Five Favourite Films Of The 1950s

by Paul Batters

It’s always a tough gig trying to compile any favourites list and when it comes to film, I personally find it particularly difficult to do. But after seeing this blogathon hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café, the challenge was too tempting to let slide. The following five films are cinematic classics that have deeply moved me and ones which I have developed a profound connection to. They are also films which I have watched time and time again, only to discover something new during every viewing. Most importantly, they are timeless for the powerful performances of the key actors and actresses, the thematic concerns and the cinematic quality of their production.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. And yes, yes and yes, there are other films which could be added, dropped or given an honourable mention. But these films are what stand out for me.

So without further ado…

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Without a doubt one of the finest films in the pantheon of film noir, The Asphalt Jungle is also the quintessential heist film. Directed by John Huston, it also contains one of the greatest lines in film noir and one which sums up the core value of noir – ‘Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour’.

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Starring Sterling Hayden as a small time hood named Dix, he’s a tough, no-nonsense man who has principles as well as a dream to get back to his childhood home. The whole cast is outstanding and each character embodies the foibles, dreams and weaknesses of humanity, seeking a way out yet finding themselves moving deeper into the darkness. Dix becomes part of a gang put together by Doc (Sam Jaffe), a gentlemanly crook whose scheme of a big jewellery robbery is funded by Emmerich (Louis Calhern) a corrupt lawyer, who has his own plans. Their meticulous plans will become undone by greed as much as the hand of fate in a taut and superbly crafted story.

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There’s no slackness and no loose ends, and Miklos Rozsa’s score underpins the desperation of men seeking to get out from under. We’re left feeling as desperate as the men on the screen, hoping against hope that they will make it – to wherever it is they are going. Grim but exciting and riveting from start to finish, The Asphalt Jungle is mandatory viewing not only for those who love film noir but for any fan of classic film.

Incidentally, I’ll be writing a review of The Asphalt Jungle for the 2019 Noirama Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

Vincente Minelli’s bittersweet poem to Hollywood pulls no punches, revealing the nature of the industry and the people who work within it. The story focuses on director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and their personal and working relationship with producer Jonathon Shields (Kirk Douglas). Minelli made it a point thatthe characters’ humanity was integral to the success of the film and that they were not immune to weaknesses, which were counterpoints to their strengths.

The harsh reality behind the magic of film is brought forward through three different stories told in retrospect. Yet all three are intertwined and ultimately centred on the ruthless yet brilliant and emotional Shields, who has given them their career breaks yet also betrayed them, professionally and personally. Douglas plays Shields with incredible sensitivity and depth, delivering the personal pain, passions and difficulties that film-makers face. The other key players are also superb and for my money it is one of Lana Turner’s most memorable performances as the alcoholic actress, who falls in love with but is eventually spurned by Shields.

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There’s plenty to pull apart as the characters and scenarios are drawn from Hollywood history. Georgia Lorrison is based on the daughter of legendary John Barrymore, Diana. The European director von Elstein is certainly a nod to the European directors who came to Hollywood such as von Sternberg and von Stroheim. Watching Shields and Amiel work on ‘Doom Of The Cat Men’ is without a doubt an homage to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO and the making of The Cat People (1942). According to a number of reports, Shields was based on David Selznick, whose life and career certainly shows parallels with the obsessed producer.

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The Bad And The Beautifulis not nostalgic or sentimental; there is a deeper undertone of harsh realism that counters any such possibilities, without it being an expose. But it’s impossible not to feel for the characters and despite their ruthlessness, selfishness and complexities, like us, they love film and are ultimately moved by its magic. As a result, I’ve always been deeply moved by The Bad And The Beautiful.

On The Waterfront (1954)

If ever there was an actor on the screen whose brilliance was matched by apathy to the industry, it was and still is Marlon Brando. There are countless actors and film-makers who turn to On The Waterfront as their inspiration for becoming involved in film, and it is impossible not to argue with them.

Elia Kazan’s grim crime drama tells of the corruption deeply entrenched in the unions which control the New Jersey docks but more importantly it highlights the impact that it has one the longshoremen and their families. The harsh, cold setting and stark story is a contrast to the colour extravaganzas of the musicals that were popular during the period. It was a gutsy picture for Kazan to make, aided by Schulberg’s superb script. There are some deeper criticisms that emerge, focused on Kazan’s testimony for HUAC which have been discussed at length elsewhere.

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The cast is strong and Eva Marie Saint’s debut as Edie stands tall with Karl Malden as tough priest Father Barry (who for my money deserved the Best Supporting Actor), Rod Steiger as Charley and Lee J. Cobb as the crooked union boss, Johnny Friendly.

But the fact remains that the film is Brando’s and the incredible performance as ex-boxer Terry Malloy is one of the greatest in film history. Brando is natural, realistic and adds subtle touches which add a beautiful element to his performance. Terry is torn between the rules that he has known all his life, the cynical harshness that has shaped his reality and the tenderness and desire for something more that is drawn from deep within by his love for the delicate yet strong and determined Edie.

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The most famous scene in the film has been paraphrased, satirised and almost exhausted to the point of cliché. But the cab scene between Terry and his brother Charley is a powerful scene and deservedly one of the most celebrated and lauded scenes in film history. Brando would declare that he initially hated the scene and bemoaned Steiger’s ‘always wanting to cry’ in dramatic scenes. Yet years on, Brando would come to terms with the universality of the scene and be at peace with it. Malloy is channelling what nearly everyone feels at some point in their life – that there was a moment in time, a chance, where they could have become more than what they are and reached heights that met their dreams and potential, which never eventuated for whatever reason.

On The Waterfront is a powerful and provocative film and the ending which sees Terry stand up for a chance to make a difference and that he even though he’s ‘lost the battle’, he can ‘still win the war’ is inspirational. For me, it deserves to be recognised as one of the finest films of the 1950s.

Paths Of Glory (1957)

Paths Of Glory is a masterclass of cinematography by Stanley Kubrick and one of the key reasons why I feel it is an exceptional cinematic experience. The cold realism of the horrors and cruelty of war are experienced by the audience, through the camera’s presence with the soldiers during battle. It is a stark contrast to the conventional war film with dramatic music being absent and the use of silence to heighten tension, with the aim of realism being well-established.

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax in the French army during World War One. An intelligent man who is leading his men into battle, he is also well aware of the futility of war as well as the stupidity of the orders from high-ranking officers. Douglas offers a strong, tempered performance, balancing the character’s frustrations with the unprincipled, contemptuous and disgraceful Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

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Thematically, the film examines the brutality and cruelty of humans during war and the contempt that the military has for the men who are doing the fighting and dying on the battlefields.

Dax leads a futile attack on Anthill, a position held by the Germans which Dax knows is doomed to fail. Dax tries to lead his men as best he can, despite the madness of the orders given but the shelling of his own men by French artillery sees disaster result. Brigadier-General Mireau (George MacReady) decides to court-martial 100 of his men for the failure, in an attempt to deflect blame from himself.

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Dax, a former lawyer, defends three of his men in a trial which is at best a travesty of justice and procedure. Despite his honourable attempts, Dax knows it is a pointless defence, mirroring the futility of the battlefields.

An anti-war film it is but it is also more than that – it is a strong indictment against injustice, corruption and the cruelty of humans at their worst. It is as much an anti-militaryfilm as well. It was a film with a rawness that would be banned in some countries due to its’ anti-military tone.

Paths Of Glory is one of Douglas’ best performances in a film that is testimony to the genius of Stanley Kubrick.

Vertigo (1958)

I recently wrote about Vertigo( see link ) and cannot speak highly enough of what I believe is perhaps Hitchcock’s most beautiful film. It leads the audience through the mental anguish of former cop turned private investigator Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) and a mash-up of his obsession founded in dream and nightmare. Kim Novak was never more ethereal and captivating as Madeline and Bernard Herrmann’s score is, as Martin Scorsese declares, a spiralling and circular movement that lifts and drop the audience along with Scottie’s journey through obsession.

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The plot won’t be discussed here but needless to say it touches the audience with its’ themes in ways that few films ever could. It becomes personal and deeply intrusive into our own psyches.

It’s no mistake that Vertigo has consistently made the top ten lists of many film critics, film magazines and institutions, such as the AFI and Empire.The BFI’s magazine, Sight And Sound, more recently listed it as the greatest film made, leap-frogging Citizen Kane. Hitchcock constructs his film with all the cinematic tools at his disposal with incredible depth and consideration. Whilst certainly existing in the stylistic and tonal registers of film noir, it is also a deep psychological thriller.

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Jimmy Stewart as Scottie is the everyman caught up in and duped by circumstances that he initially cannot see but there could be endless conversation over his choices and the nature of his obsession with Madeline. Madeline is also a victim of her own trick because she falls in love with Scottie as well, something she did not expect to happen.

For me, Vertigo is one of the greatest films of all time and deserves to be in the canon of the best films of the 1950s. For more on my thoughts of Vertigo, you can visit the link here: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958): The Art Of Obsession

Film should be deeply personal, even though we cast a critical eye on the films we watch and absorb. At the end of the day, Hollywood is trying to make a buck but that’s also because film-makers want their films to be seen for an emotional response and connection with the audience. It’s why classic film endure and why they always have something to say.

This article has been submitted for the 5 Favourite Films Of The 1950s Blogathon which was kindly hosted by Rick at Classic Film And TV Cafe. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please click on the above link for some other great articles!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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Food Means Murder: Symbolism Of Food in ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

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by Paul Batters

“Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. If your car could take me to the airport. Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately”. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) 

Food plays a central role in societies and cultures across the world. It has powerful, symbolic meaning, as well as being a necessity of life. Whatever meaning food has will be shaped by the significance we attach to it. The gathering of people to share in a feast or a meal has been engaged in since time immemorial, often acting as ritual for a vast array of reasons from religious to celebratory to turning points in one’s life. The central ritual in many celebrations will be the sitting down to eat a prepared meal. It becomes intimate, accepting and enhances the connection between friendship and family.

How many wonderful moments have there been in film, where food has played this role – be it families gathering for Christmas lunch or Thanksgiving dinner, feasts in banquet halls or a romantic dinner. As an audience, these moments evoke vivid memories, which find themselves deeply imbedded in the experience of sharing food, from everyday moments to special events. But food in film can symbolise darker elements as well.

And the symbolism of food in Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, certainly boasts that achievement. As Vasna Jagarnath states in the Nov 23, 2013 edition of ‘The Con’, ‘food is used to comfort a friend, to welcome a child, to evoke memories and announce death’.

The significance of food in The Godfather is often overlooked and understated. David Sutton and Peter Wogan in Hollywood Blockbusters (2009) make the point that in The Godfather, food symbolises identity, honour, family and accomplishment. For the Corleone family, these are important values that shape who they are and thus need to be adhered to. But as we will see, food in The Godfather also signifies dark omens and even death.

The film opens with the wedding of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando); a celebration held with all the Sicilian traditions, which means good food, music and shared joy. As Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) points out to his wife, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. As a result, Nazorine the baker asks the Don for help, marking an exchange that defines their relationship, with the baker providing a towering wedding cake for the couple gratis. When singer and godson to Don Vito, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks help, Don Vito uncharacteristically gets angry and yells at him to ‘act like a man’, later adding when his anger subsides that only a ‘family man’ can call himself a ‘real man’. After all, a family man provides and puts food on the table. He then embraces him stating ‘I want you to eat’, indicating that home-cooked food will ease his troubles – the food symbolising love and closeness of family. Other references to food speak volumes. Michael (Al Pacino) asks his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) if she likes her lasagne, indicating that true enjoyment of the wedding is focused on how good the food is. Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of the Don’s top men, juggles an orange whilst sitting at his table – an ominous sign of what is to come for him.

We also see the act of sitting down to eat as a time when business is done. When Tom Hagen goes to see studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to discuss Johnny Fontane’s career, he is invited to Woltz’s home, where they sit at a large table set for a sumptuous meal. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, also symbolises the deep divide between the worlds of these two men. Woltz loses his temper, telling Hagen to ‘get the hell out of there’ showing little of the supposed intelligence and control that a powerful man in business is supposed to possess. Maintaining his composure, Tom Hagen thanks Woltz for the nice dinner and leaves, without making any threats. The intimacy of sitting together to eat and the trust in sharing food as a sign of friendship becomes severely broken. Jack Woltz will later discover the extent of the Corleone family’s power in one of the most infamous scenes in cinema history.

As Sutton and Wogan point out, the way business is done in the world of La Cosa Nostra and indeed in the wider world is one of a ‘gift economy’. Whether its’ a deal over union control, a contract in the world of entertainment or a corporate meeting, there is an exchange which means goodwill, trust, agreement and decision-making. The raising of glasses and sharing of drinks is also symbolic of this exchange.

Food as a marker or announcement of death is prevalent in the film. The presence of oranges as harbingers specifically has been oft spoken about; despite the film’s production designer Dean Tavoularis stating that there is no symbolic meaning to the presence of oranges. Tavoularis is on record as saying that in a film with darker tones and sombre sets, oranges provided a nice contrast in colour and work well against the lighting. But you can judge for yourself. During the Woltz – Hagen meeting, there are oranges on the table close to Woltz. When Don Vito is shot at the start of the film, he is purchasing oranges on the street, which will then spill out across the road as he stumbles towards his car, whilst catching bullets from the hitmen. During the big meeting with the Five Bosses, oranges are carefully placed near the two Dons, Tattaglia and Barzini, who have plotted against the Corleone Family and will face a violent ending. And as already mentioned Tessio, the trusted caporegime, is seen during the wedding scene, sitting at a table picking an orange from a bowl.

Later in the film, the death of Don Vito, while not violent will see him with an orange. Now retired and growing tomatoes in his garden, he plays with his grandson, and starts cutting an orange. Using the rind, he places it in his mouth and starts making faces, which for a moment scares his grandson. Not long after, as the two play, chasing each other amongst the tomato plants, Don Vito suffers a massive heart attack and dies. It is a poignant and powerfully symbolic scene – the tomatoes representing both richness and the old country, with a powerful man leaving behind his previous life and returning to his peasant roots. Yet as Jagarnath also suggests, the old Don growing tomatoes is symbolic of his preparing for the future, assuring his family will have plenty for the future after he has gone. The presence of his grandson also is indicative of those future generations which he is caring for, further exemplified by their playing amongst the tomato plants. Incidentally, Marlon Brando improvised the whole scene. The trick with the orange was one he had used with his own children and he also encouraged the boy playing his grandson to run through the tomato plants. To Coppola’s credit, he let Brando do his thing and captured a wonderful moment on film.

Additionally, the method by which the Corleone Family receives the news that their greatest weapon, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) has been murdered also provided the film with one of popular culture’s greatest lines. A package arrives with Luca’s body armour and inside some fresh fish. The ‘Sicilian message’ is clear as well as chilling and haunting that ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’.

One of the most celebrated scenes in the film involves the hit on turncoat soldier Paulie Gatto. It is a scene which perfectly depicts the typical Mob hit, at least in terms of attitude. Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) arranges the hit, with Rocco Lampone pulling the trigger and ‘making his bones’. The lead up shows the usual approach – lulling the victim into a sense of assurance, acting casual and then finally committing the act. Paulie’s bloodied face stares lifeless as it lays on the steering wheel and Clemenza utters perhaps the second most famous line in the film; ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’. The classic Sicilian sweet holds more importance than a man’s life but more importantly it becomes a device to show the cold, business-like approach that Mafia takes when dealing with problems. It is a chilling and memorable scene.

The reporting of Paulie’s demise occurs during a moment when the jovial Clemenza teases Michael Corleone about a phone-call from Kay. It is then that he invites Michael to the stove to show him how to cook spaghetti sauce. It’s a warm and close moment, as a group of men sit behind Clemenza in the kitchen eating. Yet a moment later, Sonny (James Caan) the acting boss walks in and asks Clemenza about Paulie, to which Clemenza nonchalantly replies ‘Oh Paulie, we won’t see him no more”. Despite being murderers and dangerous men, the scene also shows Clemenza, and by extension Don Vito, as being nurturers and providers, looking after their families and those who are close to them. They do so through the traditional food which they provide; prepared with care and love, and coming from old recipes from their homeland. In Harlan Lebo’s outstanding book ‘The Godfather Legacy’ (2005), Coppola has stated that he added the scene to give everyone a ‘great tomato sauce’. It is one of those touches the great directors added, to give the film greater authenticity and cultural identity. Similar touches can be found elsewhere in the film. During a meeting between Don Vito, his eldest boy Sonny (James Caan) and Tom Hagen, a bottle of home made anisette, made by Coppola himself from his father’s recipe, sits on a table near Don Vito. Whilst the Corleone men sit around planning murder, they sit around eating Chinese food – evoking a personal memory for Coppola because his ‘father liked Chinese food’. It may not connect for the audience as authentic, but the fact that it does for the director does make the scene authentic to his sensibilities and his shaping of the film’s ‘bigger picture’.

Perhaps the most important scene in the movie is the killing of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Letierri) and Sgt. McClusky (Sterling Hayden) by Michael Corleone. The symbolism of food and dining in this scene is layered with complexities. Earlier during the planning, Sonny announces that the meeting place is Louie’s Restaurant, The Bronx. Immediately, Tessio approves the choice for its’ good food and the implication that Michael will meet with Sollozzo and McClusky is that they will eat together as they speak. Again, the sharing of food also implies trust but in this case it will mark death. In the restaurant, Sollozzo echoes Tessio’s earlier approval telling McClusky to ‘try the veal, it’s the best in the city’. As Sollozzo and Michael speak, his mind turns over what is to come. When the moment arrives, despite all the audience’s prior knowledge, we are shocked at the suddenness and the intimate explicitness of that moment. There is an almost comic moment where McClusky, fork filled with veal mid-air, cops a bullet in the throat and then the head, before pitching forward and upsetting the table. The significance of this moment cannot be understated – Michael had declared throughout his life that he never wanted any part of his father’s business. His committing murder is a betrayal of himself. Regardless of what has unfolded, Michael is now forever set on a path he can never turn around, no matter what he tries. The upturned table represents the life of Michael Corleone and the family also upturned, with further problems to come.

Upturned tables also feature in the sad marriage of Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). Beating her regularly and treating her terribly, Connie tries to be the dutiful wife. As a ‘good wife’ in the Sicilian tradition, she cooks in the same way her mother does, setting the table and telling her ingrate husband that dinner is on the table. For Connie, the set table with cooked dinner represents her understanding of a home and stability, fulfilling her duties as a wife. Carlo’s indifference as he gets ready to go out and meet his mistress, will then follow into one of the film’s most disturbing and ugliest scenes, as Connie loses her composure and begins to ruin the set table. The domesticity of the home breaks into unfettered violence, as Carlo begins to beat his pregnant wife. The normal promise of food on the table symbolising a loving home has been broken for Connie and adds further tragedy to the story of the Corleone Family.

The Godfather was never a ‘gangster film’ nor is it a crime drama. Its’ endurance is that it is a film about a family who happen to be in the Mafia. Brando also believed that the film was the representation of the American Dream and capitalism at its’ very core. The Corleone Family may be gangsters but they are still a family shaped by Sicilian traditions in place for generations. Food is a key tradition because it brings family together and becomes the link between those generations.  Coppola would use food extensively in the next two films to convey the same values, traditions and messages. (If you don’t believe me, take a good look!) That other great TV drama about a family in the Mafia, The Sopranos, certainly sees the values embedded in food. And we as the audience cannot help but see it, too, if we look hard enough. 

This article was featured in the ‘Food In Film’ Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings https://silverscreenings.org/2017/11/06/foodinfilm-blogathon-aperitif/ and Speakeasy https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/announcing-the-food-in-film-blogathon/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history