Many people are nostalgic for ‘70s cinema, even those who didn’t live through it the first time. Contrary to popular wisdom, every ‘70s movie isn’t a classic, but some ‘70s movies are more ‘70s than others. It’s something about the sweat, the grain, the cynical tone, the sense of exploring new narrative by-ways and styles for kicks, or with the idea that this might somehow be important.
Then, of course, you have the lapels, the aftershave, the sideburns, and the discovery of nudity. Here’s a handy guide to a baker’s dozen of the increasing flood of Blu-ray releases from that era.
Dog Day Afternoon
What it is. Based on the true incident of a loose cannon (played by Al Pacino) who staged a botched bank robbery to raise money for his lover’s sex change, leading to a media circus. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this is a celebrated classic of New York realism: gritty, sweaty, funny, rowdy, manic, suspenseful, and redolent of its cultural moment. If a classic reflects its era while gaining resonance over time instead of getting dated, this movie deserves its induction into the National Film Registry.
Where it’s at. This 40th Anniversary Blu-ray includes Lumet’s commentary and making-of material. Insightfully, a second disc offers I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, an acclaimed 2009 feature about Pacino’s co-star, along with a short film starring Cazale and another shot by him. You can create a perfect triple-feature by adding another documentary, The Dog (2013), a surprising, entertaining profile of the real-life robber.
Cotton Comes to Harlem
What it is. Harlem cops Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge, natty with moustache) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques, tall with scowl) drive and blast their way through a broad, loose, comic plot populated by stereotypes: the slick preacher (Calvin Lockhart) who cheats “his own people”, the flashy pimps, the scrappy ho’s, the winos, the uptight church women, the petty criminals, the angry Panthers, and even the goofy white boy. This hit proved a harbinger of more cartoonish blaxploitation. Redd Foxx has a role not a million miles from Sanford and Son.
Where it’s at. It may seem odd for progressive actor-director Ossie Davis to helm this material, which he co-wrote from Chester Himes’ novel; co-scripter Arnold Perl wrote the famous East Side, West Side episode “Who Do You Kill” (starring Cambridge) and would make the doc Malcolm X (1972). In 1970 it felt refreshing to put this raucous spin on a stale genre and actually shoot in Harlem, including a climax at the Apollo Theatre where a phony leader debases himself (copied that year in an episode of The Name of the Game with Yaphet Kotto and Max Julien). The song score by Galt McDermot (Hair ) opens with Melba Moore’s beautiful “Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be”, with lyrics by Davis.
“They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!”
What it is. Sidney Poitier reprises his role as homicide detective Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night. Although named after dialogue from that Mississippi-set film, this entry takes place in his racially integrated San Francisco Police Department. He investigates the murder of a prostitute who’s connected with a preacher (Martin Landau) leading a political crusade defined by vague homilies. Barbara McNair plays Tibb’s perfect housewife, and the image of their middle-class home is part of the quietly progressive message. Edward Asner, Anthony Zerbe, Jeff Corey, Norma Crane and Juano Hernandez lend support, and Beverly Todd stands out as a hooker.
Where it’s at. After a “psychedelic” sequence defined by flashes of color and breast, the plot settles into a straightforward procedural pegged on a car chase, a foot chase, and a couple of two-fisted dust-ups to keep us awake. As directed by Gordon Douglas, it looks like the era’s TV, set in a world where cops can kill a guy and get on with the job. This sequel doesn’t exploit racially charged elements like the first movie, although Tibbs gets to punch a couple of white goons. He also slaps his son. Quincy Jones’ score is funky as hell. Since this came out the same year as Cotton Comes to Harlem, it’s clear that Virgil Tibbs is the secret kickstarter of blaxploitation.
What it is. Sidney Poitier’s final outing as Virgil Tibbs employs the same chases and fights to rev up the action, but the central story is more ingenious: a group of urban guerillas get in over their heads when they take on an international drug ring hiding behind respectable businesses. This idea is based on the same true-life ring that inspired The French Connection, which was released less than two weeks earlier and totally overshadowed this movie.
Where it’s at. From a nearly wordless 12-minute pre-credit hijack to a very 70s downbeat ending, this is a solid effort that channels the era’s funk (dig Gil Melle’s score), the mistrust of authorities and corporations, and a gallery of familiar TV faces (with young Raul Julia) into a satisfying example of 70s noir. One of only two real features from excellent pioneering TV director Don Medford, it moves.
What it is. Rock Hudson plays Soldier, a G.I. dropped into Italy to blow up a dam in WWII. He leads a gang of angry boys whose entire village has been massacred by the Germans. Sylva Koscina plays a gorgeous doctor kidnapped to help them, and possibly raped by Soldier. A rough story full of death and explosions, scored by Ennio Morricone with a boyish whistling theme and a mournful theme. Although the mission is a success, the final tone is tragic and anti-triumphal. Its morally tainted anti-heroes seem intended to evoke a sour contemporary resonance with the Vietnam era.
Where it’s at. “No children allowed unless accompanied by a machine gun” is a line from the trailer, which exploits the concept of children as killers. This post-Dirty Dozen adventure signals an era when increasingly graphic violence and cruelty marked “realism” or simply sadism, and will remind viewers of spaghetti westerns (it was shot in Italy with some direction by Franco Cirino), The Wild Bunch and The Cowboys. Director Phil Karlson, known for including as much brutality as he could get away with, would soon have a hit with Walking Tall.