The Fifties were an amazing era for cinema and the arts, in general. Not only is it a decade full of new storytelling techniques and extraordinary performances, it’s also a period rife with dramatic moments that changed the way we look at this medium and its performers.

1950: Three Masterpieces

A good film must be visual poetry, and no one understood this better than Jean Cocteau, who was a poet before he became a filmmaker. His Orphic trilogy pieces are visual poems themselves, burgeoning with enigmatic imagery. Cocteau mastered the grammar of cinema, constructing every special effect with the care of a poet choosing a literary device. ‘Orpheus’ (1950) is an example of this, as a modern retelling of the eponymous myth, and its mirror scene is extraordinary. To film it, the director had the actor putting his gloved hands into a vat of mercury—even today, this scene is a stroke of genius belonging to a pre-CGI era.


Joseph L. Mankiewicz was famous for his barbed and literate dialogue, but ‘All About Eve’ (1950), a sardonic and multi-Oscar-winning cautionary tale about the ruthless ambition and intense paranoia infecting American theatre, found his writing in peak form. The film absolutely revels in bitchy interaction and acerbic observation as Anne Baxter’s ingenue Eve strategically secures the affections of Bette Davis’s aging stage star Margo. The peppery aroma really takes hold during the party scene, where Margo reckons Eve is receiving excessive admiration. When Bill notes that the mood is ‘very Macbeth-ish’, Margo downs her champagne before proudly announcing: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’


I remember Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) as one of the movies I had to watch prior to my admission exams for film school, some years ago. An indelible scene is the visit that Norma Desmond, illustriously portrayed by Gloria Swanson, makes to the studio. She’s in the sunset of her acting career, hunkered down in a rococo-style palatial temple, yet a single phone call from Cecil B. DeMille is enough to get her out of the house.

As she arrives to the soundstage where DeMille is shooting, dozens of extras fawn over her, then a gaffer calls down and turns a spot on her. For a moment, in that magical stream of light, time has stopped, and Norma is again the silver-screen beauty of yesteryear. But DeMille orders everyone back to work, dissipating the moment as he explains the small confusion regarding the call. In a single breath, the past returns to its proper place—the airless vault in which memory lingers and eventually disappears.


1951: Hitchcock Rises and Japan Wins Venice

If we’re to look back at symbolic objects that we’ll probably never forget, the lighter from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ (1951) will come to mind. It’s introduced mere minutes into this masterful thriller and becomes critical to the plot. The suspense reaches a peak when Bruno must retrieve the lighter he just lost, the lighter he’ll use to frame Guy. Hitchcock makes thriller art with his cross-cuts between the two men and their desperate exertions—Guy lunging for every ball on the sunlit court and Bruno thrusting his arm into the dark storm drain. It leaves us rooting for the bad guy as a struggle between id and superego emerges, further complicated by Hitchcockian ingenuity.


In September of that year, Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1950) won the coveted Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. It suddenly thrust Japanese cinema into the world spotlight, since very little of it had been seen in the West prior to this moment. ‘Rashomon’ went on to travel widely on the strength of its prize, helping to make Kurosawa a familiar name in western cinematic culture.

1952: Epic Cinema

One of the truly overwhelming Technicolor features of the 1950s, titled ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, features the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus, real locations and an all-star cast to deliver a spectacular visual opera. But perhaps the supremely arresting moment comes in the train wreck scene. It’s one of the primary early examples of catastrophe cinema—the saturation of colours in the early evening, the combination of model shots and live-action footage, and the integration of animals into the scene of destruction make for an optically stunning sequence.


Hollywood’s first 3D production, ‘Bwana Devil’ (1952) was a hit despite the terrible reviews. It wasn’t so much about the story, which involved man-eating African lions, but about the excitement of a new experience—motion pictures in depth, with visual elements that seemed to leap out of the screen. Studios scrambled to capitalize on this craze, led by Columbia with ‘Man in the Dark’ and Warner Bros. with ‘House of Wax’.

Experimenting with 3D movies got serious in the early ‘50s, when competition from television made Hollywood eager for spectacles that TV couldn’t provide. Three-projector Cinerama, wide-screen CinemaScope, and stereophonic soundtracks debuted around the same time.


And since we’re discussing epic cinema, it wouldn’t be epic without Gene Kelly’s legendary performance in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952). This musical number embodies the ‘natural’ style developed by the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, and it represents the highest expression of joy in the movies. The scene was actually edited out of ten shots, yet it gives such an illusion of continuity that it is experienced and felt as a single mobile take, thanks to the ‘invisible’ cuts induced by shot size and camera work, music and rhythm, movements and grand gestures of Mr Kelly, the actor-dancer-singer who gave us this crazy explosion of elation, happiness, and joy.


1953: Anamorphic Changes Everything

Hollywood’s major studios were facing competition from TV and plunging box-office revenues during this period. Among the devices they used to gain an advantage in an increasingly competitive industry was the CinemaScope. Devised by Henri Chrétien and bought by 20th Century Fox in 1952, the process used an anamorphic lens—mounted on an ordinary camera, it photographed images that were horizontally squeezed. ‘Un-squeezing’ during projection yielded an image wider than the film frame. On 12th March 1953, after successful screenings of their first two CinemaScope productions, ‘The Robe’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’, 20th Century Fox announced that they would concentrate exclusively on subjects suitable for this new device.


Another pivotal point in the film world came with ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953), directed by Fred Zimmermann and starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The beach kiss scene is what made history—the most widely disseminated (and parodied) erotic image of that era. It takes place on a Honolulu beach just before the Pearl Harbour attacks, and it gives us Kerr’s neglected army wife Karen locked in a horizontal embrace with Lancaster’s ramrod sergeant Warden. They kiss at the water’s edge, timed so that the surf washes voluptuously over their contoured bodies. It only lasted for 12 seconds, and yet it sent a sexual frisson around the world. The scene also foreshadowed the tide of sexual frankness that would soon sweep away Hollywood’s Production Code restrictions.


1954: The Year of Legends

In cinema, an encounter can be magical. It’s the initial chance meeting between two people who are fated to be together, either rapturously or tragically. Few films have given us a more remarkable encounter than ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ (1954), when Ava Gardner’s Maria meets her future Count, played by Rossano Brazzi. It binds two lives forever in a shared destiny, a mood for love.


The ‘50s were also the peak of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking, in my humble opinion. ‘Rear Window’ (1954) is but one of his masterpieces, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. The climax and most suspenseful moment of the story happens when the killer sees Jefferies, the Hitchcockian ambivalence and irony becoming even greater if one accepts the interpretation of some critics, like Robin Wood—according to which the Thorwald character can be considered Jefferies’s alter ego.

Most people may remember Judy Garland from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), but her electrifying performance in ‘A Star Is Born’ (1954) deserves its own round of heartfelt applause. Early in the film, James Mason’s Norman Maine tracks Garland’s Esther Blodgett to the joint on Sunset Boulevard where, for their private pleasure, she and her band perform ‘The Man That Got Away’ by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. Complemented by George Cukor’s mise en scène and camera movement, Ms Garland’s rendition of the song is a transcendent moment of pure enjoyment within what will become a lacerating melodrama.


1955: The Year of James Dean

After capturing the hearts and minds of an entire world with his gut-wrenching performance in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ (1955), 24-year-old James Dean perished in a collision on 30th September of the same year, on a road outside Cholame, California. Dean was known for his love of fast cars, best exemplified by the iconic ‘chickie run’ scene from the Nicholas Ray classic movie, but he was not breaking the speed limit at the time of the accident.

Movie stars had died before, exciting outpourings of fan grief (remember the Rudolph Valentino stampede?), but Dean’s death stands as the most significant—right up there with John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Princess Diana as among the most discussed, mourned, mythologised and commemorated tragedies of the 20th century. Beloved for his work in the aforementioned ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and Elia Kazan’s ‘East of Eden’ (1955), in particular, his sudden death froze him as one of the screen greats.


1956: A Cornucopia of Genres

Four movies defined this year. One was ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956), adapted from Jack Finney’s novel and directed by Don Siegel. Black-and-white and shot in Superscope, this half-noir sci-fi gemstone gives us a terrified Kevin McCarthy—the sole survivor of a small town taken over by seedpod-grown imitation humans from outer space. In a key scene, he stumbles out onto a busy highway, rambling that ‘they’re taking over’, then turns to the camera and shrieks at the audience. ‘You’re next!’


‘The Searchers’ (1955) is one of John Ford’s capo d’operas, recognized universally among the greatest film westerns. It’s the saga of Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne, who returns to his sister’s home after a Comanche raid and finds most of his family butchered and his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), kidnapped. The end gives us a beautiful duality as Edwards takes Debbie into his arms, sliding from forceful to gentle and revealing Wayne’s two-sided screen persona, unyieldingly stalwart but also tender and compassionate.

It wouldn’t be reasonable to leave out ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1956) from this year’s absolute greats. Starring Doris Day and Reggie Nalder, the film offers one of the biggest and most iconic moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s career—the scream that changed the narrative world, showing why the woman’s voice has more power than the assassin’s bullet.


Hollywood’s ultimate money shot came with the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956). DeMille built his reputation on half-sleazy and half-moralistic spectacles, including the earlier silent version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ from 1923. But the 4-hour, widescreen, Technicolor remake of this Old Testament story that stars Charlton Heston as Moses trumps every gaudy splendour showcased up to this point.


1957: Losing Humphrey Bogart

For decades, Humphrey Bogart had embodied the kind of slow-to-anger masculinity that Hollywood adored. American cinema was emotional, romantic and melodramatic from the start, and Bogart was one of its counterpoints. His late conversions to the cause in ‘Casablanca’ (1942), along with his hints at caring in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) and ‘To Have and Have Not’ (1944) were all the more moving because they were so hard-earned. He wasn’t the greatest actor of his generation.

By the time of his death, the likes of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had begun to make his acting style seem narrow or repetitive. But Bogart was lionised by the French as the Sartre of film noir—an existential in a trench coat. Thespians like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Sean Connery came from the same mould and learned from him. His young wife, Lauren Bacall, changed his later life and his political views. I recommend reading ‘By Myself’, her memoir about his illness and death.


1957 wasn’t all bad, however. Ingmar Bergman gave us ‘The Seventh Seal’, illustriously led by a young Max von Sydow, a film that further asserted the Swedish as essential masters of cinema. Bergman followed it up with ‘Wild Strawberries’, his warmest film, illuminated by a superb lead performance from Victor Sjöström.

And America’s independent cinema can be traced to a certain moment in February 1957, when John Cassavetes appeared on ‘Night People’, a radio show hosted by Jean Shepherd. He discussed a theatre piece he had been directing, then casually remarked that it might provide the basis for a good film. He suggested ‘crowdfunding’, albeit in more layman’s terms, and approximately $2,500 trickled in during the following week. Cassavetes used those funds from the general public to shoot what later became ‘Shadows’ (1958).


1958: ‘Here I Was Born, and There I Died’

Kim Novak and James Stewart gave us the most eerily romantic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958). Visiting the giant redwoods in a Northern California national park, the mysterious and haunted Madeleine and Scottie, the detective who’s supposed to investigate her on behalf of her concerned husband, stop to admire a cross-section of a long-lived tree, its rings marking the passing of centuries. Madeleine, believing herself to be the reincarnation of an ancestor named Carlotta, puts her fingers on two rings. ‘Here I was born, and there I died’, she tells Scottie. This scene is later excerpted in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995), where Madeleine’s fatalism seems to apply to human civilization.


1959: Punchlines and Theatrical Cinema

‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959) might be the funniest American comedy—while that statement can be questioned, the perfection of its ending is indisputable. Billy Wilder’s film follows Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as unwilling witnesses of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre who hide in an all-girl band, dressed in drag. In the end, when Lemon’s character tries to break the news of his true self to Osgood by saying he’s a man, Osgood replies with a silly smile: ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ Like I said, perfect.


‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959) gave us a fantastic speech from James Stewart, 86 minutes into the movie. Lawyer Biegler finally manages to introduce evidence of rape into his defence of a soldier. Both prosecutor and defender play to the crowd in their different ways. It’s a wide-angle one-minute take, Otto Preminger literally lays out the steps that each character takes before the judge. It’s truly a striking example of the importance of the calculated pause in Preminger’s theatrical cinema.

1960: The Discovery of Video Assist

It was a fantastic year for cinema. Among my favourites you’ll find ‘Breathless’ by Jean-Luc Godard, which brings Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg together on the silver screen; the low-budget ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ by Roger Corman, which helped chart an influential course for low-budget filmmaking; ‘Psycho’ by Alfred Hitchcock, which unfolds one of the most gripping, unsettling sequences without dialogue as the director demonstrates the power of pure cinema to evade the mind’s usual emotional defences; and Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’, a breakthrough in European cinema that remains indelible for its depiction of mood and modernity.


But the greatest achievement of 1960 comes with ‘The Bellboy’, where Jerry Lewis came up with the video assist. Since he was directing and playing the lead character, Mr Lewis needed a way to see his performance in real time, so he would be able to judge a take he just shot.

Past actor-directors relied on co-directors for this, but Mr Lewis found a different solution by attaching a closed-circuit TV camera to the film camera. It was connected to a monitor placed in his sightline, allowing him to see what he was getting on film, at the same time as he was getting it. This technological breakthrough enhanced filmmakers’ options and extended cinema’s dominion over time.