Hipsters, swingers, spies and easy riders: the 10 ultimate ’60s flicks
So here’s to you, Mrs Robinson: far from a tight fit, The Graduate, featuring Dustin Hoffman and his seductress Anne Bancroft, is certainly on the list – but which other nine make the grade?
No question, Western society and culture went through dramatic changes in the oh-so notorious decade that was the 1960s. And no more apparent does that become than by looking at the movies it produced. Many of its best flicks reflected the growing sense of self-awareness, hope, disappointment, social and sexual liberation, excitement and conflict throughout Anglo-American culture and beyond. And some arguably went further – by influencing the culture that produced them. So then, as will be the case in posts to come for movies from both the ’70s and the ’80s, this very post details the dectet of cinematic gems that, for me, make up the list of the ultimate exponents of ’60s cinema. Here then, peeps, in no order but chronological, is my 10 films that could only have come from the ’60s – watch out because they ping, they sting and, yes, they most certainly swing…
CLICK on the film titles for video clips
So, as the opening flick on this list, what’s so special about the curiously named À Bout de Souffle? Well, it’s all about the French Nouvelle Vague or ‘New Wave’ film movement. Born out of the youthful exuberance and turmoil of the time, Nouvelle Vague was an artistic commitment to do the unexpected and different; to excite and stun. Not only did this flick do that with bells on, it also proved to be the one that broke the movement out of the Continent and into the UK and US – it was the film that turned Nouvelle Vague into ‘New Wave’. Filmed on the utter cheap by the now total legend but then debut filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, the movie was chopped down to its 90-minute running-time thanks to spontaneously created jump-cuts (cutting scenes halfway through). Further revolutionary touches contributed to its bold, highly visual, documentary-like style, ensuring that – to name just three and all of them ’60s classics – Tom Jones (1963’s Best Picture Oscar winner), A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Monkees-starring Head (1968) owed much of their look, feel, atmosphere and, well, entire point of being made to its cinematic advances. Moreover, ‘New Wave’ would influence and inspire filmmakers for years to come – well beyond the ’60s – as its techniques became assimilated into the mainstream language of cinema. Admittedly, to watch it, on one level À Bout de Souffle seems merely a French low-budget Hollywood noir take-off, but its title translates as ‘at breath’s end’ – that pretty much says it all.
Let’s face it, you can’t get much more ’60s than a Sean Connery Bond film – and Goldfinger has to be the most ’60s of them all. The huge success of the first two 007 film adaptations Dr No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) may have paved the way, but it was this flick that established not just Bond, but ‘Bond And Beyond’ in ’60s – and wider – culture. In the wake of its unavoidable impact at the box-office ($125 million worldwide – that’s around $900 million in today’s money), Goldfinger unleashed ‘spy mania’ throughout the ’60s. On the box there were The Avengers (1961-69), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) and The Prisoner (1967-68), while at the flicks there were Our Man Flint (1966), Modesty Blaise (1966) and, in something of a retaliatory move, the oh-so obvious anti-Bond The Ipcress File (1965). And it all comes down to the iconography. Goldfinger simply was the coolest thing since James Dean died in a racing car. Both its look (all sleek, fantastical sets and smooth, sexy Aston Martins) and its sound (Shirley Bassey booming out the bombastic theme and John Barry‘s brassy score) ooze sophistication, sex, danger and aspiration. Both the UK and US consumer booms coincided in the ’60s and Bond – preserving Western capital as he did each escapade – was at their heart, an ice-cube in human form wearing a white tuxedo and flashing a killer smile as he sold an incredible, impossible lifestyle. Every man wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him. They still do – thanks most of all to this very film.
Ah, the Swinging Sixties. That short but irresistible era when the most fashionable of Britain’s youthful movers and shakers ensured that, back-slappingly, London was at the centre of the cultural universe. There were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Mini, the mini-skirt, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, the 1966 World Cup win and the Union Jack emblazoned all over the shop and – seemingly – all over every shop. And there were also the movies. For every few breezy, switched-on Brit rom-coms like Georgy Girl (1966) or All Around The Mulberry Bush (1968), there was a real work of art that deconstructed the whole shebang – and the next three entries on the list are all prime examples of the latter. The first, Darling, is remembered as the launchpad for Julie Christie‘s magnificent yet enigmatic career (she won an Oscar for her terrific performance from it, beating herself in the same category for her turn in Doctor Zhivago, in fact), but the actual film itself oddly tends to be overlooked nowadays. Perhaps because it’s so close to the knuckle. Like with his later – and even more critically successful – Midnight Cowboy (1969), US director John Schlesinger concocted a caustic, bleak, cynical and all too honest account of the dark heart at the centre of a seductive dream a major city was selling, as Christie’s opportunistic model-on-the-make achieves all her materialistic dreams but finds little inner emotional satisfaction. Like Henry Cooper, Blighty’s most popular sportsman that decade, Darling pulls absolutely no punches – and is an absolutely essential ’60s movie.
If Darling demystified the Swinging Sixties using a female protagonist, Alfie did exactly the same from a male perspective. Adapted from Bill (Cider With Rosie) Naughton’s stage-play, it’s an unapologetic, unfiltered exposé of one man’s exploitation of the sudden social, economic and sexual liberation the ’60s brought to Britain – and, ultimately, the consequences that neither advertising nor pop music of the time would ever admit unchecked carefree, philanderous behaviour wrought. An intelligent and informed part-‘kitchen sink’, part-sardonic sideswipe of a drama then, Alfie connected hugely with both the public and the critics; both groups adored Michael Caine for his triumphant ‘fourth wall’-breaking performance as the Cockney-about-town whose swagger is challenged and then some (following the success of The Ipcress File the year before, it was this flick that cemented Caine as a cast-iron star, as well as bringing him his first Oscar nomination). It also fuelled a storm, adding flames to the fire that was the debate of what an ever increasing liberal society was turning the country into. Away from all the clever stuff, though, a viewing of Alfie offers the viewer not just the sight of one Maurice Micklewhite on top form, but also of ’60s golden girls Jane Asher (then girlfriend of Paul McCartney), Eleanor Bron, Milicent Martin (from TV satire ice-breaker That Was The Week That Was) and Shirley Anne Field. Moreover, its unforgettable title song, composed by the incomparable Burt Bacharach, launched the career of Cilla Black. Short of a cameo from Bobby Moore, there simply ain’t stronger Swinging Sixties credentials than that.
While both Darling and Alfie are arty takes on fashionable ’60s Britain, neither of them go the whole hog like Blow-Up – for this is Swinging Sixties cinema as art-house. Helmed by idiosyncratic Italian fimmaker Michelangelo Antonioni (who once accepted an Oscar with a single word: ‘Grazie‘), it brazenly shuns the sunny, optimistic feel of many Brit flicks of the period, instead embracing the darkness, confusion and nihilism prevalent of some. It’s a flick that primarily focuses on the notion of perception and reality, specifically with regards to an incident witnessed by its protagonist, a free-wheeling young photographer, which he suspects may have been a murder. So arty is Blow-Up, though, that one’s not entirely sure whether the perception/ reality theme extends to Antonioni wilfully lifting the lid on the Swinging Sixties or not; however, he had intended the main character – blatantly based on David Bailey and brought to life brilliantly by an oh-so cool David Hemmings – to be played by… David Bailey. Had that come off, well, that certainly would have played about with the real and the imagined of the era. The critics loved Blow-Up; it won the Grand Prix at Cannes and Antonioni was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay at the Oscars. Although, predictably, not received by the mass public as well as, say, Alfie, it was an immediate sensation among cineastes and those with their fingers on the cultural pulse – unsurprising given that it also featured early performances by ’60s icons Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, a nude appearance by fashion model Veruschka and music from jazz great Herbie Hancock and The Yardbirds (which ensured band members Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck made cameos). For all this, and its Soho and Chelsea filming locations, Blow-Up is an eclectic and essential artefact of Swinging Sixties art.
For more on Blow-Up, read my thoughts on its classic poster and this excellent blog post: http://doubleonothing.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/blowup-antonionis-seminal-60s-film-is-no-let-down/
The Graduate (1967)
Time to cross the pond now for an indubitable, unforgettable slice of ’60s cinema created by our American cousins. And what a slice – indeed, one may argue that The Graduate is such a great movie of the decade in question, it pretty much takes the entire cake. One of the biggest box-office hits of the ’60s (currently standing 19th on the inflation-adjusted list of all-time grossers in the US alone), it saw – perhaps predictably – students queue around the block to catch its tale of a young man confounded by and dissatisfied with the adult world into which he’s grown and for which his parents’ generation are seemingly responsible, so much so that he embarks on an affair with the wife (the eponymous Mrs Robinson) of his dad’s business partner, only later to fall fortuitously for her daughter. A work of satirical genius, The Graduate‘s sure-footed, caustic and – for the time – frank script and outstanding performances from its lead players (Anne Bancroft in an iconic role, Katharine Ross on charming, winning form and Dustin Hoffman in a star-making turn) is superbly complimented by a sometimes gritty and discombobulating visual style that owes a huge amount to ‘New Wave’ techniques. Jump-cuts, close-ups, zoom-outs, unconventional camera angles and millisecond-long flashes (one of Mrs Robinson’s naked breast – blink and you’ll literally miss it) are all employed by director Mike Nichols to underscore the film’s atmosphere of confusion, angst and agitation. The effect makes for an unusual but outstanding film, whose themes, ideas and, indeed, ending are still being debated to this day. Add into the mix a slew of timeless (and perfectly fitting) Simon & Garfunkel folk rock hits and you’ve got an unquestionably ’60s movie, but one so good and – like Goldfinger – rightly so revered, it transcends the decade of its creation.
By 1968, the Swinging Sixties were arguably over and hippiedom was being overtaken by youths rioting in the face of slow civil change and war in Vietnam. Plus, lest we forget, this year too saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The ’60s then were suddenly, almost nightmarishly, giving way to angry confrontation and violence – and boy does If…. deliver that message. Instead of detailing youth revolt in an existential, comic manner like The Graduate, it goes for the jugular; the young ‘uns in If…. go properly rotten and rebel in far more tangible, physical and – ultimately – violent ways. A Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, If…. is a difficult watch. Many moments challenge the viewer’s tastes, ethics and morals; the sight of intelligent teenagers who buck a cruel, despotic private school system being humiliatingly caned for their efforts may disgust one, but the sight of the same teenagers waging guerilla warfare on that system come the film’s end (yes, really) must surely leave one wondering uncomfortably where their sympathies should now lie. Of course, this movie, working up as it does to that extraordinary finish, is an unashamed, unremitting parable of the society of the day – and the dangers its maker (counter-culturalist Lindsay Anderson) maybe feared were being fermented. But its arty – and, to be specific, surrealist – credentials aren’t just to be found in that bombastic finale. Equally surreal and intriguing is a black-and-white sequence in which protagonist Malcolm McDowell (who would go on to play a somewhat similar rebel in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange) indulges in a sort of wildcat foreplay with a girlfriend-to-be, a sequence that foreshadows the animalistic conclusion. However, the thing that’s always pleased me most about If… is the presence of Captain Mainwaring himself, Arthur Lowe, in the cast – who’d predict that? After all, this is about as far away from Dad’s Army‘s cosy back-slapping of old-school British class and social institutions as you can get. The late ’60s, eh? They were strange days, indeed.
Read about If…‘s excellent poster-art here
Yellow Submarine (1968)
Can you really compile a list of the ultimate ’60s films without a Beatles movie on it? Well, all right, I may be biased as a big Fabs fan, but I don’t think so. However, I’m not going to take the easy option and plump for A Hard Day’s Night (1964) or even for its sequel of sorts Help! (1966); nopes, I’m going for the animated one, the one that was ‘for kids’, the one that doesn’t even feature The Beatles – well not until the very end, at least. Over the years, Yellow Submarine has become regarded as a real curate’s egg, even forgotten or disregarded by many casual film fans, but hey bull-y dog for them. For this flick is a rarefied gem of ’60s psychedelic art. Sure, it’s fair to say that as a ground-breaking pop musical (many of whose sequences prefigured the MTV-era video) and as colourful Swinging Sixties hokum, respectively, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1966) are time capsules of their eras, but neither quite go as far as Yellow Submarine. For, to watch this movie, it seems to sum up, nay define, the drug-influenced, fantastical diversions and affectations of the mid- to late ’60s. The fact it’s animated goes along way to ensuring this. Seemingly taking its look from Peter Blake’s historic album cover for The Fabs’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), it’s filled with a cornucopia of colourful characters (the Blue Meanies, Jeremy Hilary Boob PhD/ Nowhere Man and, of course, The Beatles themselves) and a slew of supremely surreal settings and sequences (Pepperland, the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science and the Sea of Monsters – the last of which features a vacuum cleaner monster). A box-office hit on release – especially with, yes, kids, turned-on teenagers and students – and a critical success too, Yellow Submarine not only delighted the mainstream, but also advanced animation techniques (the opening of Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series owes much to it) and may just have been The Beatles’ favourite flick in which they appeared – now that’s what you call a recommendation.
Read a full review of Yellow Submarine by yours truly here
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Now, I’ll freely admit that Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice isn’t the best film on this list, but, peeps, this is a movie that’s so ’60s it aches. One may argue that Hollywood caught up with and addressed the decade’s snowball-like growing counter-culture rather belatedly – The Graduate only came in 1967 and Barbarella the following year. And in the decade’s final year, Tinseltown finally got around to addressing a small but growing trend among American (often West Coast) married couples eager to experiment in increasingly socially liberal times – namely, swinging or, to give its more chauvinistic but popular moniker back then, wife-swapping. Swinging, of course, would become more widespread in the ’70s (how widespread it genuinely did become then is open to question though, of course), but there’s no doubt that in the late ’60s among couples like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice it was taking place – and, for once, when it came to the counter-culture Hollywood was on the button here. And like with other filmmakers on this list, director-screenwriter Paul Mazursky wasn’t sure he really like the issue he’d made his film about. His two couples are well-to-do 30-somethings with everything to lose if they sleep with each others’ partner, rather than teenagers exploring and pushing back the boundaries of social and ethical mores and because of that, cannily and pleasingly, hilarity ensues. Bob & Carol & Ted Alice then is a comedy, treating its subject matter as a ‘what if’ scenario rather than as social documentary in the manner of, say, Alfie or Darling, but despite – or perhaps because of – this softer approach it made a big splash with both the public and the critics and made stars of Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon (both of whom received Oscar nominations for their efforts). Nowadays this film may seem a little tame, a little twee even, but for mainstream audiences of the time this was placing the ’60s under the microscope and examining them minutely – or at as minutely as they were willing to for an entertaining Saturday night out at the flicks.
Easy Rider (1969)
Unlike this list’s immediately preceding movie, its final flick has absolutely no interest in holding anything back as it presents an uncompromising view of the counter-culture that had spread across 1960s America. Easy Rider is as legendary as any movie you could name from that decade; indeed, perhaps more so than any other. For many, it will always be the ultimate ’60s film – and for good reason. Director Dennis Hopper and producer Peter – son of Henry and brother of Jane – Fonda (who together are credited as co-writers, despite much of it being ad-libbed on location) conceived the flick as a sort of modern-day western. Two societal drop-outs, one named Wyatt (as in Wyatt Earp), the other Billy (as in Billy The Kid), go looking for America on their hogs only to discover a confused, disconnected, disillusioned and ultimately violent land. What is Easy Rider about? Does it ask what has become of America? Does it ask what has become of the hippie movement? Does it ask where the hell are we all going? Or doesn’t it ask any real questions and is just a counter-culturalist road movie through the great open spaces of the United States? Well, the answers to those questions probably depend on your reading of it. What’s undeniable, though, is that once seen, it’s a movie that’s never forgotten and, thanks to its tone, style, music (Steppenwolf, The Byrds and Hendrix) and public impact, has become unconditionally wrapped up in the whole fabric of the 1960s. Moreover, like The Graduate before it, its wilful adoption of ‘New Wave’ techniques and – more so than the latter – its success as an avant-garde flick connecting with the mainstream, as well as its featuring of Jack Nicholson in his break-through role, ensured Easy Rider helped pave the way for the ‘New Hollywood’ era of the 1970s, when young, hungry filmmakers would take US cinema to new, exciting subjects, destinations and highs. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, peeps – all that’s for a future blog post…
Five more to check out…
The Ipcress File (1965)
As mentioned above, the essential – and entirely intended – anti-Bond, with Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer a bespectacled alternative to 007
What’s New Pussycat? (1965)
Swinging Sixties rom-com romp-and-a-half scripted by Woody Allen and starring, er, Woody Allen, as well as the Peters O’Toole and Sellers, plus a gaggle of gorgeous girls
Jane Fonda is a sensational sex-kitten in Roger Vadim’s saucy, psychedelic space romp
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s über-ambitious, sci-fi ‘head film’, featuring a finale that has to be the ultimate trip – indeed, on some posters that very term was the tagline
The Italian Job (1969)
Michael Caine again, alongside Noël Coward, Benny Hill and red, white and blue (i.e. Union Jack-coloured) Mini Coopers, in the most swinging heist comedy imaginable – plus that ultimate cliffhanger ending
… And five great flicks about the ’60s
Warren Beatty tries to juggle affairs with both Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn as Nixon’s ’68 election success looms large in the background
Phil Daniels dons his parka and rides his Vespa to Mod oblivion to the sound of The Who
Myth and conspiracy theories collide with reality, as Kevin Costner investigates the assassination of America’s beloved President
The sequel may contain the parody of Blow-Up‘s famous photoshoot sequence (sse above), but Mike Myers’ original ’60s spy movie spoof is the smarter, better and funnier flick
The Dreamers (2003)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s take on the May ’68 Paris riots, with lashings of nudity, sex and an irresistible Eva Green