5 Favorite Films of the 1950s: The B Sides

Just a day ago a whole slew of individuals shared their 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s for National Classic Movie Day. Thank you again to The Film & TV Cafe for spearheading that quality endeavor!

In retrospect, I realized all my choices were really “A Pictures,” which were difficult and yet at the same time fairly easy to choose. They were all no-brainer picks because I love them a great deal. Many others also chose the likes of Singin’ in The Rain, Roman Holiday, and Rear Window (for good reason, I might add).

However, the decisions that left me the most intrigued were, of course, the dark horses and the underappreciated gems. Certainly, you have to start somewhere when it comes to embarking on the classic movie journey, but half of the fun is unearthing treasures along the way. For instance, I was left charmed by the following picks, all wonderful films in their own right, that I would have never thought to choose:

People Will Talk, The Narrow Margin, The Earrings of Madame De…, It’s Always Fair WeatherThe Burmese Harp, and Night of the Demon, just to name a handful.

All of this to say, I was inspired by these folks to take on “Round 2” for my own edification. I’m going to leave my highly subjective list of “A Sides” behind for what I’ll term the “B Sides.” The only rule I’m going to place on myself is that this fresh set of picks must be what I deem to be “underrated movies.” Again, it’s a very subjective term, I know.

Regardless, here they are with only minor deliberation!

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

Jacques Tourneur is an unsung auteur and if all he had on his resume were Cat People (1942) and Out of The Past (1947), his would be quite the legacy. However, throughout the ’50s, he helmed a bevy of fabulous westerns and adventure pictures. I almost chose Wichita (1955), also starring Joel McCrea. In the end, this moving portrait of a frontier minister won out because it cultivates such a fine picture of how one is supposed to live in the midst of a bustling community of disparate individuals. This involves conflict, tension, tragedy, and ultimately, a great deal of human kindness.

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The Breaking Point (1950)

Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not with Bogey and Bacall is probably more well-known but this version has merits of its own. Namely, a typically tenacious and compelling John Garfield playing a returning G.I. and family man trying to make a living in an unfeeling world. His wife portrayed by Phyllis Thaxter deserves a nod as well for her thoroughly honest effort. The movie gets bonus points for shooting in and around my old summer stomping grounds on Balboa Island.

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Bigger Than Life (1956)

It does feel a bit like Nicholas Ray was the king of the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause is the landmark thanks, in part, to James Dean. However, his best picture, on any given day, could be Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford, On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan, or The Lusty Men with Robert Mitchum. Today I choose Bigger Than Life because James Mason gives, arguably, the performance of his career as a man turned maniacal by the effects of his new miracle drug, cortisone. It employs the same gorgeous Technicolor tones and Cinemascope Ray would become renowned for while also developing a truly terrifying portrait of 1950s suburbia.


Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

I skipped James Dean’s most famous film, but never fear because in his place is a film featuring an actor who channeled the American icon’s angsty cool. In Andrzej Wajda’s Polish drama, set at the end of WWII, Zbigniew Cybulski embodies much of the same electric energy. His defining performance is central to a gripping tale about a country absolutely decimated by war, between German occupation and the ensuing columns of Russian soldiers arriving on their doorstep.

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Good Morning (1959)

This might be my personal favorite of the Yasujiro Ozu’s films for its pure levity. The images are meticulously staged as per usual with glorious coloring. Every frame could easily be a painting. However, against this backdrop is a domestic story about two brothers who hope to wage a pouting war against their parents who won’t cave and buy them a TV like they want. The conceit is simple but the results are absolutely delightful.

Well, that just about wraps up my 5 supplemental picks…

Except I would be remiss if I didn’t share at least a handful of other outliers. Let me know what you think of the films I chose!

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

Man of Marble (1976)

manofmarble1Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble holds a meta quality that still somehow feels radically different than Godard or Truffaut’s turns in Contempt and Day for Night. It attempts to channel a younger point of view — that of an ambitious student — with an overtly political agenda. Agnieszka is an independent, fiery individual intent on making her thesis the way she sees fit. She’s prepared to go digging around in uncharted territory or at least in territory that has been off limits for a long time. That understandably unnerves her adviser and still, she forges on.

Thus, Wajda’s film is cut out of a block that is a wholly original artistic endeavor. It weaves its narrative of a film within a film from a far more humble perspective. That of an audacious but nevertheless unknown female scholar looking to complete her thesis by relating the story of a little-known bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut.

She combs through old faux newsreel footage woven together as propaganda as well as grabbing hold of outtakes that were thrown out. She conducts all the necessary interviews to get to the truth. First, comes a veteran filmmaker who now is a big name, but back then he was just trying to make a name for himself shooting a film on Birkut. She gets in touch with colleagues and friends listening to their points of view. And finally, she even tracks down Birkut’s estranged wife to try and uncover a few last crucial pieces. It hardly seems the stuff of high drama, but Andrzej Wajda’s film functions as a humbler Citizen Kane.

manofmarble2Everywhere she goes Agnieszka drags along her crew who utilize handheld cameras and wide-angle lenses, at her behest, just like American films. It becomes obvious that Birkut was hardly a political figure, instead contenting himself by using his hands to lay breaks and lay them well. He takes pleasure in his work with a big sloppy grin almost always plastered on his face. It was people like him who made Nowa Huta into the great city of industry that it was, and he became an emblem of that. The party monumentalized him and he became the man of marble to be lauded by all.

But when his livelihood, his hands, are scalded horribly,  Mateusz has little else to do. He begins to fight for social issues, the rights of workers like himself, but at the same time, his best friend Witek is put on trial for sabotaging the party. Pretty soon Birkut himself has fallen for grace, is sent away to prison and re-education, and he returns to find his wife no longer wants him.

The sleuthing has gotten so far and yet it looks like it won’t even make it past review. Agnieszka looks to be at the end of her luck as her camera and film materials have been revoked, but that doesn’t stop someone with her determination. Pretty soon she is scrounging around The Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. At first, it doesn’t make much sense, but then we see it. Birkut’s son works there and maybe he is the missing piece of the puzzle! Man of Marble ends with a rather ambiguous dead end… or is it only the end of the beginning?

Just as Agnieszka’s was initially green-lighted, it’s perhaps even more extraordinary that Wajda got away with making such a politically charged film. In truth, he got stuck in censorship purgatory for some time, but that did not stop it from ultimately being released. But aside from crafting a meta, political, and fragmented narrative, Man from Marble also speaks to the issue of trans-generational memory.

In her conversation with the director Jerzy Burski he dismisses her idea for a film as “history” and she retorts back that it’s “ancient history” for her. That’s why it interests her. She comes out of the age of disco, synths, and bell-bottoms. Thus, that era that preceded her holds fascination, even in its most mundane moments, because she can never fully comprehend it like her elders. She wasn’t there to experience it like they could. It gives at least a bit of insight into what would drive her so obstinately to tell this story.

4/5 Stars

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

ashesanddiamonds1We’re used to getting our hands dirty in the thick of World War II, whether it is in the European theater or the Pacific, but very rarely do we consider the consequences that come in the wake of such an earth-shattering event. Things do not end just like that. There must be periods of rebuilding and rehabilitation. There is unrest and upheaval as the world continues to groan in response.

Ashes and Diamonds is one of these stories. It’s a film that rumbles from its core depicting a post-war wasteland in Poland that has been trampled by the Germans and overrun by the Soviets. People want peace and there’s seemingly none to be found. At least not at the present.

The film’s main attraction, Zbigniew Cybulski, plays the nationalistic soldier Maciek, who along with his superior Andrzej are charged with assassinating an incoming Communist commissar named Szczuka. Cybulski’s exhibits the hesitant, insecure movements of James Dean similarly hiding behind a persona overflowing with palpable coolness. In one sense we want to be this guy, but we also feel sorry for him.

From its opening notes, Ashes and Diamonds proves to be a dynamic piece of realism as our two protagonists start off with guns blazing before inconspicuously leaving the scene of the crime. But their work is not done, in fact, their mission has been bungled, and so they must wait around tensely for another chance. They take up refuge in a local hotel which also happens to be awaiting the arrival of the most esteemed guest, comrade Szczuka.

This is not solely some political drama either. Andrzej  Wajda’s final film in his WWII trilogy certainly has roots in Poland’s historical past like the Warsaw Uprising and the changing of the guard as the Germans surrender and the Soviets move in. However, Ashes and Diamonds is woven together by a human component — a romance that is at odds with all things political. Because while he plays the waiting game at the hotel, smoking cigarettes and lounging, Maciek begins to fall for the woman on the other side of the bar named Krystyna. You assume from their initial flirting and Maciek’s come-ons that this will only be something superficial, but such moments of tension seem to heighten passion and the need for intimacy. These two individuals so recently introduced become so close in a matter of hours.

ashesanddiamonds2There are love scenes that are quiet, subdued, and truly intimate. In fact, it feels rather like Hiroshima Mon Amour where the camera lingers so closely on two figures in such close proximity. There does not have to be great movement or dramatic interludes because having two people next to each other should be enough. The historical context in itself seems to be enough. For that film, it meant Japan post-1945. For this one, it’s Poland after the clouds of war have lifted.

Certainly, the film is bookended by two high-octane bangs of fiery drama, but even in the moments in between Ashes and Diamonds is ceaselessly interesting. It might be a meandering horse on a quiet road or a fire extinguisher at a gay party or even the late night impromptu improvisation by an orchestra that is slightly off key. They make for wonderfully delightful additions to the narrative being told. It feels organic and rich with the tidbits that make up everyday life. It’s just that this slice of life happens to be in post-war Poland with high stakes hanging in the balance.

As Maciek battles his own inner turmoil to match the turmoil outside, the words of a poem inscribed on the wall of a bombed-out church spring to mind:

So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.

4.5/5 Stars