As in many other fields, from politics to race to women’s rights and culture in general, the 1960s was a boiling cauldron. So it was with movies, often then given the more prestigious appellation, the cinema. The movies discussed below are those that transformed film, some in a minor, others in a major way.
In the sixties, film was taken more seriously by more people, especially coming of age baby boomers. The cinema was deemed worthy of deep examination. There was subtext. More and more books appeared on the shelves. Some were surveys (A Pictorial History of the Talkies), others star biographies (Citadel Press’s Films of… series, including Bogart, Dietrich, Garbo, Marx Bros.), still others academic investigations of film going back to the cinema’s origins (The Parade’s Gone By, Film: An Anthology).
Some sixties transformative films:
The Magnificent Seven (1960). How was this transformative? It paved the way for other movies in which a select team, expert in various combative skills, formed to tackle a specific problem. (See the blog post for April, 2022: “Single Mission Team Players.”) The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and more recently, Inception (2010) carried on this tradition. It is a phenomenon, not a genre, as it crosses boundaries.
Psycho (1960). Director Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense,” took a more violent and edgy tack with this tale of a mother-fixated motel owner with distinctly misogynistic intentions. Hitchcock used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, filmed in black and white, and gave his leading lady (Janet Leigh) short shrift. Soon imitations of lesser quality appeared, e.g., Homicidal, Blood Feast. In mid-decade slightly bigger budgets were given to what would one day be called “slasher” movies. These featured up-and-comers as well as older stars (Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket and Berserk!, Olivia De Havilland and Bette Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Novelist Stephen King hit the nail on the head when in Danse Macabre he wrote that this was the first time a filmmaker (director Roger Corman) showed his audience true visual horror: a coffin, opened to reveal the female corpse within, buried alive as evidenced by her contorted face and hands petrified into claws, seeking to get out. Graphic horror was on the rise, never to cease.
West Side Story (1961). This was a movie for people who didn’t or didn’t think they liked musicals, especially teenage boys. It began with a bang: aerial shots over New York City that dropped closer and closer to street level and the crummy tenements wherein rival delinquent gangs, the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and Jets (white teens), vied for control of the mean streets. When they started dancing, it was not seen as sissified.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The “thinking person’s epic” was director David Lean’s biography of T. E. Lawrence, who helped Arabs gain independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I. Desert vistas never before filmed astounded audiences, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif became stars, the film won Academy Awards. It remains a pinnacle of filmmaking.
Cleopatra (1963). Often denigrated and mistakenly deemed a financial flop, this version of the Egyptian queen’s rise and fall has an incomparable Alex North music score, more visual sweep than previous iterations, such as the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version starring Claudette Colbert; the set-bound, George Bernard Shaw play-based Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) with Vivien Leigh; and the cheapjack 1953 Serpent of the Nile with Rhonda Fleming and…Raymond Burr as Antony! In reality, the 1963 version’s chief flaw is a dearth of battle action—and they had 3+ hours in which to do it. The making of it was an epic story in itself. The first director was fired, the first male cast dropped, filming switched providentially from England to Italy. Test photos of Joan Collins suggest she would have been well cast. In The Cleopatra Papers, publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss concluded that a spectacle like this would not, could not, be made ever again.
Blow-Up (1966). David Hemmings’ photographer may have caught a murder on film but by gosh he can’t prove it. The Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni directed this, his first English-language film, to mostly critical praise, and though it was condemned by the Legion of Decency, MGM released it through a subsidiary. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, the commercial and critical success of Blow-Up helped topple the hoary old Production Code in 1968.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). It would be two years before the Motion Picture Association of America would institute a new rating system: G, M, R, X. So this adult film had disclaimers on its poster: “Suitable Only for Adults” and “Important Exception: No One Under 18 Will Be Admitted Unless Accompanied by His Parent.” The film would net Elizabeth Taylor a 2nd Academy Award. Her characterization of the foul-mouthed professor’s wife Martha was a far cry from Cleopatra.
The Graduate (1967). Like Who’s Afraid, this comedy-drama was a precursor to the barrier-breaking films that would appear in 1968 after institution of the new MPAA rating code. A generation of college students latched onto it, feeling a kinship with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in a star-making role) having no idea what to do with his life and finding himself seduced by an older woman with a daughter to whom he takes a shine.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Master director of Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick turned his sights on the past and potential future of humankind. Many wondered what it meant and did not perceive Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s view that modern and future technology is a mixed blessing. (Think the now iconic HAL 9000, the mission’s computer gone insane.) Critical opinion was all over the map, but 2001 became a cause to celebrate for youth and after a slow start vied with the distinctly old-fashioned Funny Girl as the year’s top grosser. Indicative of the consternation it caused among critics and “anybody over 30,” 2001 was not nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.
Bullitt (1968). A standard but compelling detective story hearkening back to postwar police procedurals like The Naked City and T-Men is highlighted by Bullitt’s (Steve McQueen) pursuit through San Francisco of a car carrying two hitmen. It remains the auto chase against which all others—and there have been many—are measured.
The Wild Bunch (1969). After the bloodbath that was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the introduction of the MPAA code in 1968, director Sam Peckinpah created a new high in cinematic violence. In 1913, aging outlaws played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are initially unaware that they are a dying breed held together by a faulty code of honor among thieves. They have no hesitation in killing civilians when they rob banks or blow away army guards on a train carrying weapons they sell to a Mexican warlord. By the end, however, they intuit that their day is over and resign themselves to their grim fate. They’ll take many with them.
Midnight Cowboy (1969). The new rating code instituted in 1968 was still feeling its way, and Midnight Cowboy was given the X-rating as much for subject matter (a young Texas stud aims to make his fortune as a prostitute in New York and bonds with the tubercular con-man “Ratso” played by Dustin Hoffman) as for nudity or foul language. Years later clearer heads changed it to the more applicable R.
Easy Rider (1969). Dennis Hopper directed and co-starred with Peter Fonda in this unexpected biker hit and gave Jack Nicholson such a juicy part that he was immediately propelled into a star role and an Academy Award nomination for 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. Like The Graduate, Easy Rider decried a perceived loss of American innocence. Its success led studios to attempt to duplicate Rider’s grosses by funding any number of similarly negative “youth” productions such as The Strawberry Statement and The Last Movie that even at the time were seen by many as naïve or self-aggrandizing. (Peter Fonda had starred in another biker movie of note prior to Easy Rider: 1966’s The Wild Angels, whose claim to true significance is negated when Nancy Sinatra views Bruce Dern’s body and announces, “He’s wasted.” The first notable biker movie was 1953’s The Wild One with Marlon Brando.)