The All-American Crack-Up in 1960s Hollywood Cinema

Starting in the 1960s, more and more Hollywood films depicted an increasingly violent and alienated American society quickly losing its mind. It’s hard not to see their relevance to our times.

Still from Pretty Poison (1968). (20th Century Studios)

There’s a riveting new Criterion Channel series called Hollywood Crack-Up: The Decade American Cinema Lost Its Mind. It’s a category of 1960s films featuring characters spinning out of control, breaking down, going insane. But from a socialist standpoint, the series is most compelling in the way these films expose the context for breakdown, showing the madness built into American social systems and the cultural cruelties that govern ordinary life here.

In the 1960s, more and more filmmakers were recognizing America as a place that seems designed to send its citizens right over the edge. The line-up of films includes cult favorites (Pretty Poison, Targets), interesting experiments by respected directors (Faces, Lilith, Uptight, The Chase), and very obscure but startling low-budget films (Pressure Point, The World’s Greatest Sinner) along with well-known studio productions (The Manchurian Candidate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Shock Corridor, Seconds, Point Blank).

Several of the films deal literally with mental health crises, but in ways that make them offbeat, thought-provoking social critiques. Samuel Fuller’s wild pulp mind-bender Shock Corridor (1963) centers on an obsessively ambitious reporter named Johnny Barrett who’s convinced he might win the Pulitzer Prize if he feigns mental illness well enough to be institutionalized and then solve a murder that was committed in the asylum.

The callous way he ignores the pleas of his girlfriend, who’s the only one perceiving the psychological danger of being locked up with mentally ill people for months, demonstrates that he’s already a bit unbalanced. And the fact that she works as an exotic dancer, a job she finds demeaning, attests to the precarity of their ordinary lives.

Still from Shock Corridor (1963). (Monogram Pictures)

Inside the asylum, we meet various characters whose mental illness is a direct result of the insanity of American life. One patient is a physicist who helped to build the atomic bomb and is so appalled by the government’s use of it that he’s has regressed to the mental state of a six-year-old.

Another is a veteran of the Korean War, who’d been captured by the North Koreans and indoctrinated as a communist. Dishonorably discharged and reviled as a traitor upon his return home to the Deep South, he’s sunk into a delusion that he’s Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart, fighting a perpetual Civil War in the halls of the asylum.

And a third patient had been one of the first black students to integrate a Southern university, and the racist abuse he suffered there has pushed him into psychosis. He believes he’s a white member of the Ku Klux Klan, spouting white nationalist talking points at his fellow inmates. He’s forever stealing pillowcases so he can cut eyeholes in them and wear them as masks, and every time he sees the black man who works as a janitor there, he pursues him down the hall, shouting, “Stop him before he marries my daughter!”

These are the three men who witnessed the murder in the asylum kitchen, but whose delusions are so intense, they could provide no meaningful statements about the identity of the murderer to the investigating police. Barrett believes he can enter into their delusions sufficiently to get the name of the murderer from one of them. It turns out his problem isn’t getting inside their imaginative retreats from the hell of reality, it’s getting out again.

Shock Corridor is only one of the films in the series to demonstrate how fragile and wavering “sanity” is, by showing how the proximity to what’s termed mental illness has alarmingly persuasive effects. Brainstorm (1965) also features a plot involving an overconfident, professionally successful man deliberately getting himself institutionalized only to discover that the stronghold of “sanity” requires constant social reinforcement and begins collapsing immediately when that reinforcement is removed.

Other films in the series make a point of questioning who is the truly mentally disturbed character and undercutting established ideas of what constitutes mental illness. Pretty Poison (1968) stars Anthony Perkins, typecast after his definitive performance in Psycho (1960), as Dennis Pitt, a young man newly released from a mental institution after having burned down his family’s house, not realizing his abusive mother was inside at the time. He’s placed in a rote factory job in an alienating, rigidly conventional small town, but in order to tolerate this isolating way of life, he clings to his elaborate fantasy of being a secret agent ordered by the CIA to go on a series of vital and adventurous missions.

His spy persona charms a local teenage drum majorette named Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), who seems to believe in Pitt’s fictional life and goes on adventures with him. But she’ll soon be embroiling him in dangerous, violent, and seemingly sociopathic crimes that include premeditated murder and indicate, as he puts it, she’s the “pretty poison” in the system, unsuspected and well-camouflaged in her normalcy and far more dangerous than he is.

Still from Lilith (1964). (Centaur Productions)

In Robert Rossen’s last film, Lilith (1964), shot in dreamy black-and-white, Warren Beatty plays a troubled WWII veteran who wants to find a redemptive way of life after experiencing so much mayhem. He takes a job as an occupational therapist in a mental institution. There he becomes fascinated by the beguiling title character who’s regarded as an incurable schizophrenic. She reminds him of his beautiful mother, who committed suicide in his youth. Lilith’s protean artistic sensibility, transgressive sexuality, and otherworldly air — all movingly portrayed in a remarkable performance by Jean Seberg — unravel the veteran’s altruistic relationship to her and to his job. In his obsession with her, and his increasing brutality and possessiveness, his own mental illness is revealed. This has tragic results when another patient, also in love with Lilith, commits suicide. In the end, the veteran is pleading for mental help at the same institution where Lilith has retreated into a catatonic state.

There are films in the series with so lurid a foregrounding of madness and strife, they obscure the harsh view of the systemic order that augments it. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for example, written by Edward Albee and directed by Mike Nichols, is a famously annihilating examination of two hair-raising marriages. One is the relentlessly hectoring and abusive partnership of a middle-aged pair, George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), tellingly named after the first American president and his wife.

They make a night’s entertainment out of embroiling a young couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis), in their “fun and games” entitled “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” and “Get the Guests.” In the process, it’s demonstrated that the older couple are more lovingly bonded through their mutually lacerating union than the vapid, dishonest younger couple pretending to share a conventionally fond and harmonious relationship.

But the setting for the harrowing night, a small New England college, allows for an insightful takedown of academia as well. George is the lowly history professor who’s never advanced beyond “associate” status though he’s married to Martha, the daughter of the college president. He’s never allowed to forget his failure to advance, and there’s no pretense there of valuing erudition or excellence in teaching or scholarship. It’s clear that hierarchical status and the ability to schmooze to advantage is what matters. As Nick, a newly hired biology professor, gets drunker in the course of the evening, he reveals his plans to climb the tenure-track ladder with cynical socializing, sucking up to the president, and “plowing a few pertinent wives,” including Martha herself.

Seconds (1966) and Targets (1968) both posit a world of social conformity so intense it drives even the most well-adapted citizens to desperate measures and eventual psychotic breaks. In John Frankenheimer’s quietly freaky film Seconds, an unfulfilled banking executive has become more and more estranged from his wife and daughter and his entire dully respectable, upper-middle-class milieu. He agrees to be provided with a new, more youthful, and exciting identity (embodied by Rock Hudson), courtesy of a secretive organization called the Company. It provides extensive plastic surgery and rejuvenation and places him in a bohemian life as a respected artist in Malibu.

Still from Targets (1968). (Paramount Pictures)

What at first seems to be paradise is revealed to be a pre-scripted life populated with actors hired by the Company. But as the banker struggles to get back into his old, routinized existence, it turns out it’s impossible for him to return, because that’s not good for the Company’s long-term corporate success.

And Targets, the astonishing low-budget feature film debut of Peter Bogdanovich, produced by Roger Corman, is constructed to make an argument about how the horror of contemporary life far outstrips what classic horror films represent as monstrous. Boris Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a variation on himself, an elderly horror film star who’s on the verge of retirement, claiming that he’s become an anachronism as his brand of Gothic horror is no longer pertinent in an age of frighteningly casual violence and dire widespread anomie.

Intercut with his narrative is a storyline that proves his point, involving a wholesome-looking, sandy-haired young insurance agent named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) who lives in apparent suburban harmony with his family — mother, father, and young wife. The most manifestly disturbing things about their lives are the omnipresence of guns, the color scheme of the house decorated in clashing greens, and the terrible sense that all the bland superficial smiliness of Bobby Thompson’s life must be covering up something.

His only definite problem seems to be his intense, unexplained headaches. But ultimately this young man is going to wind up at a drive-in screening of Orlok’s latest horror film, where he’ll station himself behind the screen and start shooting at the audience in their parked cars all while the Orlok’s projected monstrous character stalks around on the screen above the real-life mayhem.

Bogdanovich modeled the Bobby Thompson character on “Texas Tower Sniper” Charles Whitman, an ex-marine who in 1966 stabbed his wife and mother to death and then shot dozens of people at random from the height of the clock tower on the campus at the University of Texas at Austin. The fascination of the case for many people was the way Whitman didn’t match the profile of the “typical killer,” because he was white, blond, clean-cut, and middle-class, and was perceived as having snapped without warning. Though there were actually many warning signs of Whitman’s mentally disturbed state and troubled childhood in an abusive, gun-filled home.

Targets had a disastrous release because of its timing, coming out the year Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. A traumatized American public was in no mood to watch a film about a mass shooting. Some of the most arresting films in the series are the obscure ones that, much like Targets, didn’t find an audience at the time of their release. For example, I’d never even heard of Uptight (1968), though it’s a film by Jules Dassin, who directed important films noirs (Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City) before he was blacklisted, fled to Europe, and went on to have a significant career overseas (Rififi, Never on Sunday).  

Written by Dassin, along with Julian Mayfield and Ruby Dee, who play major roles in the film, Uptight is a loose remake of John Ford’s The Informer set in the black community of Cleveland right after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It makes very intense use of documentary footage from King’s funeral in the opening sequence. The footage is being watched on television by the main character, Tank (Mayfield), an aging, unemployed alcoholic who’d been involved in the civil rights movement and is in a state of drunken anguish over King’s death. But his friends, who’d also been in the movement with him, have already rejected King’s nonviolent approach in favor of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and armed revolution.

Still from Uptight (1968). (Paramount Pictures)

They’ve increasingly come to view Tank as a liability, and he’s soon regarded as a traitor as well. In a fit of anger at being rejected by his community, and desperate for money, Tank informs the police of the whereabouts of his fugitive best friend and collects the reward money. Thereafter his guilt is so extreme, he spends the little remaining time he has left running from what he’s done and the vengeful killers who are chasing him down and trying to understand and atone for his fatal deed.

The film tracks the main narrative of Ford’s The Informer fairly steadily, with one remarkable exception at the end. When Tank submits himself to the rough justice of his former friends, offering himself up to the bullets they’re firing, he’s standing in a Christ-like pose on a platform in front of the steel mill where he’d once worked. He identifies the loss of his steady job there — he was fired for attacking a white mill employee who was harassing the black workers, and then he did prison time for assault — as the end of his self-respect and the beginning of his long road to ruin. “Twenty years I worked here,” he shouts up at the plant, “and you don’t even know my name!” This is a startling evocation of King’s often-ignored emphasis on issues of labor and economic injustice. In the many scenes dramatizing political factionalism and debate in the film, King’s turn toward socialism isn’t mentioned, but it’s reflected in the staging of the final scene as well as the persistent emphasis on economic privation throughout.

As highly charged as these films are, they’re strangely very soothing to watch — they represent a recognition and a grappling with the lunacy people were facing every day at the time. One of the most crazy-making aspects of American life now is the lack of acknowledgement in mainstream media and popular culture of how deranged everything has become. You’d never guess from watching most American-made news and movies and television that huge numbers of people working multiple jobs can’t afford decent housing or health care; that the entire educational system is falling apart; that the military is always fighting multiple wars that were never approved by Congress and that the populace is barely aware of; that the government in general is so far from representing what the majority of citizens want, it’s become surreal; or that we’re on the brink of a worldwide environmental catastrophe.

I don’t know a single person who’s living a relaxed and secure life. Everybody I know is stressed out of their minds, terribly overworked and underpaid — or underemployed and underpaid — and desperately anxious about what the future holds. It’s ironic that, in these 1960s films, when Americans are represented as flailing in such a crisis state, their era seems to be relatively stable compared to ours. In fact, its stability is often represented as the problem — the economic, educational, mental health, legal, corporate, and military systems seem entrenched and virtually unchallengeable.

As for the apartments, houses, and cars owned by ordinary characters in these films, they seem to contemporary eyes to be so plentifully, luxuriously, affordable they distract from the film narratives. But whether you watch these films for the houses-and-car porn or the portraits of shattering American psyches, don’t miss the Hollywood Crack-Up series.