Testament of Orpheus (1960)
The final film in Jean Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy is a rumination on the nature of reality, Cocteau’s way of asking if his work and life mattered.
He plays a fictionalized version of himself and encounters characters from his previous films before he’s forced to appear in front a tribunal where he must defend his life and art.
Cocteau is not as well-known as later French filmmakers, Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, but his films introduced avant garde sensibilities and philosophical underpinnings into cinemas. There had been earlier attempts (particularly by the Dadaists and the Surrealists), but Cocteau was the most successful at combining them with a format recognizable to moviegoers. His films are artistic essays, but they work as films because Cocteau respected the medium on its terms. While Dali made surreal films, Cocteau made films which included surreal and philosophical elements.
Cocteau’s career spanned both World Wars and cast a shadow over the artistic and intellectual life of France for nearly half a century. His circle of friends and acquaintances included Edith Piaf, Coco Chanel, and Marlene Dietrich. Pablo Picasso and Yul Brunner make cameos in this film. In addition to directing, he wrote novels, poetry, and librettos for Stravinsky operas.
Cocteau is a towering figure in the development of film. You can see his influences in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Christopher Nolan. He deserves more widespread recognition.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Inspired by the Judges’ Trial, a part of the larger military tribunals after World War II used to hold surviving members of the German ruling class responsible for the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime, this movie explores the culpability of every day German citizens in Nazi atrocities. Were the judges who carried out sentences according to Nazi law wrong to do so?
Spencer Tracy is Chief Judge Dan Haywood who’s committed to a fair trial, despite pressure by the US government to go easy on the Germans so they would support US policies in the Cold War.
Burt Lancaster is Dr. Ernst Janning, a world-renowned jurist and the primary defendant in this particular tribunal. The role could have easily been played as a villain, but Lancaster shrewdly plays him as a victim, and somehow manages to make a man who helped carry out Nazi orders sympathetic.
Marlene Dietrich is Frau Bertolt, a widow of a German general executed by the Allies. She provides a context for understanding how Germans allowed the Nazis such power.
Judy Garland is Irene Hoffman, a reluctant witness against the Germans who’s torn between loyalty to her native country, a sense of what is right, and fear of retaliation for her testimony. Garland is excellent and once again proves she was more than a big and powerful voice.
Montgomery Clift is Rudolph Peterson, a witness for the prosecution who was forcibly sterilized by the Nazis. Clift’s life was tragically cut short and his filmography is slighter than you might expect, but he, along with Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized the naturalistic approach to acting still en vogue today.
Surprisingly in this all-star cast, the highlight is Maximilian Schell as German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. Rolfe gives impassioned and logical pleas justifying leniency for the German judges, painting a picture of a helpless situation: the Germans were downtrodden after WWI, eugenics was at one time widely practiced, other countries had given legitimacy to the Nazis, and so on. Schell has an unenviable task; he has to argue for the indefensible and make us momentarily believe what we know can’t be true, what every fiber of our being teaches is wrong. Miraculously, he succeeds, and was rewarded with an Oscar for his effort.
The cast also includes a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and Werner Klemperer who would achieve greater fame playing a decidedly different Nazi: Colonel Klink.
The movie made a bold decision to show actual footage from the Russian liberation of concentration camps. It’s one thing to see fictional representations of the horror of the Holocaust, but when you realize those are actual people, actual victims, it makes every Holocaust film since seem trite in comparison.
This movie doesn’t justify the actions of men like Janning, but it does ask if we’re sure we would do something different and ends with a powerful reminder of the duty each of us has to ensure justice is carried out. The convicted Janning argues since he never intended for so many innocents to be slaughtered he shouldn’t be held accountable. Haywood retorts, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” Failure to do what you know to be right is a tacit endorsement of what you know to be wrong.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
US Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) comes to Shinbone to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Once he arrives in town, a local reporter asks the senator why he traveled so far to pay respects to such an insignificant person.
As explanation, Stoddard tells the story of when he first moved to Shinbone as an idealistic attorney and ran afoul of outlaw Liberty Valance. The pacifist Stoddard was unwilling to use violence to combat Valance, despite the protests of local ranchers, including Tom Doniphon.
Stoddard believed in the power of strong ideals, while Doniphon believed it was important to project strength, fighting violence with violence. In addition to their opposing worldviews, Stoddard and Doniphon pursued the affection of the same girl, Hattie (Vera Miles).
Eventually, Stoddard and Valance confronted each other in a shootout and Valance was murdered. The fame which accompanied killing such a notorious outlaw propelled Stoddard to a storied political career, but in reality Doniphon killed Valance to protect Stoddard, because he realized Hattie loved him. Stoddard may have been right to eschew violence, but he owes Doniphon his life.
Despite their lengthy and iconic careers, this was the first film to feature John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
The popular image of John Wayne is a larger than life crusader, always on the side of the good guys, but in many of his most beloved films such as Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956), Wayne played a corrupt or semi-corrupt pragmatist motivated by self-interest.
Jimmy Stewart’s image has likewise been whitewashed by nostalgia. We think of him as representative of a certain attitude and era, wholesome and clean-cut. While this is certainly true in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his later work in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and The Anatomy of a Murder (1960) was much more complex and ambiguous.
In addition to Wayne and Stewart, the film features a bevy of character actors famous for their parts in Western films: Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, and Lee van Cleef, and Liberty Valance was masterfully played by Lee Marvin who radiated warmth even when playing such an evil character. We hate Valance, but we’re captivated by him.
In an ironic twist, one of the chief 20th century progenitors of the mythology of the American West, John Ford, directed one of the first and best deconstructions of popular misconceptions about the era. Without this movie, later “revisionist” Westerns such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) would not exist.
Winter Light (1963)
This is the second part of Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual trilogy which included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).
After serving in the Spanish Civil War, pastor Tomas Ericsson was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the atrocities he witnessed. His faith since has been a perfunctory show; a job, not a calling.
He’s confronted by his former lover Marta who still has feelings for him and cannot understand why he doesn’t reciprocate them. His parishioner Jonas (played by Bergman regular Max von Sydow) is filled with dread after learning China has tested a nuclear bomb. When Tomas is unable to adequately assuage his concerns, Jonas commits suicide.
The movie offers a challenging, pessimistic view of traditional Christian morality, but ends with a glimmer of hope. Tomas refuses to cancel his afternoon service despite only one person showing up, suggesting even a tiny amount of faith deserves our respect and attention.
Bergman is one of the most philosophical filmmakers who makes deeply personal films which explore unanswerable questions and the inner workings of the soul.
I am Cuba (1964)
Mikhail Kalatoz’s 1964 film about life in Cuba during the Castro revolution was financed as communist propaganda, but immediately suppressed by dissatisfied Soviet and Cuban officials; it was unknown in the western world until 1995, twenty years after Kalatoz died.
Split into four separate stories joined only by a female narrator known as the “Voice of Cuba,” the film offers a dizzying view of Cuban life during the Revolution.
In the first story, Maria works as a dancer in a Havana bar frequented by rich Americans and lives an idyllic existence with her fruitseller boyfriend, Rene, until one morning when Rene comes home to find an American businessman dressing, cavalierly tossing money at Maria on his way out.
In the second story, Pedro’s landlord has sold out to a conglomerate. When Pedro is told he will have to leave his home, he burns the land and inadvertently dies of smoke inhalation.
In the third story, student protestors clash with police and one of the demonstrators is killed. In a transcendent scene, the camera follows the coffin of the martyred protestor through the streets.
In the final story, a small farmer is reluctant to join the revolution, but changes his mind after witnessing the violence forced upon his homeland.
Putting aside its obvious politics, this is a beautiful film. Of course it’s a little too sympathetic to the communist cause, but watching it demonstrates why communism and the promises of socialism were so appealing to the people of Cuba. If this is the life they lived; no wonder they were willing to embrace a philosophy which promised equality.
A Thousand Clowns (1965)
Murray Burns (Jason Robards), an unemployed writer raising the son of his deceased sister, is a delightful iconoclast who doesn’t think work should be all-consuming. He believes people only find identity in their jobs to distract them from more important questions.
Robards is hysterical; it’s a shame he spent so much of his career in serious theater (particularly the works of sourpuss Eugene O’Neill).
Martin Balsam is most famous as Milton Argobast in Psycho (1960), but he won an Oscar as Burns’s more pragmatic brother and the dialogue between the two of them is a master class in the real world effects of unchecked idealism.
I love this movie because it somehow maintains the energy of the zaniest scene of the Marx Bothers career through an entire film.
No one wants to work. We’d all rather pursue those things which interest us, but as Arnold Burns reminds us, if everyone followed this philosophy, there’d be a lot of hungry people.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
George (Richard Burton), an associate history professor, is married to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the college president.
Martha invites a new professor at the college, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for some late night drinks where George and Martha proceed to engage in a series of humiliating “games” in front of their guests, exposing fractures and difficulties in both relationships.
The movie builds to a pair of devastating discoveries. George and Martha couldn’t conceive and created a fictional child for the sake of their relationship. Nick married Honey because he thought she was pregnant, only to find it was a hysterical pregnancy. Nick is resentful, but doesn’t know the truth: Honey was pregnant, but terminated her pregnancy.
Nick and Honey are what Martha and George must have been like twenty years earlier: idealistic, naively believing they could overcome the imperfections in their relationship by lying.
What makes this movie special is the real, stormy relationship between Burton and Taylor. It’s easy to imagine George and Martha as somehow providing a window into their personal lives.
This was a turning point in Elizabeth Taylor’s career. Before this film, she was known as one of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood, but when she gained thirty pounds to play the ugly Martha, it was impossible to dismiss her as simply a beautiful face.
This powerful adaptation of Edward Albee’s play advocates for honesty, while acknowledging even the best relationships incorporate little lies to make things function more smoothly. A wife deludes her husband into thinking he’s as attractive as he was when they first met. A husband doesn’t tell his wife he hates her cooking. But the movie patiently reminds us the bigger the lie, the bigger the fallout if, and when, it’s exposed.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly to announce to her parents, publisher Matt (Spencer Tracy) and art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn) she’s getting married to John (Syndey Poitier). Joanna’s progressive parents have always taught her race should not be a determinate in how you treat other people, but their theoretical posturing is put to the test when they realize their little girl is going to marry a black man.
In 1967, this was cutting edge, but now it seems dated; most of the film’s major concerns were worked out years ago. However, it remains important as a reminder there was a time when serious, fair-minded people had reservations about interracial relationships.
But I don’t love this movie because of its importance to the history of race relations in America. I love it because it’s the last film to feature Spencer Tracy who died less than a month after filming ended. You can sense Tracy’s struggle with mortality in his performance; you can feel Katharine Hepburn’s pride and sadness. The pain and loss of the two leads creates a beautiful film about dying and grief underneath the surface of this film about the travails of racism in late 1960s America.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
During the Christmas of 1183, Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) contemplates the plans for succession after he dies. He wants his youngest son, John, to inherit the throne, while his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) wants their oldest son, Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins) to be the next King of England. Henry makes no attempt to hide his numerous infidelities or his disdain for Eleanor. She uses her previous position as wife of the King of France to antagonize Henry.
The film is noteworthy for its surprisingly modern treatment of Richard the Lionheart’s homosexuality.
Watch this, then watch Charly (1968), which featured an Academy Award winning performance from Cliff Roberston, and you realize the extent of the travesty which denied O’Toole an Oscar despite a record eight nominations.
Despite her initial success, Katharine Hepburn was labeled as “box office” poison at the end of the 1930s, but with this film she won her second consecutive Oscar and third overall, cementing her reputation as one of the best actresses of all time.
This brilliant film about the intersection of politics and personal relationships should be viewed alongside Becket (1964). In the earlier film, Peter O’ Toole plays a young Henry II as he creates a legacy. Four years later, he plays an older Henry II looking to ensure his legacy is preserved.
Army of Shadows (1969)
With this unsympathetic view of the French resistance during World War II, Jean-Pierre Melville creates a drama as morally ambiguous as 24, but not nearly as outrageous.
To those in the French Resistance, secrets were the lifeblood of the cause; the leaders of the movement routinely killed those suspected of betrayal with little regard for the legitimacy of the accusation. The highest moral imperative was to keep France from falling completely under the control of the Nazis. Everything else: allegiances, morality, and friendship was subservient.
The movie walks an interesting line, glorifying the men who risked (and often lost) their lives to protect France from Nazism, but refusing to whitewash their actions. The movie, like the movement, has already decided their actions were justified and doesn’t feel the need to persuade anyone.
It’s chilling to watch people kill one another for coldly rational reasons, but we find ourselves nodding our heads. This sort of moral complicity has been explored in American television shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, but while we enjoyed living vicariously through the misdeeds of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White, we never forgot they were bad people.
But, in this movie, it’s the good guys who have little regard for the lives of their friends and compatriots. It’s uncomfortable, but speaks important truths: we believe in doing right and living by a strict moral code in theory, but in practice this is often more difficult than it seems, and we’re more lenient than we want to believe.