Like television, 70's movies were some of the most innovative and revolutionary of all. Here was the creative battlefield; a staging ground for newer techniques, sharper scripts, and higher production standards. Many new trends were crossing the border of traditional and accepted American media. Nudity was a big factor, profanity was a second. Blood and guts were never more vibrant on the big screen than when they spewed out onto 70's theater screens. Though the 60's were an experimental period for such celluloid treatments, the 70's had refined them. This provided more cinematic freedom, and allowed filmmakers the opportunity to create expressionistic pieces with sometimes sweeping overtures of aural and visual wonder.
Film returned to art in the 70's, and the epics that were created with such masterful prowess lived forever as great American classics. The likes of "The Godfather," "Patton," and "Midway" were among such examples. The 70's proved that epics no longer had to run two-plus hours to prove their point. Hard-hitting dramas with core-twisting emotive values made for some of the finest films ever made. "Coming Home," "Norma Rae," "Deliverance," and "The Conversation" are only examples of such themes. The dark side of human nature was explored to its fullest in the 70's.
No other era would have felt the liberty to give us the unbalanced "Taxi Drivers" of our society. In previous years, it was doubtful that Hollywood would ever survive such taboo topics as hillbilly rape or over-the-top torture. Yet, in 1972's "Deliverance," and 1976''s "Marathon Man," these elements terrified viewers psychologically. To this day the scenes are timeless. After witnessing movies of this caliber, many of us were afraid to go camping, take a canoe trip, go to the dentist, or even swim in the ocean. A film has to be commanding to be able to embed such fears in the human psyche. Shock value was a minute factor in storylines, for the 70's were responsible for some of the cinema's finest and most grand moments. The era produced unforgettable motion pictures that truly moved audiences.
Actors and actresses were perfecting their craft. A role turned into a performance, and quite often, an unforgettable one. The "Super actor" was born, the one that turned a script inside out, and showed us what it was really like to be the character. Relative new-comer Robert De Niro taught us all a lesson about acting: don't memorize your lines, be your lines. Sally Field took us far beyond the scope of anything she'd done on TV. It was an artistic gymnasium and actors were working out hard. Though Jon Voight was never nominated for an Academy Award for his role in "Deliverance," he earned it just the same.
"Hi, hi, hi, there!"
was the greeting from our hero and "droog" known to us all as "Lil' Alex." "A Clockwork Orange," was timeless. It's incredibly simple storyline of "who's worse, the criminal, or the system?" played out beautifully for 2 plus hours of wild entertainment. For me, the genius of Stanley Kubrick was never more enduring than in this amazing and bizarre film. This was 70's cinematic leeway at its best. Rape and ultraviolence were dominating themes, and the most of us soaked it up like sun rays.
Ranging from the disturbing to the beautiful came a cinematic painting as lovely as anything from Van Gogh or Monet: Sir David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter." In 1970, this movie received harsh reviews, and reportedly suffered from numerous problems with the actors, but this is nonetheless a masterpiece. (Sir David also waited an entire year for the perfect coastal storm to capture on film!) David Lean created epics; this is what was expected from him. With previous monster-successes like "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Doctor Zhivago," and "Lawrence of Arabia," movie-goers just assumed they'd be in their seats for a long time. David "filmed" stories instead of just relaying what actors read from scripts. In his works, the viewer feels loneliness and isolation, desperation and triumph. Sir David is one of the few filmmakers I can think of that can pull you into a movie with sweeping vistas and emotional impact. Personally, I feel that his films were way over-long, but that was his style, unique, and incomparable. Steve McQueen re-invented Hollywood-tough and the "strong silent type." Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" is a terrific film, one of McQueen's best, and at the time gave us roller coaster action mixed with highly-pleasing violence.
Okay, it's the big "S" word. Sex in 70's cinema was as bold as it has ever been, for this was an era when "soft core" films were likewise re-invented and provided an artistic flair and touch of sincere beauty to visually stunning-and arousing-movies. Romping sex scenes between the sheets were beginning to be old hat. Celluloid became canvas. Sex on screen received far more compelling treatments in a more artistic and psychologically stimulating fashion. Often, it was what wasn't said, shown, or done, that piqued movie-goers. An exemplary scene could be in Roman Polanski's "Tess," and the feeding of a strawberry to a young and beautiful Nastassia Kinski. The scene is sexually sinister as a more worldly gent takes advantage of a young girl by coercing her into eating a strawberry while he enjoys the performance.
Soft core artistic trends were highly experimental in the 70's, with lasting films like "The Story of O" and "The Last Tango in Paris." The beautifully photographed version of Pauline Reage's outrageously bold novel "The Story of O" featured an incredibly beautiful actress named Corinne Cléry as the submissive "O". The use of soft lens, dramatic Rembrandt lighting and striking interiors, lent a certain touch of class to an otherwise unworthy film. This movie, though rough and hard for many tastes, remains a timeless classic in the hard R genre. Even better was its beautiful soundtrack which provided haunting melodies worthy of a soundtrack release. Similarly an artistic soft core film, "The Last Tango in Paris" though not overly compelling, was blessed with fine art direction and the star power of its lead Marlon Brando. Serious location shooting, camera angles, art direction, and photography permeated this moody film and helped move a somewhat slow story to a point where the viewer stayed with it.
Sex in the Cinema also became a staple for Playboy magazine with a special section titled the same--Sex in the Cinema--that featured clips of nudity and sex scenes in mainstream Hollywood hits. Though a strong motivator for many current storylines, sex and nudity became almost a too-expected feature for movies during the the 70's reign.
The Great Directors
Directors splashed onto screens with the same propensity as their actors. The list could go on forever, but 70's film gave us some of the finest filmmakers the world had ever seen. Though many had gotten their start in the 60's, the styles and techniques of the 70's made these directors international icons. Names like Coppolla, Spielberg, Lucas, Eastwood, and Peckinpah are only examples of box office drawing names that attracted audiences far more than the stars who headlined their films.
Sir David Lean was a cinematic expressionist that captured the heart of dynamic cinema in his films. The word "sprawling" would be an excellent description of his works. "Doctor Zhivago" takes us through entire changes of seasons with cinematography that is to this day, mind-boggling. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was--in the David Lean tradition--long, but its two and a half hours fleshed out an outstanding storyline of good and evil, and dedication vs. duty. The blowing of the bridge scene with the train crossing it was a very expensive one-time-only shot, well worth seeing.
John Schlesinger was an in-your-face storyteller who was famous for visual and mental assaults on a viewer with some of the most impacting scenes ever. Stylish, and unforgettable, Schlesinger remains one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. "Marathon Man" is a perfect thriller, end of story. "Midnight Cowboy" is sad and haunting, and while many critics and audiences weren't crazy about the WWII drama "Yanks," I thought it was wonderful.
Peter Bogdanovich became the "King of Black and White" bringing us incredibly artistic renderings that gave us a feeling of the period in which his stories took place. "Paper Moon" and "The Last Picture Show" are must-see movies. The latter gave us a dreary view of a small northern Texas town, complete with frigid high wind, tumbleweeds, and rickety buildings. It's a postcard of a movie with great performances all around.
Francis Ford Coppolla performed an unheard of task in 1974: he created a sequel that was superior to its original with "The Godfather Part II." Clint Eastwood fathered "Dirty Harry," the bad cop that we just couldn't get enough of. Sam Peckinpah, a former stunt man, gave us a new style in film: beautiful violence. His slow motion over-the-top bloody shoot-outs were legendary. The bulk of his films made action the real star. As much as Alfred Hitchcock made most women afraid of taking a shower, Steven Spielberg made many of us terrified of one of our most beloved pastimes: going to the beach and splashing in the ocean. With "Jaws", he put an end to "sun and fun," and shattered the beach experience as we knew it. Simply put: something you can't see is swimming below you, and it will chomp you into little pieces. Spielberg was also a master innovator who proved to us all that even the impossible seemed impossible. He gave us UFO's, incredibly realistic dinosaurs, and special effects that remain the most imitated of any that I can think of.
Sci-Fi & Horror
films never saw such brilliant and original iconic moments as they did in the 70's. This was a decade of memorable plots, actors, and visuals. Sci-fi, was never at its finest as it was in 70's cinema "Soylent Green", "Logan's Run", "The Omega Man," "Rollerball," and "Silent Running" were just a spattering of cinematic stars in an endless galaxy of science fiction wonder. In fact, Hollywood had become a sci-fi black hole. Poised at its event horizon were movie goers who packed theatres to watch. "Star Wars" transcended the tradition of money-making hits and in doing so, performed the impossible: it told us it was okay to just have fun at the movies again! No need to analyze the story line, just get in there and have fun!
In 1973, the world wasn't quite ready for one hell of a horror movie called "The Exorcist." I remember seeing it for the first time. I'd already had the benefit of hearing about "fainting in the aisles, screaming, and people running out of the theater." I was prepared for what was to be on screen. The movie didn't terrify me (except for a few moments) but it had soul-chilling visuals and atmosphere, and became one of the most unforgettable horror stories I'd ever seen.
And why was this film so frightening? Because it had intelligence. It was believable. What happened to an innocent 12-year old, could happen to any one of us. This was largely due to the masterful performance of Ellen Burstyn. She created the fear in this movie by allowing us to experience and understand her own horror. Burstyn is a stunning actress who literally becomes the part. As the terrified and helpless mom, she was very believable. Burstyn carried the film and kept it going. The manner in which she describes to a priest "That thing upstairs is not my daughter," is one of the most convincing scenes in movie history. The movie was uncomfortable and freakish more than scary. The book however, was scary.
Further intelligent treatments and themes flourished in 1975's "The Omen." Though supported by earlier-period actors Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, the film is a stand-alone giant with a shudder value of a perfect ten. The story challenges our own beliefs by offering us a modern day prelude to Armageddon. The story told us that Satan was indeed real, and living in the body of a small boy. The marks of 666 embedded into the child's hair were pure genius. This made the movie utterly convincing. By the time we end up at the cemetery, we've already descended into hell. There's nothing but evil in store from that point on. Also effective: the Jerry Goldsmith score which was almost more frightening than the movie itself.
70's action films
only spelled disaster, and the disaster films were wonderful. They were designed to rock your socks off so to a point that when you left the theater, everyone in the lobby was muttering WOW! The concurrent theme of these movies was the fact that the disaster usually evolved around something safe, such as amusement park rides, airplanes, high-rise buildings, or pleasure cruises. Their recipe also shared one unique ingredient: they were star-studded. A literal cavalcade of stars were presented in these movies which in turn, offered a unique series of individual story lines to follow.
Even seemingly harmless swarms of bees got star billing. Remember the "Killer Bees"myth that circulated in the latter 70's about a species that threatened to wipe out mankind? They were a deadly swarm from South America, migrating slowly, but surely heading to a neighborhood near you. Well, that never happened. However, Irwin Allen, the "Master of Disaster," managed to bring them to a theater near you with 1978's "The Swarm." Better yet, remember a wild 70's innovation called Sensurround? This was an audio-enhanced technique designed to rattle theater seats, and was used in 1974's "Earthquake." It was also used again for the films "Midway" and "Rollercoaster." Then came death from the skies in the form of the rash of"Airport" movies. In essence, if it could be ridden, crashed, burned, and toppled as loudly as possible, and with as many stars narrowly escaping death, Hollywood had a hit on their hands.
meal genre best served cold.
Some of the 70's action films thrived on good old American ass-whoopin'. Any story line that had this in its recipe was guaranteed to pack movie houses. Why? Because revenge always spawned a new Hollywood hero for us popcorn chompers to worship. Retribution was one classic motivator for early 70's films bringing forth the worst actors from the B-movie basement. The Bad, The Mediocre, and The Awful saw their shining hours in the 70's. Actors like Bruce Lee, Joe Don Baker, and Tom Laughlin--who gave us the peace-loving-ass-kicker "Billy Jack"--were top performers in the so-bad-it's-good division of Hollywood action.
Revenge stars usually had a talent for violence, whether learned or inherited. These guys were masters of general destruction that usually always ended with killing and maiming. Martial arts played a fairly healthy part in these films too. Karate and Kung Fu had a big heyday in the 70's thanks to Bruce Lee. The martial arts ingredient list always had some bully, or group of bullies getting "the worst surprise of their lives" by whomever was starring in the film. Aah, but it didn't stop there. These idiots got their asses kicked, and did they learn not to mess with this guy ever again? No; they simply re-organized, got more guys, more weapons, and got their asses kicked all over again. And on and on it went, time after time. Welcome to martial arts in the cinema, the most brain dead genre ever laid to celluloid.
However, more top-quality talent also had their say in these films. Jan-Michael Vincent and Charles Bronson both headlined a number of 70's revenge classics. Though the intentions were somewhat pure, some of these films were extremely violent and left a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. We claimed to be entertained, and though we may have loved the revenge exacted by our heroes, it was often carried out to extreme methods. 70's revenge was in-your-face, more to the scale of driving a truck through someone's bedroom window killing all the family including the kids, or hanging someone upside down and letting their blood drain out, or attacking not the antagonist, but their family. 70's revenge was highly unfulfilling, and in fact, had the ability to anger and unnerve audiences to a point where they felt they'd been entertained.
The "revenge" business was not only fruitful in creating iconic monsters, but for giving us the dreaded "sequel disease". These films were parents to the little monsters that followed. Shall we? Why not.
ENTER "BILLY JACK":"Born Losers" Why was this movie ever made to begin with? Perhaps to cash in on all the Hell's Angels drive-in trash.
"Billy Jack" Why did they make a supposed sequel? Same answer.
"The Trial of Billy Jack" Why didn't they just stop? Because there were enough 12-year olds in the world who thought Tom Laughlin should get an Academy Award.
"Billy Jack Goes to Washington" Why did he go to Washington? Because it was there.
ENTER "WALKING TALL":"Walking Tall" Enter a bat-swinging moron named Bufford Pusser. (No wonder he's always kicking ass). The most horrible aspect of this is that it's a true story. I guess. Sort of.
"Walking Tall Pt. II" Whoever didn't get slaughtered, maimed, stabbed, shot, beaten, or horse whipped in the first, got it in this one. Beautiful cinema.
"Walking Tall The Final Chapter" Thank God. Nuff said.
ENTER "DEATH WISH":"Death Wish" "Death Wish" Basically a great movie. Only flaw: extremely over-the-top wife and daughter rape scene, completely unnecessary. The story could have been told with him just hearing about it. Instead, audiences were supposed to be visually bludgeoned to a point where anything that happens to the scum in this film is completely justifiable.
"Death Wish II" Why? Why not?
"Death Wish III" I had a death wish for this film. Happily, I lost track of any more of these.
Stand Alone Revenge Epics:
Any Bruce Lee movie.
ENTER JAN-MICHAEL VINCENT:"White Line Fever" Jan-Michael Vincent plays rogue trucker Carol Jo Hummer. Could've been worse.
"Buster and Billie" Jan-Michael Vincent plays Buster Lane. The movie is really quite good except for the horrible scenes of rape and murder. Beautifully bloody revenge in the end as Buster manages to either kill or cripple all his friends. Solid family entertainment.
ENTER CHARLES BRONSON:"Mr. Majestyk" Lesson: don't mess with a man's melons.
My top 10 picks for some of the best movies of the 70's:
- "The Godfather Part II"
- "A Clockwork Orange"
- "Black Sunday"
- "The French Connection"
- "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
- "Apocalypse Now"
- "The Last Picture Show"
- "Coming Home"