10 Movies Millennials Must See to Understand the 1970s
I knew things were bad when, a few years ago, I actually found myself missing the Seventies.
Many, many American movies made during the Seventies share one overarching theme:
America is falling apart!
Tim Dirks' must-read, 6-part overview of the films of this era begins with this highly-concentrated, perfectly observed paragraph:
Motion picture art seemed to flourish at the same time that the defeat in the Vietnam War, the Kent State Massacre, the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's fall, the Munich Olympics shoot-out, increasing drug use, and a growing energy crisis showed tremendous disillusion, a questioning politicized spirit among the public and a lack of faith in institutions -- a comment upon the lunacy of war and the dark side of the American Dream.
Our own Ed Driscoll has done yeoman's work chronicling that decade's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" leftwing auteur boom: the death of the studio system, and the rise of hot young directors – Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese -- whose visions still inform American film, and the culture at large.
Most recently, Kyle Smith proffered his "10 Best Films of the 1970s."
My list is different than Smith's because the "best" films of that era (and I agree with many of his selections) don't necessarily capture the mood of the times as well as lesser movies.
What follows is a guide for millennials who are forever hearing about "the Seventies," are living with that decade's toxic cultural fallout, and who wonder what life during this tumultuous time (although, aren't they all…?) was really like.
That's why I've neglected to mention anachronistic or overly escapist fare: all the bloated feel-good musicals; anything by Disney, Mel Brooks or Cubby Broccoli; all but one of Woody Allen's "early funny ones"; sweeping pseudo-period Oscar bait like Barry Lyndon, The Way We Were, New York, New York, The Sting and Funny Lady; and timeless blockbusters like Star Wars, Halloween and Rocky.
(Incidentally: most movies about the Vietnam War were made in the 1980s.)
However, I have included movies about the Seventies that were made later, if they accurately evoke the time period. Note: There are a LOT of these.
Ideally, curious readers should get hold of the ten movies I've chosen as exemplars of my ten different themes, then temporarily get rid of their computers and phones (because it's 1972, and "Ma Bell" still hasn't shown up to activate your line). Next put on some thick polyester clothing, and eat nothing but Cheesies and Orange Crush for the duration. (The Seventies were VERY orange.)
Close all your curtains to help mimic the sinister, suffocating atmosphere we marinated in.
And press "play."
1. "New York City is falling apart!"
Taxi Driver (1976)
Pre-Giuliani New York City was a nightmare.
Artsy liberals who lived there at the time claim to miss those "colorful," unsanitized Seventies. I don't find this attitude as troubling as some conservatives seem to; that New York City birthed punk rock, for one thing. You could still smoke pretty much anywhere, too.
Besides, millions of other (non-artsy, non-liberal) Americans harbor nostalgia for the Depression and even World War II.
James Lileks is one of the nay-sayers:
New York isn’t completely regretting the massive cleanup of Times Square, but they’ve finally conceded one of the lingering, stinging critiques: it’s too clean. C’mon, this is New Yawk. Times Square is supposed to be gritty. ("Gritty" usually means hookers.) If you never saw it at its worst, you probably think the visions in Taxi Driver look almost… well, romantic. All those marquees, jutting into the stream of pedestrians like the prows of once-great ocean liners. The vibrant community of hustlers, pornhounds, streetwalkers, square-johns down for a walk on the wild side. Animated neon signs that drew pictures in the night, instead of great blaring walls of color that make you feel trapped in a Blade Runner remake.
Lileks rightly selected Taxi Driver as his macro for "grimy, dangerous New York City in the Seventies."
There were LOTS of "the Big Apple is rotten" flicks produced during that era that capture the sights, sounds, smells, crime, pessimism, crime, vermin infestations, decay and crime.
It is, yes, seductively beautiful– the peerless score, the POV shots of Bickle's night shift – but it's that lurid, decadent beauty Lileks wrote about.
You can sympathize with Travis's alleged motives for his climactic rampage -- to "wash all this scum off the streets" – while still preferring Mayor Rudy's tactics.
By the way: one theory posits that much of what we see in Taxi Driver is simply a glimpse into Bickle's fevered, psychotic imagination; the on-screen gore and perversion never actually "happened." This "buffer" theory makes the film more palatable for some viewers, but not all. Your mileage will vary.
Dog Day Afternoon
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)
Eyes of Laura Mars
The Panic in Needle Park
The Police Tapes ("Watch" this cinema verite documentary "and lose all nostalgia for NYC in the 1970s," VICE promises.)
The Goodbye Girl
The French Connection
The Boys in the Band
Kramer vs. Kramer
An Unmarried Woman
All That Jazz
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Saturday Night Fever
Diary of a Mad Housewife
The Blank Generation
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Summer of Sam (1999)
Man on Wire (2008)
The BBC's Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk (2011)
The Secret Disco Revolution (2012)
Streets of New York (2013)
2. "Los Angeles is (still) falling apart!"
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Los Angeles seems to have been "falling apart" since pretty much the day it was born, at least if Hollywood's vision of its apparently accursed hometown can be believed.
From What Price Hollywood? and every L.A. noir and through the Seventies and beyond, the city's occupants never tire of exploring the corruption and con artistry lurking beneath its sexy, sparkling surface.
Kenneth Anger's lurid, iconoclastic tell-all classic isn't called Hollywood Babylon for nothing.
Because this theme holds such a morbid fascination, even period pieces set in old L.A. but filmed in the Seventies – Chinatown, The Day of the Locust – are still, arguably, "about" the Nixon-Carter era.
And still, despite Archie Bunker's commonplace prediction/wish that crazy California would, at long last, fall into the sea and take its fads and weirdos with it, Los Angeles, incredibly, persists.
That's not necessarily a symptom of good health, however. Inoperable tumors stay put, too.
It was hard to choose between the original Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and one of my personal favorites, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). These low-budget films could hardly be further apart in terms of tone, but both share a hopelessly apocalyptic view of the City of Angels. (In the case of Beyond…, the local post-Manson mood.)
In the end, I chose John Carpenter's loose remake of (and vast improvement upon) the overrated Rio Bravo. His still-shocking "ice cream truck" sequence in which (38 year old SPOILER) a little girl is shot in the chest is a master class of tension that Hitchcock might have envied.
Welcome to L.A.
Mother, Jugs & Speed
Killer of Sheep
A Woman Under the Influence
Save the Tiger
Alex in Wonderland
Thank God It's Friday
That's the Way of the World
Phantom of the Paradise
Play It Again, Sam (OK, it's San Francisco…)
Patty Hearst (1988)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Sunset Strip (2000)
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)
Starsky and Hutch (2004)
The Runaways (2010)
3. "Middle America is falling apart!"
Far removed from the fleshpots of New York and L.A., denizens of flyover country struggled to cope with the decade's economic, culture and political insults:
Double-digit inflation, high unemployment, assassination aftershocks, regular hijackings and kidnappings, intractable terror in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, a disgraced president many of them had voted for (twice), the rising death toll in an unpopular war, a dizzying revolution in sexual mores, the occult/UFO/cryptozoology fads, drugs and rumors of drugs.
Seventies movies set in middle America often depict ordinary people struggling to make money, taking small consolation in cheap bread & circuses spectacles, defying The Man, or taking their cue from the broader culture and (rather awkwardly) "doing their own thing," too.
Be they comedies or dramas, these movies are, as it were, composed in a minor key; even the humor is grim and even cruel.
In this broad, crowded category, I really wanted to pick Taking Off or Melvin and Howard or Semi-Tough, but felt compelled to choose Nashville instead.
A jewel of world cinema, Nashville eavesdrops (with an almost sociopathic lack of sentimentality) on a cross-section of mostly average Americans struggling to make it big, or cope with fame. A faceless populist candidate campaigns relentlessly, a grim affair begins and ends, a reporter hustles for news, and not even an assassination – yet another one – stops the show. Director Robert Altman's somewhat Aspergian gaze might have produced a cold, heartless film, but Nashville is humane and painfully moving, perhaps in spite of Altman's intentions.
"This isn't Dallas, this is Nashville!" shouts Henry Gibson at the film's climax. He means it as a battle cry but it feels more like a dying man's (and culture's) last words. Goosebumps every time.
(PS: All the actors in Nashville wrote and sang their own songs.)
Harry and Tonto
The Last Detail
The Deer Hunter
Kansas City Bomber
Dawn of the Dead
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Fun With Dick and Jane (1977)
The Bad News Bears
Five Easy Pieces
Harold and Maude
North Dallas Forty
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Melvin and Howard (1980)
The Ice Storm (1997)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
The Hoax (2008)
Bottle Shock (2008)
Cinema Verite (2011)
4. "Washington is falling apart!"
In 1972, the name of a once-obscure Washington, D.C., apartment/office complex became a byword for high crimes in the highest of places.
Most folks couldn't digest the confounding details: something about a break in, secret recordings, a "cover up" that was, it was said, "worse than the crime." But that confusion simply made the scandal more ominous, like a shadowy beast with blurred outlines, only seen from the corners of one's eye.
Lifelong cynics and Nixon-haters (usually the same people) felt vindicated, and smugly gloated at the president's drawn-out humiliation. Watergate books, comedy routines and skits, songs, t-shirts and, of course, movies, were everywhere.
Even Jaws has been called "an allegory for the Watergate conspiracy."
Millions of other Americans – call them optimistic, naïve, formerly indifferent to politics, now thrown into the deep end – were shattered.
Another leader had fallen, not at the hands of an assassin this time, but tripped up by the media, plus his own paranoia, ambition, hubris – and, to be fair, his secret knowledge (information the vast majority of ordinary citizens were still blissfully unaware of) that his Democratic predecessors had committed arguably graver crimes.
I wanted so much to choose Americathon to head up this category, but alas, it's a wonderful concept, poorly executed: As the title suggests, a financially, politically and culturally bankrupt United States is forced to hold a fundraising telethon. In the hands of someone like Mike "Idiocracy" Judge, it might have been brilliant (if still dated), but he was probably still in second grade when it came out.
So I'm choosing Dick (1999), an alt-history slapstick spoof made long after the fact. It's All the President's Men by way of The World of Henry Orient, and serves as a surprisingly good primer on the real-life Watergate drama. After Dick, you can move on to something more serious and "educational."
But you'll never be able to take either of those "heroes" Woodward or Bernstein seriously once you've seen Dick. And a good thing, too.
All the President's Men
Will: G. Gordon Liddy (1982)
Secret Honor (1984)
Elvis Meets Nixon (1997)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
5. "If you aren't paranoid, you're crazy!"
The Conversation (1974)
Closely related to the previous category, the Seventies political/"paranoid thriller" is a fruitful if depressing subgenre.
In many ways the offspring of film noir and Hitchcock's "wrong man" movies, the ubiquitous paranoid thriller depicted a single individual trying to crack some incredible, world-historical conspiracy, and being crushed in the process.
Relentlessly cynical and grim, these movies captured the (flagging, suspicious) spirit of the times – and arguably made those very times much worse than they had to be. If conspiracy theories are "history for stupid people" then these movies made America dumber – and a colder, scarier place.
Most people would pick The Parallax View to illustrate this genre. I'm going with The Conversation. At this late date, can we finally stop calling this unrelentingly grim movie about a lonely audio surveillance expert a "forgotten Seventies gem"? Bring your patience, though: The Conversation is a slow burn compared to the fireworks of The Parallax View.
In The Conversation, human beings seem especially tiny, fragile and vulnerable. Ordinary gestures, words and everyday objects are subtly imbued with menacing import. The Conversation boasts the most terrifying toilet in American cinema. You'll watch what you say for a week.
There are, understandably, countless movies about watching (Blow-Up, Peeping Tom, The Projectionist) but very few – except for this one, and the unfairly slagged Blow Out – about listening.
The Domino Principle
The Anderson Tapes
The Day of the Jackal
The China Syndrome
The Odessa File
The Stepford Wives
Three Days of the Condor
The Boys From Brazil
The Long Goodbye (1973)
The Ipcress File
The Big Fix (1978)
Raid on Entebbe
The Day of the Dolphin
The Last of Sheila
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Cutter's Way (1981)
6. "Satan is everywhere!"
The Wicker Man (1973)
I've written elsewhere about the Seventies "occult" craze:
"Rock music larded with supernatural tropes blared from the radio. Every other major motion picture costarred the Devil. Sybil Leek’s witchcraft instruction manuals were matter-of-factly stocked right beside the TV Guide, as were countless similar tomes. Ouija boards outsold Monopoly." (…)
"If you survived the era of Manson and Altamont and the Zodiac Killer, of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen and The Exorcist, it’s awfully hard to shake the notion that something sinister had finally given up waiting, and slouched toward California to be born, sometime around 1964."
The flirtation with the occult that's all-to-apparent in Seventies' music (especially within the L.A. scene that included failed folk singer Charles Manson among its semi-insiders) has been fairly well documented. The same is true of movies.
(Less talked about is the occult's once-removed influence on comedy: a startling number of future Saturday Night Live/Second City superstars were mentored by improv guru and avowed devil-worshipper Del Close. Nothing Rosemary's Baby about that scenario. Nope.)
The Exorcist seems like the obvious pick here, but I've come to think of it as more of a Western, in the mold of The Searchers.
Because it more perfectly captures the clash between faddish, counterculture, anarchistic neo-paganism and "old fashioned" law & order Christianity that marked the era, I'm nominating The Wicker Man instead. That these cultural Hatfields and McCoys were both equally annoying groups of people in real life makes this movie a "why can't they both lose?" proposition, at least at first…
(By The Wicker Man, I mean the 1973 original, of course. And do be sure to watch the correct version. While The Wicker Man has been called "the Citizen Kane of cult films," a more apt comparison would be to Welles' ill-fated, much-mangled The Magnificent Ambersons.)
A notable (and profoundly era-defining) sub-genre of Seventies occult horror is one I call "Your House (and Your Kids) (and Maybe Your Pets) Are Trying to Kill You." This was, after all, the era of "broken homes" and Roe v. Wade. Examples of that subgenre are included in the list below.
Werewolves on Wheels
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Don't Look Now
Alice, Sweet Alice
Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things
Satan's School for Girls
Season of the Witch
The Legend of Hell House
Count Yorga, Vampire
Messiah of Evil
Beyond the Door
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
Race with the Devil
To the Devil a Daughter
7. "Disasters are everywhere, too!"
Few genres illustrate the Seventies vibe like the disaster flicks of Irwin Allen and his lesser imitators.
I can't possibly improve upon FilmSite's appropriately epic examination of the genre:
In the 1970s, actual disasters, such as the Watergate crisis (from 1972 to 1974), the collision of two 747s in the Canary Islands (in late March, 1977), and the Three Mile Island incident (in late March, 1979) made the time ripe for Hollywood to contribute. Big-budget disaster films provided all-star casts and interlocking, Grand Hotel- or "Ship of Fools" type stories, with suspenseful action, races against time, and impending crises in locales such as aboard imperiled airliners, trains, dirigibles, crowded stadiums, sinking or wrecked ocean-liners, or in towering burning skyscrapers or earthquake zones.
Producer and director Irwin Allen was nicknamed "The Master of Disaster" in the 1970s due to the tremendous success of his films. The three films most responsible for jump-starting the renaissance of spectacular disaster films were Airport (1970), and Allen's two special effects-laden epics The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
These movies are pretty much interchangeable, so I'm picking Jaws even though it's an insult to the film to drop it in with these mostly mediocre flicks.
I'm delighted to see more people coming around to my view that Jaws – not The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – was the Seventies' scariest film. However, young people should be warned that, ironically, Jaws also contains a ton of tedious, talky between-shark-attacks scenes, especially to anyone with post-modern sensibilities.
(Too) much ink has been spilled on how "Star Wars Changed Everything," but Jaws really did upend the entire movie industry overnight, wiping out "Hollywood's five-year recession" and pioneering such concepts as the summer blockbuster, wide national release and saturation booking.
Ironically, disaster movies also "served as the establishment’s rebuttal to the youthful excesses and longueurs of the New Hollywood," of which Spielberg was a member. These overblown disaster flicks "were reminders of how the studio system worked best, as a well-oiled machine, with a capable director communicating with equal dexterity between his actors and technical staff, while honoring the dictums and caprices of the front office."
You had to be there to believe just how the film pervaded the overall culture. Sharks were everywhere: magazine covers, quickie rip-off books, novelty songs, toys, games, Saturday Night Live sketches, t-shirts and more. The movie's famous poster was parodied hundreds of times, maybe thousands. In those (waning) days of true top-down "mass culture," Jaws was inescapable.
PS: Ecology (what we now call "environmentalism") was a big Seventies fad. Note the number of "nature rebels against mankind" titles below:
The Poseidon Adventure
All the Airport movies
The Food of the Gods
Night of the Lepus
Day of the Animals
The Savage Bees
The Cassandra Crossing
The China Syndrome
The Towering Inferno
The Andromeda Strain
8. "Vigilantes are our only hope, because the cops are either corrupt or overwhelmed"
Death Wish (1974)
This particular category, besides being self-explanatory, is also perhaps the most "conservative/libertarian/anarchist" one. These films also evoke the "look and feel" of the Seventies particularly well.
Crime really was exponentially higher in those days; meanwhile, every morning paper (and episode of 60 Minutes) featured headlines about police brutality, and (overworked and underpaid) cops on the take.
You couldn't trust The Man, The System. Liberal do-gooder judges handed down light sentences, so criminals – when they were caught -- got away with murder and more.
You were on your own. Either hire a (quirky, taciturn, reckless) private eye or become one, fast.
Progressives condemned Dirty Harry and Death Wish as "fascist," but few of them complained about "Blaxploitation" films, which also often featured lone gunmen (and women) determined to clean up their neighborhoods – in this case, driving the (black and white) drug dealers out of the ghetto, sometimes augmenting their firepower with kung-fu.
(Interestingly, in the Seventies, TV cops were competent and likeable, in direct contrast to their big screen counterparts.)
Any number of the movies below could have topped this list. Note that many of them, especially the rape revenge titles, will still be disturbing to some viewers.
Straw Dogs (1971)
They Call Her One Eye
I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Billy Jack and its sequels
Walking Tall (1973)
Act of Vengeance (a.k.a., Rape Squad)
Hell Up in Harlem
The Last House on the Left (1972)
The Late Show (1977)
Enter the Dragon
Avenging Disco Godfather
The Choir Boys
The Laughing Policeman
Electra Glide in Blue
The Big Fix (1978)
Get Carter (1971)
The Hebrew Hammer (2003)
Black Dynamite (2009)
9. "Criminals are hot!"
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
If cops were criminals, then, paradoxically, the real criminals were cool anti-heroes.
Those who object that in the end most of the post-Bonnie and Clyde bad guys in Seventies movies are arrested or killed discount the profound effect that sticking a proscenium arch around anything immediately glamorizes and validates it.
As PJ Media's Andrew Klavan said about Goodfellas (a Nineties movie about the Seventies), it "celebrates the joy of being a totally abusive, amoral, violent, and corrupt SOB, which is every man’s secret fantasy."
Why else to you think Bart Simpson dresses up as Alex the Droog for Halloween?
A Clockwork Orange is my pick because the themes and imagery of the film have outlasted those of any other on this list, and it remains powerful, disturbing and relevant, unlike the other dated, forgotten titles below.
And in this instance, I'm including period films because in many cases they are really Seventies movies in cheap period drag, and were made by pre-fame "New Hollywood" directors like Scorsese, working under Roger Corman's tutelage.
The Harder They Come
The Mechanic (1972)
Big Bad Mama
The Don is Dead
The Doberman Gang
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
The Honeymoon Killers
The Valachi Papers
The Candy Snatchers
The Longest Yard (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight
The Big Heist (2001)
10. "We're running out of gas!"
Viva Knievel! (1977)
Next time you complain about high gas prices, spare a thought for us refugees from the Seventies. Not only was gas really expensive – there also wasn't any!
The authorities cut the speed limit to 55 m.p.h., and daylight savings time was ushered in to save power.
Jimmy Carter deemed the energy crisis "the moral equivalent of war," which we were ordered to fight by… turning down our thermostats and putting on sweaters.
On the big screen, directors (especially the unsinkable Roger Corman), screenwriters and their characters responded by rebelling. Movies started coming out that often screened – appropriately enough – at drive-ins, and might very well have been called "car porn." Or maybe "gas pump populism."
In these movies, outlaws, outsiders and rebels sped across America in fuel-inefficient cars and big rigs, running some vague, morally dubious errand while being chased by the cops and crashing into any other vehicle in their path.
In Convoy, to cite a typical example, truck drivers evade "speed traps and toll booths" and "a shirtless and defiant Kris Kristofferson" screams, "Piss on your law!" In real life, countless non-truck drivers bought CB radios. Those initials stand for "citizens' band" and how apt that was: back in 2005, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit called the internet "CB radio for the 21st century."
I think of these flicks as one big movie: The Super Amazing Cross Country Hillbilly Trucker Convoy Adventure.
With his defiance of such concepts as scarcity, safety, seriousness and commonsense, the gas-guzzling Evel Knievel was the quintessential American man of the Seventies. A hero, a con man, a daredevil, a brand, a creep -- white trash alpha male Knievel embodied the decade, for better or worse.
And Viva Knievel! is the ultimate self-indulgent Seventies camp classic.
Evel Knievel (1971)
White Line Fever
Little Fauss and Big Halsy
Dirty Mary and Crazy Mary
Follow that Car (a.k.a. Georgia Peaches
Smokey Bites the Dust
Race with the Devil
Grand Theft Auto
Moonshine County Express
Aloha, Bobby and Rose
The Great Texas Dynamite Chase
Funny Car Summer
The Last American Hero
Eat My Dust
Death Race 2000
Citizens Band (a.k.a. Handle with Care)
Evel Knievel (2004)