Greatest Films of the 1950s
Greatest Films of the 1950s


Greatest Films of the 1950s
1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959

1958

Academy Awards for 1958 Films
Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Poland) (aka Popiół i Diament), 103 minutes, D: Andrzej Wajda

Auntie Mame (1958), 143 minutes, D: Morton DaCosta

The Big Country (1958), 166 minutes, D: William Wyler
William Wyler's spectacular widescreen, beautifully-photographed, Technicolored Western epic was based upon Donald Hamilton's originally serialized Saturday Evening Post magazine novel "Ambush at Blanco Canyon" that was published in 1958. The film opened with a memorable Saul Bass credits sequence, and Jerome Moross' sweeping and robust thematic score. Transplanted Maryland ex-sea captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) - a thoughtful, smart, and basically pacifist 'tenderfoot' arrived in the cattle town of San Rafael, TX. He was there to claim his fiancee-bride Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) (an only child, who had met McKay back East when she was in school); instead, he became caught up in her father's civil war feud over water rights at an adjoining ranch known as "The Big Muddy" (where a vital water source was located) - owned but no longer operated by the Maragon family. Various other main characters were introduced: patriarchal cattle-baron landowner "The Major" Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), his main rancher-rival and reprobate Rufus Hannassey (Oscar-winning Burl Ives), Terrill's cocky and rough-hewn foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Rufus' no-good drunken son Buck (Chuck Connors), and Patricia's schoolteacher friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) who had inherited "The Big Muddy" from her grandfather, but no longer operated the Maragon ranch. The highly-disciplined McKay tamed a wild bronco stallion named "Old Thunder" - to meet the challenge given to him by Terrill's foreman Steve Leech. Early on, a confrontational scene occurred over access rights to water at "The Big Muddy" between Rufus Hannassey and his rich rival enemy Major Henry Terrill, when Rufus burst into Terrill's house (during a gala party to celebrate Patricia's engagement), berated Terrill, and delivered a major ultimatum - as well as calling him a hypocrite for harrassing his wild clan of women and children. McKay made private efforts to intervene and bring peace between the Hannasseys and the McKays by offering to buy the Maragon ranch land from Julie Maragon (as a wedding present for Patricia) where "The Big Muddy" was located - to continue to keep the river free and accessible for both ranchers. Patricia separated and essentially broke up with McKay by the film's conclusion due to her disenchantment with his perceived cowardice and peace-making efforts. At the end of a marathon pre-dawn, memorable outdoor fist-fight ("not with horses or guns") without witnesses (sometimes filmed in long-shot) between non-violent McKay and the dislikeable Steve Leech, McKay ultimately questioned the futility of their fight when it ended in a draw: "Tell me Leech. What did we prove? Huh?" The film concluded with Rufus Hannassey's planned ambush of Major Terrill in Blanco Canyon, by taking Julie Maragon hostage (not knowing that she had already sold her land to McKay). There, a gentlemen's duel (with dueling pistols) was instigated between Hannassey's hot-headed son Buck and McKay - with Rufus officiating; Buck fired early (and just grazed McKay's forehead) and was reprimanded by his father - ending with cowardly Buck's death by his own honorable father when Buck unfairly stole another man's gun and was about to kill the unarmed McKay. Rufus agonized over the death of his own disreputable son: "I warned you, you dirty little...I told ya! I told ya I'd do it. I told you, but you wouldn't believe me! Damn your soul, I told you!" Another final stalking and deadly showdown occurred in Blanco Canyon between the two sole warlord protagonists: Terrill and Hannassey. It ended with both unyielding men squaring off against each other and killing each other with rifles - one lying on top of the other (filmed from a high-angle long shot). This brought peace after the violent confrontation between the two families that eliminated the two old-men protagonists; McKay rode off with Julie to start their new life together.

Cairo Station (1958, Egypt) (aka The Iron Gate, or Bab el Hadid), 77 minutes, D: Youssef Chahine

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), 108 minutes, D: Richard Brooks

The Defiant Ones (1958), 97 minutes, D: Stanley Kramer
Liberal director-filmmaker Stanley Kramer, well-known for directing heavy-handed, social issues dramas (such as Inherit the Wind (1960) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)), helmed this social commentary film about racism. The film had 9 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Tony Curtis), Best Actor (Sidney Poitier), Best Supporting Actor (Theodore Bikel), Best Supporting Actress (Cara Williams), and Best Film Editing, and won two Oscars: Best B/W Cinematography and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith).
Two chain-gang convicts in the 1950s South - bigoted white Southerner John "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis) (convicted of armed robbery) and black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to star in mainstream Hollywood films in non-stereotyped roles) (incarcerated for assault and battery) were shackled together. When they escaped from an overturned transport truck during a rainstorm, they had to cooperate with each other and put aside their racial animosities as they evaded the oppressive search of the police. Held together by a 29 inch steel chain, they were manacled to each other, and only bound by their will and determination to escape. Their pursuit was headed up by a local "humanitarian" - the liberal and compassionate Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), with other more redneck state troopers and police officers with vicious tracking dogs. Although captured at Jackson's former place of work (a turpentine camp 60 miles to the north), they were confronted by Mack (Claude Akins) and a threatening lynch mob, although Big Sam (Lon Chaney, Jr.) stepped in and halted the bloodthirsty injustice, and then released the two to escape in the middle of the night. At an isolated farm house, they were cared for by needy, lonesome, abandoned and love-starved single mother (Cara Williams). Her devious plan to send Cullen off into the swamp while she ran off with Jackson to the city backfired when she betrayed his trust. Jackson chased after Cullen and told him: "That woman told you wrong." The film's classic image was of their clapsed white and black hands of the two desperately trying to help each other board a speeding train - Cullen reached back to pull Jackson up, but couldn't save him ("I can't make it! I can't make it!") and sacrificed his own freedom by jumping off. In the conclusion, Cullen defiantly sang the blues song "Long Gone" - with the wounded Jackson lying in his arms, before the two were apprehended by Sheriff Muller.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Fr.) (aka Ascenseur Pour l'échafaud), 88 minutes, D: Louis Malle

Gigi (1958), 115 minutes, D: Vincente Minnelli

Horror of Dracula (1958, UK), 82 minutes, D: Terence Fisher

I Want to Live! (1958), 120 minutes, D: Robert Wise
Director Robert Wise's film-noirish, low-budget, gritty biographical (yet heavily fictionalized) crime drama (with an original rhythmic jazzy score) was a clear indictment of capital punishment. The screenplay was based on magazine and newspaper articles, court transcripts, and personal letters from the imprisoned and condemned defendant. Non-violent petty criminal (burglary, forgery, perjury), prostitute ("party girl"), and drug addict Barbara Graham (Academy-Award winning Susan Hayward) was also associated with West Coast low-life, underworld figures in San Francisco's Tenderloin area.
The street-wise seemingly tough female acted as a "shill" - bringing in unsuspecting men to be fleeced at a gambling parlor. Graham was charged by a grand jury with the brutal murder of crippled, 64 year-old widow Mrs. Mabel Monahan during a robbery attempt in her Burbank, CA home in March of 1953, along with three known criminal accomplices: Emmett Perkins (Philip Coolidge), John R. 'Jack' Santo (Lou Krugman), and Bruce King (James Philbrook). Reportedly, the murder victim had $100,000 hidden somewhere in her home, but wouldn't divulge where. Underground figure King was apprehended at the scene, turned state's evidence, and ratted on the location of Graham and her petty associates in Lynwood, CA. The three suspected murderers were now in custody. Although Graham was questioned thoroughly, she defiantly claimed her innocence, but her sordid past would cause her to be regarded as guilty from the start (without presumption of innocence). For the trial, she was defended by attorney Richard Tibrow (Gage Clarke). During the trial, suspect King had been granted immunity, and claimed that Graham was a partner in the crime (she was nicknamed "Bloody Babs"). She had no solid or credible alibi - it couldn't be proved that she was home with her shifty, drug-addicted bartender-husband Henry/Hank Graham (Wesley Lau) and young child on the evening of the crime. Wired undercover police detective Ben Miranda (Peter Breck) entrapped the desperate and anxious Graham (fearing the death penalty) into confessing, when she was falsely promised an alibi. She was convicted of the crime in 1954, and sentenced to death. During the torturously-long appeals process, she was represented by San Francisco reporter-newspaperman Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), and defended by psychologist Carl Palmberg (Theodore Bikel), who claimed she was anti-social, but not violent. Her loyal friend Peg (Virginia Vincent) also testified on Barbara's behalf. However, her verdict could not be overturned ultimately, and she was not able to obtain clemency from the governor. After a few last-minute stays of execution were exhausted, 31 year-old Graham - who still claimed she was innocent, was sent to San Quentin's gas chamber in the late-morning of June 3, 1955. The death scene was memorable. When strapping her in a chair, preparing the sulphuric acid chemicals (and cyanide pellets), and masking her, the prison guard added: "When you hear the pellets drop, count ten. Take a deep breath. It's easier that way." Graham quipped: "How do you know?"

Man of the West (1958), 100 minutes, D: Anthony Mann

Mon Oncle (1958, Fr.) (aka My Uncle), 117 minutes, D: Jacques Tati

The Old Man and the Sea (1958), 86 minutes, D: John Sturges
Director John Sturges' adventure-drama was an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short 1952 novel about a fisherman off the coast of Cuba who heroically struggled with a hooked marlin bigger than his boat. The opening voice-over narration told about the old Cuban fisherman/Narrator - Santiago (Spencer Tracy) - and his friendship with young boy Manolin (Felipe Pazos, Jr.), who was taught how to fish, but was forbidden to accompany the old man fishing because it was considered bad luck. After 84 days of fishing, the old Santiago was unable to catch any fish. When he was ashore, the young Manolin idolized Santiago - and Santiago often turned to young Manolin for social and physical support; one of their topics of discussion was baseball (from newspaper reports), specifically the Yankees and Santiago's idol - player Joe DiMaggio. Santiago experienced night-time dreams of his younger days, when he was in Africa and lively lion cubs played on the beach-shore. In another instance, he dreamed about a marathon contest of two days of arm-wrestling with a strong black dockworker (Don Blackman) in a Casablanca tavern. On his 85th day of fishing, the old, frail and often solitary and lonely fisherman finally hooked a giant marlin on his line. Aver a period of three days and nights during his agonizing struggle with the creature, he tried to land the huge monstrous creature as the great fish towed his skiff way out to sea. In the heat of the day from the blazing sun in the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic, the old man began to suffer fatigue and bloody arthritic hands from the fishline - in his contest of wills. He marveled at the fish's size and ability, and the sleepless Santiago was finally able to kill the marlin by harpooning his prey next to his skiff - and then apologized to it. A group of hungry mako sharks nibbled at the carcass of the marlin lashed to the side of his boat, and mutilated it - Santiago was helpless to gallantly defend his prized fish against the overwhelming number of sharks. By the time he reached the dock with his catch, nothing was left but skeletal remains - but it still provided proof of his triumphant struggle against nature. As tourists from Havana at a cafe marveled at the skeleton, Santiago was back in his shack, "dreaming about the lions."

Separate Tables (1958), 100 minutes, D: Delbert Mann

Some Came Running (1958), 137 minutes, D: Vincente Minnelli

Touch of Evil (1958), 95 minutes, D: Orson Welles
The themes of director/actor Orson Welles' off-beat, twisted, dark and sweaty, film noirish mystery-thriller (considered the last official film noir) were murder, police corruption, kidnapping, betrayal, perversion and more. The film's celebrated credits-opening - with a captivating continuous-action, spectacular 3-minute and 30 second tracking and panning crane shot - followed a convertible (after a timed explosive dynamite device had been placed in its trunk when it was parked in Mexico), as it crossed the US/Mexico border into the squalid Mexican-American border town of Los Robles (TX). The car was driven by wealthy local American businessman involved in construction - Rudy Linnekar (Jeffrey Green) who was with his blonde mistress-girlfriend Zita (Joi Lansing), a striptease dancer. The car's route was intertwined with views of a newly-married couple: self-righteous Mexico City narcotics investigator Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his blonde American bride Susan (Janet Leigh) walking to the border crossing. As the inter-racial newlyweds kissed, the sound of the sudden and violent explosion of the detonated car overlapped on the soundtrack, and they turned their faces toward the blast. At a low-angled shot, a grotesque, cigar-smoking, candy-chewing, obese and bloated local detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) first appeared as he rolled out of his car at the scene of the car bombing. As a narcotics commission expert, Vargas became snarled in the local investigation with the racist Quinlan, at the behest of Quinlan's loyal partner Police Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), and DA Adair (Ray Collins). Vargas in particular suspected that the local Grandi narcotics ring, run by local crime boss Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), was somehow involved. Meanwhile, Vargas entirely ignored his young honeymooning bride; in a continuing series of sexual terrorization, she was first harrassed in Grandi's sleazy, dark motel in town by a peeping tom with a flashlight that shone on her as she removed her cashmere sweater. Grandi was interested in intimidating Susan to pressure her to have her husband end his prosecution of Grandi's drug-dealing brother who was imprisoned and awaiting trial in Mexico. While Quinlan was on the Mexican side of the border during the case, he visited with cigar-smoking, Mexican gypsy and brothel manager Tanya (Marlene Dietrich in a memorable cameo), a former lover and femme fatale; she engaged in verbal foreplay with Quinlan: (To Quinlan: "I didn't recognize you. You should lay off those candy bars....You're a mess, honey"). Then, while Susan was sequestered in a room of a deserted, out-of-the-way and remote motel on the outskirts of the Texas town (not knowing it was owned by Grandi), she was attacked by menacing thugs (also members of the Grandi gang), and had to endure the care of the weirdo, nervous and twitchy motel manager/night watchman (Dennis Weaver). During this and many other past investigations, the experienced, old-time cop Quinlan habitually fabricated or planted evidence to convict the guilty (even though his instincts were usually correct and he had a perfect arrest record). He framed young Mexican shoe clerk Sanchez (Victor Millan) who had secretly married Marcia (Joanna Moore), Linnekar's daughter. Quinlan had surreptitiously placed two sticks of dynamite in a shoe box in Sanchez' apartment - in a long and second unedited sequence. (Vargas knew of the deception, putting him into conflict with Quinlan.) Behind the scenes, Grandi plotted with Quinlan to destroy Vargas professionally and personally by framing Susan for drug use. At the motel, Susan was shot up with drugs and then brought back to a room in Grandi's downtown hotel, to appear like she had experienced a drug overdose. In addition, Quinlan had chillingly strangled Uncle Joe Grandi to death in the hotel room next to a semi-unconscious Susan, in an attempt to frame Susan for his murder - and she was arrested. As the film wound to its climactic conclusion, Sgt. Menzies revealed to Vargas that Quinlan was implicated when his cane was found at Grandi's murder scene, and he agreed to wear a wire to try and entrap his partner. In the gripping climax, Quinlan began to confess his wrong-doings - but then realized that Menzies was betraying him and recording him. He heard the echo of his own voice as it was recorded on a transmitter held by Vargas under a bridge, and realized he had been taped and everything about the frame-up had been revealed by his partner Sgt. Pete Menzes. Quinlan angrily shot Menzies and lethally wounded him. To protect the unarmed Vargas from also being shot by Quinlan, Menzies shot Quinlan before dying. The corrupt police captain was finally brought down. The final image was of Quinlan lying dead and floating whale-like in dark and stagnant gutter-canal water and garbage. Vargas was informed that Sanchez had confessed to the crime, and was reunited with Susie. Tanya arrived to deliver Quinlan's epitaph in the film's final line: "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?...Adios!"

Vertigo (1958), 128 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Director Alfred Hitchcock's perplexing, necrophiliac-tinged thriller about obsession was arguably his most complex, and most analyzed compelling masterpiece. It involved a man's compulsive obsession to exploitatively manipulate and transform a woman to match his fantasy. The dazzling credits sequence, with Bernard Herrmann's score, visualized a fragmented and shifting image of a woman's blank and expressionless face, followed by a close-up view of her eye as the film's title "Vertigo" zoomed out slowly from the depths of her widening pupil with spiraling, vertiginous, animated designs. In the film's opening chase sequence, plain-clothes SF police detective (later identified as John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart)) and a uniformed SF policeman (Fred Graham) were pursuing a criminal-fugitive. Scottie was left hanging from a gutter - frozen by his debilitating fear of heights (acrophobia). He also suffered from 'vertigo' as he watched in horror as his fellow officer tried to assist him and fell to his death. The detective was forced to retire, and was helped to recover with his longtime friend and ex-fiancee, Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), an artist (and fashion illustrator) who was in unrequited love with him. Scottie found himself hired by his old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to trail his potentially-suicidal wife as she wandered around San Francisco. His first view of the female - a cool, ethereal, lovely and elegant blonde named Madeleine (Kim Novak), occurred in Ernie's Restaurant. Scottie continued to stalk after Madeleine, and followed her into the art gallery at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor where he found her hypnotized, motionless and trance-like in front of a portrait painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, her ancestor's portrait. Madeleine's obsession with her tragic ancestor Carlotta Valdez intrigued Scottie. Scottie rescued the suicidal Madeleine at the Golden Gate Bridge, when she tore and threw flower petals from her Carlotta-like nosegay into the water, and then jumped into the cold waters of the Bay. He soon became entranced and bewitched by her, and fell in love with her. During a visit together at San Juan Bautista's Spanish Mission about 100 miles south of San Francisco, Scottie hoped that visiting the real-world California mission would end Madeleine's nightmares and cure her fears. She ran toward the mission's church and bell tower, climbed up the bell tower's crude, winding and rickety wooden staircase - with Scottie in pursuit, although he was slowed by his acrophobia and vertigo. At the top, she fell to her death from the tower in an assumed suicide, and Scottie spiraled down into a deep depression. Haunted and obsessed with the dead woman, he happened to meet her lower-class double Judy (Novak again), a shop-girl. Scottie manipulated, reshaped and remade her into the dead Madeleine's image. But then came a striking moment when Scottie was attaching a necklace around Judy's neck, and he realized that Judy was Madeleine (imagined in a momentary flashback of the necklace in the portrait and Madeleine gazing at it from a museum bench) -- he suddenly knew there was no Madeleine, and that he had been tricked by Elster. They traveled again to the mission, where Scottie asked agonizing questions as he dragged Judy into the mission and up the stairs of the mission tower during their second visit, to recreate the death scene. There was another terrifying sequence in the bell tower, when she sincerely professed that she still loved him even though he had been her victim. Footsteps of a black-clad figure in the shadows startled Judy - she recoiled, stepped and fell backwards through an opening in the tower and plummeted to her own death (off-screen) in an emotionally-shattering climax. The figure was a nun from the mission, who crossed herself and murmured the last words of the film: "God have mercy." In the uncompromising conclusion, a stunned Scottie stood on the belfry tower ledge as he stared down at Judy's dead body in the tragic ending - Scottie had tragically loved and lost the same woman twice.


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