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The Best Discoveries of 2018: The 1950s

Updated: Dec 15, 2018

If you removed all the Westerns from the 1950s films I saw in 2018, I’d have a much smaller list. The appearance of so many Westerns is due largely to my interest in the films of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. (But even if you don't like Westerns, there's more...)


My interest in Mann flows directly out of his excellent film noir titles that I revisited this year, including T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (uncredited, with Alfred L. Werker, 1948), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949). Those who know far more than I do about Mann can tell you that he spent a large part of his later career directing Westerns, although many of those films contained noir elements. I really enjoyed the terrific train thriller The Tall Target (1951) (previously discussed here) as well as The Man From Laramie (1955), with James Stewart as a stranger who defies a local cattle baron and his reckless son, but it was 1958’s Man of the West that really stuck with me.

Mann’s penultimate Western, Man of the West, finds Link Jones (Gary Cooper) inadvertently reuniting with his criminal uncle (Lee J. Cobb), who thinks his nephew is ready to rejoin him in his life of crime. The uncle’s cronies don’t trust Link, but they consider Link’s traveling companion Billie Ellis (Julie London) a prize to be shared among them. Trade in the horses for cars and change the setting to a metropolitan city and you’ve practically got a film noir going. Man of the West is a powerful film featuring one of Cooper’s finest performances.

Thanks to the superb Indicator box set Five Tall Tales: Budd Boetticher & Randolph Scott at Columbia, 1957-1960, I enjoyed five excellent Westerns, but two stood out as favorites: The Tall T (1957), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, and Ride Lonesome (1959), with Scott playing a bounty hunter charged with bringing in a killer (James Best), but having also to deal with Lee Van Cleef, Pernell Roberts, and a very young James Coburn. Boetticher’s Westerns are understated but powerful films. If you give them a chance, I think you might just be hooked.

Most of the other films I enjoyed from the 1950s were not produced in America. Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) is a French drama which follows a pair of earrings as they change hands amidst romance and betrayal. This gorgeous film, starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, is a favorite of director Paul Thomas Anderson. See it and you’ll understand why Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) is so elegantly beautiful.

Let’s stay in France for one of the most intriguing - and disturbing - films of my viewing year, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), about a brother and sister (Édouard Dermithe and Nicole Stéphane) who constantly bicker and fight, yet each may be the only person in the world who truly understands the other. (There's more to their relationships that I won't disclose here.) The story was written by Jean Cocteau, who pegged Melville to direct the film adaptation, but with Cocteau’s collaboration. There are very few films to compare it to and few performances like that one you’ll see from Stéphane.

Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) has been called one of the greatest films of all time and I believe a large part of that must be attributed to the performance of Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s wife) as a brazen, yet optimistic prostitute searching for true love.

One of my greatest pleasures this year was watching Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the first time. People often describe what it was like to see their favorite movie for the very first time, usually as a young person. I feel the same way about The Hidden Fortress, like a kid who’s just made the discovery of a lifetime. It’s been called George Lucas’s inspiration for Star Wars, but there’s much more to it than that. If you continue reading my Best of 2018 posts, you’ll see this discussed further in the near future.

Attack! (1956) is a war picture that’s sometimes lumped into the film noir category, but I can’t really see that. It’s a Robert Aldrich film which chronicles the woes of a WWII combat unit led by a captain (Eddie Albert) who’s both a coward and out of his depth. The film also stars Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Richard Jaeckel, and Buddy Ebsen.

And although I’m not a big fan of musicals, I totally fell for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with its Ansco Color and magnificent CinemaScope. Sure, the story is more than a bit clunky, but man, what dancing…

I recommend all of these films from the 1950s:

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Fourteen Hours (1951)

The Band Wagon (1953)

Paths of Glory (1957)

The Tall T (1957)

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Attack! (1956)

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Man of the West (1958)

The Tall Target (1951)

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Les Enfants Terribles (1950)

I hope you’ll let me know about any films from the 1950s you enjoyed this year.

Next time: the 1960s

Photos: DVD Beaver, Feelin’ Film, MUBI

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