The best films of the seventies

Welcome to Part 2 of a 5-part, decade-wise exploration of the finest English language cinema. Last time, we did the 60’s. This, and the following lists, look not just at the most acclaimed films of the decade, but the ones with the most impactful cultural footprint. We hope you enjoy the show, and go back to your classic DVDs with a smile on your face.

Ah, the disco seventies.

Afros. The Bee Gees. Bellbottoms. Watergate. The death of JRR Tolkien. Punk Rock. Feminism. Studio 54. Donna Summer. The death of Chairman Mao. David Bowie. Stephen Hawking. The Grateful Dead. All In The Family. Stephen King. Women’s Lib. Lava lamps. The World Trade Centre. Happy Days. Bob Marley. Saturday Night Fever. Platform shoes. West Indies wins the first Cricket World Cup. The Sex Pistols. Billie Jean King. Idi Amin. The India-Pakistan war. Stevie Wonder. Margaret Thatcher. Miles Davis goes electric. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. Nadia Comaneci. Erich Segal’s Love Story. The Beatles break up.

After the freewheeling sixties, the seventies were mostly a period of culture regaining its balance. Creativity was balanced with consumerism as pop-culture gave birth to marketable trends. And cinema changed as the Video Cassette Recorder entered the modern home.

Even as home viewers became increasingly important, theatregoers too made themselves count: blockbusters were born. Characters like Darth Vader and Rocky Balboa became icons in their own right, popularising American cinema internationally while German directors like Wim Wenders established their own New Wave movement. Horror cinema became a powerful genre with films like The Omen and The Exorcist. Asia rose to cinematic strengths with Amitabh Bachchan making Bollywood bigger and Bruce Lee taking the Kung-Fu genre heavily into the global mainstream.

While this very ambitious list thankfully looks only at English-language films, the conflict this decade involved deciding between massive hits and more relevant cinema, between prescient visionary filmmakers and astonishing entertainers.

There’s no way to make this list unanimous, and here — in chronological order — are ten English films that make us love the 70s.

M*A*S*H*

Release Date: 25 January 1970

Director: Robert Altman

Nobody, but nobody, used the zoom quite like the great Altman.

Never just swooshing showily in and out using a basic camera technique, Altman masterfully elevated the simplest of wide-tele procedures to an art form. His camera goes in with a purpose, either intimate, to capture offhand gesture or throwaway expression, or incisive, unflinchingly diving into the unpleasant or repugnant. And the zoom lets off as magnificently, opening up — almost always to an unexpected degree, Altman revealing far more than we expect — to surprise us with the subject’s visual context. Incredible stuff.

Of course, that’s not the first thing you notice about his hilarious M*A*S*H, stuffed to the gills with military mayhem, illegally acquired martinis and a stellar ensemble cast — Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Elliot Gould — that made a legend out of Richard Hooker’s relatively ordinary novel, a book Altman personally loathed.

Long before the smash hit television show, Altman created the ultimate anti-war statement with this film, a film so clearly opposed to war that, while set in the Korean War, he removed all such references from the script so that audiences would confuse it for the Vietnam War. M*A*S*H is a celebration of irreverence, seeped in male camaraderie and tentpole tomfoolery. The key ingredient, of course, is satire, satire so bitter it seems almost nihilistic. Thank God the funnies are as incredible as they are.

Here, then, is one of the film’s finest scenes, well-illustrating the script’s constant dichotomy. The unit’s dentist Waldowski, convinced of latent homosexual tendencies, wants to commit suicide. Hawkeye and his gang of never-serious martini-drinkers — the film’s irresistible anti-heroes — hand him a ‘a black capsule’ and a ludicrously Last Supper themed send-off. Known as the Painless Pole, the dentist lies solemnly into a coffin, never knowing how effectively the boys will ‘cure’ him. Don’t miss — alongside one of the finest songs originally composed for a film — Sutherland’s Hawkeye casually breaking bread, the dentist’s expressions, the occasional breaking-into smirks, and the final present given to the ‘dying man.’ Click here for the video.

Taking Off

Release Date: 28 March 1971
Director: Milos Forman

The finest film about America at the turn of the sixties was made by a Czech director. And it was his first English film.

It can be argued, of course, that he had to have been an outsider to endow the zeitgest with such objectivity, such perspective. A simple runaway-girl story takes on ridiculously varied — always funny, always unpredictable — layers as her parents dip into the counterculture to hunt for her and emerge hunting for themselves instead. And all this while the daughter stands around waiting for her turn at a rock audition — one the director intelligently keeps taking us back to.

The cast is constantly spot-on, and while the leads are great — Lynn Carlin and a super Buck Henry play the parents to the runaway Linnea Heacock — the real fun lies in the fringes. The quirkier performances give the film its inimitable feel, the highlights being the varied audition singers (including a very young Carly Simon) and late actor Vincent Schiavelli, playing a junkie’d alter ego with the same name.

In this particularly phenomenal scene, the parental generation attempts to step into youthful shoes, trying on the trendiest misdemeanors of the time with the view to understanding their childrens’ perspective. To this end, they delve hilariously into some mild, ‘particularly pure in form’ illegality, aided by Mr Schiavelli. Click here for the video.

From the utter reversal of the authority figure to the theoretical, almost academic approach to an act considered anarchic and defiant, the above scene showing a group of adults indulging in marijuana may just be the best-ever capture of the generation gap, on film.

The French Connection

Release Date: 7 October 1971
Director: William Friedkin

Gotta give credit to Santana, man.

Friedkin — also behind the iconic Exorcist — didn’t use a single note of music for the French Connection chase sequence, undisputably the single finest chase ever. Yet, during its immensely critical editing, he cut the shots to the sound of Carlos Santana’s Black Magic Woman. The chase itself is spellbinding, as Popeye Doyle’s Pontiac LeMans guns down an eventually driverless train, a lot of the shooting done guerilla-style, minus permission.

The scene aside, the rest of the film is just as captivating. The fact-based story of a couple of New York cops trying to capture a heroin shipment from France, French Connection took the American crime film to new levels of character-detailing and plot progression. And Gene Hackman carried off a pork-pie hat, heavy punchlines, and a perpetually racist, almost mad anger, with such awesome force.

The documentary style shooting, the surprisingly detailed art direction, and the subtle underscoring of all things New York City make the film a relic of the age as much as a gripping actioner. The characters are extraordinarily well-etched, especially for the genre, and the pacing is, quite simply, perfect.

As for video, I just have to leave you with that mammoth chase sequence. Hold on to your hats, and click here for video.

A Clockwork Orange

Release Date: 19 December 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Honestly, it isn’t in English.

Already revelling in the reputation of successfully and distinctively adapting books considered clearly ‘unfilmable,’ Kubrick hit stylistic and artistic peak with this film, one of the most shocking productions of all time. And like the Anthony Burgess novel, the film sticks to the new teen slang-uage of Nadsat, an initially bewildering but eventually intoxicating blend of Slavic, Cockney and English — with perhaps a hint of baby talk.

Malcolm Mcdowell splendidly plays the demented Alex, ever-eager to lead his peers (‘droogs’) into a spot of the old ultra-violence. Like its protagonist, the film defied all boundaries in its constant, electrifying urge to reach an incendiary, Beethoven-inspired climax. Anarchy was never this off-the-wall, and Kubrick’s spectacularly vivid colour palette seems to be dipped in scandal, as if the master was painting with blood and milk rather than mere colour.

A jazzily written diatribe against behavorial psychology, Burgess’ novel is followed almost to the very end by Kubrick, often using dialogue verbatim. Along with Kubrick’s twisted yet meticulous art-direction, the effect is overwhelming. Alex, the alarmingly charismatic protagonist wears cufflinks patterned with bloody eyeballs, ravages young girls to the accompaniment of his ‘old friend’ Ludvig Van, and brutally redefines Singing In The Rain.

And yet, in the end, we side with him as youngster, as misled baddie, as a victim of the system. And we ache not for him because he is beaten and tortured, but because they snatch away his favourite music. Incredible.

In this wonderfully choreographed scene — set to Rossinni’s The Thieving Magpie — Alex turns to his white-clad cohorts and reestablishes his authority. Click here for video, and appy polly logies for the violence.

The Godfather

Release Date: 15 March 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Instead of discussing the single most obvious cinematic choice itself, let us talk instead about the process. About how the director created a ‘book’ to shoot from instead of a traditional script, so as to constantly be loyal to the atmosphere of Mario Puzo’s epochal novel (Watch that on video, it’s a masterclass). About how Coppola threatened to quit if relative unknown Al Pacino wasn’t cast. About how Nino Rota’s famous Love Theme was wonderfully recycled from an old Italian comedy. And about how the horse’s head was real.

Everything about the film is now classic. From the absolutely perfect cast to the use of music, from the dialogues to the myths behind the characters, from the thunderbolt to the baptism to the closing door. From the flavour to the finish, The Godfather captures the imagination and remains as timeless today as it was 36 years ago.

It’s best to let the film speak for itself. In this scene, James Caan’s furious Sonny Corleone bashes up his brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi, played by Gianni Russo. Note the attention to detail, the innocuous lead-in shot of kids frolicking in water, and the unflinching framing that focusses on the fight as well as the onlookers. Click here for video, and note also the brutality with which Caan launches into Russo, breaking two of his ribs and chipping his elbow during filming. Not for authenticity, but because he really didn’t like the guy. Isn’t that just how Don Vito’s eldest son should roll? Bada-bing.

Chinatown


Release Date: 20 June 1974
Director: Roman Polanski

‘What did you do in Chinatown?’
‘As little as possible.’

Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown is, to this date, considered the gold standard in terms of screenwriting, and generations of modern day writers look to it as their Holy Grail — the perfect script.

Speaking about the famous dialogue above, Towne said it — and the film’s name — came from a Hungarian cop who worked in Los Angeles’ Chinatown area, who told him that because the plethora of dialects and gang-slang was so diverse, the cops never knew which side they were on — so they usually stayed out of trouble by not doing much.

Polanski and Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, did quite a bit to justify working on Towne’s script, which pays homage to Dashiell Hamett and Raymond Chandler’s classic film noirs while still remaining a modern thriller based loosely on a true LA scandal. Playing hardboiled and significantly seamy private eye Jake Gittes, Jack wrote most of his own dialogue and performed with unerring precision. Polanski, doubling up as a hoodlum who slits the hero’s nose, fought tooth and nail with Towne to retain a sad ending — something Towne later admitted greatly helped the script.

Chinatown is a truly great neo-noir film, so the plot shouldn’t be discussed in any sort of detail. Suffice it to say that the pacing is masterful and the story ticks along with a constant nervous tension, like a bagful of dynamite set for eventual, inevitable detonation. And it doesn’t disappoint, the eventual revelation striking you like a slap in the face.

Speaking of slaps, here’s the crackling scene just before that finale — one where Jack is so powerful he even makes the lovely, ever-fatal Faye Dunaway stutter, whimper and sob. Wow. Click here for video.

Taxi Driver

Release Date: 8 February 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese

Sometimes, a performance can redefine a film. A single acting job taking a well-written character and infusing it with life, emotion, passion. The dialogue — taken from a script, or words made up up offhandedly — soars well above the filmmaker’s ambition as the actor breathes energy, dynamism and raw reality into the words. The actor, in short, becomes far more than a sum of his part.

Picture, for example, Paul Schrader’s screenwriting instruction: ‘Travis looks in the mirror.’ Then, as director Martin Scorsese eggs on his Mean Streets actor to lace up the scene with total improvisation, feast on what the actor does when pushed entirely into his element. Click here for a video of the fantastic, totally ad-libbed scene.

Robert De Niro made Travis Bickle real — and frighteningly so. The film follows the enigmatic cabbie through an alarming slice of his life, one where he feels more inadequate, helpless, lonely and disillusioned than ever before, and picks up a gun to kill a politician, a pimp and ‘rescue’ a pre-teen prostitute. Yeah, that’s what can happen when a date goes bad.

De Niro spent a month driving cabs for the part, working full 12-hour shifts. His Bickle doesn’t offer us any answers — we don’t even know if he is a Vietnam vet, as he claims to be — but raises a flurry of furious questions, even as all of us, despite ourselves, submit to his nearly-visible charisma, his aura of irresistibility.

Scorsese harnesses this energy fantastically, giving us character exposition through silence as much as through wonderfully realistic diner-dialogue. The balance is immaculate, and yet as decidedly off-center as the film’s demented protagonist. Taxi Driver’s camera expresses it best, pulling away from Travis’ face to spare us seeing his heartbreak — while pushing gleefully towards the film’s eventual carnage.

Network

Release Date: 27 November 1976
Director: Sidney Lumet

Quite simply put, this film is a miracle.

That writer Paddy Chayefsky would craft a satire out of television well over three decades ago, a satire that would lampoon television’s ever-increasing need to be outrageous and inevitably merciless, a dark satire depicting a frenzied rush to capture viewer attention and the resultant television channel dystopia…

And that the exact same satire runs, sans any attempt at purposeful humour, on our news channels, round the clock, in any language you please. A miracle indeed. Either that, or a sign of the apocalypse.

Lumet’s uncannily prescient take on the television circus features Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a news anchor who tells a live camera that he would blow his brains out next week, on the air. There is an outcry, and the channel immediately fires him — only to realise that having the ‘mad prophet of the airwaves’ is a major asset, which is when sensationalist producer Diana Christensen (an all-conquering Faye Dunaway) decides to play up Howard’s evangelism.

As old-school news editor Max Schumacher (William Holden) watches with disgust, the UBS channel turns his buddy Howard into a profiteering sham, his show featuring not just a sermonising Beale, but also sections devoted to astrology, shamanism, gossip, opinion polls and tabloid journalism, all presented in front of a giant stained-glass window. It is the Church of Crass Consumerism, and all holding a remote control are called forth to pay obeisance. This scene shows Beale in one of his most radical outbursts, one the network eventually finds brilliant: Click here for video.

A frightening, powerful and perfect film, Network is as must-see as it gets — even though most of its accusatory fingers are pointed in the viewer’s direction. Today, the film is more relevant than ever.

Annie Hall

Release Date: 20 April 1977
Director: Woody Allen

Relationships need to come with subtitles.

It’s a simple truth, echoed by millions of us around the world, but it took a neurotic New York-lovin Jewish stand-up comic to make a movie for us to realise it. He equipped a dating pair with subtitles, translating their meanings hilariously on screen as if they were speaking in different tongues. Which, of course, they are.

Like all of Woody Allen’s humour, it’s funny because it’s true.

Often painfully, pathetically true — but factual nevertheless. Somewhere in his dialogue-heavy and frequently futile look at life and all the various ways it can possibly go wrong, Allen’s recurring on-screen alter ego is an echo of our inner paranoiac, a man who wants to be simultaneously exclusive and inclusive — brilliantly summed up, via a paraphrasing of Groucho Marx, in the film’s straight-to-camera opening.

Allen plays Alvy Singer, a comedian attracted to the ditsy and lovely Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton. The two are extremely passionate about each other — “Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you, two F’s, yes, I have to invent,” gushes Alvy — and yet, as we learn through the film’s constant flashbacking through their lives and loves, their relationship inevitably sours as they realise they inhabit different worlds and want different things.

Failing in a last-ditch dramatic effort to win Annie back, Alvy eventually seeks refuge in his typewriter, crafting a play out of his relationship but one that ends with ‘him’ winning ‘her’ back. The film is a hysterically funny albeit complex look at life, relationships and preconceived notions of the same, and while Allen seems to be setting it all up for the punchline, the occasional blow is often as poignant as the laugh is loud.

In this wonderful scene, Alvy and Annie are standing in line for a movie, driven to bickering because of the incessant chatter behind them. Alvy can’t help listening to the pretentious man wax ignorant right behind him, and, after breaking the fourth wall and taking his complaint to the audience, resolving it in delightful fashion. Click here for video.

“Boy, if only life here were like this,” smiles a wistful Allen at the end of the scene. Sir, if only more movies were half as good as this.

Kramer Vs Kramer

Release Date: 17 December 1979
Director: Robert Benton

French toast is much harder than it looks.

That was but one of the lessons about fatherhood from Robert Benton’s spectacularly down-the-line look at a breaking marriage, and while the home truth behind the bread isn’t the most groundbreaking of tutorials, the scene itself is magnificent. Dustin Hoffman, playing ad-man Ted Kramer, is trying to drum up breakfast for — and enthusiasm in — his little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). The scene drips with Ted’s desperation to win the boy’s approval, making up bits about folded bread in restaurants to cover up just how utterly clueless he is in the kitchen. All the while, Billy visibly knows something’s wrong, a fact that is getting to Ted even as he’s trying to hide it and his anger. It’s a disarmingly natural scene that immediately drives home both the urgency of the situation and the change in the father-son dynamic. Click here for the video.

The most impressive thing about Kramer Vs Kramer, a strikingly powerful look at a breaking marriage and its impact on a single parent, is how evenhanded a view it managed to present. There are no rights or wrongs as Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves Ted, and both have more than their share of flaws. Through scenes like the one above, and long stretches of impassioned dialogue, Benton impartially conveys both sides of the story — a method that very effectively tears apart the viewer, hitherto accustomed to taking sides in a relationship drama.

The film is a masterclass in performances, Henry making an adorable foil for the adult actors. Jane Alexander delivers very evocatively in a strong supporting role as the Kramers’ neighbout Margaret, but this is a film that belongs to the warring titular pair. Streep is astonishing as Joanna, her role lacking in screentime but positively loaded with depth and despair, and she carries it through with aplomb.

Hoffman, on the other hand, half-improvises his performance as he sets out to make us relate to the flawed, earnest and increasingly desperate Ted. Having just been through divorce himself, the actor contributed hugely to the film with personal inputs, and turned down an offer of a shared-screenplay credit from the director.

In one dramatic scene featuring the Kramers in a restaurant, Hoffman violently hurls a wine glass against the wall. He devised the shot himself, warning just the cameraman, wanting to capture Streep’s startled reaction. She reacted, and stayed in character till the shot ended — after which she screamed at Hoffman for frightening her so awfully.

Furthermore, when filming the very last lines of the last scene, a sobbing Streep asked Hoffman whether her eye makeup was ruined by crying. Benton gleefully kept the line in the movie.

Indeed, a film as blissfully unplanned as a marriage.

A disclaimer, from the author:

The main problem with choosing the best films of the seventies was the battle between blockbuster success and films marking the screenwriter as the star. The latter mostly made the cut, even though the former enjoyed unparallelled glory in the era, and it feels downright stupid to leave out films like Superman, Star Wars, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever and Jaws. As always, several personal favourites have gotten the axe — Dog Day Afternoon, my favourite Al Pacino film; Love & Death, my favourite Allen film; Monty Python And The Holy Grail; Young Frankenstein; All The President’s Men and Badlands.

Heartbreaking decisions, all. And while I urge you to bring out the brickbats and tell me what should definitely have made the list and why, do spare a thought first and try to make your own list first. Ten is a ridiculously small number, you’ll realise.

Coming soon: The 80s!

~

Originally published Rediff, October 14, 2008.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The best films of the seventies

  1. Cool list. Actually learned a couple of factoids even I didn’t know. And for a veteran film buff and trivialist, that’s saying something! Write on!

    :~)

  2. Kuldip Patel

    Took a print. Aaram se padhunga. Haven’t seen any Lumet film besides “12 Angry men”. Gotta watch this one now.

  3. Although I have seen all the films you mention,some more than once, it prods me to see them again. Nice list. There is a blog The Movie Projector, in which the guy has compiled lists of decades as you have. Must see that one too.Here’s the link :

    http://movieprojector.blogspot.com/2009/10/best-movies-of-1980s.html

  4. Vijay

    Indeed, French toast is hard. I tried making French Toast after that scene :). The other scene that’s quite memorable is the one where Hoffman’s friend who sleeps with him walks naked in the dead of the night and so the kid walks in to take a pee as well. That instant when he sees her naked, and the look on both their faces–priceless. What a scene!.

  5. Vijay

    *so does the kid who walks in to take a pee as well* corringendum.

  6. Good set, but as you know, top 10 lists are always subjective. Personally, I can’t imagine a ’70s list without One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Apocalypse Now. Or even Star Wars, to be honest.

    I need to watch Taking Off. Thanks for telling me about it!

  7. Prasanth

    Nice list. A small correction.

    Its Malcolm McDowell who acted as Alex in Clockwork orange, not Malcolm McLaren.

  8. DT

    Good list. Though there are some definite iffy choices.

    But you know what? I would really love to get lists of best Hindi movies of all these decades. We have too many (at least it seems like it) top lists for Hollywood movies. Similar insight is sadly missing for Hindi movies. I request you to attempt that.

    I remember there used to be a Memories section in Rediff Movies. Priceless! It made me see so many movies from a different perspective. And it included only good movies, from somebody who obviously loved movies (in general) and that particular movie. I have not seen a better reviews section anywhere on the net, period.

  9. Zoeb

    A Fantastic List, largely because it has got some of the best movies of all time
    Taxi Driver, French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, all legends of Hollywood, all distinctly made and very compelling!
    Just one small complaint- Why not Godfather-2? I liked it more than Part 1.
    And, yes maybe Dirty Harry also deserved mention. One of my favorite cop movies!
    Nonetheless. good effort Mr. Sen. Keep it up.

  10. BARRY LYNDON????? Every one misses it…… boohoo…….. A Clockwork Orange is there…….. :( :……. Why Not that one…… :'(…. my most beloved Kubrick Film!!!!!!

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