The Cold War and Post-Classical Era
The Era of Epic Films and
the Threat of Television
Film History of the 1950s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Film History by Decade
Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s
Hitchcock in the 50s:
Britisher Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), the "Master of Suspense," made some of his very best suspense/thrillers during the 1950s, and also found success in the new medium of TV in the mid-50s. He premiered his television series anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents in October, 1955, to bring his macabre sense of humor to the small screen. Each show was prefaced by his ominous, droll greeting "Good Evening" and short, introductory, on-screen comments. Hitchcock employed most of his TV crew to produce his black and white cinematic masterpiece at the end of the decade, the low-budget Psycho (1960).
Hitchcock became well-known and a noted film-maker for two fundamental reasons: his clever cameos called attention to himself, and his films often did well at the box-office. Although his late 1940s films, The Paradine Case (1947) and Under Capricorn (1949) fared poorly, his 50s films flourished:
New Directors in the 50s:
New directors like Robert Aldrich made striking impressions with early films like the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane pulp with private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker)). Stanley Kubrick directed the track heist thriller The Killing (1956) and the anti-war drama Paths of Glory (1957) with Kirk Douglas. Sidney Lumet's first feature film was the brilliant jury-room drama 12 Angry Men (1957) with Henry Fonda standing along against conviction. One of Joseph Lewis' best-known films was the noir, cult crime film Gun Crazy (1949) - a forerunner of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Independent-minded Sam Fuller, director of hard-edged, tabloid-ish films, led off the decade with the nasty, suspenseful thriller Pickup on South Street (1953) about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) and a roll of top-secret Communist microfilm.
During the post-war years, two directors who later achieved cult status emerged. The first was one of the most original 50s directors - Nicholas Ray, most famous for his best film Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Ray also directed other interesting films including a Bonnie-and-Clyde, lovers-on-the-run crime film They Live By Night (1949) - (his first feature film), the aforementioned In a Lonely Place (1950), the noirish On Dangerous Ground (1952), the quintessential rodeo film The Lusty Men (1952), the bizarre cult Western Johnny Guitar (1954), Bigger Than Life (1956) with James Mason as a cortisone-addicted schoolteacher, The True Story of Jesse James (1957) (a re-make of the 1939 classic), and the crime drama Party Girl (1958).
The second talented and influential director of the 50s, known for visually striking, feverish, highly polished, exaggerated, big budget, emotional soap opera - melodramas, was Douglas Sirk. His best-known glossy films, with innovative production design and a dramatic use of garish color, often featured Rock Hudson:
Declining Strength of the Studio System:
In the 1950's, the after-effects of the 1948 Paramount Decrees (federal trust-busting laws that forbade studios to be linked with theatre chains) were devastating. The courts ordered that the film industry's vertically-integrated structure of production, distribution, and exhibition had to be separated into distinct corporate entities, and studios were ordered to sell off their theatres.
There were many other indications of the upheavals in the film industry:
The studios became depleted with the exit rush by both directors, artists and technicians - mostly to the burgeoning television industry. Some of Hollywood's greatest directors, George Stevens, John Ford, and Leo McCarey, made half-hour dramas for the Screen Directors Playhouse (1955) on television, and others (actors, editors, and cameramen) followed suit. As a consequence, many of television's directors in the 50s, e.g., John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards, Michael Ritchie, Robert Altman, Robert Mulligan, Arthur Penn, and Franklin Schaffner became the new wave of the film industry's directors into the 60s after the decline of the studio system.
The system of studio-contracted players (the star system) began to lose some of its power and grip on movie stars in the early to mid-50s as well, and the decline would steadily reach into the next decade. Many of the stars went independent and operated as free-lance agents, moving from studio to studio for individual pictures and ushering in the age of the independent superstar. In the early 1950s, James Stewart decided to free-lance, and became a precedent-setting pioneer of the percentage deal, in which he would receive up to half the profits of his movies (he received a share of the profits for the film Bend of the River (1952)). Other stars followed suit and demanded payment on an individual film basis (in single-film deals), beginning the trend toward huge star salaries and the formation of their own production companies. Some superstars groomed themselves and guided their own careers, appearing in their own starring vehicles.
Directors charged that the demands of high-salary stars would ruin the business. In fact, by 1959 the production of films in the US dropped to about 250 films a year - a 50% drop from only a decade earlier, and only 42 million Americans were attending theatrical films on a weekly basis (as compared to more than double that amount during 1948). In contrast, more and more imported European and Asian films (such as Rashomon (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), Pather Panchali (1955) and The 400 Blows (1959)) were being showcased in art houses and in burgeoning film festivals.
The "Red Scare" and Various Propaganda Films:
The aftermath of studio blacklists and Communist Party fears, following Senator Joseph McCarthy's HUAC witch-hunt that targeted Hollywood and smeared hundreds of film people in the early 50s, had wide-spread effects for years to come. Communist and "Cold War" paranoia and fears of Communist infiltration were reflected in a number of films of the early and mid-50s. Allegorical science fiction films reflected the collective unconscious and often cynically commented upon political powers, threats and evils that surrounded us (alien forces were often a metaphor for Communism, e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)), and the dangers of aliens taking over our minds and territory.
Other examples of semi-exploitative, anti-communist films helped to fuel the perceived threat of Communist spies and sympathizers, and contributed to the propagandistic political temperament of the time:
The legacy of HUAC's blacklisting was also felt in this decade by Best Screenplay nominee Michael Wilson for Friendly Persuasion (1956), a Civil War tale about a Quaker pacifist family (with actor Anthony Perkins' film debut). His nomination for writing the film's screenplay (uncredited in the film) was declared ineligible and his name was prohibited from a listing in the final awards ballot, because of his invoking of the 5th Amendment before the committee in 1952. Finally, by 1959, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) determined that blacklisted film industry members could be nominated for Oscar awards.
By the advent of the 60s, anti-Communist films took a more satirical edge, evidenced in a backlash of black comedies and serio-comic films, such as Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Or:... (1964), and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). And they became bolder with other such critical films as Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962), Fail-Safe (1964), and Seven Days in May (1964).
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6