February 28, 1999
The Spirit of '74 Lives On
Commentary: A quarter-century later, the year stands out as a
pinnacle of daring, diverse work.
By BILL DESOWITZ
Twenty-five years ago, the country was in the grips of the Watergate
hearings, an economic slump and the last vestiges of the Vietnam War.
But the films we saw on the big screen in 1974 were anything but
diversionary--they were revelatory.
Michael Corleone gained a powerful Mafia kingdom but lost love,
loyalty and family in "The Godfather Part II,"; private eye J.J.
Gittes uncovered an incestuous political scandal of biblical
proportions in "Chinatown"; and surveillance wizard Harry Caul
created his own voyeuristic trap in deconstructing a murderous plot
in "The Conversation."
And that's just the Big Three from 1974. There's a slew of other
film pleasures from that astonishing year, so daring and diverse that
one is hard-pressed to find its equal over the past three decades.
Among the others: "Lenny," "Harry and Tonto," "A Woman Under the
Influence," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Blazing Saddles,"
"Young Frankenstein," "Murder on the Orient Express," "The Parallax
View," "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "Thieves Like Us," "The
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," "The Longest Yard," "Thunderbolt
and Lightfoot" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."
Of course, not everything was so good. "Daisy Miller" didn't
live up to its potential, breaking Peter Bogdanovich's auspicious
streak of critical favorites ("The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon").
And let's not forget those kitschy "shake and bake" twins of disaster
and destruction, "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno." Yet in
their own way they too captured a painful reality of broken dreams.
"As with wines, there are vintage years for films because of
their significance," says Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning
screenwriter of "Chinatown." "It's true of '39, '40, '46 and '74.
"Whatever the quality that history decides, the consistent level
of ambition was higher [in the '70s]. . . . Filmmakers thought people
would see movies more relevant to their lives and problems than
today. Their assumption was that their taste was similar to that of
Yet even then no one was quite prepared for the boldness of "The
Godfather Part II." Francis Ford Coppola somehow managed to exceed
the brilliance of "The Godfather"--"a romance about a king and three
sons," as he once put it--by masterfully jumping back and forth in
time to juxtapose a father's ascension and a son's destruction.
These two compelling stories coalesced into a complex narrative
about America's past and future. Robert De Niro (in his assured
Oscar-winning performance) as the young Vito Corleone rises to
success as the don of New York's Little Italy in the early 20th
century, thinking only of his family's future. Al Pacino as Michael
(never better, with his slow-burning, introverted horror) ruthlessly
tries to recapture his father's success by venturing into Las Vegas
and later Cuba in the late 1950s.
The film's somber, gothic tableaux reveal the seduction of power
and ambition, and the inevitability of evil and paranoia.
But then darkness and dysfunction encompassed so many films that
year. In "The Conversation," Coppola's smaller, more intimate work,
Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, the archetypal techie, obsessive to a
fault. (In last year's hit "Enemy of the State," Hackman plays a
character that's like Harry, only 20 years older; in fact, a photo of
Hackman from "The Conversation" is used in "Enemy.")
What makes Harry so interesting is his own desperate need for
privacy. The irony really kicks in, though, as he tries to decipher
what he's heard, becoming less certain of what it means, with the
conspiracy seemingly closing in on him. Coppola's warning couldn't
have been more prescient: Our reliance on high-tech toys confuses
rather than clarifies our perceptions.
There were plenty of other conspiracy films to go around in
1974, including the political assassination underlying Alan Pakula's
"The Parallax View," and the ritualistic murder at the heart of
"Murder on the Orient Express," the lavish Agatha Christie adaptation
directed by Sidney Lumet with a wicked sensibility.
Of course, the jewel in the crown was "Chinatown," an
allegorical mystery for the ages, now considered a modern
masterpiece. Doing Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler one better,
Towne achieved a continuity of corruption that helped explain the
mess we were in. Lucky for us he found such a fresh and daring
scandal from L.A's past that we could relate to: the rapacious thirst
for land, water, power and sex.
Written with elegant intricacy by the L.A. native and directed
with narrative precision by Polish emigre Roman Polanski, "Chinatown"
exquisitely captures the powerlessness of going up against a corrupt
establishment. Jack Nicholson widened his appeal as the tarnished
detective, the classic counterculture hipster who can't quite talk
his way out of everything.
"As I've looked at 'Chinatown' over the years, my preconceived
notions tend to evaporate," Towne says of his turbulent collaboration
with Polanski. "It's a very complicated story that actually holds
together. It's the only detective movie I can think of that doesn't
break the detective's point of view. It plays fair with the audience
"I see Roman's strengths more clearly, and I see things about my
work more clearly. You remember what you first loved about it."
Towne says the studios were more open to daring projects, as
long as they were relevant and interesting, in the '70s. "Executives
responded more viscerally back then," he explains. "Robert Evans
[Paramount production-head-turned-producer] felt 'Chinatown' more
than he comprehended it. Executives didn't consult so many people. .
. . In other words, the sharks left you alone if you fed them."
This gave filmmakers the freedom to ruminate about darkness and
dysfunction, but they did it indirectly through metaphor and subtext.
Nowadays, according to Towne, too many films seem to be about
darkness and dysfunction for their own sake.
He points to a critical moment from "The Godfather Part II,"
emblematic of the film's rich metaphor and subtext: Vito Corleone's
first murder. "When he shoots [the don of Little Italy], the Black
Hand, and we see that flickering light in the hallway, it shows how
Vito has sold his soul to save the life of his child," he suggests.
"Then when he holds Michael in his arms, we realize he will become an
extension of his father, and that the sins of the father will be
visited on the children."
Another legendary '70s director, John Cassavetes, thrived on
depicting unpredictable, volatile emotional outbursts in his films.
"A Woman Under the Influence" was tour de force Cassavetes.
Gena Rowlands, one of the decade's most incisive actresses,
plays a housewife suffering from a nervous breakdown neither she nor
distant her husband (Peter Falk) understands. She's dazed and
confused about her needs and desires; he's preoccupied with his
blue-collar job and buddies. They constantly communicate at
cross-purposes, offering subtle clues into their behavior.
By contrast, Martin Scorsese conjures a lot more artifice in
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar for her
sensitive portrayal of a widow's struggle to pursue her dream as a
torch singer with young son in tow--an odyssey fraught with sorrow
Paul Mazursky's wistful comedy "Harry and Tonto" is an odyssey
without compromise. Oscar winner Art Carney plays a feisty widower
fed up with New York who hits the road with his darling feline
companion. Everyone he encounters is dysfunctional, including his
family. He's left with the adventurous notion that he'd rather stay
on the road than settle for disillusionment.
When it came to comedy, Mel Brooks was the king in '74 with both
"Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein." He proved the time was
ripe for hip movie parodies with a social conscience whether the
subject was westerns or horror flicks.
Whatever was responsible for such an exhilarating cinematic
spurt in the early '70s, it started to dissipate after the coming of
"Jaws" in 1975. The Steven Spielberg blockbuster changed everything.
Then came "Star Wars" in 1977, and the rest is history.
Which makes the memories of the cinematic class of '74 all that
much brighter. Recalls Towne: "There was a spontaneity and a
swiftness; all the creative energy was directed at making the movie."
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Bill Desowitz Is a Regular Contributor to Calendar