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20 Overlooked 60s Thrillers That Are Worth Your Time

26 August 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by James Davidson

10. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Plot: Medium Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) holds seances in her home with the help of her husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) and the spirit of her son, Arthur, who died at birth. Myra is mentally unstable, and she convinces Billy to kidnap the child of a wealthy couple. They keep the child in their home under the guise that it is a hospital, until Myra tries to get Billy to kill the girl and leave her body in the woods.

This way, Myra hopes to reveal what has happened to the police in a trance, thus solving the case and becoming well known for her psychic powers. Needless to say, this plan goes awry.

Why its great: Seance on a Wet Afternoon – despite having the worst name of any movie on this list – is another of the British psychological thrillers that become popular in the 1960’s.

The film has a highly respected cast with assured direction by Bryan Forbes, who later directed The Stepford Wives (1975). Star Richard Attenborough also produced the film with Forbes. Seance on a Wet Afternoon maintains an atmosphere of psychosis and dread, as well as suspense and tension until Myra finally unravels at the film’s end.

 

9. Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

Plot: Clint Eastwood stars in his first pairing with director Don Siegel as Walt Coogan, an Arizona Sheriff sent to New York City to bring back escaped killer James Ringerman (Don Stroud). Coogan attempts to circumvent the system that would require him to get extradition papers, but his plan backfires when the killer escapes. Coogan spends the balance of the film trying to recapture Ringerman, who is aided in his escape attempt by friends and others who are not helpful to the out of place law-man.

Why it’s great: Eastwood and Siegel will have more success with Dirty Harry in 1971, but this earlier film neatly sets forth the themes and motifs that the duo will return to later.

Coogan is out of place, not just as a country sheriff in urban New York City, but as an old fashioned man who is not familiar with the hippy lifestyle and atmosphere of the late 1960’s. This confrontation between traditional values and newer, looser attitudes is one that will recur again and again in the ‘new Hollywood’ films of the period, but Coogan’s Bluff is a film that neatly illustrates the divide. See it when you can.

 

8. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Plot: Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) is an American who has arrived in London to live with her brother, Stephen (Keir Dullea). On the first day that she takes her daughter, Bunny, to school, the little girl goes missing without anyone from the school having seen her. Inspector Newhouse (Lawrence Olivier) is put on the case and soon after begins to wonder if Bunny actually exists at all, or if she is just a figment of Ann’s imagination. Further investigation reveals a shocking surprise ending.

Why it’s great: Directed by Otto Preminger and shot in London, Bunny Lake is Missing is another of the British psychological suspense thrillers that were popular at the time. In the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho, Preminger attempted to get audiences to agree not to divulge the ending, even making a trailer for the film in which he appeared to make his appeal to the audience.

It was all a publicity stunt, of course, but Bunny Lake is Missing is still a taught thriller with great acting and glorious black and white cinematography. Although the surprise ending seems somewhat cliche now, the film is still definitely worth a watch.

 

7. Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank (1967)

Plot: Walker (Lee Marvin) is double crossed by his friend Mal Reese (John Vernon) when they steal a sum of money from the syndicate at a drop point at Alcatraz Island, and Walker is shot and left for dead. Recovering, Walker returns to Los Angeles to try to hunt down Reese, who has made off with not only the money but Walker’s unfaithful wife. With the help of his sister-in-law (Angie Dickinson) and a mysterious syndicate member named Yost, Walker eventually gets his chance to settle the score.

Why it’s great: A perplexing plot featuring characters whose motives are mysterious and convoluted, as well as scenes of shocking and brutal violence, caused Point Blank to be a box office failure on its initial release. But the film has fared well over time, as it was revisited by students in film school who appreciated its non-linear approach to time structure as well as the stark settings and low key acting.

Clearly an influence on later films such as Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects, the reputation of Point Blank has improved to where it is now considered a classic neo-noir of the new Hollywood era of filmmaking.

 

6. The Bride Wore Black (1968)

The Bride Wore Black

Plot: Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) is a black widow who goes from one place to another, mysteriously murdering a group of men one by one. In the course of the film, we see that Julie’s husband was murdered, killed by a rifle shot as he and his new bride were leaving the church after their wedding. The various men that Julie is murdering clearly have something to do with this incident, and the facts are revealed in the course of the film as Julie continues on her murderous spree.

Why it’s great: Director Francois Truffaut was noted as an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, but Truffaut’s early films such as The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim were, by and large, not suspense films. He finally tackled subject matter similar to Hitchcock in this film, which was an adaptation of a novel by writer Cornell Woolrich (author of the story on which Hitchcock based his 1954 masterpiece Rear Window).

Truffaut builds suspense admirably in the film, but The Bride Wore Black received hostile criticism in France on its release and Truffaut later somewhat disavowed the picture despite its relatively successful box office take. Jeanne Moreau is good as always and a solid supporting cast makes for an interesting entry into the French ‘new wave’.

 

5. The Killers (1964)

The Killers (1964)

Plot: Two hired killers, Charlie and Lee (Lee Marvin and Clu Gallagher) make a hit on Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The killers are perplexed that North made no effort to avoid them and succumbed to his fate easily, so they begin to seek out his former associates to uncover why.

Eventually, Charlie and Lee learn that North has been part of a million dollar heist that was the brainchild of gangster turned respectable businessman Browning (Ronald Reagan) and that North was in love with the beautiful but treacherous Sheila (Angie Dickinson). The killers finally uncover the reason for the hit on North and why he was so resigned to his fate.

Why it’s great: The Killers was originally the first ever “made for TV” film, but in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination and the brutal violence depicted in the movie, NBC decided against airing it and the film was released theatrically in 1964.

A remake of the 1946 film noir, The Killers gained a reputation as an overlooked masterpiece due to its hard boiled style and tough, gritty characters. This was Reagan’s final film as he went into politics full time soon after, and he forever regretted playing the part of a bad guy who slaps a woman; indeed he seems oddly miscast among the other actors, all of whom were regulars in violent crime films. See this one if you get a chance, as it is a one of a kind.

 

4. Knife in the Water (1962)

Knife in the Water (1963)

Plot: Andrzej and his wife, Krystyna are going sailing, when they pick up a young man who is hitch-hiking. They take him on their boat with them, and gradually the threesome turns into a battle or wills and sexual tension as the young man and Andrzej struggle over a prized pocket knife.

The young man falls into the water and the couple believe that he has drowned, and Andrzej returns to the shore to call the police; in the end, the couple realize that the events of the day have called their entire relationship into question.

Why it’s great: Knife in the Water was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and its success ensured that he would eventually make his way from Poland and become a director in England and later in Hollywood. The claustrophobic atmosphere and building sexual tension resulting in explosive violence are themes and techniques that Polanski will return to in later films such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

Knife in the Water was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film and, while hardly obscure, is a Polish language film that is still not screened frequently despite its obvious significance as Polanski’s first major work.

 

3. No Way to Treat a Lady (1967)

No Way to Treat a Lady (1967)

Plot: A serial killer is murdering middle aged woman and leaving their dead bodies with a lipstick kiss painted on their forehead. The audience learns the killer is mother hating Christopher Gill (Rod Steiger), an theater director who is dressing in disguise with his theatrical costumes in order to pull off the murders.

When policeman Morris Brummell (George Segal) is put on the case, Gill begins to call him to taunt him about the murders; Morris has his own mother problems due to his meddling Jewish mother, played by Eileen Heckart. Morris meets beautiful Kate Palmer (Lee Remick), a possible witness to one of the crimes, and begins to court her over the objections of his mother.

Can Morris protect Kate and solve the murders in a bizarre cat and mouse game with killer Gill, while meantime keeping his mother happy? See No Way to Treat a Lady to find out.

Why it’s great: No Way to Treat a Lady features a great, over the top performance from Rod Steiger as the killer, Christopher Gill. Obsessed with his own late mother, an actress, Gill gives in to his dark fantasies and starts murdering women who remind him of her.

The film was directed by craftsman Jack Smight, who directed numerous television shows as well as the Paul Newman vehicle Harper, and was written by William Goldman based on his original novel. No Way to Treat a Lady has elements of humor and suspense, as the life of mother’s boy police detective Brummell is contrasted with that of the crazy and obsessed Gill.

But Steiger’s great performance is really at the core of this darkly comic thriller, and his success at convincing us of Gill’s craziness is what finally allows the audience to enjoy the game of cat and mouse as it plays out over the course of the film.

 

2. Mirage (1965)

Mirage (1965)

Plot: David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) emerges from an office building during a New York City blackout confused; a man has fallen from the building in an apparent suicide during the blackout, and Stillwell runs into an attractive brunette, Sheila (Diane Baker) who seems to know him, though he can’t remember how he knows her.

He returns to his New York apartment, but finds himself descending into a nightmare world where he is pursued by two mysterious hoods who are trying to kidnap him for “the Major”, who apparently wants something that Stillwell has. Stillwell gradually realizes that he is not who he thinks he is and is suffering from some type of short term amnesia, finally hiring novice detective Caselle (Walter Matthau) to figure out his real identity.

Stillwell eventually discovers the truth about who he is and what “the Major” wants, which all ties back to the ‘suicide’ at the film’s start, but not before he is severely beaten and his life is threatened.

Why it’s great: Mirage is truly one of the great lesser known thrillers of the 1960’s. Written by Peter Stone as a follow up to his 1963 success Charade, Mirage could have been directed by Hitchcock (as a matter of fact, it is highly similar to Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound) but was in fact directed by veteran Edward Dmytryk.

For much of the film, the lead character David Stillwell is as much in the dark about what is going on as the audience, and we viewers have the pleasurable experience of piecing things together along with him. When we finally discover what is happening, the end result ties it all together and the frequent flashbacks that Stillwell (and the audience) experience during the movie all finally make sense.

At the end, Mirage is a call to commit to causes and not stand on the sideline, which makes it a timely film as America approached the latter half of the 1960’s. A modest box office success on its initial release, Mirage was shown frequently on TV in the 1960’s and 70’s and after being unavailable for a number of years was released on DVD in 2008.

 

1. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960)

Plot: Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a photographer who works part time on a film crew shooting soft core porn, and who lives alone in his dead father’s home. Mark befriends Helen (Anna Massey) a young woman who lives with her mother in the flat below his. Mark’s late father was a renowned psychologist who performed experiments in terror on his young son and used him as a guinea pig, frequently filming him to gauge his reaction to horrific events.

These experiences have resulted in Mark becoming an extremely disturbed young man, who uses a film camera with a spiked tripod leg to kill women and film their fearful reactions at the point of their death. After Mark kills one of the models at his work, the police begin to suspect him, and the noose tightens further when Mark finds Helen watching one of his home movies. In the end, the police arrive and Mark, realizing he is caught, commits one last horrific act.

Why it’s great: Peeping Tom was considerably ahead of its time and, on initial release in 1960, was greeted with shock and controversy by audiences, effectively killing the career of British director Michael Powell. While film is always a somewhat self reflexive art, never is this more true than in Peeping Tom.

The film’s major goal appears to be to cause the audience discomfort at participating in the act of watching people killed for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure, and to cause the audience to think about their own complicity in the act of watching a horror film. Director Martin Scorsese saw the film on its first release in the U.S. as a teenager and was highly impressed by it, and once he achieved his own success he arranged for Peeping Tom to be re-released in the 1980’s.

A psychologically complex film, Peeping Tom is sometimes difficult to watch, but it has helped many define what it is that they enjoy about the act of watching films in general and horror films in particular.

Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.

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