May 16, 2020

6 from the '60s: National Classic Movie Day

The 1960s may have been the grooviest decade, but my selections for Classic Film & TV Café's "6 from the '60s," in honor of National Classic Movie Day, are decidedly not groovy movies, although a couple of them are very cool and one of them is simply weird. This may say more about me than I'd like to admit, so we'll dispense with any attempt at psychoanalysis and go straight to the picks.

Since I primarily write about television, it's worth noting that of these six films, I've only seen one of them in a theater, and that was after I'd already seen it twice on TV. I do own all six, though, and I don't buy movies lightly; I have to be pretty sure I'm going to watch them more than once before I make the investment. In fact, I think the 1960s were a terrific decade for movies, and I probably could have come up with a dozen different combinations of two dozen different films. However, this list is the first one I wrote down, as soon as Rick announced it, and I've found it's usually best to stick with first instincts. I don't pretend that I'm listing them in any kind of order other than the chronological order in which they came out; any one of the six could be my favorite depending on my mood, the time of day, the weather outside, and a hundred other factors. But enough—let's get to the list!

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh

I was introduced to The Manchurian Candidate on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies back in 1974. It was an impressionable time for me; I was in high school, beginning to cultivate my interest in politics as a career, and I was making my way through the canon of political thrillers: Seven Days in May, The Best Man, and Fail-Safe. Now, it was never my intent to attain the White House through Communist infiltration, any more than it was through a military coup or high-level blackmail (or at least the first two), but this was drama played out at the highest level, and I was hooked.

The Manchurian Candidate is often considered, at least partly, a satire, but that’s not the way I saw it then, nor is it how I see it today. It’s true that there are elements that could be thought of that way (especially in Richard Condon’s novel of the same name), but the story itself is far too dark (underscored by David Amram’s score and the stark black-and-white cinematography) and the performances too intense for that, especially Angela Lansbury, who’s about as far away from Jessica Fletcher as she would be if she was playing Linda Lovelace; she’s so icy, your blood will run colder than hers. Sinatra is wonderful, proving himself again to be one of the few singers who can transition to an acting role with no trace of singing in it. Laurence Harvey, as the brainwashed assassin, and Janet Leigh, whose meeting with Sinatra may not be as coincidental as it seems, round out an extraordinary cast.

John Frankenheimer’s direction is visually stunning, most memorably in an early scene involving Khigh Dhiegh as a ChiCom operative displaying brainwashed American soldiers to a group of fellow communist officials, a scene that transitions seamlessly between scientific presentation and garden party, but there’s also a man who gets shot through a milk carton, a costume party involving the queen of diamonds, and a chase scene through Madison Square Garden during a presidential nominating convention. As the story unfolds, Frankenheimer ramps up the tension, culminating in a shocking conclusion delivering a massive payoff. I don’t think the country was ready for a movie like The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, a cynical psycho-thriller contained in a Cold War wrapper, but the mark of its greatness is that even today, when we’ve become accustomed to corruption, manipulation, and conspiracy, The Manchurian Candidate retains the power to shock and disturb.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Director: Lindsay Anderson
Stars: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, or at least indulge me while I repeat myself. Back in my college days, whenever I was doing research in the library I'd spend the last half hour or so in the periodicals section, looking at old issues of TV Guide. My favorite issues, besides those for Christmas and New Year's, were the ones that contained the close-ups for the annual Academy Awards telecasts. I'd look at the lists of best picture nominees, and the pictures of the nominated actors and actresses (this was before the days of TCM or AMC, when classic movies on TV weren't as common), and I'd make lists of the movies that I was unfamiliar with and looked interesting, and then watch for them to pop up in TV Guide. I saw a lot of movies that way, including several that almost made this listTom Jones, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runnerbut none of them made the impression on me of This Sporting Life.

I didn't know what to expect, maybe something set in the lush English countryside: I hadn't yet heard of the Angry Young Man school or the Kitchen Sink Drama. It didn't take long to find out, thoughI was blindsided from the start, with Roberto Gerhard's tense, atonal score and Lindsay Anderson's use of quick-cut flashbacks setting the stage for a gritty, grimy story (based on the novel by David Storey, who also wrote the screenplay) set in working-class England of the early 1960s and rendered appropriately in black-and-white. Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a coal miner who finds focus for his brutish lifestyle as a professional rugby player. As he wins acclaim for his performance on the pitch, he tries to become more than "just a great ape on a football field" through a romance with his landlady, the widowed Mrs. Hammond (Roberts). Be forewarned, though: this isn't the classic American "feel good" sports movie, but a dark, often ugly look at people trapped in prisons, whether from class, circumstances, or through their own making. 

This Sporting Life was Lindsay Anderson's feature film directorial debut; it made many 10-best lists for the year, and both Harris and Roberts (who was at the time married to Rex Harrison) were nominated for Oscars for their powerful performances. This Sporting Life changed the way I looked at movies and the kinds of stories they could tell. It is a masterpiece of desolation.

Point Blank (1967)

Director: John Boorman
Stars: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn

There seems to be an anecdote behind each one of these movies, and this is no exception.  A writer at another site was relating his initial view of the scene in which Lee Marvin is seen striding purposely down a long corridor. The view switches back and forth between Marvin's character and an attractive blonde getting out of bed, going about her business, getting her hair done, and so forth. Marvin's expression never changes, nor does his determination. The viewer looked at the cast and imagined he'd be seeing a touching reunion between Marvin and Angie Dickinson (he originally assumed Dickinson was that woman; it was actually Sharon Acker); about a minute into the clip, he found out he was wrong. Boy, was he wrong. The explosiveness of that scene, following a buildup of tension, is Point Blank in a nutshell.  

Marvin, in what I consider his greatest role, plays Walker, a criminal mastermind and a very dangerous man. During a heist, Walker is shot and left for dead by his best friend, Reese (John Vernon), who takes all the loot and absconds with Walker's wife (Acker). But, surprise! Walker isn't dead, just angryvery angry and looking to do whatever it takes to get his money back. But therein lies the rub; Walker doesn't want power or wealth or a position in "The Organization," he only wants what's coming to him, his share of the heist. They never do understand that, to their ultimate misfortune; throughout, Walker leaves a trail of death and violence in his wake, although he's actually responsible for very little of it. He doesn't outright kill anyone, they just keep dying after their encounters with him. Well, there is a heavy who tries to get tough with Walker and gets the crap beaten out of him instead, but for the most part it's a case of the bad guys eliminating themselves.  

Marvin, who got the clout to do a movie like this through having won an Oscar for Cat Ballou, should have won a second for this, but he had to remain content with making a cult classic that's grown in critical esteem through the years. He was fortunate to work with John Boorman, who shared his vision for the movie, and to whom Marvin deferred his contractual control over script and cast. Thanks to the combination of actor and director, Point Blank transcends the boundaries of pulp crime drama to become one of the great movies of the decade.

The Producers (1967)

Director: Mel Brooks
Stars: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder

Many years ago, I was working for a thoroughly disreputable company, serving on a committee intended to raise employee morale. It was a foolish choice on their part, asking a confirmed cynic like me to do something like this; it just showed what a poor judge of talent they were, as I eventually found out. At any rate, one of the ideas was to hold occasional movie days, and I suggested The Producers. Once they found out the plot, the committee voted it down, fearing that a movie that played Hitler for laughs might offend someone. As I said, they didn't deserve me.

There has to be a comedy on this list, right? Well, The Producers ranks as one of the best pieces of outrageous humor ever, benefiting not only from Mel Brooks's sense of the absurd, but also from Brooks's absence in the cast. He wasn't needed, not with a cast that includes Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder already there. Underneath that unscrupulous, larcenous veneer of Mostel's larger-than-life Max Bialystock lies a true sense of humanity; he wants to be rich, sure, but he never really looks to hurt anyone. He's teamed up with Wilder's timid accountant Leo Bloom, who unwittingly suggests a scheme to bilk investors by overselling shares in an production so intentionally bad that it'll close after one night. Leo's not a crook at heart, but under Max's spell, he finds himself alive (and unafraid) for the first time in his life.  Throw in Kenneth Mars as the insane playwright of "Springtime for Hitler," and Dick Shawn as a hippie Hitler, and you have everything you need for a truly demented movie. In a good way, of course; Brooks won an Oscar for his brilliant screenplay, and Wilder was nominated for Supporting Actor for the hysterical Leo.

If The Manchurian Candidate was "unthinkable" back in 1962, The Producers might be just as unthinkable today. We're so quick to offend, and I don't know that the Broadway version could even have been made had not the movie already existed. The joke was never that Hitler was funny, or that making fun of him was offensive. No, the audience that made "Springtime for Hitler" a hit (unfortunately, for Max and Leo) understood that comedy levels the playing field, that satirizing Hitler makes him human enough for us to understand that he could happen again someday, if we're not careful. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rein (voice only)

I've never been to one of those parties where someone hypnotizes people as a kind of parlor trick, and before anyone knows it they're braying like donkeys, barking like dogs, or clucking like chickens, after which everyone chuckles at their embarrassment. It's obvious I don't know the right kind of people, or else these things would happen to me all the time. But the closest I've ever come to being hypnotized was while watching 2001 for the first time, when I was sucked into the Star Gate along with Dave Bowman—and I wasn't under the influence of any substance at the time, other than my television set.

I've 2001 many times since, including twice in the theater, and it's never quite hit me the same way it did that first time. There are other aspects that, upon repeated viewing, have made a deep impression on me, from the guarded nature of Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) to the taciturn performances of Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as the ill-fated astronauts, the impassive voice of HAL (Douglas Rein), and most of all the overwhelming loneliness of space. The music leaves me spellbound, the vastness of the universe, especially in the theater, is awesome, and I even love the parodies of it; every time I see the end of Laserblast, a truly execrable movie, on MST3K, it makes me want to see 2001 again. It's an epic, every bit as much as Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia

But for all that, and even though I appreciate that Star Gate scene more every time, I've never been as memorized—hypnotized, if you will—than that initial viewing on TV back in 1977.  I don't think I ever want to understand this movie, in the way that one might understand Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.  In the end, 2001 is not just an odyssey, it's a mystery, one of those ethereal substances that never quite settle into a solid object.  When you understand too much about anything, you lose some of the mystery, and it was the mystery that first captured my attention all those years ago - and continues to do so today.

Bullitt (1968)

Director: Peter Yates
Stars: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bisset, Don Gordon

The car chase. That's the first thing you think about, isn't it, when you think of Bullitt. That, and the King of Cool. Steve McQueen. It's impossible to envision anyone else in the role of Lt. Frank Bullitt; McQueen is so cool, as Zaphod Beeblebrox would say, you could keep a side of beef next to him for a week; so cool, even his improbable last name makes sense. So cool, you don't even notice Jacqueline Bisset. Much. 

Bullitt has a strong supporting cast: Robert Vaughn is as smarmy as he's ever been as an insufferably smug, politically ambitious senator (is there any other kind?); Don Gordon is very good in a rare good-guy role as Bullitt's partner; and Simon Oakland appropriately exasperated as Bullitt's boss.  But it always comes back to McQueen, and that scene—the greatest car chase in the history of movies, and that includes The French Connection and every Fast & Furious movie ever made. No matter how many times you see it, and I've seen it a few times, it takes your breath away. That's due mostly to Peter Yates's use of driver's POV shots, and film editing that rightly won an Oscar. In the end, though, it comes back to McQueen. A lesser actor would have been overwhelmed by it, diminishing the character's stature, but not him. And you believe McQueen's behind the wheel, as, indeed, he often is. It wouldn't be nearly as effective if Bullitt was played by, for example, Wally Cox. (Nor would it have been quite the same if it had taken place in Lincoln, Nebraska. There's a lot to be said for on-location shooting in San Francisco.) 

Steve McQueen proved he could act with his Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles, but for my money this is quintessential McQueen and quintessential action. It's one of those movies that, whenever I run across it while I'm surfing, I watch it to the end, even though I own it. It's defined by the car chase in the same way that Ben-Hur is defined by the chariot race, but make no mistake: this movie belongs to the King of Cool. We just live in his shadow.

This is part of the "6 from the '60s" Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here for a list of participating blogsand then watch a classic movie! TV  


  1. I love your entries. This is SUCH an enjoyable read about your faves. The Sporting Life is one here I haven't seen and need to.

  2. A double treat today, Mitchell. i agree with a lot of your movie choices, especially The Sporting Life---a true underestimated gem.

    let's not forget the SCTV skit based on 2001 with Merv Griffin (Rick Moranis) and guest Orson Wells (John Candy) devoting the "episode" to a tribute to 2001. Merv Griffin interviewing HAL....Can't seem to find this on on YouTube.

  3. Of course The Producers!!! Brilliant for any decade. It took me a while to get around to The Manchurian Candidate, but I was completely captivated - a great film indeed. This Sporting Life is one of those films I have somehow managed to avoid - I don't know why - but after your inclusion here, I'm keeping an eye out for it.

  4. The Manchurian Candidate is my favorite film on your list--a dark thriller that works on so many levels. But I'm also a big fan of the tough, driven action in Point Blank, which features what I consider Lee Marvin's best performance. As for Bullitt, the car chase is spectacular, though I may prefer the one in The Seven-Ups (which was shot by several of the same folks).

  5. An interesting contrast. Lee Marvin's character thrives on violence. Frank Bullitt wants to prevent it, if possible. My list includes Bullitt, too.

  6. A superb line-up of '60s films here, every one a classic of that era and beyond. My own favorites among them are Manchurian Candidate, The Producers and Bullitt. Great write-ups on all - and I enjoyed the occasional personal anecdotes, too.

  7. The Manchurian Candidate is one of my all-time faves. Such a powerful movie, and not one you easily forget.

    Thanks for the introduction to This Sporting Life. It sounds like a haunting film.

  8. I also chose The Manchurian Candidate - I love your detailed description of all that makes it so fascinating. It does rather defy genre definition. I can't argue with Bullitt and 2001 - both incredibly entertaining. The others are ones I have yet to see, so straight to my watchlist they go!

  9. My husband loves Bullitt--we watched it when we first started dating. San Francisco hills are taylor-made for a good car chase. ;-)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!