1. The Parallax View
The bleakest of mainstream ‘70s conspiracy thrillers finds Warren Beatty’s dogged journalist continually one step behind a mysterious organisation that may have been responsible for the assassination of a US presidential candidate three years before. Inspired by both Kennedy assassinations (in particular the suggested brainwashing of Sirhan Sirhan) and released to a world steeped in the Watergate revelations, The Parallax View offers an uncompromisingly cynical view of the prospect for a better tomorrow. This is a world in which the corporations collude with governments to ensure the status quo is maintained. Any untidy or maverick gamesmanship sees the player swept decisively from the board.
Director Alan J Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis create a discomforting landscape of surveillance and paranoia, one where you’re deceiving yourself if you think you have your eyes wide open. They would team again to universal acclaim on All the President’s Men. But that film offers hope. This has none. Committees will nominally investigate assassinations. Lone nutter findings will be pronounced. The status quo will be maintained. Centrepiece of the picture is an iconic three-and-a-half minute film-within-a-film, in which Beatty’s Joe Frady undergoes a conditioning procedure at the offices of the Parallax Corporation. Positive and negative images and associations collide and corrupt, accompanied throughout by Michael Small’s immersive score. Beatty gets more attention for the awards-friendly Shampoo and Reds, but this and his later Bulworth testify to a star cognisant of the limitations on the purity and sanctity of political endeavour (for all his unrealistic immersions in real world politics).
Commission Spokesman: Although I’m certain that it will do nothing to discourage the conspiracy peddlers, there is no evidence of a conspiracy in the assassination of George Hammond.
Jack Nicholson’s very nosy fellow investigates corruption in high places in 1930s Los Angeles. Chinatown exemplifies the critically acclaimed movie (lets face it, there can be a disconnect, and sometimes a gulf, between universal praise and personal experience), one that rewards each repeat viewing with new discoveries and insights. Roman Polanski reenvisions noir in the harsh brightness of the Californian day and imbues it with a sweaty unease beneath the period trappings. He changed Robert Towne’s ending, aligning it more with the tone of the story (or with the tone of his experiences over the previous few years, depending on your take); arguably, its resonance is based as much on ending that sends the viewer reeling as the preceding two hours. Nicholson, who is in every scene in the movie, imbues private detective J.J. Gittes with a confidence belying the fact that he isn’t the super-smart investigator he likes to think he is. But it’s Jon Huston’s monstrous land developer who leaves the most lasting impression. Towne’s subsequent career mostly coasted on the kudos he received for this project, while nothing from Polanski has come even close.
Jake Gittes: But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something.
3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
It’s a toss-up between this and Life of Brian for the best big screen Python. Brian possesses the most coherent narrative, but the scattershot episodic nature of Holy Grail ensures that in some respects it is a “purer” distillation of their TV incarnation. Rendered with a blood-and-mud splattered authenticity, courtesy more of Terry Gilliam’s loving art direction than co-director Terry Jones’ less-rigorous approach (you only have to look at their subsequent solo directing careers to see who one had the stronger visual sense). Highlights include King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman) encounter with an increasingly limb-deficient Black Knight, the Knights who Say Ni, Sir Galahad’s (Michael Palin) welcome at a Castle Anthrax (populated exclusively by a coterie of ladies), and Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) cutting a bloody swathe through Swamp Castle only to find he is rescuing a wet-eared prince. Then there’s the killer Rabbit of Caerbannog and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, the Bridge of Death, abusive French knights, flying cows, and the minstrel’s less than complimentary accompaniment to the exploits of “brave” Sir Robin (Eric Idle). If it has a failing, the self-consciously sudden ending lacks wit (it really does seem like “can’t come up with anything better choice”; compare that to the sublime conclusion to Brian), but this is the rare transition to the big screen that (with a few exceptions in terms of their original TV sketches) far eclipses what went before.
French Soldier: You don't frighten us, English pig dogs. Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called "Arthur King," you and all your silly English K-nig-hts.
4. Dark Star
Bombed-out in space with a spaced-out bomb. So went the poster line for John Carpenter’s student film-turned-feature. Out-and out-comedies were fairly rare for the director (Big Trouble in Little China is a notable exception), and his next would be a laugh-free suspenser (Assault on Precinct 13) but there’s a sense of humour running through most of his films. It’s as essential as his signature synth scores.
Here, he’s one of the first to embrace the used-future aesthetic (Silent Running, a couple of years earlier, also has this going for it), and the script, co-written with Dan O’Bannon is not too far from a pothead version of Alien (which O’Bannon also initiated). Witness the dangerous sentient machines, an infiltrating alien (here, the xenomorph is an inflated beachball with clawed feet) and a profoundly bored crew (who travel the universe blowing up unstable planets).
Its prize asset might not be O’Bannon the writer but O’Bannon the actor, however. As Sergeant Pinback, he is a frayed, frazzled, pissed-off astronaut. His altercations with the alien, and in particular his disastrous entanglement in a lift, are sublimely loony. But best of all is his auto-censored video diary. Elsewhere, Dolittle (Brian Narelle) engages in weighty philosophical discussion with a bomb set on detonating and indulges his passion for surfing.
Pinback: I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities. I have something of value to contribute to this mission if they would only recognize it. Today over lunch I tried to improve morale and build a sense of camaraderie among the men by holding a humorous, round-robin discussion of the early days of the mission. My overtures were brutally rejected. These men do not want a happy ship. They are deeply sick and try to compensate by making me feel miserable. Last week was my birthday. Nobody even said "happy birthday" to me. Someday this tape will be played and then they'll feel sorry.
5. The Godfather Part II
The film that always comes first in (short) lists of sequels that eclipse the original, I’m not actually sure Part II is better but it’s a close thing. Francis Ford Coppola has no interest in ploughing the same furrow. Instead of opting for simple narrative progression, he contrasts the 1950s trials and tribulations of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone with the rise in status of Robert De Niro’s young Vito. But it’s the corruption of Michael that holds greatest sway, from the decimation of his relationship with Kay (Diane Keaton) to his intolerance for the errors in judgement of simple older sibling Fredo (John Cazale). The cast is embarrassingly good; all those mentioned, but also a word for Talia Shire’s Connie and Robert Duvall’s rock Tom Hagen, cast adrift without the confidence placed in him by his adoptive father. A film that appears to have been produced with such sureness of hand and certainty of tone that it seems unthinkable Coppola would stumble so profoundly during the next decade. That said, I don’t think Part III is anything like the stinker some would claim; it has a very strong plot, but suffers badly from some key miscasting and insufficient time in the editing suite.
Michael Corleone: Fredo, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels, I don't want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there. You understand?
6. The Conversation
Gene Hackman stars in Francis Ford Coppola’s other 1974 picture (released first. It’s a small scale affair, relying on claustrophobia and attention to detail to make its impact. Gene Hackman’s obsessive, meticulous surveillance expert (“The best bugger in the business”) takes pride in his professionalism. He pronounces that he has neither interest in nor responsibility for the content of his recordings. His only criterion is to ensure the best possible quality is achieved. However, when his latest job appears to reveal a murder plot he resolves to take action. But is his analysis correct? Coppola and Hackman create an abrasive, unsympathetic character in Harry Caul but the genius of the piece is to ensure we fully identify with his perception until it is too late. Walter Murch’s sound design (and editing) is crucial to the picture’s success (he would late dazzle again with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). Like The Parallax View, The Conversation’s themes were granted added resonance in the light of the Watergate scandal.
Martin Stett: We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don't get involved any further. We'll be listening to you.
7. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Aside from Don Siegel, very few name directors crop up in Eastwood’s post-‘70s career. He pretty much stuck to a few friends, hired hands or (mainly) directed himself. This is a rare exception. Although, Michael Cimino was only just starting out; he was yet to be venerated (and in short order vilified). His script contribution to Eastwood’s second Dirty Harry picture (Magnum Force) brought him to the star’s attention. Thunderbolt gave Eastwood one of his first mentor roles, paired with a young and up-and-coming Jeff Bridges. It amounts, along with The Beguiled, to one of his more experimental pictures and characters.
Ostensibly a tragic buddy movie, and set in the masculine world of crime fiction, Cimino has infused the picture with an oft-discussed gay subtext. There’s the relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; a key part of their robbery involves posing as man and wife, Lightfoot as the wife. Then there’s the unconcealed contempt George Kennedy’s brutal and repressed elder gang member holds for the softer, less manly (and uninhibited) Lightfoot. Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis are part of Thunderbolt’s original crew, initially believing that he double-crossed them in the wake of their last heist. If Cimino’s picture seems unhurried compared to other examples of the genre, it moves at a positive clip in relation to his own filmography. This may be the most obvious example of Eastwood the star dabbling in counterculture themes and the new nihilism of the period; if the star stop shots of going down in a hail of gunfire, this is very much a product of the post-Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy Hollywood.
Lightfoot: People walk into these banks with paper sacks, fill 'em with money and walk out. Anybody can do it.
Thunderbolt: Bullshit. The newest bank vaults have walls of reinforced concrete five feet thick, backed by six inches of steel. The vault door is stainless steel-faced. It's an inch and a half of cast steel, another 12 inches of burn-resisting steel, and another inch and a half of open-hearthed steel... A vault door has 20 bolts, each an inch in diameter. Eight on each side, two top and two bottom. This holds the door into a 16-inch steel jamb set in 18 inches of concrete. It's crosshatched by steel bars running both vertical and horizontal. This door is precision-made so you can't pour nitro between the door and the vault. If that isn't enough, there's microphones, electric eyes, pressure-sensitive mats, vibration detectors, tear gas, and even thermostats that detect the slightest rise in temperature. Still interested in banks?
Lightfoot: I knew you weren’t a preacher!
Sean Connery roams the landscape wearing a giant nappy while a floating head propounds the message “The gun is good. The penis is evil”. John Boorman’s mad science fiction allegory is dense, scattershot and baffling. Its most obvious inspiration, The Wizard of Oz, is more of a jumping off point than a through-and-through template. As the quote suggests this is most definitely not one for the kids. Boorman introduces a future where the baser and higher instincts have separated into different castes, and the only freedom that may be found is through reunifying them (in Boorman’s terms, through love).
Even then, nothing is so simple; Boorman, in a conversation between Arthur Frayne and Connery’s Zed, admits that he has no advanced answer. He can extend his philosophy only to the limits of the natural order; beyond that point the characters must (very nearly) metatextually admit to being constructs of the writer/director himself (effectively the Merlin who will become a Boorman protagonist in the later Excalibur). Better to be a victim of too many ideas than too few, but you’re likely to see as many reviews dismissing the film as an overblown, incoherent disaster as ones celebrating it for its imagination, strangeness and unique vision. Love it or loathe it, you’ll never see anything else quite like it.
Zed: I see nothing except my own perplexity. Knowledge is not enough.
9. Phase IV
Saul Bass, legendary designer of title sequences for (amongst many others) Hitchock and Scorsese, made one solitary feature film. It’s a far-out, psychedelic science-fiction movie in which the ants (just normal sized ants; they have not been engorged to an enormous size as a result of nuclear testing) are taking over. Scientists set up a research base in the Arizona desert, intent on studying the little beasts, but quickly begin to wonder who is actually calling the shots.
Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick are the humans, but they are dwarfed by Ken Middleham’s mesmerising macro photography; live ants, dead ants, stop motion ants (who knows how many ants died in the making of this motion picture) set to work in mini-narratives that parallel the human efforts just as all the while a disorientating ‘70s synth score gnaws at you.
Appropriately for a man whose career has been based on striking imagery, Bass opts to tell his story visually whereever possible, and he introduces a curious sense of inevitability and detachment to this insect apocalypse. The studio lopped off his original ending, which took the ideas of the released version’s last few minutes to triptastic lengths (an uncut version has recently been discovered and screened). Bass’ film received a fair few brickbats on first release, but its cult appeal has begun to hold sway; reappraisal is called for if and when Paramount gets its arse into gear and releases the unexpurgated version.
Hubbs: Why don’t they kill us? Why play these games?
10. Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks’ finest 105 minutes. Possibly Gene Wilder’s (co-writer with Brooks) and Marty Feldman’s too. The director was on a roll in 1974, delivering a double bill of parodies with this and Blazing Saddles. Saddles reaped the lion’s share of box office glory, but Frankenstein has experienced more innovative afterlife (transferred into musical form). His later High Anxiety may have been the more overtly calculated movie parody, but the simple adoption of Universal horror design tropes (classic elements borrowed from James Whale, black and white photography) enable even greater liberties with the genre riffs. The gags are mostly of the most obvious variety (mostly), but the timing and delivery carry them (“There, wolf. There, castle”) Every performance is one to savour, but Peter Boyle is magnificent as the creature (Puttin’ on the Ritz) and the often dour Gene Hackman is to be congratulated for his game interpretation of the blind hermit.
Dr Frankenstein: You know, I'm a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.
Igor: What hump?
Best Picture Oscar
The Godfather Part II
Until Return of the King came along, the only sequel to swipe the Oscar for Best Picture. And still the only sequel to a Best Picture winner to take the prize. Deserving? Well, it’s splitting hairs to say I would have gone for Chinatown; they’re both masterful pieces of cinema.
Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won one. The Godfather Part II was also nominated for 11 Oscars, but cleared up with a more decisive six. Robert Towne’s original screenplay was the only success story on Oscar night. You couldn’t exactly argue the film was robbed, but it is vastly superior to any of Polanski’s subsequent brushes with awards (Tess, The Pianist). Or Towne’s for that matter (Shampoo, Greystoke).
Coppola rather shut himself out of the running here, with three noms for his other film of ’74. It was in one crucial category that The Conversation was snubbed on the night; Walter Murch was by far the front-runner for Best Sound. The Oscar went to Earthquake.
Dustin Hoffman took the tile role in this Lenny Bruce biopic, an example of the Academy flirting with legitimised controversy. It bagged Hoffman his third Best Actor nomination and director Bob Fosse his second of three director noms (he won the gong two years earlier for Cabaret). Lenny went home with nuffin.
The Towering Inferno
I know, right? But, if Titanic can sweep the board, why not this creaky disaster pic? Probably the high-water mark (critically and in terms of box office) for the ‘70s’ most popular subgenre; the arrival of Spielberg a year later would see accident-prone airplanes, liners and buildings gradually ushered from the theatres. The movie mustered eight nominations and waltzed off with three awards (Cinematography, Film Editing and Original Song). It’s telling that no one even nominated director John Guillermin (King Kong a couple of years later confirmed there was no danger he’d ever attract critical plaudits). Showing how desperate they (or the lobbyists) were, Fred Astaire was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (De Niro rightly won in a category bursting with The Godfather Part II actors; Jeff Bridges was the only other non-Family actor present).
Top 10 US Box Office
1. Blazing Saddles
2. The Towering Inferno
3. Young Frankenstein
5. The Godfather Part II
6. Airport 1975
7. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams
8. The Longest Yard
10. Herbie Rides Again
10. Herbie Rides Again