The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Movie Title Screen
Film Title/Year, Director

Lolita (1962, UK)
D. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick played up the dark humor in Nabokov's novel about a middle-aged man infatuated with a pubescent girl, but the subject was still a shocker.

Stanley Kubrick's sixth film - a brilliant, sly adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's celebrated yet controversially-infamous 1955 novel of a middle-aged man's unusual, doomed sexual passion/obsession for a precocious, seductive "nymphet" girl, was cause for some concern. [The scandalous book was banned in Paris in 1956-1958, and not published in its full form in the US or UK until 1958.] The question: "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" was actually asked on the film's posters. The X-rated UK film's Hollywood premiere disallowed young star Sue Lyon (14-15 years old at the time of filming) from attending.

Although Nabokov was appointed to write the screenplay for his own lengthy novel, Kubrick rewrote (with co-producer James B. Harris) Nabokov's unacceptable versions of the script in a more sanitized fashion. The age of Lolita in the novel was raised from 12 years old to that of a typical high-schooler - probably 14 or 15, to avoid some predicted controversy. The threat of censorship and denial of a Seal of Approval from the film industry's production code and the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency overshadowed the film's production.

The black humor and dramatic story of juvenile temptation and perverse, late-flowering lust was centered on a pubescent nymphet and a mature literature professor in an aura of incest. Rather than a film of overt sexuality and prurient subject matter, its content was deliberately mostly suggestive, with numerous double entendres, whisperings, meaningful facial expressions, and metaphoric sexual situations, with carefully-placed fades to black.

Its most troublesome character who assumed various disguises, was actually Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) - an implied pedophile and child pornographer.

The film opened with an erotic pedicure scene under the credits of obsessed, middle-aged boarder and literature professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) cradling the title character's foot and then lovingly and devotedly painting her toenails with bright enamel - hinting at pedophilia.

Sue Lyon starred as the title character Dolores Haze - a tempting, precocious, iconic, underaged nymphet nicknamed Lolita - first viewed in the garden in a two-piece bathing suit and sun-hat, and eyed by the passion of Humbert.

The film was noted for the scene of their overnight stay at a hotel and Lolita's early morning coquettish suggestion to play a game that she learned at camp, while seductively twirling the hair on his head with her finger --- followed by a discrete fade to black.

[See also entry for the remake - Lolita (1997).]

Mondo Cane (1962, It.) (aka A Dog's World)
D. Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, Franco E. Prosperi

This Italian shockumentary was castigated for exploiting footage of lurid cultural practices from around the world.

This popular Italian-made globe-trotting, amateurish "shockumentary" was luridly advertised as a travelogue of "truth stranger than fiction" - with xenophobic glimpses of dark-skinned, bare 'savages' engaged in grotesque and bizarre religious rituals, tribal ceremonies, animal cruelty, and lurid scenes of human perversity!

The film was castigated as pornographic, trashy and vulgar, although by today's standards would be considered extremely tame. Often faked, reconstructed or manipulated footage (with misleading narration) included:

  • man-chasing (or hunting) by bare-breasted native girls in New Guinea, contrasted with a busty bikini-clad female followed by sailors, and other swimsuit-clad gals on a boat oogled by nearby sailors
  • a mass pig-slaughtering, roasting and feast in New Guinea
  • a wealthy pet cemetery (a pet haven for pet lovers) in Pasadena, CA contrasted with the eating of roast dogmeat in open-air restaurants in Taipei, Taiwan
  • chicks dyed in different colors for Easter in Greece
  • the force-feeding of decorated native girls to make them more marriageable and fertile contrasted with western weight-loss techniques (gym equipment exercises, dancing, etc.)
  • environmental catastrophe - the effects of radiation and nuclear atomic testing on the small island of Bikini Atoll
  • an exercise-bathing-massage parlor in Tokyo, Japan for drunken men, populated with women in bras and shorts
  • Singapore's "House of Death" - a hotel for the dying
  • an LA junkyard crushing cars into cubes
  • hula dancing and leis in Hawaii for arriving cruise tourists, and the Kodak hula show
  • the running of the bulls and bull-fighting in Portugal
  • New Guinea natives worshipping in a Western church service, and receiving communion

The film inspired a series of sequel "Mondo" films (or "shockumentaries") and dozens of imitators, including Rolf Olsen's Shocking Asia (1974) and Conan Le Cilaire's Faces of Death, Part 1 (1978) series of films. It was the progenitor of "snuff" films, execution videos, hard-core pornography, and even reality TV.

Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
D. Arthur Penn

One of the most stylistically influential movies of the '70s was accused of glamorizing Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

It was one of the sixties' most talked-about, volatile, controversial crime/gangster films combining comedy, terror, love, and ferocious violence. It was produced by Warner Bros. - the studio responsible for the gangster films of the 1930s. This innovative, revisionist Hollywood film redefined and romanticized the crime/gangster genre and the depiction of screen violence forever.

The landmark film by post-WWII director Arthur Penn (who had previously directed The Miracle Worker (1962), The Train (1964) (uncredited and replaced by John Frankenheimer), and Mickey One (1965) - also with Beatty) was ultimately a popular and commercial success, but it was first widely denounced and condemned by film reviewers for glamorizing the two Depression-era killers (Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow), and only had mediocre box-office results.

The Dust-Bowl period was effectively evoked, although the loose adaptation was also an inaccurate and fictionalized retelling of history. When they first met, the real Bonnie (19 years old) and Clyde (21 years old) weren't glamorous characters, and their romantic involvement was questionable. She was already the wife of an imprisoned murderer, and he was a petty thief and vagrant with numerous misdemeanors.

In the film, the story of Clyde's rise and self-destructive fall as an anti-authoritarian criminal gangster was clearly depicted. Both tragic outlaw figures exemplified 'innocents on the run' who clung to each other and tried to function as a family. The film, with many opposing moods and shifts in tone (from serious to comical), was a cross between a gangster film, tragic-romantic traditions, a road film and buddy film, and screwball comedy.

In the autumn of 1967, it opened and closed quite quickly - enough time for it to be indignantly criticized for its shocking violence, graphic bullet-ridden finale (with its slow-motion ballet of death) and for its blending of humorous farce with brutal killings. Then, after a period of reassessment, there were glowing reviews, critical acclaim, a Time Magazine cover story, and the film's re-release - and it was nominated for ten Academy Awards.

The film's overall impact was heightened by its open examination of the gallant Clyde's sexuality-impotence and the link to his gun-toting violence. The film was also remarkable and controversial for its honest depiction of the unique relationship between an impotent Clyde and the sexually-aggressive Bonnie. [To fulfill heartthrob Warren Beatty's image as a sex-symbol, he was finally able to consummate his love for Bonnie by film's end.]

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967, Swe.) (aka Jag är Nyfiken - En Film I Gult)
D. Vilgot Sjoman

This avant-garde mockumentary about '60s youth was condemned as pornographic, even though it's more about political protests than free love.

This landmark, avante-garde, mock-documentary film (shot with mostly hand-held cameras) allegedly included 'offensive' sexual scenes that were claimed to be pornographic at the time - scenes of full frontal nudity of both sexes (at 38 minutes into the film), simulated intercourse, and the kissing of the male's flaccid penis (over a full hour into the film). US Customs seized the film in 1968, and the courts (and the Supreme Court) originally determined that the movie was 'obscene', although this verdict was overturned after appeal. Many Supreme Court battles ensued before it could be distributed. It became a benchmark film for free-speech advocates.

After it was cleared and released in the US in 1969, it became a blockbuster hit, although it was often picketed. It garnered $5 million in six months (a much higher figure when adjusted for inflation). The Swedish import soon became the highest-grossing foreign film (at $20 million) released in the US for decades (a record that stood until Il Postino broke the mark in the mid 1990's), although most who watched it considered it boring and pretentious.

By today's standards, it is considered tame, but it helped to open the floodgates toward hard-core pornography that exhibited penetration and ejaculation, such as the X-rated Best Picture Midnight Cowboy (1969), the porno chic Deep Throat (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972).

The radical, experimental film-within-a-film of sexual politics told the dull and pretentious story of liberated 22 year-old Lena (Lena Nyman), an aspiring sociologist who was curious about political issues in late 60s Sweden, with endless soul-searching, lengthy street interviews with common people about the class system, newsreel footage, scenes of protest regarding the Vietnam War, scribbled on-screen slogans, her cataloguing of information, etc. Sexual interludes between Lena and car salesman Borje Ahlstedt (mirrored in the film and real life by a tumultuous triangle with director Vilgot Sjoman) are shot frankly and realistically.

Unused footage and alternate takes from the film were culled for a concurrent, parallel film I Am Curious (Blue) (1968, Swe.) released in the US in 1970. The choice of colors represented the two colors of the Swedish flag.

Titicut Follies (1967)
D. Fredrick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman's disturbing documentary exposed abuse in mental institutions, but its unflinching footage of patients was called insensitive.

First-time filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's despairing cinema-verite (observational or objective) masterpiece, one of the greatest documentaries of all time, was about the horrid and abusive conditions ("painful aspects of mental disease") at the state-run Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, a prison-hospital asylum for seriously ill, heavily-tranquilized men (defined by authorities as "criminally insane" or "sexually dangerous").

The film's title referred to a mock-softshoe song/dance routine ("Strike Up the Band"), performed and acted out at the beginning and end of the film by the inmates and prison officers during an annual vaudeville/variety show (the 'Titicut Follies') performance at the institution.

The silent and passive camera witnessed the stripping, dehumanizing and humiliation of mental patients (who were treated like wild animals) by bullying guards, wardens and psychiatrists. One inmate, who was starving himself to death as protest, was force-fed through a rubber tube roughly inserted into his nostril - followed shortly by the image of his face as he laid in a coffin while being prepared for his funeral.

This highly controversial film (filmed in 1966 on black and white 16 mm. film over a period of 29 days) was barred from distribution and withdrawn from circulation from 1967-1992, by legal action launched by state authorities, because it was considered a violation of the rights of privacy of the prison inmates it filmed, and because it was considered obscene (the film showed male frontal nudity). It was only shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967, and had two limited runs in New York -- aside from a few screenings before film societies.

[Note: Director Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) similarly exposed the conditions in US mental hospitals.]

The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2009 | 2010-present

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