Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best American Films of 1962

We've reached the end of 2012, so it's high time for me to list my favorite American films from exactly fifty years ago. 1962 was one of the great years in American cinema, remembered by some as the finest since 1939 when works such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind were Hollywood's most celebrated productions. I'll let others argue as to which year was better, but take a look at the films listed below from 1962 - and remember that this is a list of American films from the year, so I'm not including Lawrence of Arabia, the Oscar winner for Best Picture from that year.

1) The Manchurian Candidate - directed by John Frankehheimer - One of two works from Frankenheimer on this list - The Manchurian Candidate, like most great films, stands up to repeated viewings; today the film is as relevant as ever. There are several subplots, each linked to the central theme of brainwashing, as Eleanor Shaw Iselin (brilliantly portrayed by Angela Lansbury) is the American leader of a plot to have her son Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Korean war hero, assassinate the leading candidate for President, so her husband, extremist Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) can become leader of the free world and, as one can imagine, lead America down a path of deceit and shame. The brainwashing sequence near the film's beginning where the soldiers have been told they are at a ladies' discussion of gardening, all the while being asked to kill their fellow combatants, is a masterfully directed scene, one that was undeniably chilling in 1962 and still has the power to shock today. A strong message of this film is that the main characters, especially Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra, rarely better) are haunted by their past; given the way that this story plays out, it is clear that they will be haunted for the rest of their lives.

2) To Kill a Mockingbird - directed by Robert Mulligan - One of the most famous and most moving of all American films, Mockingbird is, at its heart, a film about decency, a common theme for Mulligan. The brilliant screenplay, adapted by Horton Foote from Harper Lee's marvelous and wildly successful novel, is a model of efficiency and one filled with emotionally accurate dialogue. While the courtroom sequence in which lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role) defends an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman in the Deep South of the 1930s is the most well-known in the film, the scene in which Atticus' children come to his rescue as he is being taunted by his fellow citizens for defending a black man, is just as memorable and as beautifully played out. Especially noteworthy in this scene is how Atticus' young daughter Scout (Mary Badham in one of the greatest child performances ever recorded on film) recognizes the father of one of her classmates and asks, "Don't you remember me?... You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember?" It is this sort of emotional detail combined with Mulligan's sensitive direction and Elmer Bernstein's lyrical and heartfelt score that makes this a classic work of Americana.

3) Advise and Consent - directed by Otto Preminger - Otto Preminger's highly entertaining look at the inside workings of Washington, D.C. politics is a reminder of how little things have changed in our culture (with the exception of the politicians of fifty years ago being a little more polite!) The main story line deals with a nominee for Secretary of State named Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), who is both admired and hated by members of his own party; we follow the process of a congressional hearing and ultimately a Senate vote to learn whether he will be confirmed. Along the way, we marvel at the wonderful characters that populate this story, from the morally strong Majority Leader Robert Munson (Walter Pidgeon) to the cantakerous Seib Cooley, a Southern Democrat who likes to stir the pot to the less than scrupulous Fred Van Acekerman, who is out to see that Leffingwell is confirmed, no matter at what personal harm he may inflict along the way. Following box-office and critical successes with Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960), Preminger at this time was at a high point in his career; here the use of his camera, floating amidst the Senate chamber is something to marvel at, as is his direction of the final vote, both in terms of space and timing. The outstanding script is by Wendell Mayes, based on the best-selling novel from Allen Drury; Sam Leavitt's black and white photography is documentarian in nature and suits this subject beautifully. Superb ensemble acting as Preminger lets the performers have their moments; thankfully, he sees no need to super charge the film with odd or peculiar images, as the material is strong enough.

4) The Days of Wine and Roses - directed by Blake Edwards - Blake Edwards was most famous for his comedies, as with The Pink Panther films, but this drama is arguably his finest work. The story of how an agreeable businessman Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) falls heads over heels with an attractive secretary Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) and then turns her on to the lure of alcohol is a descent into hell. Both characters are devastated, but while he admits his problem, she does not. The final scene of the two of them together, as Joe tries to reason with Kirsten into returning to his life, is incredibly heartbreaking and this ending was surely one of the most downbeat in American films up to that time. Both performers are brilliant - Remick was never better - and the scene in the plant nursery where Joe frantically searches for a bottle of bourbon he placed somewhere, is unforgettable in its intensity; it's one of the finest moments for both actor and director. Charles Bickford gives a touching performance as Kirsten's father, another in a long line of great portrayals from this highly underrated performer. Some critics have complained that the troubles of the two main characters are somewhat exaggerated; their reasoning seems to be that instead of just becoming drunks, these two are world-class drunks, teetering on the edge of survival. But honestly, if these two individuals were not as affected as they are, would we really care about them? Would the film be as emotionally shattering? I think not.

5) The Miracle Worker - directed by Arthur Penn - Based on the William Gibson play about Anne Sullivan, the woman that taught Helen Keller how to speak and write, this is a highly absorbing film from Arthur Penn, who had sharpened his directorial teeth in television throughout much of the 1950s. Certainly that training explains his powerful staging of the film's most famous scene in which the two principals struggle with each other in a physical battle over table manners; this nine-minute scene is emotionally exhausting to experience. In many other scenes, simple gestures, such as forming an object with one's fingers, are powerful visuals and it's clear that Penn played up the emotional conflict of the two characters, as Keller strongly resists Sullivan's - or anyone's - search to get closer. Both Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller, repeating their stage performances, won Academy Awards. Penn's identity as a director who specialized in stories about the individual's inner demons was cemented with this film.

6) Birdman of Alcatraz - directed by John Frankenheimer - This story of inmate Robert Stroud and his groundbreaking work with birds during his decades in prison is a gripping and somber film from Frankenheimer, who directs with great ease and assuredness. While we watch first with great joy and then with sheer awe at how Stroud (Burt Lancaster) cares for the birds in his cel, the other storyline of his relationship with warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is just as absorbing, as Shoemaker hates the idea of a convicted murderer doing anything but prison time, while Stroud only wants to better his world. Everyone remembers the stunning performance of Lancaster, which is clearly among his finest, yet few recall the outstanding work of Malden, who is called upon as a strong combatant to Lancaster. While this film tends to drag a bit toward the end in the scenes of a prison riot, there are so many powerful and poignant moments - as when Stroud tells his wife that he cannot see her anymore - that carry this film to great heights. The stark black and white photography of Burnett Guffey is stunning, as we are given a bleak world of hopelessness. At its core, Birdman of Alcatraz is a tribute to the human spirit and the quality of never giving up, no matter how great the odds.

7) Freud (aka Freud: The Secret Passion) - directed by John Huston - John Huston specialized in films about characters who embarked on a far away adventure; with Freud, that journey is one that takes place within the human psyche. The film focuses on Freud's work with patients suffering from hysteria; at first he works with a colleague, Joseph Breuer, who believes in Freud's theories, while the second half of the film is about Freud's work on his own, especially his treatment of a young woman named Cecily (Susannah York). It is during conversations with her that Freud pieces together his principles of childhood sexuality and repression; this neatly culminates with him sorting out incidents from his own youth and how he reacted to his parents. This is a film that demands a great deal of attention from the audience; one doubts that today's filmgoers would sit through this sincere treatment of Freud's work. Huston's direction is intense, as he brings out the overt meanings of the various dream sequences in beautiful visuals. An excellent, brooding performance by Montgomery Clift as Freud is among the film's highlights as is the subtle, edgy score from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

8) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - directed by John Ford - While I don't find this film to be the classic that others do, there is much that I admire about this unusual Western, especially in the duality of its themes of law versus violence. The second half of this film, when attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) slowly introduces basic schooling and the principles of democracy to the small town of Shinbone, where guns were always the previous way of settling an argument, is especially strong. The performances throughout are excellent - I particularly love Edmond O'Brien's larger-than-life take as Dutton Peabody, the town's newspaper editor - and the scene late in the film when Tom Donovan (John Wayne) tells Stoddard, "you didn't kill Liberty Valance..." is one of Wayne's finest moments on screen. The line from the penultimate scene, "this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," is one of the most famous and devastatingly honest of any American film.

9) Lolita - directed by Stanley Kubrick - It's clear that this version of Vladimir Nabokov novel is not the film that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make - studio censors made certain of that - but this is still a notable work, one filled with great subtleties and marvelous irony. Nabokov adapted his own screenplay and contributed many moments of wonderful dialogue for the four main characters, each of whom is a fascinating, three-dimensional individual. There are some great sexual innuendos - the line about the "cherry pies" being the most famous, but my favorite quote is by Professor Humbert (James Mason) when he tells his wife Charlotte (Shelley Winters), "every game has its rules." It's wonderfully ironic at the time, but that line will carry greater weight as the story proceeds with its numerous encounters. Kubrick's direction is subdued and filled with a sharp eye for the droll humor in numerous sequences; his staging of the scene where Charlotte dances with Humbert in her home is supremely enacted and effortlessly carried out. Though a bit stretched at 152 minutes (the scene with Dr. Zemsh seems like a plot contrivance, while the final explanation of why Lolita left Humbert is rather straightforward in its exposition and not as clever as it should have been), overall, this is a fascinating film. First-rate performances by Mason, Winters (was she ever better?) and Sellers as well as exceptional dreamlike black and white photography by Oswald Morris.

10) Experiment in Terror - directed by Blake Edwards - Like John Frankenheimer, Blake Edwards also had a very successful 1962, most famously with The Days of Wine and Roses (#4, above), but also with this cleverly crafted thriller, which unfortunately is not as well known as it should be. Bank teller Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is grabbed by a crazed man named Red Lynch (Ross Martin) late at night in her garage and told she must abscond with $100,000 from the bank and hand it over to him; if she refuses, he will harm her younger sister Toby (Stefanie Powers). Kelly - as well as we the viewer - cannot see this man's face, so the only thing she can tell the FBI agent John Ripley (Glenn Ford) assigned to her case is that the man has asthmatic breathing; indeed we do not see this man's entire face for the first half of the film, adding to the tension. Edwards and his cinematographer Philip Lathrop create a world of light and shadow in which characters move from the relative safety of their brightly lit surroundings into the unknown dangers of the darkness. There is a constant theme of individuals being trapped in a structure, be it a bank teller's desk, a swimming pool (Toby is being watched there, unbeknownst to her) or within one's residence. Set in San Francisco, the opening and closing sequences - a late night drive across the Bay Bridge and a shootout at Candlestick Park - are eerie and beautifully shot. Henry Mancini contributed a wonderfully creepy score; his opening theme is one of the most spine-chilling ever composed for the cinema.

Honorable mention: Cape Fear (dir. J. Lee Thompson); Lonely are the Brave (dir. David Miller)


  1. Nice list, Tom. I've seen 6 of these 10 and your top 2 selections are well-chosen. Manchurian Candidate is just great, pure and simple. And as you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for Mockingbird despite some of my problems with Harper Lee's story; it's ultimately a great film thanks to the first-class performances and by Mulligan's crystal-clear direction. If there's ever a movie where "invisible" directing made all the difference, it's this one.

    I'd put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance higher. Love that one. Experiment in Terror is one that I own but haven't gotten around to watching it yet, though I've seen the other Edwards film on this list and it's of course a classic.

  2. Adam: Thanks for your comment; I'm always interested in your opinions on film. Glad you agree that MANCHURIAN is a great film. I never tire of watching it and am impressed with so much in the film, from the performances of Lansbury, Harvey and Sinatra to Frankenheimer's direction to the multi-dimensional and devastatingly honest script of Richard Condon and George Axelrod.

    I know that you are a big fan of Mulligan and yes, his direction here is very subtle and very focused. He really had a great talent and made even films with ordinary scripts quite watchable.

    Perhaps I am a bit tough on VALANCE, but for me, this is excellent work from Ford, as opposed to great work, such as MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or THEY WERE EXPENDABLE.