The 1960’s began with a bang as far as thrillers go, kicking off the decade with Alfred Hitchcock reigning supreme as Psycho was released in the summer of 1960. By the latter part of the decade, the career of the ‘Master of Suspense’ was in decline, and young directors such as Roman Polanski came up to challenge Hitchcock for his throne.
Thrillers in the 1960’s tended to be either gothic horror shockers, espionage films influenced by the mania for James Bond, or studies in psychological terror. Thrillers also benefited from the loosening of the production code, which resulted in more graphic violence in films. Here is a list of 20 thrillers from the 1960’s that either misfired at the box office or were overlooked for some other reason, but are worth seeing if you get a chance.
20. The Ipcress File (1965)
Plot: Michael Cane is Harry Palmer, a British Agent who is assigned to investigate why a number of top scientists have been kidnapped and eventually released. After accidentally shooting a CIA agent who is following him, Palmer uncovers the “Ipcress File” which leads him to believe there is a plot to brainwash the leading British scientists of the day for nefarious reasons.
Why it’s great: Even though Harry Saltzman, one of the film’s producers, was also a producer of the highly successful franchise of James Bond films, The Ipcress File functions as a sort of ‘anti-Bond’ film in which Harry Palmer’s travails are supposed to reveal the non-glamorous aspects of the spying and espionage (Hitchcock would also attempt this with Torn Curtain in 1966).
The film was successful at the box office on its release in late 1965, but never got wide viewing in America and has been relatively obscure since it was released.
19. Dementia 13 (1963)
Plot: A woman, Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) is married to a man who is in line to inherit a fortune, but when he dies prematurely of a heart attack, she hides his death from his family fearing she will be cut out of the will. The woman goes to visit her late husband’s family in their castle in Ireland in an attempt to ingratiate herself, but people begin to disappear. Apparently there is a psychotic ax murderer on the premises who appears to be taking people out, one by one.
Why it’s great: Although nobody will try to make the case that Dementia 13 is a particularly great film, it is the first significant work of Francis Ford Coppola, and thus is worth seeing. Coppola was working for “B” horror film producer Roger Corman, and when Corman found himself with some money left over after finishing a film in Great Britain, he suggested his young protege stay on and write and direct his own film.
The result was Dementia 13. Coppola heaps on the horrific atmosphere thickly, resulting in an entertaining effort, despite the low budget. Patrick Magee, who played Dr. Caleb, later showed up in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as the radical writer, Mr. Alexander.
18. Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice (1969)
Plot: Mrs. Marrable (Geraldine Page) has been recently widowed by a husband whose investments have all gone bad, leaving his wife with nothing but some apparently worthless items. She goes to live with a distant nephew in Arizona, and shows a particular penchant for growing pine trees in the desert.
When the housekeeper, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock) is killed by Mrs. Marrable while planting a tree, Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) arrives; will she be Mrs. Marrable’s next victim, or will she solve the crime of the missing housekeeper?
Why it’s great: Robert Aldrich’s 1962 gothic horror film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was a huge hit and resurrected the careers of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Produced, but not directed by Aldrich, this is the third film in a trilogy of sorts (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the other) and was the least successful, just barely making its money back at the box office.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice does away with the overtly gothic settings of the earlier films in favor of over the top performances from Page and Gordon, who was just coming off her Academy Award winning performance in Rosemary’s Baby. Not a masterpiece, but worth a watch.
17. Arabesque (1966)
Plot: Gregory Peck is professor David Pollock, a hieroglyphics expert who is recruited to infiltrate the organization of a man named Beshraavi to uncover a plot to murder the Prime Minister. Once he convinces Beshraavi’s sexy mistress, Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), to help him, Pollock discovers a hieroglyphic code which may reveal the plot and save the PM.
Why it’s great: Gregory Peck and the always sultry Sophia Loren lead a first rate cast and Stanley Donen provides solid direction of this Hitchcock-esque thriller. Arabesque was clearly an attempt to capitalize on the success of Donen’s 1963 effort, Charade, although it did not take off at the box office like the earlier film. Nonetheless, this entertaining espionage film has long been overlooked and is worth a viewing.
16. Underworld USA (1961)
Plot: 14 year old Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson) sees his father beaten to death by four hoods. Twenty years later, Tolly seeks revenge for his father’s death, even going so far as going to prison to get close to one of the men who killed his father. Eventually, Tolly becomes an informant for the government, but nothing will stop his vendetta against the men that killed his father.
Why it’s great: Samuel Fuller was one of the great hard-boiled directors of Hollywood. This film stars a young Cliff Robertson as Tolly, a man driven by revenge so much that he is incapable of living his life of finding a satisfactory relationship with the woman who want to love him. A neo-noir film, Underworld USA shows the dark side of revenge and the seamy underbelly of mob life in America.
15. Dead Ringer (1964)
Plot: Margaret DeLorca and Edith Phillips (both played by Bette Davis) are twins who have been estranged for many years. When DeLorca’s wealthy husband dies, Phillips finds out that her sister tricked him into marrying her many years ago, despite the fact that Phillips was also in love with him.
Margaret has lived a life of wealth and ease while Edith has had to scrape by as part of the working class. Outraged at this revelation, Edith kills her sister and takes her identity, but problems soon arise when Edith’s boyfriend (Karl Malden) comes to investigate his girlfriend’s so called suicide.
Why it’s great: Well, twice the Bette Davis is worth the price of admission alone. The rest of the cast, including Karl Malden, Peter Lawford and Jean Hagen are not slouches either, and with sure handed direction by Paul Henreid, the film is better than you might think. This was another of the step children of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a sub-genre that soon after ran dry.
14. Gambit (1966)
Plot: Michael Caine is Harry Dean, a cat burglar who, along with artist friend Emile Fournier (John Abbott), wants to steal a priceless statuette from the world’s richest man, Shabandar (The Pink Panther’s Herbert Lom). He involves showgirl Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine) in his plot, and they take the identities of a wealthy married couple in order to carry out Harry’s heist. But Shabandar is suspicious of the couple, and the theft does not go down as planned.
Why it’s great: The film is a humorous and stylish thriller, somewhat in the vein of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panthers movies, which were popular at around the same time. Gambit did fairly well on its release at the box office, and was nominated for several Academy Awards. But the film is not much remembered today, although it was remade (with slight modifications) in 2012, with Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth.
13. Ten Little Indians (1965)
Plot: Ten people are invited to an isolated hilltop mountain for a vacation. Once they arrive, they are informed by their mysterious host that they are there because each has, in their own way, been responsible for the death of another and that justice has not been served in each case. As there is no way to leave without scaling the difficult, snowy mountain, the individuals are trapped and one by one, they begin to meet their fates.
Why it’s great: Ten Little Indians was based on Agatha Christie’s well known 1939 novel And Then There Were None, which had first been made into a film in 1945. The story is updated for the swinging sixties in this English film, which featured Shirley Eaton (the girl painted gold in Goldfinger the previous year) and American heartthrob Fabian.
Despite all that, the story is so strong and the suspense and tension of the situation make for a riveting experience as the characters each realize that they are doomed.
12. Targets (1968)
Plot: A young Vietnam War vet goes on a rampage, killing his wife, mother and a delivery boy, before taking refuge on top of an oil tanker and continuing his shooting spree. Pursued by police, the disturbed killer ends up at a San Fernando Valley drive in movie theater, where horror film icon Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff in his final major film role) is about to make a promotional appearance. Eventually, it is up to Orlok to put an end to the killing spree.
Why it’s great: Peter Bogdanovich was a film critic and an aspiring young filmmaker who got an opportunity from producer Roger Corman to make his first feature film. Karloff owed Corman two days of work, so Bogdanovich got the chance to direct the screen icon in one of his last film appearances (Karloff died the next year, in 1969).
This condemnation of random violence was patterned after real life sniper killer Chalres Whitman. It came out amid the turmoil and violence of the summer of 1968, but failed at the box office and has been relatively obscure ever since. See it for its significance as Bogdanovich’s first film and Karloff’s last.
11. The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
Plot: A writer named Adrian Messenger believes that a series of seemingly unconnected deaths are actually linked murders, and tries to get Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott) to investigate.
When Messenger dies in a plane bombing, his final dying words draw fellow passenger Raoul Le Borg into the mystery, and the two men begin to work together. They discover that all the dead men on Messenger’s list were in a Burmese POW camp in the war with Canadian George Brougham (Kirk Douglas) and continue to investigate the murders and their connection to Brougham.
Why it’s great: Despite having distinguished director John Huston and a well respected international cast, The List of Adrian Messenger is well known for featuring a number of other “A” list movie stars – such as Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra – in various cameo roles in the film.
Part of the fun of The List of Adrian Messenger is spotting these cameos, and each star reveals himself at the end of the film by removing their makeup on camera. But otherwise, The List of Adrian Messenger is a solid and exciting mystery that is worth viewing on its own.