The presidential campaign just ending may give credence to the notion that truth is stranger than fiction, but that probably won’t put a dent in Hollywood’s fascination with the political thriller.
The genre has been a staple of moviemaking at least since “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and is certain to remain a staple into the distant future — the built-in drama of an electoral campaign is just too irresistible.
Yet thanks to the efforts of the people at Turner Classic Movies, we can state definitively that one era stands above all the rest in its contribution to the field. The 1960s gave us at least five enduring classics, a record that no other decade seems to be able to match. More interestingly, all five on this list were released within a period of three years, 1962 to 1964.
Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!
The five share a few characteristics. Remarkably, they’re all in black and white. That may represent that cinematography format’s death rattle, as the spread of color television made Hollywood executives nervous about competing with TV. Or it may reflect the filmmakers’ sense that the starkness of the palette matched the starkness of the story.
Three of the five are entirely free of pyrotechnics — they’re driven by personality and dialogue, not by exploding helicopters. Their narrative arcs are gripping nonetheless. This is expert storytelling by some of the best directors ever. (Two of the five were helmed by the same man, John Frankenheimer, an ace at action pictures but also at extracting dramatic tension from unlikely scenarios.)
Why were the ’60s so rich? It may have had to do with the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, the first since 1948 to seem like a cliffhanger. Kennedy’s historically razor-thin popular vote margin inspired lasting suspicion that votes had been stolen, especially in Illinois (by the Daley machine in Chicago), and Lyndon Johnson’s home state of Texas; that underscored the feeling that democracy was a fragile thing in America. The intensifying Cold War contributed to an atmosphere of paranoia that becomes more pronounced in these pictures as the decade progresses, culminating with the most paranoid film of all time, which tops our list. And of course the period at hand arcs over the Kennedy assassination.
Here are the five listed in rough order of quality, last to first.
5. “Advise & Consent,” directed by Otto Preminger (1962)
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning political procedural by Washington journalist Allan Drury, “Advise & Consent” covers the confirmation battle over a controversial nominee for secretary of State (Henry Fonda). The idea is to lay bare what happens inside the smoke-filled rooms of the Senate, while to outsiders, the whole affair appears to be a battle over ideals.
The movie is made by the performance of Charles Laughton as the obstreperous and underhanded Sen. Seabright Cooley of North Carolina, but good work is turned in by Walter Pidgeon as the Senate Majority Leader, George Grizzard as a very annoyingly ambitious young senator, and Franchot Tone as a president insisting on his prerogative to have his own nominee confirmed. “Advise & Consent” features several narrative lines that would become curiously familiar in the genre: a president whose death occurs at a dramatically opportune moment, a leading character with a secret past — which in this genre in this period almost always involved a nervous breakdown or homosexuality or both. In this case, the movie gets bonus credit in the drama department for creating a gay Mormon character (Don Murray).
4. “The Best Man,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1964)
The script is by Gore Vidal, from his 1960 stage play about a deadlocked convention. The two contestants are Bill Russell, a ruminative idealist based on Adlai Stevenson (Henry Fonda, looking almost identical to his “Advise & Consent” character), and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), a slippery, unprincipled right-winger made of nearly equal parts Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy and John F. Kennedy (who Vidal disliked) — here, he’s the man with a secret homosexual past. Parts of the scenario have a ripped-from-the-headlines vitality, as when one character alludes to the “crazy idea of a negro in the Cabinet” — a notion put forth in an unguarded moment by Nixon’s vice presidential running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, and promptly disavowed.
The film’s best feature is the crackling dialogue by Vidal. (“The nice thing about you, Joe, is you can sound like a liberal, but at heart you’re an American.”) The oddest feature is the depiction of a single party that can have both an Adlai Stevenson and a Joe McCarthy among its leaders. The worst feature is Fonda’s soppy performance, which makes Russell seem like a dithering pill. One suspects that Melvyn Douglas, who played Russell in the first Broadway production, better projected the impression that underneath Russell’s tiresome earnestness beat a heart of hungry ambition.
3. “Seven Days in May,” directed by John Frankenheimer (1964)
The paranoia is well on the wing in this one, a chronicle of an attempted military coup against a president (Fredric March) who has signed a disarmament pact with the Soviet Union.
First-rate performances by Burt Lancaster as the ringleader, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a Messiah complex (did Lancaster ever give a bad performance in anything?); Kirk Douglas, as his Marine adjutant-turned-nemesis; Edmond O’Brien as an alcoholic senator; and March. For a remarkable moment, look for the scene in which Lancaster’s Gen. James Mattoon Scott addresses a right-wing convention in New York, using rhetoric spookily similar to what has been heard from a certain political campaign over the last few months.
2. “The Manchurian Candidate,” directed by John Frankenheimer (1962)
This title has entered the political lexicon. Based on an even-better novel by Richard Condon, whose great books seem almost forgotten today, this tells of a Congressional Medal of Honor winner brainwashed by the North Koreans and turned into a political assassin (Laurence Harvey, struggling to hide his English accent). Frank Sinatra is the Army friend who tries to talk him back to reality, but Angela Lansbury steals the picture as Harvey’s mother, the mother one wouldn’t wish on one’s worst enemy. Lansbury in fact was only three years older than Harvey. (Cary Grant and his “mother” Jessie Royce Landis in “North by Northwest” were born eight years apart).
Skip the remake with Denzel Washington, another in a long line of remakes that prompt the question: “Who thought this was a good idea?”
1. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964)
Kubrick’s deadpan black comedy brought home the true horror underlying the bloodless talk of mutually assured destruction and the survivability of nuclear war, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The absurd jokes undoubtedly contributed by co-scriptwriter Terry Southern — character names such as Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Col. “Bat” Guano — only heighten the bleakness of the scenario.
“Dr. Strangelove” comes close to the highest ratio of great moments to running time of any comedy ever made, not all of them deliberate. A few things to watch out for: Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), reading off the contents of his bomber crew’s emergency crash supplies — lipstick, nylons, prophylactics — remarks, “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” One can still see Pickens mouthing the original line, which named Dallas instead of Vegas but was changed in light of the Kennedy assassination a few months before the movie’s release. In one of the final scenes in the War Room, close attention to the face of Peter Bull, playing the Russian ambassador, will reveal him failing to stifle a laugh at the antics of Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove.
And, of course, the single greatest one-liner in the history of movies: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
Readers will have their own lists, extending beyond this time period. (We might ourselves add Costa-Gavras’ “Z,” which sneaks into the decade as a 1969 release.) Movies on our list from ensuing decades include“Wag the Dog” (1997), “In the Loop” (2009), “The Contender” (sort of an updated “Advise & Consent” from 2000), and “Dick” (a hilarious 1999 rethinking of Watergate). Feel free to contribute your own nominees via Twitter, Facebook, or email, at the addresses below.