20 Great 70s Films That Time Forgot
The 70s are often considered the second golden age of Hollywood. Emboldened by the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider that closed out the 60s, many of the studios showed a willingness to entrust young producers, writers and directors to give a whole new voice to cinema. The result was a unique slate of classics from new filmmaking mavericks such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Bob Rafelson, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, George Lucas and Peter Bogdanovich, to name a few. How they differed from previous greats was through forgoing classicism for a closer association with reality, through more sounds or rock ‘n roll songs instead of scores, through more intimate plots in following a character more than their story and venturing off the sound stage and out into the real world.
Although many of those names were the lynchpin of new storytelling success for the decade, the 70s had many great films that also tapped into the rebel spirit of the new auteurs without continuing to receive a classic shine. Every decade has forgotten films, but the 70s are a treasure trove of movies that are rebellious, eccentric and alive, but no longer mentioned.
To create this initial list, I just had one criteria: the film had to receive less than 10,000 votes on IMDb, which seems to be a good barometer on whether or not a film has been left behind in the retrospective zeitgeist. With this methodology a few things were discovered. First, many of the films that could potentially land here were experimental with narrative, or grindhouse or foreign, which is of no surprise, of course. But more surprising was that many of the great American films from this decade that seem to no longer have a fervent following but were directed by an accepted auteur such as Altman or Ken Russell, frequently featured a female lead.
The great 70s films largely belonged to men, were made by men, and told the stories almost exclusively through the eyes of men and tried to de-code what it means to be an honorable man. They’re still great films, of course, but 70s cinema was the first real gender barrier for movies; all the praise and awards were going to The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, The French Connection, The Deer Hunter etc. and it’s stark in comparison to previous decades where female-led films like The Apartment, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, etc., could still win the top film prizes through the 60s. The 70s is when the acclaim and prestige really became one sided and the vast majority of prestige pictures focused on men. I might argue that that was when the idea of a man’s picture and a woman’s picture really splintered as well. Since the 70s also gave us the idea of a blockbuster that forever changed film, with Star Wars, that divide increased in the 80s and we’re only now starting to see a return to prestige female pictures being made from major directors.
That’s not to critique the amazing films like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Badlands, Dog Day Afternoon, and more and more that came out in the 70s, but it is worth noting that most of the films on this list — that did not receive initial studio support and no longer have the support of a voting system like IMDb — feature women in the leading roles. The rest are foreign, fringe and naughty. Or in some cases, they are the directorial debut of a director who’d go on to have a cult following, like Walter Hill and Elaine May. Peruse some of the picks and sound off on which films you agree with or might want to check out, or which mega classics you think are overrated.
The Lickerish Quartet (1970)
Radley Metzger was a pioneer of erotica. While his contemporaries like Russ Meyer and Tinto Brass spent the 70s highlighting specific female features (Meyer the bosoms and Brass the butts), Metzger was making art that occasionally featured fornication. Don’t just take my word for it, Andy Warhol called The Lickerish Quartet “an outrageously kinky masterpiece” and UCLA has restored his film prints and held retrospectives to highlight his work. It’s academic.
The Lickerish Quartet begins at a European castle where a wealthy family watches an old “blue movie” (as one does with their family in a castle), then they travel down to a circus where they watch some daredevil tricks. They notice that a female motorcyclist (Silvana Venturelli) looks very similar to the woman that primarily featured in the dirty film they just watched. So, of course, they invite her back to their castle, where they talk about bike tricks, show her the naughty video and invite her to fulfill each of their fantasies, one by one. Meanwhile, she repeatedly asks, “who has the gun” and the patriarch of the family (Frank Wolff, who had small roles in both Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Silence) has flashbacks to his time in war. Yes, there’s sex and there’s some goofy fantasy music, but what makes Lickerish Quartet impressive—and one of the few films of its kind where you can watch for cinematography, story and production design and still hold your snobby cinephile card—are the imaginative set-ups, editing and set changes (a library transforms into a dirty dictionary, for example). You might get hot, you might have a laugh, but you’ll also feel bad about war and parents.
The Music Lovers (1970)
The Music Lovers elicited this response from one of the all-time great film critics, Pauline Kael: “You feel (like) you should drive a stake through the heart of the man who made it.” The man who made it is Ken Russell. Historically speaking, The Music Lovers follows the doomed heterosexual attempts by famed composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) as he rises through the musical world by turning his back on his homosexuality and takes part in a sham of a marriage. It’s about the power of music but it’s also about the destructiveness of withholding sex—from one’s self and from others.
After potentially outing himself to the veteran composers of Russia’s famed Mighty Five, Tchaikovsky chose his wife from a series of love letters that she had written him without ever meeting him. In his mind, because she only knew his music that is all that she needed to love him. But Antonia (an amazing Glenda Jackson) needed more than his music. She also needed sex to feel loved. That sentence might sound crass and Russell does sometimes present it as so, but it’s also heartbreaking. There is humiliation in both turning down someone for sex and in being turned down.
There is a magnificent scene on their honeymoon where Tchaikovsky specifically gets Antonia very drunk on a train so that he won’t need to have sex, but she still tries. She passes out naked on the floor of their train car and the bumps of the tracks make her body sway back and forth violently; Tchaikovsky looks in horror at her vulnerable body. It’s this horror of sexuality that perhaps provoked the stake reaction from Kael. For Russell, as a director, is anything but classical. He, like Tchaikovsky here, was new on the scene in 1970. And he radicalized what could be done with a historical epic. This isn’t David Lean. This is a film that re-enacts the visions we create when he hear music. And one that looks at an insane asylum as a breeding ground for, well, insanity. This is the most unusual and loud film to ever receive the brushstrokes generally reserved for adventure epics.
A New Leaf (1971)
Woody Allen and Mel Brooks receive most of the accolades for American comedies in the 70s, but Elaine May deserves to be mentioned as their equal (fittingly, Allen recently cast her as his wife in his Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes). The Heartbreak Kid is her masterpiece (and darn near a perfect entertainment) but A New Leaf was her fantastic start.
Leaf concerns Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a trust-fund dimwit who has no real hobbies or knowledge. We meet him when he’s informed that he has no real money; he spent it all. In a last ditch effort to keep going to the country club and live high society he makes a bet with his Uncle that he could be married to a rich women in six weeks. If he succeeds, his debt will be forgiven and eventually he’ll kill off the bride soon after the ceremony to receive her inheritance. May herself plays the potential bride, a clumsy and bookish woman who no one talks to at the high society club.
A New Leaf is a classic Preston Sturges-inspired slapstick comedy with a devilish lesson by the end of its run time. Matthau’s deadpan delivery is perfect to represent an untalented but entitled oaf and as the 70s created the framework for growing income disparity, his foolishness is extra cutting now. But the sinister satirical twist that May has up her sleeve is the idea that the reason men so easily dispatch of women and relationships is because they’re seeking someone who will give them a legacy. For many, that’s an heir to run a company with their name on it, but for Matthau’s fop, it’s having a new species of plant named after him. Will such a gesture make him turn over a new leaf and think of someone other than himself?
The Boy Friend (1971)
Ken Russell gives Sandy Wilson’s Broadway smash The Boy Friend some movie razzle-dazzle. The play itself is about the roaring twenties and two young people falling in love against their parent’s wishes. This adaptation concerns an understudy (Twiggy) at a struggling 1920’s London playhouse, who’s thrust into rehearsals after the star (a Glenda Jackson cameo) suffers an injury for the production of, you guessed it, what will become “The Boy Friend.” Many of Wilson’s popular songs remain here, with a side story about a movie producer being in the audience looking to cast the next big thing, and the understudy beginning to fall in love with the male lead (Christopher Gable) as he helps boost her confidence throughout the rehearsal.
The Boy Friend is overlong but has some of the most amazing set and costume designs of any musical. Because this is Russell, those designs create daydreams of the performers as well, not just the production. It’s a dazzling movie for design. And Twiggy, the model, is quite natural as the unnatural star that has the it factor that the movie producer is looking for. Russell said that he made this film as a pallet cleanse for the tumultuous and studio meddled The Devils (see below). As such, it’s easy to see why it’s overlong, as Russell probably just needed some shiny joy in his life. Fans of La La Land will find a few set design nods here.
The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell’s The Devils is less forgotten and more just really fucking hard to find. It’s consistently requested to be added to the Criterion Collection but Warner Brothers seems hell bent on never EVER letting go of the rights. The studio has blocked the release of a Blu-ray, allowed BFI only to show it in England if it’s listed as an educational experience and the version that myself and many film fans have seen, stateside, comes directly from Martin Scorsese’s own collection, which he lends out for an occasional screening (just to hype you up). To add to the intrigue, Guillermo del Toro has accused WB of 40+ years of censorship by never allowing it to hit home video. Now this is the studio that widely released The Exorcist—which included a scene of a possessed pre-teen girl stabbing her vagina with a crucifix and then forcing her mothers face into her privates while grumbling, “lick me”—just two years later. So in a day and age when studios’ back catalogues are widely available, why does this film sit under lock and key?
The Devils centers around a vain priest (Oliver Reed) and the hunchback nun (Vanessa Redgrave) who lusts for him so deeply that she accuses him of witchcraft and other nuns at the convent join in on the accusation because the accusation allows them to behave like they’re under a sexual spell and thus they’re more free to practice their desires than the church will allow. It’s a loony masterpiece, as many of Russell’s films are. And when the nuns indulge it brings out the anarchic and chaotic side of the auteur. This is one of Redgrave’s greatest performances and it’s an interesting critique of religion and the suppression of desire. Now, the film is so hyped from its own suppression that it’d probably seem tame by today’s standards, which makes WB’s behavior even stranger (in WB’s mode of thinking, blasphemous presentations thrust upon a child in possession are more okay for the public, but blasphemous presentations that are being faked by a convent are not).
Note, there are two masturbation scenes that were cut from the theatrical print to receive a brief X-rated release in both the UK and the USA, oh which I’ve seen one, and it’s not graphic but is both unsettling and darkly humorous, calling into question whether all Christians practice their religion to make pure their heart or because it gives them the ability to control others. Perhaps it’s the obvious desire of outside cinephile sources like the Criterion Collection to release that footage as a bonus feature that keeps this film suppressed. Or maybe, like Birth.Movies.Death notes, it’s just some old crotchety executive who has a personal vendetta against the film and we just need to wait for that person to die off (like many backward approaches to thinking these days) and we’ll finally all be able to decide for ourselves if we can handle this movie or not. If you ever see this film listed in your local listings for a one-night showing, go.
Little Murders (1971)
I was introduced to Little Murders, a hilarious satire of marriage fever, through a friend who was getting married. She wanted the person who was overseeing her vows to watch the clip of Donald Sutherland’s pastor as he delivers a wedding introduction about how the “business of marriage” deserves “an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.” The subjects that Sutherland talks about while Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd await to marry are how many of the weddings he’s presided over have ended in divorce and the many reasons why those failed marriages took place; masturbation, drugs, disinterest. It’s truly a mesmerizing, hilarious and yes truthful analysis of rituals and marriage and how everyone’s reason to marry is “all right” and so are their decisions to leave, because as much as we like to look at marriage as a melding of two identities, that’s the untruthful version.
Watch the monologue here and if you agree that this is a pretty groovy speech, give Alan Arkin’s directorial debut a spin. It’s full of wit, immensely intelligent, although it does take an odd detour for the third act, it’s one of the funniest films from a decade that was moving from the swingin’ 60s back to timeless rituals. As for the murders? Like many films on this list, it’s a time capsule of the extremely dangerous and grimy New York ‘70s. And as for the wife-to-be who introduced me to the film? She’s still married and putting the finishing touches on a Hal Ashby documentary that should begin screening in 2017. And for anyone reading this list, that’s a must look for, because Ashby is perhaps the most forgotten major auteur of the 70s.
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Minnie and Moskowitz could easily be retitled as “Men Who Yell at Gena Rowlands About Why They Should Be an Item”. But with John Cassavetes script, the yelling is fun. Exhibit A, Zelmo Swift (Val Avery), a funny-named rich guy who’s “terrified of women” and a really bad date conversationalist but pure movie gold for the date from hell who goes on and on about her appearance and how “terrific” she is without ever allowing her to speak. Exhibit B, the wildly mustached valet, Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel, Jason Schwartzman’s dad in Rushmore). Moskowitz rescues Minnie from the end of that date and then immediately tries to take her out on a hot dog date. Unlike Zelmo, he does ask her questions but Minnie barely responds.
Minnie and Moskowitz introduces its two main characters while they have a separate conversation about cinema. Ultimately, this is an insight into their worldview. Seymour sees movies as an escape and Minnie sees them as false hope (“They set you up. And no matter how bright you are, you still believe it.”). Cassavetes follows the meet cute/knight-in-shining-armor formula of a movie romance, but instead has “the prize” be a woman who’s given up and close to comatose in concern to any emotional feelings at all. Minnie represents how ugly the world can be and how sad movies can thus become for giving hope and Seymour represents how alive the mundane can become with just a mindset of looking for entertainment. One is successful; the other is a step above a bum (but he’s also kind to bums and kind of mean to successful people). Seymour’s pursuit isn’t exactly romantic but romance does feel possible between them and that’s this movie’s journey: presenting the possibility of romance instead of the movie version where romance is sealed by the end credits.
Robert Altman’s claustrophobic woman-going-mad tale was delivered a disservice by film critics in 1972 and essentially snuffed its wide release. Susannah York won Best Actress at the Cannes film festival that year, but the largest papers in New York refused to cover it and the few reviews out of the New York Film Festival killed its chances of further distribution. It’s strange to think how coldly critics received Altman’s film, but he had just made M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, two involving and straight narrative masterpieces and Images probably seemed like a mess at the time. But watching it now, after many of us have seen other deranged femme films, such as Opening Night, Mulholland Drive, Black Swan, Queen of Earth and many more, it’s a rather natural watch and perfectly executed by York, Altman and the cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond.
Essentially, Images is a visual retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. In Bergman’s film, a nurse confesses a sexual event to a mute patient and then feels that that patient has a power over her because she knows her darkest secret. But whereas Persona used a lengthy monologue for that confession, Images uses, you guessed it, images.
In Images, it’s a married woman who knows she’s cheated on her husband; the first man she cheated with died in a plane crash, and now he’s haunting her in their hunting summer home. A man who lives nearby senses her damage and thinks she’s sending off rape fantasy signals, so he visits her while her husband hunts. Her summer retreat is a haunted house of men’s taunts and sexual desire (both from the dead and deadly). She thinks she kills all of them, but which man does she actually murder?
This is one of Altman’s most stunning exercises in mood and camerawork (it’s also one of the weirdest and most exciting scores from John Williams, full of twisted nerves). Foreboding deer heads, whispered narration, piano planks, camera movement that shows a murder in her mind and then can reveal the truth in the same frame, yes, Images barely received a release, but you can see its influence on future filmmakers like the blood stain of a dead body dragged from the kitchen.
Martin Ritt’s adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s symbolic young adult novel could really use a re-master. As it currently stands it has the look and sound of an old TV adaptation, but don’t let that you discount the film. Sounder is a powerful film about the fine line that a black family must walk in order to be successful in society. After another non-successful hunt, a father (Paul Winfield) steals some ham for his children and is jailed and sent to a chain gang and his wife (Cicely Tyson) and eldest son (Kevin Hooks) repeatedly hear from the shopkeeper, sheriff and local women who send them their laundry, how they “went out on a limb” for them as a family. It’s heartbreaking to watch how the Morgans are treated as though they’re supposed to feel shame in their work because it’s a perceived privilege for them to be working at all and thus the town’s desire for gratitude now turns into a desire for an exchange in disgrace.
Tyson shows an enduring strength to be judged only by her work, she does not sermonize in the matriarch role, and Sounder is quietly feminist as she attempts to instill her own separate honor, outside of the family unit. Hooks eventually runs off with his trusted dog to locate which chain gang his father is on. He stumbles into a schoolhouse with a teacher who doesn’t judge him by his father’s crime and offers him assistance in learning to read. What makes Sounder a successful adaptation of a beloved book is Ritt’s use of sound, his trust in the performers to perform the unsaid and to leave the thesis of the book never stated outright, but instead it reveals itself to the audience with subtlety. Sounder is a very adult adaptation of a popular children’s book, handled with grace and dignity.
Heavy Traffic (1973)
Ralph Bakshi’s (The Lord of the Rings) non-wizard animated films are hard to watch and harder to recommend, but they’re also essential viewing for anyone interested in viewing 70s New York from the garbage can. Fritz the Cat perverted the counter-culture movement and Coonskin is an ugly look at urban racism, for instance. Heavy Traffic is his most personal film, about a young cartoonist wandering the New York streets as a way to get out of his abusive household, and as such it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to provoke or intimidate but rather confess that he’s seen a lot of tough shit in his day but somehow still lived to see many days. But at the end of the tunnel, which is full of prostitutes, strippers, hoods and bums, he loves his hometown. It’s the city that never sleeps because there’s so much seedy stimulus. Consider yourself warned, his films have no room for sensitivity, rather they’re an endurance test. Just how he views his city and home life.
Heavy Traffic is a fever dream, a 70s Dante’s Inferno, and to watch it is to add additional context to Travis Bickel’s observance in Taxi Driver that someone could become so over-stimulated by cheap pleasures that they’d request for “a real rain to come down and wash all this scum off the streets.” In fact, when Martin Scorsese was shooting Taxi Driver they had to halt production for a brief period when a protest over Bakshi’s Coonskin resulted in a smoke bomb going off in the streets outside the theater. Scorsese sent the footage to Bakshi who said he “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry”. Somewhere in Heavy Traffic lies the beating heart of an artist who believes that laughing while crying is the only way to really wash things away.
Blood for Dracula (1974)
Count Dracula was always a bit of a seducer, but Paul Morrissey (and producer Andy Warhol) gave us a hilariously impotent Dracula (Udo Kier) in Blood for Dracula. This Dracula’s body is growing incredibly weak because—after centuries of feeding on virgin necks—it’s become harder and harder to find virgin women to drink from. His assistant suggests they go to Italy where families still have staunch Catholic values and thus the women will be pure. Warhol’s sex god Joe Dallesandro (always the candy, never the actor; he brandishes a thick Brooklyn accent in Transylvania) has taken it upon himself to take the virginity of every woman in the Italian countryside to starve Dracula out. Blood for Dracula gives a different meaning to a wooden stake piercing the heart of Dracula. Here, morning wood is literally killing the Count.
While it’s easy to laugh at an impotent seducer, there’s certain sadness in Kier’s performance; with increased sexual freedoms we lose classical society and Kier’s Dracula is a physical representation of that slow death. This is a man who could live forever as long as he lived in an era of purity. For centuries, Dracula was a sorcerer of sexuality and men had to hunt him down and physically impale him to protect their pure women. Now any man with six-pack abs can thrust his way through town and weaken his powers.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Jacques Rivette’s three hour (plus!) art-house behemoth, Celine and Julie Go Boating is two things for me, it’s the most realistically dreamlike film I’ve ever experienced (including the disintegrating build-up to the big finale) and also the best portrayal of lucid dreaming (where the dreamer can affect the dream to have an outcome they want, because they are aware they are dreaming).
Celine (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) are two women who become linked in action and their identities meld. If one reads a book about magic, the other is a magician. If one underlines book passages with red ink, the other paints in red. After a series of many linked objects and actions, the young women find themselves in some ghost-lesbian-murder-mystery that plays on loop. A house with a mourning father is stuck in limbo where his stepdaughters daily re-enact a murder. Celine and Julie experience this in the foreground and, as we do in dreams when we’re aware we’re not partaking in what we’re seeing, begin to test how they’ll be noticed or what they can get away with in the presence of this scene.
What occurs is curious, funny, and delightful. But what aids Celine and Julie to maintain the dreamlike atmosphere is that the viewer forgets so much of the coded set-up once they’re in the house. Just like a dream, you’re only left with the fragments you latch onto and attempt to explain.
Yes, this is X-rated, the plot is pretty bare and there is a girl on girl strap-on scene and a man on man blowjob scene, but I dare you to find a film that is more at ease with the joys of life than Radley Metzger’s Score. The film is about a swingin’ married couple (Claire Wilbur and Casey Donovan) on the prowl to seduce a prude married couple for a night swap of partners of the same gender. Even if you yourself are prude, there is a lot to appreciate in Metzger’s filmmaking abilities. The score is bouncy and alive. The performances are solid. And his mis-en-scene composition is revelatory. Metzger was a fantastic director who wasn’t stuck in soft-core, but rather he knew that soft-core could be an art form. Most portraits that have hung in museums for decades were nude. Why should film not present it artfully as well? Sex and shame might be built into religion, but it shouldn’t be built into our art.
Score isn’t meant for a ten-minute fast-forward to “the good parts” because the seduction and conversations are actually the best parts. It’s a lovely 90-minute film that features intelligent and witty conversations about sex. Some of those conversations happen while two women talk between a lava lamp aquarium because film conversations should always be pleasing to the eye. What’s really fun about Score, though, is how inclusive it is. Every character works at getting the other off and everyone has smiles and the score is a blast. Don’t let the intro sentence scare you; this film is not very explicit. If you can handle hearing people talking a lot about sex and marriage inside a lovely 70s styled apartment on the Italian villa, and then have a few minutes of sex, you’re really in for a treat. You’ll smile thinking about this film. You’ll hope to meet anyone so excited to be alive as the repressed new couple (Lynn Lowry and Gerald Grant) are as they leave the villa to convert someone else to their new free ways of thinking. Sex can be fun. The pursuit can be fun. And Score is so much damn fun there’s nothing at all you could feel guilty about in watching it.
Hard Times (1975)
Hard Times gives a neo-Western retooling of the standard Great Depression and boxing tale. There’s no girl to get by the end, there’s no big prize to set everything straight; there’s just some extra scratch and respect earned. This is cult director Walter Hill’s (The Warriors) first film and it’s very assured. He presents it as a classical tall tale of the stranger off the boxcar (Charles Bronson) who can beat every man in a fair fight, but he slowly reveals that there’s not much to win.
By this time Bronson had already been retooled as a grindhouse revenge star, and there’s an expectation that this film would be similar, but Hill is most interested in the business side of illegal fights; how trust is renewed by earning the literal cash payback and not through violent retribution. In Bronson, Hill gives “Speed” (a great, blustery James Coburn), a promoter who’d usually use his lying mouth to get out of debut, a new method of honoring himself: keeping true to his word through thankless work.
Seven Beauties (1975)
You’ve probably seen a concentration camp film or two, but you’ve never seen one like Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. It begins with a bragidicous man, Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), talking about his honor and how he applies it to guard his seven sisters, each one more ugly than the last. When his oldest sister gets engaged to a pimp, he decides he’ll kill the man. He forgets to frame it as self defense and so he chops up the body and ships it in various suitcases to different locations. He’s found guilty and sent to an asylum. He’s released from an asylum and forced to enlist in the Italian army, which he promptly deserts the first chance he gets and eventually he winds up in a Nazi internment camp. Clearly he has a warped sense of honor.
What makes Wertmüller’s opus really sing is her tone. After a decade of delightful and legendary films from Federico Fellini stroked the Italian male ego as an internationally desirable id, Wertmüller takes the Fellini-esque man down a peg or two. In the labor camp, Pasqualino thinks he can gain favorable treatment by seducing the overweight and sadistic female guard (Shirley Stoler). Following perhaps the least erotic and most sad consensual sex scene ever filmed, she truly tests Pasqualino’s honor in front of all the other prisoners and the male ego is laid to rest.
[Note: Wertmüller was the first female ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar]
Sure, Shampoo has the bell bottoms, plunging V-necks, wild jewelry and big hair to make it look like a groovy 60s time capsule, but it’s as socially prescient now as it was then. Warren Beatty is a hairdresser who sleeps with many of his clients, it’s not that he’s promiscuous or deceitful, it’s just where he finds his value and life force; they give him sex and he feels like he can live forever. We follow him throughout a two-day period and through many different abodes in Beverly Hills, where Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant and Julie Christie reside. Los Angeles—and Beverly Hills in particular—has such a pursuit of individual difference that you’ll encounter many different styles of houses, hairdos and dress within one block, but what Beatty and Robert Towne (who co-wrote the script) and director Hal Ashby are doing is weaving this lothario through various houses as election news coverage is on in the background. And the final night hours are at an election night party.
It’s 1968 and the victor of the election is Richard Nixon. The morning after, Beatty attempts to settle down with the woman he’s chosen, but she’s no longer available. The critique of the script and direction is that the free 60s made people so self-involved that they couldn’t find real love and they also couldn’t pay attention to a White House takeover that undid many of the advances that the 60s enjoyed. Sound familiar to what we’re seeing in 2017? Shampoo keeps its politics as background noise. The foreground is very funny, with Beatty in full dimwitted-charm mode and Jack Warden as his unlikely rival in love, but the polemic message is eventually loud and clear.
Chinese Roulette (1976)
German wünder-kid Rainer Werner Fassbinder made 40 films and miniseries between 1969 and his 1982 death, so there are bound to be some overlooked gems in his filmography. If you had your heart broken by his masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, then let’s recommend Chinese Roulette. Whereas Ali is one of the most romantic films ever made, Roulette is at an entirely different table. This cruel but funny film concerns a young crippled girl (Andrea Schober) who dupes her cheating parents into spending a weekend at a vacation villa with their lovers (the mistress is played by Anna Karina). The girl blames her affliction on her parents and does not want them to be able to move on to find new love; she wants them to suffer in awkwardness while she watches.
Fassbinder made so many films in the 70s that picking one to represent his best under-seen film was hard. But this one includes a dance on crutches scene that’s set to Kraftwerk and so that obviously wins this parlor game.
3 Women (1977)
Robert Altman receives most modern references for his films involving a sprawling cast, like Nashville, M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, The Player and Gosford Park. This partially has to do with his re-emergence to new cinephiles due to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia being compared to Altman’s work with mega-casts (and Anderson’s own championing of the auteur). But his intimate dramas involving just a few characters have gotten the short end of the stick in these reappraisals. Indeed, they might be his most interesting works. And no film of his opens up such a cinematic roadmap as 3 Women, which consists of either three women who form a unit or it’s the story of one woman, full of complications. It depends on which way you turn the map.
The three women are played by Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule. Duvall is the woman of positive energy, thoughts and words, who speaks so much to feel like she’s a part of every space she’s in, but mostly she’s ignored; ignored by men, co-workers and other women. Spacek begins the film as the childlike woman who desires to have Duvall’s confidence and eventually earns it by playing manipulative games against her. And Rule is the pregnant woman, the future mother. They all live in the same apartment complex that overlooks a swimming pool. The pool and water is used repeatedly throughout 3 Women to represent various stages of the womb; the formation of the fetus, the birth canal and the umbilical cord that tethers a child to the mother until it’s cut away. The ending is one of the most discussed moments in all of indie cinema and 3 Women can have a different read to it each time you see it. It’s not constructed tightly, but rather fluidly and dreamlike. And like a dream that you try to piece together, different parts come into focus in your mind at different times.
Sure, working with huge casts and extras is no doubt difficult. And balancing all their stories in equal weight is very impressive. But Altman’s smaller films allow him to be surgical and complex with his imagery and editing. And 3 Women is his most complex film.
Straight Time (1978)
Perhaps these entries are getting long, so lemme be brief in selling you on this. Midway through Straight Time there’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman and Harry Dean Stanton team up to rob a jewelry store and Gary Busey is their getaway driver. Also there’s a scene where M. Emmett Walsh gets handcuffed naked to a fence off a Los Angeles interstate and another where Hoffman seduces a young Theresa Russell while applying for a job at the can factory. The script also received (an uncredited) polish from Michael Mann who also used the novel, No Beast So Fierce, as a reference point for Robert De Niro’s character in Heat (you’ll know why when you see it; it’s also one of Quentin Tarantino’s noted influences for Reservoir Dogs). Oh, and this is one of Kathy Bates’ earliest appearances on screen!
So now that you’re probably sold already, lemme just mention that Straight Time is essentially two films in one. The first film is an emotionally intelligent portrayal of an ex-convict trying to go straight but finding that societal forgiveness is hard to come by. The second half is a series of heists. I prefer the first half for the richness of Hoffman’s performance and Ulu Grosbard’s patience and observance in the unfair process of rehabilitation. But the second half is so much fun for a string of actors getting down in the grime before their prime.
Wise Blood (1979)
Perhaps this is the best way to end this list about 70s film, for if the underground of the 60s was believing in freedoms, the Vietnam war, Watergate and readjustment to new American life begat the underground belief in hypocrisy and chaos. In John Huston’s Wise Blood a war veteran arrives into a small Southern town wearing a black hat and his taxi driver thinks he’s a preacher simply by the hat. Never mind that the heavenly named Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif, at his fiery best) is on his way to have sex with a prostitute who’s name and address he just found on a bathroom stall, the fact that someone would think he was a preacher just by his hat gets him to thinkin’. Soon enough Hazel Motes is attempting to start his own church, the Church Without Christ, and his message is that he doesn’t believe in anything and that Jesus didn’t die for anyone’s sins and we’re all miserable.
Huston’s dark comedy (a fantastic adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s divine novel) is extremely profound, as people in the town try to take advantage of Motes’ message by turning into something for profit, but Motes simply just wants to yell to a crowd about freeing one’s self from the idea of redemption. There are many kooky and fraudulent characters in Wise Blood, but they all exhibit basic human weaknesses that make you hope for their actual redemption. In a gutsy twist, this bittersweet comedy about false prophets works its way around to an understanding that in moments we need to believe nothing greater than ourselves and in other moments we need some assistance, and that a balance between atheism and theism might be the wisest truth.
Liked the thought that went into this list? Check out our previous decade appraisals. And sound off if you’d like to see a 60s list. Because I’d love to write it up. Highlighting past films, particularly those that don’t get mentioned enough, is a joy of the job.