and I remember walking back to my dorm room absolutely stunned. I was blown away by the film and could not process my feelings in the immediate aftermath. So I walked back in a state of overwhelmed silence. It’s a powerful film.
It’s about two Polish resistance fighters who, at the very end of World War II, try to kill a communist officer. Their first attempt fails, but then they follow their target to a hotel, where they wait it out, seeking the right moment to carry out their assassination. As they wait, one of the men falls for the hotel’s bartender, and a doomed romance ensues.
It’s an incredible film. Some of the most striking images ever filed. The ending is so incredibly powerful. This is a masterwork of cinema.
5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?”
Another one of those movies that feels like what I’d call a “classic.” Directed by Richard Brooks, based on the Tennessee Williams play (one of the most famous plays ever written, winner of the Pulitzer), starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson and Jack Carson.
Newman is a drunk, ex-athlete, married to Taylor and ignoring her. They go to her father (Burl Ives)’s house for his birthday party. He, meanwhile, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This triggers a very emotional get-together for the family.
It’s just great. Newman, Taylor and Ives are all at the tops of their games. Iconic performances all around. It’s not Streetcar, but it comes damn close. Which is impressive in its own right.
6. The Vikings
This is one of my favorite movies to show to the right people. It’s not for everyone. But for the people that I know will appreciate this — man, are they in for a real treat.
It’s an epic about vikings. Ernest Borgnine, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh. The plot really doesn’t matter. Tony Curtis is the son of a woman raped during a viking raid, so he’s not accepted by either the vikings or the upper class. Ernest Borgnine is the head of the vikings, Kirk Douglas is his son. It’s a big epic with lots of raping, pillaging, feasting and shouts of “ODIN!!!!”
The picture above is Ernest Borgnine laughing before he shouts “Odin!” and jumps into a wolf pit. The movie is nuts. But it’s fucking wonderful. It’s not quite campy, but it is very much in that cult mold. It’s very much a cult classic. If we have very similar film tastes, then you’re gonna enjoy the shit out of this movie.
7. The Blob
“How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don’t believe in?”
One of the great horror movies ever made. Not because it’s scary, just because it’s great. It’s a drive-in movie. Hell, this is the trailer they show in front of the movie in Grease at the drive-in. It’s more of a cult film now, because it’s so incredibly campy. It’s also Steve McQueen’s first starring role.
It’s about an alien ‘blob’ that begins taking over everything in sight and growing in size over the course of one night. But I think that goes without saying. What’s great about this is how it starts as one of those 50s style movies — drag racing and kids sneaking out — and then it becomes about this awful amorphous blob that’s killing people.
This is also the only film monster to have its own theme song. The opening credits really set the tone for the light, fun time you’re gonna have. (And it was written by Burt Bacharach!)
My favorite moment in this entire film is near the end, when the blob has the main characters trapped in the diner. And all the police and firemen show up and are figuring out what the hell to do. Eventually it’s decided to drop a power line on it, thinking that’ll kill it. Though they do it and it doesn’t work. Which leads to one of the greatest exchanges I have ever seen, featuring the most deadpan, defeatist fireman in the history of film. Wait til you get to that moment. It’s so funny.
8. The Big Country
“If there’s anything I admire more than a dedicated friend, it is a dedicated enemy.”
A William Wyler western. Shot in CinemaScope. Which makes the whole thing so much better.
Gregory Peck is a guy from the east who comes west to live with his fiancée on her father’s ranch. Once he gets there, he has to both adapt himself to a ‘western’ lifestyle, fend off Charlton Heston, the foreman of the ranch who has always had a thing for Carroll Baker, Peck’s fiancée, and get involved with a feud between his father-in-law and another family, headed by Burl Ives.
The movie is great. A lot of stuff going on. First off, you have Peck, Heston, Burl Ives, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford and a supporting performance by Alfonso Bedoya, famous for “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” You have gorgeous landscapes. And a lot of different storylines that are all interesting and all pay off wonderfully. Burl Ives is amazing here, and won an Oscar for his performance. He’s the highlight of the film for me.
It’s a very solid western. And with all the people involved, you can be very assured that it’s got the goods.
“Do you make love all the time, Gaston?”
“Certainly not! The only people who make love all the time are liars.”
This movie confounds me. I love it, but still. What the hell is this?
To start — it’s an absolutely gorgeous movie. The sets, costume designs, use of color — impeccable. Vincente Minnelli crafts a gorgeous film and deservedly won an Oscar (his only Oscar, after a career of amazing work) for the film. But the story — how did this get made?
First off, it begins with Maurice Chevalier, 70 at the time, in a park, surrounded by children, singing a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Then we get into the actual film, which is about a 13-year-old girl who is being trained to be a courtesan. (That’s prostitute for those who don’t speak upper-class.) She hangs out with Louis Jourdan, who is about 35 and can’t stand high society. He much prefers hanging out with her and her mother. Sure, he sleeps around a lot, but he doesn’t actually want to marry any of those girls. Until, of course, he and the 13-year-old fall in love.
You can watch this movie and sort of get how weird and creepy it all is, but when you actually think about it, you start to notice just what the story actually is.
What I love about the movie, aside from all the stuff I mentioned, is how it doesn’t give in to the temptation that most films of this era would give in to, which is supreme excess. In the 50s, musicals started adhering to the adage “bigger is better.” The screen would get extra wide, and they’d get much bigger in scale and scope, and they’d just feel overdone. This would start to get real tiresome in the musicals of the 60s. But this movie doesn’t get big. It feels like a drama with musical numbers. It tells its story, it tells it well, and you have the added bonus of watching something that is also inherently really creepy sixty years later.
10. Separate Tables
“I didn’t mean any harm.”
“That’s when you do the most damage.”
One of the great ensemble films of the studio era.
Simple film: a bunch of guests are at a seaside inn. And we watch their lives play out. Each has their own thing going on. One is a couple on their honeymoon who is really only interested in spending as much time in their room as possible. One is a spinster there with her domineering mother. One is a retired army officer who is constantly going on and on about his war exploits, ad nauseam. One is a writer dating the proprietress of the inn whose ex-wife, a model, shows up to turn his life upside down once more.
The film mainly deals with the retired officer, who is discovered to have been dishonorably discharged from the army after sexually harassing young women. The domineering mother character finds an article about it and wants to have him kicked out of the hotel, which essentially divides the other guests into camps, both for an against him. And through this main thread, all the other stories play out.
David Niven plays the officer (and won an Oscar for the role). Deborah Kerr plays the spinster. Wendy Hiller plays the proprietress. Burt Lancaster is the writer. Rita Hayworth is his ex-wife. Gladys Cooper is Kerr’s domineering mother. It’s directed by Delbert Mann, who did Marty, and it’s just a really solid, really great drama with a bunch of wonderful actors delivering fantastic performances.
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Auntie Mame — A great comedy with one of the iconic screen characters. Rosalind Russell plays Mame, a vivacious woman who gains custody of her nephew. And she teaches him how to LIVE. Famous for the line, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” It’s a film based on a play (very theatrical) and has a bunch of fun vignettes. This one’s a classic.
The Bravados — A great western with Gregory Peck as a guy hunting down the men who killed his wife. They escape from prison just as they’re about to be hanged, so he ruthlessly hunts them down, having to decide whether or not to keep them alive to serve justice. A very underrated film.
Elevator to the Gallows — Louis Malle’s first feature film, and still a classic. It was scored by Miles Davis, and is one of those crime films where everything slowly unravels over the course of the film. It’s about two lovers who plot to kill the wife’s husband. It’s the perfect crime…until the guy gets trapped in the elevator on his way out. One of the great crime films ever made.
Houseboat — Cary Grant is a widower with three kids. He hires Sophia Loren to be a nanny for his kids. Though he soon realizes she can’t cook, or clean, or anything, really. Romance ensues. It’s a great rom com.
I Want to Live! — This is the movie that won Susan Hayward her Oscar. She plays Barbara Graham a (real) woman who has a history of getting with the wrong men, which ultimately ends up getting her put on death row. The film is about her attempts to proclaim her innocence before they send her to the chair. It’s a really solid film. More of a noir. Directed by Robert Wise.
Mon Oncle — This is Jacques Tati, famous for his Monsieur Hulot character and style of comedy that involves no dialogue and all physical humor and sight gags. These films are genius. This one’s about Hulot and his inability to fit in with the technologically-driven society everyone lives in. It’s great.
Murder by Contract — A great noir about a guy who becomes a contract killer. He’s unthinking and unfeeling, and great at his job. He’s efficient and so good he’ll never get caught. However, his next target is a woman, which brings about everything unraveling for him. My favorite thing about this movie is that the climax takes place where I now work. I remember watching it for the first time and seeing his car turn off a street and going, “Wait, I know that street!” So that’s cool. The film’s great too, and clearly an influence on films like Pickpocket.
A Night to Remember — This is another film about the sinking of the Titanic. This is the one that’s most about the actual events and also pretty damn accurate, too. This is basically forgotten now, given the James Cameron film. But trust me on this — it’s great. If you like the disaster aspects of the Cameron film, watch this one. It’s really good.
Run Silent, Run Deep — Badass submarine film. Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden and Don Rickles, directed by Robert Wise. Gable is a sub captain obsessed with getting revenge on a Japanese sub that sank his previous submarine. It’s like Moby Dick, but with submarines. It’s awesome.
Some Came Running — A great drama. Vincente Minnelli directs. Frank Sinatra plays a writer who wakes up on a bus after a bender to find himself back in his hometown. Shirley MacLaine, an uncouth woman who seemingly is a prostitute, is with him. He tries sending her home, but she stays. Meanwhile, he’s back at home, coming to see all the people he left behind, like his brother. Very quickly though, he sees his brother doesn’t really want anything to do with him. Though while there, he meets Martha Hyer, a schoolteacher, and strikes up a romance with her. He also befriends Dean Martin, a dying gambler. Sinatra is really good here and Martin is very good. He’s the real scene stealer of the movie and delivers what might be his best screen performance. MacLaine also earned her first Oscar nomination for her role. A really classy movie and a fantastic watch.
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- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
- Bell, Book and Candle
- Damn Yankees
- The Fiend Who Walked the West
- The Fly
- The Goddess
- High School Confidential
- The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
- The Last Hurrah
- The Lineup
- The Long, Hot Summer
- Marjorie Morningstar
- The Matchmaker
- The Old Man and the Sea
- Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys
- Teacher’s Pet
- The Young Lions
Teacher’s Pet is a movie that just missed the top 20. It’s a rom com with Clark Gable and Doris Day. He’s a hard-nosed newspaperman. One of those old school types. She’s a journalism teacher who teaches wannabe writers in night school. Something that someone like him would scoff at. Because “you can’t teach writing.” She invites him to speak at her class and he sends her a snarky letter, declining. Though his editor forces him to go anyway. So, rather than have egg on his face, he pretends to be a new student enrolling in the class. And romance and comedy ensue. It’s really great. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is about Ingrid Bergman as a missionary to China helps save a bunch of children when the Japanese invade. Really solid film. The Last Hurrah is a John Ford film starring Spencer Tracy as a political boss gearing up for one last election, using every trick in the book to defeat his opponent. One of the real hidden gems on Ford’s filmography.
High School Confidential is such a great 50s film. Very much a cult classic in every way. It’s about a cool new high school student that’s actually an undercover cop, trying to bust up a narcotics ring. He’s living with an older woman who pretends to be his aunt but in reality has… other arrangements in mind. Meanwhile there’s a marijuana ring — it’s so campy. This is what 21 Jump Street was spoofing. Movies like this. This is one of the great unintentionally funny movies of all time. The Fiend Who Walked the West is a western version of Kiss of Death. It’s nowhere near the original, but it’s still fun to see the similarities.
The Old Man and the Sea is one of those famous stories everyone knows. Based on Hemingway. Spencer Tracy is an old man out at sea who has a life or death struggle with a fish that takes him deep out to sea. It’s a terrific film that never overstays its welcome. It’s less than 90 minutes when it could have stretched it and been 2 hours. The Goddess is a movie that’s loosely based on Marilyn Monroe. It’s about a deeply unhappy woman who ends up becoming a huge movie star. Though that does nothing to make her less miserable. Kim Stanley is great as the actress, and the film was written by Paddy Chayefsky. A Time to Love and a Time to Die is Douglas Sirk. One of the few films he made in Technicolor that doesn’t get mentioned among the rest. This is a melodramatic war epic. Like A Farewell to Arms. German soldier goes on leave and sees how torn up his country is. Also falls in love. Based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel. It’s not the same as his other melodramas, but it’s way more solid than its lack of a reputation may suggest.
Oh, The Lineup is DOPE. I saw it on a plane during a noir binge. Eli Wallach is a crazy killer who helps smuggle heroin in from Asia (also actually dope), planting the drugs in unsuspecting peoples’ luggage, and then murdering them to get the drugs back. Big fan of this one, as far as noirs go. Lonelyhearts is a really strange, fascinating film. Based on the novel by Nathanael West, who also wrote The Day of the Locust. Montgomery Clift is an aspiring journalist who is tasked with writing the advice column in the local paper. He goes around, meeting the people and learning their stories. There’s a great subplot with Maureen Stapleton as a woman who comes back from war impotent. He gets involved in drama between his editor, Robert Ryan, and his drunk wife, Myrna Loy. It’s really engaging, yet completely strange all around. Because West wrote strange stories. But it’s good. Definitely stands out among the other films of the year.
Macabre is a William Castle film. I was waiting for him to make an appearance. He began as a B movie director and worked that way for 15 years until he rebranded himself as the KING of the B movie. He made these horror movies that came with gimmicks that brought people into the theater. This film had the gimmick of telling people that a $1,000 life insurance policy was taken out on every audience member’s behalf, should they die of fright while watching the film. We’ll have a bunch of these movies coming up. He made a bunch of really fun movies. This one is about a guy whose daughter is kidnapped and buried alive. He has to find out where she’s been buried before time runs out. It’s pretty awesome. Great for a fun, campy time.
Bell Book and Candle is a rom com about a witch (Kim Novak), who admires Jimmy Stewart, her neighbor. When she finds out he’s gonna marry a girl she hates, she casts a love spell on him. Though she then falls in love with him for real, which means that she’ll eventually lose her powers as a witch. So she must make a choice. It’s fun. Looks great, too. A nice movie to pair with Vertigo as a double feature. Marjorie Morningstar is a melodrama with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. She’s a camp counselor who falls for an older man who teaches drama at a neighboring camp. It’s interesting for a variety of reasons. This was Natalie Wood ending her child phase and getting into more adult roles, and this was just about the end of the line for Gene Kelly, who would only make a handful of sporadic film appearances after this. This was one of those movies I didn’t expect to like as much as I did.
The Young Lions is about three soldiers during World War II. Marlon Brando is a German officer, Montgomery Clift is a Jewish officer, and Dean Martin is a guy who joined the army from show business. It’s a terrific film. Great performances all around. Rally Round the Flag, Boys is a Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward comedy directed by Leo McCarey. The film takes place in a small town that has been chosen to be the home for a military base. Newman ends up being a liaison for the military to convince the town it’s a good idea. Woodward is vastly opposed to it. Naturally, comedy ensues. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a Ray Harryhausen. Lotta fun effects in this one. If you enjoy stuff like Clash of the Titans and The Thief of Bagdad, this is for you. Damn Yankees is a classic musical (with choreography by Bob Fosse) about a guy who sells his soul to the devil to see his baseball team win the pennant. Famous for the song “Whatever Lola Wants.”
The Long, Hot Summer is, to me, the lesser Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Also starring Paul Newman. This time based on Faulkner instead of Tennessee Williams. He plays a drifter who gets involved with a rich southern family. Joanne Woodward plays his love interest and this is the film that led to their marriage. Orson Welles plays the patriarch of the family, and you also have Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury in it. It’s good, but don’t expect it to be as good as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is. The Matchmaker is the non-musical version of Hello, Dolly! They were both based on the same Thornton Wilder play. Shirley MacLaine plays (insert title here) who falls for the man she’s supposed to be pairing off with someone else. It’s solid. The Fly is the same story as Cronenberg. It stars Vincent Price. It’s not as good as the Cronenberg, but it’s fun in a 50s way.
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