We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.
7. Shane, 1953.
The gunshots in Shane are unlike any other gunshots in Hollywood history. They are heart-stopping thunderbolts, from either heaven or hell.
Shane, a mysterious gunslinger, rides into an isolated valley in the post-civil war Wyoming territory and finds work on a struggling farm owned by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife, Marian, Jean Arthur, in her last Hollywood role. Their young son, Joey (Brandon deWilde) is drawn to Shane and wants Shane to teach him how to shoot.
Of course, there’s a ruthless cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to force Starrett and others off their land. All the basic elements of the classic western are in place. But Marian is an anti-gun fanatic, and she insists that guns will have no place in her son’s life.
Shane calmly explains: “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”
Jack Palance turns up as a psychotic killer hired by Ryker. Shane, a weary gunfighter, is forced to blaze away.
After World War II, director/producer George Stevens was well aware of the damage bullets do to a man’s flesh. But Stevens also witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps, and he knew that only good men with guns could have liberated these camps. Thus, Stevens abhorred violence even as he knew that it was necessary.
Shane was one of the first films in which actors were attached to hidden wires that yanked them backwards when they were shot. Stevens also fired a small cannon into a garbage can to simulate the loud roar of a pistol.
The ending is justly famous for Brandon deWilde’s cry of: “Come back, Shane!” As the gunslinger, perhaps mortally wounded in the last battle, rides off into the distance. This is one of the most haunting and moving endings in movie history. Because we all want Shane to come back.
8. The Big Heat, 1953
Bannion (Glenn Ford), a bull-dog cop, takes on the mob after the death of his beloved wife. This is a classic revenge tale, normally played out in a Western landscape (like Shane), but here the city, the mob, and the angry cop replace the west, the gunslinger and the cattle baron, as the moral landscape where good fights evil.
In film noir, the femme fatale ensnares and then destroys the hero. But The Big Heat cleverly turns this tradition on its head. Gloria Grahame as Debbie, the gun moll, throws in with Glenn Ford’s avenging cop, and in the film’s most famous sequence gets a pot of boiling coffee flung in her face by gangster Lee Marvin. Debbie yearns for Bannion’s approval and love, but he’s still mourning his wife even as Debbie lies dying in Bannion’s arms.
The film, a pitiless and hard-edged narrative, proved popular with audiences and critics alike and director Fritz Lang theorized that, “Deep down, in every human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in Bannion a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity, and the H-bomb?”
9. Ugetsu, 1953
Director Kenji Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda wanted to make a film exploring the effects of the terrible Japanese civil wars of the sixteenth century on ordinary people. Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s greatest directors, wrote a memo to Yoda:
The feeling of wartime must be apparent in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering—moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat. This theme is what I especially want to emphasize here? How should I do it?
Yoda ended up telling the story of two peasant families, potters and farmers living in the same village, eking out a living, even as warlords ravage the land.
This is a lyrical masterpiece that contemplates no less than the nature and meaning of man’s life. The potter and the farmer abandon their wives and children in order to seek wealth and glory. Of course, their blind ambition leads to ruin, heartache and tragedy. And then, finally, an almost divine moment of comprehension for one of the film’s main characters.
Ugetsu is, above all, a series of interweaving love stories in which even a ghost, beautiful, lonely and deadly, is given her due.
Mizoguchi’s elegant camera constantly prowls and tracks, vertically and horizontally. In this way, the world’s instability is emphasized. Life meets death, the living interact with ghosts. Everything and everyone is in a constant state of flux.
A few nights before I married Karen I saw Ugetsu for the first time. At the end of the movie I was crying like a baby. I cried because this film, more than any other I have ever seen, confirms the sanctity of marriage, the importance of loyalty, and the eternal bonds of love. Ugetsu is beautiful and timeless.
To be continued.