1968: Men’s Hats as Symbols of Change

Nineteen-sixty-eight was a tumultuous year.  Students protested the Vietnam war,  women and minorities demanded equal rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Timothy Leary was arrested for marijuana possession, Apollo 8 circled the moon, and male movie characters, especially cops and criminals, stopped wearing fedoras.

Having grasped the meaning of foreign competition and the success with the burgeoning youth market of the 1967 films Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, bonnie-and-clydeHollywood in November, 1968 supplanted the hoary Production or “Hayes” Code with the Motion Picture Association of America system designating movies as G, M, R, and X.  The transition had actually begun earlier in the decade when some movies began to push the envelope.  These included 1964’s The Pawnbroker and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? whose poster proclaimed, “No One Under 18 Will Be Admitted Unless Accompanied by His Parent.”  That same year the poster for The Group featured “This Picture is Recommended for Adults.”  More often in the next year and a half, “Suggested for Mature Audiences” was the favored notice on posters for adult-oriented films, including the historical burlesque A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Cornel Wilde’s bloody World War II saga, Beach Red (1967); the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney romantic comedy-drama Two for the Road (1967);  John Huston’s take on Carson McCullers’ novel of obsession, desire and possibly repressed homosexuality, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando; the tear-jerker Sweet November (1968) with Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley; and the British post-“kitchen sink” movie, Up the Junction (1968).  “Suitable Only for Adults” graced the ad for another Brit film about the swingin’ sixties, 1968’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.

Little remarked upon then or now, but symbolic of cinematic and societal change, was that the police and criminal elements in 60s films were on a trajectory toward hatlessness.  Four major 1968 films bear scrutiny on this score.  

The Detective was originally a “Suggested for Mature Audiences” movie, but later, apparently for its general release, had the R rating slapped onto the poster.  (Recall that big movies premiered in cities and might not reach suburban and small town theaters for weeks or, if they were successful reserved-seat “roadshows,”e.g., Cleopatra, The Sound of Music, months or even a year later.)

The Detective was joined on coogans-bluffthe screen in ‘68 by three other big crime movies that deserve analysis on their own as well as with the new freedom in mind.  There is subtext revealed by release dates.  Madigan was released in March, The Detective in May, Coogan’s Bluff (“Suggested for Mature Audiences” in the trailer; later rated R), and Bullitt in October.  Besides being crime movies with detectives as protagonists, there were other similarities.  Don Siegel directed both Madigan and Coogan’s Bluff.  Those two films plus The Detective were set in New York City.  Bullitt was set in San Francisco.

The differences were that Madigan starred Richard Widmark, The Detective Frank Sinatra, two stars who’d been around since the 1940s.  Bullitt and Coogan’s Bluff featured two stars who’d served their apprenticeships in the 1950s:  Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.  Besides a changing of the guard, Bullitt and Coogan’s Bluff featured an escalation in violence and rough language although it was fairly raw in Madigan, and the dead victim’s severed genitals were found (but not pictured) at the initial crime scene in The Detective.

It is fascinating that The Detective and Madigan appeared first—and that Coogan’s Bluff preceded Bullitt.  Rating-wise, it appears that the R appended to both The Detective and Coogan’s Bluff occurred after the initial releases, which were just before the new code took effect.

These four movies of then contemporary subject matter were also consequential for what at first glance might be viewed as a trivial reason.  In time-honored fashion, Sinatra andbullitt Widmark wore hats—fedoras.  In Coogan’s Bluff and Bullitt, Eastwood and McQueen went hatless.  (Eastwood’s Stetson was knocked off when he got to New York, and he was bare-headed when he finally brought down Don Stroud’s Ringerman.  How fascinating and amusing is it that Lee J. Cobb’s veteran chief of detectives still wore his fedora—even when sitting behind his desk!  Cobb’s character represented the past—in the cinema and real life.)  McQueen’s Bullitt had no hat from the get-go.  (And his trenchcoat was beltless.  Compare with Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.)  When Dirty Harry premiered in 1971, Eastwood’s Harry Callahan wore no hat—fedora or Stetson.  The transition was complete.  In 1971’s The French Connection, Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle did wear a hat, but it wasn’t a fedora, rather a porkpie.  His pal Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) went hatless.  Move forward to 1997 and observe the faux pas committed by the makers of L. A. Confidential.  None of the detectives wore hats despite a story set in the 1950s.

kiss_of_death_ver3_xlgCinema criminals had also made fedoras the headgear of choice, from The Public Enemy and Little Caesar in the 1930s, to Kiss of Death and Out of the Past in the 1940s, to The Big Combo and Violent Saturday in the 1950s.  However, as the sixties progressed, the bad guys began the transition from hat to hatless.  See, for instance, Lee Marvin in 1967’s Point Blank.  The fedora he sported in Violent Saturday (1955) had become passe.

Fedoras were not the only items of apparel to cease existing in contemporary 1960s films and not make a comeback.  Negligees also disappeared from the screen unless the film was a Gothic.

By Kim

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