Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Sunset Boulevard, Rashomon, Strangers on a Train

Gloria Swanson is ready for her close-up, Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

Gloria Swanson is ready for her close-up, Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

Call me lazy.

Or indecisive.

But Seraphic Secret has not updated our Greatest Movies list of each decade for far too long.  We’ve covered silent films, the 1930s, and finally the 1940s. It’s time to head into the 50s.

This was an interesting decade. Hollywood’s studio system was a wheezing dinosaur. Television was thought to be killing the movies. And yet, as always, great screenwriters, actors, and directors pushed through the pervasive mediocrity and produced stunning masterpieces.

1. Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

Bill Holden was once asked what it took to be a star.

He answered, “It.”

“What’s it?” queried the puzzled interviewer.

It is the lead role in Sunset Boulevard,” replied Holden.

A scathing portrait of Hollywood, and at the same time, a brilliant and timeless meditation on the cruelties of celebrity.

In her finest role, Gloria Swanson, one of the silent screen’s greatest stars, plays Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent era, who dreams of a great comeback role. Her life is one mad hallucination. Bill Holden plays the down-and-out screenwriter who cynically agrees to write the script that will put her back on top, a film he knows will never be produced. This is one of the saddest love stories ever filmed. Every frame, every line of dialogue, accurate as a sniper’s bullet. Inevitably, when Gloria Swanson, lost in the past, declaims: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” this screenwriter fights back tears.

 

Toshiru Mifune and Machiko Kyô, in Rashomon, 1950.

Toshiru Mifune and Machiko Kyô, in Rashomon, 1950.

2. Rashomon, 1950.

In medieval Japan, a terrible crime takes place deep in the forest. Dappled light, blinding sun flares, and hazy natural light create an other-worldy effect.

But this other world is, in fact, the human mind.

The film builds its narrative by telling the story of the crime through several points of view. Each character tells their own version of the truth. And each version directly contradicts the other. Thus, we have what’s become known as the Rashomon Effect.

I don’t think there’s been a more influential film than Rashomon. The template for conflicting points of view has become so common that we hardly notice it anymore. But Rashomon’s singular power derives from Kurosawa’s relentless focus on questions of honor, shame, pride, shifting loyalties, and self-interest, elevate this film beyond all imitators.

 

Still from Strangers on a Train, 1951.

Still from Strangers on a Train, 1951.

3. Strangers on a Train, 1951.

When Alfred Hitchcock approached several A-list Hollywood screenwriters to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel about two strangers who swap murders, he was rebuffed and told that the story was tawdry. Finally, Raymond Chandler, desperate for money, agreed to write the script. Hitch was delighted, until script conferences revealed that Chandler was a mean drunk who did not understand Hitchcock’s focus on manipulating audience emotion through pure cinema. Chandler, Hitchcock complained, was obsessed with “plausibility.” Of course, Hitch delighted in subverting the very notion.

Hitchcock fired Chandler, dumped his entire script, moved on to a small army of screenwriters — including the great Ben Hecht  — and directed one of the most audacious thrillers ever filmed. Hitch was never interested in whodunit. No, he wanted to know how and why. The details Hitch used, physical and psychological, create a mosaic of human weakness that is unique in cinema.

Summary: Guy (Farley Granger) is a social-climbing tennis star who is romancing a senator’s daughter while still married to an unfaithful wife. Bruno (Robert Walker) is a cynical, off-kilter and slightly effeminate rich kid who chafes under his father’s authority. These two meet as strangers on a train — and murder ensues.

The film, propelled by a relentless narrative velocity, is filled with some of Hitch’s most powerful images: Bruno getting his nails manicured by his mother; the hound at the top of the stairs; the heart-stopping grope for the lighter dropped down the drain; a strangling reflected in the victim’s eyeglasses; and, of course, the race-against-the-clock tennis match with hundreds of heads moving back and forth, following the volley—all except for one immobile head—a chilling image.

Some critics have suggested that the film is an indictment of McCarthyism. To left-wingers, every film from the 1950s is about McCarthyism. But this is a shallow and dopey reading of the movie. Hitch was never interested in politics. He was interested in good and evil, and the infinite shades between.

To be continued.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “Amazing (and sad) to realize that Swanson was only 52 when she played the role.”
     
    An idiosyncratic favorite of mine is the Michel LeGrand musical “Le Demoiselles du Rochefort” in which Danielle Darrieux is 50 and looks terrific. She still looks good at 95.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 8, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Michael:

      I’ve never seen the film. As a physician, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting: I have a serious medical condition that almost never permits me to sit through a French movie:-)

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  2. sage
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Your post necessarily has to be short, but I think its worth noting that the great actor and Director von Stroheim, playing Desmond’s butler, and seeking to protect the Desmond characther from the intrustions of reality, was the director of a clip of Swanson in a silent movie which is shown within SB.  The other thing is that the movie also had other famous Hollywood actors, including Buster  Keaton attend a party at Desmond’s home, and Cecil B. DeMille plays himself. 
    Another famous movie that came out that year, All About Eve, has another way of showing how another (stage) actress addresses aging and irrelevance.
    Swanson lived to a ripe old age, attributing it to among other things a no sugar diet and her much younger husband, William Dufty wrote a book about it called Sugar Blues.
     
     

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      sage:

      Thank so much for your comment. Indeed, as I’m sure you know, the film Norma watches is “Queen Kelly,” directed by von Stroheim, and financed by Joe Kennedy, Swanson’s lover at the time. And so disgusted was Swanson by the sordidness of the film, and so outraged by von’s budget busting methods, that the film was cancelled and von fired. After that, he was finished as a director in Hollywood.

      I’ve read Duffy’s book, and because of it, have sworn off sugar—sorta.

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  3. sennacherib
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    The Lady Killers!

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      sennacherib:

      I just screened The Lady Killers recently and yes, it is wonderful.

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  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Some of my own best movie lists were made in the 50s-1st half of the 60s. I know for a screenwriter’s perspective you look at the technical aspects – but like wine, I know what I like ;-)
     
    Admittedly if my palette were better developed I would drink something other than Trader Joe’s $3.99 Chilean Wine (but then their Chardonnay took first prize at some exposition so I am not totally off the reservation)
     
    Movies to me like The Big Country, Auntie Mame (a largely forgotten movie with Rosalind Russell, The Guns of Navarone, Breakfast at Tiffanys, on and on.
     
    I know most/all of these wouldn’t be on one of your lists but I still like them.
     
    I have heard others give Sunset Blvd high acclaim so I’d better see it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      I really don’t look at films from a technical point of view. I just sit down like anybody else and look to be entertained. Only later, after the film is over, do I consciously analyze the finer details. “The Big Country” is a terrific film, “Auntie Mame” has a huge cult following, “Guns of Navarone” is a perennial favorite. (Poor Gia Scala!), but I have to admit that “Breakfast” is the one Audrey Hepburn film that I flat-out don’t like. She was totally miscast, and I confess to a serious George Peppard allergy.

      You really should see “Sunset.” Hollywood will never look the same.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

        Robert – I will order it (amazon has gotten more business from me by your recommendations!) I did read up on Gia – what a sad ending. On Breakfast at Tiffanys, I liked the movie so much – and wouldn’t you have loved to be at that party? -
        I had to read the Truman Copote novella – and I’ll tell you – it is a lot darker. Won’t give anything away but you saw a lot of director’s license in the movie! And Blake Edwards said his one big regret – besides the pain George Peppard was to work with – was casting Mickey Rooney as the stereotypical Japanese
         
        On The Big Country, there was a great interview on Icons with Katheryn Wyler – and she said her father regretted not editing the movie more – but he had to rush off to Europe to start Ben Hur (which I think is a terribly dull movie)
         
        She made a very interesting point about the movie that I hadn’t thought of – an issue that still rings today – the fight over water rights. She thought in scenes the music was overpowering (probably was) but Jerome Moross’ composition is still played 50 years later.
         
        Wm Wyler has to rank as one of the top 5 directors but actors said he drove them nuts – take after take – he would frequently turn his back on the set during filming just to listen to the dialogue – and order take after take. Until what he heard felt right.
         
        But I believe mnore actors won Oscers with him then any other director.

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      • kgbudge
        Posted February 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        I am fond of The Guns of Navarone, and the only think I like about Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the hilarious spoof still:  https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/4036112128/h236B16FA/
        But I do like George Peppard in The Blue Max.

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  5. Barry
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Robert:
     
    A pair of thoughts re Sunset Boulevard.
     
    1. I see parallels to Gatsby in both structure and character.
    2. Personally, I knew several of these people, essentially successful actors of a  preceding generation. Without exeption, all were dignified and sane. Not a Norma Desmond in the bunch.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Barry:

      Gloria Swanson always objected to being classified as Norma Desmond. Unfortunately, there were several Norma Desmonds: Mary Miles Minter, Juanita Hansen, Alma Rubins, Madge Bellamy, Mae Murray, and Olive Borden come immediately to mind. There were, tragically, many more.

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      • Barry
        Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        Robert:
         
        I certainly accept your examples, but after the sound era there are relatively few. I exclude Evelyn Brent, Kay Francis, Esther Ralston because they were not certifiable. I suppose Veronica Lake had her difficult  times. But Gloria Swanson was surely on to something when she objected.

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted January 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

          Barry:

          Look, there were crazy, sad creatures in the silent era, the sound era, and I’ve run across too many Hollywood people with severe personality disorders. It is a testament to Swanson’s powerhouse performance that her public confused her with the Norma Desmond image. Swanson was the polar opposite of Norma. Amazing (and sad) to realize that Swanson was only 52 when she played the role.

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          • Barry
            Posted January 31, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

            Jay Gatsby and Joe Gillis. Men with more than the same initials. Both pursue the American dream with purpose, corruption and immorality. Justice is meted out in a swimming pool by a bullet.You would have thought Theodore Dresier had been the author.

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            • Robert J. Avrech
              Posted January 31, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

              Barry:

              Never saw the connection between Gatsby and Gillis but yes, now I do. Fascinating notion.

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. Johnny
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Billy Wilder only has credit for directing 27 movies but among them are some of the greatest movies of different genres. The same guy made Some Like It Hot that made Double Indemnity that made The Apartment that made Stalag 17 and of course SB.  
     
    It sounds so hi-falutin artsy fartsy but Wilder was great at exposing the human condition.  SB was a contest of who could use and manipulate the other one more for their own benefit.  Until one doesn’t need the other and then something breaks. 
     
     
    I was surprised that Nancy Olson didn’t go on to bigger roles in movies. She reminded me of Theresa Wright with her normal and sensible girl next- door qualities that every man would want to bring home to mom.
     
    Could this movie get financing today when the studio finds out the leading lady hadn’t been in a movie for 10 years. Whadya mean Emma Stone’s too young for the part?  What about Portman then – she’s got to be at least 30 years old. Don’t screenwriters get paid the big bucks to tweak the story so we can use this months hottest stars?  And lets imagine Ryan Gosling as the washed up writer. C’mon, make it happen.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Johnny:

      Billy Wilder’s films are prominent on my various lists. Like Hitchcock, some of his best work was in the 50s.

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  7. Posted January 31, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I really must watch Rashomon this weekend.  I’ve never seen it, and since you write so eloquently about it, Robert, I really should broaden my education.  Hitch, though, is going to be a harder sell – there’s just something too cold-blooded in his movies for me.
    But Sunset is a different story.  I could watch that movie every week and find something new.  As much as he hated “that goddamn butler part,” Von was never better.
    Did you ever hear the story that during the filming, someone who knew of Holden’s womanizing reputation asked him if he’d gone to bed with Swanson, only to have Holden answer that he was spending all of his time trying to stay out of the clutches of Swanson’s mother, who had a raging crush on him?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted January 31, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Christoper:

      Let me know what you think of Rashomon.

      Hitch could be rather clinical.

      I strongly recommend: The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), Notorious, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and North By Northwest for a gentler Hitch.

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      • Jane E.
        Posted January 31, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        According to Capra, the ’50s’ were the beginning of the end. The time when shock-mongers and bleeding-heart liberals began polluting the art form. Your thoughts?

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted January 31, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          Jane E:
          Capra’s decline began in the 50′s, so I get his bitterness. Look, Hollywood took some weird turns in the 50s, but it was the 60s that really brought in the radical leftists who now control the Hollywood propaganda machine. The anti-Vietnam war movies like “Coming Home” set the dreadful template for all the vicious anti-American movies in which Hollywood now marinates. By contrast, the 50s were pretty darn patriotic. As for shock mongers, well, take a look at the pre-Code pics of the early 30′s. Pretty darn shocking, even by today’s standards.

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