I don’t know if it was planned this way, but lately a couple of UK television networks that specialize in movies have been airing a lot of 1970s films made by American studios. It’s not unusual to see a steady stream of 50s-era Westerns, because I’m guessing these networks cater to older folks who still watch movies on regular TV. But you don’t usually see a run of films from the 70s.
In recent weeks I’ve recorded and watched “Westworld,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Taxi Driver,” “Jaws,” “The Exorcist,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Star Wars,” and “The Taking of Pelham 123.” Many of these I’ve seen plenty of times before. No matter. I watched them, anyway – some for what must be the eighth or ninth time.
Nobody asked me my opinion about movies, but if they were to, I’d tell them that the 1970s was the single greatest decade for American movies by a fair distance. I’m not sure what even ranks second (the 90s, maybe? The 40s?). No decade I can think of really comes close to the 70s in terms of the sheer number of iconic movies, and the way filmmakers of the era revolutionized the medium.
This opinion comes from a casual movie fan rather than a dedicated cinephile, but I’m not the only one who ranks the 70s atop the cinematic field. Many critics say much the same thing. Something about the moviegoing experience changed in the 1970s – something important, that resonates to this day.
The films became grittier, darker, and more rooted in reality, as if the camera was hidden behind a wall, there to capture something only we viewers were privy to. Contrast that with earlier decades, when for a long time the movies resembled stage plays that happened to be filmed. You were aware of the actors, the scenes, the staging, the camera, the dialogue, the script.
As film evolved as an art form, directors began to shift away from staged productions to something more intimate. You might have a single handheld camera filming a single actor sitting at a chair, saying nothing. The idea was to capture life as it is lived rather than life as it is written or acted.
The movement actually began earlier – in the late 50s and early 60s – but crystalized during the 1970s as a generation of daring young American filmmakers began to put their imprint on the industry (Coppola, Scorsese, DePalma, Altman, Freidkin, Spielberg, etc.).
Later in the decade came the rise of the blockbuster, meant to reach a wider audience and influence pop culture well beyond the cineplex. These movies were often driven by rapid advances in technology. The most obvious 70s example is George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” which worked as a classic good-vs.-evil fable as well as a leap into the high-tech future. Compare its space-age graphics to those of 20 years earlier, when outer-space special effects often involved a plastic, toy-sized spaceship, and some string.
The movie industry has since advanced the technology without really advancing the mood, style, and storytelling you find in many 70s films.
Maybe I’m biased because I came of age during the 1970s. But I don’t think so. It’s one of my least favorite decades for books – which is something I know a lot more about than movies. The quality and depth of TV programming is much better now than it was back then (partly because there’s just more of it). Music? I’d rank the 60s over the 70s, and maybe the 50s as well when you include jazz.
Anyway, here’s a list of my 13 essential movies of the 1970s. The list reflects my own moviegoing preferences and experience. All are American-made, and none would qualify as indy or avant-garde. They are your basic studio releases, and the list is not terribly cutting-edge. It matches up with a lot of lists of Best 70s Movies.
The list is in alphabetical order. Each includes YouTube links to my favorite scenes.
All the President’s Men: A “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel leads to the unraveling of a presidency, thanks to the dogged reporting of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). Based on the book of the same name that chronicled how the WaPo helped take down President Nixon. Favorite scene: When editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) decides to publish a story that implicates high-ranking people in the Nixon administration. It was a risky move by an editor not used to trusting young reporters with such a big story. As a one-time newspaper reporter myself, it still gives me a charge.
Annie Hall: A pretty WASP from the Midwest (Annie, played by Diane Keaton) gets romantically entangled with a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn (Alvy, played by writer/director Woody Allen). Hilarity ensues. Recent accusations about Allen’s personal behavior have turned many people away from his movies, so in this case you need to overlook the artist and just enjoy the art (there’s a lot of that going around these days). Favorite scene: The balcony scene with Annie and Alvy, where subtitles pop up showing what their minds are thinking as their mouths say something else. It’s funny as hell, and even if it weren’t, the New York City backdrop makes it all worthwhile. Still love Annie’s sartorial style.
Apocalypse Now: A U.S. Army captain (played by Martin Sheen) is dispatched to the deep jungles of Vietnam to “terminate the command” of a rogue colonel (Marlon Brando) who has apparently gone out of his mind. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Favorite scene: The most famous is Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” cameo. But the one that always sticks in my head involves the slightly deranged photographer played by Dennis Hopper speaking to the Sheen character at a makeshift jail cell on Kurtz’s compound. It sums up the tripped-out insanity of the Vietnam War itself.
Blazing Saddles: Thar’s a new sheriff in town (played by Cleavon Little), and the townsfolk don’t take too kindly to him. A hilarious satire about the Old West that probably couldn’t be made today. Favorite scene: It can be hit-or-miss when a movie breaks down the fourth wall, but here they do a fabulous job of it during the finale. Not only does a massive fight spill over into the movie lot, but it also spills into a movie theatre, where a few of the characters watch themselves in the movie they just spilled out of.
Chinatown: Los Angeles wasn’t all glamour in the 1930s. Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) finds that out in this neo-noir mystery as he steps knee-deep into a murder case tied to the city’s water department. Favorite scene: I’m a sucker for scenes that involve eating. The lunch scene with Nicholson and John Huston is expertly acted and written and provides subtle plot hints that will prove very important later.
Deliverance: A rafting trip in the Southern Appalachians proves to be a warm bonding experience for four men, who emerge wiser and happier. Juuuuust kidding! Shit goes terribly wrong when they run into a couple locals with too much time on their hands. Favorite scene: One of the rafters plays a guitar-banjo duet with a mountain kid. I dare you not to smile when the music kicks into high gear.
Bonus points: The song they played was “Dueling Banjos,” composed by guitar wizard and fellow Charlottean Arthur Smith. He owned a hotel whose pool I jackhammered during a summer job in college, which I blogged about recently. The pool was in the shape of a guitar.
Extra bonus points: The movie was based on the novel by James Dickey, who taught a creative writing class at the University of South Carolina when I was a student there in the late 1970s. His class filled up quickly, and I never was able to sign up on time. I settled for a creative writing class taught by author William Price Fox, and it was more than adequate. Dickey also made a cameo appearance as a sheriff in “Deliverance.”
Dog Day Afternoon: A bank robbery in Brooklyn turns sideways very quickly. Based on a true story. First-rate acting by Al Pacino, John Cazale, and Charles Durning. Pitch-perfect script and directing (Sidney Lumet). Favorite scene: Bank robber Sonny (Al Pacino) tells fellow bank robber Sal (Cazale) about his plans to get a plane and fly to another country. When asked which country he’d like to go to, Sal says, “Wyoming.” One of the funniest lines ever – and indicative of a certain New York type who thinks the world stops at Staten Island. Cazale reportedly ad-libbed the line, cracking up the crew in the process, so I guess they had to do more than one take.
The Godfather I & II: Okay, I cheated and put them both together, but they really were written as a single narrative broken up into two different movies for commercial purposes. A sweeping and brilliant epic that’s as much about family and the corruption of the soul as it is about mobsters in mid-20th century America. Favorite scene: I’ll go with the obvious pick, which is the Dempsey’s restaurant scene when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) finally takes the big step onto the other side of the law. I’ve probably watched this scene 50 times on YouTube, and the suspense still slays me.
Jaws: A tender tale of three fishermen bonding over the high seas, where a friendly and gentle shark teaches them valuable lessons…..before chomping one of them in half!!!! I still remember the buzz over this movie when it came out in 1975, heralding in the era of the summer blockbuster and launching Steven Spielberg into the stratosphere. Favorite scene: Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint (Robert Shaw) share a drunken conversation in the cabin, comparing old wounds, before the shark makes another appearance. One of those simple and quiet scenes that can turn a very good movie into a great one.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The cuckoo’s nest is what they used to refer to as a mental asylum, and the one who flew over it was the indomitable Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson). Based on the excellent novel by Ken Kesey. Favorite scene: McMurphy does an impromptu play-by-play of a World Series game in front of a blank television screen after Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) won’t let the residents watch the real game on TV. This scene always tugs the old heartstrings just because of what it says about the power of the human spirit against oppression. Bonus points for the appearances of Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd before they got big.
Patton: This biopic of the famous (and infamous) World War II general came out when the Vietnam anti-war movement was still in full swing, so I’m guessing audiences back then were split over it. But it’s an excellent WW2 movie that treats Patton as the complicated figure he was, and George C. Scott gives a great performance in the lead role. Favorite scene: “All glory is fleeting.” Nothing I can add. Watch the scene.
The Sting: Maybe the most conventional picture on this list in that it’s essentially a fun entertainment starring two of the biggest movie stars of the day: Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Nothing wrong with a little entertainment, especially when the story involves con artists in Depression-era Chicago. The setting and mood are intoxicating, and I really dug the ragtime soundtrack. Favorite scene: Gondorff (Newman) is better at cheating at cards than Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
Taxi Driver: Last alphabetically, maybe first in my own heart. Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro) is a cabbie with issues…..New York City was a grimy, dangerous, broken-down hellscape in the 1970s, and this noir classic directed by Martin Scorsese captures it in all its seedy glory. Favorite scene: There are a bunch of them in this movie, but I’ll go with a young DeNiro and even younger Jodie Foster discussing her character’s life as a young prostitute over coffee and toast. Two of my favorite actors showing how great the craft can be when you play it subtle and straight.
Note: These kinds of lists tend to be fluid, and in a year I might trade some of them in for “American Graffiti,” “Animal House,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Young Frankenstein.” Or “The Conversation.” Or “The Marathon Man.” Or “Five Easy Pieces.” Or “The Exorcist”. Or “The Last Picture Show.” Or….The ones that will always be on it are, in order: “Taxi Driver,” “Apocalypse Now,” “All the President’s Men,” “Jaws,” and “The Godfather (I & II).”