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Movies in the 1970s

What was the Seventies? A decade that had Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s psychotropic Performance, with its gender confusions and personality crises breaking down the walls of society at one end, and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now at the other end.

What happened in between? That was some journey. . .

Hollywood changed radically in the 1970s in an attempt to snatch its audience back from the grip of television. It resorted to extremes and cinema in the seventies was chock full of icons – From the big shark in Jaws to the even bigger magnum of Dirty Harry. It was also the decade that brought us Rollerball and Mad Max. This was not a decade of understatement.

New trends developed, old ones were cast aside and, most significantly, a breed of young movie directors launched themselves and the rest of us towards the glittering world of Oscars and sci-fi blockbusters.

Special effects took over from stars as the main attraction. The ultimate effect was the 40-minute triumph to technology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the gigantic alien mother ship towering over, and landing in, mid-America.

Duel (1971)

For some bizarre reason, as the Seventies dawned, people decided that they wanted to be frightened. Seriously frightened. So much so, that they would pay good money to sit together in darkened rooms and watch films that threatened to scare the living daylights out of them.

Arguably the most powerful of these cinematic experiences was provided by The Exorcist in 1973.

The 70s was also the decade of the Disaster Movie – Buildings burst into flames (Towering Inferno), shook to the ground (Earthquake) or had planes crashing in or around them.

Winning formulas hit the screen again and again . . . and again. Rocky (1976), The Godfather (1972), Superman: The Movie (1978), The Omen (1976) and Star Wars (1977) all made it to the box office a second, third and sometimes even fourth time round.

Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand were the most popular movie stars of 1970, but audiences also flocked to see George C Scott command a tank battalion in Patton, Dustin Hoffman age a century in Little Big Man, and Jack Nicholson order a chicken salad sandwich in Five Easy Pieces.

The decidedly anti-war M*A*S*H starred Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as a pair of irreverent US Army surgeons serving in the Korean War. Airport started the vogue for all-star cast disaster movies that would last through to the end of the decade.

Written by future film critic Roger Ebert, Beyond The Valley of the Dolls was Russ Meyer’s raunchy morality tale about an all-girl rock band trying to make it to the top – and with everyone in sight.

But the year’s biggest smash was Love Story, based on Erich Segal’s best-selling novel. Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw were perfectly cast as the film’s tragic lovers.

1971 was the year that ‘Blaxploitation‘ films – action pictures geared towards black audiences – began to appear regularly, led by Gordon Parks’ Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss SongBilly Jack, starring writer-director Tom Laughlin as a half-breed karate expert who faces off against The Man was another massive low-budget hit.

Pricier, but just as silly, was Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston as the last living man in Los Angeles fighting off an army of zombies. Heston grimaced meaningfully and watched endless re-runs of Woodstock. Watch out for the brown acid, Chuck!

Superfly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks Jr (the son of the man who directed Shaft) starred Ron O’ Neal as a nattily attired coke dealer looking to make one last big score before getting out of the business.

In addition to further fanning the flames of the Blaxploitation fad (1972 also produced Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street and William Crain’s Blacula), the film presaged the infiltration of cocaine and flashy pimp clothes (platform shoes, flare-collared shirts, wide lapelled suits) into the mainstream.

Marlon Brando gave a memorable performance as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, while Liza Minnelli received rave reviews for her role in CabaretDirty Harry, Don Seigel’s fast-moving drama about a rule-breaking cop, turned journeyman actor Clint Eastwood into a film icon, and his “Feel lucky, punk?” line into a popular catchphrase.

Burt Reynolds also saw his career take off in 1972 when he received critical raves for his adrenaline-soaked performance in Deliverance – although it was a nude spread in the April issue of Cosmopolitan that really increased his popularity.

Linda Lovelace received plenty of notoriety for her performance in Deep Throat, the first hardcore porn film to be released in commercial cinemas. Lovelace cheerfully made the rounds on the talk-show circuit and even showed up at the Academy Awards to promote the film, which ushered in a brief period where porn flicks were treated with the same curiosity and respect afforded to foreign art films.

Years later, Lovelace published a book claiming she was forced into the porn business by her abusive husband/manager.

Given the downcast state of affairs by 1973, the success of period films like Paper Moon and The Sting made perfect sense. People were looking to escape to another time and place, and the simpler the better.

George Lucas’ American Graffiti, with its big cars, teenage traumas and soundtrack of late 50s/early 60s rock & roll classics, provided a bittersweet snapshot of a time only ten years past, yet seemingly centuries away.

Martin Scorsese made a name for himself with Mean Streets, a memorably intense film about two-bit hoods in New York’s Little Italy, starring little-known actors Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Almost as gritty and exciting was Serpico, starring Al Pacino as a cop battling corruption in his own department.

Westworld (about robotic rebellion at a fantasy resort) and Soylent Green (in which the US government solves the overpopulation problem by turning people into food) were the years two most popular science fiction flicks, while the film adaptations of God-rock musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar provoked endless arguments about who was the best Jesus – Victor Garber or Ted Neeley.

But for the most part, if movie-goers weren’t lining up to see Marlon Brando butter up Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris, they were watching Linda Blair vomit pea soup in The Exorcist. Blair became famous overnight as the 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil, even though Mercedes McCambridge (voice) and Eileen Smith (body) deputised for her during the possession scenes (both actresses had to sue to get screen credit).

After many years as a star in Hong Kong, martial arts expert Bruce Lee made Enter The Dragon and then promptly died of a mysterious brain oedema at the age of 32. The movie was a box-office smash.

The Seventies saw the decline of the two movie companies most clearly identified with traditional family entertainment – MGM and Disney. The Disney organisation became more involved in its various non-film activities (such as Disneyland and Disney World) while MGM devoted its new investment to the hotel and casino business.

On the other hand, Universal Pictures – for many years the “also ran” among the major companies – made a dramatic comeback.

The fortunes of United Artists were more variable. It won three Best Picture Oscars in consecutive years – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Annie Hall (1977) – but it shared only to a limited extent in the 1979 boom, and was ill-prepared for the debacle of Michael Cimino’s doomed western epic Heaven’s Gate (1981).

Rocky (1976)

The issues of the Seventies provided fertile ground both for Hollywood and Europe. A whole series of films reflected the preoccupations of the world. The war in Vietnam was the subject of many films, notably The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse NowThe China Syndrome was released almost on the day that news broke of the disaster at Three Mile Island nuclear reactor.

But Hollywood was changing. Tinseltown was invaded by a new wave of directors – foremost amongst them were Francis Ford Coppola, Brian de Palma, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

Between them they directed a fistful of films that made enormous money at the box office and were critical successes.

This is by no means an attempt at an exhaustive listing of movies from the 70s.

It is a recollection of some of the movies which are either personal favourites, or which are particularly representative of the era (without necessarily being critically acclaimed).