April 15, 2012

My Movie Year: 1958

My Movie Year organized by Fandango Groovers Movie Blog
Organized by Fandango Groovers
This post is one of dozens put up today by movie bloggers who were asked to pick their favorite movie year and back it up with five outstanding examples. To see what years and titles other bloggers have picked, click on over to Fandango Groovers Movie Blog.

1958: Dwight Eisenhower is well into his second term as president; America's first successful satellite, Explorer I, is launched into orbit; Elvis Presley is inducted into the army; Pan Am is the first airline to fly a Boeing 707 jetliner across the Atlantic; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is born; The Beatles (then called the Quarrymen), have their first recording session; the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Nautilus becomes the first vessel to cross the North Pole underwater; the newly formed NASA launches its first spacecraft, Pioneer I; television gets its own patron saint, Saint Clare, courtesy of Pope Pius XII; Michael Jackson and Bruce Campbell are born.

1958 was not a great year for movie ticket sales. Throughout the '50s, Hollywood tried to compete with that nasty new kid on the block -- television -- with innovations and gimmicks designed to lure people out of their living rooms and back into theaters: 3D, widescreen formats such as Cinerama and CinemaScope, and even cheap carnival sideshow-type stunts like William Castle's "Emergo" (for House on Haunted Hill, 1959). In spite of all these efforts, U.S. domestic box office receipts declined from $1,376 million in 1950 to a comparatively paltry $958 million in 1959. Over the same period, TV ownership exploded from 20% of all American households in 1950 to over 90% in 1959.

One bright spot for the movie industry was the youth market. The decade saw teenagers come into their own as a potent consumer force. And one place they loved to hang out was the local "passion pit," i.e., the drive-in theater. While traditional movie theaters and ticket sales were declining, drive-in theaters mushroomed from under 1,000 nationwide in 1948 to over 5,000 in 1958. The industry responded with a seemingly endless of stream of drive-in, double-bill fare aimed at non-discriminating teens with some extra change in their pockets. While their parents stayed home and watched Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Gunsmoke, and an almost endless array of Westerns on their console TVs (7 out of the top 10 TV shows in 1958 were westerns), the kids were piling into Fords and Chevys and motoring down to the local drive-in to see cheap, entertaining stuff like The Blob, The Fly, Fiend Without a Face, Monster on the Campus, I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Frankenstein's Daughter, War of the Colossal Beast, and many, many others.

While I dearly love '50s sci-fi movies, and 1958 may be the most prolific year of all for these types of films, true greatness was also showing up in theaters that year. Of my five picks for the best of 1958, three are enshrined in the National Film Registry, two are on my personal top 10 favorites of all time list, one is a personal top 10 horror favorite, one is a top 10 fantasy favorite, and all are outstanding, memorable representatives of their respective genres. They were not the top grossing films of the year, but they have held up far better than the more popular releases of the day, and will entertain for many more years to come.

Horror of Dracula poster
Following hard on the heels of Hammer's wildly successful Curse of Frankenstein (1957), this second Hammer pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee revived interest in period Gothic horror, propelled tiny Hammer Studios to the forefront of the horror film industry, and cemented both actors' reputations as icons of the genre. The film's impact and influence are hard to overestimate:
Christopher Lee emerged from his earlier monster make-up [Curse of Frankenstein] to take on the role which would make him eternally world-renowned; his portrayal of Count Dracula would be so definitive that whenever people thought of Dracula, they envisioned Lee. His image, darkly virile and sexually charged, lips glossed with bright blood, virtually revolutionized the global horror movie industry. Peter Cushing played the Count's perennial nemesis, the eminent vampirologist Dr. Van Helsing, armed with crucifixes, garlic flowers and other paraphernalia of his rather generalized trade. Again filmed in opulent color, the film was far more explicit than the earlier Bela Lugosi version… [The film] remains probably the finest example of the classic Hammer style and combines the talents of the leading players and key production personnel who would go on to make that style world-famous. It has often been described as the best vampire film ever made, a fitting testament to its incredible initial impact. (House of Horror: The  Complete Hammer Films Story, Jack Hunter, ed. Creation Books, 2000)

7th Voyage of Sinbad poster
I remember seeing Jurassic Park in 1993 and simply being awed by the CGI technology that could bring dinosaurs to such realistic, terrifying life. In spite of advancements in the art, CGI fails to impress anymore, and the endless parade of sci-fi, fantasy and horror films that use (and overuse) it now tend to elicit yawns instead of wonder. Today's filmmakers make the same mistake over and over -- they think technology and special effects can compensate for poor scripts and mediocre acting.

7th Voyage was my introduction to the awesome stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. It was the 4th collaboration of the visual effects master and producer Charles H. Schneer, but the first pure fantasy project that allowed Harryhausen to really show off his genius. As a kid, I was as awed by Harryhausen's wonderful creations -- the Cyclops, the giant two-headed Roc, the skeletal swordsman, and the ancient dragon -- as I was later by Star Wars' battlecruisers and Death Star, and still later by Jurassic Park's dinosaurs. With its wondrous stop-motion mythological beasts, a fast-paced, engaging story, personable characters in exotic costumes, and a rousing score by Bernard Herrmann, 7th Voyage still enchants and delights, and is simply one of the best fantasy films of all time.

Touch of Evil poster
Genius is a word that's lost much of its meaning from overuse. But I think it's safe to say that Orson Welles was an honest-to-goodness genius, at least as far as film is concerned. It's one thing to invent a whole new film grammar with something like Citizen Kane (1941), but to make Chuck Heston believable as a Mexican narcotics agent? Now that takes true genius!

To make things even more interesting, we have good ol' Chuck to thank for this extremely worthy member of the Welles canon. It seems Welles was originally slated only to act in the film, but Heston, who signed onto the project thinking that Welles would be directing too, insisted that Orson take over as director when he found out someone else was assigned. The rest, as they say, is history.

From the long, single-take opening scene in the Mexican border town, to Janet Leigh's creepy encounter with the motel clerk played by Dennis Weaver, to Welles' performance as a shambling, bloated, corrupt cop, Touch of Evil achieves a surreal, dreamlike quality that both disturbs and fascinates.

Welles was not a happy camper before, during or after the filming (he didn't like the title, and he sure didn't like Universal's final cut), but that didn't affect the critics' ultimate judgment of Touch of Evil as one of the last, great noirs of the classic era. The great man's original vision, and cut, of the film was finally released on DVD in 1999.

Man of the West poster
This western was a sort of swan song for two very important men of film: it was director Anthony Mann's last truly great film, and it was Gary Cooper's last great role. It is mature and invigorating and examines some big issues in a very entertaining way: Can we ever escape the past? Is loyalty always a noble thing? What exactly constitutes a family? In film scholar Jeanine Basinger's study of Anthony Mann (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), she quotes French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who was single-handedly responsible for plucking Man of the West out of relative obscurity and establishing it as a classic of the Western genre:
I have seen nothing so completely new since-- why not? -- Griffith. Just as the director of Birth of a Nation gave one the impression that he was inventing the cinema with every shot, each shot of Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is redefining the Western. It is, moreover, more than an impression, He does re-invent.
Basinger herself goes on to say:
The film, however, is something more than the usual matching of landscape, narrative, and character development. It incorporates the mythology of the western genre itself, and, ultimately the mythology of the hero. As if he were the hero of a Greek myth, Cooper makes a symbolic journey into self. He leaves the real world he inhabits and enters the evil underworld to confront the forces which would destroy him, forces which are clearly of and within him. He makes a journey with ghosts back into things buried and dead in his past, from civilization to noncivilization and back to redemption.
Man of the West is simply my favorite Western of all-time, and one of my favorites in any genre.

Vertigo poster
What was it about Jimmy Stewart that brought out the very best in directors? Some actors seem to pick and choose when they're going to be very, very good, and when they're going to be awful, but Jimmy was the prototypical reliable performer, and never disappointed. And for someone often identified with light comedy (The Philadelphia Story, 1940, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940), he pops up again and again in some of the greatest westerns and suspense-thrillers of all time: Winchester '73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Rear Window (1954), and of course, Vertigo.

Jimmy's portrayal of the haunted cop John "Scottie" Ferguson is arguably the best of his entire career, and Vertigo the best of Hitchcock's films. With the almost perfect casting of icy beauty Kim Novak as the living ghost (fortuitously, Kim replaced the pregnant Vera Miles almost at the last minute), Vertigo presents one of the more bizarre and disturbing "romances" in all of film. In Hitch, The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (Pantheon Books, 1978), John Russell Taylor gets to the heart of Stewart's great performance, and of the film itself:
[In] Vertigo, the whole emotional situation is invested with a nightmarish intensity because its true nature is unacknowledged and its natural course diverted. The hero's passion for the girl in the second half of the film is perverse not because he continues hopelessly to love someone he believes dead-- bereavement is not such an unnatural situation -- but because he is incapable of reacting to a real, living woman until he has dominated her completely and transformed her, completely against her will, into the image of his lost love. In other words, he has chosen the fantasy over reality, and tried to transform reality into fantasy by the sheer force of his obsession.
We can't look away, because Scottie Ferguson's obsession has become ours. Film doesn't get much better than this.


  1. Nice work Brian, I love all the background you give and the films are great. Thanks for taking part.

  2. I've been checking out a number of the My Movie Year postings, and although I'm familiar with most of the movies that have been listed, there aren't many in which I've seen all 5. I can't say that I've seen all 5 of the films you've listed, but considering they are from 1958 I'm not surprised. I am surprised, however, that I've seen 4 of the films (Man of the West being the exception) and can honestly say that I'd have included them on my own list of films from the year.

    Thanks for picking a year and sharing films that most either haven't seen or didn't think to go back that far; and thanks for reminding me that great films have been a part of our history going far, far back.

  3. I go far, far back myself... I was 2 in 1958. :)

  4. I actually haven't seen any of these, though I do have Horror of Dracula in my Netflix queue and like you am really into the 1950s scifi stuff. You have some great background on all these and makes me want to watch them this weekend with a big bowl of popcorn!

  5. I won't quibble with any of the choices-- two are among my all-time favorites-- but I would add the 1958 Revenge Western, The Bravados. Stellar cast and so mean-spirited that one of the Three Stooges knifes the sheriff in the back. Gregory Peck intensely disliked the movie and his acting shows it.

    1. Completely agree with you! The Bravados is as unsentimental a western as they come, and therefore a great one -- almost as great Man of the West. :)