The 1970s Also-Rans – 25 That Missed the Cut
Justifications, recommendations, and considerations. This is an alphabetical list of 25 films not included in my forthcoming Top 50 of 1970′s. Some things you’ve seen, some you may not have. I’ll repeat this when the main list is posted, but I made an intentional effort to be entirely subjective this time, leaving several of the usual suspects off and a few more in this group of also-rans. These 25 were not submitted in any way for my entry in the Lists Project and, thus, are just detailed here for fun. The 50 that did make it should be up on Sunday June 1. Happy reading and watching.
Badlands (Malick, 1973) – Film enthusiast heresy, but after not caring much for Days of Heaven I was pleased to discover how good of a film Badlands is. The substance I craved in Malick’s later film was more pronounced in his debut. That’s not to say it’s teeming with ideas. I get that same emotional disconnect from Malick as I often do from Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Herzog and a few other well-respected directors. There’s usually at least one film tucked away in the filmography of each that I do appreciate, and this is it.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974) – Mlles. Celine and Julie do indeed go boating, but it takes three hours of whimsical nonsense before their brief nautical adventure. Rivette’s film is so incredibly unorthodox, yet original and admirable, that it’s difficult to grasp even the most tentative of handles on it after just one viewing. Shiny jewels of dinosaur eye candy transport the main characters into participants of a melodramatic, tonally opposite movie from the previous hour or more. Strange is putting it mildly and I do think, even with Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier, that the film within the film drags on too long with unnecessary repetition. Otherwise, this probably would have made my main list. (I know admirers love to rhapsodize about the Alice in Wonderland, free form nature, but I’m not there yet.)
Charley Varrick (Siegel, 1973) – Follow-up to Dirty Harry for Don Siegel and, in my estimation, vastly superior. I wish Walter Matthau had more roles like his title character here and the transit cop he played in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (both films are treated poorly on DVD). His Varrick is one of Matthau’s classic protagonists – cool, collected and smarter than he seems. The only misstep in the plot is why in the world Felicia Farr’s character would sleep with Varrick. It’s worth overlooking, though. Surely Cormac McCarthy had this film in mind while writing No Country for Old Men.
Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973) – Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The color red. Venice. Nicolas Roeg’s chaotically inspired editing. A creepy gnomish woman. There’s enough imagery to fill half a dozen movies here. It defies genre, working as a film about coping with losing a child, a crumbling marriage and a meditation on the supernatural all at once. The cinematography is gorgeous, one of the very few instances where the Italian city is done justice in an English language film. Despite all that, I’ve never completely broken through to the side of those who unapologetically worship Roeg and his work.
Emperor of the North Pole (Aldrich, 1973) – Excellent Depression-era film that’s far less known than it should be, released without the “Pole” in its title. Lee Marvin is A No. 1, a hobo known far and wide as being able to stow away on any train, but put to the test by Ernest Borgnine’s sadistic rail man Shack. Easily read as allegorical, but also quite entertaining merely for Marvin, the cinematography, and the story. Keith Carradine is, typically, a hindrance and annoying. Part of a strong late-career surge from Aldrich.
Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, 1975) – Fox and His Friends can be disheartening, mostly because Fox is a character whose disappointment is apparent from very early on and there’s little sympathy to be found, but it remains a powerful experience. Fassbinder directs and plays Fox, a former carnival worker who finally wins the lottery and soon has his fortune spent by a “posh and prissy” lover. I’m never ready to watch a Fassbinder film and I usually have a difficult time getting over the experience. Fox and His Friends is exceptional because Fassbinder never hides the impending doom for his main character, but the viewer still feels almost violated for the harsh treatment afforded the protagonist, regardless of how simpleminded and shortsighted he is. Really an outstanding film that rises far above its limitations.
Gimme Shelter (Maysles, et al., 1970) – The music is one thing, but the human drama is something else entirely. As just a concert film, this is still completely entertaining. But as a chronicle of chaos, Gimme Shelter lives up to its name. Not too many films feature an actual murder captured on camera as their centerpiece. There’s no good reason this failed to rank highly in my actual list. It’s nearly flawless. I just had to bump something and took this out because, even with the musical performances, it’s not something I can watch with any frequency.
Harry and Tonto (Mazursky, 1974) – There’s a really sweet movie about an older man and his cat waiting inside here. Paul Mazursky, one of those semi-great writer/directors whose career never reached the same heights after the ’70s, gave Art Carney an excellent role and the actor responded by somehow winning the Oscar (over chumps like Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman, and Finney, all in prime roles). I like this one because it never overdoes the schmaltz and seems to know exactly what it is without trying to be anything more or less. Carney was able to turn his renewed interest into pretty good, but unsung pictures like The Late Show and Going in Style.
Images (Altman, 1972) – Inspired in part by Bergman’s Persona, Altman uncharacteristically explored a woman’s battle with schizophrenia while she’s in the country with her husband. Susannah York is unnervingly effective and the entire atmosphere Altman establishes is that of a psychological ghost story. I was surprised by how much I was drawn in to this film and it’s a credit to Altman that the influence of Persona is noticeable without being overwhelming, similar to what he’d do with 3 Women a few years later.
Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972) – I feel like I should somehow justify both liking this film very much and excluding it from my top 50. I can’t do that. There are only 50 slots and I didn’t have room, but I’ve always loved this film and McQueen’s performance especially. One thing that’s particularly annoying is that it was shot in Scope but the DVD isn’t anamorphic, thus making it difficult to really appreciate what you’re seeing. Piling on, I first saw it pan and scan off television years ago. If I had the chance to see a theatrical print, my opinion would no doubt jump considerably.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976) – Ben Gazzara is an actor who’s always interesting to watch. Aside from the Cassavetes’ films, he’s also superb in Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed (and possibly Saint Jack, but I haven’t seen that yet). Here he plays that kind of sad, fatalistic masculinity that I tend to gravitate towards. Criterion’s Cassavetes set contains two notably different versions of the film – one at 135 minutes and the other at 108 minutes. In some ways, having the separate edits makes it more difficult deciding whether to include the film.
The Last Detail (Ashby, 1973) – A great Nicholson performance (iconic, even) that was smack in the middle of a very exciting time to watch the actor. Randy Quaid is quite good here also. Hal Ashby at this point had directed only The Landlord and Harold and Maude, but this is a more serious film, with an even greater sense of disillusioned meandering. I prefer both of those earlier movies, but The Last Detail is special for other reasons. That constant rejection of conformity found in Ashby’s work rises to the surface and gets its true embodiment from Nicholson, an actor seemingly finding new ways of playing anti-establishment figures with every role at this point. The military nature of the lead characters gives them a sense of implied authority that’s flat-out repudiated in the film.
Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci, 1973) – More heresy, but this is the only time I’ve ever really been impressed watching Marlon Brando as an actor. I see the brilliance elsewhere, but it still always feels like emoting to the point of ridiculousness. This is different. This is real, it’s raw, and it’s painfully realized. Bertolucci’s film is also exceptional, if shaky at times, but it’s impossible to separate Brando’s performance from the whole. With Bertolucci you should always expect something scandalous so the broad sexuality didn’t affect me, but Brando here is truly iconic.
M*A*S*H (Altman, 1970) – Altman’s most popular film, and really the one he owed his career to, probably isn’t even in his top ten in terms of achievement, but I do like it all the same. Of course, the movie is also paled by the television show, though they are different animals. Regardless, I enjoy watching M*A*S*H for several reasons – it’s so obviously about Vietnam instead of Korea; the football game; Gould and Sutherland; the final loudspeaker announcement (spoken by Altman).
Maîtresse (Schroeder, 1976) – There’s a scene in this film that’s literally painful to watch for males. Some might add that the whole thing is painful to watch, but I was fascinated by Schroeder’s storytelling and the performances. Something about it (besides Bulle Ogier) is hypnotic, like a really well-made teenage sex comedy that’s removed the problems inherent in that subgenre. Gerard Depardieu is at his oafish best and Ogier is remarkable. Not everyone’s cup of tea (and I’m a little surprised at my own reaction), but just an enormously engrossing film.
Mikey & Nicky (May, 1976) – Seeing Peter Falk and John Cassavetes together is itself a treat. Watching how their relationship, let’s say, evolves over the course of this film carries a somewhat slow, yet involving, picture into an unforgettable indictment of friendship amidst the mob. Director Elaine May shot an almost inconceivable amount of film for this movie, which now seems like an omen for her doomed Ishtar. It’s speculated that Cassavetes directed much of this himself, but I don’t think it matters really. It does feels somewhat like one of his films (especially Chinese Bookie), though May was no slouch either.
Monsieur Klein (Losey, 1976) – Exceptionally compelling film about a French art dealer profiting from Jews selling their paintings during the German occupation who gets mistaken for a man of the same name who’s Jewish. One of Alain Delon’s best performances and impressive direction from Joseph Losey. I saw this in preparation for the last ’70s list, and I placed it on there, but I haven’t watched it since. I wish I’d had the chance to see it again this time around, as it’s a film which benefits from a second viewing.
Night Moves (Penn, 1975) – There’s a mood established in Night Moves by Arthur Penn, screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gene Hackman. It’s difficult to succinctly characterize, but you can feel it just by watching Hackman. It’s a great neonoir performance, in nice contrast to his Popeye Doyle and Harry Caul. The rest of the cast, populated by obnoxious and inferior actors, nearly bring down the picture for me, though. The other ingredients are there, but the couple of times I’ve watched it there seems like something’s missing. I usually end wanting to like Night Moves more than I do, which is still a considerable amount.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) – The first time I saw this film it had a profound impact on me. The next time it was much less affecting. Whether this has more to do with the film or the viewer, I can’t say. I’m not crazy about the final scenes so maybe that’s the cause. They feel rushed, jumbled, and their impact doesn’t hold up for me on multiple viewings. That said, the majority of the film, especially Nicholson’s strong anti-authority performance, remains rewarding and I do think this is one of the great tragicomedies of the decade.
The Phantom of Liberty (Buñuel, 1974) – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is the more popular choice, but I think I prefer his follow-up. Sure it’s largely a thematic sequel that’s even looser in its narrative, but The Phantom of Liberty bites a little harder. You can almost see Buñuel grinning behind the curtain. The “missing” little school girl bit is inspired madness. And the sniper. And the toilets. And the dominatrix. After The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm, I’d say this was the perfect culmination of the director’s “search for truth” triptych.
Small Change (Truffaut, 1976) – Largely plotless, this is a beautiful example of a small movie that’s completely dialed down and perpetually rewarding. Truffaut looks at a group of young school children and their everyday lives both at home and in class. Simple, yet not really. The director’s keen ability to draw excellent performances from children is on full display here. A delightful film that exceeds expectations.
The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973) – Though they’re two very different films by two separate filmmakers, this and Cría cuervos share Ana Torrent and thus seem instantly comparable. I think most people prefer Erice’s film for its gothic difficulty and overtly political subtext, though I’m on the other side of the fence. The Spirit of the Beehive remains a unique, potentially shattering experience that I found a bit difficult to embrace fully without a good basis in Franco and the Spanish Civil War. That’s not to deny how affecting the film can be and the subtle rewards that await repeat viewers.
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) – Extreme conflict for this viewer between a charismatically unsettling film and a character in Travis Bickle who just doesn’t work for me. Even reading others’ thoughts and watching interviews, I can’t see him as this universal avatar of loneliness. I can’t identify or understand Bickle, and I do not find him particularly interesting on screen. Setting that significant barrier aside, Taxi Driver remains a deeply engrossing, impeccably atmospheric look at a blank enigma shrouded in the filth of urban decay. I can recognize the fascination and it’s an entirely compelling film, but I want no part of Travis Bickle. I see no sympathetic qualities, only sympathetic treatment done brilliantly.
The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff, 1979) – Another film that I found completely engrossing (my enjoyment of the German language probably helped). A little Felliniesque perhaps, which is a positive. Not having read Günter Grass’ novel, I had no preconceptions going in, just that it had won the Foreign Language Academy Award and a controversy erupted later on. I do think the material we see on screen is handled well by Schlöndorff, whose first film Young Törless I also enjoyed a great deal. The young actor who plays Oskar really seals the deal, though. At times annoying, but always fascinating, his presence is vital to the film’s success.
Young Frankenstein (Brooks, 1974) – How did I leave this out?!? I feel guilty about all these also-rans, like I’ve somehow slighted their worth. Silly. If I’d had the opportunity to watch Brooks’ film more recently it might have eked onto the main list, but only so many hours in the day and so forth. There’s a wealth of things worth loving about this film. The acting is uniformly perfect, with everyone from Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle to Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn giving the kind of performance actors immediately become associated with their entire career and beyond. That’s not even mentioning Teri Garr. Or Gene Hackman’s blind man cameo. The “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number. Too much to love. Can’t say I’m a fan of the Broadwayization that Brooks has signed off on.