A Decade In Film: The Sixties – 1964

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

This list might have ended up a bit Vincent Price top-heavy, with potentially four out of my five choices being films he starred in from this year. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen three of his movies released in 1964 and to give some others a chance, I’ve only included two of them below. This is also the only year in the entire Decade In Film series in which I could’ve included one of my favourite directors, Carl Theodor Dreyer. I say “could’ve” because Gertrud is by far and away my least favourite of his films, as I explained in my review on this podcast. Two popular choices also missing out are: Goldfinger, as I haven’t seen it since I watched it on VHS as a kid (listen here or here for our James Bond special podcasts from 2012); and Mary Poppins, because I haven’t seen it since I watched it on a VHS as a kid – and didn’t think much of it then, either! So, onto the first Vincent Price movie…

5. The Last Man on Earth

last man on earthThis is Robert Morgan. If somebody can hear me, answer me. For God’s sake, answer me!

Warner Bros. announced this week that they will be rebooting the I Am Legend franchise.

a) Rebooting? Surely they mean they’re doing yet another adaptation of the absolutely brilliant Richard Matheson sci-fi novel, I Am Legend?

b) Franchise? How on Earth do you turn something about the last man alive, one with such an iconic ending, into a movie franchise?

I suppose the bigger question is, why do we even need another reboot of Matheson’s classic story? The answer would most likely be that there’s yet to be a truly faithful adaptation that captures that desperation of being the only one left in a world overrun with cannibalistic vampire-like creatures that makes the original book so magnificent. However, if any of the four film adaptations (I’m including the Asylum’s mockbuster I Am Omega in that) most closely resembles the novella, then it is this apocalyptic movie starring the unnecessarily dapper Vincent Price as “Morgan” (instead of “Neville”). A plague has swept through Europe, eventually reaching the US, killing off everybody and leaving Price as the last surviving human.

It’s split into three sections, with the beginning very similar to the book; it’s all about Morgan’s paranoia and loneliness, struggling to cope with his situation. It never really touches on his burning desire for human contact like the book does (particularly of the female variety), but it does set up the middle of the film quite nicely. The majority of which is told in flashbacks, showing you the plague first reaching the US and how it destroyed his friends, family and work (as a scientist, trying to cure the plague.) The final third is … well… I don’t want to give it away as it is better to go in knowing nothing about it.

There are flaws, particularly around the scripting of certain scenes. Matheson himself part-wrote the script, but it still feels like a slightly convoluted mess on occasion. Essentially, Vincent Price carries a lot of the film all on his own. If he was any less of an actor, then this film would not be as enjoyable as it is.

4. Lord of the Flies

lord of the fliesLet me speak. I’ve got the conch. Which is it better to be? A pack of panting savages, like you are? Or sensible, like Ralph is? Which is better, to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?

No, you aren’t mistaken. Vincent Price isn’t in this. Although I will refrain from comparing it to the book or any other adaptation, like I did with The Last Man on Earth, as quite ashamedly, it’s the only version of Lord of the Flies that I’m familiar with. And that is only because I watched it last week in preparation for this article. I somehow made it to 28 years of age without realising what the bloody hell people were referring to when they used phrases like ‘having the conch’. It’s best I don’t explain what I thought they meant.

Released in the UK in July 1964, almost one whole year since its initial release in the USA and three years since it first went into production, Lord of the Flies couldn’t be more British. Set during the war with a group of children from an array of backgrounds, stranded on a desert island, left to their own devices, they begin to revert into little more than tribal savages. Establishing their own laws and hierarchy, the film (and presumably the novel it’s based on) uses the children to highlight every facet of human indecency. Without existing society and morals to guide humanity, this cynical view of mankind is as disturbing as it is believable.

The acting may be a bit ropey from some of the children, but the friendships and bonds they form appear as natural as their tropical surroundings. Peter Brook does well to make sure the emotional beats are all in tune rather than sloppy or muddled, allowing the demise of certain characters to truly carry depth and meaning.

3. The Masque of the Red Death

masque of red death

The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness.

My second (and final) Vincent Price film on this list. It’s actually the second Edgar Allan Poe inspired gothic horror movie that Price and director Roger Corman collaborated on in 1964; the other being the not-quite-as-good The Tomb of Ligeia. It shouldn’t be any surprise that this highly rated tale of the maccabre is listed here. After all, it features in the 1001: Movies You Must See Before You Die list as well as being described by Corman himself as one of his personal favourites.

Price stars as the Satan worshipping Prince Prospero. A plague is afflicting his town, which makes people start to bleed through the pores of their skin until they die. He brings all the local nobility to his abbey to avoid the plague. After treating them like garbage, he holds a fancy dress party and notices a strange guest who he believes to be his master, the Lord of the Flies (which neatly ties into my list! Cheers, Poe!)

If you’re expecting a camp Hammer Horror, you may be disappointed. The Masque of the Red Death is in fact a chilling and incredibly atmospheric film. It may be a little over-dramatic on occasion, even perhaps a tad “arty-farty” (as legendary b-movie director Sam Z. Arkoff described it) but it is one of Price’s best. The final 10-15 minutes during the infamous dinner party are despairingly grim. The whole film is a bit ‘off’, disturbing you and making you feel uncomfortable even when there doesn’t appear to be much actually happening that is too upsetting (by horror-film standards, at least). But that party… it sends shivers down my spine just remembering it!

I don’t recall it ever specifying when or where it is set, but being a Poe adaptation, it feels very 16th or 17th century European. With its gothic architecture and poetic dialogue, it goes some way to explaining why there is a very black / dark quality to it – as well as the fact that the always brilliant Vincent Price is a woman stealing Satan worshipping psychopath, of course! Other, earlier Roger Corman films, such as The Terror or A Bucket of Blood are enjoyable in their own right. However, this is clearly a much more refined, much more disturbing and, well, a much better film.

2. A Fistful of Dollars

a fistful of dollarsWhen a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true. Go ahead, load up and shoot.

In 1964, with his remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo transferred to the wild west, Sergio Leone forever redefined what it meant when you referred to a film as a “western”. Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by the American western movies he saw, particularly those of the legendary John Ford. B-movie westerns were already a well established part of the genre’s history by the 60’s. Cheap to make and compelling stories, they were the backbone of Hollywood’s success through the 1930’s. It also wasn’t exactly unheard of to remake foreign films and set them in the American West. Hell, even in the same year that A Fistful of Dollars came out, another Kurosawa film, Rashomon, had been remade as The Outrage, starring Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. But it was Leone and Clint Eastwood that turned the “spaghetti western” it into something unique and special.

Just like in Yojimbo, as chosen in James’ Decade In Film article for 1961A Fistful of Dollars tells the story of a town split in two, plagued by rival gangs. In his first appearance as The Man With No Name, later reprised in the rest of the Dollars trilogy, Clint Eastwood strolls into town looking to solve the dispute whilst at the same time profiting from it. Partly to amuse himself, partly because of his deep-down sense of justice.

There is nothing to dislike about this film. Well, unless you really want to see more hats shot off heads, which doesn’t occur until later Leone movies! Or unless you’d have preferred to see Henry Fonda or Charles Bronson as the man with no name, both of whom were preferred ahead of Eastwood for the role initially. Hard to imagine as he is so synonymous with these movies now – and deservedly so. He’s effortlessly cool and impossibly handsome in a movie full of style. From Ennio Morricone’s iconic score, to the expertly shot action sequences, it is easily one of the best films of the decade.

1. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

dr strangeloveGentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.

Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!

General “Buck” Turgidson: Hmm… Strangelove? What kind of a name is that? That ain’t no Kraut name is it, Stainesey?
Mr. Staines: He changed it when he became a citizen. Used to be Merkwürdigliebe.

Stanley Kubrick. If I have a favourite director, then Stan is that man. Even though he was inducted to our highly coveted prestigious Corridor of Praise last year, it still seems like he isn’t appreciated as much as he should be. For many people – critics, movie makers and fans alike – he is the greatest director of our time. Timeless movies like Dr Strangelove do nothing to dispel that reputation.

Essentially it’s Kubrick’s black comedy about a crazy general in the American army who orders a nuclear strike against Russia. The President and his lackeys then try to stop the attack after it’s revealed that the Russian’s have a Doomsday device. In probably his greatest role(s), Peter Sellers plays at least three different characters and he’s undeniably brilliant as each of them. He has some exceptionally funny lines that are endlessly quotable; when playing the titular Dr Strangelove, the moment he calls the president Mien Fuhrer by accident, he has me in stitches every single time thanks to his exquisite delivery. I cannot overstate his performance enough.

It is just an absolutely brilliant film. It’s funny, brilliantly acted (I often think George C. Scott is under-appreciated in this), full of great characters and iconic scenes. Every time I watch it, I know I’m guaranteed to laugh my arse off and it’s just further proof that Kubrick, no matter which genre he turned his attentions to, was a master at what he did.

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