Top Ten Tuesday: 1960s Films

Who doesn’t love a good list?

This week, as part of our new weekly feature Top Ten Tuesday, Chris Shortt begins his retrospective of the decades of modern cinema with his Top 10 films from the 1960s.

A decade typified by youthful exuberance and a rebellious verve, the 1960s mark a significant turning point in both film and in modern history at large. This juvenile alienation manifested itself in wider social movements – the Selma marches, anti-Vietnam protests – but also in popular culture, with the ‘stale establishment’ of the arts finally taken to task.

It’s for this reason that I’ve chosen the 1960s as a starting point for my upcoming retrospective on modern cinema. Beginning with the French New Wave and ending with New Hollywood, the 60s demonstrated firstly a subversion, and then an entire upheaval of the cinematic mainstream – birthing genres such as the Spaghetti Western (represented heavily in this list) whilst consolidating burgeoning ones like science fiction and the spy film. My list below – which is loosely in order – seeks to illustrate this eclecticism.

10. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

It’s often said that Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre truly begins in 1969, with 2001: A Space Odyssey. While that’s certainly true (as we’ll visit later on), I’d actually argue it’s with Dr. Strangelove that Kubrick broke free of studio constraints and finally delivered a work that was wholly reflective of his own inimitable creativity.

Made in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62, Kubrick’s sharp and prescient satire is, worryingly, as relevant in today’s political climate as it was over fifty years ago. Endlessly quotable, the film is perhaps best known for Peter Sellers’ absurd turn as the titular ex-Nazi doctor, Dr. Strangelove (though Sellers also plays the U.S. President and a British RAF officer to similar shrewdness).

9. The Ipcress File (1965)

A quintessential British espionage to rival the best of 007, The Ipcress File and its spectacled protagonist Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) gave UK audiences a working-class alternative to the Etonian Bond. Grittier and much less flashy than the 007 series, the film (which later spawned a few sequels) follows Palmer’s investigation into the disappearance of top British scientists – which brings him into conflict with enemies both inside and out of his own agency.

John Barry’s seminal score, indeed an integral part of James Bond‘s success, remains one of the most accomplished and iconic of all time – later pastiched in the title sequence for Dexter. More generally, the film has heavily inspired the more contemporary series of Austin Powers and Kingsman – both of which feature Caine, of course.

8. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Amidst the male chauvinist narratives of Godard et al, director Agnès Varda injected the French New Wave with a much-needed femininity in this existential film set in Paris.

A tranquil character study of alienation and self-worth, Varda perfectly captures the fast-paced nature of modern urban life, and the difficulties in reconciling beauty and narcissism with aimlessness and a search for meaning in one’s life – brilliantly expressed by the constant motif of mirrors.

7. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The first in his informal Once Upon a Time trilogy, Sergio Leone’s distinguished Western has become one of the most iconic in the genre. The scene above is a triumph of cinematic tension, and the rousing score from Ennio Morricone superbly encapsulates the grand scope of the film.

Henry Fonda’s usual ‘decent every-man’ routine was subverted here, as he was cast-against-type as the heinous Frank – whilst the plot concurrently follows the trio of Claudia Cardinale (), Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.

Note: currently showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a Sergio Leone retrospective.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean followed up his sublime war film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with another sprawling epic. This time set during the First World War, the film follows the titular D.H. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and his time spent in the Arabian Peninsula.

O’Toole gives a remarkable portrayal of a deeply conflicted Briton – newly liberated in his leadership of the Arab tribes, but nonetheless subordinate to the generals at home. In any case, among the impressive ensemble cast, it’s Omar Sharif (pictured with O’Toole above) who emerged the most significant take away from the film – so much so, that Lean subsequently cast him in the title role of his next film, Doctor Zhivago (1965).

5. Psycho (1960)

The proto-horror of modern cinema, it’s only appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho features here. Packed to the brim with symbolism, the film notably spawned a myriad of criticism in psychoanalysis – and despite many efforts, no film has really succeeded like Psycho did on this level.

Despite an illustrious career spanning back to the early-1920s, the film has nevertheless lived on as Hitchcock’s defining legacy (though, ironically, it also marks the start of what I’d argue was his demise).

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Still one of the finest trilogies in history, Sergio Leone’s Dollars series was fittingly rounded off in the most spectacular of ways. Set amid the backdrop of the American Civil War, the film follows the gritty power struggle between the three titular protagonists – Clint Eastwood’s principled ‘Man with No Name’, the cold-blooded Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and the slimy bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach) – in a bid to find a buried chest of Confederate gold.

Note: currently showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a Sergio Leone retrospective.

3. The Graduate (1967)

Kick-starting not only the career of Dustin Hoffman but the counterculture wave of New Hollywood entirely, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate has lost none of its charm in the fifty years since its release. It’s no surprise that another piercing take on the alienation of youth is featured in this list, and Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is a character as sincerely relatable as any that have followed.

Its much-celebrated Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack and infinitely quotable script aside, I’d like to think the true lasting power of The Graduate lies in that final shot – when, upon realising the magnitude of what they’ve actually done, Benjamin and Elaine’s euphoria over their act of rebellion is quickly extinguished. If that’s not a perfect rendering of the troubles of youth, I don’t know what is. 

2. For a Few Dollars More (1965)

The second instalment in the aforementioned Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More occupies the perfect middle-ground between the restrained, fundamental brilliance of A Fistful of Dollars and the sprawling colossus that was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s also the last Sergio Leone film on this list (I promise).

Pairing Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” with fellow bounty hunter Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), it’s this central partnership that distinguishes the film most significantly. And while we are always allied with the star in Eastwood, Van Cleef’s grieving pursuit of vengeance remains the driving force. Indeed, it also provides the emotional basis for what is Leone’s finest sequence (and Morricone’s finest composition).

Note: currently showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a Sergio Leone retrospective.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Could it be any other? Stanley Kubrick’s seminal voyage into science fiction turned 50 yesterday, yet it still occupies a leading position in demonstrating the possibilities of cinema: what stories it can tell, how they can be told, and what it can inspire in its wake. No film since has seemed to elicit the level of compositional precision that Kubrick managed to craft into the bones (pun intended) of 2001 – with the technological feats alone still rivalling that of today’s big-budget software and equipment.

In a film largely bereft of verbal dialogue, the soundtrack of 2001 is vital in communicating this story. Wholly aware of this, Kubrick magnificently employs both the thunderous classical pieces of Strauss et al, as well as the more avant-garde György Ligeti and his astral harmonising.

An appropriate finale for the 1960s retrospective, 2001 broke ground in its pushing of cinematic boundaries – a true birth of the modern age. Have we since struggled to reach the bar set by 2001? Perhaps the ’70s has something to say about that.