The Last Golden Age of American Cinema (the American "New Wave") and the Advent of the Blockbuster Film
Film History of the 1970s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Film History by Decade
Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s
John Cassavetes - Independent Auteur
After his first feature film, the crudely-improvised Shadows (1959), independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, dubbed "the father of American independent cinema", turned to studio films for a few years, but then after finding studio films too restrictive, he resumed low-budget, independent filmmaking stretching into the 70s with his highly individualistic style and realistic, stark cinema verité (with unscripted and often inaudible dialogue, poor lighting, and improvisational character studies in overlong, amateurish and ragged films made with a hand-held camera). He used his actor's salary (in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968)) to finance his own film productions, such as:
The 'Detective' and Crime Film Genre - and Clint Eastwood:
Following the success of Bullitt (1968), a cycle of "rogue cop" and detective films appeared, such as Don Siegel's bold Dirty Harry (1971) with emerging star Clint Eastwood as maverick, rule-breaking, .44 Magnum-wielding San Francisco cop Detective "Dirty Harry" Callahan with his famous signature line toward a black bank robber: "...You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?" Critic Pauline Kael labeled the film "fascist" and "deeply immoral" for its strident political views, since the film took a political stance - the point of view of crime victims. In the same year, Michael Caine starred in the UK crime film Get Carter (1971) as the title character - a London gangster trying to avenge his murdered brother.
Four successors to Dirty Harry (1971) that starred Eastwood were:
Clint Eastwood was transformed when he made an impressive debut as director in the psychologically-shocking, suspenseful, and violent Play Misty for Me (1971) about a threatened KRML Radio disc jockey threatened by an obsessed fan. He also starred as easy-going trucker and bare-knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe who was upstaged by an orangutan named Clyde in the C&W comedy Every Which Way But Loose (1978). Its success led to the inevitable sequel Any Which Way You Can (1980). Eastwood also starred in Siegel's suspenseful prison break-out film Escape From Alcatraz (1979). He also began directing, producing, and acting in westerns in the 70s - a career move that he maintained into the 90s, during a time when most directors avoided the unpopular genre:
Urban Crime Thrillers, Militancy and Graphic Violence:
Graphic violence in urban America was a major element of a number of 70s films. The urban crime thriller - William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) echoed the brutal vigilante mentality of Eastwood's films. Its sequel by director John Frankenheimer - French Connection II (1975) brought back Gene Hackman as the tough-nosed NY cop still in pursuit of international heroin dealers in Marseilles. Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973), based on the book by Peter Maas, was the true story of dedicated, honest New York cop Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) (nicknamed Paco) who fought against vast corruption in the city by blowing the whistle on others who took payoffs. William Friedkin also directed Pacino in Cruising (1980) as an undercover cop investigating grisly murders in NY's gay community. The headlines of a fact-based 1972 story about a defiant folk-hero - a bi-sexual bank robber in a desperate hostage situation, became the basis for Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Its unlikely story pitted nothing-to-lose hustler Sonny Wortzick (Al Pacino again) in a failed NYC bank raid against the authorities - to fund his boyfriend's (Chris Sarandon) sex change operation.
Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent Straw Dogs (1971) provoked controversy with charges of gratuitous violence, and The Getaway (1972) with hard-bitten convict Steve McQueen in the lead role, was another typically-violent film. Charles Bronson (as Paul Kersey) sought vengeance as a vigilante when his wife was killed (and daughter was raped by Jeff Goldblum) in Michael Winner's revenge thriller Death Wish (1974). Sydney Pollack's suspenseful political thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975) involved a researcher (Robert Redford) who discovered all of his co-workers dead after lunch - and a conspiracy within the CIA, and decided the only way to survive was to give his story to The New York Times.
Actual gang violence, including shootings, rumbles, and stabbings, was instigated during the showings of Walter Hill's NYC gang film The Warriors (1979) and Michael Pressman's Boulevard Nights (1979), about East LA gang life in a Latino barrio.
The Continuing James Bond Series:
There were five additional entries in the Bond series in the decade, with a new actor in the role of agent 007 beginning in 1973:
African American Film-Makers, and Action Blaxploitation Films:
African-American film-makers began to make inroads in the late 60s, with Gordon Parks' brilliantly-photographed first film The Learning Tree (1969) - an autobiographical account of a boy growing up black in 1920s Kansas, and Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). [Parks' film was a major milestone - he was the first African-American film-maker to direct a motion picture that was released by a major US studio.]
In the early 70s, a series of so-called 'blaxploitation' films emerged, either as a reflection of black anger at whites, or as a new marketing angle from Hollywood. Actor/director/writer Melvin Van Peebles' X-rated, confrontational cult film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), noted to be the first true blaxploitation film, was specifically designed to upset white audiences (advertised with "Rated X by an All-White Jury"), with Peebles himself playing the part of the sex-hungry, violent anti-hero. The successful independent film (budgeted at $150,000) was released by independent distributor Cinemation, and aimed at urban black audiences. It caused tremendous controversy for its militancy, sex, anti-white sentiment, revenge-themes, and violence, although it was one of the most important black American films of the decade. [Mario Van Peebles' film Baadasssss! (2004) told the story of how his father, Melvin, contributed to modern independent black filmmaking with his 1971 film.]
The first major, commercial crime film with a black hero appeared at the same time - the colorful, action-packed, slightly tongue-in-cheek film Shaft (1971) by esteemed black director Gordon Parks, a former photojournalist with Life Magazine. Shaft starred Richard Roundtree as the ultra-hip, handsome police detective John Shaft (the black version of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan) who worked in Harlem against the Mafia. Shaft won an Oscar for Isaac Hayes' memorable theme song for the film (proclaiming that Shaft was 'a private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks'). It spawned two lesser sequels: Shaft's Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a TV series.
Unfortunately, these B-films heralded the beginning of many other lesser, formulaic, and sometimes edgier, audacious "blaxploitation" films with black actors in stereotypical film roles designed for African-American film audiences. Starting in the early 1970s, over 200 films would be released by major and independent studios to profit from the black movie-going audiences. In some cases because of the small number of African-American actors, black athletic superstars (Jim Brown, Rosie Grier, Fred Williamson, and Vida Blue) and others (comedian Richard Pryor got his start in these films as did Antonio Fargas) were recruited and cast in the lead or supporting roles:
A female version of the action sub-genre developed, often starring a vengeful heroine (Pam Grier, Rosie Grier's cousin, dubbed the "Queen of Blaxploitation"), as in Black Mama, White Mama (1972) - a violent female subversion of The Defiant Ones (1958), Coffy (1973) - her biggest hit, AIP's Foxy Brown (1974) - a remake of Coffy, and Sheba Baby (1975). Tamara Dobson starred as a female James Bond agent in Jack Starrett's blaxploitation film Cleopatra Jones (1973). Walter Hill's gang film set in a surrealistic New York City entitled The Warriors (1979) was worrisome for its instigation of violent gang warfare and feuding.
The success of blaxploitation films brought some opportunities for blacks in the industry to work in Hollywood, although the vast majority of these films were still distributed, produced, and controlled by non-blacks. It also led to an onslaught of other black exploitation genres, with numerous remakes or lesser imitations ranging from westerns to martial arts kung fu films to horror and gangster films.
The blaxploitation cinema experienced a revival in the late 1990s, with Larry Cohen's Original Gangstas (1996), reuniting stars from the earlier era including Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Ron O'Neal, and Richard Roundtree. Grier also starred in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1998), and Samuel Jackson in black director John Singleton's remake Shaft (2000). In retrospect, all of the blaxploitation films set the stage for future directors such as Spike Lee and John Singleton, the Hip Hop music and subculture and movies like Harlem Nights (1989), Posse (1993), the Beverly Hills Cop series, and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Changes in the Ratings System: The Dawn of the X Rating
The movie rating system was modified in 1970, replacing the "M" rating with PG (meaning parental guidance suggested), and redefining "R" (as at least 17 years or older, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian). "X" rated films were limited to eighteen year olds and above. The first PG-rated Disney Studios film was The Black Hole (1979), the studio's most costly film to date. The first X-rated, adult-oriented, full-length animated cartoon was Ralph Bakshi's cult favorite Fritz the Cat (1972) - the lusty adventures of an anthropomorphic, dope-smoking tomcat named Fritz, a character originally created by Robert Crumb. It was also the first independent animated film to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci released the controversial, landmark X-rated Last Tango in Paris (1972) with a number of sexually explicit scenes. A year after his portrayal of a puffy-cheeked, Mafioso don, Marlon Brando played Paul, a grieving, middle-aged widower who embarked on an anonymous yet passionate sexual relationship with a young French student (Maria Schneider) - although they never told each other their names. The film, which won Brando a seventh Oscar nomination, was declared obscene by an Italian court in 1976. And French director Louis Malle's first English-language feature film was the provocative Pretty Baby (1978), featuring nymphette Brooke Shields as a 12 year-old - the daughter of prostitute Susan Sarandon - being raised in a pre-WWI-era New Orleans brothel.
Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge (1971) was declared obscene by a 1971 Georgia ruling and banned in some areas of the country for its frank exploration of the sexual attitudes and problems of two modern Americans (Jack Nicholson as Jonathan and Art Garfunkel as Sandy), from their days as college roommates through middle-age. The Supreme Court overturned the state's ruling in 1974. William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band (1970) broke a Hollywood film barrier by honestly dealing with the subject of homosexuality. Jane Fonda won the Best Actress Oscar for Klute (1971) for her performance as Bree, a prostitute who was stalked by a psychopath. The last name of a small-town detective (Donald Sutherland) who investigated the disappearance of a friend and became involved with Bree, was Klute!
Pornography became a mainstream, legitimate curiosity with the screening of Gerard Damiano's exploitation fantasy Deep Throat (1972) with Linda Lovelace, although the film generated legal actions and challenges in many localities. Its initial, low-budget investment of $24,000 brought in receipts totalling at least $20 million (before the rental and video markets' profits), easily making it the most successful pornographic film of all-time. A soft-core X (or R)-rated series of films with abundant erotic nudity also came to US screens from France, beginning with Just Jaeckin's Emmanuelle (1974), starring Dutch-born actress Sylvia Kristel, and followed by the equally provocative, well-photographed sequel by Francis Giacobetti titled Emmanuelle, The Joys of a Woman (1975).
It has often been falsely claimed that the producers of an R-rated sex comedy, The Happy Hooker (1975), based on the book of memoirs by legendary New York madam Xaviera Hollander (portrayed by Lynn Redgrave), were sued by the Walt Disney Company for using the Mickey Mouse Club theme song during a group sex scene. In fact, a hard-core X-rated porn film titled The Life and Times of Xaviera Hollander (1974) (aka The Life and Times of a Happy Hooker) (starring Xaviera Hollander as the narrator, and also the notorious John Holmes) was the one whose makers were sued - they used the Mickey Mouse Club theme song in an explicit orgy scene (set in a game room with a pool table, where three nude males wearing Mickey Mouse ear-hats first sang the theme song, and then the redhaired Happy Hooker (Samatha (sic) McClearn) had sex atop the pool table with one of the men, to the slow, guitar-strummed tune of the theme song, and then with all three - "a triple trick" - a birthday present bought by a rich father for his son and two friends.)
British director Stanley Kubrick faithfully adapted Anthony Burgess' novel for his X-rated A Clockwork Orange (1971) about juvenile droogs (led by Malcolm McDowell as Alex) on a rampage. The Warner Bros. film was a violent, perceptive dark satire of the future that juxtaposed rape and brutality to classical music and the euphoric tune Singin' in the Rain. Kubrick was forced to re-edit the controversial film in order to receive an R-rating. Soon after the film's release, Kubrick withdrew it from distribution in the UK to effectively suppress its exhibition after copycat violence.
Woody Allen's Comedic Era:
Brooklyn-born, stand-up comedian Woody Allen joined the ranks of the young new directors of the 'New Hollywood', beginning his rise as a screenwriter on What's New, Pussycat? (1965) and work as an actor in What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) and Casino Royale (1967). His directorial debut was as writer and director in the makeshift Take the Money and Run (1969), a mad-cap mock-documentary spoof of traditional gangster films, with Allen portraying an inept, would-be thief. His second uninhibited, satirical political comedy, Bananas (1971) was about a meek products tester in a factory who departed for South America and accidentally became a heroic revolutionary dictator.
Humorous sketches in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) dramatized the contents of a sex manual, covering topics such as public sex, perversion, and ejaculation. Two of his best early films, with his typical collection of sight gags and witty jokes were Play it Again, Sam (1972), a film version of Allen's own play about a crushed film critic who took romantic advice from an imaginary Humphrey Bogart, and the futuristic, wacky sci-fi spoof and Rip Van Winkle tale set in the year 2173, Sleeper (1973) - his first film with real-life love interest (at the time) Diane Keaton. Love and Death (1975) spoofed Tolstoy's Russian novel War and Peace.
As the decade progressed, Woody Allen's major breakthrough triumph was a semi-autobiographical, bittersweet and poignant love story/comedy Annie Hall (1977), with Oscar-winning Best Actress Diane Keaton as the tomboyish, kooky, and nervous title character (noted for saying: "La-di-da, la-di-da") in a relationship with the urban neurotic Allen (as New York Jewish comedian Alvy Singer). The ditzy ingenue's impromptu, man-tailored wardrobe costumes influenced fashion trends, and the self-reflexive, kaleidoscopic film contained a variety of innovative strategies and narrative techniques, including animation, subtitles, split-screens, direct addresses to the camera breaking the 4th wall, the instant appearance of Marshall McLuhan to refute a statement ("If life were only like this"), etc. The influential film awarded Allen with top accolades including the year's Best Picture (defeating Star Wars (1977)), Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen) Awards. Originally titled Anhedonia, it was severely edited down from a 2.5 hour rough cut to its present 93-minute length.
Turning more serious and introspective, Allen directed the somber Interiors (1978) - a film with Bergman-esque qualities. The film, a portrait of a family's disintegration, was less well-received. At the conclusion of the decade, Allen directed and starred in another of his best, most accomplished and deepest films, Manhattan (1979) - his biggest hit to date. It was a beautifully-photographed black-and-white, sardonic comedy about a group of sophisticated but neurotic Manhattanites with their attendant foibles, loves, angsts, and frustrations in the search for happiness and fulfillment. The film, filled with Gershwin music, featured Allen as a 42 year-old man in a relationship with a 17 year-old girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) in his most favorite hometown. At the end of the decade, he directed the autobiographical Stardust Memories (1980), about a successful director who suffered a mid-life crisis.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6