Today, here are my selections of the ten best films of the 1950s. They are given in order of preference, beginning with what I currently consider the single greatest movie ever made:
1. EARLY SUMMER (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1951). Postwar Tokyo; Noriko’s family prevails upon her to marry, but she chooses a man of whom they disapprove. He is twelve years her senior, has a child, and is relocating to Akita. Noriko’s family worries that she will not end up happy.
In the aftermath of war, with Japan’s authoritarian ruler deposed and democracy dawning, the structured, stable Japanese family, as a social force, has devolved. A small child tells his grandfather (twice) that he hates him; her older brother (Chishu Ryu, superb) tells Noriko she is impudent to men—to which Noriko counters, “Men used to be too important.” “Our family has scattered,” the father will say once Noriko has left. “We shouldn’t want too much,” he tells his wife (twice). Is this the path to happiness—being content with what life gives rather than asking for more? Perhaps an attitude of acceptance provides the only consolation and relief for life’s disappointments, and life’s transience.
Bakashû, delicately composed, is sensitive to light and to nuances of feeling; yet the accumulated result is overwhelming. No film more powerfully conveys the passage of time—here, a paradoxical, slow, inexorable rush. Sisters walk the beach, talking, the camera following, or the father and mother sit outdoors side by side, discussing family, the low, angled camera favoring their backs. Much of their anxious conversation is pressured by time—human time measured against eternity.
As ever with Ozu, human beings are paramount. In a beautiful long shot, a loose balloon scales up the sky. “Some child must be crying,” the father notes.
Ozu’s characters experience happiness, when they do, not because of good fortune but from the way they engage life: with humility, and with their philosophical stance. This life is gently moving, always, imperceptibly, toward the last end.
2. ORDET (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1954). From Kaj Munk’s play, Ordet is cinema’s finest expression of Christian faith.
In 1925, Morten Bergen lives on a remote farm with three sons: Mikkel, an atheist, whose wife, Inger, anticipates his return to the fold; Johannes, whose conviction that he is the risen Christ prompts him to chide “believers” for not believing fully enough; and young Anders, who has fallen in love with Anne, with whose father Morten has long been locking horns over their differing views of Christianity. Inger dies shortly after giving birth to a son whose wrong position requires the doctor to terminate the infant in an effort to save her life. Mikkel is left in inconsolable grief. Invoking Jesus Christ, Johannes resurrects Inger, bringing Mikkel to his wife’s faith and reconciling both families.
Dreyer’s sublime comedy accumulates the awesome power of his great tragedies. Its signature image is the family laundry, whites outdoors on a line, furiously flapping in the wind—perfectly mundane, and yet full of mysterious beauty that betokens spiritual possibilities. At Inger’s funeral service, the sheer white curtains through which sunlight filters and the tick of a wall clock are transmutations of the laundry’s sights and sound.
With a crystalline sense of the eternal, the mystery in our midst that gives rise to religious feeling, The Word encompasses, outdoors, an unsurpassed beauty of landscape and an almost palpable depth of air and, indoors, a miracle whose emotional power and depth of spiritual suggestion remain unmatched in cinema. Twentieth-century humanity’s remove from natural sources of faith Ordet’s moment of rebirth shatters in a tidal wave of passion. Dreyer burns “religion” down to its ancient core of wonder, taking even nonbelievers to a summit of shared visionary experience where the pure air seems the very breath of God.
3. TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953). The Japanese family’s postwar disintegration: this is the theme of a noble, massively humane work by Yasujiro Ozu, all of whose films bear the universal appeal of family (or surrogate family) concerns. The war’s demoralizing outcome and the chauvinistic U.S. occupation that followed aren’t mentioned in Tokyo monogatari, nor do they need to be. We grasp, as Japanese audiences certainly did, that what we are witnessing is, at least partly, fallout from what Japan endured over the previous decade.
An elderly couple visit their married son in Tokyo. Both the son, a pediatrician, and his wife work, leaving little time to attend to these guests; and their son is a disrespectful, unruly child. Only the widow of the elder couple’s other son, who died in the war, is warm and attentive. Meaning well, the younger couple send the elder couple off to a spa, but thus being denied the company of those they came to visit only intensifies the older couple’s loneliness and disappointment. At home, the doctor’s mother falls ill and dies.
As it happens, the younger couple also are disappointed, but their sense of the traditional Japan that they’ve lost is less tangible. Ozu’s film, then, is a study in disenchantment, disappointment, about a national mood as it affects the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Acting is key in such a film, and the performances are wonderful, especially those of Chishu Ryu as the father and Setsuko Hara as his compassionate daughter-in-law.
No film better portrays upheaved lives in a “society in transition.” Moreover, Ozu’s shots, such as those showing the backs of the elderly couple sitting outdoors, which convey their shared loneliness and suggest the world—the past—that is now behind them, are material and poetic, elegiac, mundane and transcendent.
4. PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, France, 1959). Burdened by his history, a young pickpocket approaches us in voiceover in Robert Bresson’s electrifying Pickpocket. Michel is poor, and that’s the principal reason for his stealing, until, that is, the thievery becomes addictive, compulsive, thereby becoming its own motivation. Bresson does not reduce Michel’s humanity by categorizing him as a criminal. Instead, the hinted connection between Michel and the lieutenant who escapes the Gestapo in Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), both of them being in a constant state of anxiety, imparts to the pickpocket some of the Resistance fighter’s heroic humanity. Bresson’s largeness of directorial spirit gives his film a religious aura—that and, on the soundtrack, the outbursts of quasi-religious music that either strengthen or tweak the film’s religious identity. You choose.
On the other hand, though, Bresson shows dehumanization, Michel’s and others’. At the racetrack, in the police station or the Metro, closeups focus on money and its movement from one hand to another, or from one place (such as a pocket or pocketbook) to another (such as a hand)—money taking precedence over humanity and directing the course of people’s lives. Rock-bottoming out, however, Michel may be ultimately guided to his redemption by the invisible hand of God.
Each shot is concise, passionate, radiant, and the dialogue is so minimal, elliptical, even cryptic, that we must invest ourselves imaginatively to bring a clear, continuous sense to the film. In the absence of much talk, we hear things wonderfully: footsteps; doors opening and closing; automobiles—all the sounds, in fact, that Bresson has included and emphasized, translating each, along with each black-and-white image, into its essence. As ever, Bresson refreshes our sense of material life, which too often otherwise falls into jadedness and complacency by becoming detached from our sense of spirit.
5. THE BURMESE HARP (Kon Ichikawa, Japan, 1956). About the effect of war’s horror on a sensitive combatant in the Second World War, Kon Ichikawa’s Biruma no Tategoto is the most humane of war films. Its eloquent simplicity befits its literary source: Michio Takeyama’s postwar novel aimed at introducing Buddhism’s tenets to children.
The film opens on a barren, desolate landscape. Dirge-like music; image and sound thus combine to suggest a vast graveyard. Titles appear—a kind of epitaph: “In Burma, soil is blood-red. So are rocks.” A reflective voiceover replaces the titles: “It’s such a long time since the war ended. The war has left many sad stories . . . . By July 1945 the war was going badly.” Memory of war becomes, then, the “life” of this film—life commemorating the lost and the dead.
The film’s first movement introduces Inouye Company, the platoon including Private Mizushima, whose constant companion is his lute patterned after a Burmese harp. Captain Inouye, who studied music, has taught his men to sing. The beauty of their choral endeavors suggests the haven of humanity they perpetuate in the midst of their violent existence; their nostalgic, sentimental songs transport their souls to home. Similarly, the plaintive sounds of Mizushima’s simulated Burmese harp are the repository of the men’s embrace of life in the midst of so much death. Its soulful expression counters the imperialist motive of war, the power of governments that discounts the humanity of the ordinary people who become the soldiers and other victims of war.
Mizushima goes AWOL and becomes a monk. The film charts his highly individual and transformative journey; but in some mystical sense, Mizushima is the extension of his comrades, including Inouye, whose love of music inspired him in the first place.
Ichikawa’s delicate, elegiac masterpiece inspires us all.
6. FRANCESCO, GIULLARE DI DIO (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1950). His films had been immediate, urgent, focused on the present; but, departing from the neorealismo of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1947) and Stromboli (1949), Rossellini achieved his masterpiece by looking to two places other than the present: the past; eternity.
Based on I fioretti, from the fourteenth century, Francesco, giullare di Dio (literally, Francis, God’s Fool) essays the founder of the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone—St. Francis of Assisi—and his followers, God’s “little flowers.” They exemplify Christian charity and devotion at the folk level; their legends, whether humorous or sober, place Francisco and his monks among the simple people they generally serve. This is in contradistinction to the insularity, haughtiness and corruption of the institutional Church, which foments poverty and strife in the country. Instead, Francesco and his nonmilitant band of brothers follow the path of Jesus.
Befitting an adaptation of a collection of stories, the film is given an episodic form. The result, a mosaic, unhinges linear narrative as decisively as had the episodes composing the national portrait in Paisà. Rossellini nonetheless achieves a unified vision—one of innocence, humility, tenderness and spiritual harmony. In drawing on the past in this way, he is able to suggest human possibilities and offers hope for Italy’s postwar future. A reflection on the present (the usual reason for an artist to venture into the past), Francesco serves as antidote to Italy’s then current disarray and political turmoil.
The final shot is among the most haunting in cinema: a skyward pan that seeks to restore uncertain humanity to a secure place in a continuity of time lost and timelessness—a thrilling imaginative gesture in a deeply humanistic work.
Federico Fellini contributed to the script.
7. A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1959). Godard’s A bout de souffle—literally, Out of Breath— helped define the nouvelle vague, the 1950s movement in French cinema that denoted freedom: freedom from the constraints of conventional, worked-through, tied-up narrative, freedom of personal expression, freedom of roving inquiry, and a freedom of camera motion scarcely seen since Dziga Vertov took to the streets of Moscow in the 1920s to record the pulsating synergy of Soviet life. Here is a film that bursts with spontaneity, in cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s gorgeous, unaffected black and white.
The film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, tremendous), a young hoodlum, from Marseilles to Paris, where he romances Patricia (Jean Seberg, wonderful), an American abroad. A cop killer, Michel is eventually shot to death in the street.
Our dynamic relation with movies: How does the interaction between us and film shape and detail us? Michel’s toughness is an act; but when the “act” is what one relies on, it determines behavior. A related issue: the extent to which movies have so conditioned our perception of reality that we sometimes address this perception as though it were reality.
Breathless has become synonymous with the jump cut—the visual jerk that results when consecutive frames are deleted from a continuous onscreen action. Besides being a distancing device to snap us to analytical attention, the technique reflects the characters’ dissociation from reality and the emotional gap between them.
Patricia says to Michel, “I want to know what’s behind that mask of yours.” But Patricia often also appears enigmatic; and, standing over his corpse at the end, she adopts Michel’s mask, with her duplication of his Bogart lip-rubbing gesture. Patricia, then, had also meant, “I want to know what’s behind my mask.” As do we. As does Godard—in terms of his own mask.
8. MADAME DE . . . (Max Ophüls, France, 1952). In early twentieth-century Paris, Louise (Danielle Darrieux, sublime), a comtesse, has two great loves: her Catholic faith; Baron Fabrizio Donati. Her marriage was probably, for her, one of financial convenience; but André (Charles Boyer, brilliant), a military general, loves Louise. When the two men come to fight their fatal duel, André, the instigator, uses the pretext that the baron favors diplomacy over war—a professional division. In reality, the class division between them is more relevant; it galls the General that his wife loves Donati, not him. The humorous triviality of the duel’s pretext shelters André’s pride, then; this sketches in a method that Ophüls uses throughout, where a light touch masks a harsh, even a potentially lethal reality.
The film opens rapturously, with a seemingly perpetually tracking camera adopting a subjective viewpoint as Louise’s hands anxiously ransack her finery and her jewelry box in search of the right thing to sell. Marital dissatisfaction has driven up her debts. We catch a glimpse of her as she glances into a mirror—a fractured integrity and identity.
In a way, the film subjectively expands a patch of objectivity: the cut-and-dried newspaper account of Madame de . . .’s “lost” earrings. The film’s most celebrated passage traces the course of Louise and the Baron’s falling in love. With the music continuous, the event is compressed from a series of public dances over time. Their illicit love consists of nothing but stolen moments that their increasingly tight embrace poignantly tries to make private as they inhabit the space of their own emotions, oblivious to the other couples on the dance floor who, in the swirl of the waltz, often appear as Louise and Fabrizio’s faint shadows predicting the lovers’ tragic end.
We feel a rush of feeling, the passage of time.
9. UGETSU MONOGATARI (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953). From Akinari Ueda’s collection of stories Tales of the Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain, Mizoguchi’s masterpiece is a tragic look into the human heart of war.
In sixteenth-century Japan, war ravages the countryside. A potter, a farmer and their wives are among those fleeing an overrun village. Both men abandon their wives, one in pursuit of wealth, the other in pursuit of military glory. Genjuro, the potter, sells his wares at market and falls under the spell of an exotic princess, into whose castle he moves. Both princess and castle turn out to be illusions. Genjuro goes home. Miyagi, his forgiving, devoted wife, tends to him lovingly through the night. The next morning, however, Genjuro learns that Miyagi, last night, was an apparition. Left unprotected, Miyagi had been killed in the war. The camera tilts upward from Miyagi’s grave to reveal the whole peaceful village: yet another illusion. Beyond the village’s borders, war rages on.
We surmise that Genjuro will remain haunted by Miyagi’s memory and by questions: Did his intimacies with the phantom princess contribute to Miyagi’s death? Whatever thing she is beneath her façade of seductive beauty—did the princess, out of jealousy, kill Miyagi? Or was the princess, in another form, Miyagi’s ghost come to tempt him to abandon spiritually one he had already abandoned materially? At the end we hear, or think we hear, Miyagi’s voice: Is this her spirit? The voice of Genjuro’s guilt? Regardless, never again will Genjuro hold his wife in his arms.
Contributing to the visual poetry of this delicate, entrancing work is Kazuo Miyagawa’s black-and-white cinematography; quiet, lovely, restrained, it projects Miyagi’s sensibility and spirit. Thus Miyagi silently haunts frame after frame—a formal expression of the cost of war that is Ugetsu’s unifying theme.
10. A MAN ESCAPED (Robert Bresson, France, 1956). Unsurprisingly, one strong nondocumentary about the Nazi death camps is Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stop (1948), for which the filmmaker drew upon her own internment at Auschwitz. Robert Bresson was a prisoner of the Germans in Occupied France for a year. His Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, ou Le Vent souffle où il veut, is similarly authentic—and taken from actual events.
In Lyon in 1943, Resistance fighter Fontaine, based on André Devigny, is the prisoner of Germans, who have condemned him to die. Fontaine plots his escape. Long self-sufficient, he must cross a chasm of suspicion to an ambiguous cell-mate, a teenaged boy who may be a plant. Will Fontaine take the risk and include this stranger in his plans?
A Man Escaped is one of the great works of French Existentialism. It is also unmistakably Bressonian, emphasizing the sights and sounds punctuating the routines inside the Gestapo prison. Throughout, subtle lighting implies, too, a gracious presence in the frames. When a fellow prisoner tells him that God will save them, Fontaine responds, “Only if we give him a hand.” But how? All one can do is make personal choices and accept their consequences.
Fontaine, at the last, does the humane thing. We know the outcome, from what happened to Devigny. Yet each fresh viewing revives the suspense that Bresson’s filmmaking, including Fontaine’s voiceover, develops by bringing us into the young lieutenant’s mind in the moment. And just as Fontaine is ultimately rewarded by escape, to execute which his companion proves absolutely essential (God at work?), we are rewarded with one of the most moving shots in cinema: the camera at their backs, the two men, side by side, walking their way at night, barefoot, to freedom.
The Spirit breathes where it will.
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