Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1960s

The following twenty films from the 1960s are included in the top 100 on the Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time:

  • Black Girl (1965, Ousmane Sembène) (=95)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone) (=95)
  • The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) (=90)
  • Pierrot le fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) (=85)
  • L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) (=72)
  • La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker) (=67)
  • Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) (=67)
  • La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini) (=60)
  • Le Mépris (1963, Jean-Luc Godard) (=54)
  • The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) (=54)
  • The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo) (=45)
  • À Bout de Souffle (1960, Jean-Luc Godard) (=38)
  • Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) (=31)
  • (1963, Federico Fellini) (=31)
  • Daisies (1966, Věra Chytilová) (=28)
  • Au Hazard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson) (=25)
  • Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) (23)
  • Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) (18)
  • Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda) (14)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) (6)

Let us focus for a moment on those films from 1960. What a line-up! Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’Avventura are landmark European films that changed everything. They were both greeted with frosty receptions from audiences at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but went on to be placed by many as the most important films of all time. Why? Well, because the controversy that surrounded them was based around a new form of narrative and cinematic language. It meant that the traditional structures of film were being threatened, the powers-that-be did not like that, and audiences were a little uncertain and nervous perhaps. But none of that mattered because the structures were already being dismantled with the rise of the Nouvelle Vague and films like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean Luc-Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. Fellini and Antonioni, though not part of this movement, were embracing the change and leading the charge in the rest of Europe, while across the water other more familiar names were also taking heed.

Alfred Hitchcock created a veritable shock-and-awe, game-changing, post-modern horror with Psycho (even though in reality, he only tweaked a few things from his usual box of tricks), and Billy Wilder, who had been knocking on the door of change with increasing risqué material in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot, created a serious romantic comedy about prostitution, casual sexual affairs, and suicide in the un-bettered The Apartment. These two films are continually described as controversial, even though at the time of their release, they were celebrated by audiences, critics and award judges alike. The content was so new and different in 1960 that it became the norm to raise the bar with every new release.

By the end of the sixties, cinema was irreversibly altered to be a freer medium for communicating all manner of ideas, messages, protest, political opinion, art, and entertainment. Marked by ‘Beatle-mania’, pop culture had become a thing. In film, variety and independence became more obvious and the whole world was embracing it. The big screen gave us crime thrillers (Point Blank), existential dramas (Woman in the Dunes), kitchen-sink dramas (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), psycho-dramas (Seconds), psycho-thrillers (The Manchurian Candidate), psycho-horrors (Rosemary’s Baby), psycho horror-thrillers (Peeping Tom), zombie horrors (Night of the Living Dead), period drama-horrors (Onibaba), screwball comedies (The Nutty Professor), satirical comedies (Putney Swope), musical comedies (A Hard Day’s Night), musicals (West Side Story), historical epics (The Fall of the Roman Empire), war epics (Lawrence of Arabia), war adventures (The Great Escape), adventure Westerns (The Magnificent Seven), modern Westerns (Hud), revisionist Westerns (Lonely are the Brave), Spaghetti Westerns (The Great Silence), martial arts movies (Come Drink with Me), science-fiction (Planet of the Apes), documentaries (Mondo Cane), sexploitation movies (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), avant-garde (Alphaville), underground (Scorpio Rising), and franchises (the Bond films or the Pink Panther films). Quality in cinematography, lighting, editing, writing, acting, score-making, and directing all soared in these genres. Intelligent, thought-provoking, and experimental films continued to come from countries like France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Great Britain, and the US at an expedient rate, and equally exciting cinematic new waves were seen in Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and India, not forgetting the odd gem to come from Africa, Central America, South America and The Middle East as well.

Cinema flourished and creativity thrived from the mid-1960s right into the late 1970s. It was the greatest period for film-making hands down. Nothing has come close to this since. It all started with those fantastic movies from 1960, and the list above provides a glimpse of many others that followed throughout the decade. And here are five more that I think belong on that list too:

The Shop on Main Street (1965, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos)

The one thing that really strikes me about the many amazing pictures from the Czech New Wave is the presence of humour underlying unspeakable horror. Closely Watched Trains, The Fireman’s Ball, and this work of genius by Kadár and Klos, The Shop on Main Street, are all set during either the Nazi occupation or the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but have unmistakable comedic undertones. This speaks to the wonderful flair and freedom explored by Czech and Slovak directors during the 1960s (although many of the films were banned). Although some may question the taste in all of this, I think what makes it work is that there is never a disrespect shown to the people who suffered under those atrocities. I believe the films are attempting to be accessible to a wider audience, while simultaneously offering a frank and tragic look at what took place during those times. The Shop on Main Street succeeds in doing exactly that.

Kadár explained that he was not interested in making an epic about the extermination of the Jews during World War II, but rather recalled the experiences and fates of his own Jewish family (many who died) to capture a snapshot of the war on a familiar, local level. His film is set in a small Slovak town, which is undergoing an ‘Aryanization’ process under the Nazi-controlled Slovak State Government, whereby Jewish-owned businesses are being taken over by approved non-Jewish people. Tono is one of those, as he is selected to acquire and run a sewing shop from an old Jewish woman. The woman is quite deaf and given her closed-in nature, she has no idea about the war raging outside, and so Tono, who is an indecisive, sympathetic and fearful man, struggles to get the message through to her. There can only be some hilarity in a situation like this and the co-directors navigate the inevitable comedy and heightening seriousness expertly. The film ends in heart-rending tragedy, but there is also a glimmer of hope and humanity that doubtlessly stems from the optimistic feelings of the directors at the time the film was made.

Repulsion (1965, Roman Polanski)

The legacy of Polanski rightly continues to be tarnished by his lack of reckoning around his child rape case in the US in 1977, but I believe his directorial work, especially prior to that year, maintains deserved recognition. Having survived the Holocaust in his native Poland, he began his film career with Knife in the Water before moving to France and then onto England, where he made his first globally-acclaimed hit, Repulsion. A slick and disturbing psychological horror, the film remarkably contrasts a ‘swinging sixties’ setting with an increasingly sinister and claustrophobic vibe. It is a film that was unlike any other at the time, and established a whole new boutique of fresh, bold mainstream horror films that had cinematic purpose (the classic Rosemary’s Baby followed in 1968).

Catherine Deneuve provides a stunning avant-garde performance as a beautiful young Belgian woman, lately arrived in London, caught in a disintegrating psychological spiral. It is never clear what sets this off (and many analysis of the film have speculated), but there is enough hints to suggest that Deneuve’s character is disapproving of male suitors and fearful of sex in general. Her neurosis embodies the latter half of the film, which Polanski endows with extraordinary experimental visual effects – the hands coming through the walls being one of the many unforgettable examples. Polanski, who struggled to revisit this level of worthy feminist perspective again, possibly achieved his greatest feat in this, one of his earliest pictures. With effective use of sound, score, acting and special effects, it stands as one of the cornerstones of modern horror.

Le Samouraï (1967, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s scintillating neo-noir crime thriller takes on the vibes of the Nouvelle Vague but instigates a new notion of coolness in itself. So much so that it provided much inspiration for many subsequent ‘lone wolf’-style crime thrillers in the proceeding decades. Melville’s original is as fresh and effective as these types of films can be, even though it does borrow a lot from earlier Hollywood noir. It allows Alain Delon, by then a French icon, free range to establish a mysterious and enigmatic presence on the streets of Paris as a code-driven hoodlum-for-hire. Described as a ‘beautiful destructive angel of the dark street’ by film critic David Thomson, Delon encaptivates the audience with his lack of dialogue, his cold, detached expression, and his ferocious confidence. Whereas Delon’s obvious, unspoken charm draws us in, Melville’s impressive direction steers us around every Parisian street corner, whether by day or by night, with precision and class. His attention to detail is second-to-none.

The story has a web of complexity that makes it hard to summarise, but in short it follows Delon’s steely ‘Samourai’ as he takes on a routine hit-job that starts to go awry when his establishment of an alibi doesn’t exactly work out the way he planned. But such is the confidence of this man that the web always spins back into his control, making it a satisfied, but ambivalent treatise about crime and honour. As one would expect, the film is entirely from a male perspective and there is a masculine dominance to everything that goes with it, but unlike the Bond movies of the time, women are not objectified nor is the main character a womaniser or a misogynist. Not that this is a shining endorsement, but I guess it makes this film less of a chore for the modern viewer. And it more than makes up for it’s shortcomings with an impressive array of film craft on show.

Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

None of the films in the Sight and Sound Top 100 above have Paul Newman or Steve McQueen in them. Notwithstanding that this list is more about the film than the actor, I still think this is a travesty – but let’s change that! Newman was already on his way to superstar status by 1967 with acclaimed performances in The Hustler, Hud and Hombre, but Cool Hand Luke catapulted him into the stratosphere. And for good reason. There is no doubt that the film does everything it can to hone in on the hypnotic natural traits of the man, but he does deal out a top-class acting performance here. And there are other great things about the film too: the supporting roles from George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper and Jo Van Fleet; the rollicking prison escape story; the anti-establishment slant; the Christ-like personification; the sun-drenched cinematography by Conrad Hall; and the folks-y score by Lalo Schifrin.

Cool Hand Luke is one of those endlessly watchable and quotable films – ‘what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.’ Yes, it does have those eye-roll moments: the cartoonish scene where Joy Harmon gets all booby and sudsy while washing a car in front of the lip-smacking and sweat-induced prison inmates is the sort of family-friendly, female objectification that became more common in Hollywood from that point forwards. And the film has gone on to become a common favourite film among men (certainly those who remember when it came out), not that that is something to hold against it. It reminds one of a Johnny Cash ode to downtrodden men – those who have resorted to petty crime but now must face years of hardship working in a Prison Camp, some seeking a road to redemption along the way. Newman, with his endless charisma (and good looks to keep the ladies watching), personified the struggle like no one else could. He was one of a kind…

Bullitt (1968, Peter Yates)

Steve McQueen was one of a kind too. Quentin Tarantino dedicates a whole chapter to Bullitt in his recent, and thoroughly enjoyable, series of essays about the history of cinema, Cinema Speculation. As only Tarantino could, he obsesses over the creation of this film, of its production, of its great scenes, of its utter uniqueness, and of its enigmatic and untouchable qualities of its star. I don’t always agree with Tarantino, but I do agree with him on Bullitt. It is a magnificent crime drama, and one ponders whether William Friedkin and Gene Hackman would have ever given us The French Connection or Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood given us Dirty Harry if it hadn’t have been for Peter Yates’ seminal classic.

We never really know what the purpose of Bullitt is, but it’s style is so superimposed on the viewer that it doesn’t really matter. It is one of those unique experiences where the substance is there if you look closely for it, but it’s not imperative because the film is so goddam cool. There are many films like it from the time – The Italian Job, Point Blank, Madigan, Bonnie and Clyde – but Bullitt stands out more because Steve McQueen reaches peak Steve McQueen and that is truly a special thing. According to Tarantino, McQueen was always aware of what he needed to be on screen and carefully selected scripts to allow that persona to flourish. He never acted like Brando, Beatty or even Newman. He just ensured the camera was on him, and the viewer’s eyes were affixed. He never won any awards unsurprisingly, but in Bullitt he gave us the desired effect that his character demanded. The film also has Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset at their best, while director Peter Yates and cinematographer William A. Fraker gave us the greatest city-location setting of all time with San Francisco standing in as a hugely effective background character. And then there’s ‘that’ green Ford Mustang GT, and ‘that’ famous car chase scene. Pulsating stuff.

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