Some odd things happened in 1958. The pope made Saint Clare the patron saint of television. Britain set up its first parking meters. The Beatles were calling themselves the Quarrymen. Instant noodles went on sale. And in sunny California, Hollywood was about to have a major identity crisis. The Production Code was being challenged ever more zealously and the Hollywood Black List would be broken in 1960, when Kirk Douglas insisted on giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit for Spartacus. But, in 1958, working in Hollywood still meant towing the line and it's no surprise that four of the five films on this list faced controversies and censorship on their release. Here are the best films of 1958.
5. Auntie Mame
Based on the popular book by Patrick Dennis, this hilarious movie about a madcap millionairess who has to raise her brother's orphaned son stars Rosalind Russell in the titular role. Russell's performance is one of the rare perfect performances, funny, antic, and moving all at the same time. The movie delights in lambasting commonly accepted prejudices of the time, particularly antisemitism and homophobia (though Ito, the Japanese house-boy is, at the very least, not politically correct). Though retaining a light touch reminiscent of screwball comedy throughout, Auntie Mame packs a wallop of political and social commentary.
4. Touch of Evil
Orson Welles's noir masterpiece was butchered by the studio despite pleading (and a 58 page memo) from Welles himself. The film was restored in 1998, though the original rough cut of the film is no longer extant. Touch of Evil is about a Mexican cop (played by - wait for it - Charlton Heston) and his American bride (Janet Leigh) who find themselves entangled in the sordid machinations of a drug ring and the equally sordid investigative techniques of Quinlan, an overweight, boozy police captain, played by Welles. The film has an unprecedented amount of violence, sex, and drugs, and feels, more than 50 years later, completely comtemporary.
This delightful Lerner and Lowe musical, based on the novella by Colette, was adored upon its release, but producer Arthur Freed had to battle the Production Code for several years in order to film the story of a Parisian courtesan in training. Leslie Caron, one of my all-time favorite actresses, is perfect in the title role, the exquisite costumes are Cecil Beaton creations, and the color cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg is gorgeous.
2. The Defiant Ones
Stanley Kramer loved to tackle controversial subject matter and this film, about two escaped convicts, one black and one white, chained together, was about as controversial as a film could be in 1958. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are extraordinary as the two convicts, lending depth and complexity to roles that could easily have been pared down to stereotypes. This very moving film is a portrait of the racial tensions of its time, offering no easy solutions, refusing to make its protagonists martyrs or heroes.
Vertigo was slammed by critics and audiences alike when it was released, though it was later recognized as one of Hitchcock's greatest films, perhaps the absolute greatest. The plot, about a traumatized ex-detective who is hired to follow a former school-friend's apparently bewitched wife, is almost entirely beside the point. The intense atmosphere of the film, enhanced by one of Bernard Herrman's best scores, has never been duplicated and its preoccupation with sexual obsession was very much ahead of its time. A tacked-on ending, demanded by the Production Code, is thankfully just a special feature on the DVD.