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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Five Favorite films from the Fabulous Fifties!

The 1950s was a fertile decade in Hollywood--despite the blacklist and anti-Communist hysteria--with pictures made to wow audiences to lure them away from their TV sets and back into cinemas. Some movies seemed to underscore the dominant image of a cohesive American family, while others exposed the deep troubles beneath. Societal troubles were often thematic in the best French and Italian films of the decade as well.

In honor of National Classic Movie Day, I'm delighted to share five 1950s films I recommend be on the watchlist of any film fan. I've decided to include one film from each of five genres: Western, the musical, film noir, melodrama, and suspense. Check out all the posts compiled by Rick at the Classic Film & TV Cafe, and create your own personal 1950s watch list!

Western: 3:10 to Yuma (D. Delmer Daves, 1957)
Here's a gripping character-driven Western playing out a tense drama between two flawed men: Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford); the latter is a charming outlaw on the run from a stagecoach hold-up and murder who gets caught and is given to Dan to escort him to the titular train to Yuma (site of the state prison) over a few hours. It's not a particularly realistic or overly violent Western (those would become more the fashion in the 1960s). And it's not meant to be. Instead it's a piece of visual and storytelling art that imbues every stylized scene with tension. The high-contrast black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. is stunning. As the plot revolves around a drought in Arizona, you'll want to have a tall glass of water nearby as you watch, as the dry harsh beauty of the landscape is almost overwhelming.

I love that the characters (at least the main male ones) are three dimensional and underplayed. Glenn Ford apparently was cast originally as Dan Evans, but requested to take on the role of the villain here, and what a great choice. The economy of the script forces all the actors to do much with face and body to convey the struggles of will they face during the running time. The ending is so much more cathartic and satisfying as a result.
I love the composition of this shot.

This film also has that special something, which for me is the score. The song '3:10 to Yuma' is sung by Frankie Laine over the title credits, and the haunting theme repeats during the film in various arrangements--my favorite is the guitar, flute and violin trio.

If you've seen the 2007 remake with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, expect a similar story, but resist the comparisons. The later film is a much more realistic Western and the vibe is different. Watch the original for a compelling cinema experience on its own.

Noir: Angel Face (D. Otto Preminger, 1953)
Robert Mitchum as Frank Jessup in Angel Face
It's a noir and it stars Robert Mitchum. Sold yet? He's the chump taken in by Jean Simmons' rich spoiled girl Diane Tremayne, who ratches up the concept of the 'femme fatale' several orders of magnitude. Her face is angelic but her soul is anything but. ('Kathy' in Out of the Past could take lessons in evil from Diane.) A dominant theme here is that all is not well in the great American family of the 1950s.

Diane turns on the charm to lure Frank Jessup (Mitchum), an ambulance driver, to ditch his earnest girlfriend (Mona Freeman) for her, and the problems (and body count) begin to mount.  It's a terrific thriller, as all along we think that Mitchum is somehow going to escape her clutches, but he keeps getting drawn back in. Mitchum is mesmerizing as usual, and Jean Simmons, the talented English actress who was still early in her career with roles such as Ophelia under her belt, commits fully to her psychopathic character. Herbert Marshall, a favorite of mine, is delightful as her deluded, indulgent father. By the end of this part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, you may never want to get into a convertible again.
Jean Simmons surveying the scene of the future crime(s).

Cary Grant being driven along the Riviera by
Grace Kelly
Suspense: To Catch a Thief (D. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955).
I'll admit that I watched this one for the first time ever last month. It's not the most acclaimed Hitchcock, and having been left cold by some of Grace Kelly's other performances, I had put off watching it. But it was free on Amazon Prime, and I decided to give it a whirl. And I loved it. It's not your typical Hitchcock film in that it's not scary in the slightest, and any minor suspenseful scenes hardly quicken the pulse. But it's a romp and a romantic fantasy that sweeps you away.
In case the color wasn't bright enough, a key
scene takes place in a flower market.
Former jewel thief/cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) has gone straight and is enjoying life in Southern France; due to a rash of thefts, he's pressured into cooperating with the local authorities to set a trap for the yet unknown serial burglar. Along the way he must work with visiting wealthy American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful but aloof daughter Frances (Kelly). The action hops along Hitchcock style with literal and figurative twists and turns until the puzzles are solved.

Arguably the best thing about the film was its location setting - the gorgeous coast of Southern France, in complete bloom with flowers everywhere. I don't think there is another film that can come close to being as colorful. And Grace Kelly seems to be at home in the locale--perhaps that is why I enjoy her so much here. (As everyone knows, she was soon to take up residence as the new Princess of Monaco the year after this film was released.). Just look at some more fabulous images:





Musical: Singin' in the Rain (D. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1953)

I was hoping to find a lesser-known musical to highlight here. But because I'm not a huge fan of musicals, even though I've enjoyed many during this decade, none did I enjoy nearly as much as this one. There's a reason that it tops the American Film Institute's best musical film of all time. So if you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for? With Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagan, it's colorful, rollicking, hysterically funny...and those songs! The story revolves around a silent film star (Kelly) who must find a way to succeed during the conversion to sound films. Hollywood is thoroughly enjoying spoofing itself here while celebrating the wonder of a good movie.

Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 Oscar winner The Artist owes much in plot and characterization to this film. Yet I hope that no one ever attempts to remake this fabulous Hollywood love letter to the best of itself. Check out one of my favorite musical numbers "Good Mornin" with all three stars:


Melodrama: The Earrings of Madame De... (D. Max Ophuls,1953)
It's a French film by acclaimed director Max Ophuls, and like many French films of the era, it's filled with ambiguity in character and motivation, but it's so tightly drawn and elegant. I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive last year and I've not been able to get it out of my mind since. The lead character, whose full name is never revealed, is portrayed by stunning Danielle Darrieux. She's partially content with her Parisian life at the end of the 19th century with wealthy husband Charles Boyer, but is rather bored and is seeking other company. When Boyer gifts her an exquisite pair of diamond earrings, they become a pawn multiple times in a series of deceits aimed to help conceal her infidelities.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that the film is “one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed. It glitters and dazzles, and beneath the artifice it creates a heart, and breaks it.” Perhaps it's the 'manneredness' of the film that makes it such a pleasure for me. The camera is almost like a character the way it glides around the others in a film - as a viewer it's like being in a waltz with everyone on screen, even if the music grows continually darker and is played in a minor key.

I also particularly enjoyed Vittorio de Sica, the famed director who was also an actor, and just a year removed from his successful and acclaimed Bicycle Thieves, he is so charismatic here as one of Madame's lovers. 
Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux
So break out a bottle of Burgundy, dip into some fois gras, and treat yourself to the best of 1950's French filmmaking. And while you're indulging visit the Classic Film & TV Cafe for more great Fifties films.

30 comments:

  1. Love these choices! I have always had a soft spot for To Catch a Thief.

    Carol, The Old Hollywood Garden

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    1. Thanks! I'm so glad I finally watched it. It's so fun!

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  2. Fascinating selection and wonderful insights. Those I have yet to see (The Earrings of Madame D...) have moved to the top of the list to my right and those I am familiar with (3:10 to Yuma) move to the list of "watch again soon." If we remove the production numbers from Singin' in the Rain we still have a brilliant comedy. The music makes it something remarkable.

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    1. What a great observation about 'Singin in the Rain'! I find it uproariously funny, AND it has such fabulous musical numbers. Perhaps that's why it stands above the rest.

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  3. TO CATCH A THIEF is one of Hitch’s most entertaining movies. I love Director Delmer Daves and his 3:10 TO YUMA (he also did another great ‘50s Western THE HANGING TREE). I’ve seen a couple of Ophuls’ films, but not EARRINGS, so now I need to look for it.

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    1. I appreciate the tip on The Hanging Tree. It will make a good comparison with 3:10 to Yuma. Thanks again for hosting - fun topic!

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  4. Wonderful list! You know, I almost watched The Eerrings of Madame De... the other day. Now I'm even more convinced to see it!

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    1. Thanks, Virginie! I think you will like that film. Every once in a while I like to change it up and watch a non-Hollywood film from the classic era. So much good stuff!

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  5. I had the biggest smile on my face because after your post about “Angel Face” you shared a picture of Cary and Grace in a convertible. That was a much safer ride. Well done!

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    1. Haha, great observation, and I wish I could take credit for that little arrangement!! I suppose it was subliminal :-) Thanks for stopping by and reading!

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  6. I'm a huge fan of To Catch A Thief also, and it just barely missed making my list. I think it is one of the most visually gorgeous films ever made; the stars, the setting and the costumes all contributing to my opinion. Like you, I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but I put Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on my list, although I do enjoy singing in the rain. And I've just recently discovered an interest in Robert Mitchum, mostly thanks to his performance in Angel Face.

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    1. Wow-it seems we are on a very similar wavelength with our film preferences. And To Catch A Thief is indeed gorgeous.If I could have dived into my screen while watching I would have! I would say Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is also a film that I didn't expect to like as much as I did. It's a good one. And I decided I have to see more of Howard Keel.

      Robert Mitchum is to me the perfect leading man for noir. Out of the Past is another great one but there are so many more.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. My favorite of you choices is The Earrings of Madame de... and when I saw it, I immediately went into meltdown that I hadn't thought of it (or La Ronde) when I was trying to figure out what/how to approach the selection process. But you have written of it beautifully, so no need for my own regret. Max Ophuls use of camera movement is nothing less than genius.

    I love that Hitchcock made To Catch a Thief more a romcom set on the French Riviera than a suspenser. He could do anything and proved it whenever he ventured into different territory.

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    1. Hi--yay,another fan of 'Earrings'! I do like to watch non-Hollywood films from the classic era, too, so this was just one of many I could have chosen. But it is fabulous. I really enjoyed La Ronde, too (especially because I'll watch Anton Walbrook in anything!) Those films have such an interesting tone to them-very unlike most Hollywood films.

      You're totally right about TCAT - I had a bit of trouble categorizing it as suspense, but I did that mainly as a nod to Hitchcock.The range of film styles he mastered WAS truly amazing.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

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  8. Wonderful list. I am a big fan of Lina Lamont, so anytime she appears, I'm a happy camper. I saw The Earrings of Madame de.... for the first time this year and absolutely LOVED it. Charles Boyer deserves so much more respect than he usually gets.

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    1. I loved seeing Charles Boyer in a film in his native language. He was so distinguished and interesting to watch, and not as recognizable as I may have expected. You're so right he deserves more respect.

      Thank you for reading!

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  9. Splendid selections, and your intro sets a very knowledgeable tone, for none of these movies were made in a vacuum, but all reflect the complexity of the era in some way.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. I debated about whether to include that intro, but I feel it helps add a unity to the post. I appreciate you stopping by!

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  10. Love the diversity! When you can have 3:10 to Yuma, Angel Face, and Earrings of Madame de... all on the same bill, it makes for a fascinating selection.

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    1. Thank you! I like to keep it interesting :-)

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  11. I adore 3:10 to Yuma, and I love Singin' in the Rain and To Catch a Thief, but I've never seen the other two, so I need to fix that!

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    1. Angel Face is quite dark and brutal, and Earrings is so French. They are great entertainment, tho!

      I would have listed Shane if I hadn't already written a big review of it a few years ago.

      Thanks for reading, H.!

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  12. So pleased you included 3:10 to Yuma, one of my all-time fave films. I love how Glenn Ford and Van Heflin play off each other, which only serves to increase the tension.

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    1. Thanks for reading! I feel that 3:10 to Yuma may be somewhat under-appreciated. It blew.me.away. the first time I saw it. Ford and Heflin do well together in their scenes, most definitely. I had read they were drinking buddies during filming and had a warm relationship.

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  13. 3:10 To Yuma would have to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made. It stands tall and delivers . I've never seen Angel Face but you have really piqued my interest, as I'm a fan of Robert Mitchum. Great list of films!

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    1. Angel Face is a a really good one. I hope you enjoy it. One tidbit: Jean Simmons is wearing a wig. I don't know what it is with femmes fatale and wigs! :-)

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  14. With the '50s being such a strong decade for westerns, it's easy for something as good as 3:10 to Yuma to get overlooked, and I think you're right, it is a bit under-appreciated. I'm also very fond of To Catch a Thief, and who doesn't love Singin' in the Rain? The others are now on my watchlist.

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    1. Hi Jay, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you like my choice of 3:10 to Yuma, and you're right about the decade being a great one for Westerns. I am a huge fan of Shane, as well. I think those two are my favorite Westerns, at least for that decade.

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  15. Great choices - considering that To Catch a Thief is an unusual choice for 1950s Hitchcock. I must confess I haven't watched Angeld Face or The Earrings of Madame De..., but I agree that no other musical leaves us with the same impact as Singin' in the Rain, and also that Glenn Ford as villain in 3:10 to Yuma was a nice and interesting change.
    Thanks for tthe kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. Thank you, Lê. I picked To Catch a Thief mainly because I watched it recently and had so much fun with it! It was a nice surprise after my expectations were low. I'm not sure why they were low--it is a Hitchcock after all! I appreciate you stopping by :-)

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