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May 20, 2006

Ten Reasons why 1958 was the best year for American Film


The common wisdom among various film fans and scholars is that 1939 was the greatest year for American film. I like to call 1939, "Victor Fleming's lucky year". The guy gets full credit for two films other people started, plus an Academy Award. I will admit there are a lot of good films from that year, but the only films I really like revisiting are Stagecoach and Ninotchka. If 1939 was the peak of the pre-World War II film, my argument is that 1958 was the year that Hollywood figured out wide screen and color. Not all of the films listed are wide screen and color but they are a subjective list of films from one extraordinary year before the challenges of a new generation of filmmakers primarily in France, England and Italy.

1. Vertigo. Now it's considered a given that this is one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, if not the best. The film was not a hit when originally released, in spite of respectful reviews. Always conscious of the bottom line, Hitchcock eyed the competition of that year which included a low-budget high profit thriller by William Castle and . . .

2. Touch of Evil. Bright Lights makes a good argument that there may not have been a Psycho, or at least the one we know and love, had Orson Welles not stranded Janet Leigh in a lonely motel, or left a dead Akim Tamiroff under a swinging light bulb. That opening shot is pretty good, too. Touch of Evil was produced by Albert Zugsmith who also produced . .

3. Tarnished Angels. Will anyone discuss the teaming of Douglas Sirk with Rock Hudson they way they discuss Scorsese and DeNiro, or Kurosawa and Mifune? Sirk must have enjoyed taking a break from the gloss of Ross Hunter in this film about itinerant barnstorming pilots in the Depression era South, based on a story by William Faulkner. Currently, the only way to enjoy the CinemaScope black and white cinematography is when the film shows up on TCM.

4. Bitter Victory. The image of dummies used for bayonet practice looks abstact as filmed by Nicholas Ray. Orginally twenty minutes short in its original release, the DVD is the complete film. Among the offbeat moments in this film about the futility of war is former scholar Richard Burton shrugging off interest in some ancient ruins by declaring that they are "too modern" for him.

5. Bonjour Tristesse. Otto Preminger introduced Jean Seberg as a very forward looking French girl in two films, Saint Joan and this film. Jean-Luc Godard cast Seberg as an American in Paris. What Godard knew before the rest of us was what a gift Preminger gave us that was never appreciated until it was too late.

6. Bell, Book and Candle. The other film to star Kim Novak and James Stewart. One of my favorite Christmas films also stars Ernie Kovaks and Jack Lemmon and a cat named Pyewacket. In these days of hysteria over "Harry Potter", could there be a film about a friendly witch who celebrates Christmas made today?

7. The Big Country. A big, long, sprawling western with Gregory Peck asserting himself against Charlton Heston when they're not fighting Burl Ives and Chuck Connors. The reputation of William Wyler's last western is rightfully on the rise, aided in no small part by the music of Jerome Moross.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If Richard Brooks didn't have to tamper with the play, this might have been the best film adaptation of Tennessee Williams. As it is, it may be one of the best cast. There have been challengers, but there is no question that Elizabeth Taylor is Maggie the Cat. Not to mention Burl Ives as "Big Daddy", Jack Carson as Gooper, and Paul Newman as Brick.

9. The Reluctant Debutante. Kay Kendall was gorgeous and funny. Vincente Minnelli finally won an Oscar for Gigi, released the same year. The Reluctante Debutante is the better of the two films. And damn it, I miss Kay Kendall.

10. Night of the Demon. Dana Andrews goes to England and meets the Devil and Peggy Cummins. If Jacques Tourneur had his way, the film would have been more like his work with Val Lewton, with fewer special effects shots of the titular demon. If you haven't seen it, reserve this for next Holloween. A spooky but not scary film about the battle between white and black magic is engrossing and above all, fun.

An alternate list can easily be made as other films from 1958 include John Ford's The Last Hurrah, Richard Fleischer's The Vikings, J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex, Arthur Penn's The Left-handed Gun, Anthony Mann's Man of the West, Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth, Donald Siegel's The Line-Up, Budd Boetticher's Buchanan Rides Alone, and Frank Borzage's China Doll, plus other films by Sirk, Ray and a couple by Frank Tashlin that I haven't mentioned. Again, this list is subjective, but hopefully persuasive that there was some extraordinary filmmaking between the alleged "Golden Year" of 1939 and the so-called "Silver" era of the early 1970s.

Posted by peter at May 20, 2006 05:09 PM


Agreed: I'd take '58 over '39 any day. (Chabrol entered the scene with "Le Beau Serge" to boot!) Nice list, Peter.

Posted by: Flickhead at May 20, 2006 09:01 PM

What a great idea, great post, and you list so many movies that I also like. Seen all these, except Bitter Victory and Night of the Demon. I swear there aren't many film bloggers who can write with equal verve about Dario Argento AND The Reluctant Debutante. By the way, I miss Sandra Dee. So if you are a Kay Kendall fan, you must also like Les Girls, yes? I find that such an underrated musical. And the thread for The Big Country over at Cinemarati gladdened my heart, since I think that one is unfairly maligned as well.

I do think the late 50s are an underrated time in movies. The movies released in 1939 are generally superb, but this makes me wonder if I should go back to review some other years. Perhaps if I put my taste under the microscope, '39 wouldn't be my favorite either.

Posted by: Campaspe at May 21, 2006 10:32 PM

Flickhead: I sort of fudged the year. I knew Chabrol's debut was in 1958 but it was Truffaut who made the big waves the following year. Also Richardson's "Look Back in Anger" signalled a shift in British film.

Campaspe: I saw "Les Girls" at Theatre 80 St. Marks. Even better for Kendall is "Genevieve" which I saw theatrically in NYC. Best Sandra Dee film is "Summer Place" for showcasing her acting ability.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at May 23, 2006 11:05 PM