If I had to pick one decade as my favorite for movies, I think I would have to go with the 1960s. Picking my six favorite movies from that decade? That’s a little more difficult. (It’s hard enough to limit myself to six favorites from a single year of the decade.) After much debate, I’ve decided on the following films (listed chronologically), though there are probably about two dozen other titles that could just as easily have made the cut.
The 1968 anthology film Spirits of the Dead is based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but a viewer who neglects to read the on-screen text might be forgiven for failing to recognize the third and final segment as a Poe adaptation. Unlike the first two episodes — “Metzengerstein” (directed by Roger Vadim and starring Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda) and “William Wilson” (directed by Louis Malle and starring Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot), both period pieces — “Toby Dammit” is set firmly in the late 1960s. Moreover, the credits of at least one edition of the film describe it as “liberally adapted” from Poe’s 1841 short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” a rather obscure tale to begin with. While the Poe connection may not be obvious, another authorial hand is much more in evidence: “Toby Dammit” is unmistakably the work of director Federico Fellini.
Federico Fellini, speaking to Irving R. Levine in a 1965 interview for NBC News, admitted that he rarely went to the movies. “I do my work with such passion that I don’t know how to be just a spectator,” he explained. Asked about contemporary directors whom he admired, he could only come up with three names. One was Akira Kurosawa; another was Alfred Hitchcock; the first was Ingmar Bergman. “I’ve only seen two of his films, Wild Strawberries and The Magician, but they were enough to make me love him like a brother.” The following year, in an interview with the French magazine Positif, he reiterated his high regard for Bergman, whom he described as “a really gifted man, a true author, a real showman.” He also noted that 1958’s The Magician “upset me, in a way, because it is exactly the same as a story I wrote four or five years ago and meant to film — in a different atmosphere, of course. It’s Nordic and I’m Mediterranean, Latin, but the subject is exactly the same.” Although his variation on The Magician never made it to the screen, one of Fellini’s most famous films does share a number of similarities with the other Bergman movie he had seen.
The Di Costanzo family is in dire straits. Abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Di Costanzo (Anna Primula) has so little money that she and her many children can’t even afford to eat every day. To make matters worse, a man named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) shows up with some devastating news: One of the family’s daughters, Rosa, who had been working as Zampanò’s assistant in his traveling strongman act, has died. In the midst of her grief, Mrs. Di Costanzo offers him another daughter, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) — an odd, childlike young woman — as a replacement. “I told you, she’s not like Rosa,” her mother says to Zampanò. “But she’s a good girl, poor thing. She’ll do what she’s told. She just came out a little strange.” Then she appeals to Gelsomina herself, pointing out that she’ll get to learn a trade and see the world, not to mention easing the family’s financial burden. Gelsomina seems uncertain at first and wanders away from her mother and siblings, but once her back is turned on them, she smiles. Thus, full of excitement, she sets out with Zampanò at the start of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada — Italian for “the road.”
It may sound strange to describe a prostitute as “sexless,” yet that’s the word Federico Fellini used for the title character of his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria; to be more specific, he saw her as a clown.
Three years prior to Nights of Cabiria, star Giulietta Masina, the director’s wife, had played an actual clown named Gelsomina in his La Strada, and the resemblance between the two figures went beyond the superficial. “The relationship between Cabiria and Gelsomina is that Cabiria is Gelsomina’s fallen sister,” Fellini said in an interview with Charlotte Chandler. Moreover, he characterized both of them as Augustes, vulgar clowns, utterly antithetical to graceful, elegant white clowns in behavior as well as appearance. “White clowns have always rivaled one another in the luxury of their dress,” he wrote in the 1970 book I Clowns. “The Auguste, on the contrary, is always the same type. He never changes his clothes, can never change them. He is the tramp, the child, ragged and dirty.”
To any film lover, the thought of being limited to a mere five movies for an indefinite period is nightmarish. Even when given a choice of titles, countless favorites have to be left out, not to mention the seemingly infinite number of films that remain unseen. After much debate, here are the five classic movies (i.e., from the 1970s or earlier) that I would want to compose my desert island library.
Federico Fellini’s 8½ is the story of a director who doesn’t know what to do for his next movie, made by a director who didn’t know what to do for his next movie. Confused? That’s only the beginning.
(Any ideas as to the significance of these shots? The framing is too distinctive to have recurred by accident. I understand that it forces us to identify with Guido and his perspective, but I can’t figure out why it was used in these particular scenes. In the first, he recognizes an old friend at a health spa; in the second, he meets his mistress at the train station; in the third, which takes place during the film’s finale, a circus-like fantasy, he calls out to his late mother, but when she sees that his father isn’t stopping, she shrugs and keeps walking. Thoughts?)