May 16, 2020
6 FROM THE ‘60s BLOGATHON
My selected films all have lasting appeal. My main justification for including them. One may be compelled to watch any of these films to its completion, despite where one enters. Admittedly, the lone low-budget film, “Blast of Silence,” will play much better if one starts at the beginning. My thanks to Classic Film and TV Café (linked above) for hosting this blogathon. There is no bigger cheerleader of the movie genre than “Rick’s Café,” the one not in Casablanca. In sequential order by release date:
Blast of Silence (1961)
This quirky film, in all its stark simplicity, is singularly in its own category. Even the title is a dichotomy. Allen Baron produced, directed and stars in this dark film about a contract killer. It packs a wallop unlike the other five. His oddball approach suggests a university student allowed the artistic freedom to do whatever he wants. Baron blows his classmates away and gets that "A" grade. With essentially no budget. Filmed during a frigid Christmastime in New York City, Baron stares straight ahead, not aware of any decorated storefronts as real-life pedestrians—unaware they are being filmed—appear as “extras.” The periodic low camera positioning or the shadowy goodness may remind one of an expressive art film. Rarely has location shooting looked so expensive. The viewer follows a lonely, emotionally damaged and disgusted hitman by way of Mel Davenport’s narration, done distinctively by the wood-chipper voice of Lionel Stander. The voice-over is the defining element of this film, serving as an assessment of Baron’s pessimistic life. This is probably the cheapest, most expensive-looking film to begin the Sixties.
The Great Escape (1963)
This famous American war film produced and directed by John Sturges, is perhaps the quintessential “buddy movie” with a cast so popular, the entertainment value belies its nearly three-hour length. Unforgettable is Elmer Bernstein’s score with a rather quirky opening theme with dominant tubas that seems to contradict the seriousness of war. Casting American actors as prisoners is perhaps it's only flaw—deviating from the historical account in Paul Brickhill’s novel. But considering their charisma—many nearing the peak of international stardom—the entertainment value is undeniably high and accounts for its endearment. Filmed in Panavision, it is embedded with characters that were long-remembered after leaving the theater. Few could forget the likes of The Cooler King, The Scrounger, Big-X, The Tunnel King, The Forger, and The Manufacturer. The viewer is instantly rooting for them. A conglomeration of several nationalities—all likable chaps—work in concert for a common cause. The humor is measured and appropriate as an escape is planned almost immediately. Enjoy Garner scrounging up material, McQueen swashbuckling on a motorcycle with Bernstein’s driving score, the claustrophobic Bronson digging the tunnels or Coburn escaping simply by bicycle.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Nostalgia can enhance a film. While favorite moments may change with subsequent viewings, this epic still affects the funny bone thanks to Stanley Kramer’s fast-paced, action-filled direction, a good script, wacky automobile chases, a slap-stick ending with a comedy troupe of historic proportions. The all-star cast only rivaled by a non-stop list of cameos by seasoned actors and actresses. The film re-appropriated the term epic, previously defined in “Spartacus.” It also required an intermission. But funny it was not. The sheer scope of this frenetic, silly romp will have your senses worn to a frazzle by the end. One must mention Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett trying to fly a chartered plane after their alcoholic pilot knocks himself out. Through panic attacks and pulling enough “Gs” to render them unconscious, they remain cautiously optimistic. Then there is this. After double-crossing Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers is also interested in that buried cash under the big “W.” He puts his trust in a local boy who suggests a shortcut over the steepest, rockiest terrain imaginable for a 1948 Ford only to end up in a river that submerges his convertible.
What a Christmas present for anyone with tickets to this film’s premiere. They certainly got their money's worth, what with a suspense thriller, romance and comedy all rolled exquisitely into one. This film will have one smiling for nearly all of its hour and thirteen minutes. Henry Mancini's theme song accompanied by Maurice Binder’s animated titles open the film. If one is not enchanted by then, the first scene at the ski lodge will certainly do it. The repartee between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn sets the stage for a non-stop who-done-it that is indelibly linked to them. The latter having serious trust issues. One might fantasize that their screen time together was shot in one take. This globetrotting caper will have the senses immersed in the stylish Paris cinematography, interesting characters, moody lighting, plot twists and humorous one-liners. Foretelling his future trademark sardonic delivery, Walter Matthau’s introductory scenes are perfect and he is deceptively likable. There are two FBI agents with questionable tactics, George Kennedy with his metal hand providing some menacing humor and James Coburn as the terrifically named Tex Panthollow. A timeless classic.
The Train (1964)
In contrast to the likes of “The Longest Day,” this American war film centers on a small faction during the late stages of World War Two. The top-notch screenplay about looted French art treasures by the Germans, pits two single-focused individuals, one trying to run a train, the other trying to stop it. Directed by John Frankenheimer, an early master of complicated continuous scenes, it is superbly filmed in black and white, accompanied by an unobtrusive score. The unique camera work, location filming and the realism of actual railroad operations make for a captivating story. It is another tour-de-force for Burt Lancaster, despite his lack of a French accent. His character’s commitment to stop a German train with its unrelenting dangers and obstacles embodies the term “hero.” It also provides an opportunity for Lancaster to showcase his athleticism. This astonishingly well-crafted film also stars Paul Scofield as a German officer determined to possess the ill-gotten artwork. The arrogant Colonel’s self-obsession blinds him from inevitable defeat. Finally, Jeanne Moreau has a pivotal role as a French sympathizer, initially surmising Lancaster’s “personal vendetta” would endanger her countrymen. Enthralling throughout.
Appropriate praise has been placed on the ground-breaking chase scene within this film. Amazing considering its brief screen time, but the film seems made up of gravitating brief moments. Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy “cat and mouse” score to set up the chase—as well as his main theme—carries just as much impact. Beyond this presumed “car guy film,” Steve McQueen is at his apex in a role perfectly suited for his subtleties. One particular scene has Bullitt returning to the hotel where a contract killing took place. There is no dialogue. No music. Only the sound of highway traffic coming through an open window. Contemplating how the murder could have happened, his minute expressions, eye movement and body language make this seemingly dull scene very powerful. Another defining element concerns his co-star, Robert Vaughn, in a hospital communication station. Foretelling the tension coming in the famous chase, the two characters come to terms. They do not like each other. Bullitt’s tolerance reaches its peak with the self-aggrandizing Chalmers. “You work your side of the street, I’ll work mine.” It is a beautiful “un-acted” scene, making it overwhelmingly realistic. A quality that sums up the entire film.