The 1960s have a special place in the American popular imagination. Just saying “The Sixties” evokes a whole cascade of images and ideas that we associate with that decade. But, of course, even a decade as significant as this one was doesn’t seem terribly iconic or historic to the people who are living through it, and surprisingly little of the tumultuous sea change taking place in American culture is visible in the decade’s films.
Hollywood in the 1960s was far too self-absorbed to be troubled by what was taking place in the rest of the nation, and the world. The outlook for American cinema was, at best, uncertain throughout the decade. The long, slow decline of American movies that had begun with the anti-trust decision of the late-1940s and the rise of television in the early 1950s continued unabated. Fewer American movies were being produced, and dwindling audiences forced theaters to close by the thousands.
It was, unmistakably, the end of an era. The iconic first generation of power players in the studio system, the producers, directors, and stars, began dying throughout the decade, or worse, simply ceased to be relevant. And with them, Hollywood seemed to be losing touch with its history. The studio system itself was falling apart, and no one was quite sure what would take its place. Everything exciting and alive in cinema seemed to be happening over in Europe: Bergman in Sweden, Antonioni and Fellini in Italy, the entire French New Wave. By comparison, Hollywood films seemed trashy, shallow, and commercial in the worst way.
But the studio system wasn’t the only crumbling institution. Thanks to a variety of factors, including the popularity and the freedom of imported European films, the Hollywood Production Code was dismantled, brick by brick, as the decade wore on. The tide had turned, and the code had ceased to be culturally relevant. One by one, the studios began releasing films without a seal of approval until finally, in 1968, the Code was abandoned and replaced with the MPAA rating system in a form only slightly different from the one that remains in effect today.
Yes, times were changing in American Cinema … for the worse, or so it seemed. To some observers, the steep decline of studio dominance must have seemed like the end of Hollywood itself was imminent. The reality was quite different. The studio system had stagnated and fallen totally out of touch with the prevailing winds of American culture. In the final years of the 1960s, a New Hollywood began to emerge out of the metaphorical ashes of the old. But that’s a story for another decade.
While I was in the ’60s, I watched some of the tent-pole films put out by the fading studio system: upbeat musicals, star-studded epics, romantic comedies, and melodramas. I watched some edgier and more experimental fare: a Tennessee Williams adaptation, a Beatles musical, a risque European import. I watched the shift beginning to happen at decade’s end with an increase in violence and language and gritty realism. It was a whirlwind tour of a significant transition. This was what I saw:
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Director John Sturges famously remade Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai as an American Western: Seven gunfighters (including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson) come together to defend a poor Mexican village from an army of bandits. With all of that star personality, this film must have been incredibly difficult to make. Sturges skilfully balances his major characters and their various back-stories and motivations, playing them brilliantly off of each other. This is iconic stuff. You should see it.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
As the soothing notes of “Moon River” wafted through the opening credits, and the incomparably elegant Audrey Hepburn steps from a cab to break her morning fast in front of a Tiffany’s window, I couldn’t figure out why I remembered disliking this movie so much. Then, in the very next scene, Mickey Rooney came on screen and it all came rushing back. Rooney’s character Mr. Yunioshi is so broadly offensive that it is almost a hate crime, surely the most egregious example of an actor appearing in yellow-face in Hollywood history. Although the role is relatively minor, it taints what is otherwise a fairly charming little affair. Different times, different values.
The Longest Day (1962)
And the longest movie about it, clocking in at nearly 3 hours. The day in question is D-Day, and this exhaustive treatment of the military operations surrounding that massive event features a comparably significant list of macho-man performers, including Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and many others. If you’ve an interest in attention to detail, I suppose this is a good pick, but it helps if you already know a lot about what’s going on, and there isn’t much in the way of storytelling here.
The most Hitchcockian movie that Hitchcock never made, Charade was directed by Stanley Donen, best known for bright, breezy musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Donen’s classic romantic suspense-thriller is probably airier than the version Hitchcock would have made, and in 1963 Hitchcock would have cast blonde Tippi Hedren rather than brunette Audrey Hepburn, but Cary Grant is spot-on. With its witty dialogue, bolstered by Grant’s signature deadpan delivery, Charade is perhaps as much a comedy as anything else, and it piles twist ending on top of twist ending in delightfully anarchic fashion.
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
No one does sweaty, dirty decadence quite like Tennessee Williams. John Huston directs a heavy-weight cast in this drama about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who gets into hot water when he leads a tour of church ladies on a trip to Mexico. Juggling fraught relationships with three women (Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyons, type-cast and fresh off of her starring role in Lolita), Burton’s Reverend Shannon maneuvers and manipulates tirelessly to stay one step ahead of his own bad choices, even as one of the women pursuing him offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Boilerplate Tennessee Williams, definitely on the downward slope after a decade of good-to-great movies based on his plays.
The second film to feature The Beatles, this zany, whimsical romp feels a bit like a Marx Brothers version of a James Bond parody by way of a stoner comedy (before that was even a thing). Actually, adjectives pretty much fail me in attempting to describe the the effortless, ridiculous charm of this movie and its mega-popular leads. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the band’s efforts to evade a sinister eastern cult after Ringo gets their jeweled sacrificial ring stuck on his finger. Along the way, they get up to the sorts of totally random hi-jinks that would feel at home in something from Monty Python (again, before that was even a thing).
The first English-language film by famed Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni has, in my opinion, not aged very well (though it remains enormously influential). It sounds like a suspense-thriller, but plays out as more of an art film than a genre film, petering out confusingly at the end without really resolving anything. It’s greatest claim to fame (or, I suppose, notoriety in this case) is its significant role in toppling the Production Code, after it was released to widespread success without code approval. As a result, its interest as cultural artifact has more-or-less outlived its interest as a film, but either way, the interest is still there. I suspect repeated viewings would give me a better opportunity to peel back some of the obvious layers around what is going on in it.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)
This is fairly typical of the many elaborate musicals that made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood throughout the 1960s. The formula was particularly successful during the first half of the decade, when musicals were represented in the top 5 box office hits 4 years out of 5 (earning the top spots during 2 years, and scoring the 2nd and 3rd spots 1 year). By decade’s end, tastes had changed, and How to Succeed saw underwhelming returns, critically and financially. Still, as out of step as it is with the cutting edge of late-60s cinema, this bit of bubble-gum fluff is still entertaining and fun. And, as good-natured as it seems, it gets off some sharp, satirical bites at office sexual politics, mercilessly mocks corporate culture, and skewers the “self-help” genre.
If you know Bullitt, it’s likely because it is credited with showcasing the first “modern” car chase scene in movie history, an action-packed 11-minute thrill ride through the streets of San Francisco. This scene is vastly superior to anything else going on in the movie, which unfolds sedately by modern standards. The plot is serviceable, and Steve McQueen is super-cool as the title character, even if his character is something of a massive cliche. Watching a movie like Bullitt now demonstrates the largest obstacle to film-based time travel: Trying to return your mind to a time when certain things were new and exciting, before they started showing up in literally every movie. If you can do that, this movie will certainly not disappoint.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s blood-drenched Western masterpiece sent shock-waves through critics and audiences in 1969, introducing a never-before-seen level of realistic violence into the quintessential American film genre. The Wild Bunch also features a memorable cast of characters played perfectly by a tried-and-true cast of grizzled acting veterans. It tells the story of encroaching civilization closing in around an aging band of outlaws, whose considerable skills and smarts may not be enough to keep them prosperous (or alive) anymore. This is a true classic, as the consistent acclaim it has received across some 45 years aptly demonstrates.
Coming someday, The Me Seventies!