Don Draper goes to the movies a lot in “Mad Men.” He says it helps him “clear the cobwebs.” Matthew Weiner probably shares that sentiment, as he recently unveiled a list of ten films he made required viewing for the cast and crew of the series, which returns to AMC for its final season this Sunday. Weiner’s picks, including “The Apartment,” “Blue Velvet,” “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo,” which he hadn’t seen until “Mad Men” began, certainly conjure the time and place of the series, with its brooding ennui, quiet desperation and surreal visual touches. But here are five more films that summon the real spirit of “Mad Men.” Surely Don Draper would have seen all of them.
“La Notte” (1961)
In a rare conversation about the things he actually likes, Don mentions “La Notte,” while driving through the night with Bobbie Barrett, with whom he’s having an affair, in Season Two’s “The New Girl.” Antonioni’s stark portrait of haute-bourgeois boredom is a dreamy nighttime journey that drives apart a husband and wife drifting through Milan’s skyscrapers, streets and soul-numbing parties. Season Three of “Mad Men” stands as a similarly surgically precise picture of a marital breakdown. In “Souvenir,” Betty follows Don on a business jaunt to Rome, where she, like Jeanne Moreau’s Lidia in “La Notte,” confronts just how meaningless her own life is in the shadow of her successful husband. At the end of “La Notte,” Moreau reads Marcello Mastroianni a letter and acknowledges the end of their relationship, and they embrace under a tree. It’s hard not to think of the haunting closing image of “My Old Kentucky Home,” where Don and Betty clutch each other emptily in a clearing under the moonlight, mutually accepting the fact that they’ve made their bed, and all the lies in it.
“La Dolce Vita” (1960)
As a dapper womanizer with a suit and a haircut, Don Draper could pass for a modern day heir to the men played by slick Italian star Marcello Mastroianni, who plays a journalist mingling with the decadents of Rome in Fellini’s Ulyssean odyssey of seven nights in the city. The aristocrats and debauched intellectuals of “La Dolce Vita” chase the sweet life, only to be crushed by the pressures of the 20th century. Late in the film, a suicide proves as troubling for Marcello as Lane Pryce’s is for Don in “Mad Men” Season Five, an indication that all is not as it appears for the materialistic well-to-do. In “Mad Men” and “La Dolce Vita,” everyone is chasing a phantom, and endless philandering and boozing are means to temper to the gnawing fact that modern life is poison.
Jacques Tati would have had a ball inside the Sterling Cooper office, with its brutalist modernity, clean lines, panes of twinkling glass and the locomotive plunking of typewriters and telephones. Comprised of one madcap set piece after another, “Playtime” is the French auteur’s hysterical 1967 symphony of Paris in which, amid futuristic gizmos and whirligigs, Monsieur Hulot finds himself hopelessly lost. In “Mad Men” as the 70s loom, its characters navigate an equally imposing future world. In the Season Seven episode “The Monolith,” whose title is not its only sly nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Sterling Cooper introduces a menacingly large computer into the office that triggers the breakdown of paranoiac copywriter Ginsberg. Though limited by its small screen canvas “Mad Men”‘s retro style similarly renders the alienation of modern times through its production design, but without Tati’s affection and amusement.
“The Swimmer” (1968)
John Cheever’s disenfranchised suburbanites wear their repression like armor, and clutch their liquor as a salve to the dullness of existence. Frank Perry’s strange, stylish Cheever adaptation stars Burt Lancaster as a hard-swilling ad executive who party-hops through the backyard pools of moneyed Connecticut. Its surreal, dreamlike pull recalls “Mad Men” at its most hallucinatory, from “Tale of Two Cities,” in which Don Draper stares at his own drowned corpse floating face down in a pool, to “Far Away Places” and “The Crash,” where jump cuts and heightened frame rates captures Roger and Don’s drugged states of mind. “Mad Men” wouldn’t exist without writers like John Cheever or Richard Yates, whose extraordinary novel “Revolutionary Road” also revealed the despair and loneliness hidden beneath the suits and ties of the 1950s.
“All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
Melo master Douglas Sirk peeked behind the curtains of New England’s country clubs, picket-fenced houses and dinner parties to reveal the repressions of the 1950s. When “Mad Men” begins, it’s 1960, and the artifice of this old world is eroding. Matthew Weiner establishes in the first season the various myths he wants to strip away: the man in the suit, the housewife, the secretary. Douglas Sirk examines the psychology of a housewife in “All That Heaven Allows,” turning to a widowed New England socialite (Jane Wyman) who falls for her handsome gardener (Rock Hudson) — much to the dismay of her stuffy milieu. In “Mad Men,” Betty Draper, another put-upon homemaker, commits small acts of rebellion — firing off a rifle at the neighbor’s birds, fantasizing about a door-to-door air conditioning salesman — against a world that insists, as her dead father does in a dream sequence in “The Fog,” she’s “just a housewife: very important, with little to do.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter @ryanlattanzio.