There was a time when sepia wasn’t simply an overused Instagram filter, it was the color of life! We are moving on through the decades to the 1970’s.
A lot of 70’s culture and politics come as a reaction to the hopes and dreams of the late 60’s. I see a lot of our current times in the 70s. Because of regrettable war entanglements and a controversy-riddled government, people became incredibly distrustful with government. The idea of a smaller government grew in popularity.
Meanwhile, the mainstream culture grew in a more socially progressive way. The seeds of the late 60s took hold in the youth of the 70s. From long hair and environmentalism to battling segregation and traditional gender roles. Keep in mind, we went from President Nixon at the beginning of the 70s, to Ford and Jimmy Carter wrapping up the 70s.
But progress for the sake of progress isn’t necessarily a good thing. And while the fight for equality among the races and genders was a step in the right direction, we also took a huge leap toward discrimination of a different category of human being (the unborn human) with the 1973 SCOTUS case “Roe v. Wade.” This and its companion case Doe v. Bolton opened the United States up to abortion at any stage for essentially any reason.
National Right to Life now estimates, based on these data from the Guttmacher Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), that the total number of abortions since 1973 has reached 58,586,256.
Despite the growing “Silent Majority” of new conservatives and the growing counter-culture youth, everyone seemingly agreed on one thing- we want something different and we will fight to get it!
There were plenty of cultural moments to push the U.S. in a more cynical direction. The Jonestown Massacre, Three Mile Island, The Iran Hostage Crisis, Disco, Son of Sam, an energy crisis, the death of Elvis, Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.
This cynical tone is heavily reflected in 70s cinema. Both the content and the look itself can easily be summed up with one word: Grit.
The Exorcist, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Halloween, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, Deliverance, The Wicker Man and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Have I made my point?
Well let’s add to that list by getting into the movies I chose to review for the 1970s.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Will Sampson. Directed by Milos Forman.
The simplicity of 70’s cinema will make this plot summary a breeze. Jack Nicholson is R.P. McMurphy, a criminal that is interested in an insanity plea to avoid jail time. He spends his time at a mental institution being treated like an average patient and getting to know everyone. His rebellious and imaginative personality clashes with the strict rules, in particularly with nurse Ratched. Eventually McMurphy’s antics get him an electro-shock treatment that seems to leave him in a vegetative state. Sad to see McMurphy in such a condition, his friend Chief smothers him with a pillow and then breaks outs of the institution.
The plot summary really doesn’t sell this movie and perhaps it shouldn’t. I don’t know that I would recommend this movie to anyone. It’s a simple character movie that just watches a small group of people do things for a short period of time. What sells the movie is whether or not you find the characters compelling. That’s a “yes and no” for me. Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched was always portrayed in pop-culture as the ultimate villain. She is the prototype of ALL psychotherapist villains in film since this movie. I didn’t find her to be that bad. Toward the end she clearly has it out for McMurphy and goes too far but there was no Darth Vader-like crescendo of villainy. A story centered around performances with a luke-warm antagonist is a hard sell.
Where this movie earns its insane amount of awards and preservation in the National Film Registry is with Jack Nicholson. There are two actors I’ve always wanted to go back and see why they are held in such high esteem- Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. WOW does Jack shine in this! To be completely honest, if I grew up in the 70s and saw this movie, I’d take up smoking just because Jack did it. The man exudes a charisma that “cool” doesn’t even describe. I get it and he is awesome.
It was also really strange to see actors I know at such a young age. Christopher Llyod being the craziest.
Ok here is my theory…
Christopher Lloyd is committed to a mental institution in 1970 for his ramblings about being able to build a time machine. He escapes in 1980 (possibly thanks to some Libyans who he’ll owe a favor to later), befriends an average high school teen for some strange reason, and actually builds a time machine. However, the unknown side-effects of time travel are that they cause brain deterioration. Several years later he truly goes insane, thinks he sees cartoon rabbits, and tries to kill them. And in case you hadn’t realized it yet- I really can’t wait to get to the 80s!
The movie ends very abruptly and other than McMurphy’s wild personality and behavior I didn’t find much interesting in this movie. Perhaps its subtle nuances were too subtle for me. I just don’t think the movie can stand up now after so many movies and tv shows have played the “abusive doctor” routine.
The worldview in this film is minimal and bleak. The film’s scope is narrow. You are only left with the worldview perceptions of several truly crazy people and one genuine criminal. There is a minor message of self-determination in the middle of the film but overall we see a criminal try to avoid justice. We then fall in love with the criminal, who is then unfairly (for the circumstances in the mental institution) shocked half to death. Only to be finished off in a mercy-kill smothering. The nihilism is there, but seemingly unintentional. Jack alone earns these two stars.
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
This movie, not in every way, epitomizes something I love about 70’s movies. Taxi Driver has a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s plenty to think about and dissect in the middle but at the end of the film you’ve received an entire story. You aren’t intentionally given 3/4 of a story with the hope of a good opening weekend and then a sequel (I’m still looking at you Prometheus!)
This was a strange viewing for me because in the same weekend I watched (another great 70’s movie) The Warriors,
then saw Captain America: Civil War opening weekend, then watched Taxi Driver. So two incredibly simple, low budget 70s films sandwiched around this giant modern Hollywood spectacle.
Like Cuckoo’s Nest, this plot is fairly basic. Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a lonely man who can’t sleep at night so he gets a job as a taxi driver. Bickle is disgusted with the filth of New York City. Crime, pollution, abuse, drugs, it’s all there for him to revile. While doing his route he notices Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd. Travis asks her out and she agrees. Their relationship doesn’t make it past two dates before Betsy dumps him, because of his awkward behavior. This is the catalyst for Travis to finally want to do something “important” and clean up the town. Cue Rocky training montage…
Throughout the movie, Travis keeps noticing this VERY young looking prostitute walking around named Iris, played by a 12 year old Jodie Foster. Travis decides he is going to save Iris from her troubling situation and buys her for a night to try and make a plan. He comes back the next night to get her, shoots her pimp, gets shot himself, but gets Iris out with a lot of cash he saved. Now you can view the ending in one of two ways:
1) Travis dies in a pool of blood that night, his last thoughts being a vision of him going back to driving his taxi, Iris back at home with her parents and in school, and Betsy is once again interested in him.
2) That actually happened. Which is the tone the movie is filmed. But it is such a perfect wish-fulfillment ending that I really have my doubts.
Take note: this is a Martin Scorsese movie. That means it’s gritty, well shot, interesting dialogue, and the content is often extreme. This is much more toned down than his modern films, but the blood and language are still there. I put this movie in between Pulp Fiction and Rambo, as far as language and violence. And if you haven’t seen those movies recently don’t assume you know.
I enjoyed this movie for the most part. I knew going into it that it was going to depict the slimy streets of 1970’s New York. This movie is an interesting dive into paranoia. The first half of the movie we hear Travis’ inner monologue describing his thoughts about what is going on around him. As the movie progresses it turns more into his manifesto.
What’s unique about this movie is that he isn’t depicted as a complete lunatic gone wrong. Travis is extremely perceptive and is correct about all that he sees; he isn’t a simple-minded man. It’s only when he starts to take on the vigilante motif where it becomes a problem. Though he very clearly detaches from reality to an extent, he remains smart, engaged with the people around him and only hoping to stop crime. It’s for that reason that I enjoyed the movie but would strongly recommend you keep this away from any depressed high school kids seeking to “noticed by the world.”
This movie gives you a view into what New York was before Rudy Giuiliani cleaned the place up in the 90s. It also helps explain most of David Letterman’s old opening monologues. Taxi Driver shows you a man that seems to break down under the pressure of person and societal failures. But this film could not exist anywhere or anytime other than 1970s New York. It’s very raw and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
Staring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner and Harvey Stephens. Directed by Richard Donner.
Right away I must confess I struggled to sit through this movie. I haven’t watch a single horror film in over 5 years. There were extenuating family circumstances that led me to a decision that we would no longer keep horror films in the house. And as I have gotten older I simply haven’t felt compelled to see anything of this genre in theaters. But during high school and several years after, I think horror aficionado would have been an accurate description of myself. We lived near a movie rental store and I had a goal one summer of seeing every single horror film they owned. And I was extremely close to that goal. To this day I remember most of what I saw. I don’t advise anything like that. So much darkness carried a weight to it that grew. Also, it changed my sensitivity to evil. Don’t let people fool you, watching horror movies doesn’t make you more sensitive to real life pain, it numbs you to it slowly.
I chose this movie because I think it reflects a lot of 70’s culture and cinema, from a more religious side. I know the expected choice would be The Exorcist but 1) I don’t want to watch that movie ever again and 2) that movie is more about frightening imagery. The Omen creates an atmosphere from which events become frightening.
The Omen stars Atticus Finch himself, Gregory Peck, as the adoptive father to Damien, a sweet little boy also happens to be The Anti-Christ. Through the help of an unsuspecting nanny and a mysteriously omnipresent black rottweiler, everyone around Damien is killed through strange circumstances. Convinced that his son truly is the Anti-Christ, Peck and photographer pal Jennings set off to find answers about Damien’s true origins and possibly how to stop him. When the time comes for the Peck to kill Damien he just can’t do it. The police walk in on the scene and shoot Peck dead. Damien lives to creep us out in two very disappointing sequels.
The true star of this movie needs praise and honor right away… Jerry Goldsmith. The music in this movie is scarier than any image the movie could produce. It’s scarier than The Exorcist, Amittyville Horror and Texas Chainsaw combined! This soundtrack creates a mood that is horrifying.
If you aren’t sure who Jerry Goldsmith is, he is to the Star Trek universe as John Williams is to the Star Wars Universe. Anything Star Trek (other than the original series), Rambo, or Alien was basically him. He is one of the great musical composers and really showed his talent here.
This movie is steeped in Roman Catholic religious/mystical lore. The second half of the movie turns into a kind of satanic National Treasure (not to be confused with The Da Vinci Code). They travel from London to Rome to Israel, looking for clues to Damien’s true parents. We see priests using crosses as though they were battling vampires and not the devil.
One thing that frustrates me as a Reformation-embracing Protestant is that Christianity in film is almost exclusively represented by Roman Catholicism. And it’s typically this magical version of Roman Catholicism. Whether or not that is truly accurate to their teachings… I’ll let them fight that battle. But as far as I can tell, the only time a movie depicts orthodox Christianity outside Roman Catholicism is Footloose. Now John Lithgow is amazing in that movie but as a Baptist I hope the only thing people in America know about my faith isn’t that I hate dancing and Kevin Bacon.
Gregory Peck gives a stoic and powerful performance. Despite appearing 20 years older than his wife and far too old to be a new father, his performance is great. All the actors do a great job in this film, even the Rottweilers that appear everywhere. Apparently sales for this dog spiked after this movie came out, which makes no sense to me. Basically the devil takes the form of a dog and people want to buy one?
Among some of the evils in this movie, the abortion topic comes up. This is to be expected as Rosemary’s baby (1968) dealt with the topic of a child being born of the devil and also brought up abortion. Also, as I mentioned when discussing the 70s in general, 1973 was when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in America. It stands to reason that three years later it would still be discussed. I was pleased to see that despite the wife’s request, Peck firmly said no and declared his intentions to protect his family. For a movie that was never going to be loved by the religious community, that would have been an easy direction to go in.
I don’t know that I could recommend this movie in good conscience. The quality of the movie is sound. The acting is powerful. The movie looks great for the time. And as I mentioned, the music evokes more than any scary images could ever dream of doing. The Omen has a well written story, a clear arc and an ending that has you in suspense. This movie does everything you could ask a movie to do and does it well.
But can’t I recommend a movie that will intentionally bring fear and dread to its viewers. And at the end sees the Anti-Christ passively defeat everyone around him? Well technically the Left Behind movies do the same. In that trilogy the Anti-Christ wins in the beginning, and the acting in that movie is sure to frighten anyone in the room. Also, by the end of the trilogy, all dark entities are defeated in a sub-par special effects extravaganza.
I’m going to withhold a solid yes or no and leave it to your own conscience. There are a couple graphic images that, though dated, are strong. There is some mild language but nothing that stands out. The quality of The Omen from a cinematic perspective is very high. So use discernment and decide what is best for you.
Thanks for joining me as I delve into the dark alleys of 70s cinema. Don’t forget to keep up with this entire series. We started with three important films from the 1960s.
Next I head to my favorite decade of all, the 1980s! Sadly most of my favorite films from then don’t deal with worldview issues. But there are some great choices. Next time I’ll be reviewing Mad Max 2, Rambo: First Blood and The Terminator. Three movies that I will be recommending! Come back and find out why.
If you have any questions about this post or want to talk more about the cinema of the 70s, leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Reviews by Ryan