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They oughta be in pictures: Five essential films that reflect Mad Men’s cinematic world

"I've seen everything and I've the ticket stubs to prove it," says Don Draper in Mad Men, which would be reasonable enough for an executive in an industry that constantly borrows from the movies, but it could also represent series creator and film buff, Matthew Weiner, who peppers his series with movie references from the era. Mad Men doesn't attempt to imitate the cinema of early sixties so much as evoke an idealized version of it. The TV aspect ratio is more confined than the movies of the time, the muted colour scheme feels more early seventies (suggesting the series' retrospective gaze) and the TV cable budget means the show is largely confined to studio sets. (For a striking contrast, see Alexander Mackendrick's 1957's New York noir of the PR industry, The Sweet Smell of Success). But the use the clean lines of sixties' furniture and architecture, and the frequent use of cameras on tracks (as opposed to handheld or Steadicam) suggest the era, along with plenty of specific visual quotes that includes both the office comedies (Lover Come Back, The Apartment) and melodramas (The Best of Everything, Imitation of Life) of the period. Here are five films that are particularly key to the Mad Men cinematic context.

Everett Collection

The Apartment (1960)

Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?” – Fred MacMurray’s J. D. Sheldrake

Billy Wilder’s seriocomic tale of clandestine affairs, boozing and corporate gamesmanship in mid-century tops the list of movies cited as an influence on Mad Men. The Apartment won five Academy Awards, including for best picture, a reminder that cynicism about corporate definitions of success was already entirely mainstream. Jack Lemmon stars as an ambitious junior employee at a Manhattan insurance company whose downtown apartment is a handy place for executives to carry on clandestine affairs. Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, the elevator girl involved with married executive J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who learns of her suicide attempt while he’s busy in his suburban home decorating the family Christmas tree. Weiner has described this film as “the apex of a period that I had already been fascinated with. I loved the characters, and just writingwise I always try and emulate that kind of storytelling.”

Lover Come Back (1961)

“Give me a well-stacked dame in a bathing suit, and I’ll sell aftershave to beatniks.” – Rock Hudson’s Jerry Webster

The idea that the advertising pitch has a lot in common with seduction was very much in the air ever since the publication of Vince Packard’s 1957 bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders. In this comic take on the theme, Delbert Mann directed Rock Hudson and Doris Day’s second sex comedy after Pillow Talk. In it, Hudson plays Jerry Webster, serial seducer and unscrupulous advertising man; Day is Carol Templeton, an honest ad woman at a rival agency who uses hard work and originality, only to see the client stolen by Jerry’s sleazy methods. Jerry decides to pretend to be a sheltered inventor, and contrives to have Carol seduce him to get his account. Things misfire when they both indulge in the product, VIP, a candy wafer with the impact of a triple martini.
Everett Collection

North by Northwest (1959)

“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as the lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” – Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill

The evocations of Alfred Hitchcock are frequent in Mad Men, including the Saul Bass-style graphics that open the show, and specifically the image of a falling man used in the poster for North by Northwest. As well, Jon Hamm’s square-jawed, big-shouldered look evokes both Rock Hudson and, in this film, Cary Grant. He plays suave playboy advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is kidnapped after being mistaken for another man. The themes of double identity and deception are the most obvious links between Mad Men and North by Northwest. The other is the movie’s title, taken from Hamlet’s speech, in which he feigns insanity: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

This is the secret ingredient: it can’t miss, I’m combining greed with sex.” – Robert Morse’s J. Pierpoint Finch

This satirical musical, based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same title, follows ambitious J. Pierpont Finch, who uses the self-help book to rise from window washer to chair of the board of World Wide Wicket Company. Robert Morse, who played in the original Broadway version, which opened in 1961, reprised his role in David Swift’s 1967 film. The casting of Morse as Bertram Cooper, cunning founding partner of Mad Men ad firm Sterling Cooper, should be regarded as entirely intentional.
Everett Collection

The Swimmer (1968)

“You see, if you make-believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.” – Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill

John Cheever’s stories of mid-century middle-class ennui are at the heart of Mad Men, though only one of his stories made it into a 1960s feature film. The Swimmer, shot in 1966 by Frank Perry (and finished by Sidney Pollack, among others) wasn’t released until the trippier era of 1968, but has enjoyed cult status since then. Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merrill, a middle-aged advertising executive who gets the idea of swimming back home through a series of neighbour’s backyard pools. Along the way, we learn the story of his family’s collapse. The key Mad Men episode is Season 4’s The Summer Man, when Don Draper decides to cut back on his drinking and take up the purifying act of swimming, only to be reminded of his physical decline. All that smoking and martini swilling has begun to take its toll, no matter how good he looks on the outside.

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