Film History 101 (Part 8): A Violent Walk on the Wild Side

As we have seen, the 1960s was a transitional decade for Hollywood as it was overcome by a new wave of youth-oriented pictures.  As such, it began to feature an ever expanding variety of new styles, themes, and story lines.  Among them were some key films which acted as benchmarks for the future development of cinema as an art form.   In fact, the 1960s was the first decade to feature movies that stylistically began to resemble what we accept as mass entertainment today.

One of the most influential of these was Bonnie and Clyde.  Directed by Arthur Penn, and released in 1967, it was one of the first major films to feature sympathetic bad guys.  As played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde may have been thieves and murderers, but you actually rooted for them in their run from the law.  This  totally ran against the movie storytelling conventions that had been in place since the Production Code of the 1930s.

But unique characterizations weren’t what really put “Bonnie and Clyde” on the map.   It was its depiction of outlandish violence.  Up to that point in cinema history, whenever someone was shot, they would normally clutch their chest, utter a few ironic words, and fall down.   For countless westerns, war movies, and gangster flicks, this was the accepted drill.   But “Bonnie and Clyde” broke the mold.  The final scene would become famous for how the two main characters met their maker via a hail of gunfire.    Alternating between slow motion and real time, the audience was forced to watch the carnage with unprecedented detail.  Squibs, spurts of simulated blood, and bodies jerking from the effect of being hit with hundreds of bullets was up on the screen for all to see.

But this was nothing compared to what came a mere two years later.  In 1969, The Wild Bunch was released by Warner Brothers.  As directed by Sam Peckinpah, it was a Western set in Mexico in 1913 and featured a gang of men in the twilight of their careers as lawbreakers.  It was framed by two extraordinary action sequences, one at the beginning of the film, and one at the end (Yes.. just like Saving Private Ryan).

Peckinpah was a talented man with a brutal disposition.   He once claimed he couldn’t direct a film properly while sober.  For him, being drunk and abusing his body was part of the creative process.   He would regularly work 24 hours a day until he was physically unable to continue.  Many of those who worked with him on The Wild Bunch claimed he almost died on at least two occasions while filming.   Sexist, devoid of sentiment, but with a heightened sense of honor, Peckinpah was what we today would could call an extreme “man’s man.”   In addition, he saw violence as an integral part of life.   He viewed film as an elevated art form, and attempted to infuse  projects with his own unique aesthetic.

For The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah took screen violence to an unprecedented level.   The sequence which ends the film involved a massive shoot-out  between our protagonists and a large contingent of  renegade Mexican soldiers.  The Wild Bunch intentionally enters the fight as part of a suicide mission, with the sole purpose of validating their existence by killing as many people as possible.   For nearly 10 minutes the action doesn’t let up, as dozens upon dozens of men are mowed down by machine guns and other firearms.   To this day, it’s hard to think of a film with such a high body count presented in such detail.

But the movie  is also important to film history for another reason.   To film these scenes of carnage, Peckinpah would employ six cameras shooting simultaneously.  Each would use a different frame rate.   Many of the most spectacular shots were shown in extreme slow motion.  But others would be inter-cut with various angles shot at different speeds.   The result was a major contribution to film cutting as its own type of art form.   Peckinpah and his editing team found that they could “extend” or “condense” time at will, by matching different angles to the same action.  By slowing down or speeding up the sequence and inter-cutting it, they could make it last as long or as short as they wanted, regardless of how long it took in real time.  And most importantly, they could do this without disorienting the viewer.

The final film was a triumph.   Film critics hailed it as a modern masterpiece, and its influence on the film industry was felt almost immediately.   But audiences were initially shocked.   They had never seen anything even close to this.   An in-your-face and up close look at death.  It was the opening volley in a new category of cinematic aesthetic.   And while it doesn’t have a formal name, we’ll call it stylized violence.      And it’s effects are still very much in evidence.   The Matrix, Kill Bill, 300, Goodfellas, Die Hard, Total Recall, Shoot em Up, The Transporter, True Lies, The Evil Dead Trilogy, and hundreds other movies  feature scenes of shocking violence, sometimes in complete contradiction to the laws of physics.      Martin Scorcese, George Romero, Sam Raimi, Luc Besson, Paul Verhoeven, Wes Craven, John Woo, Zack Snyder, Stuart Gorden, Quentin Tarantino…these are the names of just a small percentage of contemporary directors which rely on stylized violence to tell their stories.   In fact, you’d be hard pressed to go to any cineplex without finding at least one action or horror film that doesn’t rely on exaggerated violence to deliver it’s brand of entertainment.   And it all started with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch”.

But these weren’t the only noteworthy films released in the 1960s.   In fact, the decade can easily hold its own with the rest of Film History in the number of great films it produced.   So many, in fact, that it would be impractical to list them all.   Here, then,  is a partial list of some of our favorites.   They cover a wide range of genres. Many of them you’re no doubt already heard of, but hopefully there’s a few you may not have seen:

Jason and the Argonauts. Generally considered the crowning achievement of Ray Harryhausen’s career as a stop-motion animator.   For those not familiar with stop motion, it requires taking a model and moving it in the smallest of increments, taking a picture, and then repeating the process….24 times in order to get a single second of film.    “Jason” contains five special effects sequences, all of them an amazing display of the art form.   But the real show-stopper comes at the end when Jason and his crew do battle with an army of animated skeletons.   This one sequence took Harryhausen over six months to create.   The amount of concentration required to simultaneously animate that many skeletons is truly mind-boggling.   (The phone rings, or you answer the door…now where was I?   Was that one skeleton’s arm moving forward, or backward?).   But beyond being a showcase for Harryhausen’s talents, Jason is also literate, fun, and entertaining to watch.   In the early 1990s, Tom Hanks presented Ray Harryhausen with an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to motion pictures.  In handing out the award, Hanks said “Some people claim that “Citizen Kane” is the greatest picture ever made.   But they’re wrong.   That title belongs to “Jason and the Argonauts.”    He may have only been half kidding.    Other worthwhile Harryhausen films from the 60s include  Mysterious Island, One Million Years B.C., The First Men in the Moon, and The Valley of Gwangi.

Psycho. One of Hitchcock’s most famous masterpieces,  Psycho remains required viewing in film history, for all sorts of reasons.   At the pinnacle of his career, Hitchcock was able to put the darkest of visions on the screen in a way that challenged audiences to expect more from the movies.  We could probably do an entire blog post on this one film alone. (And if you stay tuned, we will…).   You start off thinking you’re watching a crime caper starring Janet Leigh.   But you’re not even half way through the film before Ms. Leigh takes that unfortunate shower.   After she’s dispatched via a shocking lesson in the power of montage editing,  the audience is left with no one but this odd person named Norman Bates to relate to.  You’re then put in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with him, even though you know he’s mixed up in murder.   Of course, we all know the real secret that Norman hides.   But Hitchcock toys with us and give us clues throughout the film.   Watch Norman before every scene you supposedly hear or see “Mother.”.   He un-mistakeably does something to show his feminine side or dual sexuality.  In retrospect, some of the bits are so shocking, we can’t describe them in a family blog.   But trust us, they’re there.  Also, notice all the constant references to birds throughout the film.  “Psycho”  is one of those movies which you can watch a dozen times and still find hidden tricks.  It was also the first film to prohibit seating mid-way through theater showings.  And one more piece of  “Psycho” trivia:  It was the first film in Hollywood history to show a toilet onscreen.

The Birds. After “Psycho,”  Hitchcock’s only other bona fide horror film.  Full of memorable scenes, it still has the power to give you goosebumps…and outright scare you out of your pants.  Everyone remembers the graphic bird attacks, but the film is also about emotional isolation and how human relationships are often not as perfect as the movies would have us believe.

Bullitt. Starring Steve McQueen,  a Ford Mustang, and what is generally considered to be the greatest car chase ever put on film.  Originally, Bullitt was supposed to star Spencer Tracy as an older, sedate detective who liked ice cream cones.  When Tracy unexpectedly died during pre-production, it was decided to give the film a much edgier tone.  Film history was then made when an auto chase became the centerpiece of the movie.   Running some 9 minutes long, with no music, and a (literal) slam bang ending, this incredible sequence is still required viewing for Film History 101.

Doctor Zhivago. Our favorite David Lean spectacle.   Lawrence of Arabia may rank higher on some people’s list, but we prefer “Zhivago”  for its story of doomed love played out against the Russian Revolution.    Full of unforgettable visuals (shot mostly in Spain), it’s simply a beautiful film.   Plus, we like the music too. (We’ll have a separate post on each film in the future…).

The Flim Flam Man.  George C. Scott plays an aging confidence man in the South who takes on a new protege to teach him the ropes.   Simultaneously funny, insightful, and entertaining, the film manages to teach the viewer a thing or two about the true nature of greed.  There’s also a very amusing car chase.

Where Eagles Dare. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play commandos who infiltrate a Nazi occupied fortress high in the Austrian Alps.  Supremely entertaining, it’s full of  intrigue, left turns, and great action sequences.   Our favorite highlight is a vicious fight between Burton and two Nazi double-agents on top of a moving gondola car high in the mountains.   We can also recommend The Guns of Navarone as another top-notch WWII action flick from the same time period.

The Apartment. Billy Wilder’s Oscar winner for Best Picture in 1960.  Jack Lemmon plays an everyman who’s forced to loan his apartment to his heel of a boss so the latter can carry on extramarital affairs.   A perfect combination of drama, comedy, corporate politics, and romance.  It also offers an wonderful lesson on the subject of integrity.

From Russia With Love. Before James Bond became an action figure who did battle with cartoon villains, he starred in some very entertaining movies that at least had some pretense of reality.   Dr. No and Goldfinger are two of the best, and well worth your time.  (We actually like all the Bond films, but just feel the earlier ones were cut from a different cloth).   However, for our list, we’re going with “From Russia With Love”.   Perhaps because it’s the leanest of all the Bond films, and the one where the villains are more than a match for the good guys.  Cold, calculating, and ruthless, and with a well thought out plan, they’re out in front of Bond every step of the way.  When Robert Shaw describe what fate they have in store for Bond on the Orient Express, that’s real sweat you see on his normally unflappable face.   Followed, of course, by one of Hollywood”s greatest fight scenes.   Bond trivia:   Which Bond movie from the 1960s made the most money?   Answer:  Thunderball, which is generally considered the worst of the lot.

Rosemary’s Baby. Mia Farrow gives birth to the spawn of Satan.  But why is this film so riveting to watch?   It’s all talk, with no action, and we never do get to see Junior.   Credit Roman Polanski, who directs his movies based on the accumulation of detail.  In the process, you find yourself sucked into Rosemary’s world, and actually feel the paranoia that she experiences as the impossible becomes more and more real.  Ruth Gordon is a major treat as the intrusive neighbor.  We can also recommend Repulsion as another  superb Polanski film from the 60s that draws its power from psychological horror.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Everything’s big in one of the best large-sized comedies in cinema history.  Every notable film comic in the world at the time had at least a small role in this tale greed, materialism, and a race to find $350,000.  (Just remember, it’s under a big “W”).   Director Stanley Kramer said his aim was to make the ultimate screen comedy.   He might not have succeeded, but it’s close enough for us.

Judgment at Nuremberg. Another Stanley Kramer film that’s a total change of pace from the last.   This one is an extremely thought-provoking work that explores guilt, responsibility, and how things aren’t always black and white, even when it comes to the most heinous of crimes.  A long film, the ending is still hard to forget as the conflict between emotion, reason, and the law is resolved in an unexpected way.  The acting and cast (Spencer Tracy, Maximillian Schell, Montgomery Cliff, and Burt Lancaster et al) are all superb.

The Great Race. Blake Edward’s ode to old style slapstick comedy as Tony Curtis (The Great Leslie) races Jack Lemmon (the evil Professor Fate) from New York to Paris circa 1908.  When Professor Fate actually wins the race at the end, he refuses to accept the prize because he feels The Great Leslie “let” him cross the finish line first without cheating.   He then launches into a diatribe on behalf of all those who feel they never measure up.  Professor Fate may be the “bad guy”, but at least he has integrity.  The movie is pure fun through and through.  It also features Hollywood’s all time biggest pie fight.

The Masque of the Red Death. Vincent Price shines as an evil prince who sells his soul to the devil during the middle ages.  As a result, his castle remains a sanctuary from the ravages of the plague, while the populace outside dies in droves.  Meanwhile,  Price and his guests engage in all types of decadence and debauchery.  That is, until the dark prince comes to collect what he’s owed. The film’s cinematography makes extensive use of color in an extraordinary way.   As such, it’s a rare film that succeeds both as an entertaining horror movie and a work of art.  And with a haunting ending to boot.  Another Poe adaptation in the 1960s  from AIP (American International Pictures) and director Roger Corman which we’re a fan of is The Pit and the Pendulum.  (Especially the final 5 minutes).

The Bedford Incident. An often overlooked Cold War gem.   Richard Widmark plays a no nonsense captain of a U.S. destroyer tasked with shadowing a Soviet sub.  With an ending that will make your jaw drop.

Once Upon a Time in the West. After making a trio of “Spaghetti Westerns” with Clint Eastwood,  Sergio Leone tried to make THE definitive movie for the genre.  This movie is unique in that prior to ever writing a script, the production team first composed all the music.  All of the characters were given their own theme, along with several other scores for different moods in the movie.  Then they wrote the script to match the music.   Sounds odd, but the result is one of the most operatic and beautiful Westerns ever made.  The plot isn’t exactly swift of foot, and there’s a strong reliance on extreme close-ups, but the evocative music makes it all flow together as a major cinematic experience.  Full of incredible visuals, the final film showcases Leone’s keen eye for masterful compositions.  And oh yeah, it also features Henry Fonda playing against type as the blackest of villains.

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead, and Olivia De Haviland all play it to the hilt in this tale of evil in the South.  There’s plenty of murder and mayhem to go around, but what sets this film apart is its heart.  It shows how some people can be made to suffer their entire lives for mistakes they never even made.  The ending in particular is extremely moving.

Night of the Living Dead. It’s hard to believe now how ground breaking this film originally was.   Cannibalism, matricide, and the most shocking of endings…for movie audiences in the 1960s it was like watching a living nightmare that kept getting worse.   It’s also one of those rare films where the low production values actually increase your sense of terror.  Once considered the ultimate in horror, it can now be shown on regular  TV with nary a cut.  But it became just as influential in its own way in the horror genre as “Psycho.”   You can blame (or praise) it for the midnight movie phenomenon of the 1970s, as well as the horde of zombie movies that continue to haunt your local cineplex.

Zulu. The actual Zulu tribe in South Africa play themselves in this rousing adventure about a completely outnumbered British outpost under attack.  An engaging action flick with multiple battle scenes that play on your nerves.  Also Michael Caine’s film debut.

Dr. Strangelove/Fail Safe. A great double feature about the flip sides of a possible nuclear holocaust: dark comedy, and it’s horrifying reality.  In their own respective manners, both films were way ahead of their time.

Planet of the Apes. Part adventure yarn, part science fiction, and part allegory – the film has lots of elements that anyone who’s ever tried to “reason” with the system can relate to.  The ape makeup is still a marvel after 40 years. It also contains one of the greatest twist endings in Hollywood history (courtesy of scriptwriter Rod Serling, of  “The Twilight Zone” fame).

The Battle of Algiers.   The first “historical film” done in a documentary style.   As such, its “you are there” approach has been imitated by virtually every film that has followed.

The Alamo.  Not a great film at all, but the final battle is still spectacular and worth your time.

Manos: the Hands of Fate. Not so much a recommendation, just an honorable mention as a prime contender for the worst film ever made.  Unbelievably bad acting and long stretches where nothing at all happens has earned Manos a place in the Hollywood Hall of Shame.  It’s also one of the  most popular episodes on Mystery Science Theater 3000.    The producer and director of this mess made a bet in a bar that he could make a movie without any prior movie-making experience.   He won the bet.  But the viewing public paid the price.   BTW:  Manos means “hands” in Spanish.  So, the correct title of the film should be:  “Hands:  The Hands of Fate.”

Hopefully, you’ll fare better with some of these other recommended films from the 1960s:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  Elmer Gantry, The Endless Summer,  The Great Escape,   The Haunting,  Hud,  The Hustler,  The Longest Day, The Magnificent Seven,  The Manchurian Candidate,  A Man for All Seasons,  Midnight Cowboy,  The Misfits,  The Nutty Professor,  Oliver!,  Point Blank,  Seven Days in May, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Time Machine, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Train,  2001: A Space Odyssey,  Wait Until Dark, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, and You Only Live Twice.

As the 1960’s drew to a close, a new chapter in filmmaking was beginning to dawn.   One where the filmmakers were the ones calling the shots, and not the studio execs.   As a result, the first part of the 1970s would see a renaissance in the number of quality films being produced.  In fact, some today claim the decade might just be the all time best in terms of great moviemaking.  Its output even included one film in particular that after “Citizen Kane” is generally considered to be the second greatest American film ever made.   (Some might even argue that it’s THE best).   That’s next in Film History 101.



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