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.
What it is. Mustached and freak-haired Elliott Gould teams with pre-Baretta Robert Blake in a police procedural about smart-aleck, rule-breaking, hot-dogging Los Angeles vice cops whose attempts to bring down a crime boss (Allen Garfield) are thwarted by a corrupt system. The gritty ’70s cynicism leaves plenty of time for public shoot-outs and a climactic chase scored with Billy Goldenberg’s cop-show funk. This Blu-ray remasters and expands on a previous on-demand DVD-R.
Where it’s at. Peter Hyams states in his desultory commentary that all incidents in his writer-director debut “really happened” and are taken from interviews. His exciting visual style tracks ahead of his characters, even in chases through real locations, such as the big setpiece in an open-air market. There’s also a brawl in a gay bar (with Antonio Fargas as a belligerent biter) that shows how such places were routinely rousted; Hyams says he cleared the script with a gay alliance who participated in the scene and later complained about it; guys kissing and dancing may have been shocking to 1974 audiences, but they’re presented frankly and it literalizes the homo-erotic undercurrent of the cop buddies. There’s also limited commentary from Gould.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
What it is. “Sitting Bull says history is nothing but disrespect for the dead.” In 1885, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is a tatty spectacle that exploits “history” as legend for his own glorious myth, and Bill’s latest idea is to exhibit the famous Sioux chief. Robert Altman’s trademark bustle among many characters, co-scripted with Alan Rudolph and “suggested” by Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, finds room for Paul Newman, Geraldine Chaplin (as Annie Oakley), Burt Lancaster, Joel Grey, Harvey Keitel and Kevin McCarthy, with Pat McCormick and Shelley Duvall as President and Mrs. Cleveland.
Where it’s at. Calling this one of Robert Altman’s minor ’70s efforts is only to say it’s not a masterpiece, but this film about crass hucksters (extending to politics) lacks the spark that would lift its sour glimpse of “the show business”. That said, scenes with small Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) and his huge interpreter (Will Sampson) have life and wit, underlining that they’re show-stealers from the others’ empty parades. Some shots have an out-of-focus smudge at the bottom center of the image or to the right–a flaw in the original photography? Unimportant extras are the trailer and a vintage promo film.
Welcome to L.A.
What it is. Several jaded, neurotic or whimsical characters criss-cross in the Los Angeles music world. Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman, Sissy Spacek, Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, Viveca Lindfors, Lauren Hutton, Denver Pyle and singer-songwriter Richard Baskin are among those present. Chaplin’s character is possibly the best conceived, especially when she speaks to the camera, while Spacek provides the sight of housecleaning topless while wearing slacks that match the wallpaper.
Where it’s at. With its restless, insistent camera and musical interludes tying together many open-ended plotlines, Alan Rudolph’s film has much in common with those of its producer, Robert Altman, while also claiming Rudolph’s quirky territory of lost souls seeking love. This Blu-ray upgrades a previous on-demand DVD-R release.
Figures in a Landscape
What it is. A tough middle-aged lout (Robert Shaw, who scripted) and a young man (Malcolm McDowell, fresh from symbolizing rebellious youth in If but not yet icon-ified in A Clockwork Orange ) flee across rocky, hilly, rural terrain pursued by soldiers and a helicopter as they make for the mountain border. Their odyssey is brutal, violent and on the verge of surreal, with the quasi-enemies exposing their fears and flaws while working together against a large, godlike, faceless foe.
Where it’s at. Joseph Losey caps his series of ’60s enigmas with a straightforward action piece that never explains the set-up, which might involve ordinary criminals or military prisoners or even spies in what’s evidently Franco’s Spain (where it’s filmed). Thus, the adventure is pared down to the elemental and existential: men in nature, men in war, men in uneasy alliance, like The Defiant Ones meets Waiting for Godot. Attentive to textures, the photography situates its men as specimens in space according to Losey’s predilections, alternating the beautiful and indifferent with the majestic and menacing. The burning climax can’t help reminding viewers of Vietnam imagery. Richard Rodney Bennet’s music is modernist jangling dissonance, employed sparely but effectively.
What it is. When he died at age 31, silent film star Rudolph Valentino became the first 20th Century superstar to create an enduring sensation by dying at the height of his fame, leading to riots and suicides surrounding his funeral. This film uses that media circus for flashbacks of the actor’s life from the memories of several women, played by Leslie Caron, Michelle Phillips, Carol Kane and Felicity Kendal. Rudolph Nureyev gives a committed and graceful performance as the central enigma. The result is a glittering collage in which overstatement masks the subtleties–not unlike its hero.
Where it’s at. The typically off-kilter biopic from Ken Russell isn’t one of his best or most extravagant of the decade, though it still parades eye-popping glamour, camp, and his sometimes aggressive and beloved tastelessness. Nureyev’s impressive talent is obvious in the Sheik scene, for this is a film of equal opportunity nudity. In a well-researched and generous commentary, critic Tim Lucas gives a convincing plea for its overlooked status and compares the film with reality and other Russell titles. Extras include Valentino footage and remarks by Orson Welles.
The Complete Lady Snowblood
What it is. Based on a Japanese comic, Lady Snowblood and its sequel follow a cold, relentless, bruised beauty (Meiko Kaji), trained since childhood in the brutal arts of assassination, as she cuts a swath through the society that created her in early 20th Century Japan. Still jaw-dropping after 40 years and a clear influence on the many later rogue hitman and hitwoman films and TV shows.
Where it’s at. Now this is how to make an eye-popping, ultra-violent, feminist-slanted, delirious widescreen revenge melodrama. It works as pulp, as pop art, and as electrifiying, resonant critique. This is one of the cornerstone inspirations for Kill Bill, and Quentin Tarantino would be the first to tell you there’s nothing like going back to the classics. The only extras are interviews with the writers. It would be best if each film were on its own disc, but the 2K digital restorations still look great.