While there were countless classic movies over the course of the early years of film it was in the 50s that the medium started to find its footing with more definitive genres, riskier productions touching on a wider range of relevant themes, and visual styles that would set the standard for years to come. The 50s also brought us some of the most legendary moments in film as everything from risqué interactions to thrilling chase scenes, monologues and career defining snapshots and quotes all started to make their mark. Continuing my ongoing look at the best and most iconic moments in cinema for the month of September I decided to explore this decade and pick out moments I felt were the most notable from a decade filled with amazing films that today still stand the test of time. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movie Moments of the 1950s.
For this list I looked at famous movie moments that premiered on the big screen from 1950 through 1959. These are the moments that helped film as a medium find its footing and showed that movies are more than just about the visuals. It’s about the acting, the scenario and the emotion as well. These moments helped show that films could be the full package. This is part of a series of lists spanning the decades of film which will all culminate to my picks for the Top 20 Movie Moments of All Time at the end of September. The top FOUR moments of every list will be considered for the ultimate list later this month.
For the sake of this series iconic moments are considered any brief or extended moments in a single project that have left a lasting impression on viewers. These can be monologues, one-shots, or several minutes of filming as long as everything is set in one place and takes place in succession before changing to a new setting, idea or perspective.
So let’s dive into a decade that many consider one of the best in cinema. What is your favorite movie moment from the 50s? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check back all throughout the month of September to see my other lists spanning the decades. If you’d like to catch up you can view my list of classic movie moments here.
10. The Beach Kiss, “From Here to Eternity”
We start this list with one of the most romantic love scenes ever put to film, the famous beach kiss from “From Here to Eternity”. The whole scene takes less than a minute but this 1953 classic left an undeniable mark by showcasing a truly heart stopping showing of affection as Burt Lancaster’s Milton Warden and Deborah Kerr’s Karen Holmes engage in an affair. This scene alone has kept the Best Picture winning film in the minds of many a movie buff thanks to the sexy nature of this exchange that, for the time, was actually a bit risqué. Such intimate moments were seldom shown in movie leading up to this film but “From Here to Eternity” showed a respect for its viewers and an unwillingness to compromise on the intensity and sultry nature of this love affair. It’s the embrace and kiss many women have come to wish for in a perfect relationship and the chemistry between Kerr and Lancaster in this moment alone is what many paired actors strive to capture for themselves. It’s a fine place to start in this showcase of the 50’s greatest movie moments.
9. The Crop Duster Attack from “North by Northwest”
Alfred Hitchcock was a huge name in film for many years and is directly responsible for several iconic moments you’ll see as these lists come around. In the 50s he directed a fine thriller called “North by Northwest”. The 1959 release featured an intense and fun chase scene that saw Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive caught up in a case of mistaken identity, trying to escape his attempted captors who are chasing after him in a crop duster. The scene culminates in a fantastic plane-versus-tanker crash as Grant escapes. This scene seems to have actually outlasted the film itself as a staple of cinema, being parodied by several television shows and movies over the years keeping “North by Northwest” relevant in today’s pop culture. This shouldn’t be too much of a shocker however. The crop duster scene is expertly crafted building the suspense and the real threat that Thronhill may not escape the mayhem. It also establishes that the antagonists will do whatever it takes to capture their target making Thornhill’s predicament seem even more dangerous.
8. Love and Hate, “Night of the Hunter”
The 1955 thriller “Night of the Hunter” features one of my favorite philosophical characters of early film, Reverend Harry Powell. In “Night of the Hunter” Powell is a preacher turned killer who has had love and hate tattooed onto his hands, hate on the fingers of his left and love on the fingers of his right. He’s a man who murders women believing to be doing God’s work and this iconic moment is one of the best examples of this villain’s mentality and helps establish him as a truly complex murderous man who has corrupted the teaching of the book he takes the time to preach. During this scene Powell details the point of his tattoos explaining that HATE on his left hand represents evil and LOVE on his right represent good and when he puts his hands together and locks his own fingers it represents the everlasting battle of good versus evil. These impromptu sermons of the ethics of man immediately address Powell’s charm and cunning character and the sincerity of his religious beliefs as well as his extremist hatred. On a deeper level though the characters who view his small lecture comment on how perfectly is sums up the battle between good and evil and anyone who has seen this scene would likely agree.
7. “Hey Stella!”, “A Street Car Named Desire”
Marlon Brando has a lot of great scenes in his acting history but this is one of his first. As the leading male role in 1951’s “A Street Car Named Desire” Brando play Stanley Kowalski, the husband of Stella Kowalski and brother-in-law to Blanche DuBois. The Kowalski’s live in a cramped New Orleans apartment where DuBois has also come to stay. Long story short Blanche and Stanley do not get along and their personalities clash and eventually Stanley, the more aggressive personality, strikes out as his wife Stella in a drunken rage. This all leads to this iconic scene where Stanley, sobering up and desperate to make amends, yells to his upstairs neighbors for his wife to come down. Brando’s obnoxiously loud and painful shouts literally scream desperation as it’s clear his actions and the frustrations of Blanche moving into their lives have finally caught up to him. It’s an amazing scene that is actually often parodied more than mimicked but it’s a big reason why “A Street Car Named Desire” remains a popular film many decades later. This won’t be the last time you see Marlon Brando in one of these countdowns, but for now it will do.
6. The Chariot Race, “Ben-Hur”
The story of “Ben-Hur” has been told many times over the years in film but the most iconic and beloved remains the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston in the title role. The story involves Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy prince and merchant in Jerusalem whose commitment to the freedom of his people and his faith lead him on a journey of ups and downs including eventually becoming a successful charioteer champion. Among the many iconic scenes featured in this religious-themed epic is the chariot race that sees Ben-Hur get his chance at revenge against his former friend who wronged him named Messala. The race is a fun, action packed, pulse pounding series of events that keeps the viewers (and the spectators in the scene) on the edge of their seats. Over the years we’ve seen many gladiatorial battles on the big screen but for its time “Ben-Hur” was a different kind of intensity that viewers didn’t see as often as they do today. It’s over four minutes of action and character driven fun that brings Ben-Hur’s journey full circle. This was action before action became a cliché and even when compared to today’s effects-heavy scenes it still holds up.
5. “You’re Tearing Me Apart”, “Rebel Without a Cause”
While he wasn’t with us for long James Dean became an icon in the 40s and 50s as THE image of the American rebel and pretty boy. He took that “rebel” label to the next level in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” portraying Jim Stark in a film considered an early attempt to expose the moral decay of the American youth. One scene in particular lives on as both an iconic moment and an infamous one. It brings Jim Starks’ frustrations to an immediate high as his parents bicker about his condition and why their son is acting up. Stark, despite keeping his composure through much of the exchange, seems to lose control all of a sudden and tell his parents they’re “tearing him apart” with the emotional stress all over his face. Like a whiny little kid unsure of how to get his point across Stark addresses how his parents’ bickering only leads to a never-ending cycle. The scene defines Starks’ character and motivations throughout the film and has since become James Dean’s most iconic movie moment. So why is it infamous you might ask? Because it was also the moment that inspired another memorable scene in cinema, Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 meme-worthy “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa” from “The Room” which itself is an iconic movie moment for all the wrong reasons.
4. Blowing Up the Bridge, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
An awesome moment from Best Picture winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, released in 1957, its Alec Guinness who takes the reins for this scene that helped earn him his own Oscar for bringing Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson to life. The story of this film focuses on British POWS at a Japanese prison camp who are instructed to build a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson however proves to be a divisive character throughout the film, at times standing up to his captors and other times falling in line eventually seeing the bridge as a way to solidify the ingenuity of the British Army rather than simply a slave project. The moment addressed on this list is the culmination of Nicholson’s actions as he has exposed a plot to destroy the bridge and a train of Japanese dignitaries only for the ensuing battle to reveal to him how wrong he was in trying to find any positive spin on their situation. His final words show his remorse clearly as he simply asks himself what he has done and attempts to detonate the bridge himself, succeeding only after sustaining a mortal injury. With that the bridge is destroyed, the train plummets and one of the most spectacular scenes in 50s cinema is shown in its fiery glory cementing itself forever in history as a special effects marvel sparked by an important an unforgettable character moment in the heat of war.
3. Literally Singing in the Rain, “Singin’ in the Rain”
Rarely does a musical film have both a titular song AND an actualy phsycial setting that matches it. Such is the case for 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” which showcases a depiction of Hollywood in the 20s with a lighthearted twist. It’s most famous musical number is the titular song which features Gene Kelly literally singing in a rainstorm. The sequence is meant to express the optimism of Kelly’s character even though the weather around him is damp, depressing and otherwise considered dreary to everyone else. The song itself has become synonymous with movie musicals and has even been featured in other films many times since with direct references to this very scene. The song is infectious as is Gene Kelly’s energy and optimism and how many people don’t know this legendary tune and sing along to it once in a while imagining ourselves skipping through the rain soaked streets like Kelly? It’s because of musical numbers and scenes like this that “Singin’ in the Rain” is often considered the best movie musical among professionals in the industry and it’s hard to disagree.
2. The Spaghetti Kiss, “Lady and the Tramp”
Disney’s 1955 animated classic “Lady and the Tramp” is a timeless love story that shows that love doesn’t have to be held back by social class or society. The story follows the titular Lady and Tramp, an upper class dog and mongrel stray respectively, who fall in love despite their social statuses working against them. The story has become as timeless as pretty much any love story in cinema despite the two being dogs instead of people, but perhaps it’s the fact that they are dogs that allowed this iconic and often imitated scene to work so well. The two pups have bonded leading to a romantic candlelight dinner outside an eatery owned by a man named Tony who provides music for the dinner. The dogs share a plate of spaghetti which leads to an adorably awkward unintentional kiss as the two are found to be slurping on the same noddle. The music, the atmosphere, the setting, and the somehow undeniable chemistry between two animated pups that still feel to human all drive home possibly the most iconic, most parodied and most imitated animated movie scene of all time. There’s practically nobody who doesn’t know this scene even if they may not quite remember where it’s from but there’s no denying that the spaghetti kiss lives on as one of Disney’s best moments and one of the best in 50s films.
1. Marilyn Monroe’s Dress, “The Seven Year Itch”
A moment so iconic that it has surpassed its movie and become the very moment Marilyn Monroe is known for by practically anyone familiar with the name. The 1955 romantic comedy “The Seven Year Itch” features Monroe as simply “The Girl” who becomes the love interest of Richard Sherman, a loyal husband in the midst of a midlife crisis. Over the course of the film Monroe’s character, left unnamed to presumably make her identifiable as any given pretty woman a man may find attractive, grows closer to Sherman and he becomes more and more infatuated with her beauty especially given the cloths she wears. This scene showcases just how significant those fashion choices are as Monroe stands over a subway grate to experience the breeze only for the train to blow her dress up creating one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. The best part is this scene is placed near the end of the film and is the final straw in revealing to Sherman his emotions for “The Girl” before he decides to commit to his family. Since “The Seven Year Itch” this image has become literally the poster child for an iconic movie moment and has been plastered all over memorabilia and posters for decades albeit from different angles than the actual shot in the film. While many know of it few probably remember its humble origins as a little scene in a film about temptations which earns it the top spot on this list.