Madness, alcoholism & sex

Posted by in March's Magazine

Learned film critics and historians generally accept that one year is a paradigm for cinematic excellence. 1939. Which gave us the likes of: Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Mr Smith goes to Washington and Of Mice and Men. It isn’t just coincidental that as the world was about to be engulfed in the horrors of WW2, cinema was enjoying its most productive year. Producing work that would endure for many years to come. However, my contention is that 1962 (now enjoying its 50TH anniversary) not only rivals that year, but could very well have surpassed it.

Whilst researching a radio programme profiling some of the most significant films released during the 1960s, my attention kept returning to 1962, a year that possessed its own unique importance in film, political and cultural history. Just like 1939, 1962 was a pivotal year, one that shaped and altered not just the movie business but modern history. The Cuban Missile Crisis – which brought two great super-powers to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon – was in full swing. Once again, with the world hovering over an unthinkable precipice, cinema offered up major artistic works that would leave an enormous legacy.


Why 1962? During my research, I became acutely aware of just how many immense, thought provoking, groundbreaking and enduringly entertaining films were unleashed upon the movie-going public during those twelve months. Just look at some of the titles: Lawrence Of Arabia; To Kill A Mockingbird; Cape Fear; Days Of Wine And Roses; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; The Manchurian Candidate; Ride the High Country; A Kind Of Loving; Lolita; Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?; The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Jules et Jim.

A certain spy
If glancing through that list isn’t enough to wet your appetite, towards the end of the year, a certain spy would make his explosive screen debut in a low budget thriller called – Dr No.

How did so many films of calibre and complexity, come to light in that particular year? By the beginning of the 60s, cinema was delving into areas that had frequently been thought of as taboo, controversial, or, at best, politically charged. As well as fodder for the masses, filmmakers wanted to make people think about the world they lived in.

And so, by 1962, risky subject matter such as madness (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane); alcoholism (Days Of Wine & Roses) and sexual violence (Cape Fear) were tackled through the avenue of commercial cinema. Not to be ignored, The Civil Rights movement, then gathering momentum in the USA, brought to light the racial divisions still suffocating America. To Kill A Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, spoke eloquently and prophetically, about the need for racial harmony in a divided nation. The screen version of Richard Condon’s dark political satire The Manchurian Candidate, dealing with the edgy subject of Communist brainwashing and political assassination – at the time America was coming out of the alienated darkness of McCarthyism – received the green light at the insistence of JFK, as well as the participation of a major star, Frank Sinatra, far removed from the cosy ambience of his Las Vegas kingdom.

By the close of the following year, in the city of Dallas, many of the fanciful notions predicted in this scenario played out on TV sets around the world, blurring the distinction between art and reality with shocking results.

Two distinctive westerns were released in ’62 that would challenge TV western clichés and the status quo by looking back with a nostalgic and bitterly regretful eye on the passing of the traditional codes and values of the old west. ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’, went the cynical catchphrase from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And it was never more apt as John Wayne and James Stewart, fought over not just the girl they both loved, but how the American West would be remembered in future years. At the same time you get the feeling of a torch being passed from one singular filmmaker to another as Sam Peckinpah, also working with two legendary veteran western stars (Joel McCrea & Randolph Scott), directed Ride The High Country, to great acclaim.

Stanley Kubrick probed an area that few filmmakers would dare enter when, with the backing of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio MGM, he made a film of Nabakov’s controversial Lolita, which would emerge as the most talked about film of the year. While Britain’s most acclaimed director David Lean subverted the conventions of the epic spectacle in Lawrence of Arabia. The last great release of 1962.

Ignoble virtues
In place of a questing warrior on a noble cause to free a subjugated people, screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson put this mythic character under the cinematic microscope, exposing more ignoble than noble virtues. Even as the public marvelled at the sheer scale and spectacle of the desert cinematography and atmospheric score, they were left in no doubt as to the unsettling and disturbing neurosis of the central character.

1962 saw the death of Marilyn Monroe; her tragic and mysterious demise closed a chapter in film history and ended an era. Four mop headed lads from Liverpool called The Beatles would shake up the foundations of modern pop culture when they released their very first single. America stepped up its military involvement in South East Asia and the Space Race would capture the imagination of the world, as astronauts and cosmonauts vied for supremacy beyond the earth.

As I researched 1962, I came to an understanding of how it came to shape the world that we now recognise, and by drawing comparisons with 1939, it made me think that great art and entertainment can emerge and flourish with distinction when conflict and the abyss threaten to engulf us.

One response to “Madness, alcoholism & sex”

  1. jon says:

    Thank you Chefbear58 ! I'll do some more digging .

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *