The best films of the Sixties

Note: A ludicrously and inevitably difficult assignment. Fun nevertheless. We fanboys are masochists.

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Welcome to Part 1 of a 5-part, decade-wise exploration of the finest English language cinema from the 60s to today. This, and the following lists, look not just at the most acclaimed films of the decade, but the ones with the most impactful cultural footprint. We hope you enjoy the show, and go back to your classic DVDs with a smile on your face.


The Swingin’ Sixties.

Free love. Psychedelia. Civil rights. Flower Power. Counterculture. Hunter S Thompson. The Beatles and the British Invasion. The Martin Luther King assassination. The sexual revolution. Woodstock. Vietnam and the Anti-War movement. The Doors. The JFK assassination. Muhammad Ali. Walking on the moon. The Ford Mustang. The BASIC programming language. The Malcolm X assassination. Andy Warhol’s cans of soup. Jimi Hendrix. Motown Records. Richard Nixon, President. Spider-Man. Marshall McLuhan. Jacques Derrida. Charles Manson. Che Guevara rocks the revolution. LSD. Frank Zappa.

60s stewsWhat. A. Decade.

‘If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there,’ memorably said Jefferson Airplane guitarman Paul Kantner — and while most of us might not have been there, we’re still reeling from the impact. The cultural significance of the 1960s beats any other twentieth century decade hollow.

Film was massively impacted by counterculture. Sex, violence and anarchy took over cinema, breaking boundaries with every step. Europe saw La Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave movement — and the Italian filmmakers hit absolute peak. The new cameras were cheaper, lighter, and just crying out for experimentation — thus kicked off the avant-garde movement. There was a movement every which way you looked, and as Hollywood’s ‘studio system’ ripped apart at the seams, we saw the birth of younger, fierier ‘New Hollywood.’

For this impossible special feature, we narrowed down our options to English-language films, and while this basically means no arguing over Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone or Jean-Luc Godard, it hardly helps the cause. There’s just too much to choose from. You’ll see.

It’s a really tough decade to boil down into a ten-movie list, but here, strictly in chronological order, are a few English films that literally rocked our world.

Psycho
Release date: 16 June 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

It’s chocolate syrup, you know.

Hitch felt the density of chocolate was more realistic, in black and white, than stage blood, and so the iconic, incredibly shot shower scene had actress Janet Leigh covered in the sticky stuff. Why black and white at a time when Hollywood had pretty much moved all its productions to all-colour? Because after Paramount didn’t want to make the film, Hitch brought in his own funds to produce it for less than a million dollars, and because — in a sly move recently replicated by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol 1 — the black and white let him get away with gristlier gore.

But that’s just three magnificent minutes. The rest of the film was as memorable, the story of an embezzling woman trapped and murdered in a secluded motel, while naive-looking motel-owner Norman Bates seems genuinely puzzled as a private detective comes to investigate. The psychologically fraught climax was fantastic, and the film — single-handedly spawning the psychological horror genre — created such an impact that Hitchcock, who was hitherto struggling to deal with me-too thriller directors, was now reestablished as the unquestioned master of suspense.

Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score, fantastic performances from Anthony Perkins and Leigh, Saul Bass’ titles, and one of the finest theatrical trailers of all time — click here to watch it — all combined in one of cinema’s most justifiably legendary films.

Also read: 25 years since Hitchcock

Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Release Date: 5 October 1961
Director: Blake Edwards

Honestly, this was pure sacrilege.

Author Truman Capote wrote the screenplay keeping Marilyn Monroe in mind, but when she turned down the part — legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg declaring the role of a call-girl (ahem) unsuitable for her image — the Roman Holiday star stepped in, and immediately dismissed the director attached to the project because she hadn’t heard of him — John Frankenheimer, who went on to direct classics like The Manchurian Candidate and Grand Prix — and chose instead the decidedly flaky Blake Edwards, the man eventually known for the Pink Panther series. Literary critics too were in arms, as the sparkling novella about an inimitable woman and her relationship with a gay man was turned into a conventional romantic comedy.

And what a comedy it turned out to be.

breakfasttiffanysThe film’s first frame shows New York’s famed jewellery store, Tiffany’s. The hour is early, so early that even the mythical Fifth Avenue is deserted — until a yellow cab pulls up. A ridiculously lithe woman, clad in a gorgeous black dress designed by herself and Givenchy, walks to the store window. She fishes her elegantly gloved hands into a paper bag, discovers a danish, which she holds in her mouth while taking out a cup of coffee, as the film’s perfectly suited name appears next to her.

The film was groundbreaking not just because it remains the most sophisticatedly crafted romantic-comedy of all time, but more crucially because it is a landmark drama — a bitter and often cynical look at life, love and the Big Apple — hidden behind conventional smiles. It is an ancestor to the genre we trendily now call ‘the dramedy.’

Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a masterpiece of style and grace — and comedy so effortless it blends right in. Holly Golightly is one of modern literature’s greatest heroines, and who better to play the irresistibly phony oddball than the most beautiful woman of all time, looking at her finest? Audrey Hepburn literally sparkles with an inimitable performance as George Peppard valiantly plays the straight guy trying hard to keep up.

Appropriate to the leading lady, the detailing is astonishing. Hepburn, unable to find a dress for a party, saunters around wrapped in a bedsheet, looking drop dead unbelievable as she places a novel decoratively next to a bottle of champagne. Her insanely fashionable couch is a traditional bathtub sliced halfway down the middle. The dialogues are plain delightful. With the exception of Mickey Rooney’s hideously caricatured Mr Yunioshi — Blake Edwards wasn’t one to shy away from offensive shockers — this film stays superbly subtle yet mired in subtext, the characters amusing yet cryptic, constantly open to reinterpretation.

Here, then, is the mentioned scene with Audrey at the party in her sheet, while Paul — whom she constantly calls Fred — tries to get a glimpse into her world. Click here for video. Martin Balsam is in fine fettle as OJ Berman. And as for Audrey, well — she even makes a cigarette look sexy.

Lawrence Of Arabia
Release Date: 16 December 1962
Director: David Lean

There are times women need to hush up.

In all of this epic film’s 227-minute running time, there isn’t a single woman with a speaking part — not that the men leave them with much to say. Lean’s much-debated version of the life and times of the undeniably incredible British solider TE Lawrence, who gained widespread fame because of his role during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, is a masterclass in filmmaking. Each crewmember seems to be trying to outdo the others with their detailing, drive and passion — and the effort shows.

Anthony Quinn, for example, was so immersed in his role as Auda abu Tayi, the fearsome Huwaytat chieftain, that he spent ages looking at research photographs to replicate the look, doing his own make-up. Legend goes that the first time he showed up on set in full Auda regalia, Lean was thunderstruck and, assuming him to be a native, immediately asked an assistant to inform Quinn that he would have to be replaced.

Quinn, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif all handed in top-notch performances, and Peter O’Toole was simply stellar as the protagonist. Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ably complemented Freddie Young’s ambitious 70mm cinematography. A truly, truly special film.

Instead of the stunning war moments, here’s a great dialogue scene that says a lot about Lawrence: Click here for video.

To Kill A Mockingbird
Release Date: 25 December 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan

It had to be Gregory Peck.

Atticus Finch, the character widely referred to as the greatest heroic protagonist in American cinema, needed a solid actor who could be both firm and honourable as well as spirited enough to be a folk hero — and all this while being a lawyer. Author Harper Lee, the woman behind the classic novel, loved Peck’s performance — she lent him her father’s watch for the courtroom scene — and, at his eulogy, said that “Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself.”

Viewed from the invaluable perspective of a spunky six-year-old, Mockingbird is an enthralling look at prejudice in 30s Alabama. The film works on several strongly-delineated layers: as a coming-of-age story for the girl, Scout (played superbly by Mary Badham); as a racial drama about a young black man accused inaccurately of rape, and facing an all-white jury; a human drama about how we are afraid of the unknown — till we get to know it. As Atticus tells daughter Scout, “You never know someone until you step inside their skin and walk around a little.”

Robert Mulligan’s film, aided massively by Elmer Bernstein’s music, is all these things and more: it is an exploration into race, into America, into morality, and, as a result, a courtroom drama that remains unparallelled to this day.

Here, then, is a scene encapsulating the film’s spirit — and one guaranteed to give you goose-pimples. Click here for the video.

Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
Release date: 29 January 1964
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Fact: It was Peter Sellers’ ankle that broke, not his accent.

Indeed, the most powerful accent-and-inflection actor in the history of cinema couldn’t initially wrap his consonants around the oft-caricatured Southern drawl, but after manfully struggling for a while, he took on the character of Major TJ Kong — only to have a sprained ankle preventing him from completing the role. So despite Columbia Pictures financing the project only on the condition that Sellers play at least four roles in the project, he could ‘only’ do three. Paying him a million dollar salary on a movie that cost under two mil, Kubrick famously remarked, “I got three for the price of six.”

What a trio he got, though. Sellers played Lionel Mandrake, an earnest British Group Captain with extreme, albeit inadvertent, comic timing; American President Merkin Muffley, — with more innuendo in his name than a Bond girl — a Midwesterner based on Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson; and most crucially, former Nazi physicist and current US scientific advisor, Dr Strangelove — who, on more than one occasion, addresses the Pres as ‘Mein Fuhrer.’

drstrangeAn unabashedly loony effort, Kubrick was careful to pitch the dark comic satire just right, striking an unbelievably perfect balance between a parody, a comedy of manners, and a Cold War drama. The dialogues are to die for, as are each of the characters. Owing to an extremely cerebral script that started out as a serious drama before finally metamorphosing into a nightmarish comedy, this take on the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction remains the finest satire ever made.

While very tempted to link you to the marvellous End Credits, I choose not to play spoiler and show you this lovely clip instead, with the dialogue between the Soviet and American Presidents. Click here for the video. Priceless.

The Sound Of Music
Release Date: 2 March 1965
Director: Robert Wise

How do you describe a character like Maria?

Short answer: You don’t. You cast a phenomenal performer like Julie Andrews in the lead, give her a lush Austrian backdrop, Christopher Plummer to squabble with and seethe for, and, most importantly, arm her with music and lyrics by a couple of gentlemen called Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

Then, you pick your jaw up from the floor and make sure the cinematographer’s catching it all.

The sixties was a decade of great cinematic boisterousness, celebrating the big, happy musical with classic films like My Fair Lady, A Hard Day’s Night, and Mary Poppins. So why does Robert Wise’s film ‘beat’ them all? Well, it’s the only one that takes the musical note ‘Do’ and turns it into a deer.

The film is sheer magic. Family films featuring children, to this day, suffer from a Sound Of Music hangover. And why not? Andrews plays Maria, a nun-in-training who ends up being governess to seven children living with their widower father, Captain von Trapp (Plummer). But of course you know the story, and how smoothly the narrative goes from clothes cut out of curtains to an anti-Nazi family on the run. The plot progression is a work of wonder.

So here’s one of those ridiculously precious video clips, just to remind us why this film will always be one of our, ahem, favourite things: Click here for video.

The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols

Robert Redford wanted to play the kid.

Really, Red wanted the part of young, naive Benjamin Braddock. Nichols rejected him, explaining that he didn’t have the underdog qualities the part needed. Redford wanted a better answer. “Well, let’s put it this way,” said Nichols, “Have you ever struck out with a girl?” “What do you mean?” asked Redford. “That’s precisely my point,” said Nichols.

So in stepped young, suitably awkward Dustin Hoffman, in his breakthrough role — even though he wasn’t as young as Benjamin’s 21. In fact, with him at 29 and the glorious Anne Bancroft (playing the mid-40s Mrs Robinson) at just 35, the six-year difference seems ludicrously small.

Not that we could tell. Or that it made any difference to just how well this film seduced us. A drama about a clueless lad just out of college, The Graduate explores young Braddock’s refusal to conform and his fumbling social nature while showing us his strong-mindedness and eventual, well, drive. And in the middle of everything, large as life and thrice as sexy, sits his dad’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson — who changes his life in every way.

The-Graduate-Hoffman_lNichols, embracing deeper issues at every bend, goes at the Charles Webb novel with gusto, crafting a sensationally funny yet poignant coming-of-age story that turns into more universal a drama than anyone could expect from a story this outlandish.

It is a film tremendously ahead of its time, with Nichols not only using Simon & Garfunkel’s legendary soundtrack with scintillatingly stingy economy — this is all that plays of Mrs Robinson, for example — but also, aided by lensman Robert Surtees, making a very modern film in terms of look and feel, angles and edits. Techniques from The Graduate are ripped-off on a pretty frequent basis, even over 40 years later.

The film is an obvious classic, and here’s a section that should very justifiably be hailed as among the finest montage sequences of all time — do watch out for the bit where the director masterfully blurs the line between Braddock’s parents house and his regular hotel room. Click here for video. Wow.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: 6 April 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick

The music happened pretty much by accident.

Kubrick had commissioned a 2001 score from his regular composer, Alex North — who worked on both Spartacus and Dr Strangelove — but the director used classical music on the sets and during editing, only as guides. When MGM, concerned about this high-profile project, harangued the filmmaker for some footage, he slapped together a quick showreel cut to a classical soundtrack. The results were extraordinary, and Kubrick decided to go with the classical compositions — ‘However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms,’ he later said in an interview — except he forgot to tell North his music wasn’t going to be used, a fact the composer only learnt when he saw the film days before its release.

A film made with infinitesimal precision, 2001 was always meant to be a visually striking, aurally operatic experience, one that eschewed conformity towards narrative technique. Written by Kubrick himself with sci-fi great Arthur C Clarke — based on the latter’s novel, itself written following ideas and conversations with the director — this is, quite simply, the most influential science-fiction film of all time.

An alarming tale of extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence cloaked in a spellbinding array of special effects and music, 2001 has perplexed as many as it has enchanted. The film initially opened to a ridiculously polarised critical response, but over the years it is widely acknowledged that the film is indeed a visionary one, and its impact on cinema — and, indeed, science-fiction itself — cannot be denied at all.

Kubrick, cautious about how he wanted audiences to consume the 2001 experience, specifically ordered not just a point of intermission, but — after having gotten intermission music separately composed — demanded that theatres be plunged into darkness right before the film’s restart.

Instead of trying to vainly extrapolate on 2001′s immense audiovisual appeal, here’s a spectacular clip that would have made composer Johann Strauss proud. Click here for video.

Midnight Cowboy
Release Date: 25 May 1969
Director: John Schlesinger

They didn’t want Dustin Hoffman.

Jon-Voigt-in-Midnight-Cow-001Despite the encomiums that accompanied its success, The Graduate had already given Hoffman an ‘all-American’ image, the kind of thing that studios didn’t want to tamper with when casting for cripple con-artist ‘Ratso’ Rizzo. Hoffman insisted on a meeting, and called the auditioning executive to a Manhattan street corner. Dressed in rags, Hoffman successfully worked the corner for spare change while the executive stood around, waiting. Finally Hoffman walked up to him and introduced himself, and the part was his.

Casting actually fell into place with great serendipity for Schlesinger. James Leo Herlihy’s great novel was always going to require just the right couple of actors, and the director got lucky with one of the decade’s most startling finds: Jon Voight’s first major performance catapulted him right up there with Hoffman, both stars nabbing Best Actor nominations at the next Oscars.

Speaking of Oscars, it is important to note that while this is indeed the only X-rated film to win an Oscar, the rating was subsequently changed to an R (for Restricted) — with no cuts or changes — following the stigmatisation of X-rated films by the porn industry.

It is a spectacular achievement, this morbidly engaging story of an attractive yet masochistic ‘stud,’ whose ambition involves donning a cowboy getup and hiring himself out to rich women. Voight’s Joe Buck soon runs into the ‘scuzzy’ (scummy + fuzzy) Rizzo, and the film is a twisted, tragic testament to the seamier side of the American dream.

There is a milestone every couple of scenes in Midnight Cowboy. For now, here is a scene that has become part of acting lore, because of the perfect timing involving the cabbie, and Hoffman’s now-legendary snappy reaction: Click here for video.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
Release Date: 24 October 1969
Director: George Roy Hill

It was actually the other way around.

William Goldman’s sensationally written script about the exploits of the outlaw leaders of the Hole In The Wall Gang was originally titled ‘The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy.’ It was only after Steve McQueen dropped out of the Sundance part and Robert Redford stepped in that the title was changed, to give first place billing to Paul Newman, playing Cassidy. Good, ’cause ‘Sundance & Butch’ just doesn’t sound right, does it?

One of the finest All-American Westerns, George Roy Hill’s film played fast and loose with historical accuracy, and yet, in the process, mythologised a pair of gunslingers that utterly deserved it.

Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack and Conrad Hall’s cinematography gelled perfectly with the film’s one-more-robbery theme — that lovely, beautifully shot Burt song, the song Bob Dylan refused to sing for the film, praise the Lord!

Meanwhile, Newman and Redford threw around razor-sharp repartee with irreverence, cheekiness and the kind of chemistry that ensured many, many repeat viewings.

’tis true what they said: you never met a pair like Butch and The Kid.

A disclaimer, from the author:

Phew, that was some ordeal. It was horrendous to create a list from such a dynamic decade in cinema, leaving out masterpieces in an ambitious rush to choose only the finest. Several personal favourites have been overlooked — Lolita, my favourite Kubrick film; The Birds, one of my favourite Hitchcock films; James Bond’s big-screen debut with Dr No and the excellent Goldfinger, not to mention From Russia With Love, the best in the franchise; Warren Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde; Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider; Peter Sellers becoming a comic sensation with the Pink Panther films and The Party; and space itself becoming sexier than ever with Barbarella.

For now, I’m going to rest and curl up with a Magnificent Seven DVD — the epic multistarrer being left out because it is, after all, a remake of The Seven Samurai. See what I meant about tough decisions? That’s it for this decade. Next week, we tackle the 70s.

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Originally published Rediff, October 8, 2008

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The best films of the Sixties

  1. Excellent summation of many of the greatest movies ever made and not just of the 60′s. Each of the movies you mentioned are Genre defining.

  2. Damn, I’ve only ever seen four of these (2001, Tiffany’s, Strangelove, SoM), and am very fuzzy on two of them. The problem with classic movies for me is that I know they’ll always be around, so I’m constantly choosing more obscure ones to see over them.

    It’s time to further my cinematic education.

  3. as i was reading it i had sensation that i read all this before. yes, last year i read the series on rediff. it is indeed a labour of love, the compilations of the best films of the decades. cheers. may be, my list would contain a few movies from here – Psycho definitely – and a few others; like for instance, My Fair Lady instead of the Sound of Music etc. but then how do you do this? do you glimpse through the entire list of the movies released in the 60s in imdb or something and jog your memory ticking off a long list of favorite films and them coming down to the short list? you think that is the ideal way to go about this business?

  4. rameshram

    SAFE PICKS! BOO!

    My top 10 sixties film

    English Language:

    1. Once upon a time in the west (leone,1963)
    2.To kill A Mockingbird (162 Mulligan)
    3.Spartacus, Kubrick 1960)
    4.Rosemary’s Baby(1968, polanski)
    5.Seance on a wet afternoon (1964,forbes)
    6. The wild bunch(1969,sam Peckinpah)
    7 Guess Who’s coming to dinner (1967 ,Kramer)
    8. The servant (losey,1963)
    9.Yellow Submarine (1968)
    10. Loneliness of the long distance runner (1960, richardson)

  5. rameshram

    Foreign language films: too many to pick

    but Antonioni, godard ,ray, kurosawa, bergman….you get the picture…

  6. Charlie Oakley

    You ask about “Psycho,” released in 1960: “Why black and white at a time when Hollywood had pretty much moved all its productions to all-colour?” [Which, by the way, is inaccurate.]

    Why did you not ask the same question about “Mockingbird” (released 2 years later or “Dr. Strangelove” (released 4 years later)?

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