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.
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.
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.