Note: this post is my contribution to the My Movie Year Blogathon, sponsored by Andy over at the Fandango Groovers Movie Blog. Head over there on April 15th for a list of other blogs participating in the event.
1963 was quite a year. It was the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream..." speech. Everybody’s favorite prison, Alcatraz, closed down. In America, the Beatles had their first number one single, "I Wanna Hold your Hand." A gallon of gas cost 29 cents, a loaf of bread 22. The average yearly income was $5,807. (1) In the U.K., a little show called Doctor Who premiered on the BBC.
It was a turbulent, violent time for America, and the world. But it was a great time for the movies.
Everyone touts 1939 as the gold standard of great movie years, and it is indeed an incredible year. But 1963 was none too shabby either. Take a gander at these titles:
There are a lot of great movies on that list, and most of the rest are at least a good time. But for my money, five additional movies released that year really stand out in my personal pantheon as grand entertainments.
They may not be the best, or the most critically well-regarded, but they are all very special to me. I’ll talk a little about why, starting from number 5 and working my way up to numero uno.
5. How the West Was Won
This might not be the best western to come out in the sixties, but it's certainly one of the biggest. Ever since getting HTWWW on Blu-Ray, I’ve really come to love and admire its grandiosity. It is just...so...HUGE! It has got to have one of the most star-studded casts in the history of Hollywood: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, Walter Brennan, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Harry Morgan, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Preston, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Massey and Russ Tamblyn. And it was narrated by Spencer Tracy. I mean, come on.
It also features a ridiculously catchy main title theme by Alfred Newman (which you can listen to here), five amazing action scenes that still impress today, beautiful locations filmed all across the United States, and was co-directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall. And best of all, it was made in Cinerama!
Some might say that it's too episodic, or that there are too many Debbie Reynolds musical numbers. They would be right. But it doesn't matter, I love the movie anyway. Considering how almost everything but the proverbial kitchen sink was thrown into this movie, it’s something of a marvel that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. It should be elephantine, but it isn’t. It really moves, and is such a gorgeous movie to look at. For sheer spectacle, it’s hard to beat (sorry Cleopatra!) And one of these days, I’m going to see it on a proper Cinerama screen, as God (and MGM) intended.
4. Dr. No and From Russia with Love
OK. I’m cheating a bit here, with 2 movies in one slot. But I can’t resist putting the first two Bond films together. While released in the U.K. in late 1962, Dr. No wasn’t released Stateside until May 8th, 1963. And From Russia with Love premiered in the U.K. in 1963, yet didn’t come out in America until the following year. But I insist on having my cake and eating it too - both movies were in general release during the same year. That’s good enough for me.
While Dr. No is a very good film, it’s From Russia with Love that is the true standout. FRWL still has the hard-edged, grounded espionage feel of Dr. No, but it’s the first to establish the basic template that all subsequent 007 films would follow.
Out of all the Bond films, it’s one of the most faithful to its original source novel, which results in a literate script that builds to an extended climax filled with real tension.
People always harp on and on about Goldfinger (good but overrated), but FRWL is, in my opinion, a much better film. And as good as Connery is in Dr. No, it’s in this movie that he became iconic. Just polished enough to convince us of his sophistication, but still maintaining that animal edge of cruel, brute force lurking just below the suave surface. And Robert Shaw is almost as good, cold and implacable as he trails 007's every move.
Perhaps the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, Charade is just so stylish, clever and fun. It’s a piece of fluff, really, but it takes real skill and artistry to make fluff of such high quality. It’s a delicious meringue of a movie.
I’ve never really bought into the school of adoration for stick-figure fashion plate Audrey Hepburn, but she’s undeniably charming here. And there’s legitimate chemistry between her and Cary Grant, who might be 25 years older but is so smooth, handsome and droll you don’t even notice. Stanley Donen is most famous for directing a slew of classic musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On the Town, among others), but here he channels the Master’s touch in crafting a nearly-perfect romantic thriller.
2. The Birds
Speaking of the Master...The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s most brutal suspense machines. The scene where Jessica Tandy sees the dead farmer’s face, with its fleeting zoom in on his pecked-out eyes, still ranks as one of the great shock scenes in the movies. Not to mention the genius bit of slowly escalating tension as Tippi Hedren waits outside the schoolhouse, as the crows slowly gather...
The choice to go with raucous bird cries in lieu of a traditional soundtrack proves very effective, and the various bird attack effects are still impressive. The Birds is easily the ne plus ultra of animal revolt pics, but there’s also more than a whiff of an end-of-the-world scenario about it. It’s the closest Hitchcock ever came to an out-and-out horror film, and it’s this element of the fantastic that really struck a chord with me when I first saw it as a kid years ago. And that ending...wow.
1. The Great Escape
It’s hard for me to be objective about The Great Escape. It’s been in my personal top 5 since I first saw it back when I was a teenager. I think it’s about as close to cinematic perfection as you could find. It has nearly everything you could want in a movie: memorable characters, action, suspense, humor and heart, triumph and tragedy.
Here we have Steve McQueen at the absolute peak of his career. Even amid such a powerhouse cast, all doing great work (Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum and Gordon Jackson, among others), it’s McQueen who walks away with the movie.
As Hilts the Cooler King, he’s the indomitable, rebellious heart of the film. Cool, cocky, and insolent, he's brash American bravado personified. For many, the lasting image of the film is McQueen roaring around the Bavarian countryside on a motorcycle, in a desperate attempt to make it across the Swiss border to freedom, German soldiers closing in on all sides...
But beyond the terrific cast, the rousing soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, the authentic German locations, and excellent direction by adventure movie maestro John Sturges -- it’s the meticulous, wonderfully-realized story that makes this a film for the ages. And what makes the story even better is that, in the main, it’s true. A lot of the details we see, of the escape plan and its aftermath, for the most part actually did happen. Knowledge of this gives the film’s ending a real punch.
I’ll finish with two quotes from Glenn Lovell’s excellent book, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges:
From Ken Annakin (director of Battle of the Bulge and co-director of The Longest Day):
"The Great Escape holds up because there’s nothing phony in it...It has almost perfect direction in that you aren’t conscious of the director, and yet his work is absolutely essential. He was the one who made McQueen to appear to be behaving completely natural."
And from John Sturges himself:
"If I were the most skilled director in the world, I’m not going to make Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. No way. I don’t know that scene; I don’t know those people...You have to have the experience. When I made The Great Escape, I suddenly realized I had an ear. I was never a POW, but I was in the army for 4 years and knew the lingo...It’s curious that nobody has ever made a good picture about the war who wasn’t in the war."
(1) Cost of living data from The People History website.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
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