Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Year Was 1961

A bit less than a year after completing 1960, I managed to move ahead in a decade that is successfully showing signs of advancement from 1950s-style filmmaking in terms of frank storytelling and committed acting. This is made clear by the offerings of international cinema that continue to match the artistry and impact of American films. There are several examples throughout the year of great directors using their talents to tell unique stories with actors perfectly displaying rich, emotional depth. Impressive moviemaking was clearly at work in many films from 1961.

There are some films from 1961 that can be labeled as epic, such as Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Grandiose and grotesque, La Dolce Vita is a hypnotic journey through the rough edges and false riches of Rome. Fellini creates a startlingly unique world and Marcello Mastroianni is a perfect protagonist for the dream-like exploration of fame and sophisticated excess. Images, such as Anita Ekberg's luscious walk through the Trevi Fountain or a statue of Jesus flying over sunbathing Italians, became imprinted in the minds of American audiences.

I was fortunate enough to catch La Dolce Vita at Film Forum in New York City for its 50th anniversary revival. I can't imagine how audiences must have reacted, though I suspect, whether good or bad, it was emphatic. The film itself could easily have just as many detractors as supporters. Up until the time of its release, audiences had never seen Fellini so debaucherous.

Similarly epic and iconic is the colorful musical West Side Story, brought to life by the seamless collaboration of filmmaker Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The fusion of color, widescreen, and sound, not to mention the talents of Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris, all create unforgettable entertainment. The songs by Stephen Sondheim are timeless and may be the film's most effective ingredient for today's audiences.

Epic on a different scale is Stanley Kramer's emotional, cathartic Judgment at Nuremberg. So many performances of such talent and nuance do not often lie in one feature film. Abby Mann's screenplay offers words as truthfully written as they are spoken by actors like Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster (and nearly a half dozen others) adding up to one grand piece of stirring cinema.

My vote for best is the nail-biting action-adventure The Guns of Navarone. Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn each command the screen in their own superstar ways, leading an ensemble action epic. Excitement and tension are built into the plot of an expert team plotting to destroy German warguns.  In many ways, it's the interaction between the characters that is most thrilling of all.

1961 assured moviegoers that American films have no trouble taking on challenging, adult subjects. Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Hustler are fine examples of great films with intense performances and entertaining stories. Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman each convey characters in their respective films that possess deeply complicated emotions expressed through thoughtful, tender lines from insightful scripts. Each film benefits from a memorable music score and expert cinematography and editing. 

American audiences who saw La Dolce Vita may or may not have been tempted to check out films like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Vittorio de Sica's Two Women, or Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte. Actors like Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Toshiro Mifune, and, particularly, Sophia Loren easily became influential to American audiences as superstars in their own right. The cinema from around the world is often the inspiration for many of the film techniques used in the United States, but in films like Yojimbo, you can also see how American culture influences foreign directors as well.

Check out my list of films, including ratings and a top 10 at my other site Adventures Through Movies - http://cinemadventurer.blogspot.com/2010/10/1961.html

So now we head to 1962. Looking over my list, I see some immediate classic titles that I'm looking forward to seeing again (Lawrence of Arabia) or for the first time (Jules and Jim). Might take a few months to a year, but you can expect a full report.

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