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10 Great Overlooked Films From The 1970s

10 Great Overlooked Films From The 1970s

If you’ve had a conversation with a serious cinephile in the last week or so, there’s probably only been one real subject of discussion. Well, once you’ve finished talking about “Heaven Is For Real,” anyway. Tuesday saw the release of a shiny new Blu-ray of the brand new restored version of William Friedkin‘s “Sorcerer.” Long unavailable on home video, Friedkin’s 1977 remake of “The Wages Of Fear” was an expensive flop buried in part by the release of “Star Wars,” but it has only grown in estimation over the years, and after a long legal wrangling, was finally reclaimed by the director last year, and hit stores earlier this week.

This means that one of the holy grails of 1970s American cinema has had its reputation mostly restored; what was dismissed in many quarters on release is now deemed to be one of the director’s finest films, to sit alongside “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection.” But the reevaluation of “Sorcerer” is only the tip of the iceberg: as one of the most celebrated decades in the history of the medium, there are plenty more relatively undiscovered classics where that came from.

Not everything can be “The Godfather” or “Nashville,” and so for every ’70s movie that won the acclaim they deserved, there’s another that was overshadowed or undersung, and is somewhat forgotten these days. In celebration of the release of “Sorcerer,” we’ve picked out ten other films from the 1970s that we love, but aren’t as widely known as they should be, in the hope that a reevaluation of the kind that Friedkin’s film has had might be forthcoming. Read our ten picks below — which are admittedly random and perhaps subjective, but hopefully off the beaten path enough to pique your interest — and pick your own favorites in the comments section below.

“Wanda” (1970)
Like Charles Laughton‘s “Night Of The Hunter,” “Wanda” belongs to the tiny sub-category of great directorial outings by actors who only helmed the one picture. Sadly, it’s nowhere near as well-known as Laughton’s masterpiece, but it certainly deserves to be. Barbara Loden was best known for her Broadway roles and a part opposite Warren Beatty in “Splendor In The Grass” (directed by her husband, Elia Kazan), but “Wanda” is sort of borderline revolutionary, a remarkable drama that presages contemporary independent cinema by several decades. Loden also takes the title role of a fading beauty in a Pennsylvania mining town who abandons her life to hook up with a bank robber. It feels like something of a parallel life for her — she hailed from a North Carolina background, and said in an interview “If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night.” The result is like a European arthouse take on a Douglas Sirk film, meditative and bruising, with Loden the almost inscrutable and passive center of events. It carefully and compellingly walks the line between docu-drama realism and something more experimental (it feels like an obvious precursor to the modern slow cinema movement, and will test less patient viewers as a result). It’s a fascinating film about a fascinating woman (as much a rarity in the 1970s as it is now), and it’s a crying shame that Loden didn’t make a follow-up before her premature death from breast cancer in 1980.

“Martin” (1978)
George Romero
’s obviously best-known for his pioneering ‘Dead’ series of zombie films, most notably 1968’s “Night Of The Living Dead” and 1978’s “Dawn Of The Dead.” But Romero’s own favorite of his pictures is one that doesn’t have anywhere near the same kind of genre-changing reputation, in the shape of lo-fi horror “Martin.” And he might be right to consider it his best film. Romero abandons zombies to dig into, for the only time in his career, the vampire mythos, but it’s not quite that simple. The film centers on John Amplas’ title character, a young man who claims to be a vampire. Romero never includes any supernatural elements, and keeps it deliberately ambiguous as to whether that’s the case, or whether Martin is simply psychotic. The result is the most grounded genre film he ever made, and probably as a result, it might be his most terrifying: the psychology of the character, complete with a troubled relationship to sexuality and a powerful ego, seems drawn more from real-life serial killers than from Bram Stoker’s Count and his like. And yet Martin is curiously sympathetic too: Amplas’ finely tuned performance embodies a certain kind of adolescent desperation even as he’s draining blood from his victims. The film’s arguably limited by its budget in places, but the social satire and top-notch filmmaking of Romero’s Dead trilogy remains here in spades. “Let The Right One In,” among many others, simply wouldn’t exist without this one.

“Girlfriends” (1978)
It feels that for years, almost no one had seen “Girlfriends.” Claudia Weill’s film was overlooked on release, and severely neglected after, unavailable on DVD many years. But the film did have one notable supporter: Stanley Kubrick, who in an interview, famously said “I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood — American films — that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s ‘Girlfriends.’ That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe.” As with so many things, Kubrick was bang on. The script (by Vicki Polon) focuses on the friendship between Susan (Melanie Mayron), an aspiring photographer, and Anne (Anita Skinner), her apartment-mate, who’s on the verge of moving out, and their gradual estrangement over time. Shot gradually over a period of about a year or so, thanks to a grant from the AFI, and with a supporting cast including Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach and Christopher Guest. It’s to some extent a film of its time, dealing with the conflict between having a career and being a wife that would feel somewhat out of time now (or then again, perhaps not…), but there’s a universality to Susan and Anne’s friendship that means that it still feels as fresh as a daisy. Indeed, thanks to the patronage of Lena Dunham (who says she was introduced to the film after she broke through), and the success of “Frances Ha,” with which it shares a lot of DNA, the film’s finally starting to get the reputation it deserves, but there’s still some way to go.

The American Friend (1977) 
German filmmaker Wim Wenders is known for his ‘80s films, “Wings of Desire” and “Paris, Texas,” but he came up during the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and so some of his best work comes from his fertile 1970s period, though unfortunately, not a lot of prestige-y, Criterion-like DVD/Blu-Ray editions of these films exist. 1974’s “Alice in the Cities” (the first installment of his roadtrip trilogy) is on Hulu‘s Criterion Channel, so that’s probably getting some attention soon, but even more deserving is 1977’s moody and existentialist neo-noir, “The American Friend.” An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s novel “Ripley’s Game” (the same character modern audiences would know best from 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), Wenders’ film starred Dennis Hopper as Highsmith’s sociopathic career criminal Tom Ripley. Living abroad as a wealthy American in Hamburg, Germany, Ripley gets into the art forgery game where he meets a dying picture framer (played by Wenders regular Bruno Ganz). A shady associate (Gerard Blain) ropes Ripley into a contract hit to square some debts, but ever the slimy operator, the American realizes his “friend” — suffering from an incurable blood disease with nothing left to lose — can easily be manipulated into taking the job for him. Enigmatic and atmospheric, the dynamic within is not unlike Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train” but played out with a sinister, ambiguous slow-burn that’s hauntingly unnerving and featuring terrifically textured cinematography from the great Robby Müller (known for shooting a lot of the classic Jim Jarmusch films of the ’80 and ‘90s and a few Lars Von Trier movies). Wenders’ being the cinephile that he was couldn’t resist adding some notable, Godard-like cameos, giving roles to then-still-unsung living film legends Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray (he was so enamored of Ray he would immediately thereafter shoot “Lighting Over Water,” a “co-directed” documentary about Ray dying of cancer and coming to terms with his last days). Low on plot, high on mood and suffused with a sick air of desperation, the humanity (or lack thereof) in the movie is chilling and tragic — which is in itself fine reason to give this one a second look.

The Outfit (1973) 
Grim, dark and downright nasty, when one realizes the director of the overlooked crime/revenge noir “The Outfit” is John Flynn, it all starts to makes sense. Flynn of course, directed the notoriously violent revenge movie “Rolling Thunder” (another picture that could have easily made this list). If the movie feels like it shares some of the narrative severity of John Boorman’s similarly unflinching crime drama “Point Blank” that’s because they’re both based off the same source material: Richard Stark’s thriller “The Hunter.” Fresh out of a long stint in prison, Robert Duvall stars as a hardened thief with steely resolve who learns that his brother has been murdered by two mob hit men. Exacerbating his anguish and anger, now that he’s out, the criminal learns that he and an old partner are on the next hit list for a previous bank crime connected to the same organization that offed his brother. Fuelled by the promise of bloody retribution, Duvall’s character than decides to go on a merciless offensive, and his vicious and violent vendetta essentially takes down every individual from the inside one by one. There’s a terrific supporting cast too: Karen Black as his girlfriend, excellent character actor Joe Don Baker as the partner he tries to warn and save, the great Robert Ryan who plays the lead mobster and various thugs played by Timothy Carey, Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney (let’s not forget Anita O’Day; Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr., who like Ryan and Carey, also appeared in Kubrick’s “The Killing”). Nicely unpolished and harsh-around-the-edges thanks to DP Bruce Surtees (Clint Eastwood‘s DP on many of his similarly bleak ’70s pictures), there’s so much to love in this fierce and unforgiving picture. It’s doubtful any special editions are going to come and give this one more play, but it’s available on the Warner Archive, so if you love down-and-dirty ‘70s crime films, we certainly recommend you add it your collection.

“Smile” (1975)
Better known for his later commercial work like “The Bad News Bears,” “The Golden Child” and “Fletch,” Michael Ritchie’s often overlooked by cinephiles in the 1970s-auteur club, and that feels like something of an injustice — it’s hard to think of a more impressive opening salvo in a career than 1969’s “Downhill Racer,” 1972’s “The Candidate,” the same year’s “Prime Cut” and 1975’s “Smile.” The latter in particular is overlooked even within Ritchie’s canon: a gentle, occasionally caustic but mostly warm satire looking behind the scenes at the fictional Young Miss America beauty pageant, with Bruce Dern’s head judge, Barbara Feldon’s executive director, and contestants including Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole and Colleen Camp all cropping up. The film feels like the midpoint of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, and perhaps one of the reasons it’s been overlooked is that it arrived the same year as two similar masterpieces from those directors, in “Nashville” and “Shampoo,” and if this isn’t quite as flawless as those films (it’s admittedly somewhat sprawling and unfocused), it’s nevertheless worth a watch for many reasons. The performances, especially from Dern, Feldon and Michael Kidd, are uniformly top-notch, and Ritchie carefully balances the tone, stopping it from getting too broad while still highlighting the total absurdity of the institution he’s digging into, and making broader points about relations between the genders while he’s at it. Subsequent beauty-pageant movies like “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have tended to feel like pale imitations next to it.

“The Shout” (1978)
Despite winning the Cannes Grand Prix, Jerzy Skolimowski’s “The Shout” has largely fallen into obscurity since. Partly that’s because the film’s been unavailable on DVD stateside for many years, and partly it must also be due to the odd career arc of its director: after critical successes (1967’s Berlin-winning “The Departure” and 1970’s “Deep End” among them) and a 30-year career, the Polish filmmaker stopped making films for 17 years, and his legacy became somewhat neglected. But if his successful return (2010’s “Essential Killing” won the Special Jury Prize in Venice) spurs interest in his catalogue, “The Shout” feels ripe for rediscovery. It’s a creepy, deliberately confusing, enigmatic story, told in flashback by asylum inmate and unreliable narrator Crossley (Alan Bates) while he adjudicates a cricket match. It details how he terrorized a young couple (Susannah York and John Hurt) in their home in the English countryside, using only the magical powers he’d learned from some Aboriginal Australians, including the titular shout — so dreadful that all who hear it instantly die. As silly as it sounds, the atmosphere of disquiet Skolimowski builds has something of “The Wicker Man”’s uncanniness about it — primitivist voodoo knitting itself into a banal village setting. Based on the short story by Robert Graves (played by Tim Curry in the film, which also features Jim Broadbent), lies and truth constantly battle and you’re never sure what’s real, but the cleverest trick is how the horror of being magicked into subjugation is superseded by a more unsettling suspicion: that the madman Crossley is a charlatan whose only real power is that of suggestion over weaker minds. And possibly sheep.

“Johnny Got His Gun” (1971)
As you might imagine for someone who inspired both a documentary (2007’s “Trumbo”) and an upcoming biopic starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo led quite a storied life: blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, winning two Oscars for his fronts while being unable to work (for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”), and penning “Spartacus” (while his unmade script “Montezuma” is currently set to be directed by Steven Spielberg). But one of his finest achievements is one that’s so often overlooked: his sole directorial effort, an adaptation of his 1939 National Book Prize-winning novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which Trumbo had initially wanted Luis Bunuel to direct. Timothy Bottoms plays Joe Bonham, a young World War One soldier left without limbs, eyes, ears and a mouth after being hit by a shell, a prisoner in his own body. He drifts between flashback and fantasy, remembering his girl back home, his father (Jason Robards) and even imagining dialogues with Christ (Donald Sutherland) before expressing a wish to either be allowed to die, or being displayed in a freak show as a demonstration of the horrors of war, neither of which the Army bureaucracy allows him to do. The film is unrepentantly a piece of anti-war propaganda, but manages to avoid feeling like it’s bashing you over the head, instead emphasizing the human loss created by conflict. Trumbo’s direction isn’t always subtle, but the more surreal touches are inspired enough, and his facility with actors so evident, that you wish he’d been allowed behind the camera more often. As it was, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but has been generally overlooked since. Time to change that, we’d say .

“Robin And Marian” (1976)
More than most, and despite his later blockbuster work on the likes of “The Three Musketeers” and “Superman II,” Richard Lester is associated inextricably with the 1960s — Lester practically invented, or at least captured, the Swinging Sixties thanks to directing “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Help,” “The Knack or How To Get It” and “Petulia.” But one of his finest and most mature films came slap-bang in the middle of the 1970s, in the shape of “Robin And Marian.” The film is the kind of expansion of a pre-existing property or legend that’s pure multiplex fodder these days, but this is a much more melancholy take, closer to Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes” (another under-sung 70s classic) than to, say, Ridley Scott’s more recent version of the tale. Set many years after the prime of Robin Hood (Sean Connery), it sees the bandit returning to England after the death of Richard the Lionheart, and reuniting with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn, in her return to the screen after eight years away), only to come into contact with King John (Ian Holm) and the Sheriff Of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) once again. There’s a certain amount of derring-do involved, with some satisfying action that sees Lester importing his skills from the ‘Musketeers’ films that preceded this, but what lingers is the autumnal, elegiac tone of the film (which ends with a suicide pact between the title characters). And among a very fine cast also including Denholm Elliott, Nicol Williamson and Ronnie Barker, Connery and Hepburn give arguably the best performances of their careers. It might not be as restlessly inventive as the best of Lester’s 60s output, but it’s just as memorable.  

“Fat City” (1972)
John Huston was a true legend of the medium, a filmmaker who made classics from his first film (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”) to the last (1987’s “The Dead”), with plenty of classics in between, as well as plenty of stinkers. Aside from the glorious “The Man Who Would Be King,” his 1970s work isn’t especially highly regarded, but that ignores the two terrific films he made in 1972: “The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean” and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Fat City,” a sober, downbeat drama that stacks up among Huston’s very best films, even if it’s not really remembered as such these days. It pairs up Stacy Keach and a just post-“The Last Picture ShowJeff Bridges as respectively, a burnt-out aging boxer and his young protege, but the film resists straying anywhere near a sports-movie narrative: this is a delve into the grittier, more desperate side of life, full of broken dreams and getting the tar beaten out of you for $100 a bout. The film has a careful, slow energy which is a real testament to the way that Huston kept evolving as an artist through his career (it’s much closer to the New Hollywood films that were its contemporaries than you’d imagine for a man of his vintage), is gorgeously shot by the great Conrad Hall, and features two titanic performances from the brash, jockish Bridges, and especially, the pathetic (in the truest sense) Keach. In an alternative, better world, this, and not “Rocky,” is the seminal boxing film of the 1970s.

Honorable Mentions: Honestly, we could do this all day, but we’ve all got homes to go to. But if this is whetted your appetite, there’s plenty more where these came from. We wrote about some under-sung 1970s thrillers last year, including Sidney Lumet‘s “The Offence,” the Walter Matthau-starring “The Laughing Policeman,” Robert Aldrich‘s bonkers “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” while an earlier similar piece showcased the great “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” Dustin Hoffman vehicle “Straight Time,” Michael Ritchie‘s “Prime Cut” and great cop movie “The Seven-Ups.”

And among the other films from the era that are worth a mention, there’s James William Guerico‘s “Electra Glide In Blue,” Peter Hyams‘ “Busting,” Ingmar Bergman‘s “The Touch,” Alan Arkin‘s “Little Murders,” Arthur Penn‘s “Night Moves,” Hal Ashby‘s “The Landlord,” Stephen Frears‘ “Gumshoe,” Elaine May‘s “Mikey & Nicky” and “A New Leaf,” Jerry Schatzberg‘s “Scarecrow,” Robert Altman‘s “California Split,” Martin Ritt‘s “The Front,” Sidney Pollack‘s “The Yakuza,” Don Siegel‘s “Charley Varrick,” James Toback‘s “Fingers,” Mike Hodges‘ “Pulp,” John Schlesigner‘s “Day Of The Locust,” Paul Schrader‘s “Hardcore,” Arthur Hiller‘s “The Hospital,Robert Benton‘s “The Late Show” and Jonathan Demme‘s “Handle With Care.” Any others we’ve missed? Let us know below. — Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez

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