Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1967

1967 is widely considered to be one of the great years in American cinema history – and looking at this top 10 list it is easy to see why. There is a great book called Pictures at a Revolution that details the making of the five best picture nominees that year, and the industry as a whole. The book was so good it saved me the trouble of having to see Doctor Doolittle!

10. Point Blank (John Boorman)
Lee Marvin really wanted to make Donald E. Westlake’s novel The Hunter into a movie, with him in the central role, so he convinced John Boorman to direct it – and it became one of the best films that either of these men were ever involved in. Marvin is great as a man who steals a large sum of money from a courier, but is double crossed by his partner who shots him, leaves him for dead, takes all the money and runs off with Marvin’s wife. This obviously doesn’t sit well with Marvin, who goes to get his money back and take revenge on everyone involved. This is one of the roles that Marvin will be remembered for – he is cold, calculating and moves like a shark – relentless in his pursuit of what he wants. He becomes a man so consumed by revenge that he loses himself somewhere along the way – even Angie Dickinson, as his sister in law who falls for him (after Marvin’s wife kills herself) is repulsed after they have sex by his coldness. Boorman’s direction is taut and intense as the plot continues to spin towards it ultimate conclusion – where of course, no one gets what they want.

9. In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
In the Heat of the Night looks rather tame in its depiction of race relations in the American South – but when you watch the film through the eyes of someone in 1967, the daring nature of the movie comes out. The film is about a small Mississippi town where a wealthy Chicago factory owner gets murdered, while down there planning the opening of his new factory. Police Chief Rod Steiger is under enormous pressure to solve the murder, and when he sees Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an outsider, but more importantly a black man, with a lot of cash, he immediately assumes that he is the killer. Proven wrong when it turns out that Tibbs is a respected Detective from Philadelphia, Steiger offers no apology, but Tibbs decides to stay and help solve the case. The details of the crime itself are rather mundane, but the real reason why the movie works is the depiction of this racist Southern town – almost everyone in it hates Tibbs simply because he is successful, black and refuses to back down from them (in the film’s most famous scene, he slaps a white man who slapped him first). Jewison’s direction is remarkable for the way it captures the atmosphere of the town – all the more remarkable since he shot most of the film in Illinois because they feared for Poitier’s safety if they shot in the South. In the Heat of the Night is a great film – but not because of the mystery that is seemingly at the heart of the film, but because of the characters.

8. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker)
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back is one of the greatest of all rock documentaries. It follows Bob Dylan on his infamous 1965 tour of England. During the film, Dylan has to deal with countless questions from reporters, and he seems to take a perverse joy is screwing with them. He at times can appear arrogant and unlikable, and yet at the same time, we realize that we are essentially watching a kid, who has had the weight of being the “voice of his generation” thrust upon him, and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. When asked stupid questions, he gives stupid answers – his humor fully on display right alongside that arrogance. The performances are great, the insight into the music business (care of its unflattering portrayal of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman) valuable, and the film catches Dylan at his most playful, yet most cynical. Yes, at times in the film Dylan seems to be a jackass (cruelly playing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” to Donovan, his English “equivalent” at the time), but how rare is it that we get a portrait like this of a true musical genius?

7. Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is just about the most impassive film about a contract killer that you will ever see. The main character is played by Alain Delon, who rarely says a word in the film, and remains utterly unreadable in practically every scene. He is hired to kill a nightclub manager, and in the films brilliant opening scenes, we watch as he prepares to do the job, set up alibis and commit the deed, all while barely saying a word and never betraying an emotional. As the film moves along, the plot becomes increasingly complex – both the cops and his former employers, who betrayed him, are after him, and he has to dodge them, and deal with the two very different women in his life. The film is brilliant because it doesn’t give us pointless action sequence, but instead just quietly builds the suspense from scene to scene, as it watches Delon on his journeys. Melville was a master filmmaker who specialized in films like this – his reputation is one that continues to grow as more and more people discover his films. Le Samourai is one of his best.

6. The Graduate (Mike Nichols)
Mike Nichols’ The Graduate is one of those movies that I think still speaks to kids fresh out of university. It spoke to me when I saw it in high school, and then again after I saw it when I got out of college. But it is also a film that I find my relationship changing with as a grow up – when I watched the film again recently, I found myself thinking that Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, a character I used to love, to be kind of an immature jackass. Yet amazingly, I think I may have liked the film even more. The film is about the just graduated Benjamin during the summer, when he starts to have an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but then ends up falling for her daughter (Katherine Ross). The film was a huge hit in 1967, with the younger generation thinking that the film represented them, and their rejection of their parent’s values and failings. But Mike Nichols gave the best answer imaginable when asked what happens to the couple after the movie ends – “They become their parents” was all he said. And he couldn’t have been more right. What looked to me in high school and college as a movie about two people finding their own way in life, looks to me now as being a movie about the same two people becoming trapped in the life they choose for themselves. The look of the faces of Hoffman and Ross as that bus drives away is masterful. And I guess I should mention this since I haven’t so far – the film is also absolutely hilarious.

5. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson’s Mouchette is one of the most relentlessly grim movies ever made. It is about a little girl who suffers and suffers and suffers at every turn in her life until she can simply not take it anymore. Her father is an abusive alcoholic, her mother is sick and bedridden, and so all the housework and childcare for her younger sibling falls on her – and yet nothing she does ever seems good enough. She is mocked at school by her classmates for her shabby clothes, humiliated by her teacher when she refuses to sing, then sings off key. There is one scene of joy in the film where Mouchette goes to carnival, and playfully flirts with a boy via bumper cars, but this is stopped by her father who slaps her before she can actually talk to him. Things get even worse for her when a poacher tries to use her as an alibi for a murder he thinks he has committed, and ends up doing far more damage to Mouchette when he rapes her, just hours before her mother dies. Still there is no compassion for her from her village as she is branded a slut. Young Nadine Nortier gives a remarkable performance as Mouchette – she does most of the acting with young, beautiful, wide open face as she bravely fights to keep going in every scene, right up until the end when the weight of it all is just too much for her. For Bresson, the film is one of his greatest achievements – a minimalist film that builds its power slowing, through observation before we get to the shattering climax. Mouchette is undeniably grim – but it reflects a part of humanity that is undeniable.

4. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel)
Two European masters made films in 1967 about a bored housewife turning to prostitution. Despite its reputation, I though Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her was an utterly pretentious mess of a movie (when the little boy talks about his dream of the twins that became one, and realizing that it represented North and South Vietnam reuniting, I knew I was in for a long slog). But Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour is one of his greatest films. Not as surrealistic as he is normally known for, Belle de Jour is an erotic film that understands its female character better than just about any other erotic movie I can think of – most of the time, it’s the men who are the most interesting characters, and the women are their playthings – this time it’s the reverse. Catherine Denueve gives one of her best performances as the prim and proper – not to mention gorgeous – young wife of a surgeon. The surgeon is attracted to her virtue, as is a family friend (the great Michael Piccolli), but for Denueve all this attention given to her because of this gets boring – she wants something else. So she works at a brothel a few afternoons a week. The erotic charge she gets is because the men she sleeps with there see her completely differently than everyone else she knows. She has her sexual fantasies (that Bunuel brilliantly plays out at times, and only hints at other times – what the hell is with the meowing cats? And what of that box that the potential John brings in?) and they control her more and more as the movie goes along. In a way, Belle de Jour is different from many of Bunuel’s other films because it lacks the surrealistic flourishes – and yet it does fall in line with what he thought as early as L’Age D’Or in 1930 – that people’s sexual fantasies are predestined early in life, and they are powerless to control them. Maybe because the story here is so strong – Denueve’s performance so assured – that Bunuel realized he didn’t need to do anything else with it. Belle de Jour is one of his greatest films – and considering his resume, that is saying a lot.

3. Playtime (Jacque Tati)
Jacques Tati is one of the great visual poets in cinema history. His films rarely contain much dialogue, and what is spoken doesn’t really matter. In Playtime, his greatest achievement, he gives us a tour of the modern city of Paris – all skyscrapers, vast workspaces, steel and glass. Yes, Tati’s famous character Mr. Hulot is in the film, but he isn’t more important than anyone else in the film – he’s just part of the crowd. The movie is full of magical moments – Hulot playing with his chair that makes funny sounds, a miraculous sequence where we observe, in a single unbroken shot, a man in one cubical phone a man in another for information, that the second man has to walk across the great expanse of space to right outside the first’s man cubicle to retrieve, then retreats to his own cubicle to call the man back (that probably sounds stupid, but watching the sequence is sublime. Not to mention scenes where windows reflect Paris landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Church of the Sacred Heart – but these are the only moments that the famed monuments of Paris are evident. The use of glass doors and walls in the film is consistently brilliant, and cause no end of confusion. The final long sequence involves the opening of a restaurant where everything goes wrong, but everyone has fun. Is there a point to anything in Playtime? I’m not sure there needs to be. Tati is sitting back and observing the crazy modern world he, and all of us, find ourselves living in and finds endless joy and whimsy. The film was the most expensive made in French history to that point, and when it wasn’t initially successful, it cost Tati everything. But all these years later what we are left with is a one of kind film that is simply masterful. There has never been a film like Playtime either before or since.

2. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks)
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is perhaps the greatest true crime book ever written. Despite what the Oscar winning 2005 film Capote tells you, he wasn’t just a vampiric parasite who took advantage of two killers – he in fact made two brutal murderers achingly human in his book. The amazing thing about Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Capote’s book is that it does the same thing. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson give perhaps the best performances of their careers as Perry Smith and Dick Hickock – the two ex-cons who never could have killed the Clutter family in Kansas after invading their home in the hopes of getting a supposed $10,000 he that Clutter keeps in his safe by themselves. Apart, they were little more than pathetic losers, with miserable childhoods and a history of petty crime. Together though, they became capable of killing for silly, stupid reasons. The film, and the book for that matter, is not an apology for the killers, but simply asks the viewer to see them as human, not purely as monsters. The controversy about the violence in the film is undeserved as the killing all take place off-screen. Conrad Hall’s brilliant black and white cinematography is justly legendary – the infamous shot of Blake on the night he is going to executed staring out the window, as the rain looks like tears on his face is legendary for a reason. That the film came out the same year as Bonnie and Clyde is somewhat fitting as they show two sides of the same coin. Bonnie and Clyde were portrayed as hero outlaws – young kids who were rebelling against the system. In Cold Blood portrays its pair as pathetic losers. This film isn’t as well known as that one – but it is nearly as good.

1. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde brought violence in the cinema to the masses. It certainly wasn’t the first film to be as staggeringly violent as this films infamous climax was, but it was the one that broke through to critics and audiences – the film that tied it all together. Warren Beatty was smart enough to see in the screenplay by two newcomers – Robert Benton and David Newman – he had the opportunity to bring European Art cinema into the American mainstream. I am happy that his plans to have either Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut make the film fell through – they would have made the film too idiosyncratic and clever. With Arthur Penn, he found a director that could match them stylistically, but also bring a distinctive Americaness to the film. Beatty is great as Clyde Barrow the small time outlaw who falls for Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway – equally great) the first time he sees her, and soon takes her on a cross country crime spree. The film explicitly links together sex and violence through Clyde’s impotency, and bravely mixes together humor and horror, often side by side in the same scene. The supporting cast including Gene Hackman as Clyde’s older brother, Estelle Parsons as his hysterical wife and Michael J. Pollard as the bored gas station attendant who joins them are all great. The entire film is a masterwork of style, but it is that final sequence – the final gun battle where Bonnie and Clyde get gunned down in a horrific hail of gunfire that marks Bonnie and Clyde as a true masterpiece. Bonnie and Clyde is one of the most important films of all time – because once it came along, nothing was ever the same again.

Just Missed The Top 10: Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki), Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg), The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich), El Dorado (Howard Hawks), Guess Whose Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer), The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitman), To Sir, With Love (James Clavell), Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard), .

Notable Films Missed: Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol), Doctor Doolittle (Richard Flesicher), The Firemen's Ball (Milos Forman), The Red and the White (Miklos Jansco), Terra em Transe (Glauber Rocha), Two for the Road (Stanley Donen), War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk), Wavelength (Michael Snow), The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: In the Heat of the Night
In the wonderful book Pictures at the Revolution, Mark Harris charts the changing dynamics of Hollywood by charting how the five best picture nominees from this year were made. Essentially, it becomes clear that In the Heat of the Night was a compromise choice – not as daring or as innovative as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate, not as conservative as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and not as out of control or old fashioned as Doctor Doolittle. Yes, I believe Bonnie and Clyde to be the best film of the year – but since when has the Academy given the Oscar to the most controversial film of the year? As far as compromises go, In the Heat of the Night is a damn good one.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Mike Nichols, The Graduate
The Graduate was just Mike Nichols second film as a director – and for it he received his second Best Director nomination, and his first win. The Graduate’s visual style was fresh and new at the time – at least to mainstream American audiences, who were unfamiliar with Nichols’ European influences. Giving Nichols this award was a way for the Academy to reward the new guard with a major award on Oscar night, without inviting the controversy that a win for Arthur Penn would have done. And considering the career that Nichols has had – a sporadically brilliant one – it’s hard to complain about this award.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night
Poor Sidney Poitier. He was the lead character in not one, but two, of the years best picture nominees, and yet watched his white co-stars get nominated, and one of them win while he got nothing. And yet, you can’t really blame the Academy for that – in both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier is saddled with the “perfect black guy” role that eventually wore him down, whereas Spencer Tracy, and especially Rod Steiger were given more complex roles. This was also a way to reward Steiger for his brilliant work in 1965’s The Pawnbroker, a film that was too controversial for him to win the best actor award, but one that I defy anyone to watch back to back with that year’s winner – Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou – and tell me Steiger didn’t deserve to win. He is excellent in this film, as the racist sheriff who learns a valuable lesson about tolerance. Yes, Warren Beatty was better – as was Dustin Hoffman – but I don’t have a problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
I know too many people, that even at the time of the film’s release Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner looked like an over sentimental, simplistic view at an interracial relationship – as you had the perfect Sidney Poitier – who plays a doctor who does charity work no less – falling in love with the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Yet, considering that many theaters in the South wouldn’t play the film at all, until it became a hit elsewhere, perhaps this was the film that needed to be made at this time. It wasn’t for the progressive youth of the moment – it was for their parents. Yes, I also wonder why Poiter’s perfect man would fall in love with Katharine Houghton – who is barely a character in the film, yet when I watch the film I am drawn in by the performances, the characters. Yet, I cannot help but wonder why they felt the need to give Hepburn an Oscar for her work, which is solid, but not spectacular. I mean, she already had an Oscar at home. Perhaps they felt this maybe their last chance to give her one – it wasn’t, she won two more Oscar, including one the following year – but next to Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway, this is a weak choice.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke
As the de facto leader of the prisoners, who at first beats Paul Newman’s Luke to a bloody pulp, but slowly comes to respect him, George Kennedy is quite good in the film. As the movie goes along, he becomes more a part of the story, and by the end he is reminiscing about his old friend Luke, even though their relationship became strained at several points. It’s a fine choice, in a really good movie (that I just didn’t have room for on my top ten list) – but considering that Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard were nominated for Bonnie and Clyde, not to mention John Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen (another film there just wasn’t room for), I think it should have gone elsewhere.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Estelle Parsons, Bonnie & Clyde
Estelle Parsons is a hoot in Bonnie and Clyde – providing some much needed comic relief in a movie that was violent much of the way through. She is the ever nagging wife of Gene Hackman’s character, who I will always remember running around like a chicken with her head caught off, screaming and waving a spatula during a raid on the gang. This was a wonderful performance, by a great actress who has continued to do great work (two summers ago, I saw her give an unbelievable great performance on Broadway in August, Osange County – so yes, she still has it).

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of “In Cold Blood,” I’m gratified to see you place that film so high on your list of top movies of 1967. I can only think it really irked writer-director Richard Brooks that his movie (his masterpiece, really) was passed over for a best picture nomination in favor of the awful “Doctor Doolittle.” In researching an upcoming book, “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks,” to come out in spring 2011, I found that Brooks devoted every bit of his considerable talents into turning Capote’s book into a nonfiction film as Capote had the murder story into a “nonfiction novel.” He avoided the typical Hollywood trappings – he said no when the studio wanted Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the leads, and he said no again when Columbia wanted the movie shot in color. By filming in the locations where the story had taken place (even the house where the family was murdered), Brooks gave it a documentary feel. Yet he also made it highly cinematic; one of my favorite scenes (if that’s the right word) takes place in a Mexican hotel room where Perry recalls his ugly family life as Dick beds a woman. It’s all without dialogue, the images and Quincy Jones’ music telling the sad story. Brooks made the movie as an anti-death penalty statement of sorts, but it certainly leaves one wondering what to do with broken human beings who go on to break others. – Douglass K. Daniel