Movies' Greatest Year, Part II: The 70s

"Mad as Hell" -- Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in 1976's Network

In 2014, I marked the 75th anniversary of 1939, often described as movies’ greatest year. I explored some of the best from that year and five other strong film years – 1941, 1946, 1951, 1962 and 1967, covering the height and gradual decline of the classic Hollywood studio system.

The next chapter covers what so many, myself included, consider film’s true golden age: the 1970s. The studio system, which had once controlled filmmaking from start to finish, was dead. Multinational corporations had bought many of the studios, but did not know what to do with them. The Hays Code, which limited what could be shown on film, was also gone, replaced by the much looser ratings system.

Without clear direction, the studios’ executives saw little choice but to give more freedom to directors. This freedom included sex, violence and language that would have been unthinkable only a decade before. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, assassinations, the Vietnam War, and later Watergate, the public was more than ready to question authority and tradition.

Combined, these developments produced an era of filmmaking exploration arguably unparalleled before or since. Into this brave new world stepped a new generation of filmmakers, one that had grown up with both film and television; one that had studied filmmaking in school. They admired and were well versed in the old Hollywood film language, but were also influenced by filmmakers from Europe and Japan. Some of their names are still well-known today: Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas. Others are better remembered by cinephiles: Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich. These “movie brats” were joined by a slightly older generation that was just as willing to experiment, including Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, and Robert Altman.

Before you accuse me of describing a 70s hagiography, I’ll readily admit that the decade had its share of forgettable efforts, including too many disaster movies and exploitation films. Still, each year had so much to offer that I could easily include all ten in the decade. Trying for something resembling brevity, I limited myself to seven. Once again, I had to limit the lists to films I had seen. Other than that, my criteria remain:
  • Number of Quality Films
  • Variety of Films (Genre, Target Audience, etc.)
  • Directors, Actors at the Top of Their Game
  • Seminal Films (All-Time Greats)
  • Historical Significance

    With that, let’s dive in.

    Bananas (dir. Woody Allen)
    Carnal Knowledge (dir. Mike Nichols)
    A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
    Dirty Harry (dir. Don Siegel)
    Duck, You Sucker (dir. Sergio Leone)
    Harold & Maude (dir. Hal Ashby)
    The Hospital (dir. Arthur Hiller)
    The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
    Fiddler on the Roof (dir. Norman Jewison)
    The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin)
    Klute (dir. Alan J. Pakula)
    McCabe & Mrs. Miller (dir. Robert Altman)
    The Omega Man (dir. Boris Sagal)
    The Panic in Needle Park (dir. Jerry Schatzberg)
    Play Misty for Me (dir. Clint Eastwood)
    The Policeman (dir. Ephraim Kishon)
    Shaft (dir. Gordon Parks)
    Straw Dogs (dir. Sam Peckinpah)
    Vanishing Point (dir. Richard C. Sarafian)
    Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (dir. Mel Stuart)

    This year offers definitive proof that the rules had changed. The Last Picture Show, Klute and Carnal Knowledge pushed sexual boundaries further than mainstream American cinema had seen before. Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry did the same with violence, not so much what they depicted as that it was the films’ heroes that were resorting to these acts. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection also challenged what audiences would accept from “the good guys.” Together Dirty Harry and The French Connection changed crime films, making them grittier, dirtier, and more ambiguous.

    Other directors also refined genre conventions. Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its melancholy tone, candle-lit interiors and snowy exteriors, was a striking departure from traditional Westerns. Bogdanovich, with The Last Picture Show, used many of the techniques of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other classic directors, but did so for an elegiac film lamenting an America that was long gone.

    One man in particular took a wrecking ball to audience expectations and any remaining sex and violence standards. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was brash, stylish and unapologetically anarchic. Kubrick presented a charming, psychopathic rapist and dared you not to root for him. The film remains thrilling, unnerving and very controversial. The United Kingdom banned the film for 27 years.

    1971 had much more to offer. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a family classic to this day. Shaft created an iconic hero hand helped launch the “blaxploitation” genre. Clint Eastwood began not only his trademark character in Dirty Harry, but also his directing career with Play Misty for Me. Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman and Warren Beatty turned in some of the finest work of their careers. In the meantime, The Panic in Needle Park first brought notice to a little known actor named Al Pacino. The revolution was fully underway.

    American Graffiti (dir. George Lucas)
    Badlands (dir. Terrence Malick)
    Bang the Drum Slowly (dir. John D. Hancock)
    Coffy (dir. Jack Hill)
    Don’t Look Now (dir. Nicolas Roeg)
    Enter the Dragon (dir. Robert Clouse)
    The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin)
    High Plains Drifter (dir. Clint Eastwood)
    The Last Detail (dir. Hal Ashby)
    Live and Let Die (dir. Guy Hamilton)
    The Long Goodbye (dir. Robert Altman)
    Mean Streets (dir. Martin Scorsese)
    The Paper Chase (dir. James Bridges)
    Paper Moon (dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
    Papillon (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner)
    Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (dir. Sam Peckinpah)
    Save the Tiger (dir. John G. Avildsen)
    Scarecrow (dir. Jerry Schatzberg)
    Serpico (dir. Sidney Lumet)
    Sisters (dir. Brian de Palma)
    Sleeper (dir. Woody Allen)
    Soylent Green (dir. Richard Fleischer)
    The Sting (dir. George Roy Hill)
    The Three Musketeers (dir. Richard Lester)
    The Way We Were (dir. Sydney Pollack)
    Westworld (dir. Michael Crichton)
    The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy)

    1973 was all about new, exciting talent. On screen Al Pacino delivered on the promise he showed earlier with two stellar performances, as the incorruptible cop in Serpico and a tortured loner in Scarecrow. Robert De Niro had appeared on film before, but became a star this year as a dying baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly and a wild, violent wannabe gangster in Mean Streets. The latter movie was De Niro’s first with Scorsese, launching one of the great partnerships in film history. Scorsese, Lucas, and De Palma had worked before, but 1973 was when they first garnered critical acclaim and wider public notice. Terrence Malick also started his career.

    Bang the Drum Slowly, Mean Streets, Scarecrow and The Last Detail are also unflinching examinations of male friendship. They ask what we will do for our friends, how far will we go, and how friendships clash with other values. The Last Detail not only exquisite direction from Hal Ashby, but also underrated work from Jack Nicholson.

    Fine genre films abounded. Horror classics Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, and The Wicker Man all hold up well 43 years later. Enter the Dragon created the American market for martial arts films and the Bruce Lee legend. The Sting succeeds as a comedy, buddy movie, and the seminal con man film. 1973 had something for everyone.

    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (dir. Martin Scorsese)
    Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks)
    Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (dir. Sam Peckinpah)
    Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski)
    The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
    Day for Night (dir. Francois Truffaut)
    Foxy Brown (dir. Jack Hill)
    The Godfather, Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
    Italianamerican (dir. Martin Scorsese)
    Lenny (dir. Bob Fosse)
    The Longest Yard (dir. Robert Aldrich)
    Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet)
    The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula)
    The Sugarland Express (dir. Steven Spielberg)
    The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three (dir. Joseph Sargent)
    A Woman Under the Influence (dir. John Cassavetes)
    Young Frankenstein (dir. Mel Brooks)

    My Godfather DVD set has a clip of Francis Ford Coppola winning the Best Director Oscar, for The Godfather, Part II. The presenter goes down the list of nominees: Cassavetes, Coppola, Fosse, Polanski and Truffaut. How many times have five legends been nominated together? And none of these were “old times sake,” lifetime achievement nominations. These men all turned in some of their best work. This alone shows that 1974 is a banner film year. Coppola directed two Best Picture nominees, with The Conversation joining The Godfather, Part II. The Conversation, The Parallax View, and Chinatown, each in their own way reflected the fear and mistrust of authority associated with the 70s, perfect for this year of Watergate.

    Scorsese showed his range with two very different films. He turned inward for the documentary Italianamerican, looking at his family and his childhood. He moved away from comfortable ground with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore about a single mother and her son out west. His friend Steven Spielberg made his feature film debut with The Sugarland Express, was well received critically, but did not do much box office and did little to portend what was to come. Cassavetes and his wife/star Gena Rowlands broke new ground with A Woman Under the Influence, a bold, frank depiction of mental illness.

    New Hollywood was thriving but old Hollywood was not forgotten. Mel Brooks provided two hilarious, affectionate parodies of Westerns and monster movies, respectively, with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Sidney Lumet showcased studio era stars including Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark in Murder on the Orient Express. Truffaut’s Day for Night is a tribute to movies themselves, still serving as the best cinematic examination of how films are made.

    Dog Day Afternoon (dir. Sidney Lumet)
    Hester Street (dir. Joan Micklin Silver)
    Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg)
    Love and Death (dir. Woody Allen)
    The Man Who Would be King (dir. John Huston)
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dir. Terry Gilliam and Jerry Jones)
    Nashville (dir. Robert Altman)
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dir. Milos Forman)
    The Prisoner of Second Avenue (dir. Melvin Frank)
    The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman)
    Rollerball (dir. Norman Jewison)
    Shampoo (dir. Hal Ashby)
    The Story of Adele H. (dir. Francois Truffaut)
    The Sunshine Boys (dir. Herbert Ross)
    Three Days of the Condor (dir. Sydney Pollack)
    Tommy (dir. Ken Russell)
    The Wind and the Lion (dir. John Milius)

    1975 was an eclectic, sometimes bizarre mix of film, bringing everything from the psychedelic rock opera Tommy to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which bombed that year but is a cult favorite, midnight movie staple to this day. If the year before was about distrust of authority, this year was more about outright anger, best showed by the clash between mental patient McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk Douglas had been trying to get that film made since the 60s, eventually turning it over to his son Michael. But the timing ended up being perfect. This antiauthoritarian bent also shows through Three Days of the Condor and even Rollerball. With this came the antiheroes like McMurphy, but perhaps best exemplified by Sonny (Al Pacino) in Dog Day Afternoon. Pacino and director Sidney Lumet got 1975 audiences to sympathize with and even root for a homosexual inept bank robber.

    Robert Altman captured other sides of the 70s in his sprawling, epic masterpiece Nashville. He used his signature tools such as overlapping dialogue, fly on the wall documentary style camerawork, and seamlessly moving among many different characters. From all of this he captured a city and country adrift, searching for something to give their lives meaning. Nashville remained the gold standard for Altman, one that all of his future films would be measured against.

    On the more traditional side, John Huston came back after many up-and-down films with The Man Who Would be King, which he originally imagined many years earlier for Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable and ended up starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It captured central John Huston themes much as man undone by his own greed and man struggling against an unforgiving environment.

    Other artists made great leaps forward. The Monty Python crew made their first narrative film with The Holy Grail, one that’s still quoted to this day, and later became a Broadway hit. Of course Spielberg changed the decade and moviemaking with Jaws, the first summer blockbuster. Believe it or not, summer was not considered fertile ground for movies before Jaws came along. Jaws was the first movie to make over $100 million and one of the first with a Friday opening, instead of midweek. Beyond its financial and cultural impact, Jaws succeeded through its careful building of suspense, judicious use of the shark (in part due to the mechanical shark’s constant breakdowns), strong characters, and John Williams’ iconic score.

    All the President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula)
    The Bad News Bears (dir. Michael Ritchie)
    Bound for Glory (dir. Hal Ashby)
    Carrie (dir. Brian de Palma)
    Family Plot (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    The Front (dir. Martin Ritt)
    Harlan County, USA (dir. Barbara Kopple)
    The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (dir. John Cassavetes)
    Logan’s Run (dir. Michael Anderson)
    The Man Who Fell to Earth (dir. Nicolas Roeg)
    Marathon Man (dir. John Schlesinger)
    Network (dir. Sidney Lumet)
    The Shootist (dir. Don Siegel)
    The Outlaw Josey Wales (dir. Clint Eastwood)
    Robin and Marian (dir. Richard Lester)
    Rocky (dir. John G. Avildsen)
    Silent Movie (dir. Mel Brooks)
    Silver Streak (dir. Arthur Hiller)
    Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese)

    In terms of sheer quality, it’s tough to do better than 1976, which featured five films -- All the President’s Men, Carrie, Network, Taxi Driver, and Rocky that are all not only all-time greats but cultural landmarks that still resonate today. Carrie, Network, and Taxi Driver reflect the anger and alienation associated with the 70s, in three distinct environments. Network seemed satirical for its time but prophetic today. Every election season I hear someone quote “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Many focus on the supernatural aspects of Carrie but overlook how it was one of the first mainstream films to address school bullying and its devastating effects. It’s easy to zero in on the violence in Taxi Driver, but it offers so much more. Robert De Niro’s brave, brooding, intense, internalized performance as Travis Bickle loses none of its power today. De Niro makes you both fear Bickle and care about him. In that scene where Bickle is being rejected by the girl he loves Scorsese moves the camera away because it is just too painful. Scorsese’s direction and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score (Herrmann’s last) complement De Niro perfectly.

    On a most basic level All the President’s Men is a Watergate film, but plenty of films have examined that scandal. All the President’s Men. by focusing on the journalistic process, taking its time and including the details as to how Woodward and Bernstein uncovered the truth. Measured, understated performances by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, and Hal Holbrook fit the film’s deliberate approach.

    By contrast, Rocky was a feel-good movie that America needed on its bicentennial. Rocky’s journey, and making himself more than he was, exemplified traditional American values. His ability to take many punches but get up and keep fighting, was how America liked to see itself. I don’t mean this as a criticism next to the other films questioning American government and culture. To me it’s a strength; there was room for all.

    Of course Rocky was not the only seminal sports movie that year. The Bad News Bears may not have created the sports comedy genre, but in many ways it defined it. It established a formula that’s still being used today.

    Barbara Kopple, who remains one of the world’s most accomplished and respected documentarians, began her career with Harlan County, USA, examining a bitter miners’ strike. The breadth of Kopple’s access to the miners and her ability to immerse the audience in their struggles, set a new standard for documentaries.

    1976 also featured two major farewells. Alfred Hitchcock directed his last film, Family Plot, while John Wayne appeared in his last, The Shootist. Wayne played an aging gunfighter dying from cancer looking back at his life. In real life Wayne was fighting the cancer that would eventually kill him, giving the film an added poignancy.

    Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen)
    A Bridge Too Far (dir. Richard Attenborough)
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Steven Spielberg)
    The Duelists (dir. Ridley Scott)
    Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch)
    Fun With Dick and Jane (dir. Ted Kotcheff)
    The Goodbye Girl (dir. Herbert Ross)
    High Anxiety (dir. Mel Brooks)
    Julia (dir. Fred Zinneman)
    The Kentucky Fried Movie (dir. John Landis)
    Looking for Mr. Goodbar (dir. Richard Brooks)
    New York, New York (dir. Martin Scorsese)
    Oh God! (dir. Carl Reiner)
    Opening Night (dir. John Cassavetes)
    Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham)
    Slap Shot (dir. George Roy Hill)
    The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. Lewis Gilbert)
    Star Wars (dir. George Lucas)

    For years I thought of 1977 only as the year of Star Wars. I have already written about Star Wars extensively (here and here). I’ll just say here that the film’s cultural impact, its influence on Hollywood, and the endurance in the hearts and minds of filmgoers remains unparalleled. If 1977 truly was only the year of Star Wars that would be enough, but the year had so much more, including another space themed film with a brilliant John Williams score. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was more of a pure science fiction film (Star Wars is more fantasy). Spielberg for the first time combined his talent for action and spectacle with deeply personal themes.

    Next to Star Wars, the biggest cultural impact may have been John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It made Travolta a star, while both reflecting and propelling the disco craze. Even if you’re not a disco fan, Travolta’s performance, and the film’s energy still hold up.

    1977 was a breakthrough year for Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Allen could always be funny, and he became famous with his early satirical comedies. With Annie Hall he turned his wit inward, examining the birth, life and death of a romantic relationship. He deftly used many tools, including side-by-sides, flashbacks, and asides to the camera, often breaking the fourth wall and treating the audience as if it were his best friend. Keaton won an Oscar for Annie Hall, but it may not even have been her best performance that year. She went to dark places in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, shedding her bubbly persona as a woman losing herself.

    Jane Fonda also double dipped, convincingly playing author Lillian Hellman in Julia, and displaying her underrated comedy chops in Fun with Dick and Jane.

    The year also introduced many who would have an impact later. I would rather sandpaper my eyelids than watch Eraserhead again, but it did put David Lynch on the map. The Duelists was not that bad, but it was an uneven debut for Ridley Scott, who would be heard from again pretty soon. The Kentucky Fried Movie was the first for John Landis, and also for the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker writing team, who would later make Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.

    Alien (dir. Ridley Scott)
    All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse)
    Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
    ... And Justice for All (dir. Norman Jewison)
    Being There (dir. Hal Ashby)
    The Black Stallion (dir. Carroll Ballard)
    Breaking Away (dir. Peter Yates)
    The China Syndrome (dir. James Bridges)
    Escape From Alcatraz (dir. Don Siegel)
    The Great Santini (dir. Lewis John Carlino)
    The In-Laws (dir. Arthur Hiller)
    Kramer vs. Kramer (dir. Robert Benton)
    Mad Max (dir. George Miller)
    Manhattan (dir. Woody Allen)
    Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones)
    The Muppet Movie (dir. James Frawley)
    North Dallas Forty (dir. Ted Kotcheff)
    Norma Rae (dir. Martin Ritt)
    The Onion Field (dir. Harold Becker)
    Return of the Secaucus Seven (dir. John Sayles)
    The Seduction of Joe Tynan (dir. Jerry Schatzberg)
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise)
    The Warriors (dir. Walter Hill)

    In … And Justice for All a beleaguered, frustrated lawyer played by Al Pacino yells, “I’m out of order! You’re out of order! This whole court is out of order!” What a fitting way to end the decade. 1979 brought films questioning many institutions, be it politics (The Seduction of Joe Tynan), media (Being There), marriage (Kramer vs. Kramer), fatherhood (The Great Santini), the military (Apocalypse Now), energy (The China Syndrome), and, as noted, the criminal justice system (… And Justice for All).

    Apocalypse Now stands as a testament to Coppola’s vision and perseverance. The production endured staggering misfortunes, which have become almost as legendary as the film itself. Through it all, Coppola made a film epic in scope and spectacle, while personal in character and story. While on the surface about Vietnam, the film became an indictment of war itself.

    Peter Sellers tried for years to get Being There made, and it served as a both a vindication and coda for him. After becoming so known for outlandish characters like Inspector Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove, Sellers delivered a mannered delicate performance as the simple Chance the Gardner. Chance is the perfect vehicle for this satire of how the media can turn shallow into genius. The year also featured two bravura turns by Robert Duvall as hardheaded military men (Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini), while Meryl Streep became a star with her first Oscar winning role in Kramer vs. Kramer.

    In a telling gateway to the 80s, 1979 launched four different franchises, Alien, Mad Max, the Muppets and Star Trek. Alien blended sci-fi and horror in ways that have been imitated but never improved. It’s easy to forget that Jim Henson took a great leap taking the Muppets outside a TV studio into the real world. The Muppet Movie broke new ground in technical, pre-digital puppetry, while having the humor and heart we associated with the Muppets. While the late Bill Henry called Star Trek “The Motionless Picture,” the film’s financial success helped pave the way for better films in the series.

    On the other end of the filmmaking spectrum, John Sayles began his directorial career with Return of the Secaucus Seven. In the 1980s he would gradually succeed John Cassavetes as America’s premier independent filmmaker, paving the way for Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and others. It would be Sayles, Jarmusch, and Lee as much as anyone that would keep the spirit of the 70s films—provocative stories, character focus, questioning authority, and artistic freedom – alive in the 80s.

    Adam Spector
    August 1, 2016

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