In some ways, films of the '50s mirrored the laidback and colorless (some would say repressed) overtones of the Eisenhower years. Horror movies really weren't very horrific (too many irradiated mutant bugs), and you pretty much had to book passage to Europe to see women as unapologetic sex objects.

But whether you liked Ike or loathed him, the 1950s spawned its fair share of movie classics -- dig just below the surface of many a motion picture from the decade and you'll find drama and intrigue of both kinds, i.e., psychological and sexual. Millions of viewers got hitched in the '50s: the Master of Suspense is represented here by four of his thrillers. And the master of many genres, Billy Wilder, clocks in with a rom-com, black comedy and a screwball farce. Finally, at least one distinctly American art form -- the musical -- reached a pinnacle early in the decade. Read on for our picks of the best films of the 1950s.

In some ways, films of the '50s mirrored the laidback and colorless (some would say repressed) overtones of the Eisenhower years. Horror movies really weren't very horrific (too many irradiated mutant bugs), and you pretty much had to book passage to Europe to see women as unapologetic sex objects.

But whether you liked Ike or loathed him, the 1950s spawned its fair share of movie classics -- dig just below the surface of many a motion picture from the decade and you'll find drama and intrigue of both kinds, i.e., psychological and sexual. Millions of viewers got hitched in the '50s: the Master of Suspense is represented here by four of his thrillers. And the master of many genres, Billy Wilder, clocks in with a rom-com, black comedy and a screwball farce. Finally, at least one distinctly American art form -- the musical -- reached a pinnacle early in the decade. Read on for our picks of the best films of the 1950s. -- By Tom Johnson


40. 'The King and I' (1956)
In the pantheon of performances wholly owned by the actors that originate them, Yul Brynner, as the King of Siam, ranks high. Brynner won a Tony Award on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's lilting musical, then followed that up with a Best Actor Oscar for the movie reprise (one of only nine actors to win both awards for the same role). And it helps to be aided and abetted by Deborah Kerr as the English governess to the king's large brood of children.

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39. 'The Wild One' (1953)
Marlon Brando is the disaffected leader of a delinquent motorcycle gang that terrorizes a small town in the granddaddy of all motorcycle gang movies. Although the movie burns rubber straight into campiness (Brando's getup of cap, dungarees and jacket looks like it would better fit into another kind of leather bar), the master thespian still commands the screen with choice rejoinders to questions like, "What are you protesting?" "What have you got?" he answers.

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38. 'Guys and Dolls' (1956)
"The oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York" is the locus for this rather tepid adaptation of the classic Frank Loesser Broadway musical about gamblers and their molls. Frank Sinatra and a miscast Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson are the sharpies who'll take odds on any wager. But it's the incomparable Vivian Blaine, singing 'A Person Could Develop a Cold,' who steals every scene she's in.

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37. 'Marty' (1955)
"I'm a fat, ugly man!" says lovelorn Marty Piletti (Best Actor Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine) apropos of striking out yet again with the opposite sex. But things begin to look up for the 34-year-old Italian butcher when he meets plain-Jane schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair). Perhaps it was the "everyman" theme that resonated with audiences or the romantic idea that there's a soulmate out there for each of us. Whatever the case, 'Marty' also won Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Delbert Mann) and Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky), proving that sometimes good guys do finish first.

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36. 'An Affair to Remember' (1957)
A clunky mix of comedy, musical numbers and sudsy tear-jerking moments owes much of its allure to the potent screen chemistry of Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant -- and the fact that the film was referenced in a big way years later in the more winning 'Sleepless in Seattle.' Still, for fans of mature comedy starring sophisticated adults, this story of a playboy and nightclub singer who meet cute and plan an assignation at the top of the Empire State Building in six months' time might be your ticket.

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35. 'Ben-Hur' (1959)
For much of his career, it seems, Charlton Heston dressed in togas. In 'Ben-Hur' the raiment paid off handsomely, delivering manna from heaven, Tinseltown style -- a Best Actor win. As Judah Ben-Hur, an upperclass Jew living in Jerusalem during the time of Christ, Heston falls afoul of his best friend (a Roman), is banished to slavery and even hikes back to the Promised Land in time to witness the crucifixion. The guy got around. 'Ben-Hur''s mother lode of 11 Oscars also included Best Picture and Best Director (William Wyler) statues. Most memorable scene: The chariot race, of course.

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34. 'The Diary of Anne Frank' (1959)
The diary that teen Anne Frank kept while hiding with her family and others in a secret room in Amsterdam during WWII, chronicling her hopes, dreams and budding sexuality, makes a powerful transition to the screen. 'Diary' underscores the implacable optimism of the human spirit, best embodied in the voiceover we hear as the secret annex is discovered by the Gestapo. "I still believe, in spite of everything, that all people are basically good at heart," Anne (Millie Perkins) says. Best Supporting Actress winner Shelley Winters donated her statuette for display at the annex in Amsterdam.

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33. 'The Seventh Seal' (1958)
The movie about a prodigal knight (Max Von Sydow) returned from the Crusades to a plague-ridden Europe is full of Ingmar Bergman's signature totems: existentialism, allegory, an angsty preoccupation with death and the existence of God and a dubious view of religious zealotry (themes that would inspire generations of later filmmaker/acolytes like Woody Allen). Mix in magnificent shot-making and brilliant cinematography and what transpires is a stark, brooding, Nordic masterpiece.

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32. 'East of Eden' (1955)
James Dean (in his debut film) displays astonishing emotional range as Cal Trask, the "Cain-like" black sheep of a Salinas, Ca., farm family, who competes with his brother for the affections of their strict, unfeeling father (Raymond Massey). Jo Van Fleet (also making her screen debut) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a frowsy, small-town prostitute who is Cal's real mother (unbeknownst to him). Elia Kazan directs this adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, a tragedy of Biblical proportions.

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31. 'Sweet Smell of Success' (1957)
No punches are pulled in this unsparing look at the seedy, desperate life of a small-time press agent (Tony Curtis) who'll stop at nothing to curry favor with Manhattan's most powerful gossip columnist, megalomaniacal J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Based on a biographical composite of the legendary gossip potentate Walter Winchell. On the less sanguine side, New York City's never looked or sounded so good, thanks to straight-ahead jazz from the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

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