1971: A Gritty Year in Film

Films in the early 1970s reflected the moods and trends in society.  The 1970s were a rebound from the turmoil and fragmentation that started at the end of the previous decade.  The early 1970s were marked by distrust in government, conspiracy theories, cities in decline, revolutions in marriage, sexuality, and generations, rise of anti-establishment, feelings of alienation, fear of the future, the population bomb, etc.  America was taking a harsh look at itself, and films of the decade were taking to the road exploring America and often what was portrayed was not pretty, at least compared to films of earlier eras.

fiddler on the roof

As the 1960s ended, the film industry was in transition, and films that appeared in the first years of the new decade looked and felt different than before. By the late 1960s, the innocence of the decade was gone, onscreen violence was graphic, sex would make Doris Day blush, and you didn’t leave the theaters uplifted or skipping.  Films had tragic endings, stars had long hair, profanity was common, and films weren’t splashy Technicolor rainbows.

Black & white photography reappeared, lenses and lighting projected grim and impersonal images, and American films began to look like European cinema. Cinematographers came from film schools and by way of immigration. Stark, grainy, natural, and scenes looking into the sun or focused through flowers.

This was the year of Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, The Beguiled, The French Connection, Shaft, Vanishing Point, and A Clockwork Orange. Nice, family films. These were tough, influential films that would spawn many imitators. It was a violent year.


The year in Westerns included: Big Jake, The Hired Hand, Wild Rovers, A Fist Full of Dynamite, The Grissom Gang, A Gunfight, The Hunting Party, Lawman, A Man in the Wilderness, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Hannie Caulder, Red Sun, Shootout, Skin Game and Valdez is Coming. These are mostly grim and violent, but after The Wild Bunch, the bar had been raised.


Science fiction became increasingly popular after 2001: A Space Odyssey. THX 1138, by George Lucas, established him as a filmmaker to watch. The Omega Man, was based on I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, presented a bleak look at the future. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was his first big hit and showed the potential for deadly organisms to threaten our existence. Escape from thePlanet of the Apes was a sequel but took place on Earth in present time, but the theme wasn’t any more positive.  A Clockwork Orange, from Stanley Kubrick, was a violent and unseemly look at society of the future. Clearly, the future did not look like a happy, rosy place to visit.

Comedy was biting and irreverent. The Hospital took place in an out of control healthcare facility where death was a dark and funny matter. Bananas was Woody Allen’s first big triumph. Satirical and played for big laughs, it was a precursor to the Airplane style of comedy.  Support Your Local Gunfighter was James Garner’s second successful comedy in the series.  And Now for Something Completely Different was Monty Python’s first full-length film, which would spawn several others and completely baffle anyone over age 30. Harold and Maude was an offbeat, cult film, that moves between comedy, drama and strange. Cold Turkey, from Norman Lear, an adult comedy about a town that tries to quit smoking to win a bet. Disney produced several comedies, aimed squarely at the youth and family markets. There were Disney films and films for adults.


The adult audience had much to look at, in part because there was a growing supply of films with nudity. Ken Russell provided The Devils, Mike Nichols directed Carnal Knowledge, there was Summer of ’42, The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, Play Misty For Me, The Last Picture Show, Klute, The Love Machine and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

The 1971 film year could have been known as the year in anti-cinema. In 1971, you won’t find films resembling The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady.  The closest is Fiddler on the Roof.  While a classic, and a film of epic proportions, the film has a muted look and a somber tone.  It is a film about the strength of family and belief, but it is also about loss, struggle and sacrifice.

The early 1970s was the time of the anti-Hollywood slickness.  Even a big budget production like Fiddler on the Roof has a grainy, washed-out look to it.  Photographed by Oswald Morris, it would win the Oscar.  Morris worked in both color and black & white during his career and was able to massage his use of color in Fiddler to compliment the undertones of the story.


Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller alternates between the bleak gray of the snow and darkness of oil lamp and fire interior lighting. Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer on McCabe, also photographed Peter Fonda’s tragic The Hired Hand, also released in 1971.  Zsigmond often worked with Spielberg, Altman and Cimino, and won an Oscar for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


The French Connection shows the grime and trashiness of New York City.  The film barely qualifies as a color film.  Owen Roizman photographed this film and went on to work on the biggest films in a 30 year career and was nominated for five Oscars for his work.  Roizman and director William Friedkin would work together on  The Exorcist in a couple of years.

Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry has brightness to the point of overexposure and then retreats to the shadows.  The cinematographer was Bruce Surtees, called the “Prince of Darkness” for his low key style of lighting.  Surtees also worked on The Beguiled and Play Misty For Me, both released in 1971. Surtees and Clint Eastwood made many films together.

The year also saw a preponderance of flawed protagonists in the form of Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino.  These were characters with as much shadow as light, who were morally flexible and prone to bad decisions. Anti-heroes.

Was 1971 the best year in film? Hardly. There were some significant films and even a few classics, but this was a transition year between great bodies of work. Very much like the year itself, there are high points, low points and some head scratching moments. Cinema reflected society moving from one traumatic decade to one of promise and uncertainty. The next couple of years, American cinema would find its footing with a solid body of work and a bit of the swagger and confidence the 1970s was known for.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s