Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Rear Window, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seven Samurai

Grace Kelly swoops down to kiss Jimmy Stewart, Rear Window, 1954.

Grace Kelly, a golden angel, swoops in to kiss Jimmy Stewart, Rear Window, 1954.

We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.

For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.

10. Rear Window, 1954

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) breaks his legs while photographing a car racing accident. Now, he is confined in his Greenwich Village apartment, trapped in a wheelchair 24/7. His rear window looks out onto a courtyard and several other apartments. During a summer heat wave, he passes the time by spying on his neighbors.

Point of view is everything in a good Hitchcock movie and in Rear Window, Hitch, the master of the shifting POV, positively marinates in Stewart’s limited field of vision. Gradually, through a stunning use of sound and image, we, along with Stewart, get to know all his neighbors. Though seen from a distance we become deeply involved in their emotional lives. Of course, there is a murder — and together with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), his socialite girlfriend, Stewart becomes obsessed with solving it.

The beautifully crafted screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, seamlessly blends comedy, suspense, and good old-fashioned melodrama. Seraphic Secret maintains that all great movies are, ultimately, love stories, and Rear Window is Hitchcock’s most fully realized love story, with one of cinema’s greatest kisses. A shadow moves over the sleeping Stewart; he wakes, startled, and from his POV we see Grace Kelly—in a haunting, slow-motion, optical shot—swoop down like a golden angel and kiss his lips. Rear Window is a perfectly realized movie, Hitchcock’s greatest work.

 

The barn raising dance sequence, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954.

The barn-raising dance sequence, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954.

11. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954

During pre-production on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, MGM lost faith in the film and severely cut the film’s budget, transferring funds to their other big musical, the painfully tedious Brigadoon.

Director Stanley Donen was forced to shoot Seven Brides on sound stages using obviously painted backdrops and some rather cheap-looking sets. But in one of those happy accidents where film people are forced to make more out of less, the artificial sets admirably serve the film’s fairy-tale character far better than real-world, gritty locations. The theatrical art direction places this odd tale—described by a film critic I know as a “light-hearted look at kidnapping and sexual assault”—in a mythical backwoods America that could only exist on an MGM stage.

Though elegant in its simplicity, the plot is loaded with dramatic conflict. It is a problematic, but moral landscape sweet as spun sugar: seven strapping, uncouth frontier brothers get a hankering for seven fetching town girls and abduct them for the purposes of matrimony. The story is based on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story “The Sobbin’ Women,” which in turn was based on the ancient Roman legend of The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Dance is the language of love in Hollywood musicals. In the film’s exuberant set piece, the barn-raising, the astonishingly athletic and vigorous choreography by Michael Kidd (b. Milton Greenwald) perfectly captures a headstrong but ultimately innocent frontier courtship. Never have so many dancers flirted and flung themselves so boldly and with so much yearning at one another in syncopated rhythms that reflect a particularly brash American grain. Little did MGM know, but Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one of the last great traditional musicals Hollywood would ever produce, an exhilarating, dying gasp of a once vital genre.

 

The Seven Samurai, the greatest film ever made, and the film that made me who I am.

The Seven Samurai, the greatest film ever made, and the film that made me who I am.

12. Seven Samurai, 1954

Director Akira Kurosawa’s epic, the greatest movie ever made, speaks directly about the moral imperative of a just war.

The Seven Samurai takes place in medieval Japan, a time when bandits—the terrorists of their time—roamed the land looting, raping and killing defenseless farmers.

Seven down-at-the-heels Samurai warriors are hired to defend one poor village. The Samurai do not negotiate with the bandits. They do not try to appease them. Nor do they ponder the root causes of banditry. The Samurai set strategy and kill the bandits. One by one.

Every true warrior understands there is no deterrence and no freedom without the disproportionate use of force.

The climactic battle in the rain, where mud, blood and tears mix, is perhaps the finest choreographed battle scene ever staged.

Every skilled director in Hollywood studies this masterpiece and tries, without success, to emulate Kurosawa’s cinematic style. We all stand in Akira Kurosawa’s shadow. This is the film that compelled me to become a screenwriter.

If you love movies but have not seen The Seven Samurai, you are without oxygen.

To be continued.

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27 Comments

  1. ClericalGal
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I have never seen “The Seven Samurai”. Since I enjoy your posts on old Hollywood and movies, I will seek it out on Netflix. Thanks, Robert.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Kevin Aldrich
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    When will SINGING IN THE RAIN appear? Great story, acting, music . . . oh, yeah, and hoofing.
    Then again there is SOME LIKE IT HOT. Great story, acting, comedy . . . oh, yeah, and Marilyn Monroe. And the final scene between Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown . . .

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  3. Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    It’s tough to choose between “To Catch a Thief”, “Rear Window” and “The Swan.” I like them all, especially the scenery in “To Catch a Thief .” I wonder how many realize that the road in the scene of Grace driving her Sunbeam Alpine roadster was where she was killed? “The Swan” was Alec Guiness’s first US film.
    Grace was apparently a very active participant in Hollywood sex games of the time. There is a funny anecdote in David Niven’s biography, “Niv” about a conversation between Niven and Prince Ranier about the best sex he had had in Hollywood. Niven almost jeopardized his friendship with the prince. He remembered just in time.

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    • Barry
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Whatever Grace may, or may not have done, Niven is notoriously unreliable.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Dear Robert: How could you review REAR WINDOW and not mention Thelma Ritter or Raymond Burr?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    • Larry
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Or, for that matter, Ross Bagdasarian, the piano-playing songwriter.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Johnny
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    This is Kelly’s best role and maybe the best of Hitchcock’s ‘cool blondes’.
     
    Grant and Eva Marie Saint never seemed to connect until the very end of NBNW. Her being an secret agent unknown by Grant to be working for us instead of the evil James Mason kept a necessary detachment between them.
     
    It’s remarkable that Seven Brides was one of Kidd’s first choreography because few have ever matched the barnraising number. That alone should qualify him on a Mt Rushmore of choreographers.
     
    And fortunately Donen was able to direct it after Josh Logan’s option expired. 
     
    Seven Samurai would make a pretty good western. Has anybody thought of that?
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Bill Brandt
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Johnny – I thought they connected rather well art the end of the movie – in the tunnel!

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      • Johnny
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Ah, the tunnel. Sly how Hitchcock got that in there and no one could complain. All he would have to say to anyone that didn’t like the allusion is say “my, what a dirty mind you have!”

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    • Miranda Rose Smith
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      Dear Johnny: You don’t know about THE MAGNIFICANT SEVEN?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        Miranda:

        Johnny is making a joke.

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      • Johnny
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        I think I make that joke every time Seven Samurai comes up. 

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  6. Barry
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Robert, for the Last Great Hollywood Musical — Gigi should top out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Barry;
      Gigi is, for me, a slow and boring exercise in art direction and costume. The film has no narrative velocity, little energy. I never become emotionally invested in any of the characters and admit to a particular allergy to Louis Jordan—a stick of wooden mannerisms—and a total indifference to the charmless Leslie Caron. I realize that I am in a minority, that the film has been enshrined by the usual suspects, but I find Gigi unbearable.

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      • Barry
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        Chevalier trumps all other cast members,  the music is timeless,as it has proven, and in this case, art direction is more than an exercise.

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        • Johnny
          Posted February 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          Chevlier shines and his duet with Hermione Gingold “I Remeber It Well” is a highlight.

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      • Larry
        Posted February 24, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Robert, I agree with you about “Gigi.” I watched it once, disliked it immensely and haven’t watched it again since. Chevalier is better in almost everything else — especially some of his early films. Gingold is priceless in “The Music Man” and in “Bell, Book, and Candle.”
        Caron is one actress I cannot stand. The only movie I like with her in it is “Father Goose,” and mainly because Cary Grant slaps her in two scenes. “Goody Two-shoes and the Filthy Beast” indeed. I prefer to think this is Grant’s best last film because I discount “Walk, Don’t Run,” the poor remake of “The More The Merrier.”

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        • Barry
          Posted February 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Liking something, or not, is just personal taste. But,  our business is built around craftsmanship, intellect and instinct. The elemental always trumps. You don’t like Walk, Don’t Run. Me neither, but Cary Grant is wonderful in it. He is controlled and watchable. Your eye always goes to him as it should. The romantic leads aren’t strong enough. Unfortunate. As for Leslie Caron, liking a picture because the story requires slapping is something that requires a rethinking. Liking her isn’t required. She has been successful enough over an extended period without your approval.

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          • Larry
            Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

            You misunderstand. I like “Father Goose.” I think it’s Grant’s best “last movie.” The slapping scenes aren’t the only things in the movie I find interesting & entertaining, but regarding the Caron subject at hand it gives me a separate sense of satisfaction.
             
            BTW, I’ve read that even Grant wasn’t satisfied with the movie and particularly hated the idea of being a romantic lead any more at his age in future movies. He was more intrigued by his business interests so he wouldn’t make another movie.

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelley – how can one go wrong?

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    • Posted February 21, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Bill, I would say “How could one go wrong with Grace Kelly?” but that Jimmy Stewart guy was OK too. ;-)
       
      Rear Window is one of my favorite thrillers. Not as action-packed as North-by-Northwest, but a better film.
       
      Robert, after reading your fine blog for many years, I have a confession — I have not yet seen Seven Samurai… I will, some day soon, but there are just too many bills to pay right now!

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

        Prophet Joe:

        North By Northwest
        has some great scenes, but I never become invested in Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint’s relationship the way I do with Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

        ProphetJoe – Thanks to Prof Avrech’s Cinema 101 I have gotten an interest in these classic movies – and Jimmy Stewart, whose WW2 service would have been enough for one lifetime, came back to Hollywood after the war thinking he was probably passed up.
         
        Its a Wonderful Life is interesting on several levels, not the least of it being Frank Capra’s effort at independent production, and Jimmy Stewart’s belief that – going into this movie – he was a passed-up has-been.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Bill:
      For me, this is Kelly’s greatest performance.

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      • Barry
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        I like her best in To Catch A Thief. But, The Swan and High Society, despite shortcomings, offer beautiful Kelly. And The Swan, a fine Brian Aherne as well.

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