The 10 Best Films of the 1950s

10. Dial M for Murder (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was in his prime, making Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest this decade. None of them made this list. His lean, witty, sophisticated, expertly-plotted murder-mystery starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly is his tightest, most focused film of the decade, suffering from none of the languors and excesses of the other three (particularly Vertigo). There isn’t a wasted moment in it, and the finish is a knockout. 

9. Paths of Glory (1957)

It’s tough to leave out Stanley Kubrick’s steely crime thriller The Killing, but Paths was an even more groundbreaking film, a beautiful, somber WWI antiwar tale about a French officer (Kirk Douglas) who is forced to shoot three men chosen at random for cowardice because a doomed trench-warfare sally dreamed up by incompetent generals failed. It’s a small, personal, gritty story that unfolds into a powerful fable of an especially infuriating war.

8. Some Like It Hot (1959)

Billy Wilder,whose other great films this decade include Sabrina, Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17, went for pure anarchic comedy in this sunny confection that took one of the world’s oldest gags (cross-dressing men, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) and updated it with Marilyn Monroe’s loopy sweetness and a crackerjack plot that has enough twists, impersonations and pull-the-rug out moments to fill half a dozen of today’s movies.

7. All About Eve (1950)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz set the standard for witty, metropolitan screenwriting with his inside look at Broadway backstabbers as seen by a mordant theater columnist (George Sanders, in a defining role) who observes an upstart actress (Anne Baxter) bent on displacing an aging star (Bette Davis). In her simpering unctuousness, Eve is a character to rival Charles Dickens’ Uriah Heep.

6. High Noon (1952)

The Fred Zinnemann-directed Gary Cooper western was an artsy experiment in tense, stripped-down storytelling that unfolds in real time, as a brave sheriff (Gary Cooper) tries to round up some deputies to face down some major villains due to arrive on the noon train. Written by a disillusioned ex-Communist (Carl Foreman) who would go on to be a hero to the Left for being blacklisted after refusing to name names of fellow travelers, the film’s clear message was a warning about the dangers of pacifism and failing to stand up against crime and terror. Cooper’s Marshal Kane is simply and calmly the world’s policeman, because without him the forces of darkness would rule.

5. A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Fans of Andy Griffith’s gentle country-boy act on the long-running sitcom named for him will be shocked by his hard-edged nastiness in director Budd Schulberg’s acidic reflection on the Will Rogers myth. Griffith plays an alcoholic Arkansas singer who becomes first an entertainment personality and then morphs into the equivalent of Rogers, a sinister charlatan with fascist leanings who leads gullible Americans into becoming mindless political followers. The film is more interesting, and a lot more entertaining, than Schulberg’s 1954 attack on liberalism, On the Waterfront.

4. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Possibly the most quotable film ever written, this evocative, jazz-infused noir about New York newspapering and nightlife in the 1950s starred an icy Burt Lancaster as the Walter Winchell-like columnist J.J. Hunsecker, with Tony Curtis an ideal foil as the sniveling P.R. man Sidney Falco. The film is so vicious and brutal about both New York and newspapers that it’s especially beloved by New Yorkers and newspapermen: “I love this dirty town,” Hunsecker famously exclaims after watching two guys fistfight in the street.

3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Like virtually all Billy Wilder films, this one was years ahead of its time, a funny and weird take on Hollywood in which a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) agrees to become a sort of in-house boytoy to a self-deluding silent movie queen (Gloria Swanson). What could go wrong? Wilder, who was born in what is now Poland, had been working in Hollywood for many years and yet he always maintained the outsider’s sense of wonder at how bizarre it all was. It was his cunning sense of humor, though, that made what could have been a soapy drama into a black-comic noir by which all others would be judged.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Another Carl Foreman-written film, this dramatic adventure takes place in a Japanese prison camp where U.S. and British P.O.W.s in the command of a by-the-book colonel (Alec Guinness) agree to give their all to complete a bridge because of honor, military discipline and morale. The film is simultaneously a lively adventure, a stirring paen to military resolve and comradeship, and a suspenseful thought piece about competing values under the most dire circumstances. Director David Lean would go on to make two of my five favorite films of the 1960s, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

A hilarious, affectionate look back at Hollywood as it entered the talkie era, this was a package of sheer cinematic joy starring three absolute charmers in Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. It features the best musical number ever put on film — no not the title song, the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in the middle — and a combination of wry wisdom and infectious good cheer that few films can even approach.


Don’t forget to check out the previous choices for the 1960s1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.