The Best Discoveries of 2020: The 1950s
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
My shortest Best of 2020 list yet covers the 1950s, a decade rich in film noir, westerns, and especially science fiction, all of which we’ll get to soon. As you'll see, this list is all over the place and includes one film that's not even very good, but is worth seeking out.
The 400 Blows (1959) François Truffaut (Criterion Channel)
Tremendous feature debut from François Truffaut about a young Parisian boy and his troubles at school, home, and beyond. The final shot will stay with you for a long time.
Born Yesterday (1950) George Cukor (Sony Pictures DVD, Arrow Blu-ray)
15 minutes into this movie I was ready to eject it and move on to something else. I just didn’t think I could tolerate Judy Holliday’s high-pitched performance as Billie Dawn, moll for the unscrupulous millionaire Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), for 103 minutes. Eventually I settled in and began to appreciate Holliday’s performance and the film itself, co-starring one of my favorites, William Holden, as a journalist hired by Brock to “smarten” Billie up.
French Cancan (1954) Jean Renoir (Criterion Channel)
I think I appreciated this universally well-loved film more than I liked it. Jean Gabin (whom I’ll watch in anything) plays Danglard, the impresario of the Parisian Moulin Rouge. I loved the dancing, the behind-the-scenes machinations, and the free-for-alls, but was bored to tears by the love stories. I’ll give this one another shot in a couple of years.
The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957) Bernard Girard (borrowed from a friend)
The Green-Eyed Blonde in question is Susan Oliver (in her first film), playing Green Eyes, a teenager in a home for wayward girls. Believe it or not, Green Eyes’s story is not the main focus here. Written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, the movie aims for realism rather than sex-kitten antics. Although very dated, its attempt at hard-edged realism was daring for its time. Not great, but worth tracking down.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) Terence Fisher (Arrow UK Blu-ray)
After watching They Might Be Giants (1971), I wanted a more conventional Sherlock Holmes movie. I’d never seen this version with Peter Cushing as Holmes, André Morell as Dr. Watson, and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, but I really enjoyed the gothic Hammer Studios treatment.
The Life of Oharu (1952) Kenji Mizoguchi (Criterion Channel)
Mizoguchi delivers a devastating, gut-wrenching story of the downfall of a woman named Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), whom at every turn is reminded of her former life as a prostitute, a choice made not by her, but rather her father when she was young. Roger Ebert called this “the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman.”
The Night My Number Came Up (1955) Leslie Norman (Kanopy, Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
At at Hong Kong dinner party, Royal Air Force Air Marshal Hardie (Michael Redgrave) hears a navy commander relating a dream he had of an airplane crash near Toyko. Even though Hardie is scheduled to fly to Tokyo the next morning, he isn’t worried; the details are all different from those of the dream... until they start becoming more and more like the dream. The Night My Number Came Up is a compelling supernatural suspense tale, now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. And yes, that's a young Denholm Elliott (Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones movies) on the left. (If he once got lost in his own museum, let's see how he does on a plane.)
Royal Wedding (1951) Stanley Donen (Kanopy)
Research for our library virtual Great Movies discussion
Everyone knows that Fred Astaire famously dances on the ceiling, but that’s not the only great number in this film. The story is standard, but watch it for Astaire and Jane Powell.
Umberto D. (1952) Vittorio De Sica (Criterion Channel, Kanopy)
The director of Bicycle Thieves (1948), Vittorio De Sica, gives us more Italian realism as we follow Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), an elderly pensioner who’s in danger of losing his boarding house room due to an increase in rent and a hateful landlord. The film is much more than that, of course. Many dismiss this film, perhaps in light of the more famous (and better) Bicycle Thieves. Is De Sica covering the same ground or saying something different?
A somewhat disappointing list? Perhaps, but look for a much longer list next time covering the 1960s.