The 60s perfectly reflected the revolutionary outlook that rumbled through society. The post-war ideals of a new generation started to take shape and were prominent through all forms of expressionism. In fashion, music, art and cinema, ideals were brought into the mainstream, which at the time held up the real issues and aspects of life – asking questions of the world through spirited works.
Cinema changed and became revolutionary. Directors, writers, and producers took risks, tackling taboo subjects with everything from gritty realism to colourful stylish outings – the wave of New Hollywood heralding a brave new world. With all that in mind, here are ten movies from the decade – all wholly unique and of great importance when discussing the impact of 60s cinema.
Beat Girl (1960)
Heading into the 60s, Beat Girl summed up how the decade would develop. The ideas set out in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause and attached to the aura of James Dean were picked up and dropped into a British landscape in this teen exploitation flick.
Shot in stark black-and-white, the plot follows the 15-year-old Jennifer (Gillian Hills), who struggles within the confines of her father’s new marriage to a younger woman. Seeking escape, Jennifer sneaks out at night to join her friends Dave (Adam Faith), and a young unnamed character played by Oliver Reed.
All this leads to rebellious escapades and even murder, as the movie became one of the first to produce a standalone soundtrack to chart. Beat Girl displayed how both artforms would begin to connect throughout the decade.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
A Taste of Honey is revolutionary in the questions it asks of society and is a harrowing dive into reality. Slotted into the genre of kitchen sink realism and directed by Tony Richardson, issues it raises include abandonment, alcoholism, homosexuality, interracial relationships, and teenage pregnancy.
Centred around the 17-year-old Jo (Rita Tushingham) growing up with her flirtatious mother Helen (Dora Bryan), we watch as the teen slips into relationships to find the love and attention she so desperately craves. She falls pregnant after being left behind after her mother remarries and finds only more heartbreak. Notable for the presence of the first mixed race kiss on screen, A Taste of Honey is gritty but also a snapshot of the post-war early 60s.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Directed by the great Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen), Baby Jane takes the psychological terror of Psycho and twists it further, whilst also spotlighting the dark side of show business. Its magic comes from how it delves into the theme of sibling rivalry by feeding on the infamous real-life feud between its two stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
The two legends project an air of bitterness onto the big screen as the audience follows two sisters. One, Jane (Davis), is a former child star whose fame has dried up and the other, Blanche (Crawford), is a famous actress paralyzed in a car accident caused by Jane.
Both live in a secluded crumbling mansion matching their own decaying humanity. Unnerving, but with a thread of black comedy throughout, it is the sparks created by the two rival actresses that make Baby Jane legendary and inspired the excellent series Feud: Bette and Joan detailing the making of the film.
Blood Feast (1963)
This is a horror film – a nasty, tasteless one at that. But Blood Feast is important as it sets a new high (or low, depending on your view) for the genre. Prior to it, horror in cinema mostly featured Dracula, Frankenstein or the paranormal. Instead, Blood Feast gave viewers bad acting and laughable effects, effectively setting up both the comic-horror and splatter sub-genres.
Blood Feast follows caterer Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who kills and dismembers women to include in his meals. It is basically a twist on Sweeney Todd that goes an extra inch as the audience sees Fuad perform sacrifices to an Egyptian goddess called Ishtar.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, who would later become known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’, this twisted 1963 B-movie classic provided the blueprint for later better works like Night Of The Living Dead, The Evil Dead and Re-Animator.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
From low-budget horror to high-profile satire, this 1964 epic directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick creates comedy from the Cold War. While Bob Dylan and others sang protest songs in the passing shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kubrick portrayed the deep-set paranoia in the minds of America.
The story follows a rogue US general who has set a course for nuclear holocaust, and the frantic war room of politicians and army hierarchy who are trying to stop him. Starring a never better Peter Sellers in multiple roles, including as the wheelchair bound war expert and former Nazi title character and POTUS Merkin Muffley, the deliriously anarchic Dr. Strangelove is not only one of the greatest movies of the 60s, but one of the greatest movies of all time.
This John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) joint made miniskirts the fashion accessory of the decade, worn gracefully throughout the movie by icon Julie Christie in an Oscar-winning turn.
Although the movie appears shallow at times, it is Christie’s character who makes it work as she becomes as seductive as the character she portrays. The story follows Diana, working as a part-time actress and ‘sort of’ model, who leaves her then husband for a wilder life.
We watch as she drifts through a series of affairs before falling back into monotony again, as the bored wife of an Italian aristocrat. Within this rather mundane tale are taboo subjects of the time such as abortion, homosexuality, and debauchery – ones rarely handled 45 years later as stylishly as this.
Blow Up (1966)
Blow Up is the trigger pulled on the counter-culture narrative of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is a film released at the high point of the swinging 60s, that manages to capture everything the era has become synonymous with.
Directed by the great Michelangelo Antonioni, Blow Up follows a day in the life of fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who, in between photoshoots and sexual encounters, manages to photograph a murder. Ironically, he took the shot but did not fully look at what he was capturing – a glance into the mindset of the time.
One iconic scene features the pre-Led Zeppelin incarnation The Yardbirds, featuring both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. In terms of capturing the era in which it was made, Blow Up has it all – including a very psychedelic and even questionable ending.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Directed by Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde tore down the barriers of taste. It kickstarted what has become known as the ‘new era’ of Hollywood where directors would become more daring in their tackling of subjects such as sex and violence.
Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the title characters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the movie plays out like Romeo and Juliet meets Robin Hood in the shadow of Natural Born Killers. Viewers follow the lovestruck title couple as the fall in love, rob banks, murder, and finally meet a horrific end in a hail of bullets.
It is a movie which made audiences root for the bad guy and those final graphic scenes are still gut-wrenching over 50 years later.
Where the usual action movie of the 60s revolved were spaghetti westerns or war films, Bullitt took a departure from the normal.
In truth, there are three stars in the movie. The first, and most obvious is Steve McQueen in the title role as Lieutenant Frank Bullitt. The second is the location itself, the streets, and hills of San Francisco. The third is a roaring Ford Mustang. These three elements combine to make one of the more energetic thrillers of the era.
A marvel of editing more so than simple stunts, the main car chase lasts a staggering 11 minutes. The roar of the Mustang eating up the San Francisco streets heralded in a new age of ‘muscle car’ movies, as seen in Vanishing Point, Mad Max, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Closing out the 60s with a movie about swinging, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a satirical look at the sexual revolution and open relationships. From director Paul Mazursky, it is a stylish telling of a taboo subject, a comedic look into apparent liberation through wife swapping.
The movie follows two couples – filmmaker Bob Sanders (Robert Culp) and wife Carol (Natalie Wood), and Ted Henderson (Elliot Gould) and his wife Alice (Dyan Cannon). The two couples experiment with new age philosophies, new-found enlightenment, extra marital affairs, and eventually swinging – though the overall theme still comes back to the simple notion of love. What could be a throwaway ‘skin-flick’ is something far classier.