All Auteurs and Monsters Attack! The Underseen / Underrated 1961

By James David Patrick

Over the course of 2021, I’ll call out the Underseen and Underappreciated films from this year’s big anniversaries — 10, 20, 30 years ago… you get the picture. Meanwhile over on Twitter, I’ll send a monthly message calling for recommendations. That list made from your suggestions will inspire an upcoming episode of the Cinema Shame Podcast, where I discuss five new first-time watches. This month, it’s time to fire up the flux capacitor and travel back in time to 1961.

Off the top of my head, I knew only West Side Story, The Hustler, The Innocents, and Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear). This has less to do with the notable quality of the 1961 collection than it does with the dramatic decrease in availability and visibility of titles available for viewing… and titles I’ve researched lately for other articles.

Luckily, however, a little bit of digging revealed a relative bounty of underseen and underappreciated titles that you’ll surely want to add to your queue to flesh out your own 1961 mental catalog. There’s so much more to that year beyond the glossy, Hollywood offerings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and West Side Story. In fact, 1961 features an extraordinary array of offerings from the greatest filmmakers that ever lived.

Billy Wilder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Elia Kazan, Andrei Tarkovsky, John Huston, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Jean-Pierre Melville all released films – just to name a few. It’s an auteur theory fever dream. Alongside those titans of cinema, audiences partook of the pleasures of William Castle and Roger Corman and witnessed the rise of Hammer Studios as an international box office force. Godzilla imitators attacked more theaters than you could hang in a rubber suit closet: Mothra, Gorgo, Konga, and Reptilicus. 1961 offered something for everybody.

If 1971 represented a post-Hays era of unlimited creative potential populated by a new generation of filmmakers, 1961 teased the future of cinema. Fueled largely by the drive-in culture, the rise of the B-movie began in the 1950s and expanded expectations for populist entertainment. Studios such as Hammer and AIP made movies fast and cheap and sold to the youth market of the moment based on name alone. Would you not rush out and catch a hypothetical double bill of Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory and Sex Kittens Go To College?

Walt Disney (101 Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap) and epics (The Guns of Navarone, King of Kings, and El Cid) dominated the box office. As the only musical in the Top 10, West Side Story represents the genre’s waning influence. If anything, the box office figures represent an industry in transition and inundated with offerings from more progressive European filmmakers. Case in point: much to my surprise Fellini’s US release of La Dolce Vita (1960) bested Elvis (Blue Hawaii).

So, I guess that means I know where to start this list of Underseen and Underappreciated gems from 60 years ago — but first, as always

My Subjective Top 5 from 1961 (alphabetical order)

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