LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (David Lean)
Everybody’s favorite classic epic movie. And for good reason. A sweeping international success. I can’t say anything new, and certainly nothing negative. Except that I still think Elmer Bernstein should have won the Oscar for his music score for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, instead of Maurice Jarre’s crowd-pleaser for LAWRENCE. A minor quibble, perhaps.
LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick)
In 1962, it seemed like an insane idea to try to make a serious movie out of LOLITA. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was well on its way to becoming one of the most revered novels of all time, but with a delicate subject matter (pedophilia), to be sure. Stanley Kubrick was no ordinary film-maker, however. We know that now, but in 1962, this one threw everyone for a loop. I admit that even when I first saw it a decade later, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
The problems inherent in making a film of LOLITA are manifold. Looking back now, it seems that Kubrick must have said, “I think I got this one”. Every subsequent viewing since that first one has confirmed to me that he was right. Kubrick didn’t try to exploit the novel for sensationalism. He wouldn’t have gotten very far with the censors if he had. (That was left for Adrian Lyne in the dreadful remake of 1997.) Instead, he tried to capture the tragic humor, the sublime human trajectory of Humbert Humbert’s doomed obsession, the satiric commentary on suburban American life. And with very little judging.
With co-conspirator/screenwriter Terry Southern, Kubrick more than adequately stuck to the spirit of Nabokov, while showing his own sardonic, subversive sense of humor that would become a Kubrick trademark. This approach has often been interpreted as a coldness, an insensitivity to the human condition. But you don’t get dead-on performances of difficult characters like James Mason’s Humbert and Peter Sellers’ Quilty, without having a pretty good view of human nature.
LOLITA looks better and better as time goes by, blowing away the more explicit remake of ’97. With LOLITA, Kubrick’s string of masterpieces began.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Robert Mulligan)
One of the great exceptions to the auteur theory: a truly memorable film that was not directed by a director with much of an artistic personality. Robert Mulligan never made anything else nearly as good, either before or since. Maybe with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, he was simply doing his job, assembling and maintaining all of the elements that he was given, like the best journeymen directors of the old days. After all, he did have the perfect cast, a superb adaptation of a now-classic novel and the correct decision to shoot the film in black-and-white. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is one of the best ever composed.
So maybe this is the time to celebrate (or at least acknowledge) the directors who, at least, don’t screw up a good thing, either through their incompetence or their hubris. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was a novel that screamed to be made into a movie. It had a timely message of racial inequality, a superb rendering of time and place, and was a damned good courtroom drama to boot. The film version could have dropped the ball on any count. Instead, everything is beautifully, sensitively, respectfully represented. There is intelligence at work here. And some of the credit for that must go to Robert Mulligan.
The only drawback to TKAM is that so many exterior shots were shot on the back lot at Universal Studios and it looks like it; the same back lot as so many TV shows of the day. They almost look like episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Andy Griffith Show”. A minor matter, considering the impact that the film ultimately has.
And that impact is due in no small part to the performance of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, one of the greatest characters in film history and the ultimate example of perfect casting. His Oscar-winning performance stole the thunder from Peter O’Toole in a year when LAWRENCE OF ARABIA won everything else.
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (Blake Edwards)
Blake Edwards was in solid by 1962. As a TV director, he had the Peter Gunn series behind him, as well as the hit movie, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961). Soon would come the PINK PANTHER series that would typify him as a comedy director par excellence. 10 (1979) was still to come. But before all that, Edwards would ace this adaptation of what was first a TV drama, one of many (TWELVE ANGRY MEN, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, MARTY) that would fit the big screen quite well. For THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, the subject was alcoholism. It remains the only good film on the subject that isn’t either preachy or cliched. Made in the middle of the real “Mad Men” era of 1962, it also proved Jack Lemmon as a serious actor.
DR. NO (Terence Young)
It has been noted that director Terence Young was actually Sean Connery’s model in developing the character of James Bond, Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent. No wonder those early Bond films are so good. Not every franchise is worth mentioning as essential. Not on my list, anyway. But the Bond films qualify. Action with style, my friends. And Connery was the best…..until Daniel Craig.
L’ECLISSE (ECLIPSE) (Michelangelo Antonioni)
The third in Antonioni’s trilogy of dysfunctional relationships (are there any other kind in Antonioni films). This one has the great director further exploring his thematic preoccupations (men’s and women’s inability to adjust to modern technology and to each other) with an increasing confidence in his ability to express it. Antonioni is an intensely personal artist and can easily fall out of favor. (He frequently has.) One need only see the stunning ending to this film to feel that Antonioni will have a lot more to explore in the future.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (Robert Aldrich)
A good comprehensive look at American cinema would not be complete without including the work of Robert Aldrich. Tough, with a cynic’s eye, Aldrich was always a little left of center. This one could be his best, or at least his most representative. Just getting Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to agree to do BABY JANE was a major coup. (See the recent series FEUD, for details). Other Aldrich films to check out: KISS ME DEADLY (1955), THE BIG KNIFE (1955), ATTACK! (1956), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1969) and THE LONGEST YARD (1974).