Between John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Alfred Hitchcock, 1959 has it all.
Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
When the editor of this website asked the staff to make the case for the best year in the history of film, I chose the last year of the 1950s because of one movie: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which is my favorite film and the best one I have ever seen. But, after conducting a quick search for movies released in 1959, I am now truly convinced that it is the best year in film. From Westerns and comedy to the French New Wave and the quintessence of Alfred Hitchcock, 1959 was without question the greatest year to be a moviegoer.
Before we get to the American West, let us travel to France and the first years of the French New Wave style of filmmaking. A year before Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless — arguably the most influential and lasting film of the French New Wave — Francois Truffaut made his directorial debut with The 400 Blows, one of the first films to introduce this visual style to an international audience.
“If the New Wave marks the dividing point between classic and modern cinema (and many think it does), then Truffaut is likely the most beloved of modern directors — the one whose films resonated with the deepest, richest love of moviemaking,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film.
Based partly on Truffaut’s adolescence, The 400 Blows tells the story of a rebellious teen with a love for French art and cinema. It is the first of a filmography that demonstrated Truffaut’s auteur theory, which, in short, is that a director is the author of their work. The film is dedicated to the critic Andre Bazin, who co-developed this theory with Truffaut, to whom he was a father figure. That Truffaut is the author of his films is apparent to anyone who views them, and they influenced most every filmmaker to come after him.
Another film that influenced and helped shape an entire genre was Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. In 2000, the American Film Institute named Some Like It Hot the greatest comedy in the history of American cinema. In 2007, they named it the twenty-second greatest film of all time. How could you not agree?
Two months ago, I wrote about a brilliant video essay that explored the difference between Marilyn Monroe’s public and private personas. Today, it seems as though many know Monroe only for her beauty, not as the greatest comedic actress of all time. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are hilarious in the film as two musicians pretending to be women in order to play with a female band in Florida and escape the Chicago mob after they witness a murder. Yet, their performances pale in comparison to Monroe’s, whose comedic timing and delivery is so effortless it is easy to under-appreciate her brilliance.
The script of Some Like It Hot is Casablanca-esque, in that, unlike other screwball comedies, the plot is incredibly smooth and the dialogue rich. Some Like It Hot is the height of film comedy and, like Monroe’s performance is so funny and enjoyable that it is easy to forget that it is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. As Martin Scorsese said when he presented the AFI Lifetime Achievement award to Mel Brooks, jokes are one thing, but making them part of a cohesive whole is something completely different. And it is Wilder’s ability to do just that makes Some Like It Hot a masterpiece.
As if those two films were not enough to make the case for 1959, the year also saw the release of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. The highest-grossing film of the year, Ben-Hur won a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Cinematography.
I watched Ben-Hur for the first time about a year ago on Blu-Ray and it has not aged a day. At more than three and a half hours long, complete with a musical overture, intermission, and entr’acte, Ben-Hur is an epic in every sense of the word. Each shot is beautifully and meticulously crafted. And Wyler’s use of deep space, coupled with wide shots of the Judean landscape, desert, sea, and sky, only enhance the film’s deeper exploration of man’s relationship with God, his country, and family, and the need to keep faith in all three during times of immeasurable pain and turmoil.
The film’s climax is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film: a chariot race between Ben-Hur, who has returned after being imprisoned and banished from his homeland, and the Roman garrison Messala, who not only ordered his banishment but was his childhood friend. Wyler dedicates more than seven minutes to this scene, half of which is dedicated exclusively to shots of Ben-Hur and Messala as they round the track. (I invite you to read the TCM history of this scene, which cost $4 million, one-fourth of the budget, and took ten weeks to shoot.)
What is most striking to me about the scene is the sound design: hooves constantly beating against the dirt, the creaking of the chariots, and the muffled cheers of the crows. There are no human voices — no dialogue or narration. It is as if we are the charioteers, hearing only what a man in competition for his life would hear, see, and feel. We are absorbed by the scene in the most unsettling, suspenseful, and captivating way.
Still not convinced that 1959 is the best year in the history of film? Well, buckle-up, because the chariot scene from Ben-Hur is not even the best scene from 1959. Don’t believe me? Well, then you probably forgot that Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was also released that year. Though one of his best works, full of humor, style, and originality, there is only one moment I wish to discuss: the crop duster scene.
Right in the middle of this masterpiece, Hitchcock, for roughly seven minutes, places Cary Grant, who plays a man on the run, in the middle of a cornfield alone. And then, suddenly, a crop duster comes out of nowhere and starts to attack, forcing him to run around a cornfield and evade an unknown aircraft. As Truffaut himself pointed out in his interview with Hitchcock, the scene is absurd, implausible, insignificant and exactly the kind of sequence only a brilliant director would dream up.
“How can anyone object to gratuity when it’s so clearly deliberate — it’s planned incongruity? It’s obvious that the fantasy of the absurd is a key ingredient of your film-making formula,” Truffaut says.
To which Hitchcock replied: “The fact is I practice absurdity quite religiously!”
Throughout his career, Hitchcock constantly battled those who insisted on analyzing a film’s plausibility, aka the “plausibles.” Hitchcock argued that this kind of evaluation was the antithesis of fiction and storytelling. For Hitchcock, film was about creating an aesthetic experience that captivated audiences. As he says to Truffaut, “Logic is dull.” To try and make logical sense of Hitchcock’s work is to miss the point. What matters is what we are feeling in the moment, not whether we can piece it together afterward.
I could dedicate an entire article to analyzing this scene, but one of the most striking attributes is that we never see the pilot. The enemy is not a man driving a plan, but the plane itself. It is like a monster, and it makes the odds of Cary Grant winning seem even lower. It is a brilliant move from an artistic genius.
If you are not yet convinced that 1959 was the greatest year in the history of the movies, I have one more film to discuss, and it is not only my absolute favorite film but the best I have ever seen. I say the best I have ever seen because I am a still a young man with a lot of movies still to see. But, I doubt I will find one I love and appreciate more than Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.
Quentin Tarantino, a Hawks, and Rio Bravo devotee, once deemed the film the best “hang out” movie of all-time. What he means by this (and I could not agree more) is that Rio Bravo is one of those films that makes you feel as though you are just hanging out with the characters. They’re your friends. They are so compelling and charming and caring and cool that we can’t help but want to just hang out with them, whether it’s the sheriff Chance (John Wayne), his right-hand man Dude (Dean Martin), the jail guardian Stump (Walter Brennan), or Chance’s love interest Feathers (Angie Dickinson). The great films are those that give us great characters, and there is no greater cast of characters than the good guys in Rio Bravo.
After a critical and financial flop, Hawks did not direct a film in the four years prior to Rio Bravo. Yet, the film that follows is a masterpiece, and its opening sequence shows the mastery of Hawks’ visual storytelling and is illustrative of the major themes that he deals with throughout the film. Rio Bravo is a story of redemption and friendship. In the film, the characters make mistakes and forgive one another. They are vulnerable and alone, yet grateful to have each other. I end my case for 1959 with the opening minutes of this masterpiece:
P.S. How many great movies were released in 1959? So many that I was not even able to write about them all! Here are a few others. Perhaps we will have a part two!
Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger)
Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger)
The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens)
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
The Devil’s Disciple (Guy Hamilton)