A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.
Editor James Diamond gave himself the shortest straw (or the most work) in handing the 1960s to himself. Here he chooses his favourite films from 1960 .
When it comes to Hollywood remakes of brilliant foreign-language films I’m usually first in line with a torch, pitchfork, and a burning sense of self-righteous indignation. However sometimes, on a rare occasion, such a remake produces a film with that stands on its own two feet. The Magnificent Seven is one such a film.
Directed by John Sturges (who went onto direct Steve McQueen in another ensemble cast in The Great Escape), this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was loved by the Japanese director. Transplanting the action from feudal Japan to a border town in the Wild West, The Magnificent Seven pits seven gunmen (including Yul Bryner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn) with differing motives against an evil bandit terrorising a village (played with textbook relish by Eli Wallach).
The Western myth had already faced deconstruction a decade earlier in films like High Noon and The Gunfighter, but The Magnificent Seven was the next evolutionary step between the ‘traditional Western’ and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone that would go on to redefine the genre for some many people later in the decade.
This is still a great Sunday afternoon film for me – Elmer Bernstein’s score, wonderful interplay between the villagers and the gunmen, and the epic shoot-out towards the end make this one of the most enjoyable Westerns.
Simply one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s a crime it took me until my thirties to actually sit down and watch it. I’d convinced myself that I just didn’t like French New Wave cinema on the basis of a couple of films I had to watch while at university. However, if like me you can’t watch a film without taking into account its historical context, Breathless is more than an example of French New Wave – it’s part of the DNA of all films that we watch today.
However difficult it is, you simply must watch Breathless while trying to forget everything you have seen in cinema that has come since. If you can do that you start to realise that without Jean Luc-Godard’s debut (and let’s not even think about the sheer audacity of this as a debut feature) there is possibly no Tarantino, no Spielberg, no Ridley or Tony Scott – maybe even no Michael Bay.
Even if we look past the technical triumphs of this film (the innovative use of jump-cuts, shot entirely on handheld camera, guerrilla shooting without permission on the streets of Paris) the film still works as a wonderfully cool character study of a morally bankrupt criminal, and the woman that loves him despite this. Parts of this film feel like they were written and shot in the last few years, such is the level of cynicism and moral ambiguity. For someone whose experience of 60s cinema growing up was the Carry On and Bond films, this came as quite a shock to the system.
And it is undeniably, seductively, French. So very French.
Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant
Another film that took me a criminal amount of time to see, Billy Wilder’s film about a lowly office drone who rises through the ranks of his company by letting out his apartment for ‘extra-curricular’ activities is another example of a cynicism of the time that I missed when I was younger.
I was expecting a knock-about comedy in the style of Some Like it Hot from the director and star (Jack Lemmon), but while there are some wonderfully crafted lines and some beautifully subtle slapstick from Lemmon – the overall tone of the film is much darker than the cross-dressing comedy from the previous year. While watching it, I felt this was a spiritual companion piece to David Lean’s wonderful Brief Encounter – so it was no surprise to find out that Wilder had originally had the idea for this film after watching it.
C.C. Baxter is the kind of character you might find in a Kafka novel (thanks Owen from the Failed Critics podcast for that reference!), or possibly in a Vaclav Havel play (particularly something like the Memorandum). Everyone in his life takes advantage of him, and while the material benefits of his arrangements may be obvious – he is slowly dying inside every time he swallows his pride, or the truth, to protect someone who wouldn’t give him the same courtesy. It’s what makes Baxter such a sympathetic, but ultimately frustrating character.
It’s impossible to talk about Lemmon and his character without briefly allowing ourselves to wallow in the tortured beauty of his opposite number Fran, played superbly by Shirley MacLaine. With an endearing kookiness that makes Zooey Deschanel appear like a child who has had a can of Coke too many, and eyes you could swim in for an eternity, she manages to make us root for a woman that is sleeping with a married man, and allows Baxter to fall further and further into depression.
2. Peeping Tom
In early-1960, two of Britain’s greatest-ever directors released controversial ‘slasher’ films, full of violent imagery, morally ambiguous victims, and mentally-deranged killers with parental issues. For one of them it cemented their reputation as a master of their craft with the audiences of the time. For the other one it pretty much killed their long and illustrious career stone-dead.
By 1960 Michael Powell (along with Emeric Pressburger) had written and directed some of the finest British films ever made. In the 1940s alone they made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (hated by Churchill and hampered commercially for its anti-war sentiments on its release), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. By 1960 they had gone their separate ways creatively, and Powell teamed up with writer Leo Marks for this story of a focus-puller on a film set who stalked women by night and filmed their deaths on the camera that he always carries with him.
Sadly for Powell, the film received a critical mauling on its release, with critics savaging it for its violence, and the fact that the killer Mark (played with an frosty creepiness by Carl Boehm) was a morally interesting character and arguably a product of his upbringing rather than being inherently evil. In wasn’t until the 1970s, helped largely by Martin Scorsese publicly lauding the film, that Peeping Tom came to be reappraised as a British classic. Powell himself rues the situation in his autobiography saying “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”
Available for streaming on Lovefilm Instant
And onto the other film I described in my introduction to Peeping Tom, and the film that I have reserved the coveted Number One slot on my list for – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Unlike Powell, Hitchcock’s reputation was enhanced by this cynical, morally ambiguous slasher-film. This could be because Hitchcock, having seen what happened to Peeping Tom cancelled all press-screenings for his latest film (usually a sign of a sticker in today’s climate) and insisted the critics had to pay to see the film, and watch it at the same time as the general public. By the time their (still largely negative) reviews came out they were already irrelevant – Psycho was an undisputed box office success.
What is also clear with the benefit of hindsight is that it is a masterful film, and possibly one of Hitch’s best. In fact, it’s difficult to find anything negative to say about the film. Unlike Powell’s Peeping Tom where the killer is known from the start, Psycho features the ‘Master of Suspense’ at his best in leading the audience down the darkened alleyways of the film’s unfolding narrative.
Anthony Perkins puts in an outstanding performance (possibly too good, as he never seemed to be able to leave this role behind for the rest of his career) as Norman Bates – the mild-mannered motel manager who has serious ‘mummy issues’, and who finds himself attracted to the beautiful, but mysterious girl who turns up late one night to stay at his establishment.
That girl is of course Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who dies in the shower in the film’s most iconic scene. In yet another example of the cynicism starting to appear in the films of the 1960s Marion is staying in the motel while on the run from her employers and the police for stealing $40,000. For the first time in mainstream cinema we’re starting to see normal people doing bad things, and getting punished for it. Marion isn’t a gangster’s moll, or a scheming femme fatale from a film noir. She’s a normal woman, having an affair with a married man, who is presented with an opportunity and, in desperation, takes it.
Also well as the shower scene, the most famous aspect of the film is probably Bernard Hermman’s score. Almost ever-present throughout the film, it acts as a character in its own right – like an omnipotent narrator. Hitchcock was a fantastic director, but often his greatest strengths were in surrounding himself with the right people. Psycho’s key ingredients of the original novel and screenplay, the actors on set, and the score from Hermann were blended by Hitch with the magic of a medieval alchemist to produce one of the most incredible films of the 20th Century.