Carry Ons, funky Bonds, disco steps and Vietnam vets: the 10 ultimate ’70s films
American grafitti: John Travolta had all the right moves in Saturday Night Fever – a perfect blend of neo-realist cinema with white-hot pop culture glamour and an awesome soundtrack
Few would disagree that, as a whole, the 1970s were all over the shop. And fittingly, perhaps more than in any other decade, so was the Anglo-American (and some of the ‘worldwide’) cinematic output of those 10 years. On the one hand there was economic turmoil and strikes, the demise of the hopes of hippie-culture and ‘free love’, continued conflict in Vietnam and the Middle East, and terrorism seemed to abound eveywhere. Yet, at the same time, music and television was full of colour thanks to glam rock, funk, disco and punk, while British TV’s sitcoms, variety shows, dramas and, oh yes, Doctor Who were all in their prime. Plus, while the England football team was hopeless, the country’s First Division was fascinating and the summer of ’76 felt like it went on forever (correction: it did).
It could be said then that the reality and the culture of the ’70s seemed harder, stranger and more challenging than than those of any previous decade – and seemingly mirroring this, Hollywood and Britain produced more frank and (at the other extreme) more fantastical movies than ever before.
But what are the ‘most ’70s’ films of the ’70s? These then are my specially selected dectet that define cinema of the 20th Century’s eighth decade – in no order but chronological. Yes, have your bell bottoms, platforms and Raleigh Choppers at the ready, folks, because here we go…
CLICK on the film titles for video clips
The French Connection (1971)
If any film set a standard and even a mould for American cinema of the ’70s, then it has to be The French Connection. Inspired by real events and people, it concerns itself with the world of New York narcotics cops and their attempts to smash a drugs ring originating out of Marseille, France, and aiming to make millions by dumping its product on the mean streets of the Big Apple. Unapologetically uncompromising in its depiction of the world of its protagonist Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman in a career-defining role) and his sidekick (Roy Scheider), its director William Friedkin – a leading player among the young talents of the big-studio broken-up ‘New Hollywood’ – embraced neo-realism so well, he made it look like an artform in this flick. Indeed, it would arguably become just that as the decade progressed and similarly hard-edged movies (many from Friedkin’s contemporaries) also made hay going the neo-realist route, among them Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Like The French Connection, all these films – and more like them – dealt with the themes of urban and moral decay, crime and alienated individuals on society’s fringes. Indeed, as pointed out in my recent post on the previous decade’s cinema, late ’60s flicks like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy (both 1969) certainly anticipated (and maybe created) this new direction, but thanks to its action, violence, excitement and huge public and critical success – it won Oscars for Picture, director, actor (Hackman), screenplay and editing – The French Connection was the engine of the gritty, buffed-up freight train that hurtled through ’70s American cinema.
Carry On At Your Convenience (1971)
In light of the above, surprising it may seem, but in the ’60s the cinematic neo-realism forged by the French Nouvelle Vague (or ‘New Wave’) first reached Britain – with the likes of Tom Jones (1963) and Darling (1965) – before it made it to Hollywood – with the likes of The Graduate (1967) – but as the ’70s progressed, the latter certainly left the former behind in those stakes. In spite of making the odd acclaimed gritty film this decade, such as Get Carter (1971) and Midnight Express (1978), the UK film industry – disadvantaged by a lack of money like, well, seemingly everything else in the country – liked nothing better than to churn out cheap, cheerful, bawdy comedies in a cynical, if not desperate, attempt to pull the punters in. This was unfortunate on two counts. First, artistic merit went out the window and was replaced by T&A, no better exemplified than in the Robin Askwith-headlining Confessions series of flicks (1974-77). Second, the Carry On films – a staple of generally innocent, end-of-the-pier humour; highly successful and sometimes witty and good throughout the ’60s – degenerated too often into contrivance, slapstick and smut in the ’70s. They still had their moments, sure, but unquestionably featured many bum-notes too (fnarr, fnarr). However, one of their highs came with Carry On At Your Convenience. Instead of relying solely on toilet humour (although it certainly featured some), it proved to be one of the wittiest, smartest and funniest of ’em all. With all of the regular cast present (the only absentee being Babs Windsor), director Gerald Thomas and screenwriter Talbot Rothwell shaped a tale about toilet factory shenanigans against the backdrop of class and union politics. Given this fact, for me then there can be no more ’70s a Carry On movie than this ‘un (and, let’s be honest, the Carry Ons themselves are just so ’70s). The only irony being that Convenience was actually made some two or so years before union-led strikes properly hit Britain, ensuring the film wasn’t so of-the-moment as it was prescient. See, told you it was smart.
Live And Let Die (1973)
There was, of course, one other cinematic genre in the ’70s that kept the British end up – quite literally. Yes, that man Bond. Following the loss of Sean Connery as everyone’s favourite, highly conspicuous secret agent in 1967, one could have been forgiven for thinking Eon Productions’ oh-so-successful-in-the-’60s Bond film series would have undergone an identity crisis in the next decade (not least as Aussie model George Lazenby enjoyed a mere single fling as 007 in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Connery only came back for a one-off in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever), but, in fact, the reality was anything but. This was most of all because of He Of The Errant Eyebrow, the über-smooth Roger Moore, stepping into the role and doing something completely different with it to Connery (but just as confident and appealing), thus guiding the movies with enviable momentum through the next 12 years. But, while Moore’s tenure as the shoulder-holster wearer is maybe best remembered for the boffo box-office of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), just as – if not maybe more important – in terms of his Bond was his first outing; the one that truly laid the seeds of his Bond’s success. Live And Let Die is also arguably the most ’70s 007 adventure; in fact, it’s an incredibly ’70s flick. Its success lies not just in the terrifically effective use of exciting speedboat and motorbike-cum-London-bus chases, but also in establishing a brand new actor in the role of Bond by juxtaposing his charming British gent with edgy, urban and dangerous black American villains dressed in bold colours, flares and platforms. This then, in many ways, is Blighty’s finest thrown into the world of Blaxpoitation cinema (the movie is very much of the era of both 1971’s Shaft and ’72’s Superfly) and, by blending into this mix the stunt set-pieces, Caribbean voodoo, a rocking Paul McCartney title song hit and the beauty of Jane Seymour, Sir Rog’s Bond came up smelling of roses – both within the film and without. In short, Bond-goes-funk is far from bunkum.
As stated above, the ’70s were more than a little surprising, in which case it should come as, well, no surprise that Sweden was considered that decade an unquestionably cool, sexy place. Yes, that’s right, good old frigid, oh-so Scandinavian Sweden. In fact, an unashamedly socially liberated nation, thanks in part to decades of rule under its Social Democratic Workers’ Party (defeat in 1976 for this political party would bring an end to 40 unbroken years in power), Sweden was, back in the day, seen as a leader of the ‘sexual revolution’ and seemingly tolerant and easy with both feminism and homosexuality. Not least because of the international sensation caused by the very sexually frank film Jag Är Nyfiken – Gul (I Am Curious – Yellow) (1967) and the amazing rise and worldwide chart domination by pop quartet ABBA, following their victory at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. And in 1973 this very liberated, very modern-seeming society was put under the microscope by its greatest filmmaker, the legend that is Ingmar Bergman, in Scener Ur Ett Äktenskap (Scenes From A Marriage). Originally a TV drama that ran almost two hours longer than its cinematically released version, Bergman’s piece is an iconic slice of ’70s culture that details a couple’s (Liv Ullmann and Erlan Josephman) sexual and broader marital difficulties, their separation and later reconciliation. In a post-’60s world in which people were more open to expressing their emotions and investing in more equal relationships, the issues explored in Scenes From A Marriage were very much en vogue, ensuring it went down a storm among arty, fashionable film lovers. The movie was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at both the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes; both organisations also nominated Ullmann for Best Actress. Indeed, off the back of this film (and her role in it), the lovely Liv – all natural redheaded beauty – became both a premier pin-up as well as a feminist figurehead. One downside to the flick perhaps, though, was that in the year following its release, divorces almost doubled in its native Sweden. Talk about life imitating art.
While Sweden may have liked to suggest it was a socially liberal paradise in the ’60s and ’70s, for a brief (and, for some, frightening) moment in the ’70s, the United States suggested it too was far more liberal than it thought it was, at least when it came to the naughty stuff. Somehow in 1972 two hardcore porn films, Deep Throat and Behind The Green Door, managed to secure mainstream cinema releases, then the following year another one, The Devil In Miss Jones, achieved the same feat. This, you would have thought was a blip, an anomaly, and it was, but all three became notorious. Why? Because, relatively speaking, people flocked to see them – indeed, before it was removed from cinemas, The Devil In Miss Jones earned nearly $8 million in ticket sales, ensuring it finished seventh at the US box-office in 1973. The short-term effect of all this was what became known as ‘porno chic’. Yes, before the threat of AIDS in the ’80s, among some socially liberal bods porn became, well, fashionable. How could this be possible post-’73 when the stuff no longer found its way into mainstream cinemas? The answer is through softcore films and, most notably, the first and biggest, Emmanuelle. With high production values, a decent score and its legendary soft-focus cinematography, Emmanuelle was effectively a sanitisation of pornography – and because of that it made a mint. The ace up its sleeve may have been the fact its protagonist was a woman, über-sexy Swede Sylvia Kristel as the eponymous Emmanuelle, an ambassador’s wife with time on her hands and oodles of curiosity in kinky old Bangkok. Seemingly taking a vicarious pleasure in her exploits, more women than men saw the film in cinemas, especially those in France, the country of its origin; which gained the movie a strange respectability. Emmanuelle sparked a softcore porn boom, the legacy of which is the risible, nudity-fuelled skin-flicks that fill the late night schedules of today’s TV channels. Make no mistake then, in the ’70s Emmanuelle, in its own way, was as big a phenomenon as Star Wars (1977). But without the lightsabers and black holes (especially as it was softcore). Erm…
The Towering Inferno (1974)
In the wake of television’s increasing popularity, Hollywood saw a worrying drop in audiences in the ’60s; conversely, in the ’70s it saw a growth of revenues thanks to monster hits like Love Story (1970), Jaws (1975) and, of course, Star Wars (1977). As if buoyed by this, Tinseltown this decade came up with one its most give-’em-exactly-what-they-(or-what-we-think-they)-want genres… the disaster movie. The dye was set in 1970 with the $10 million-budgeted, self-describing Airport, which made more than 10 times its budget at the global box-office. Two years later, canny producer Irwin Allen got in on the act with The Poseidon Adventure. This one focused on a Gene Hackman-featuring cruise liner sinking on New Years’ Eve. It too was a huge hit. And, predictably, Allen followed up Poseidon with something even grander. The Towering Inferno was such a big production it had to be financed by two separate studios – not an uncommon occurrence for today’s blockbusters, but unheard of then. Another mark of its largesse was the largeness of its all-star cast – Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn and even Fred Astaire all signed on. This was not without its problems, mind, as McQueen threw a wobbly when he learned that Newman had 12 more lines in the script than him. Another potential flare-up was avoided when it came to the two interstellar thesps’ billing; in the credits and on posters McQueen’s name appeared on the left, Newman’s on the right, but higher – so both appeared to enjoy equal status. Frankly, everything about The Towering Inferno was big, yet it was awesome too. And ’70s awesome at that. Hollywood would really succeed in going for shameless hugeness in the ’80s, of course, but with this flick it unashamedly pulled out all the stops (cast, sets, effects et al), yet with creaky, somewhat crappy looking ’70s style. And to my mind these accoutrements – the flares, the wide ties, the big bowties, the bland-cum-naff-looking interiors and the soap opera-esque melodrama – give the thing a huge dollop of so-tasteless-it’s-terrific charm. Oh, and it made more money than Airport – and Newman and McQueen both survived to the end… quel surprise.
All The President’s Men (1976)
Can you get much more ’70s than ‘Watergate’? It was, of course, the crisis that engulfed US President Richard ‘Tricky Dickie’ Nixon, eventually forcing him to resign from office before he could be indicted for conspiring to jeopardise the Democrats’ attempts to win the ’72 election, along with so many of the leading players of his administration. And for both America and the wider Western world it feels like it sums up the disappointment, dismay and general decay that’s an enduring legacy of that decade. Given all that then, along with the fact it’s one of the finest exponents of the conspiracy thriller (another ’70s film genre par excellence), All The President’s Men is an absolute shoo-in for this list. Adapted from the book of the same name by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it tells the tale of how these two Washington Post whizz-kid reporters broke the story of Watergate to the world. And it does so supremely well. Scripted by superstar screen scribe William Goldman, with resolute dedication, high detail and refreshing intelligence, this flick is the finest possible advert for old-school investigative journalism. It displays, at times almost excruciatingly, how challenging yet thrilling Woodward and Bernstein’s (a dream-ticket pairing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) efforts to uncover the truth, step by step, truly were. Nailing Nixon and his cohorts didn’t come about through underhand ‘door-stepping’ or declaring tittle-tattle political gossip as fact, but through securing sources and checking and re-checking the facts. In short, it came down to hard work. And hard work is what this flick’s all about. Goldman deservedly won an Oscar for his spot-on screenplay, while co-star Jason Robards was named Best Supporting Actor for essaying the world-weary, hard but fair editor Ben Bradlee, who was in Woodward and Bernstein’s corner when it came to selling the story to the Post‘s mandarins, but also ensured the hacks got the job done right. Shamefully, while director Alan J Pakula and co. got the job done on this flick so right, the Academy gave the big prize that year to feelgood-athon Rocky. Just like years earlier when a grinning Nixon extravagantly waved goodbye before escaping on the Marine One chopper, there was no justice.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Quite frankly, Saturday Night Fever is probably the quintessential 1970s movie. If you actively tried to seek out a more era-defining film than this caustic coming-of-age tale set amidst New York’s gaudy, multi-coloured disco scene in its pomp, which also, of course, introduced to the world the bobby dazzler dancer himself, John Travolta, you’d probably fail like Barry White attempting a Barry Gibb falsetto note. So synonymous has Saturday Night Fever become with the ’70s and that decade’s infamous Marmite-like love-it-or-hate-it music craze that over the years it’s been the major inspiration behind ’70s-themed nightclub nights, theatrical musicals and even an execrable karaoke-based game show on British TV’s Channel Five. Yes, that John Travolta and those Bee Gees have a lot to answer for – but boy, could he rip up a dancefloor and could they write a disco tune or six. And yet, whether you recall it or not, there’s much more to this flick than just that. The majority of us tend to have quite sanitised memories of Saturday Night Fever, seeing it as a nostalgic trip back to (one of) the decade(s) that taste forgot, but that’s rather ironic given that, in actual fact, it’s a pretty gritty, hard-edged social drama that employs French Connection-style neo-realist techniques to tell protagonist Tony Manero’s story of stunted urban self-improvement. Indeed, near newcomer Travolta (he’d already made a name for himself on the box in sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter) impressed so much in the iconic lead role that, at the age of 24, he became one of the youngest ever nominees for the Best Actor Oscar – and he won the equivalent award dished out by the US film industry’s National Board of Review. Mind you, many can be forgiven for their misty-eyed memories of this picture, as both a proper R-rated version (which actually contains the ‘c’-word) and a retooled PG-rated version were released. Chances are then, if you were a teenager back in the day and originally saw this film at the cinema or on telly, you saw the latter, family friendly version with all the juicy bits – the bits that make it an engaging watch – cut out. Do yourself a favour then and hunt down a DVD of the flick today to get the full R-rated treatment – then you’ll be jive talkin’, all right.
Few events have dominated the modern American psyche like the Vietnam War. Straddling three decades (officially taking place between 1955 and ’75) it was an ill-conceived, ill-fought military humiliation for the United States, through which the country not only lost thousands of young servicemen, but also saw thousands more left scarred and disillusioned – as was, to a lesser extent, a generation of idealistic Americans. Inevitably, soon after its sorry close, Hollywood set its sights on using Vietnam as the subject matter for several major flicks. High on its new neo-realist kick, it was ready to bring the thing to life with bells on – and boy, did it ever. It wouldn’t just viscerally dramatise events (real and imagined) set around the war, but also comment, criticise and empathise with unwavering intensity. And surely the most intense and maybe both the most effective and affecting film Hollywood delivered about Vietnam in the ’70s was The Deer Hunter. Directed by Michael Cimino (who would become infamous after the failure of 1980’s Heaven’s Gate contributed to the demise of United Artists), it’s a no-holds-barred examination of the lives of three volunteers from a Pennsylvanian steel mill town before, after and – in a shorter, but unforgettable segment – during the war. Starring the cream of the ‘New Hollywood’ naturalistic players, including Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken, it slowly, movingly and, at times, harrowingly expresses how this trio’s lives are inexorably changed by their involvement in Vietnam; all three sacrifice a great deal and only one of them (by far mentally the strongest) gains anything, and then only conditionally. Although epic, sweeping and in many ways beautiful, The Deer Hunter is also a deliberately tough watch. Nevertheless, it rightly stormed the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Cimino and Best Supporting Actor for Walken. Since then, criticism has trailed in its wake – it’s been accused of racism as its only Vietnamese characters are drawn as brutal savages and hasn’t benefited from the disaster Cimino’s career became post-Heaven’s Gate – but it remains an (if not the) essential document Hollywood has produced about one of the most regrettable chapters of America’s history.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The making of Apocalypse Now is almost as notorious as the movie itself – and effectively spelled the end of auteur-friendly ‘New Hollywood’ and, thus, in more ways than one brought down the curtain on American film of the 1970s. It was made by producer-cum-director-cum-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, who had made one hell of a name for himself (and made a mint for Tinseltown) by delivering The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), for both of which he’d been awarded the Best Picture Oscar and for the latter named Best Director. Essentially an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart Of Darkness filtered through the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is far from a ‘faithful’ cinematic interpretation of that conflict; it’s an hallucinatory and fantasised take on it to examine the war-forced darkness of man. No question, to that end, it’s a triumph. The movie’s arguably the most easily recalled ‘war is hell’ film and, for many, can be thanked/ blamed (delete as appropriate) for forming their mind’s eye view of ‘Nam. However, for all that, it’s actually a wonder Coppola pulled it off. Filmed in the Philippines, the production’s sets were destroyed by a typhoon, star Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack and the cameoing Marlon Brando turned up overweight forcing its ending to be improvised. All this ensured filming went on forever and the budget almost spiralled out of control. But the flick went down a storm at Cannes, winning for its director a Palme d’Or, and grossed around $150 million worldwide. Yet, there was a price to pay. The artistic and financial excesses incurred in its making (in addition to those experienced for the likes of, if you will, fellow epic vanity projects like The Deer Hunter) were simply too much for Hollywood to stomach any longer. The big studio control had been broken in the ’60s leading to the ‘movie brats’ (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino etc) to enjoy near free-rein in their ’70s filmmaking escapades, but now the studios bit back and pulled in the purse strings. In response, for his part, Coppola would boldly go it alone and finance his next film himself , but One From The Heart (1982) was an unmitigated disaster that bankrupted him. Hollywood’s flirtation with über -artistry was over; in the ’80s, American cinema, like seemingly everything else that decade, would be all about money – money, money, money…
Five more to check out…
Get Carter (1971)
Mentioned above, Michael Caine-starrer in which the hardest hard man in Britain returns to his home town to avenge relatives and scare neighbours in his birthday suit with a shotgun
The essential Blaxpoitation flick – Richard Rountree is the bad mother (shut your mouth) sorting out wrong ‘uns while being the coolest private eye since Bogie in The Big Sleep (1946)
Enter The Dragon (1973)
In the best example of that other now ubiquitous ’70s film genre, the kung-fu movie, Bruce Lee immortalises himself as the East’s martial arts answer to Clint Eastwood
The Conversation (1974)
Again, mentioned above, Francis Ford Coppola’s fine conspiracy thriller is among the very best of the genre with a terrific Gene Hackman and lashings of tension and paranoia
Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro’s first legendary essaying of a Vietnam vet sees a mentally unstable misfit violently lose the plot in the anonymity of New York
… And five great films about the ’70s
Dazed And Confused (1993)
Excellent ensemble following suburban teenagers on the last day of school in the summer of ’76 – highlights include fine cameos from both Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, no really
In The Name Of The Father (1993)
Thrilling re-telling of the case of the ‘Guildford Four’, imprisoned in 1974 as London pub bombers acting for the IRA, with top performances from both Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite
The Ice Storm (1998)
Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver headline this Thanksgiving ’73-set family drama focusing on the shifting social mores of the time
Almost Famous (2000)
Eminently watchable, affectionate tribute to the world of early ’70s rock, with an angelic Kate Hudson and an outstanding soundtrack
Spielberg’s take on Mossad’s assumed response to the ’76 Munich Olympics terrorist atrocity, so good an homage to that decade’s conspiracy/ espionage thrillers it actually rivals the quality of the very best