A Decade in Film: The Sixties – 1961

A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

We return after the Christmas break with Editor James Diamond’s favourite films from 1961; the year that gave us Michael J. Fox.

5. The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of Navarone“First, you’ve got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you’ve got the bloody cliff overhang. You can’t even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And anyway, we haven’t got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that’s the bloody truth, sir.”

This is exactly the kind of movie Hollywood used to do well, and with regularity. A big ensemble war film with big stars (Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn), and a story so heroic it bathes in the blood of its defeated enemies. It tells the story of a crack group of soldiers and specialists who set out to defy all logic and destroy the eponymous Nazi cannons that are making the rescue of British forces from the island of Crete impossible.

Directed in style by J. Lee Thompson (who made one of the great war films in Ice Cold in Alex, and went on to direct Peck in Cape Fear), The Guns of Navarone is a classic example of the stories that the victors of horrific wars have been telling for thousands of years. It’s important to remember that this was made only 15 years after the end of the Second World War; a conflict that many of the cast and crew had fought in. By the end of the decade though Hollywood had a new war to obsess over, and the triumphant tone of their WWII films gave way to the self-doubt and self-recrimination of their Vietnam films.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at TiffanysWe’re alike, me and cat. A couple of poor nameless slobs.

This is the first of four adaptations from novels in my list, and it’s interesting to note that Hollywood has always been a magpie of stories. At least the audiences of the time can count themselves lucky that the studios only had books and stage productions to bastardise for their enjoyment, unlike today where films take their ‘inspiration’ from sources as diverse as television shows, computer games, and even board games.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is based on a Truman Capote novella, and directed by Blake Edwards (who would go on to direct The Pink Panther). The reason it’s in this list though, and the reason for its enduring presence in poster form in homes across the world, is down to two words. Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn’s iconic Holly Golightly is the ridiculously beautiful peg on which this film hangs. Sure, Hannibal from The A-Team does a good job as the struggling writer who falls in love with Holly, and the source material is transferred to the screen with care, but without Hepburn this film is forgotten within a few years. Her dizzying ability to flit from extrovert socialite to vulnerable country girl is at the heart of this film; the highlight being her rendition of Moon River, which shows you don’t need to be an incredible singer to break hearts with your voice. Something Russell Crowe could’ve learned before filming Les Miserables.

Ironically, Capote never wanted Hepburn for the role, and pushed very hard for Marilyn Munroe to be cast. Munroe’s agent thought the moral ambiguity of the role would damage her career (in the original novella Holly has a lesbian affair, takes drugs, and acts more like a prostitute at times) and persuaded her to pass. The rest is history.

Just don’t mention Mickey Rooney’s Chinese landlord character…

3. 101 Dalmatians

101 Dalmatians Cruella De Vil

“My only true love, darling. I live for furs. I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”

I have been umming and ahhing about putting this film on my list. My childhood memories are of a great Disney caper film, with cute talking dogs, and a terrifying villain in the shape of Cruella De Vil. That was enough to earn it a spot on the list. Then my two-year-old daughter became obsessed with it, and we watched it every night for a month.

I’m pretty sure than any film subject to such intense interrogation would start to reveal some flaws (except maybe Back to the Future), and sadly this is the case with 101 Dalmatians. It’s not perfect, and it’s not really that brilliant. It does however still feature a fantastic villain, and it heralded a sea change in animation technology which dominated the industry for the next twenty years.

The story is simple enough, with Pongo the dog playing cupid to fix up his bachelor owner with a mate, and snag himself a bitch in the shape of Perdita. Their resulting litter of puppies becomes the envy of Cruella De Vil (the prototype Patsy Stone) who wants to make a fur coat out of them. So far, so grim. The puppies are kidnapped, and Pongo and Perdita venture off to rescue them. It’s pretty standard stuff if I’m honest but, thanks to my daughter, it will forever be etched into my brain.

2. Pit and the Pendulum

Pit and the PendulumYou will die in agony. Die!

This is another of those films I discovered in doing the research for this series. Quite why I hadn’t chanced upon it before I’m not sure. After all, any film directed by the legendary Roger Corman, and starring the national treasure that is Vincent Price is fine by me.

Very loosely based on a short-story by Edgar Allen Poe, Pit and the Pendulum is set in 16th century Spain at the time of the Inquisition. Price stars as Nicholas Medina, an uncharacteristically (for Price, at least) meek and humble lord who has recently lost his wife, Catherine. John Kerr is the unapologetically American-sounding brother of Catherine, who visits Medina to investigate the circumstances of her death. Over the first hour spooky things start to happen in the castle, and Nicholas reveals that he saw his father torture and inter his mother over an affair. Then Price finally gets to cut loose, and the last act is far more shocking, entertaining, and genuinely ghoulish.

Shot in only 15 days, the film is a remarkable testament to what a talented director and magnetic screen presence can achieve on limited resources with an average script.

1. Yojimbo

Yojimbo“I’m not dying yet. I have to kill quite a few men first”

Akira Kurosawa is the missing link between the classic Western genre and the Spaghetti Westerns that became popular in the 1960s, with Sergio Leone arguably perfecting the genre by the end of the decade. Without Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo though, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in America.

Kurosawa applied his cinematic filter to the work of John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) to produce a film that is not only a homage to a genre, but adds something entirely new to its ecosystem. The themes and plot of the film are familiar, and the shots are ‘classic’ Western framing; but the editing, the violence, and the anti-hero nature of the protagonist were new to Western audiences. By the time Leone remade this as A Fistful of Dollars, the landscape of Westerns had already morphed into a more ambiguous, revisionist tone.

Toshirô Mifune plays the Ronin, a samurai whose master is dead and who now roams the lands of feudal Japan looking for freelance work where he can find it. He wanders into a town beset by violence, run by two opposing war lords who make plays to recruit the powerful stranger. The Ronin has other plans though, and conceives a dangerous game to play the opposing factions off against each other.

As is common in all of Kurosawa’s films, the violence is brief and is never needless or gratuitous. At its heart this is a film about human nature, greed, and the power of fear. Make no mistake though, there is still some kick-ass sword-fighting. It’s also very funny in places and its position in the IMDB Top 250, and at number one in my list, is fully deserved.

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