So here we are, the very top cinematic moments that define a golden nostalgic era. It’s been a ride, enjoy the last stop.
10). “I’m Big… It’s The Pictures That Got Small!”
Billy Wilder cemented his status as an iconic and influential golden-era Hollywood filmmaker with ‘Sunset Blvd.’ now most consider to be THE movie made about Hollywood. William Holden plays the archetypal cynical screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who stumbles upon a hollywood ghost in Norma Desmond, played memorably over-the-top by Gloria Swanson, a former star of the silent era, nowadays a has-been. She employs the down-on-his-luck writer to pen her come-back, he needs the money badly so he excepts not aware of everything that comes with being in the aura of the ego-manic that Norma is. A decidedly anti-celebrity film, it holds today as a cautionary tale of the fleeting nature of glory and the excessiveness of pride.
9). The Influence Of Seven Samurai
You knew Akira Kurosawa would appear sometime, as his grand epic ‘Seven Samurai’ and it’s subsequent impact on western cinema and overall filmmaking is undeniable. Kurosawa started to come into his own in post-war Japan, filming everything from samurai epics and penetrating character studies. At the time criticized by domestic Japanese critics for making far too ‘Western’ films, it was in fact actually quite the other way around, as the west started making Kurosawa films. The straight remake of ‘Seven Samurai’ with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in 1960 created a flood of westerns borrowing from the Japanese master’s themes, stories and characters. Showing audiences around the world that some concepts are universally held: honor, loyalty and pride. The impact of Seven Samurai is also emblematic of the exchange of influence, ideas and culture occurring around the globe in the aftermath of WWII.
8). Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Late’ Period Films
Considered by many critics to be the most ‘Japanese’ of all Japanese directors, Ozu directed precise, painfully slow-paced heartbreaking family dramas. The family dynamics are painfully natural, to achieve this Ozu would rehearse for hours with his actors to make sure that all motions and emotions were as organic and true to real-life. He made nine films in this ‘Late’ phase of his career, including masterpieces ‘Tokyo Story’, ‘Early Summer’, ‘Early Spring’, and ‘Floating Weeds’. Not concerned with action-oriented Samurai films like fellow countrymen Kurosawa and Mizoghuci, he was more concerned with Japan in the present. The conflicts between generations and the build up of desolation provided him with all the narrative drive he needed. Choosing between western values and old tradition ones served his dramas on more than one occasion. His attention to detail, patience and ability to draw naturalism out of his actors has cemented his legacy as one of the finest filmmakers ever.
7). Any Frame Of ‘Vertigo’
Hitch gets one last say this decade with arguably the best work he and Jimmy Stewart ever did. I’ve talked at length about this on in a previous article, so I won’t go in too much more in terms of story. ‘Vertigo’ truly is a triumph of the cinema, with it’s imagery, characters and themes. Combining taut direction, surrealism and heartbreaking revelations, this romantic-tragedy transitions sharply into a dark psychological thriller. Symbolic of the change about to be felt as 50’s transitioned to 60’s, the feelings of optimism and good vibes were about to be challenged thoroughly by social unrest and conflict in the following decade.
6). Bergman Becomes Bergman
Upon releasing two iconic films in 1957 with ‘Seventh Seal’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’ Ingmar Bergman transitioned from his so-called ‘early’ phase into the artist he is widely known for today. ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ in 1955 had garnered rave reviews, getting him noticed internationally, but he was going to go for much different things in the following years. Incorporating more surrealist elements into his films, he began pushing the medium beyond normal boundaries, making it completely his own and telling his stories his way. He would start his more experimental film work, using near plotless narratives, impressionist imagery and understated performances in the early 60’s, forging one of the most influential and important cinematic careers in film history.
5). Two Words: James Dean
Hardly any other actor that has ever lived embodied their respective decade more than James Dean and the 50’s (well, there is one but he’s coming up later). His roles incapsulated the youthful angst that is experienced by nearly everyone at some point in their adolescence. Though he starred in only three movies before his untimely death in a severe car crash, his roles remained throughly ingrained in public conscience decades after his tragic passing. His first role as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s ‘East of Eden’, is now a benchmark for film debuts. Author John Steinbeck himself upon seeing Dean’s work in the filming, said that he was the perfect fit for the confused full of angst-ridden Cal. His scenes seeking approval from his over-bearing father, and trying to find his place in life, ring just as true today. He would follow-up with his most iconic role as Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray’s ‘Rebel without a cause’. A modified version of Cal Trask, Dean continued his with his capacity to portray youthful rage and alienation perfectly as Jim goes about fitting in with his peers at school. While also attempting to win over a young Natalie Wood, the prototypical girl-next-door. His last role was in George Steven’s ‘Giant’ opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, as the young and of course rebellious farm-hand rink Jett Rink.
Although J.D Salinger’s resonate ‘Catcher in Rye’ was published in 1951 and the Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg inspired beat generation was just starting to get into gear, the young generation growing-up alienated and disillusioned in the 50’s without a doubt had their voice in James Dean’s characters.
4). John Cassavetes Establishes Independent Film
Releasing ‘Shadows’ in 1959, Actor/Director/writer John Cassavetes single-handily began the Independent Film movement. Subverting studio monetary interference completely by producing, directing, writing and editing the project himself. Through the film itself is rough, scattered and confusing at times (one can argue these touches are intentional), little did audiences know that with the distribution of ‘Shadows’ that a new important film movement had begun. Inspiring countless budding filmmakers to go out and do their own stories, not just waiting to land the big studio job. Voices from all walks of life would now had a chance to have their stories made, without having to answer to studio heads. Cassavetes independently minded influence is undeniable today with the likes of Steven Soderberg, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater and countless others.
3). Kubrick Becomes Kubrick
After the success of ‘The Killing’ Stanley Kubrick sought to make a film that would put him at the forefront of cinema. He did just that with his anti-war masterpiece ‘Paths of Glory’ in 1957. Kirk Douglas again gives a commanding performance as a WWI French Colonel Dax who sees first hand the, at times, severe hypocritical nature of military hierarchy. After a charge during a critical trench battle goes badly, Dax is ordered to have a men from each company involved in the failed charge to be executed serving as example to the rest of the men. Dax pleads with his superiors to come to their senses, the problem is that their senses are skewed beyond repair. Searing and remarkable for just its main battle scene, ‘Paths of Glory’ is just as penetrating, powerful and hard-hitting today.
The themes of the breakdown and the dissection of systems, whether they be political, military, moral or social, is well-established in Kubrick’s work. That concept was first implemented here, picking apart the dubious ethics of the high-ranking commanding officers in Wartime. Just like fellow auteur Bergman, Kubrick would show he was just getting started with his first masterpiece.
2). The Differing Perspectives In ‘Rashomon’
Kurosawa even before the success of ‘Seven Samurai’ had already made somewhat of a name for himself back in 1950 with his multiple-perspective murder mystery ‘Rashomon.’ A preist and a woodcutter are taking shelter during a torrential rainstorm, the woodcutter recounts to the priest a story of rape, a questionable murder and the idea of truth. The woodcutter tells of three different perspectives from the people involved in the events that led to the death of a traveling Samurai. Similar to ’12 Angry Men’ in it’s dissection of justice’s supposed ‘impartiality’, but also going for a more profound statement on humanity. There are multiple accounts told, but each person has different vision of reality of how they had see the world. ‘Rashomon’ is incredibly advanced for a film of its time portraying that we all have our own prisms created by our biases, ideals and beliefs, the truth lies somewhere in between, if at all. Truth is reality without perception, but there is no reality without perception.
Recently added to the oxford dictionary the word “Rashomon” now is defined as “characterized by having multiple perspectives with differing interpretations”. The movie also helped to open audiences eyes to foreign cinema, being the first winner of the foreign film oscar (then a special recognition award) from Asia, thus also signifying that Eastern cinematic techniques were now on equal footing to Western ones. However, one man opened eyes and made people take notice to an even greater extent…
1). Two Words: Marlon Brando
…and so we have the person that defined an era of stardom glitz and glamour, is an actor that sought to un-glamorize the craft. We had tones of anti-western with ‘High Noon’, anti-religion with’The Night of the Hunter’, anti-military with ‘From Here to Eternity’, anti-celebrity with ‘Sunset Blvd.’ and anti-war with ‘Paths of Glory.’ With Brando, here we have the birth of the anti-hero. Brando redefined acting on a whole with two iconic sheering performances in Elia Kazan’s ‘A streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘On the Waterfront’ instilling his characters with all the faults, blemishes and prejudices of all-too-real people. Too many times in previous years most leading men on screen were supermen, without fault, always ethically and morally right, always without fault. That all changed with Brando’s legendary and ground-breaking turn as Stanley Kowalski in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ a brute, a drunk, paranoid and ethically ambivalent. A brute force of nature leading to destruction and alienation, but nonetheless compelling, complex or nuanced. Three years later he played Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer trying to become a ‘contender’ who is caught up in the battle of unionization between dock-workers and the ship-yards. Brutish, abrasive and indifferent, it is only in the films final moments of desperation that Terry finally makes a crucial decision in the conflict.
Widely considered by his peers to be the greatest actor to have lived by popularizing ‘method’ style of acting; playing to what you have experienced yourself in some capacity. Brando’s influence is as wide-spread and respected as any other actor or filmmaker that has lived. Every popular anti-hero in film from the last fifty years owes a debt to Brando, from Dirty Harry to Indiana Jones to John McClane. Having as much male bravado and machismo, but with a brooding darkness and conflicted nature, as the decade that produced his career, Marlon Brando and his performances exemplifies the 50’s in every way shape and form.
Whew, what a long walk along memory lane. I hope you all had as much reading as I did putting this together. All these wonderful moments, characters and stories add up to an extremely iconic and influential decade in film. Hope I touched on some of your favorites. This era of optimism would not last unfortunately, as the decade closed out, social unrest would begin to surface in violent ways. As the world started to change film changed along with it, leading to my personal favorite decade for great cinema. We’ll see if I’ll continue this listing for the 60’s… “That’ll be the day” , for right now I’m out thanks for joining on this trip! Please be certain not to “taste any arsenic cookies” on the way out…