50 Years Ago This Week – Cannes 1965
The 2015 Cannes film festival is currently in full swing (as I write this, Woody Allen’s upcoming Irrational Man is screening out of competition—it will open in the U.S. in July). On May 16, 1965, the eighteenth Cannes festival drew to a close, with the top prize going to Richard Lester’s The Knack . . . and How to Get it. Lester, at thirty-three, was a very hot director at the time, having captured the frenzy of Beatlemania in the celebrated A Hard Day’s Night. He would also direct the significant if relatively under-seen New Hollywood film, Petulia (1968) with George C. Scott and Julie Christie (and shot by Nicholas Roeg). Set in San Francisco and as such offering glimpses of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, Petulia is well worth seeking out.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for The Knack, which has aged poorly (or, plausibly, was never very good). Offering what then passed for zany British humor, it is inventively shot and showcases an impressive use of stark white backgrounds, but it would be kind to call the plot “thin” and, worse, the movie’s attitude about women more than borders on creepy. Today The Knack is best remembered as the host of a way-cool piece of trivia—it features the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them first ever screen appearances of Jane Birkin, Jacqueline Bisset and Charlotte Rampling.
Also in competition in Cannes in 1965 – and holding up much better – is Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, featuring an impressive Sean Connery, then early in his “I’m-much-more-than-James-Bond” phase (he starred in Marnie for Alfred Hitchcock the year before). Lumet was quick to take Connery seriously, and the two paired again for the prescient caper film The Anderson Tapes and the riveting police drama The Offence (and yes, okay, also Murder on the Orient Express).
The Hill is a powerful drama, set in a British North African prison camp during World War II (shot on location in Spain), with a more freewheeling and elaborate visual style than is typically associated with Lumet’s better-known dramas. I’m not a big fan of prison films – for me they are invariably too much Shawshank and not enough redemption (Papillon, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman is an exemplar of this phenomenon) – but if you like that sort of thing, The Hill is an exceptional film. It takes on subtle and challenging political themes, and its characters are distinguished by a thought-provoking complexity. (Admittedly, not all of the politics is nuanced—Ossie Davis, in a fine performance, is nevertheless there to provide the civics lesson that remains important but does situate the film, if with laudable daring, in the difficult racial politics of 1965). Often-gripping and featuring a stellar cast, the film also showcases the crisp cinematography of Oswald Morris (later in 1965 he would shoot The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; not a bad year—Morris would take home awards for each). Not for all tastes, Woody Allen placed The Hill on his list of fifteen of his favorite American films. “Nobody has seen it,” Allen commented, but “many, many lesser films are more revered.”