10 1958 films about fear that aren’t Vertigo

Hitchcock's Vertigo may have dominated 1958, but that year was full of other films about fear and loathing. Here's Aliya's top 10...

There are so many things to be scared of. Apart from the obvious perils, such as large spiders, venomous snakes, and dentists, there are less tangible things to panic about. Fear of growing old. Fear of falling into poverty. Fear of thermonuclear war.

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was released. It’s very good at making the watcher feel very uncomfortable, through the camera angles and the great score by Bernard Herrmann. But it’s not just the audience who gets to feel scared; it’s there in the script too. Scottie (played by James Stewart) suffers from vertigo, but he’s also afraid of his past, and of the pain of loss. He’s been hurt so badly before that he’ll do anything to make sure he never feels that way again. So when he meets Judy (Kim Novak) he is obsessed with turning her into his lost love, not because he thinks he’ll be happy with her, but because he’s terrified of losing her.

There is one of the great close-ups of all time in Vertigo. Scottie suffers from nightmares, and we enter the horror inside his head. We see him trying to make sense of his fear and his desperation. He falls in the dream, until he lands back in bed and sits bolt upright, his blue eyes blazing straight into the camera. It’s one of the greatest images of fear ever put on the screen.

But enough about Vertigo. Yeah, it’s a masterpiece of movie, but it’s far from the only movie about fear released in 1958. This article is about those other movies. Maybe it’s not too surprising that panic never felt far away in that year. It was a great time for that emotion. CND was formed, as was NASA; there was civil unrest in Cyprus and London; an Arab Nationalist uprising in Iraq led to the murder of their king and prime minister; US Marines arrived in Lebanon, and the Cold War was an everyday reality. If you think there’s a lot to worry about nowadays, then I recommend watching these ten films (listed here in alphabetical order) to regain a sense of perspective. The fears of today aren’t much different from the fears of 1958, and the human race carries on regardless. So it can’t be all that scary, right?

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If only there weren’t so many things to be scared of, though. As this list demonstrates.

A Night To Remember

The British cinematic exploration of fear used to involve lots of people being very brave. A Night To Remember is the true story of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It was commended for its historical accuracy, and it used as many true-life details from the accounts of survivors as possible, so when you see the string quartet play on, that’s because they really did.

If James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) was about the spectacle of watching a really big boat sink, then this movie is about what you do when that boat sinks. It places you in that lifeboat, making those decisions, kissing your family goodbye, trying not to die. And that’s why it’s a much better movie. You don’t see the disaster. You live it.

There was also a 1943 Nazi propaganda movie version, called The Titanic, but Goebbels banned it in Germany when the scenes of British people calling for help and searching for loved ones were deemed to be weakening German morale rather than bolstering it. Four clips from this version were used, uncredited, in A Night To Remember.

Carve Her Name With Pride

More stiff upper lip, this time in the story of Violette Szabo, the phenomenally brave SOE agent during World War Two who risked her life and left her baby girl to perform undercover operations in France.

Virginia McKenna is, I think, a very underrated actress. She pours everything into this performance, and she’s great. We see Violette’s love for her soldier husband, and her pain when he’s killed. And so we understand why she would choose to fight her fear and go to war. When she is captured, the scenes of her sleep deprivation and torture are awful, and yet her face never lets us forget that she’s committed to the fight, and there’s a luminous quality to her. The movie, and her performance, do not belittle the emotion of fear. She is petrified, but she goes anyway.

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There’s excellent acting support from Paul Schofield as Captain Tony Fraser, who works alongside Violette. Schofield has one of the great chins in British movie theater.

Cat On A Hot can Roof

Every family has a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Pollitt family has enough for a graveyard. They’re all terrified of having to open the closet doors and face those skeletons. But when Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives) turns 65 he decides to throw a party, and by the end of the weekend there’ll be nothing left to hide.

This movie version of Tennessee Williams’ play takes a few liberties with some of the more shocking skeletons of the time, but even so there are few films that capture that terror of saying the wrong thing and demolishing the flimsy peace of a family. Big Daddy’s two sons, Brick (a moody Paul Newman) and Goober (Jack Carson) are locked in a silent war for their father’s approval. And watching it all is Brick’s wife, Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor), who can’t bear the mendacity any longer and is desperate enough to upset the balance. It’s a hot, sweaty, needy movie about all the things we dare not say. You know, those things that have a way of getting out into the open anyway.

Dracula

Okay, so this is a bit brash, as technically speaking Dracula was released in 1957 in the UK and 1958 in the US (as Horror Of Dracula), so please try to forgive me on the grounds that it’s an amazing movie and an abject lesson in cinematic terror.

This Hammer version sets out to turn the fear factor up to 11. The opening credits have a pounding drumbeat and strident horns, and the gothic script is bright red. The camera tracks down into a stone crypt, and there we see the name of Dracula – and a gout of blood spatters it. After that, there’s Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, Christopher Lee as Dracula, and a new level of physicality is brought to the horror movie. It’s all about the blood and the body.

If you want a version of Dracula that’s faithful to the original novel you can’t go far wrong with the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula, with Louis Jourdan as the Count, but if you’re not the sort of person who’s bothered about the fact that Mina has married Arthur Holmwood and somehow become Jonathan Harker’s sister in law then this is the Dracula for you. It’s petrifying and mesmerising and really good fun. 

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Moi, Un Noir

For many of us, fear of losing our jobs, our houses, our livelihoods, can keep us awake from time to time. What would we do in such a situation? What fine line separates us from the people we see sleeping rough? Moi, Un Noir (by French director Jean Rouch) shows us two Nigerian men who have nothing. It’s an ethnographic drama about their life in the city of Treichville, Ivory Coast. They barter and wheedle every day until they have enough money for women and beer. They have no fear of the future, because they have no future. They hope for something more without seriously looking for it.

It’s a beautiful, lively movie, and you really like the two men, who call themselves Eddie Constantine and Edward G Robinson after their favorite movie stars. They are obsessed with Hollywood culture, and play the roles of the private eye, the womaniser, for the benefit of the filmmaker as much as for themselves. They live in dreams. The vivacity of the busy city is counterpointed by the calm flow of the dialogue, which was added later in studio.

This movie was one of Jean Luc Godard’s favourites, and is said to have been the start of the French New Wave, which sought a new form of realism. At one point, Eddie Constantine sees white people waterskiing, and he mocks them, and their riches. He says, “They’re probably cowards.” Now that’s social realism

The Blob

In the year that NASA was formed, it’s only right to have a movie about the fear of alien attack on this list. Although fear of alien attack was apparently only a metaphor for fear of Communism. Anyway, The Blob is the story of Steve Andrews (played by a very young Steve McQueen), an upstanding Pennsylvanian teenager who discovers a meteorite that contains a very sticky substance. The substance grows. It starts consuming the townsfolk. It’s up to Steve to save the planet.

The Blob is one of those films that engenders a lot of love for not really a lot of good reasons apart from the fun of it. It was filmed in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and since the year 2000 the town has held an annual Blobfest, an event which includes reenactments and street fairs. It’s a celebration that has to make you smile – much like the movie itself. Oh, and the theme song, Beware Of The Blob, was written by none other than Mack David and Burt Bacharach.

The Fountain Of Youth

In 1956 Orson Welles directed and starred in a TV pilot show for Desilu productions. He then pulled out of the series, and the one half-hour episode he made was shown on US television in September 1958. It was called The Fountain of Youth, and it used a blend of stills, live action and narration that had never been seen before. It’s as if Welles took La Jetée, Brechtian theater techniques, and Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected, and forced all three of them through a blender before serving them up with ice.

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The story is about the fear of growing old. Is that fear stronger than love for the beautiful actress and her tennis superstar boyfriend? Welles narrates in a way that seems like a precursor to his wonderful F For Fake, with his eyebrows raised and his silky voice filled with humor.

The actress was played by Joi Lansing, who also appeared in Welles’ Touch Of Evil in 1958. Her character may have been afraid of growing old and losing her looks, but in reality that never happened to her – she died of breast cancer at the incredibly young age of 44.

The Fly

First there was science. Then, 0.0000152 seconds later, there was the fear of science. And then there came the movies about the fear of science.

I love movies in which science goes bad. A scientist invents some amazing thing, and says the world is going to be a better place forever more, and the next thing you know it’s destroying Manhattan. The Fly has a very earnest scientist in the form of actor David Hedison, and he’s experimenting on matter transportation using a device he calls the ‘disintegrator-integrator’ (which sounds worthy of a Dr Seuss book). But it all goes horribly wrong, and his wife has to pick up the pieces with the help of brother-in-law Vincent Price.

It’s a very entertaining and creepy bit of movie theater. I also like the 1986 Cronenberg remake, but when I look back on Brundlefly now I feel less creeped-out and more entertained by the goriness of that version. But the climax of the 1958 original still gives me the serious shivers.

As an aside, the screenplay was jointly written by James Clavell, who went on to co-write The Great Escape and 633 Squadron. He also wrote the novel and the screenplay for Shogun. This was his first writing credit.

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The Power Of Decision

This training documentary is thought to be the first US Government movie depicting a US/Soviet nuclear war. It’s an hour long and in that time we witness the death of millions of people worldwide. Well, we don’t see them die. We get told in very calm voices by the army generals who sit at long tables and update display boards.

The movie starts by asserting that nobody wins a nuclear war, but then the tone changes, and by the end it claims a win in this all-out scenario of mutually assured destruction on the basis of the Soviets eventually surrendering and realising that they cannot ‘impose their will’ on America. And the generals are still all fine, so that’s good, obviously. It’s safe to say this was a best case scenario. I’ve seen few films that are as terrifying about human nature as The Power Of Decision.

The Vikings

The brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff captured The Vikings, using locations in Norway and Brittany, and it is an amazing movie to look at. The bright, clear, sunny shots of the fjords are joyous, as is the expression on Kirk Douglas’s scarred face as he runs along the length of the oars of the Viking ship, playing a traditional game for real. He is Einar, the son of the fearsome Viking leader Ragnar (played with lots of gusto by Ernest Borgnine) and together the two of them show no fear, not even in the face of certain death. This is a movie about the lack of fear. The idea of being scared as they run into the next battle never even enters into their heads. This could make them look fairly stupid but they pull it off and keep us entertained.

Tony Curtis plays the slave Erik, who turns out to have a secret past, and Janet Leigh plays the love interest, but I find it difficult to pay attention to anybody but Kirk Douglas. Is it possible to really feel no fear? He makes me believe it, and wish I could have been a Viking myself, although I’ve no doubt it wasn’t a tenth as much fun as it looks in this movie. What a great actor he is.

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HP Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Maybe that’s why we love the movie theater so much; it’s the perfect mixture of the absolutely familiar and our oldest, deepest fear. We pay our money, we get our popcorn, and we sit on our seats and wait for the room to fade to black. And then we watch whatever comes up on that screen. From wars to aliens, from love to death, from the past to the future, we get taken deep into the unknown. Don’t you sometimes feel a little afraid of exactly where that screen will take you next?

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