Film Romance in the 1970s

Reimagining a few old classics with the downbeat 1970s vibe…

If Cary Grant had romanced Grace Kelly and really stolen her jewels and broken her heart, but escaped to live a tortured life – it would have been a 1970s version of To Catch a Thief.

If Humphrey Bogart had been shot and killed while making sure Ingrid Bergman and Paul Heinried got away from the Nazis in Casablanca, but had mattress-surfed with her in a moment of weakness, that would have had a 1970s ending.

In The Parent Trap, Brian Keith reunited his family, but keeps Joanna Miles on the side, that would have been a 1970s romance.

See where I’m going with this?

Especially in the early to mid 1970s, a lot of American films had ambiguous or unhappy endings. It was the anti-hero era, the age of gritty realism, where the corny, feel-good romanticism of earlier decades was replaced by the cold slap of reality. Sadness, melancholy, shock and pain were your parting emotions as the credits rolled and you sat in the dark.

Many of these films have dark, moody themes, even comic and satirical tones, revealing untreated repressed sexual and anti-social attitudes. Both men and women behaved badly, relationships broken or simply resting on a poor foundation. Love, American style was filled with heartache, deception and abandonment. These weren’t your grandparents’ love stories.

After the 1960s, with changing social mores, the influence of foreign cinema and the crumbling of the production code in Hollywood, American movie audiences wanted more challenging and adult fare.

If you want a happy ending, you need to roll back a decade or so for the Disney or Doris Day films. Even in the 1960s, we got Days of Wine and Roses, Romeo and Juliet, The Manchurian Candidate, The Fortune Cookie, Hud and Butterfield 8. Tear-jerkers are great for certain moods or evenings with a quart of ice cream, but many 1970s films also had an undercurrent that flows well beyond the tragic death or disappointing love affair.

Below are some of the decade’s most notable films. I’m sure you can think of others, or even remember a few love stories that were happily ever after.

Annie Hall (1977) was a love story. Even though it was very funny and the film won the Best Picture Academy Award, the characters broke up in the end. They to breakup, Annie Hall outgrew Aly Singer.

Love Story (1970) was a love story, but one of the characters died in the end. Love Story was one of the first popular films of the era whose premise depended on the shock and reaction to the death of a central character. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is total bullshit, but audiences bought it.

Jack Nicholson was the king of bad relationships. He undertook a variety of characters who were societal outliers with unhealthy male-female relationships. He was not alone as virtually every leading American actor delved into films where the romantic relationships were upside down.

Five Easy Pieces (1970) Bobby, a skilled pianist, works as a roughneck, and lives with his loyal, but ditzy girlfriend. On a trip coming home from seeing his estranged family, he opts to leave his life behind and abandons his girlfriend at a gas station.

Carnal Knowledge (1971) Two men go through life with varying degrees of happiness and failed relationships. The Nicholson character beds every woman including his friend’s wife. In the end, he’s so sexually broken, prostitutes don’t even arose him.

Chinatown (1974) Jake Gittes falls for his mysterious and emotionally damaged client. He tries to help her and daughter escape to Mexico, but in the end she is killed and he feels responsible.

The Passenger (1975) Journalist Locke, pursuing a story of arm sales in Africa, decides to assume the identity of the dead arms dealer. The dead man now has Locke’s identity, which gets the attention of Locke’s wife. Meanwhile, Locke becomes romantically entangled with a student, as men for the arms buyer catch up with Locke and kill him.

Warren Beatty

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) In this revisionist Western, Beatty plays McCabe, who builds a successful brothel and employs Mrs. Miller, who he has a sort of relationship. She does not have a heart of gold and he is trying to live through a hostile takeover.

Shampoo (1975) A popular and womanizing Hollywood hairdresser juggles many women while trying to finance his own business. He failed to get backing and ends up losing all of his girlfriends.

Al Pacino

The Godfather (1972) Michael Corleone’s first wife was blown up by a bomb meant for him. Second wife Kay, didn’t like the organized crime life.

Serpico (1973) NYPD officer Frank Serpico’s career suffers as he refuses to take bribes. He loses his girlfriend as he is consumed by corruption in the department.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Bank-robbers have a really bad day as they come almost empty and surrounded by the police. Sal, is trying to steal enough money for his lover, Leon, to get a sec-change operation.

Bobby Deerfield (1977) A moody auto racer in a relationship with a terminally ill woman.

Gene Hackman

Night Moves (1975) Private detective Gene Hackman is running out the string of his failing career as his wife is having an affair right under his nose. Instead of finding redemption is last case, he becomes part of the body count.

Robert Redford

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) Redford was starting play against type and here he is womanizing motorcycle racer. Halsy hooks up with Rita, but tries to dump her on mousy Fauss when she becomes pregnant.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) Johnson leaves civilization to make it as a trapper on the frontier, where he must learn to survive in the harsh wild. Johnson is given a Flathead Native American woman her father, the chief. In time, they develop a relationship, as Johnson builds a house and they take in an orphaned white boy. While leading soldiers on a mission, his family is murdered by members of the Crow tribe. Johnson burns the house and hunts down the Crow who killed his family.

The Sting (1973) Redford is small-time grifter Johnny Hooker, who rips-off a mobster who wants revenge. Hooker becomes involved with a waitress who is really an assassin out to kill him.

The Way We Were (1973) Hubbell is blonde, blue-eyed and a star college athlete. Katie is Jewish and a wannabe communist. Opposites, they connect, reconnect years later and settle into life together, until their differences push them apart, permanently.

The Great Gatsby (1974) Jay Gatsby is doomed, he just doesn’t know it. Gatsby goes from poor to rich and finally gets Daisy. This world is all fool’s gold as Gatsby learns.

Three Days of the Condor (1975) Turner works for the CIA analyzing books. He trips over a secret operation and must go on the run. Needing shelter, he kidnaps a woman, who eventually trusts him and they sleep together and she helps him.

Paul Newman

WUSA (1970) A drama most people probably do not recall or know about. Newman is a radio commentator drawn into a politically charged Southern drama, where his lover hangs herself after being framed for a crime.

Judge Roy Bean (1972) Newman plays a self-appointed judge, handing out his brand of justice. His love is for a famous actress, Lilly Langtree, who he pines for, but has never been able to meet.

Slap Shot (1977) Hockey coach Reggie Dunlop’s team is about to fold, as he tries to win back his long-estranged wife, who is wise to his hustling and long-shot dreams. Reggie does not win her back, but doesn’t give up hope as she is headed one direction and her another.

Jane Fonda

Klute (1973) A detective, hired to find a missing man, falls for a prostitute who is at the center of the mystery. A bit of a psycho-sexual mystery.

Coming Home (1978) A love triangle during the Vietnam War with disastrous results.

William Holden

Network (1976) Former news exec William Holden falls for an aggressive network producer, leaving his wife, but finding his new lover incapable of love.

Breezy (1973) Midlife crisis older man forms a romantic relationship with with young hippie chick. Not sophisticated as Sabrina or scandalous as Lolita, but offbeat and borderline creepy. Clint Eastwood directs, William Holden stars.

Barbra Streisand

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) Streisand took some very offbeat roles in the early decade, here as a trippy, part-time prostitute who develops a relationship with a writer, her polar opposite, but in the end are a couple.

A Star is Born (1976) The familiar story of two musical careers headed in opposite directions and tragedy.

Burt Reynolds

White Lightning (1973) Gator McCluskey is a bootleg runner who gets out of prison early to mail a crooked sheriff. He has eyes for Lou, the girlfriend of his new runner, and enjoy an affair right under his nose.

Hustle (1975) An attempt at noir, a cop lives with a beautiful French prostitute in L.A. Cliched, over-baked, sleazy and a waste of talent. A love story?

Other Films

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) Space visitor David Bowie falls in love with Earthling Candy Clark, but she leaves him after discovering he is from way over yonder.

Cabaret (1972) Sally and Brian and Max all fall for each other. Sally turns up pregnant but doesn’t know which is the father. Sally has an abortion and she and Brian part.

Harold and Maude (1971) Harold is 19, Maude 79. They are friends but it grows into a romance that no one else understands.

Summer of 42 (1971) Teenager Hermie is smitten with Dorothy, an older woman, who in a weak moment (her husband was killed in the War) takes Hermie as a lover, just for one night. She abruptly leaves.

The Last Picture Show (1971) Early 1950s, small town Texas, teenagers and adults enter into disastrous relationships, for mostly wrong reasons.

Play Misty For Me (1971) Radio DJ has a one night stand with a fan, who becomes obsessed with him when he shows no more attention in her.

A New Leaf (1971) A pampered rich man is running out of money. He must marry a rich woman, and maybe arrange an accident for her.

Last Tango in Paris (1972) An older man an a teenage girl have a twisted sexual relationship, raping the girl as he acts out his delusional fantasy. Later, he pursues her and she kills him.

Paper Moon (1973) A small time Depression-era conman and his daughter travel the country applying their flimflam, meetup with a burlesque dancer, who has interest in him – and other men.

Don’t Look Now (1973) A couple lose their young daughter to drowning and cannot get over it. In Venice for work, they are told their daughter is trying to reach them, they are haunted, leading to stress in their marriage and deadly results.

An Unmarried Woman (1978) A recent divorcee must navigate the single life, independence and love. Eventually her ex show up to ask her to come back, but she declines.

A Touch of Class (1973) A married man and divorced woman seek to have an affair, but fail to find happiness.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) A young man on his honeymoon falls for another woman and seeks to win her over.

Cinderella Liberty (1973) A sailor and a prostitute meet and later marry. Her life is a mess, but he wants to raise her son and a baby on the way. The baby dies, she goes off with another man and leaves her son.

Days of Heaven (1978) A man on the run from murder, and his girlfriend and young sister, get jobs harvesting wheat on a farm. The man an his girlfriend pretend to be siblings and plot to have her marry the sick farmer, who is rumored to be dying. The plan goes awry.

The Hospital (1971) The suicidal chief of medicine romances a patient’s daughter by raping her in a drunken fit of rage, as she awakens him for a midlife slumber.

4 thoughts on “Film Romance in the 1970s

  1. Enjoyable nostalgia trip, Mike. I’ve seen about half of these and know about all but eight. That Production Code required happy endings, and while those old classics are great fun to watch, it was refreshing when the Code finally cracked (in the ’50s?). I especially love the Revisionist Westerns. (Bye bye, John Wayne.)

    Today we have revisions of the revisions. If McCabe and Mrs. Miller were made today, the producers would want Shirley MacLaine cast opposite Warren Beatty, and Snoop Dogg’s music would take the place of Leonard Cohen’s.


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