I believe the decade of the 1970s was a watershed time period of the cinema. I am not saying the best films were produced during this decade, although many were, but there was an artistic freedom and experimentation that began at the end of the 1960s and continued until the studios were captured by the accountants and rise of the focus marketing groups. In the 1970s, the floodgates of expression and newly exerted clout of the artists, along with the widespread use of drugs in Hollywood, the film industry for a brief time threw out the playbook and literally lived life in the fast lane.
I am not a film historian, although I had the pleasure to study film at the University of Kansas and have always had a passion for film history. As a high school and college student during the decade of the 1970s, the movie theater was like my visual candy store. At KU, I took advantage of the films showing at the Student Union including documentaries, foreign films, animation and independent films. There were other options than mainstream studio-produced films.
The ten films below (not in any particular order) are not necessarily my favorite ten films but I believe they were influential culturally, cinematically, artistically, financially or changed the film business. Let me explain why I think so.
Star Wars. The film that started it all. Is it necessary to even review the significance of this film on our culture, future science fiction films, the film industry and the George Lucas empire? The one negative is that film studios had a taste of the blockbuster and it was a game changer for Hollywood’s blueprint for green-lighting films. The success of Star Wars was addictive and now every studio wanted one, or more of these mega-successes. This was the beginning of a shift toward swinging for the fences every time out. Hollywood was never the same.
Jaws. The summer film that spawned the summer blockbuster and changed the way summer films are marketed. This film ate the competition and catapulted Steven Spielberg to the A List of directors. A popular novel, a big budget, legendary production problems and a worried studio, all the ingredients of movie industry disaster. Until then, summer was for films that had limited appeal or would vanish quickly from the theaters. Jaws, was released in over 400 theaters, a very wide release by 1975 standards. The publicity machine went into overdrive, feeding out a steady stream of television, print and radio advertisement designed to ratchet up consumer interest in the film. Distribution was ramped up to meet word of mouth and repeat business. Jaws became an event.
Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood was already a star but this launched him into orbit and gave him clout as a producer/star. The role seemed to be rejected by every big male star (including John Wayne and Frank Sinatra) and would become the model for vigilante/out for justice films for the next several decades. Death Wish, Walking Tall and many other successful reincarnations of Dirty Harry Callahan continued and expanded the theme. Stylish yet having a certain urban grit, it redefined and supercharged the cop film genre. This film led to people arguing about the politics of crime: police power v. the constitutional rights of the accused. Remember, Nixon was the “law and order” candidate of just two years prior.
The Poseidon Adventure. The granddaddy of disaster films, and maybe the best. An all-star cast, a huge budget and great special effects, it was a huge success and generally well-received by critics. What’s not to like. The theme song was even a great success and won an Academy Award. This film opened the floodgates for these star-packed epics of danger and catastrophe. For the next several decades studios tried to achieve the success of this film with mixed results. With the invention of computer generated imagery (CGI), today’s films are big screen video games but back in the day, the effects in this film were big, but they didn’t steal the show.
The Godfather. They made me put this film on the list, gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. This film made a star of everyone and made a huge impact on the crime film genre. It was wildly popular and cleaned up at the Academy Awards. The film reversed the trend in Hollywood of the deep focus epic, many huge budget and ambitious films had toppled studios and ruined careers. Although based on a popular novel, the resulting film had major structural and story changes, and was placed in the hands of a young director, who was nearly replaced several times during production. Perfect for the 1970s, the film was stylish, violent, anti-climactic, and hugely introspective. It could have failed on many levels and crumbled under its lofty ambition, like Citizen Kane of its day, but both became classics. The Godfather, a great film that spawned an even greater sequel.
The French Connection. The two best car chases on film: Bullitt and The French Connection. This film made Gene Hackman a star and delivered a second massive hit for young director William Friedkin (The Exorcist). The French Connection was a solid detective film and had drug smuggling at the core of the story, something different for a mainstream film. Won the Best Picture Academy Award, the first R-rated film to do so. Gritty, in a style that was straightforward and lacking in studio polish, the film had main characters that were flawed, at times unsavory, almost unsympathetic to the viewer.
Shaft. Not a great film but a landmark film. Shaft was at the forefront of the blaxploitation flood of films featuring and made by African-Americans. Big studios and small firms jumped on the bandwagon to film product for this new urban market. Shaft also helped save MGM, the studio that produced it, from bankruptcy by being a hugely profitable film that year. The blaxploitation movement came and went, but introduced many African-Americans to the film industry and television market.
M*A*S*H. This film made a star of everyone involved, especially Robert Altman. Ironically, the script by Ring Lardner Jr., which was based on the novel, won an Academy Award. Truth be told, most of the film was improvised with only the script as a guide. This is really two films in one – the hospital/camp sequences and everything surrounding the game. The tone of the film, obviously anti-war, and anti-authority, was not as in your face as Easy Rider, but a very effective introduction of the 1970s. Altman’s style is as confusing as it is inviting, overlapping dialogue, scenes where the viewer is ease dropping, editing that takes the viewer on a winding road of story and continuity, and a jolting mixture of comedy and tragedy. Altman would struggle to capture this kind of lightning in a bottle again.
Blazing Saddles. A film that broke the dike for satire, coarse humor and throwing every traditional comedic devise into the mix, and getting away with it. In the 1970s, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Monty Python would control the market, although National Lampoon would jump into the mix. Mel Brooks satirizes the Western genre and creates an assortment of memorable characters and unforgettable situations. Count on Mel to throw in a Nazi reference or two. Blazing Saddles was designed to offend everyone. Richard Pryor was one of the writers hired to make sure the film was unconventional, per the director’s instructions. Sure, the film is offensive in many ways, the humor is obvious, but at the same time is more wit than vulgar. “Mongo just pawn in game of life.”
Deep Throat. Surprised? Some of the success of today’s adult film business can be traced back to this film. Why? In 1972, many average adults lined up at midnight showings to see what all the excitement was about. There was buzz about this film and the media picked up on it. Linda Lovelace became an overnight media star as this film moved from just the back alley adult theaters to be shown at some mainstream theaters. This period was known as “porn chic” as several hardcore films became popular and even conversation topics of late night TV shows. Controversy followed, as some cities fought back against the film, banning it and even prosecuting film owners, theaters and even co-star Harry Reems for obscenity. The definition of obscenity became the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court. Filmmaker Russ Meyer had been making softcore films for years, and even had a breakthrough hit with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was written by film critic Roger Ebert. Hollywood had previously financed and released several X-rated films including Myra Breckenridge and Midnight Cowboy, the latter of which ironically was awarded the Best Picture Oscar. Hollywood’s fascination with X-rated films ended but the rise of the XXX-rated films had gained a foothold in our culture and while they went back to their traditional theaters it wasn’t long before the industry exploded with home video, cable television and later the Internet.
Honorable mention: A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, Chinatown, Animal House, The Candidate, Taxi Driver, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Network, The Sting, Rocky, Alien, Apocalypse Now, Sleeper, Smokey and the Bandit, The Last Picture Show, Shampoo, What’s Up Doc?.
The 1970s was the decade of the “downbeat” ending. Many films ended with an unresolved or unfulfilling ending, in opposition to the feel-good resolution of studio films through the end of the 1960s. It might have been a statement about reality or the messy nature of life. Vietnam, the Population Bomb, environmental awareness, civil rights, Women’s Liberation, Watergate – the times had changed and films were reflecting it. In the 1970s, artists seemed to be taking more chances, and the bigger stars had the clout to demand it. Stars and directors not only got a percent of the profits, they were setting up their own production companies to develop their own projects.
You will notice that there is not a traditional Western on the list, and Blazing Saddles does not count. The era of the Western was over, not finished, but the films being produced after Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch were much different, and fewer.
The decade also saw the rise in science fiction, comedies aimed at a much younger audience, a new wave of young directors who brought energy and a different vision to the medium. Studios wanted the next Spielberg, Friedkin, Coppola, Bogdanovich or Woody Allen. The term “blockbuster” entered our language and it changed how studios, and more importantly the money-men, saw the film market. Smaller, more personal films were becoming more difficult to get a green-light. Studios wanted more hits like Jaws, Star Wars and other hugely successful films. In the 1970s, there were still a few old school producers running studios but by the end of the decade, Wall Street and large corporations had completed the makeover. The 1970s started with Airport and the 1980s began with Airplane, the years between featured some amazing and influential films.