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.
Firstly, an explanation for the delay in posting this Decade in Film piece. When I chose (got stuck with) the 1960s, I didn’t realise how many great films from the decade I hadn’t seen, and therefore needed to watch for this project. I had a huge list of films on my shortlist for 1962, but I just wasn’t able to watch them all. Preferring instead to write blogs about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. I know.
John Ford directed many of the important and iconic classic Western films, but for me this is probably his finest. Unlike much of his filmography, which was filmed on location in glorious Technicolor, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was mostly shot on a soundstage in Hollywood, and in black and white. Some argue that Ford was so determined to make this film that he was willing to do it on a low budget, while Lee Marvin (who played the eponymous villain Liberty Valance) claims that Ford made a conscious decision to enable him to utilise the use of light and shadows in telling a different kind of Western story. Either way, it’s my personal favourite film of his; an opinion I share with none other than Sergio Leone, who remarked that it was the only Ford film that showed pessimism.
It stars Ford-favourite John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, a farmhand who rescues young and naïve lawyer Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart) who is left for dead by Liberty Valance and his gang. The two men grow closer, and over time Stoddard continues his run-ins with Valance, culminating with the shoot-out that gives the film its name. Told in flashback, this is a brilliantly layered exploration of honour, and the effects of undeserved fame.
A brilliantly dark and twisted tale of sibling rivalry, this film is positively Hitchcockian in terms of the tension it delivers, and the black humour of the central performance of ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson (Bette Davis). The film opens on a precocious Baby Jane Hudson entertaining the crowd in a music hall. After the show she reveals her spoilt brattish side, while bullying her older sister Blanche. As the years pass though, Blanche (Joan Crawford) becomes the toast of Hollywood and a fine actress in her own right, while Jane becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous of her older and more successful singer. Suddenly, Blanche’s career is cut short in a tragic car accident, and Jane becomes her full-time carer.
We join the pair a number of years later, with Jane acting more like a prison warden than a carer for the fragile Blanche. With Blanche’s savings dwindling, she plans to sell the family home, and this pushes Jane over the edge. The following hour is a genuinely disturbing portrayal of domestic abuse, and the real-life mutual loathing Davis and Crawford shared must have been a factor in their deliciously vicious chemistry. Things were so bad that when Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role, Crawford actively campaigned against her, and even went as far as accepting the eventual winner’s (Ann Bancroft) award on her behalf.
The poster exclaimed “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”, and even to this day the power of Vladamir Nabakov’s novel challenges censors (you can’t even search for the film on Google with SafeSearch on). Chosen as Stanley Kubrick’s follow-up project to Spartacus, Lolita is an odd and at times downright disturbing film. Although there are minor differences between the novel and the film, the story of Professor Humbert Humbert’s relationship with the teenage daughter of his landlady remains intact.
Interestingly, the changes to the film demanded by the censors betray a bizarre moral compass. They demanded that the age of the Lolita be changed from 12 in the book, to 14 in the film. Also, Sue Lyon was cast in the eponymous role because she was more physically developed than other actresses up for the part. The fact that it was somehow more acceptable to portray child abuse because the victim was a little older and looked more like a grown woman shines a light on the hypocrisy inherent in most forms that censorship takes.
As for the film, well it’s a Kubrick film which in my opinion is as good a stamp of quality as you are likely to find in cinema. It’s surprisingly both utterly depressing, and brilliant funny in places, helped in no small part by a virtuoso performance from Peter Sellers as Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty. Seller and Kubrick would go on to repeat the magic to even great effect just a few years later…
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, this is one of the few films where I genuinely regret not reading the book beforehand. This really caught me by surprise with its depth, as I was under the impression it was merely a courtroom drama that dealt with the issue of race. Far from it.
Gregory Peck in the role that many think he was born to play, warm-hearted attorney Atticus Finch. A single parent in a small town in the Deep South during the depression, Finch takes up the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Despite the town turning against him one-by-one, including folk who have been helped out by Finch’s wisdom and kindness in the past, Atticus fights a seemingly hopeless cause in trying to win a man his freedom, and change the hearts and minds of his community. At the same time, his children are growing up, and rapidly losing the innocence in a world that doesn’t make any sense to them. It’s a brutal film at times, and one that made me genuinely angry while watching it. Powerful stuff.
1. Cape Fear
In what may be a surprise for some, I have placed a different film featuring Gregory Peck as a persecuted lawyer in the number one slot for this year. While To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant film with a lot to say, Cape Fear is simply one of the most frightening films I have seen. Not frightening in a jumpy horror way, rather in that the violence inferred in this film is terrifyingly real, and seemingly inevitable.
Peck plays Sam Bowden, an attorney who witnessed an rape by the vile Max Cady Robert Mitchum), and whose testimony put Cady away for eight years. However, Cady is now out on parole, and is determined to get his revenge. What’s most chilling about Mitchum’s performance is the matter-of-fact way he goes about intimidating Bowden. Acting with cocksure impunity, he stays just the right side of the law, and at one point even turns the tables on Bowden after an attempt to vigorously persuade Cady to leave town backfires.
While I haven’t seen the Martin Scorsese remake starring Robert DeNiro, the Simpsons episode (Cape Feare, with that rake scene) inspired by the film is almost certainly my favourite ever movie reference on TV, and for that alone it deserves the top slot on this list.