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1962 isn’t considered a vintage movie year — but it should be

A very golden anniversary

Gregory Peck with actor Brock Peters in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Gregory Peck with actor Brock Peters in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird." (REUTERS/Universal Pictures)

Movies, like wine, have vintage years: 1939, 1959, 1967, 1974, the list goes on. Sometimes off-vintage years can be pretty impressive, too. Consider 1962. Fifty years ago, the movie world was in a state of quiet ferment - and ferment, like fermentation, can produce intoxicating results.

Hollywood had adjusted by then to the biggest upheaval in its history, the arrival of television. Now it was making some found money through broadcast sales of titles no longer in release and even poaching from the small screen. “The Miracle Worker’’ and “The Days of Wine and Roses,’’ both originally TV plays before being released on the big screen in 1962, would each get five Oscar nominations.

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Adjustments to television had been made, but the studio era was on its last legs. So was the system of self-imposed censorship that had been in place since the early ’30s. That a novel as scandalous as “Lolita’’ could be filmed, as Stanley Kubrick did that year, would have been previously unthinkable.

Even more telling evidence of change could be found in the most acclaimed picture of the year. “Lawrence of Arabia’’ won seven Academy Awards (including best picture) and produced an exciting new star, Peter O’Toole. David Lean’s film was an epic, a biopic, a war movie, a costume picture, even a bit of a western (think of the camels as horses). It was all those things - but with a dash of something darker. Viewers didn’t have to be very sophisticated to detect the masochism in T.E. Lawrence - Jose Ferrer sure did - or the homoeroticism in O’Toole’s performance.

The studios and their self-censorship had also kept a lid on the politics of American film. Two of the most notable releases of 1962 - one reassuringly tidy and still cherished, the other deeply subversive and still disconcerting - show the extent to which things had begun to change.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird’’ boasted unimpeachable credentials: based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, safely set in the past, starring Gregory Peck at his most impeccably Gregory Peckish. Even if its self-congratulation and complacency make “The Help’’ look radical by comparison, “Mockingbird’’ showed a willingness to confront Southern racism directly as no previous studio release had. Conversely, there was hardly anything direct about “The Manchurian Candidate.’’ That may be one reason it’s worn so well. What seemed like outrageous satire when the film opened, in October 1962, would look eerily premonitory 13 months later, after the Kennedy assassination. Among its other boasts, 1962 can take credit for the paranoid thriller.

Part of the excitement of 1962 was the ever-growing presence of foreign films in American theaters. That development made its own contribution to the end of the studio era and self-censorship and the emergence of a greater political awareness. The overseas competition that American automakers would soon be confronting had already begun effecting changes in American filmmakers - and, just as important, in American filmgoers’ expectations.

Even with no features that year from Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini (who did contribute a segment to the anthology “Boccaccio ’70’’), the list of foreign films is jaw-dropping: Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,’’ Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,’’ Agnes Varda’s “Cleo From 5 to 7,’’ Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,’’ Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivra sa vie,’’ Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water.’’ The reach of foreign films could even extend to the drive-in. “King Kong vs. Godzilla’’ also came out in 1962.

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Influence didn’t cross the Atlantic (or Pacific) in just one direction. Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Doulos’’ would have been unthinkable without the Hollywood gangster picture; and Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro’’ was a sequel, of sorts, to his “Yojimbo,’’ which owed no small debt to John Ford’s westerns.

Ford was still making movies in 1962. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’’ was the year’s 10th-highest grosser. Howard Hawks came out with “Hatari!’’ Orson Welles released his deeply unsettling adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial’’ - another premonitory feature. What a double bill it could make with “Manchurian Candidate.’’ As for younger masters, Sidney Lumet filmed “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’’

That version of Eugene O’Neill’s play starred Katharine Hepburn. She was one Hollywood star of long standing whose career continued undiminished. Others did not fare so well. The old star system, no less than the studios which had nurtured it, was experiencing upheaval. Nineteen sixty-two provided three emblematic examples: the death of Marilyn Monroe, a pop-cultural landmark; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford going all Grand Guignol for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’; and Joel McCrea’s slipping out of the frame at the end of “Ride the High Country.’’ It may be the finest, most poetic image Sam Peckinpah ever put on film.

The emergence of new stars accompanied the decline of old ones. Some were foreign. Although the title roles of “Jules and Jim’’ belonged to Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, the movie itself belonged to Jeanne Moreau. Few star turns in movie history compare with her Catherine. The biggest career to take off in 1962 also belonged to a foreigner, albeit an English-speaking one. In “Dr. No,’’ Sean Connery made his debut as James Bond. Having brought 007 to the screen, 1962 boasts a unique distinction. You might say it’s kept moviegoers shaken, if not stirred, ever since.

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Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.