Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number One

#1 — Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
According to Robert Towne, it was a vice cop who gave him the title Chinatown and the backstory of cynicism it conveys. He asked the officer what he did when he was stationed in Chinatown, and the man answered, “As little as possible,” an exchange that was eventually carried almost intact onto the screen. There were so many dueling dialects at play among the complicated gang alliances and conflicts, that it was extremely difficult for the police to sort out what was going on. The men on the force often didn’t know if their efforts were hindering the efforts of the criminals or actually smoothing the way of different factions, if they were actually being played as pawns by the community’s underworld. Standing back and letting it all play out often seemed the more prudent measure. To extrapolate it to the efforts of private detective Jake Gittes, sometimes the only wise thing one can do is walk away.

Jack Nicholson plays Jake, in what is as strong of evidence as any as to why he was the most vital actor of American cinema’s most daring decade. He plays the private eye with an appropriate level of world-weariness, a been-around-the-block certainty that nothing can faze him. Jake’s pushed enough steamy pictures of cheating spouses across his office desk over the years to give him a fairly dismal appraisal of human nature, and Nicholson shows how it’s simultaneously thickened his skin and sharpened his wit. The character exhibits plenty of Nicholson’s trademark devilish certainty, but, in this case, it’s largely in the service of showing how consistently comeuppance can be delivered on those who underestimate the world’s corruption, whether they pay for it through stark disillusionment or a slice out of their nose.

The brilliance of Towne’s screenplay is the way it takes the handy, familiar tropes of countless old Hollwyood film noirs with grizzled detectives and dangerously gorgeous dames and twists them into something decidedly modern in its broader commentary on the corruption of capitalism. There was always greed (usually mixed with lust) at the heart of those old crime stories, but it was almost always at the level of petty criminality, fortunes to be found in kidnapping, robbery, blackmail or even an inky black statue of a bird of prey. In Chinatown, it’s instead to be found in major machinations meant to corner the parched market in a commodity no less precious because it’s benign and familiar. There’s other ugliness around the periphery, but it all comes back to the insidious opportunity at the core of the film. Could there be a better way to get rich in a desert than cornering the market in oases?

If Towne crafts a fine screenplay by adopting and refining one of the signature genres of Hollywood’s past, director Roman Polanski definitely demonstrates how effectively he can update the moodiness, bleak humor and riveting style of films gone by. Beginning with opening credits that reach back to whichever Howard Hawks film anyone might choose, Polanski barely lets a frame of the film go by without some degree of evocative commentary on reference to classic film narrative. He even has some tacit blessing from the past in the form of one of the seasoned masters of such screen storytelling, director John Huston, on hand to play the odious Noah Cross, growling like a rocky crag come to life as he informs Jake that “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Maybe the same is true of trashy detective stories, the sort that were once dismissed as a particularly sordid strain of film entertainment. One thing is certain, though: Chinatown is unforgettable.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Two

#2 — Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
When Robert De Niro played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he borrowed the clothing of screenwriter Paul Schrader to start shaping the character. Schrader, putting it simply, was a twisted dude. He has a compulsion for guns and an inner monologue that had a lot in common with that of the lead character he penned. The character emerged from Schrader’s typewriter partially at the suggestion of De Niro, who noted he was interested in a story about a emotionally wounded man who walked the city streets with a concealed pistol at the ready, anxious to wreak vengeful havoc against the darker forces at work in the urban landscape. This was actually a familiar theme in the nineteen-seventies: angry men pushed to their limits by the corrosion of society and pushing back against the vile interlopers on civilized society, using a rain of bullets to wash all this scum off the streets. None of those other films was Taxi Driver, though.

Schrader’s howl of anguish and rage straight from the id met its perfect interpreter in director Martin Scorsese. Acclaimed for Mean Streets and boosted by a new cachet within the industry after shepherding Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar win for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the Italian-American director was given the opportunity to handle the prickly, dangerous script, helped by his friend De Niro’s support, which carried extra weight because of the shiny new Academy Award he had with his name etched across the base. (Skittish studio execs still only went forward after receiving the promise that Scorsese would be replaced by Steven Spielberg if the project started to go south.) Besides an ever-growing command of the mechanics of cinematic storytelling and a relentlessly inventive eye, Scorsese brought a fascination with knotty morality that complicated and deepened Schrader’s nihilistic fantasies. The one-time aspirational seminarian understood something that likely eluded Schrader: Travis was a far more interesting character if he was less a constant expression of damage than a man who believed he was saving people, who mistook his own corrosion for nobility.

Taxi Driver takes the simmering dissatisfaction of the time and fans it into an inferno. Travis is a direct witness to the ugliness of New York City from the front seat of his cab, listening to passengers vomit up their brutish viewpoints or even engage in full-scale illicit behavior in the back, sinning as the meter runs. Scorsese meets this existential tumult with a fiercely dynamic style, though not one that is overly showy or calls attention to itself. Instead, Scorsese’s direction fairly bristles with feverish energy and intellectual curiosity. The spirit of the piece has been scraped raw by Travis’s biting disdain for his surroundings, and the bitterness stirred to life by thwarted plans for redemption, for himself and others. Even before the eventual collapse of Travis’s psyche takes place, the character seems like his can crumble at any moment, and Scorsese’s film palpitates with that very tension. That can be attributed somewhat to the angst of Schrader’s screenplay, but it takes the genius of Scorsese to realize it for the screen.

The performance of De Niro in the leading role is rightly iconic. It somehow condenses an entirely nation adrift into a single disturbed character, and makes him equal parts frightening and sympathetic. It’s not just a tightrope act without a net, but also without any discernible wire. There’s not an ounce of safety to the performance, which is precisely what makes it so thrilling. Exceptional acting is found across the cast–Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and teenaged Jodie Foster all merit the highest of praise–but everyone else still needs to stand in the long, heavy shadow of De Niro’s work. That he may have had an ideal model for the role in the man who penned the script is incidental. Finding his way to the truth of a character this complex is a compelling demonstration of exactly why De Niro remains an actor of reverence. No amount of drab, disinterested performances later in his career can erase what he achieves in Taxi Driver. It’s ferociousness rendered in tightly contained gestures and questing eyes, almost exhausting in its brilliance.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Three

#3 — Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I can say with some certainty that Manhattan is home to my favorite film opening. Over cinematographer Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black-and-white shots of the borough that gives the film its title and accompanied by George Gershwin’s resplendent “Rhapsody in Blue,” Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, takes a crack at the opening passage of a novel. He announces, “Chapter One,” and proceeds to try and describe the apparent lead character’s abounding affection for New York City. Several false starts later–rejected for reasons like “too corny” and “too angry”–Isaac finally finds his way to prose he likes, perhaps in part because of some “jungle cat” sexual potency attributed to this figure very much like himself, but more likely because of the succinct perfection of the final sentence he crafts before fireworks illuminate the sky: “New York was his town, and it always would be.”

The opening sequences may be the purest, most inspiring tribute to his defining city that Allen ever created, but the film is far more complex than a mere love letter. It is about the challenges of modern life, the merciless tangling of human relationships and the tense tug-of-war between sharply differing instincts. It is also Allen’s first, sharpest presentation of his career-long thesis–which would eventually come to haunt him when evidence of its power crept into his real life years later–arguing, “The heart wants what it wants.” Manhattan is satiric and deft, but also serious-minded and as emotionally honest as any film Allen ever made (and there is stiff competition in that final category). It’s as funny as any Allen film, while also leaving room for moving elements. Allen was in his early forties when he made the film, and the maturity shows. The whole thing feels like its developing wisdom frame by frame.

In the case of the similarly-aged character Allen plays in Manhattan, what the heart seems to want is a teenager named Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway. The two are dating as the film begins, although Isaac continually expresses misgivings about it, noting that she should be with someone closer to her own age instead of someone actually older than her father. His opportunity to develop a more age-appropriate relationship comes when he meets a woman who typifies big city snobbery, taking great pleasure in sharing her cultural knowledge, even when it’s a little shaky. Initially put off by her, Isaac finds himself warming to the idea of a romance with her, perhaps because she represents a vision of who he’s supposed to be, someone in touch with the more refined corners of the urban mindscape. This is Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in a turn that’s the polar opposite of Annie Hall two years earlier: mentally probing where Annie was daffy, prickly where the earlier character was warm. This is a version of the city that Isaac feels he should have grown into, finding pleasure in pointed political magazine articles rather than the bygone accomplishments of Groucho Marx and Willie Mays. If this sort of emotional aspiration proves to be as false as Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows, well, realizing that sort of thing is part of growing up too.

Everything Allen does here is absolutely pitch perfect. He began and is in the long process of ending his career with films that are somewhat tossed off from a directing standpoint, Allen’s conviction that he is a writer first and foremost occasionally causing even him to undervalue his skills as a visual artist. Manhattan, however, is made by someone with a marvelous eye and a brilliant sense of visual storytelling, knowing when to plant the camera at a distance to watch an emotional tableau reveal itself and when to press it, finding the heartbreak and shaky hope that can only be found in the mystery of a person’s eyes. Allen has other films that are funnier, bleaker, bolder, more inspiring and more devastating. I might even admit to designating a completely different effort as my favorite. Not a one of the others, though, is as perfectly calibrated as this. Manhattan is my pick for Woody Allen’s best movie, and it always will be.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Four

#4 — A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is widely considered a classic. I can’t think of another film in the same exalted status that is as brilliantly, exuberantly, comically savage. In adapted Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella of the same name, Kubrick tore free the ferocious id of humanity and laid it bare, ultimately questioning whether the true problem was the roiling internal rage and impulsive hedonism of people or the cloying attempts of society to contain those instincts. Untamed passion may lead to random acts of violence and terror against innocent people, but isn’t that also the pathway to the thundering masterworks of Beethoven? Safer streets are nice, but what is free will is scrubbed away along with the crime? Acknowledging that humans are animals may be the vital first step towards accepting the astounding zoo that is the world. Sheets of chilling rain add darkness to existence, but there’s always still a chance to sing in it.

Set in London at some indeterminate point in the future, the film features Malcolm McDowell in a performance of exuberant malevolence as Alex DeLarge, the ostensible leader of a band of codpiece-adorned youths known as “droogs” who while away the hours creating random havoc. This is usually directed outwards, but occasionally includes a well-placed swing of a stick against the knee of one of their own. When the mayhem against others perpetrated by Alex escalates to murder, he’s institutionalized, eventually leading to the iconic image of his eyes pried open, kept moist by administered eye drops, as he’s forced to watch imagery specifically designed to reprogram him into crippling revulsion at the thought of violence. It’s an existential eye-for-an-eye, rendering him psychologically lifeless for the crime of taking a life. The film revels in its malicious impishness, absolutely refusing to allow for nobility or intellectual honesty in anyone’s actions.

Kubrick, always a maestro of the artful visual crescendo, reaches vertiginous new heights throughout A Clockwork Orange. It is sharply drawn and grandly enraptured with the static dynamics of physical spaces. The trademark chilliness of the director is in place, and it has arguably never had a more fitting outlet. The sterility of certain moments, images, techniques is stuck in a friction-filled duet with the messy, bloody pummeling of the story. Kubrick’s clinical eye exposes the spiritual agony at the heart of the whole endeavor in a way that a more empathetic director never could. That its further presented as the bleakest of satire, and is often shockingly funny, is one of Kubrick’s greatest, sickest jokes. The film shudders like a menacing chortle of virulent glee.

I’ve little doubt that A Clockwork Orange represents the clearest distillation of the director’s view of the world. From at least 1957’s grim war drama Paths of Glory onward, Kubrick kept reiterating a thesis of man’s willing destruction of self, a subsuming of the human spirit to forces destined, even designed, to tear it to ugly shreds. If A Clockwork Orange is his final full-fledged, unqualified masterwork, then it’s perhaps because he created a closing argument of sorts, a statement of assured belief so strong that it could hardly be refuted. All of society’s ills are met with the worst, most reactionary solutions, a thrilled welcoming of a wrecking ball in the guise of purifying salvation. That Kubrick could convincingly depict the tragic weight of all that misguided foolishness and still laugh–harshly and with pity, perhaps, but clearly laugh–is some of the clearest evidence he was operating on a totally different level of cinematic brilliance.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Five

#5 — The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Through this process, I’ve already confessed to being out of step with the critical consensus on Francis Ford Coppola. While The Godfather showed up in this tally, other likely contenders–including its sequel and Apocalypse Now, which jumped past the mafia epics to become Coppola’s highest ranking film in the most recent Sight & Sound poll–were bypassed. The clearest statement I can give about my overall view of the director’s films is that The Conversation is far and away my favorite film to bear his cinematic signature. It is everything that Coppola’s more celebrated films are not: quiet instead of cacophonous, insular rather than expansive, lean instead of overstuffed, focused instead of sprawling. I don’t deny the command over the mechanics of the medium that Coppola regularly exhibits in his work, but I greatly prefer it when that skill is brought to bear on something small and thoughtful rather than a floridly beautiful tapestry that has no discernible edges.

The Conversation is about Harry Caul, a withdrawn surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman, in one of the most exceptional performances that can be found on film. Harry is highly skilled in his field and therefore sought after, but exudes no apparent pleasure in his success or esteem. Instead, like a master doctor petrified of illness, Harry is defined by an intense desire for privacy. He knows from his own experience, his own expertise, how easily the world can intrude on a person, especially surreptitiously. That has made him tense and guarded. It’s tempting to describe him as paranoid, but that does the character a disservice. He’s not fabricating an outside threat. He’s concerned about an encroachment on the hidden that is piercingly real, and he has boxes full of reel-to-reel tape to prove it.

Harry’s services are secured by a shadowy figure to record a couple, an assignment he fulfills as they walk through a park. Uncertain of the larger import of their cryptic conversation, Harry becomes increasingly fascinated by and then worried about what may be going on, what danger the couple may find themselves in, due in part, no doubt, to his complicity in handing over the personal, private talk they reasonably believed to by unheard by any figures other than one another. With measured intensity and agonizing patience, Coppola draws out Harry’s dilemma, which is only compounded by an uncharacteristic opening of the doors he’s built against society. If the film is like a noose tightening, then it is happening so slowly that the inward progress of the rope is barely noticeable, at least until it starts to become oddly difficult to breathe. This continues right to very end, when Harry tears his own world apart, quite literally, in order to protect it.

There are few actors more consistently marvelous than Hackman, and there are several performances that can be reasonably be pointed to as career peaks. Yet, I think all the others can aspire to nothing better than runners-up to his work here. Harry is deliberately inscrutable, a distance he has cultivated. Hackman shows how well the man has constructed emotional and psychological barriers against outside eyes (and, more importantly, ears) while also allowing that it is ultimately a facade that can’t be reliably maintained. He may be fearful of human interaction, but he also can’t help but crave it at times. Even his extraneous interest in the couple he’s recording betrays a desire for some level of connection. These are the internal parts of Harry that are at war with each other, and Hackman conveys that with cards pinned against his chest. There are no easy entryways into a character like this, no manner of signaling the audience as to the inner conflicts without betraying the truth of the man. With his tools naturally limited, Hackman still conveys the entirety of the character. Watching Hackman in The Conversation is like studying the DNA of acting itself.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Six

#6 — McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
It’s routine to praise directors for their abilities to construct entire worlds, especially in the modern era of filmmaking which increasingly depends upon the startling efforts of creators who are freakishly adept at rendering imagery utilizing computer software. Too often, that celebrated world-building largely stops at the backgrounds, leaving the development of the characters moving through it as a secondary concern, leading to only the most superficial of conflicts playing out in front of the expensive walls of ones and zeroes. That’s because the filmmakers may be interested in worlds, but they’re not concerned with societies, and the correlating examination of how souls carrying their own personal sets of joys and troubles collide with each other. We are deep into the epoch of playset directors, many of whom must have once marveled over the intricacies of their miniature plastic Death Stars and Millenium Falcons, never putting all that much thought as to what the plastic figures that populated them might be feeling at any given moment.

Robert Altman was, of course, from an entirely different generation, but he also had a unique sensibility among his peers. While most films are built on plot and therefore incident, Altman’s movies–his best movies, anyway–were settled on a foundation of bustling humanity. No film exemplifies Altman’s startling skill at making masterpieces from such an approach than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film recognizable as a western from its milieu, but otherwise as far removed from the sturdy epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as any cinematic offering could be. It isn’t about good guys and bad guys, but instead that vast terrain of ambiguity that exists between those two absolutes. It is about the necessarily corrupting influence of American capitalism in a community, settling its story on a time in the earliest years of the twentieth century to demonstrated that the pollution in the nation’s fiscal stream was there at the mouth.

John McCabe is played by Warren Beatty, in arguably the best performance of his career, largely because the role is perfectly suited to both his personal reputation of stealthy control and his unique muttering patter, the latter of which suggests a man anxiously attempting to turn his impulses into thoughts. McCabe comes to a blustery frontier mining town named for the church at its center (though definitely not at its heart) and begins exerting his influence over the citizenry, largely in pursuit of the almighty dollar. He establishes a brothel, the management of which he eventually turns over to another newcomer, Constance Miller, played by Julie Christie. The film traces their mutual ascent and then descent, and the title characters are undoubtedly the main drivers of the narrative. However, Altman’s concerns are simultaneously greater and more intricate, burrowing into the tenderized interpersonal mechanics of the entire town, not through an overburdening of subplot, but by simple, intense observation. Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue is in full evidence, paradoxically providing immense revelation by they way he allows things to be obscured. Other filmmakers spell things out with painstaking exposition, but Altman chooses to let life simply happen, which proves to be far more enlightening.

In addition to all the familiar Altman trademarks that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller extraordinary, this is surely the most beautiful film the director ever presided over. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is a nonstop source of wonder, evoking a time when only candlelight offered illumination, and the descending blues of dusk could be the most imposing sight of all. These choices simply make the light of day, when it arrives, all the harsher, a fitting, metaphoric visual for the muted cacophony of a wounded, suspect nation taking its first furtive steps to becoming its truest self.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Seven

#7 — Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
I’ve loved Annie Hall for a long time, but I don’t think I understood the extent of its specialness until I saw the Woody Allen directorial effort that directly preceded it, 1975’s Love and Death. Despite its artier pretensions, manifested most clearly in the spoofing of heady fare such as Russian novels and Ingmar Bergman films, the movie is a modest, proudly simple comedy, reveling in an absurdity that dated back at least to the Marx Brothers and persists today is every brash punchline extravaganza featuring a Saturday Night Live alumnus. It’s not a stepping stone, as I had long assumed, from the straightforward gag-fests from earlier in Allen’s career. Instead, it is right in line with them. He didn’t evolve into Annie Hall gradually. He just suddenly landed there, intertwining a uniquely sophisticated and modern look at romantic relationships with extraordinarily free and casual experimentation (Annie Hall is so brisk, approachable and polished that the multitude of structural risks Allen engages in are easy to overlook or at least undervalue). Aside from perhaps Charlie Chaplin, I don’t know if there’s another example in cinematic history of a clown turning into full-fledged artist with the snap of a clapboard.

Annie Hall is, of course, about a romance, that of Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and the title character, played by Diane Keaton. Given the years of supporting evidence provided by Keaton is every interview and public appearance she’s ever done, it’s clear that the character she plays is a modified version of herself (Hall was the last name the actress was born with, and Annie was a common nickname for her at the time). That doesn’t diminish the value of her performance, which brims with invention, energy and daffy charm like few other comic turns given a home on screen. She won the Oscar for it, and it stands as one of the finest choices the Academy made across a decade when they had an abundance of great Hollywood films to celebrate. Effortless as the film plays, Allen had an exceedingly tough time finding his way to the final version that endures. There was an original cut that was almost two-and-a-half hours long and an early pass at the script (written by Allen with Marshall Brickman) focused more on a murder mystery with any relationship material crammed into a subplot (the whodunit plotline reemerged years later in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which fittingly reunited Allen with Keaton). Watching Keaton “Lah-de-dah” her way through this endlessly winning performance, it’s no wonder that Allen figured out that Alvy may be the central figure of the film, but he was orbiting around Annie Hall.

Great as that relationship is–and there are remarkably few romantic comedies in the decade since that don’t sport at least a little DNA inherited from Annie Hall–the film is elevated by the vestiges of everything else that it almost was. It is about Alvy’s childhood, his overstuffed quiver of insecurities and his prior attempts to forge meaningful relationships with women that amounted to little more than fender benders of the heart. Much of this was reportedly relegated to the trash bins in the editing room, but enough remains to give the film greater depth and insight. Before a shark dies, there are presumably symptoms of illness present for anyone brave enough to look. Annie Hall, for all its structural playfulness, is about people, and Allen sagely, subtly conveys the ways that those individuals carry their histories with them, letting the shadows they cast obscure what can be seen in the present. It’s remarkable that Allen retained his ingenious sense of humor (among other attributes, the argument could be made that Annie Hall is his funniest overall film) while still developing full-fledged characters rather than the easier comic figures he’d relied on before. He wasn’t a comedian making movies any longer; he was now clearly a filmmaker, with many masterworks to come.