I became a film fan in the 1970s. It was a good decade, one of the best if we’re ranking Hollywood in such a fashion. It had a number of iconic movies. There were the blockbusters – Jaws and Star Wars – which would rewrite the rules for how Hollywood manufactured its product. There were the comedies – Blazing Saddles and Annie Hall – which firmly established Mel Brooks and Woody Allen as the most important voices in film comedy during the final quarter of the 20th century. The decade’s paranoid cynicism was made visceral in Chinatown and Taxi Driver, movies which also gave us our most iconic post-modern leading men, Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro. Then there were the masculine epics – The Godfather and Apocalypse Now – collaborations between director Francis Ford Coppola and mysterious star Marlon Brando which re-mythologised American history. Finally, two of the greatest examinations of America, not historic America, but the nation as it really was, struggling to maintain its traditional roots in a turbulent decade of change. Do I praise The Last Picture Show and Nashville too much by placing both in my own top ten of all-time American movies? We can fight over that if you like.
But not now. Because American film in the 1970s is far too vast an ocean to pin everything on those ten monumental films. If you haven’t seen any of them, you should. Soon. But I want to peel back the cover a bit and talk about ten other movies. They range from very good too not very good, but they all capture something about the decade that remains magical almost fifty years later. Some may be well known to film fans. Others obscure. I would suggest that once you make sure you have seen the ten mentioned above, you add any of these titles that you may have missed to your list.
The Guilty Pleasures
Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973)
20 years before Jurassic Park, 30 year old physician/novelist Michael Crichton wrote and directed his first feature film, which dealt with creatures run amok at a fantasy theme park. The characters were negligible. Richard Benjamin does not make for much of a lead. But the conception – three theme parks which allow children and adults alike to engage in their wildest fantasies, from the sexual to the pampered to the violent – was astonishing. Perhaps better than any movie of the decade, it captured and restated the very pull that cinema has always had, allowing us to live out our fantasies in a safe way. And it has Yul Brynner. Old school fans may still identify Brynner as the King of Siam, childishly duking it out with Deborah Kerr’s Anna. But if you came of age in the ‘70s, Brynner will always be one scary mother of an android. One of the many great tricks of Westworld, is how, like with HAL in 2001, the film manages to make the soulless machine the most emotionally engaging character on screen. Some may choose Logan’s Run as their ‘70s sci-fi guilty pleasure. But I’ll take Brynner’s scowl over Jenny Agutter’s assets.
The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)
Oh, the angst this comic book style gang picture caused throughout suburbia at the end of the decade. Surely the barbarians were at the gates. When the charismatic leader of New York’s biggest street gang explains that if all the gangs banded together, they could dominate the city, it sent shivers down the spine. Hill and co-writer David Shaber actually softened Sol Yurick’s novel, endowing the Job-like Warriors with a sense of pride and honour that is nowhere to be found in the source material. But it is Hill’s energetic direction that makes the movie fly. The Warriors, framed for Cyrus’ murder and then hunted by every street gang in the city, as well as by the cops, must fight their way home to Cony Island. They rise up through the ranks, dispatching one gang after another in stunning sequences. The Union Station battle with The Punks provides a text book on directing a fight scene. Michael Beck became a star, albeit briefly, for playing the soulful Swan, but David Patrick Kelly, in his brief role as Luther, leader of the gang that framed the Warriors, steals the show. “Warriors – come out and play-ay” became an all-time catch phrase.
Rancho Deluxe (Frank Perry, 1975)
When Cecil (Sam Waterston) asks his partner Jack (Jeff Bridges) what he plans to do with the money they will make from their major cattle rustling operation, Jack says he doesn’t know. “I do this just to keep from falling asleep.” Nothing short of a Green Day song may sum up the restless ennui of the ‘70s better. This is an easy-going, modern Western, in which the cowboys ride in trucks and the cattle baron used to run a beauty parlour in Schenectady. It even has Jimmy Buffett making an on-screen appearance as the singer in the club where Jack and Cecil do their drinking. Echoes of the Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid anti-hero. Echoes of the Five Easy Pieces disaffected young American man. But something all its own. Bridges’ entire career has never been properly appreciated and his work in the early ‘70s is well worth a look. All that, and Slim Pickens too.
Cry Uncle (John Avildsen, 1971)
I don’t know if you can call Rancho Deluxe “sublime,” but you would not be out of line labelling Avildsen’s private detective mystery comedy “ridiculous.” But what a marvellous ridiculousness it is. American film had only recently thrown off the shackles of the Production Code, and you can tell Avildsen had great fun showing a naked woman using a vibrator in the first scene of his movie. You remember that wistful line Bridges says in the movie above? Here, the iconic line comes from a snarling rich old sexual pervert (David Kirk) explaining why women are never happy. “How can anyone be happy when they’re getting fucked all the time?” This has sex, violence and nudity dripping from the frame. The female lead (Madeleine Le Roux) manages to look more naked when she is wearing clothing than when she is not. It also has an awful lot of awful acting. But at the centre, it has Allen Garfield as detective Jake Masters. Garfield, who would be better known for playing creepy corporate villains in movies like The Conversation and Nashville, is a joy to behold. He is a sweet, overweight Sam Spade type with a sense of humour and perspective. He knows the world is slimy and he knows his movie is low class, but he is determined to make the best of it. Cheap, tawdry, and lots of ’70 fun.
The Parallax View (Alan Pakula, 1974)
Richard Nixon became the first and only President to resign from office on August 9, 1974. Two months earlier, Alan Pakula released this low-boil political thriller, based on the novel by Loren Singer. The timing is not coincidental. After a decade of unrest and assassination, of conspiracy and suppression, the Watergate break-in was the stuff of Greek tragedy. Paranoia revved high. No one trusted anyone. With that as its back-drop, Pakula’s movie captured an atmosphere of cynicism as well as any movie I’ve ever seen. Warren Beatty – the very poster-child for the new brand of masculine American potency, is Joe Frady, earnest but impotent investigative journalist. As he delves into the assassination of a politician, he will meet with a very different end from that of Watergate’s Woodward and Bernstein. The film is dark and moody, save for the centrepiece experimental film used as a test for employment at the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Frady is one of a long line of ‘70s heroes – a list which includes Chinatown’s Jake Gittes and Network’s Howard Beale – who think they are smarter than the corporate goliaths that run the world. The Parallax View, even more than the other movies, proves just how wrong they are.
Marjoe (Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, 1972)
His name was a composite of Mary and Joseph, and when you see him in the opening shots, preaching the gospel with the vigour of the most aggressive used car salesman, you can be forgiven if you think this movie is over the top. But this is not fiction, and the preacher you are watching is 6 years old. The story of Marjoe Gortner, wonder-child of evangelical circles in the years after World War II, would win the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1973, and it remains an audacious piece of filmmaking. At the time of the film, Gortner was a young adult, who had returned to the only business he had ever known – the business that his parents had trained him for from the age of 3. “Trained” might not be the right word. Gortner relates the story of how his mother would hold a pillow of his face when the 4 year old was unable to memorise the wedding service verbatim. She wanted him to be the youngest preacher who performed marriages and nothing would stand in her way. Gortner invited a film crew to follow him on his final tour, granting them behind-the-scenes access to all of the tricks evangelical preachers use to separate dollars from their flocks. Marjoe is a fascinating character to behold – part true believer, part rock star, part cynic. By this point, he had decided he could no longer perpetuate the fraud, and he let us all in on the scam. The film’s disappearance from public consciousness is a fairly astonishing development, especially considering the continuing presence of “preachers” like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar.
Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)
The ‘70s were not some magical decade for women’s equality. But for a while, it seemed like it might be. The Equal Rights Amendment was ratified by 35 states. Mary Tyler Moore got her own hit television show in which she played a single woman not defined by her relationship to a man. And in the world of American film, more women ascended to the director’s chair than ever before. As the decade began. Barbara Loden, a young actress in the early stages of her career, wrote and directed this remarkable portrait of a woman drifting along at the mercy of a series of uncaring men. Francis Ford Coppola, who would go on to make the very masculine movies mentioned above, had released The Rain People in 1969, which covered similar ground. But whereas Coppola’s oppression of his female lead had a patronising benevolence, Loden’s men were brutal and violent. This is slow moving cinema without much dramatic momentum, and yet it builds remarkable power. And Loden’s child-like blend of innocence and toughness is a marvel to behold. Alas, rumoured pressure from her successful director-husband Elia Kazan caused Loden to never direct again. By the end of the decade, Mary was off the air, and the ERA was all but defeated. The decade of possibility was over.
3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
Altman was remarkably proficient in the ‘70s, covering a wide range of topics with an even wider range of styles. Many of his best films – McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, A Wedding – presented an array of intriguing female characters. And two of his movies – Images and 3 Women – are stunning and mysterious portraits of the pressures imposed on women in the modern world. 3 Women, which is often compared to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, stands above all others movies of this type. It is odd and evocative, with an ending that can be endlessly debated. It is full of weird imagery and boasts one of the greatest horror/dream musical scores of any film (Gerald Busby’s only film score.) Sissy Spacek is extraordinary as the naïve waif who morphs into a cold monster, and Shelley Duvall, largely a character actress to that point, delivers a unique and unforgettable creation. Her Millie Lammoreaux is simultaneously pathetic and triumphant. The women’s journey (Janice Rule is the third) through a magical rebirth into a world without male oppression will stay with you, whether you can make sense of it or not.
The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971)
Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky stands as one of the most potent rebuttals to the auteur theory. For though Arthur Hiller and Sidney Lumet are fine directors, The Hospital and Network are clearly dominated by a single voice, and that is the voice of the screenwriter. Chayefsky would win more awards for Network, but his takedown of modern American medicine five years earlier (which also won an Oscar) may be even better work. Both are marvellously prophetic stories which are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Both are wickedly, bitterly funny. But I’ve always felt that satirising network television was almost too easy for Chayefsky, who had spent most of his career in that medium. I think he goes a bit overboard because the subject is so rife with silliness. But there is nothing silly about The Hospital. When George C. Scott’s tragically heroic Dr. Herbert Bock spits out his immortal lines “We have established an enormous medical entity and we’re sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal nothing!” you could swear Armageddon is nigh. Along with classics like Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove, this is as fine a satire as America has ever produced.
Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)
Watkins is a Brit, but this movie reeks of America. A mock documentary unlike anything Christopher Guest could envision, this movie is ostensibly being made by a British film crew, documenting an alternative punitive program for young Americans found guilty of a little too much free speech. Watkins cast non-professional actors based on their actual beliefs, and when the hippies begin arguing with the authority figures, the animosity is palpable. This is brutal, outlandish, dystopian – and just a bit too close to being true for comfort. As with the little-seen Marjoe, this movie has largely been forgotten despite significant relevance to 2016.
And in many ways, that is true of the 1970s in general. There was a freedom, an openness, a playfulness, and a danger that modern American movies rarely capture. It may well have been an era known for bad clothing and bad hair. An era in which filmmakers relished the ability to say “fuck” and show tits on screen. An era of poor taste and wild experimentation. But all of that helped create a spirit sorely lacking today, and one the great decades in American film.