When you think back to key transitions in cinematic history there are a number of eras that saw an almost seismic shift in the kind of films being produced and the systems of production. You had the move from silent era films to the talkies, and the introduction of the Hayes code which ran with variations of strictness from 1934 to 1968.
The end of the 60s saw another big change, particularly in Hollywood as filmmakers sought to catch up with the edgy and gritty material being made in Asia and Europe in particular. Suddenly filmmakers were being allowed the kind of indulgence usually reserved for a select few names and more studios stripped back their big-budget excess for more dark, self-contained stories from rising voices in the art. It would hit a peak in the following decade, but 1968 to 1980 is often viewed as the peak of American cinema.
Looking back at the 1960s as a whole, we saw the seedlings transition from the old way to the new way and a decade of brilliant eclectic range, full of exceptional films. Narrowing it down to 10 essentials feels like a near impossibility, but I do love a challenge. Plus, I’ll be cheating somewhat with an undoubtedly gargantuan list of honourable mentions. So let’s do this…10 Essential films from the 1960s:
Bonnie and Clyde
No better place to start than a film that represented that New Hollywood launch better than anything. Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s crime drama based on the exploits of the infamous outlaws stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in a tale that just felt more extreme than gangster films of the previous decades. Sure, it’s now tame by today’s standards but the violence of the film feels more finite than audiences in the US had previously been used to.
As much as the charisma of Beatty and the dazzling allure of Dunaway make the two antiheroes (what Hayes might previously have considered) dangerously magnetic, the payoff remains as blunt as ever and of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of the real-life outlaws will know their fate. Penn had to ensure it was shocking, so having an excessive amount of squibs erupt on and around our stars was certainly one way of doing it. Audiences sat up, and to the surprise of many, weren’t corrupted by the imagery. Thus a freer approach to sex and violence was evident in the decade that followed. Without Bonnie and Clyde, Sonny Corleone’s death in The Godfather wouldn’t have had quite the same impact.
Woman in the Dunes
Playing like a kind of folk tale and fable, Woman in the Dunes sees an entomologist miss his last bus home after exploring the dunes. He’s persuaded to stay at a house at the bottom of one pit, with a woman there to look after him. The following morning and beyond, he realises he’s trapped and can’t escape.
As Niki (Eiji Okada) adapts to his new prison and develops a mutually dependant relationship with the young woman (Kyoko Kishida) he has to endure the perpetual sandslides, storms and clammy heat. His attempts to escape continually end in failure whilst the nearby villagers seek to keep him there, hiding a dark secret. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s beautifully shot film continually throws extraordinary images on screen whilst leaving the audience with a feeling of discomfort so intense you’ll be feeling sand in your underwear for weeks after.
It’s a unique and enthralling film with unforgettable visuals.
In The Heat of the Night
They call me, Mr Tibbs! A key film in the career of icon, Sidney Poitier. To say he had a profound effect on the changing face of cinema and the place of black actors within it, would be an understatement. How did he do it? He was simply that good he couldn’t be ignored and In the Heat of the Night is a testament to that.
Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a black detective visiting from Philadelphia who is arrested while passing through a hick Mississippi town just as someone is found murdered. Initially, he’s arrested and made chief suspect until he is identified as a Police Detective, much to the chagrin of local chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Tibbs is then brought into the investigation and doesn’t hesitate to stamp his authority on the racist locals, endangering himself in the process. Norman Jewison’s film is a masterpiece which is powered by exceptional performances from Poitier and Steiger.
We can’t have an essentials list without throwing in some Alfred Hitchcock and a film which reinvented horror is a good place to start. Psycho sees Marion (Janet Leigh) go on the lamb after making the desperate decision to steal money from her boss. After holding up at a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) she ends up falling foul of an unseen killer who stabs her in the shower. At this point, we’ve followed Leigh as our protagonist for a significant length of time.
Yes, Hitchcock pulls an ultimate mid-film rug pull before switching protagonist duties to Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles). She starts to uncover the whereabouts/fate of her missing sister and eventually finds herself at Bates Motel. Yeah, you know the rest and the film has lost none of its complexity and gripping tension. The performances of Leigh and Miles are fantastic but it’s the endearingly affable Perkins as Bates, who is gawkish awkwardness personified but who occasionally lets slip a moment of the darkness he’s obscuring.
Sure, Psycho has been spoofed to high heaven and beyond, but it’s only upon watching/rewatching you realise just how great the film is.
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone crafted a run of superb Spaghetti Westerns throughout the 60s and if you thought he couldn’t improve on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, you’d be wrong. Once Upon A Time in The West is his most grandiose, epic and assured tale of Old West revenge. Charles Bronson is the stoic, harmonica-humming cowboy shooting his way through anybody who tries to get in his way.
His ultimate target is Henry Fonda who is a steely, piercingly blue-eyed menace which was a real change of pace for the kind of characters Fonda had atypically played up to that point. There’s arguably no film that has been as beautifully framed or edited in widescreen format as this and then to top off the perfection, you have Ennio Morricone’s iconic score.
The Ipcress File
In arguably his most fruitful breakout decade, and with his recent announcement of retirement, it would be remiss of me to overlook Sir Michael Caine. Sure, there’s Alfie or The Italian Job, both equally iconic, but for me, Caine’s turn as working-class spy, Harry Palmer remains one of his best.
Playing as an antithesis to the glamour, girls and gadgets of James Bond, Harry Palmer’s exploits felt more like the day-to-day of a government spy. Caine is all impish, undisciplined charm as Palmer. Sidney J. Furie’s contentious directorial style rubbed producers up the wrong way but it’s part of what makes the film endure as every shot feels as if we’re watching from a voyeuristic hidden camera, eavesdropping on the action as Palmer is tasked with recovering a missing Scientist and trying to figure out what the Ipcress File is. A handful of sequels followed, all opting for a more conventional cinematic style but none of which had the same unique style (or as enthralling a plot).
Federico Fellini’s classic film about film captures the essence and glamour of cinema from the early 60s. A director in a creative slump attempts to forge ahead with his next film but hits perpetual brick walls. He retreats to a space where he must try to reawaken his creative verve and find some meaning in his life.
Fellini’s stylish masterpiece is full of wonderful images which have been lifted mercilessly throughout the years (ask Quentin Tarantino). The film has every ounce of Mediterranean style you could hope for from a director of Fellini’s standing. It may well be the best film about the art of cinema.
Kubrick really knew how to switch things up between films. From Spartacus, to Lolita, to 2001: A Space Odyssey his output in the 60s couldn’t be more varied. It’s the film sandwiched between those latter two which really showed off Kubrick’s wild side with his venture into satirical comedy.
Dr Strangelove is often regarded as one of the greatest satires of all time perfectly capturing the absurdity of war and political fractures. A film about the potential of Nuclear war between the US and Russia probably shouldn’t work as well, but it cuts through the ridiculous motives of military conflict. Peter Sellers takes center stage jumping effortlessly (and hilariously) between different roles, and then there’s great support from George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden.
High and Low
Akira Kurosawa continued with a great output in the 60s, continuing to craft in the Samurai era until it went out of vogue, but not before a few final masterworks like Yojimbo and Sanjuro. However, in the great work of Kurosawa, one of his more unheralded specialities was the Police procedural and High and Low ranks as arguably his best (closely followed by Stray Dog).
In High and Low, Toshiro Mifune steps away from playing a heroic leading hero and stars as a character more flawed. He’s the head of a company seeking to buy another but when his driver’s son is kidnapped he must decide whether to pay the ransom as Police seek to ensnare the kidnappers. Gripping, intriguing and a forebearer for many crime films to come (not least David Fincher’s approach to crime thrillers), High and Low is a great Japanese noir with incredible cinematography.
Lawrence of Arabia
One of the great epics, Lawrence of Arabia is a film of such immense scale that it’s almost incomparable to anything in the modern era as they inevitably have to cheat their size and scale with the help of CGI. Need a thousand extras tearing across the landscape in a widescreen shot? David Lean gathers them and lenses them perfectly.
Every sprawling opus since, every majestic work of Spielbergian adventure since, owes a massive debt to Lawrence of Arabia. Yet in spite of its enormous scale and imposingly long runtime, the film is all about those intimate scenes between T.E Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and the characters (in particular Omar Shariff and Alec Guinness) he encounters on his mission in Arabia. Nowadays films put forth their faux scale and totally overlook the intimate character dynamics of a picture. Lawrence of Arabia is, after all, a film built to last.
Honourable mentions: Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, Late Spring, Onibaba, Kuruneko, Kwaidan, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Blood and Black Lace, Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, Masque of the Red Death, House of Usher, Midnight Cowboy, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Cul-de-Sac, The Graduate, The Apartment, Cleo 5 to 7, Le Samourai, The Odd Couple, Kes, A Taste of Honey, The Long Days Dying, A Hard Days Night, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, The Wild Bunch, Night of the Living Dead, Battle of Algiers, Easy Rider, Seconds, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nayak: The Hero, The Jungle Book, Blow-Up, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Peeping Tom, Fail Safe, The Manchurian Candidate, A Day Off.
What’s your favourite film from the 1960s? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth or find me @jolliffeproductions…