Are you in the mood to be retro-hip? Do you get the urge to be mod and pop, ’60s style? Sure you do.
A batch of recent Blu-rays (and a couple of more digitally challenged items) offers a cross-section of the cinematic era when you couldn’t swing a hepcat without hitting something groovy. Here’s a guide to programming your own marathon. Only a few of these titles are certifiable “classics”, but they all exude distinctive flavors and aromas of that stylish decade. You can spot them at 100 paces.
The Mask (1961)
What It Is, Man: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the psychedelic ’60s in an explicit metaphor for drug addiction. When a shrink (Paul Stevens) inherits an ancient tribal mask from a dead patient, he can’t resist putting it on and channeling 3-D visions from his repressed psyche, which boil down to the idea that men want to prey on women. Canada’s first horror feature and first 3-D feature is restored brilliantly by 3-D Film Archive; the Blu-ray plays flat or 3-D depending on your TV.
How It Grooves: Most of the bumpily plotted film is in heavily chiaroscuro’d, expressionist black and white, while the 3-D dreams (“Put the mask on now!”) function like experimental musical numbers of sex-and-death surrealism. If you have a regular 2-D TV, these sequences are repeated in an anaglyphic extra (bring your own glasses), and they look terrific. Bonus features include excellent commentary, a profile of Canadian pioneer Julian Roffman, a selection of avant-garde works by great montage artist Slavko Vorkapich (hired and fired from the 3-D scenes), and a lovely new 3-D film based on old stereoscopes of “diableries” (scenes of Hell). It’s a fine package.
The Honey Pot (1967)
What It Is, Man: Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) hires an actor named McFly (Cliff Robertson) to help lure three ex-girlfriends (Susan Hayward, Capucine, Edie Adams) to his Venetian palazzo by pretending Fox is dying. It turns into a murder case as everyone stands around delivering glittering dialogue amid gorgeous sets and costumes, scored elegantly by John Addison. Maggie Smith gets a good showcase as a mousy assistant, and Adolfo Celli is the inspector.
How It Grooves: Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz couldn’t help making civilized entertainments full of clever repartee. This one derives from a play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) and a novel by Thomas Sterling, which were based in turn on Ben Jonson’s comedy Volpone. Twenty minutes were cut after the British premiere, which explains why two credited actors don’t appear, and it’s still on the leisurely side. Such a polished throwback might have seemed out of step with the era’s quest for relevance and shock, but today we can appreciate its high style on Blu-ray.
Hotel Paradiso (1966)
What It Is, Man: In 1900 Paris, Boniface (Alec Guinness) arranges an adulterous assignation with his neighbor’s wife (Gina Lollobrigida), but several people they know happen to be staying at the same hotel as the night escalates into farcical slapstick. (The premise falls apart if we ask why they go to a hotel when their spouses are away, so don’t ask.) Robert Morley plays the husband, who thinks he’s chased by ghosts. In the era of What’s New, Pussycat, producers looked for naughty storylines in which most people aren’t allowed to have sex, and it helped to have the pedigree of a classic French farce by Georges Feydeau. To promote the resemblance, that film’s Eddra Gale is dropped gratuitously into this one.
How It Grooves: Director Peter Glenville’s films are mostly based on stage projects, including his own, and that applies to this one in which he appears as Feydeau. While the actors are good, the classic restraint of the approach dampens the frantic energy required. This beautifully designed film would look and sound much better if money were spent on restoration, but it’s considered too minor for that, so all we have is this mediocre made-on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive.
Come Fly With Me (1963)
What It Is, Man: Three stewardesses, or airline hostesses, travel to Paris and Vienna, look at postcard sights, go to restaurants, put on water skis, and have predictable if unlikely romantic misadventures with an Austrian baron, a handsome pilot, and a Texas tycoon. Pamela Tiffin, Dolores Hart, Lois Nettleton, Karl Malden, Hugh O’Brian and Karl Boehm dance on the edge between the mod and old-fashioned, the swinging and the moralistic, until Europe is made safe for midwestern values. “I’m the biggest square in Paris!” shouts a hip street urchin. Look sharp for Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) as the fourth hostess. Frankie Avalon sings the title song.
How It Grooves: Ah, the good life, an era when air travel was sold as a glamorous consumer fantasy where (at least in First Class) the champagne, lobsters and caviar were served by sexy models looking for a husband. Director Henry Levin handles the widescreen romp lightly, while classy producer Anatole de Grunwald made the similar airport saga The V.I.P.s the same year. This is another film that would look much better if the Metrocolor were restored to its original sheen instead of being another faded on-demand item from Warner Archive. Alas, no Blu-ray here.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
What It Is, Man: In smoking jacket and gold genie shoes, Vincent Price sends himself up as a megalomaniac who wants to control the world by having powerful men marry bikini’d robots. Frankie Avalon is the bumbling secret agent out to stop him in this sci-fi spy spoof. The Supremes sing the title song in a lark of sexist absurdism very typical of its era, a juvenile comedy yearning for liberation.
How It Grooves: Comedy vet Norman Taurog handles the tongue-in-cheek shenanigans in a manner that marks it as an offshoot of AIP’s beach party movies. Historians David Del Valle and David DeCoteau offer chatty commentary. Although without the budget of Hotel Paradiso or Come Fly with Me, these brilliantly colorful HD presentations of the Goldfoot movies make them look better than they are.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)
What It Is, Man: This time the robots explode when kissed, an especially blunt metaphor. Vincent Price returns in an Italian-made sequel that replaces Frankie Avalon with Fabian and highlights the “comedy” antics of Franco and Ciccio, a prolific Sicilian duo popular in Italy and nowhere else. The Italian version supposedly has more of them, which wouldn’t make it preferable, but this is the heavily recut US edition.
How It Grooves: This sequel is even more wildly, crazily ’60s, thanks to the eye of director Mario Bava, his photographer and designer. The climactic chase occurs on amusement park rides, proving that mindless kinetic energy is more important than linear progress. David Del Valle and David DeCoteau offer friendly, rambling, inconsequential commentary to match the movie.
An Anguished Victorian Aristocrat, a Suicidal Frenchman…
The Oblong Box (1969)
What It Is, Man: Vincent Price plays an anguished Victorian aristocrat whose facially disfigured brother runs loose in a scarlet hood, killing people here and there. Christopher Lee is a surgeon who relies on body snatchers. Several unsavory characters get in each other’s way in a world where everything is for sale, from the exploitation of African colonies to local prostitution.
How It Grooves: Steve Haberman’s informative commentary gives full background on this AIP horror project in the Edgar Allan Poe series, although the story has nothing in common with Poe’s. Producer-director Gordon Hessler worked from a grim, serious script, and he stages indoor and outdoor shots with elegant claustrophobic photography. The flaw is that the brother’s disfigured face (the rot of society made plain) isn’t nearly as scream-worthy as promised; it just looks like bad acne.
Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968)
What It Is, Man: A suicidal Frenchman (Claude Rich) is recruited for a time-travel experiment. Inside a pumpkin-like womb, he’s supposed to travel back one year for a minute, but he gets lost in a rapidly edited, repetitive, almost random ribbon of memories detailing his ill-fated affair with a depressed woman (Olga Georges-Picot).
How It Grooves: Now this is the modern ’60s. The sci-fi device is an excuse for the memory-editing that interests Alain Resnais, whose films of this era are structured around memories of love. Belgian surrealist writer Jacques Sternberg throws in nods to his fellows, like Rene Magritte, while Krzysztof Penderecki’s music adds a wiggy spiritual flavor. This HD Blu-ray transfer offers rich colors; it’s a pleasure to see Rich constantly emerge from the ocean in the film’s most pervasive (and immersive) metaphor. There’s an interview with Rich and older pieces on Resnais and Sternberg.
The Wild Eye (1967)
What It Is, Man: Philippe Leroy plays a moody, amoral director of the era’s “mondo” movies, the original “shockumentaries” that titillated and repulsed viewers with kinky and often fabricated behaviors from around the world. We see him at work in the desert and then Vietnam, as he tries to film executions and bombings while putting everyone around him at risk. Lovely Delia Boccardo plays the blank-eyed girl he treats badly. Gianni Marchetti’s loungy music burbles mindlessly.
How It Grooves: Director Paolo Cavara, famous for the trend-setting Mondo Cane, here makes a decadent episodic melodrama exposing the genre as a dangerous hoax, without forgetting nudity and violence. It’s like amped-up Antonioni and owes something to Blow-Up. Despite this print’s 2K scan, the widescreen movie could stand color restoration, especially during pitch-dark shots. There’s an interview with actor Lars Bloch.
Don’t Look Back (1967)
What It Is, Man: The vandals took the handle. Here’s D.A. Pennebaker’s black and white backstage profile of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, his famous farewell to acoustic guitar, during which he hangs out with Joan Baez and Donovan and gets contentious with interviewers. Iconic moments include the much-parodied “video” of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, an alternate version of which is among the many extras on this overflowing Criterion disc in a restored 4K Blu-ray transfer that upgrades their 2007 DVD.
How It Grooves: A genuine monument of its subject and a groundbreaking concert documentary, this is as important to Dylan’s career as to Pennebaker’s. Aside from retaining older extras like Pennebaker’s commentary, there’s a new profile of the director and outtakes, plus three of Pennebaker’s earlier shorts and audio recordings of Dylan songs not used in the movie. Go ahead and look back.
In Cold Blood (1967)
What It Is, Man: In 1959 Kansas, two drifters killed a family of four and got executed. From this material, Truman Capote wrote a groundbreaking “nonfiction novel” that writer-director Richard Brooks turned into one of the most influential true-crime films. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play the killers, and it’s tricky for modern viewers not to separate Blake’s performance from our knowledge of his later murder conviction. It’s also hard not to compare the movie with at least two biopics of Capote that cover the same material.
How It Grooves: Despite its restrained, “documentary-like” approach, this remains an arty piece of work and a benchmark of American screen violence along with Bonnie and Clyde. Extras on this 4K digital restoration from Criterion include segments on the beautiful black and white photography, the editing, and Quincy Jones’ jazzy score. Among older material are a French TV interview with Brooks, a 1966 documentary on Capote, and two Capote interviews.
The Satan Bug (1965)
What It Is, Man: A tense thriller set around a top-secret defense lab in the desert where a stolen virus could end life on Earth. George Maharis and Anne Francis play attractive Americans in New Frontier mode, while other signs of modernism are the underground lab design, the sleek widescreen sheen, the animated credits, the nervous avant-garde music by Jerry Goldsmith, the end-of-world paranoia, the emphasis on cars and helicopters and other techno references, and the cool tone applied to frantic desperation.
How It Grooves: Producer-director John Sturges made this after The Great Escape, and the trailer uses his name as a synonym for suspense. It presents a world where the authorities have created a possibly catastrophic weapon yet can also work together efficiently to catch bad guys at the waning of the Camelot era. The multiple viewpoints and almost accidental plot progressions also contribute to the modern vibe. Glenn Erickson’s excellent commentary puts the film in several contexts.
A Child Is Waiting (1963)
What It Is, Man: Burt Lancaster plays a strong-willed teacher of retarded children (as they were medically called at the time). His job isn’t made easier by a sensitive teacher (Judy Garland) who forms an attachment to what today would be called an autistic child.
How It Grooves: John Cassavete’s third feature (with wife Gena Rowlands in a supporting role) is his most “Hollywood” film, meaning his restless, improvisatory, intuitive experimentation is reigned in for studio craftsmanship in the elegant black and white photography. However, we still see a fascinating, intelligent stylist looking for truth in situations and characters not commonly seen on screen, including the children of a real school playing themselves. In commentary, two historians explain the collision of elements and personalities that made this film, produced by Stanley Kramer without the director’s final input.