Tom Jolliffe on the 1970s and why it is the best era in cinema history…
There will always be a great deal of debate about the best era for cinema. For my two cents I’ll say with a great deal of assurance that the best period in cinema history was the 1970’s. There was most certainly a transition through that decade which saw the gritty cinema of the late 60’s onward, into the birth of the blockbuster as we know it today.
You could almost split the 70’s into two categories, although I will make some mention of sub-categories like the Blaxploitation period too. On one hand directors were beginning to really move as far from the traditional classic Hollywood production code as they could. Boundaries were being pushed and optimism was being replaced with deeply pessimistic work. It wasn’t all happy endings. Things were getting dark, reflecting a challenging period in social history as the we moved past the civil rights era, into Nixon, Vietnam and economic struggle across the west. Ultimately things would move from tension in the far east, to tension with Russia. The last world war was still relatively recent history and the violent conflicts of the late 60’s onward and the feeling of unease that comes with such conflict made for a worrying and disturbing period in social history. As with all things, this becomes reflective in cinema. This can sometimes work in a couple of ways. There is either a leaning toward socially reflective cinema, or more toward escapist cinema and around the late 70’s we saw the transition go from the former to the latter.
In the early 70’s these grittier films, and a new wave of fresh, invigorating directors breaking out, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese for example offered an often stark but stylish selection of films. Likewise a group of exceptionally promising actors (and actresses) like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Harvey Keitel would begin paving a way to replace the more atypical Hollywood golden stars. The Cary Grant mould etc. They would further forge a path that someone like Marlon Brando had begun etching. The method approach would become far more common through this era and firmly establish an edgy and daring approach that aspiring actors would take. Likewise in comedy, the physical clowning of someone like Jerry Lewis was being replaced with neurotic pondering from film-makers like Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. What we know of more recent times as mumblecore, was inspired heavily by the works of Allen etc.
Without going into too much detail into how these films work, because each film I could mention is well worth a books worth of theorising on their own, it goes without saying though that the sheer jaw dropping amount of classic cinema that came out of this decade is astounding. Yes it would be far too easy just to point to two Godfathers and call them the pinnacle of cinema. They’re undoubtedly master works. We know why. So I will sidestep those. Their reputation precedes them.
Sticking with Coppola I’ll talk a little about a classic example of a film that perfectly epitomises the 70’s approach to cinema. It was timely, challenging and dark. This was also an example of one of the most unfortunately placed films on a directors CV in history. This could not have been worse placed than it was because the placing itself saw the film sucked into a black hole. It was totally eclipsed by what preceded and followed it.
The film was The Conversation, the minimalistic, simple, stripped back filling that was sandwiched between Coppola’s first two grandiose Godfather films. In its own right, The Conversation is cinematic brilliance. It’s a masterpiece. Engaging, intelligent, exceptionally written and in an odd way it feels like an afterthought. It seems like it’s filling time. Bridging a gap between gangster epics. From every expensive and elaborate set, setting and set up of The Godfather, to the beautifully simple framing and stillness of The Conversation. This film warrants being in any top 100 list. Okay it may not have the iconic draw of Coppola’s exceptional gangster duo (we won’t mention the third instalment) but Gene Hackman gives one of his most introspective and effective performances, in a film with exquisite sound design and an enthralling depiction of paranoia driven breakdown. I cannot stress it enough to those who have missed it, but you absolutely must watch The Conversation.
Coppola would end the decade with a sprawling war epic that stylistically was the antithesis of the simple approach he used in the aforementioned Hackman classic. Apocalypse Now was a tortuous trial to make. It nearly took Martin Sheen’s life. Coppola took a perfectionist approach to this. Every frame of every scene is art. It’s a gorgeous film with striking visuals that beautifully toy with the stark grim horror of what it’s actually depicting. Everything from the wide expansive and visually dazzling set pieces, to the intimacy of Marlon Brando’s odd but intensely immersive performance is a genre defining work of genius. If anything perfectly epitomes the standard of the 70’s compared to the rest, it’s Coppola’s CV. He did excellent work throughout the 80’s (I love Rumble Fish) but nothing was quite like the Corleone saga, his Nam epic, or indeed The Conversation.
Scorsese broke out with Mean Streets, a raw and stylish gangster film which showed a far less romanticised and modern (at the time) depiction of…well…the mean streets. The 1970’s was a raw and experimental Scorsese. The big time was beckoning and to some extent this edgy, creative vibrancy he had would peak at the end of the decade with Raging Bull. By the time the 80’s came around, he’d honed his craft and in a further 10 years would make a masterpiece in Goodfellas. However one of his most stylish and introspective films was Taxi Driver. This from a rising director, full of fresh ideas, edge and instinct. De Niro was mesmerising. Almost 90% of what makes his performance so engrossing is internal. Travis Bickle draws the audience in, demanding our attention and our interpretation. The film is unlike anything else Scorsese has done since. Ultimately it was also timely. This was atypical of the 1970’s and largely gone were the romantic depictions of New York, replaced with films like Taxi Driver. See also LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. Film-makers were now showing the underbelly.
Even in a period film, everything was thoroughly modern. Chinatown for example played like an old-fashioned noir gumshoe but everything about it dripped (brilliantly) in 1970’s pessimism. This era wasn’t simply flares and big hair by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not cinematically. Jack Nicholson was firmly establishing himself in the new wave, whilst as a director, Roman Polanski was beginning to make a name for himself outside of Europe (and before making a name for himself for something entirely less savoury). The film, which is as fine an example of screenwriting (Robert Towne) as you are likely to see, is unapologetically grim, and doesn’t shy away from anything portrayed in the film, be it corporate or policing corruption or incestuous rape. By the time the immortal closing line, “it’s Chinatown” is uttered after one of cinemas most shatteringly sombre endings, the viewer is left shattered but the grip, that enthralled and engrossed state of watching, is released. Chinatown, like a lot of the cinema at this time, stays with you.
You can look at a whole host of challenging, dark and powerful films of the era, from big budget to low-budget. The French Connection, Marathon Man, the beautifully raw and visceral, Badlands. Likewise when you see a film like All The Presidents Men, it showed that film-makers weren’t shying away from immediate history. They were dealing with the here and now, not allowing wounds to heal over first.
So there are a group of rising stars and directors trailblazing new and invigorating styles. Meanwhile though, firmly established stars and directors were still working. Brando who rewrote the rule book in the 50’s was still producing iconic performances for Coppola. Sidney Lumet, a director who was inspirational to many of the rising directors of the 70’s (including FFC and Scorsese) was still producing some of his best works, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico (both of which pulled no punches in their depictions of social unrest and institutional corruption).
This era was also a key time in exploitation cinema. Directors like Michael Winner (Death Wish) and Abel Ferrara were entering the arena. Their cinema was unkempt, a little trashy, but oddly insightful. Among the detritus of Death Wish there’s a telling social commentary. It doesn’t just speak of it’s American City setting, as a Brit director it speaks of Western society as a whole around that period. It’s a film which could just as easily been shot and set in London. Indeed if you look at the dark, murky world of Get Carter (Mike Hodges), the Brits certainly seemed intent on moving away from romantic depictions of urban life. If the likes of Coppola were tearing up traditionalism, such as the rigid forms of shooting, 3 point lighting etc, then the underground exploitation specialists were tearing up and setting fire to them. They were wantonly pushing the limits of the ratings board too.
This was an era in which pornographic films were mainstream. The Hollywood production code was in flames. Everyone was pushing the levels of taste and decency and trying their luck. Deep Throat, Debbie Does Dallas and the rest. At the same time we saw a strong Black movement with the rise of Blaxploitation cinema. Suddenly a demographic was emerging that had previously been unconsidered. Of course the civil rights movement helped this. It wasn’t just the atypical standard audience (oft considered by Hollywood to be white males, and at a push, white women) demanding more reality infused and raw cinema, there were minority audiences demanding something for themselves. Whilst Pacino and De Niro etc were doing their thing (with their own distinct Italian/American identities) we saw stars like Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Jim Killy starring in a collection of hip, cool and attitude injected exploitation flicks. Whether it was Shaft or Foxy Brown, these weren’t going entirely for realism. These were essentially comic book films with a trashy twist of lemon. In some regards they were a middle finger to the traditional, and even that Hollywood new wave (which had begun to often portray Black characters as parts of criminal gangs etc, in their depictions of the mean streets).
What this all shows is how wonderfully eclectic the cinema was coming out of America and the UK. At the same time there was plenty of experimental cinema. People were moving away from the studio systems. A collective of film school grads were making their own films on low budgets and finding launching pads for bigger work (Scorsese, Ferrara, FFC etc). The likes of Terrence Malick or John Cassavetes were thoroughly unconventional in their stylistic approach, and their story-telling. Cassavetes in particular had a very rough and raw style but there was an observant truth to everything he was doing.
The interesting cinema wasn’t merely confined to the West of course. But to an extent they were simply catching up to what Eastern cinema and Europe had already been doing. Meanwhile, despite tensions, East European cinema was beginning to find attention in the US. In fact the appreciation of World Cinema as film-goers were becoming more and more discerning and open to wider influences, was growing. Andrei Tarkovsky was beautifully melding art and still photography aesthetics with the moving image. Leading the way for a group of Russian and East Euro directors. French cinema had already trodden much of the group American cinema was now, in the late 50’s, through to the 60’s, whilst experimentalists like Godard continued to work solidly. As I say, I could devote entire articles to each individual mentioned but I’m not sure the internet has the storage capacity for my ramblings. The aforementioned Polanksi and also Milos Forman would also make the leap from their respective homelands to Hollywood fame.
Horror films were in the course of being revolutionised in their style. Taking on seeds sewn by the likes of Hitchcock or Michael Powell (Peeping Tom). Stylistic approaches were being pushed and boundaries as far as p.o.v, colours, and editing too. Not least, things were getting more inherently dark (satanic), terrifying, or bloody. We had The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and then the Giallo films coming from Italy. Dario Argento was heading up, with electrifying horror like Deep Red and Suspiria, a movement of creative, envelope pushing and unrestrained directors. By the end of the 70’s, John Carpenter had come in and rewritten the rules of the slasher, which would then lead to a slew of copycatting and franchising throughout the 80’s.
As I previously mentioned, things were getting progressively lighter toward the end of the decade, as audiences were now in need of a little escapism. Suddenly we were seeing hope and goodness. A little fantasy here and there. From Dirty Harry, Deliverance and Don’t Look Now, to the likes of Rocky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Grease and of course, Star Wars. Now film-makers were increasingly looking to draw box office receipts over challenging the intellectual or social conscience of the audience. There was still a mixture leading into the 80’s but the landscape was most definitely changing toward the fantastical. Whether it was tales of underdogs or space adventures. The reality of the post-Nixon-Nam era was becoming difficult to ingest. People had been wanting to see the reality but they were living it too. They needed something different. In someone like Rocky Balboa for example it showed a degree of hope. That even on these grimy streets for the ordinary man, there was a chance of something bigger.
Before I shatter the Flickering Myth bandwidth with too much more, I’ll leave by asking you readers (both of you) what your favourite 70’s films are, and indeed, is there a better era in cinema? You need only google a list of 70’s films to see what an exceptional output (all over the world) the decade had. I don’t think it can be topped.