The Decade When Movies Mattered

In the '70s, when the going got tough, the tough made movies, and those movies remain a last testament to a tough-mindedness that is no longer the province of the big screen.


I had a dream about '70s movies. There was that image from the end of Deliverance (1972), of the hand coming up out of the water--the corpse that refuses to go away. One hand. Where's the other hand? I wondered. Zinger! It erupted from beneath the cinders on the grave of Carrie (1976), a hand to drag us down into the darkness.

But perhaps you were only in elementary school in the '70s, and thus, in a country with contradictory impulses about sheltering its young, you did not attend to what was going on then. After all, it's a fundamental right in the saga of psychic shelter that no one really has to notice things. The most up-to-date new frontier is knowing how to look the other way.

Who the hell is talking to you like this? How old is he? The author is 52, and he loved the decade of the '70s and its movies. It was a time of travail and upheaval when the world took it for granted that grownups were born to take notice. We had movies then that you had to watch. The age gave us plots as intricate and unrelenting as The Sting (1973) and Chinatown (1974). Sitting in the dark watching the show kept you as wired as an air-traffic controller. If you weren't awake you would miss some sudden glimpse or murmur:

  • In Taxi Driver (1976),Travis Bickle is guiding his yellow steel church through the scum when, just like a scrap of paper, a pale face scutters across his view--it's a kid, a girl, Iris, Jodie Foster. Bickle is riveted by the second or so of that face and the scent of need. He's seen a soul to rescue, and so the dementia of the plot begins.
  • In The Long Goodbye (1973), whenever anything remotely musical plays--not just the movie's theme, but a piano idling in a bar, a funeral procession in a small Mexican town, a doorbell in Malibu--it's always a variant of the song "The Long Goodbye," by Johnny Mercer and John Williams. The melodic phrase hangs in the air, like haze or the trade of lies in L.A.--it's the sound of a game, and the click of fate closing. It tells you that so much in L.A. is set up, scripted, produced. There's so little "there" left--just lines, shots and locations.
  • In Shampoo (1975), an unruly symphony of unease comes out of George Roundy (Warren Beatty), sounds that are not words, but which say so much about the despair of ever making sense. There are groans, grunts, moans and sighs, as if to say, what the hell? You could close your eyes in Shampoo and just absorb the wealth of indecisiveness that Beatty brings to George's hesitation.

The '70s were full of such things: the way Al Pacino, in The Godfather (1972), notices that he is not shaking when he holds a cigarette lighter outside the hospital--it is the moment he recognizes his authority; Sissy Spacek's narration in Badlands (1973), so affectless the whole story seems overheard on a night bus going from Amarillo to Memphis; that aimless first hour of The Deer Hunter (1978), filled with the day of the wedding so we grow more and more uneasy--where is this film going, and why are we going with it?; and the end of Fingers (1978), with Harvey Keitel crouched naked in the corner and we're saying, that's how a movie ends?

It was not just in moments that we had to pay attention to these movies. Many of them had unfamiliar shapes, new narrative structures or strategies. They began late. They switched course. They didn't say this guy is reliably good and that one write-off bad. They didn't stick to the rules. And they did not end well, or happily, or comfortably. Sometimes they broke off in your hands or your mind. People you had come to like took it in the head, or turned traitor. The world of the films was as complex and as frightening as anything you'd come into the theater to escape from. And you were left there when the lights came up, having to work it all out.

In this preemptive culture of ours, decades get an early start, or perhaps a pregame show. It seemed to me at the time that something new and dangerous touched the movies in ... well, I'd say 1966, with Blowup and with a movie called The Chase, which I'd nominate as the first American film of the '70s. (In the same spirit, I'd call Blue Velvet the last film of the decade.) Directed by Arthur Penn, The Chase was one of the most disturbing views of America I'd ever seen on a screen. It's set in Texas, in a town dominated by a business tycoon (E.G. Marshall) but under the legal authority of a sheriff (Marlon Brando). A prisoner escapes from the penitentiary, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford), and everyone guesses he's coming home to see his wife (Jane Fonda). Bubber doesn't know she's having an affair with the tycoon's son (James Fox).

In cast and credits, The Chase was a prestige venture. Yet its self-appointed task was to uncover an America racked by greed, lust, paranoia, mob recklessness and a passion for violence. At the film's climax, the sheriff has rescued Bubber from the mob, but someone manages to leap up and shoot him at point-blank range. As the movie ends, the sheriff and his wife abandon the town to its dark frenzy.

There was no consolation in The Chase, and no escaping Penn's direction of the final murder. You felt for sure when you saw the film that this was Lee Harvey Oswald getting killed by Jack Ruby in the garage of the Dallas police station. Had real life ever been "quoted" like that in a Hollywood picture? The implication of what that moment in Dallas really meant was naked on the screen. You see, Ruby killing Oswald was a worse nightmare than the assassination that preceded it. The death of JFK had been so unexpected that it seemed like a spasm, an aberration. But when Ruby fired the bullets into Oswald, the possibility that JFK's murder had been just an irrational act was gone.

Ruby made it clear there was a pattern, either of conspiracy or--as seemed more persuasive in November 1963--of an infectious disease in America, not just violence, but willful melodrama, an uncontrollable urge to act things out. An age had dawned in which so much "happened" on TV. The movies were crosscut with the footage of war in Vietnam, of the Ervin Committee, of planes exploding in the desert as terrorists kept their promise, of Neil Armstrong stepping onto a wedding cake called the Moon. The real images fed into the movies, and America seemed to burn most brightly "on camera."

Arthur Penn's next film, Bonnie and Clyde, overcame mixed reviews to be a box-office sensation. Nothing matched its influence or its perilous balance of comedy and slaughter. The Barrow gang ran wild in the early '30s, but that past drained down into 1967. Those lovely kids were robbing banks, searching for sex and living on a fatal spree because their society was depressed, dishonest and boring. A lethal young energy was being courted, and provoked. Of course, the outlaws were shot to fragments, but that slow-motion orgasm was an insolent way of honoring the humbug that miscreants must not escape.

The Chase and Bonnie and Clyde were just two of a number of late '60s films-- Point Blank and The Graduate are two others--that assumed the moral bankruptcy of established order. All of a sudden, thank God, Hollywood had found a taste for un-American pictures. In films of the '70s, the curtain called "happy ending" was ripped away by the life force of the people, and by the actual conditions of America. So many kinds of dismay and disenchantment made for the short-lived but still beguiling honesty of the '70s. There was a recognition of what violence meant in the age of assassinations. No matter the enactment of so much civil rights legislation, and the determination to enforce it, we began to see how much harder it would be to dislodge racism from our imaginations. Vietnam exposed the limits of American power, the brittleness of its morale, and the helplessness of its leadership.

The disasters of war were a focus for inter-generational antagonisms that flared out in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at Kent State, and in so many other smaller communities. Americans were beginning to see how thoroughly and intelligently they were despised in other parts of the world.

Not that every blow fell on conservative attitudes. Many naive liberal and revolutionary notions were confounded by actual experiences in the late '60s and early '70s--the idea that love could be "free," that drugs were good, that education could be carried out according to curricula designed by students, that what any kid wanted to say was worth listening to, that the world of rock music was a paradise, that "all you need is love." Commune philosophy led so easily to the Manson gang.

Then came Watergate. We do not have to regard that commonplace fuck-up as monumental. It is just as dispiriting to accept the glum complaints of those indicted that such dirty tricks had long been the currency of American government. Richard Nixon elected to handle his own corruption the way Joan Crawford responded to age lines. His denial was vital to what became a national melodrama, a prolonged TV watch-in, and absolute confirmation for every conspiracy theory. The state was a wretched, crooked mess; there really was a "them" planning ways to get "us" and do dirt on the ideal of the Republic. Nixon was our real-life Michael Corleone--withdrawn, chilly, paranoid, an actor desperate for power and control.

The playing out of Watergate inspired, justified and deepened movies in which beleaguered men and women feared the worst about authority and slowly came to appreciate the steady, lapping ocean of intrigue all around them. Alan Pakula--a key director of the '70s, and never as good since--would do a very adroit job in handling the labyrinthine plot of All the President's Men (1976). Who can forget that moment when, alone in the underground parking garage, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) feels an infinite, pervasive threat to himself, to truth and to democracy. Pakula had already made two films that predicted the unease of Watergate: Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974). Hardly a person in Klute is quite whole or wholesome-- everyone walks in some kind of anxiety.

The Parallax View ends with the best people gone--disappeared, killed, frightened back into the shadows of anonymity.

All the President's Men did offer comfort: two young reporters could uncover the scheme of evil. That gives the picture an old-fashioned exhilaration (especially since the reporters are impersonated by stars), the cleansing of having a mystery solved. It's also why All the President's Men did better than Klute or The Parallax View --and it's the white lie of Bernstein and Woodward.

Twenty years later, government has learned to obscure its tracks better, while too many journalists have been tamed by the prospect of becoming celebrities like "Woodstein." The greater achievement of President's Men lay in its supporting roles, a gallery of uneasy consciences and hustling ambitions--the soldiers of Washington. Among the supporting players one saw the compromise and the insecurity that knows how idealism is trapped by muddle, gridlock and the tranquil ambivalence of graft and disorder. It was in the '70s that we recognized how compelling villains could be--Nixon, Dean, Mitchell, Liddy. . . The line could include the Corleones, Martin Sheen's casual killer in Badlands and Travis Bickle. By now, it numbers such "stars" as John Gotti, Claus von Bulow and Ted Bundy--so wicked we can hardly take our eyes off them.

Consider Noah Cross, the character played by John Huston in Chinatown (1974), maybe the best film of this troubled age. Cross possesses great power. He finessed the water deal that made Los Angeles a great city. He raped his daughter and had another daughter by her. He has all the crisp eloquence and brave, Western positivism that Huston could give him. He also has the wisest lines in Chinatown, as when he tells the detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." (In The Godfather, Part II, Michael Corleone observes with the innocence of common sense, "If history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone.")

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