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Good Drama Movies (1960-65): New Waves, Timeless Emotions

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GJ Cole itcherAs the golden age of Hollywood melodrama began to fade, so dawned an era of modernist motion pictures with a more nuanced approach to the emotional trials and tribulations of contemporary society. The moralizing of the post-war era began to feel a little constrictive, and so did the film technique, with the end of the 50s heralding experimental waves that breathed new life into the cinematic arts. ~ GJ Cole

Shock of the New

Smart movie-goers could see the changes coming in the 50s: the Beat Generation, television, baby-boomers maturing into the first true generation of teenagers, and the new-found affluence of their parents. Society was changing, art was changing, and art and society were changing each other.

Folk wanted to see movies that reflected (and glamorized) their real lives, not the lingering Victorian morals and classical film structure that they were being served. Authority was now something to be questioned: Westerns became ‘revisionist’, adolescents sought different gags than their grandparents, and dramas had to take into account shifting family structures and a whole new epidemic of ennui that was sweeping the ‘thinking classes’.

The canniest film directors managed to have it both ways, melding old-school thrills and glamour with sophisticated cinematography and filtering the zeitgeist through boundary-pushing stories that continued to explore the classic elements of the dramatic arts: love, lust, death, and betrayal.


Stone Cold Drama Movie Recommendations

‘The Savage Innocents’ (Nicholas Ray, 1960)

Missionary: If you will listen to my words and believe in me, the Lord will come and stay with you and follow you in all your travels.
Asiak: We do not want another with us…

Nicholas Ray is perhaps best known for ‘Johnny Guitar’ (1954) and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ – movies that display a brutal attitude of disillusion towards their respective milieus.

On the cusp of the 1960s, though, his ‘Savage Innocents’ was a curiously… well, innocent take on a changing society. In this case, the milieu in question is that of a remote Eskimo family who must struggle not only with the elements, but with the ever closer presence of a modern society that is seemingly incompatible with their traditional way of life.

Anthony Quinn plays Inuk (“When Quinn the Eskimo gets here…” anyone?), an Inuit hunter and family man who is chased by police after killing a white missionary.

Quinn’s chuckling performance is pegged somewhere between ‘bizarre’ and ‘enchanting’, encapsulating the whole appeal of this cinematic oddity, and perhaps indicating why it has tended to be overlooked since it’s initial release over half a century ago.

‘La Notte’ (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)

In the half light your skin glowed with life so warm and sweet. I wanted to kiss it, but I was afraid to wake you. I was afraid of you awake in my arms again…

Such is the delicate tension of Antonioni’s break-up masterpiece, a bittersweet (mostly bitter) and laconic take on what we presume to be the final night of a couple’s marriage.

Cruel and sexy, ‘La Notte’ revolves around a high society of intellectuals, businessmen, movers and shakers: the latter half of the film immerses us in a showy party at a millionaire’s mansion, where leading lady Jeanne Moreau and hubbie Marcello Mastroianni flirt with strangers and panic about their shared sense of purposelessness.

So, yes, it’s about affairs between the spoilt middle-classes, but it’s really about the mutability of love, confused innocents grappling with the façade of sophistication the 20th century, and good ol’ emotions between two (or more) people. More, it’s not just a drama – Antonioni’s masterful image-making, casting and structure make it a true achievement of the cinematic arts.

‘Lolita’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

I want you to live with me and die with me and everything with me!

James Mason. James Mason! Even though he may, at times, have been austere, superior and cutting, here he plays a manic paedophile. Even though his character was portrayed so negatively in Nabokov’s original novel, James Mason somehow imbues the anti-hero of ‘Lolita’ with such a tragic air that you’re dragged along with him under the spinning wheels of his car-crash love life.

The deadpan humour and character nuance, shaded in by master director Kubrick help make this movie a masterpiece, as do maddeningly (great) performances from Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon – the latter playing the eponymous ‘nymphet’ who drives Mason’s Humbert Humbert to distraction… and worse. It’s an artistic melodrama, an absurd literary soap opera, and one of the great underrated movies of the 1960s.

‘La Peau Douce’ (François Truffaut, 1964)

I’ve been discovering that life isn’t what I thought…

It is the twenty-first century, and hopefully soon we’ll see the end of movies about pervy old men having existential crises that are curiously intertwined with the appearance of a pretty young temptress in their life.

In the meantime, if ‘Lolita’ was too flippant a study of this troubling phenomenon for you, this conventional but sensitive offering from the French Nouveau Vague remains an underrated movie from the overrated François Truffaut.

Françoise Dorléac plays an air hostess who falls for Jean Desailly’s older intellectual, but is their affair held together by anything more than novelty and a sense of illicit adventure?

‘The Naked Kiss’ (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw…

Back into bonkers territory – here’s a melodrama so overwrought that stylistically, it belongs in the deep 1950s. Thanks to Mr Fuller’s sensationalist treatment of the material and his journalistic touch for spinning yarn, it remains utterly fresh and engaging throughout its ninety noir-ish minutes.

You can always be guaranteed Fuller will lead with a shocking opening scene (his news reporter’s nose for a headline?), and thereafter, ‘The Naked Kiss’ drags its audience on a torturous tale of tricky love and impossible redemption.

Constance Towers plays a former prostitute attempting to go straight in a new town, but makes it tough on herself by falling for the best friend of the local police chief. Her biggest challenge, though, may surface a little closer to home.


Some Feelings Never Go out of Style

In recent years, directors such as Todd Haynes and François Ozon have gone back to the 1950s style, perhaps feeling that it was prematurely disposed of by a generation of filmmakers and audiences who wanted something slicker, younger and new.

But the 1960s got the cinema it needed – intelligent, sophisticated dramas that reflected a society barely recognisable from the generation that preceded it. Profound stories, told with style and daring.

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