The Most Important Movies of the 1950s

These transformative films pushed boundaries and changed cinema forever

The Seventh Seal

Svensk Filmindustri 

The movies of the 1950s are sometimes overshadowed by the iconic cinema of the 1960s and 70s.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that the 1950s were without monumentally important films. Major developments took place in the cinema of the 1950s, including an increase in the popularity of global cinema, new approaches to acting and narrative storytelling, and the rise of groundbreaking directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford.

In chronological order by release date, the following list includes the most important movies (though not necessarily the best) released during the 1950s.

Cinderella (1950)

In the late 1940s, Walt Disney was in desperate need of a hit film. Throughout the decade, his studio had been losing money. Certain films had performed below expectations (the original releases of Fantasia and Pinocchio) and Disney had spent significant time and resources making films for the U.S. government during World War II and its aftermath.

However, the animated classic Cinderella proved to be such a huge success that it saved the studio's fortune and provided an endearing template for many of Disney’s successive animated classics. Without Cinderella, Disney might have never recovered.

Rashomon (1950)

Daiei Motion Picture Company

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is groundbreaking for the way its narrative is constructed. A single crime is recounted in a trial setting from four separate points of view, each of which is contradictory and up to interpretation. 

After winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Honorary Academy Award, Rashomon brought a new level of acclaim to Japanese cinema.

Kurosawa went on to make more masterpieces in the 1950s, including Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard
Paramount Pictures

After decades of films extolling the glories of Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was one of the first films to pull back the curtain on the movie industry.

Reclusive silent era star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), now fifty, plots her return to the big screen when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles onto her aging estate. Gillis slowly learns Desmond's obsession with youth and stardom and how being separated from it has affected her mental health.

Sunset Boulevard was one of the top grossing films of the year and changed the public's perception of the glamorous world of Hollywood.

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve
20th Century Fox

Much like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve looks at ageism and obsession in the entertainment industry. Hollywood icon Bette Davis stars as a Broadway actress facing the end of her career as she struggles against a younger rival.

All About Eve was awarded a record-setting 14 Oscar nominations and won six. But its impact was even further reaching, because before All About Eve, few actresses over forty were offered lead roles in films. Like Sunset BoulevardAll About Eve demonstrated there was a place for mature roles for women on screen.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire
Warner Bros. Pictures

The early 1950s were dominated by Marlon Brando, a fresh-faced Broadway actor whose natural acting style served as an inspiration to countless other performers.

After originating the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, Brando reprised the role in the film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan (who also directed the original Broadway production). Brando's work introduced much of the public to a new style of acting that would later become synonymous with actors like James Dean, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro.

Brando and Kazan would later work together again in 1954’s On the Waterfront, another groundbreaking film of the decade.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin' in the Rain

Since “talking pictures” first became popular in the early 1920s, Hollywood has embraced the pageantry of the musical. One of the greatest musicals of the decade is Singin’ in the Rain, which is itself about actors making the transition from silent movies to sound features. Gene Kelly’s iconic dance sequence while singing the title song is one of the most memorable scenes in Hollywood history.

High Noon (1952)

High Noon
United Artists

Developed as an allegory for the on-going Red Scare — in which Hollywood was targeted as a hotbed of Communist sympathizers — High Noon is a Western starring Gary Cooper as a small-town marshal who stands alone against a revenge-seeking outlaw who is on his way to town. One by one, the townsfolk he protected turn away from him in his time of need.

High Noon was one of the first revisionist Westerns, and its almost real-time narrative was a storytelling device rarely used in film beforehand. 

The Robe (1953)

The Robe
20th Century Fox

During the 1950s, Hollywood tried many gimmicks to combat declining audiences in theaters, including the use of 3D filmmaking. Another strategy was to increase the size of the screen, especially as a way to combat the growing popularity of television.

The Robe was the first film presented in CinemaScope, a widescreen process that soon became standard throughout the industry (and continues today). The widescreen spectacle of The Robe led to huge box office success and helped revive interest in Biblical epics throughout the decade, including The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959).

Godzilla (1954)

Toho Film Company Ltd.

While Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa were making what were considered art films for Japanese studio Toho, the studio was also releasing more entertainment-driven projects. The greatest of those films was Gojira (better known as Godzilla), a science fiction film about a massive reptilian beast that attacks Tokyo. Godzilla is one of many sci-fi films of the decade to explore the dangers of the atomic age. Though eclipsed by today's special effects, the miniature effects of Godzilla were groundbreaking and influential.

Godzilla, its many sequels, and its even more numerous imitators continue to be released today, and Godzilla remains one of the most recognizable pop culture characters in the world.

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers
Warner Bros. Pictures

By the mid-1950s, John Wayne had played heroic cowboys on screen for a quarter-century, with many of his best films directed by John Ford. In The Searchers, Ford and Wayne tell the story of a very different type of cowboy: Ethan Edwards, a conflicted former Confederate soldier whose family is massacred by a band of Comanche and his young niece taken captive. The obsessive Edwards becomes increasingly desperate as he spends years searching, leaving audiences to wonder how he will react if he finally finds her.

The dark story, gorgeous cinematography, and Wayne at his very best make The Searchers a celebrated film.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal
Svensk Filmindustri

Hollywood movies dominated cinemas worldwide through World War II, but in the 1950s filmmakers from all over the world began gaining international attention with their work. One of the greatest European directors of the era was Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Bergman’s first major international success was The Seventh Seal, a film about a knight who is confronted by the personification of Death during the Black Plague. The imagery presented in The Seventh Seal remains iconic decades later. Bergman released a second highly-regarded film the same year, Wild Strawberries.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein
Warner Bros. Pictures

Years after Universal Pictures moved on from horror movies, British film studio Hammer Film Productions revived the creature feature with a series of stark, gothic-inspired loose remakes of Universal’s most popular monsters produced in color. The first was The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Christopher Lee as the Creature and Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein. The duo would go on appear together in many Hammer horror features, and Frankenstein's international success continues to influence horror filmmakers.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory
United Artists

Stanley Kubrick is remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. His 1957 film Paths of Glory, which stars Kirk Douglas as a World War I French military leader who defends soldiers who refuse to engage in a suicidal advance against German forces, presented a very different perspective than the typical Hollywood war movie.

The anti-war themes in the film were rare for post-World War II society, and its uniqueness set Kubrick up for his groundbreaking career as a filmmaker.

Vertigo (1958)

Paramount Pictures

Though masterful director Alfred Hitchcock made a number of masterpieces in the 1950s – Stranger on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), and North by Northwest (1959), to name a few – the initially under-appreciated Vertigo might be the Master of Suspense’s crowning achievement of the decade.

Hitchcock's frequent collaborator James Stewart plays a detective forced to retire because he suffers from vertigo. As a private investigator, he is hired to track a mysterious woman in a complex murder plot. Vertigo's theme of obsession continues to engage and perplex viewers, and its revolutionary use of camera techniques are frequently imitated, even today.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot
United Artists

Comedy films began to explore new topics by the end of the 1950s. One of the highlights of that exploration is Some Like It Hot. The film stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as witnesses to a murder who disguise themselves as women to avoid being caught by the perpetrators.

Cross-dressing comedy was considered extremely cutting-edge at the time, and Some Like It Hot (along with director Billy Wilder and co-star Marilyn Monroe in perhaps her last great role) helped usher in the groundbreaking comedy of the 1960s by pushing the envelope at the end of the 1950s.