A Century of Cinema: 1970-1979

Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1960-1969.

Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1970-1979:

 

Taxi Driver (1976) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro: pretty well-known guy, yes? Well his rise to fame took a big leap in 1973 with both Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, the latter of which being his first film with the one and only Martin Scorsese. De Niro won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Godfather Part II a year later, so naturally the 1976 Scorsese film Taxi Driver capitalized on his star power and recent fame– and let’s just say, his performance did not disappoint. Mean Streets was also the first film that earned Scorsese a lot of attention as a director, so he and De Niro unsurprisingly collaborated on a total of seven more films after these two successes.

Taxi Driver is the story of young veteran by the name of Travis Bickle (De Niro), who shows signs of mental illness and now earns a living as a taxi driver in the city of all cities, New York. There’s a love interest, played by Cybill Shepherd, and a very young prostitute named Iris, played by then 12-year old Jodie Foster. After all of the shit he had to witness and put up with as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City, Iris’s youth and life circumstances “inspire” Travis to take some pretty violent measures to do what he views as the right thing.

It’s raw and chilling, and De Niro’s and Foster’s performances are worth the watch on their own on top of the thoroughly engaging story written by Paul Schrader. Scorsese always does a great job of somehow forcing you to connect with the gritty, grimy characters that you don’t want to like, so that’s something to look forward to in Taxi Driver I guess… And hey, if you don’t take my word for the quality of this film, the four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Score, Actor in a Leading Role (De Niro), and Actress in a Supporting Role (Foster), might give you a little kick in the butt to watch the film too!

 

 

Alien (1979) – Nick Potter

Alien

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

This line of dialogue is referring to the titular monster of Ridley Scott’s sophomore effort Alien, but it could also be used to describe the film itself. Considering what this film eventually led to, a quote from Prometheus is also relevant: “Big things have small beginnings”.

It’s almost a wonder that Scott’s sci-fi horror film managed to dig it’s claws in the way that it did. Alien shows up only two years after Star Wars created a fever for movies in space, but it goes in a completely different direction. It replaces the fantasy with fear, the wonder with woe. The grand galactic scope is instead reflected by cramped corners and hallways. There’s no glamour, no royalty, and no vast battles between good and evil. The scale is much smaller, as we follow a ship of space truckers on what is initially a routine trip. Of course, everything changes when they wake from cryosleep earlier than expected.

Alien is my all-time favorite horror film and I watch it annually. Scott’s use of the ship’s geography causes a palpable claustrophobia that is formidable enough before you toss in a big monster that bleeds acid. The pacing is terrific, and employing the Jaws strategy of holding back on the monster reveal is brilliant in letting our imaginations run. The realization partway through that Sigourney Weaver (decidedly not the ship’s captain) is actually the true lead ensured that one of cinema’s greatest heroines would always have a place in our hearts.

Several directors have tried to build on the world of Alien (including Scott again), but no one has been able to reach the pure dread and excitement of the 1979 horror masterpiece.

 

Three Days of the Condor (1975) – Patty Williamson

Condor

The 1970s were a particularly strong period of American filmmaking, with directors finally free from the shackles of a restrictive Production Code that limited the types of content that could be depicted on screen. It was this decade that saw a new generation of filmmakers come into their own, making innovative films that redefined the Hollywood style. The 70s were also a Golden Age of sorts for political thrillers. Post-counter culture, post-Watergate, young filmmakers turned their attention to stories of espionage, conspiracy theories, and dystopian stories of political corruption. There are many incredible political thrillers worthy of attention, but my personal favorite is Three Days of the Condor. Directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow, this 1975 film is a perfect example of 1970s political paranoia mixed with contemporary political commentary.

Redford is in his element, playing Joseph Turner, a CIA analyst with the code name Condor. He works in a non-descript New York brownstone, reading books, looking for hidden codes. Condor unwittingly uncovers a pattern of communication via books published in a strange combination of languages, and his discovery sets off a series of events that changes his life forever. After running out to grab lunch at his favorite diner, he returns to his workplace to find his colleagues gunned down, including his girlfriend, Janice (played by Tina Chen). Condor soon finds he doesn’t know who he can trust as he goes into hiding. While running for his survival, Redford’s character kidnaps a photographer named Kathy Hale, played by Faye Dunaway. The encounter turns romantic before Condor hits the streets again, trying to uncover the truth behind his friends’ deaths, as well as the larger conspiracy that appears to go to the top levels of the U.S. government.

Max von Sydow is superb as the bad guy, hitman Joubert. The film has many twists and turns, keeping the audience totally engrossed in the action. Redford is in his prime. He is able to perfectly convey his character’s confusion, disbelief, anger and paranoia. I might suggest watching this film in conjunction with All the President’s Men, another 70s gem, or Marathon Man, a film with a similar anti-authority, distrust for the government vibe. As with many 70s political thrillers, the film doesn’t wrap things up in a nice, tidy ending. It’s messy and uncertain. Pollack’s direction allows this film adaptation to surpass the quality of the source material, bringing an extra level of political bite to the work. While there are dozens of films I love from this decade, Three Days of the Condor has a special place in my film-loving heart.

 

The Godfather (1972) – Roger ‘Buddy’ Allman

The Godfather

“Don’t ever take sides against the family;” this line, spoken by Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino), sums up the dark world of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic masterpiece The Godfather almost perfectly. This magnificent film, based on Mario Puzo’s groundbreaking novel about the five most powerful crime families in post-WWII New York, shaped the public perception of La Cosa Nostra, better known as the Mafia, ever since its debut in 1972. It is set in a seemingly closed milieu where loyalty is valued over all else, including honesty and utilitarianism, and the word of the Godfather, played expertly by Marlon Brando in his most iconic role, is absolute law. Yet these criminals, whose actions could only be accurately described as evil, are at once sympathetic and even admirable; both Puzo and Coppola in essence create a story that causes its audience to view these characters and this world as having honor and even integrity. It is true cinematic enchantment.

In this allegory of American capitalism, Michael Corleone comes home after the war, and explains to his WASP girlfriend Kay (played by Diane Keaton) during a huge family wedding that although his father, Don Vito Corleone, is the capo of one of the five biggest crime families in New York, he himself has kept out of the “family business.” Two things are emphasized during this scene: the Italian nature of the family, and the Catholic nature of the family. These two thematic aspects are repeated numerous times during the movie, from the gigantic ceremony in the film’s open , to the sweet, simple wedding of Michael and Appolonia during his Sicilian exile, to the infamous “murder-baptism” scene near the film’s conclusion, where Michael and Kay attend the baptism of their first American-born child as Michael’s enforcers brutally slaughter both the heads of the other four families and those who betrayed the Corleones simultaneously, allowing Michael to take over as capo and become a Godfather in every sense of the word. It is a nearly perfectly structured movie, one that describes to us a gruesome immigrant experience while we watch Michael fall from war hero to criminal Don in a tragic display of greed and excess. It is at once heartbreaking and spellbinding.

Many other aspects of this marvelous film are worth noting, including its darkly-lit but mesmerizing cinematography by the brilliant Gordon Willis, Nino Rota’s haunting yet nostalgic main theme and score, its quote-worthy screenplay (“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns” are standouts), its subtle foreshadowing and symbolism, and its juxtaposition of murder with filth, finance, or Americana which make up some of the most famous vignettes in movie history. Not to mention it is one of the few movies that created a sequel that’s on par in quality and excellence with its original, a rare feat in Hollywood. This is not a film to be missed.

 

Jaws (1975) – Zach Liles

Jaws

 

Monster movies are notoriously difficult to pull off. There is a very fine line between creating a classic thriller, and creating a kitschy joke movie. While movies like Sharknado and Piranhaconda had their ironic moment in the sun, at the end of the day those are just bad movies that nobody actually wants to watch other than as a joke.

So why does Jaws succeed?

Well first and foremost we need to look at the director. It took some research, but I was finally able to track down the person who directed Jaws, a little-known filmmaker primarily known for his indie work named Steven Spielberg. Joking aside- at the time of Jaws release, Spielberg was far from the international superstar that he is today. Jaws was only Spielberg’s second theatrically released film, and with a nine million dollar budget, was by far the biggest project he had ever undertaken up to that point.

The risk paid off however as Spielberg demonstrates many of the techniques that have made him into one of the greatest directors of all time. Rather than overtly showing the shark, Spielberg uses music and clever editing to suggest the presence of the shark. This is where the tension of Jaws comes from, not in the monster itself, but rather in the threat that it could attack at any moment. Jaws didn’t invent this technique, but Spielberg shows his mastery of it in this film. To see his first flashes of brilliance go watch Duel (1971), a made for TV movie that was Spielberg’s first feature length film. In Duel Spielberg shows the beginnings of his ability to build tension through clever shots and editing and it is certainly a worthwhile watch if only to see the beginning flashes of genius from Spielberg.

The legacy of Jaws is unmistakable. After its release, it became the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. It invented the idea of the “summer blockbuster” and it is now considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It was the launching pad for the career of Spielberg who went on to direct some of the most popular films ever made such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List to name a few.

Go watch Jaws. It’s one of those rare films that is both historically significant and also genuinely enjoyable to watch.

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – Dylan Clauson

Holy Grail

 

Let’s be honest, the 1970s may just be the best decade in film, it’s at least a contender anyway. The 1970s gave us the beginning of one of the biggest movie franchises of all time in Star Wars, it gave us the establishment of one of Hollywood’s greatest pairing in Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese, and not one but two of the greatest films of all time in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. How do you possibly choose between such iconic and impactful films? Answer: You don’t. There’s a whole lot seriousness on this list and I’ve decided to lighten things up with one of the greatest comedies of all time, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Holy Grail tells the fantastical story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they embark on a holy crusade to find the, you guessed it, Holy Grail. Along the way they encounter a Black Knight who cannot be defeated, a fluffy white bunny with a mean streak, and an evil warlock named Tim (a name ad-libbed by John Cleese when he froze and forgot the actual scripted name). This group of brave knights, played by the English comedy troupe Monty Python, cut a bloody path across England in their quest which includes killing many familiar-looking foes (each actor played anywhere from 3-12 characters).

Odds are you’ve already seen Holy Grail or at least know some of the references, such as the armless and legless Black Knight or the coconut clapping instead of horses. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself the world a favor and go watch it. Monty Python and the Holy Grail beautifully layers silly surface-level jokes with deeper and wittier humor, making for one of the best comedies of all time.

Honorable mentions for the 1970s, in no particular order:

  • Chinatown (1974)
  • The Sting (1973)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • Star Wars (1977)
  • The Godfather II (1974)
  • Blazing Saddles (1974)
  • Annie Hall (1977)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)
  • Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
  • Straw Dogs (1971)

(There are a lot of them. Sorry not sorry.)

What are some your favorite films of the 1970s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1980-1989 coming up in two weeks.

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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[…] Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1970-1979. […]