The 1950s was a decade that produced a number of timeless films that paved the way for the modern film industry. Not only did it show that films could be successful across all genres, but demonstrated what filmmakers were capable of in terms of scale and depth in theme and storytelling. Take a look at some of the major films that defined the decade.
A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951
An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ award-winning 1947 play of the same name, A Streetcar Named Desire follows a young girl who leaves her privileged life behind to live with her sister and brother-in-law in a run-down New Orleans apartment building.
The film starred Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden in their original Broadway roles, with the addition of Vivien Leigh, and was the film that launched Brando into stardom. Making more than $4 million, A Streetcar Named Desire was a major success, taking home Academy Awards for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.
Vertigo – 1958
Released in 1958, Vertigo is a psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the French novel From Among the Dead. The film tells the story of a detective who is forced into early retirement. He’s then hired to be a private investigator and part of an unfolding mystery.
Although initially the film had mixed reviews, today, it is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest works, even being hailed as the greatest film ever made by some critics.
High Noon – 1952
Directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Gary Cooper, High Noon is a 1952 Western film about a town marshal who has to make the decision to defend the town from a gang by himself or abandon it to save his and his wife’s lives.
Although there was some controversy surrounding the film regarding its political commentary, in the end, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and four Golden Globes. Since its release, elements of the film have been copied in countless other works.
On The Waterfront – 1954
Starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her debut film, On the Waterfront depicts the union violence and corruption among longshoremen on the waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. The film proved to be a smashing success, receiving 12 Academy Award nominations and taking home eight, which included Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and more.
Today, it is ranked by the American Film Institute as the eight-greatest American movie of all time, and was one of the first films to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.
The Ten Commandments – 1956
Produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments is a religious epic film based on the Book of Exodus from the Bible, as well as a number of other religious novels. It tells a fictionalized tale of the life of Moses from his time in Egypt to receiving the Ten Commandments from God.
At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film ever made, the second highest-grossing film of the decade, and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Rebel Without A Cause – 1955
Rebel Without a Cause is a 1955 drama starring James Dean, Sean Mineo, Natalie Wood, and directed by Nicholas Ray. Considered a groundbreaking film at the time, it illustrated the lives of middle-class teenagers in a way that other movies had yet to achieve.
Along with its progressive content, the film is arguably James Dean’s most celebrated work. He died just one month before the film’s release and was established as a cultural icon.
The Bridge On The River Kwai – 1957
Based on the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war film about British POW soldiers who are forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors while completely unaware that the Allies have plans to destroy it.
The movie would go on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, and was also the highest-grossing film of 1957. In 1999, it was named the 11th greatest British film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute.
Ben-Hur – 1959
A religious epic, Ben-Hur was directed by William Wyler and stars Charleton Heston as a Jewish prince and his journey for revenge after he is enslaved. The film was given the biggest budget ever of $15.175 million and had one of the largest sets and productions ever created for a movie.
Upon its release, the film was the highest-grossing and fastest-grossing film of 1959 and won a record-breaking 11 Academy Awards. At the time, it was also the second highest-grossing film in history behind Gone with the Wind.
The Searchers – 1956
Directed by John Ford, The Searchers is a Western film starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran on the search for his abducted niece alongside his adoptive nephew. After its release, the film proved to be a success and has since been regarded as one of the most influential films ever made.
In 2008 it was named the greatest American Western film by the American Film Institute. Over the years, The Searchers has influenced a number of other notable films such as Lawrence of Arabia and even Star Wars.
Godzilla – 1954
Directed by Ishirō Honda, Godzilla is a Japanese kaiju film and the first of the Godzilla franchise. It follows the Japanese authorities as they deal with a giant monster attacking the city, potentially leading to a nuclear holocaust.
Considered one of the greatest monster movies ever made, Godzilla is known for its progressive special effects and has even been recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest-running film franchise in history that doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.
Singin’ In The Rain – 1952
Released in 1952, Singin’ in the Rain is a musical romantic comedy that stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds as three performers making the transition from silent film to “talkies” in the 1920s.
Although it didn’t make a major impact when it was first released, today, it is considered to be one of the greatest musical films ever made. Furthermore, in 2007, it topped AFI’s list of Greatest Movie Musicals and the fifth-greatest American motion picture.
Some Like It Hot – 1959
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, Some Like it Hot is a romantic comedy film about two musicians who dress as women to escape mafia gangsters after witnessing a crime. The film saw almost immediate success and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning Best Costume Design.
Despite its success, the film was produced without approval from the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) due to some of its content and because it showed cross-dressing. However, it helped prove that the Hays Code wasn’t very effective because the film did so well by not following it.
Paths Of Glory – 1957
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Paths of Glory is an anti-war film based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb. Starring Kirk Douglas, the film takes place during World War I and follows a commanding officer whose soldiers refuse to partake in a suicide mission, which he then defends when they are court-martialed for cowardice.
Although the film did just okay at the box office, it helped to earn Stanley Kubrick some respect in the film industry. It was also considered controversial due to its anti-military themes.
Sunset Boulevard – 1950
A 1950 comedy noir film starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard follows a screenwriter who becomes involved with a former silent film actress who dreams of becoming a star once again.
Hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made, Sunset Boulevard went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning three. It was also included in the first group of films to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
The Robe – 1953
A Biblical epic, The Robe is a fictional depiction of the Roman military officer who commanded the unit responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. The film is of particular note for being the first film released on widescreen, which would become common practice in the following years.
Following its release, it was described by New York Daily News as “a new realistic and phenomenal concept of the art of motion picture production.” It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
To Catch A Thief – 1955
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on David Dodge’s novel, To Catch a Thief stars Cary Grant as a burglar searching for someone posing as him and stealing from wealthy tourists in France.
Following the film’s release, it got mixed reviews, with critics taking note of the acting and the movie’s setting, although some were disappointed by the lack of suspense that Hitchcock was expected to provide by that time in his career.
Rashomon – 1950
Rashomon is a Japanese psychological thriller directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, and Takashi Shimura. The film follows the assault of a woman and the death of her samurai husband. It’s told from the perspectives of a woodcutter, the samurai’s ghost, the woman, and the attacker.
This was the first Japanese film to be an international success, winning an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards. “The Rashomon effect” in film was also named after the title.
From Here To Eternity – 1953
Based on the 1951 novel of the same name by James Jones, From Here to Eternity is a romantic war drama about three U.S. soldiers stationed in Hawaii during the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, it won eight, which included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, among others. The film went on to be described by the Southern California Motion Picture Council as “so great in its starkly realistic and appealing drama that mere words cannot justly describe it.”
Seven Samurai – 1954
Seven Samurai is a Japanese epic samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa and set in the 16th century during the Sengoku period of Japan. It follows a group of village farmers who hire seven samurai to protect their crop from bandits once it is time to harvest.
It was the second-highest-grossing domestic film in Japan, despite being the most expensive Japanese film ever made. Today, Seven Samurai is one of the most remade and reworked films in terms of theme.
All About Eve – 1950
Although it was not given screen credit, All About Eve is based on the 1946 short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr. It follows an older but successful Broadway star, played by Bette Davis, whose fan finds a way into her life and threatens her career.
Nominated for 14 Academy Awards, All About Eve is also the only film in history to receive four female acting nominations at the Oscars and has been ranked in AFI’s list of the 100 Best American Films.