Monday, August 29, 2011

The Best American Films of 1974


Every now and then, certain years have been remembered for the sheer number of excellent films released during those particular twelve months. Certainly the most celebrated year for Hollywood has been 1939, with films such as Stagecoach; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind gracing screens that year.

1962 was another memorable year, featuring The Manchurian Candidate; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Days of Wine and Roses; Lawrence of Arabia; The Miracle Worker; Birdman of Alcatraz and Freud. (Think of the great performances that year, from Peter O'Toole in Lawrence to Burt Lancaster and Telly Savalas in Birdman to Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in Wine and Roses to the Oscar winning turns of Gregory Peck in Mockingbird and Anne Bancroft in Miracle - a study of these performances would makes for a stimulating article.)

In this post, I want to focus on 1974, which featured a remarkable number of accomplished films. That was a particularly meaningful year for me, as I was 18 and had graduated from high school and entered college in the fall. I was seeing more movies all the time and what wonderful cinema I was able to experience that year! I've seen all of these films again recently - some for the first time since their original runs in theaters - and they have all held up extremely well. Some of these films are among the finest I have ever seen - so here's to 1974, a truly great year for American cinema.


Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
Polanski's masterpiece, a work that continued his theme of evil emerging in everyday surroundings. Working with Robert Towne's brilliant original script, Polanski focuses on how helpless private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson, in one of his most sublime performances) is while investigating curious activities at the Los Angeles Water Department of the late 1930s. John Huston plays a charming, but ruthless villian who reminds Gittes that "most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." All any of us can do in a world such as this, Polanski seems to be saying, is be aware that evil exists, so accept that fact and deal with it.

Polanski's contributors were clearly inspired by this film, as evidenced by the work of several key individuals, including John Alonzo with his remarkably lush cinematography, Sam O'Steen with his seamless editing, Richard Sylbert for his extraordinary production design, Anthea Sylbert for her memorable costumes and Jerry Goldsmith for his marvelous score, which is highlighted by one of his most hauntingly beautiful themes. This is a great film that has stood the test of time!

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
One of Coppola's two or three finest works (along with Apocalypse Now and Godfather Part ll -see below), this is a chilling film about several themes, including Big Brother as well as the loss of innocence. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an expert sound recorder and wiretapper, who is assigned to record a conversation between a man and a woman on a busy San Francisco street in the middle of the day. The opening scene, showing the technical difficulties of accomplishing this task, is beautifully directed and edited (the editing and sound production were brilliantly handled by Walter Murch). When Caul finally edits the tapes and assembles the conversation, he is shocked to hear of a possible murder, which brings back unpleasant memories for him.

Coppola told me in an interview more than a decade ago, that of all the films he has made, this is his favorite, largely because he wrote the film. Like Gittes in Chinatown, Caul is helpless here, as a murder takes place, giving him pause to wonder how responsible he is for this crime. The final scene in which he tears apart his apartment to find a bug that he believes is present to record his remarks (the bugger being bugged), is as mesmerizing an image as any in Coppola's work.

The Godfather, Part ll (Coppola)
While The Conversation was bleak, Coppola's other great film that year was lush and poetic, as he once again took on the task of documenting the story of the Corleone family. The film is beautifully organized into a prequel - Robert de Niro plays the young Vito Corleone - and a sequel, as we see how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) carries on the work of his father after his death. While not as shockingly violent as the first Godfather film, the violence here is just as swift and ruthless. Coppola's love of family - a common theme in his works - was never more heartfelt than in this film.

The Gambler (Karel Reisz)
A marvelous examination of the madness that affects certain people - that madness being gambling. James Caan portrays Axel Freed, a literature professor, who challenges his students to find everyday meaning in the works of famous authors and historical figures. Outside of class, however, Freed bets on basketball games- tens of thousands of dollars at a time - as well as at casinos. As he loses more, his actions naturally become more desperate; near the end of the film, he has to convince one of his students, a star on his school's basketball team, to do what he can to cover the spread on one particular game.

This is about as good as Caan ever was in films, giving a charming performance of a man who always believes that luck is on his side - until the end of the film, that is. Reisz directs this films without tricks (I counted one tracking shot in the entire movie), dealing with the various characters - good and bad - that deal with Freed on a regular basis. James Toback, who reportedly had a serious gambling problem of his own, wrote the screenplay, based on a short story by Dostoevsky. (Interestingly, there was another memorable film about the subject of gambling in 1974, California Split, directed by Robert Altman.)

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavettes)
Cassavettes never shied away from the difficulties of everyday life, a theme that was never better communicated than in this film. Mabel (Gena Rowlands), has a nervous breakdown and is committed by her husband Nick (Peter Falk); the film deals with their existence before and after this act. Falk is marvelous here; Cassavettes taps into the nervous tics and edgy voice mannerisms of the actor, while Rowlands is brilliant, delivering a hearbreaking performance of a woman who is deeply in love with her husband, but emotionally exhausted. Cassavettes keeps his camera on both of them for long speeches, letting us view their brittle relationship, whle noting their passion for each other. This is a brutally honest film that reminds us how good a writer and director Cassavettes truly was.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent)
Both a marvelous suspense film as well as a look at mid-1970s New York City, this is a wonderfully entertaining work. Four individuals hijack a subway train in New York and threaten to kill everyone on board unless their demand for $10 million is met in a matter of hours. Plots such as this have been the backbone of several films, but few have been as well constructed as this (how do you get ten million dollars out of the subway?). Performances across the board were excellent, especially by Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, the mastermind of the plot and Walter Matthau, as Transit Police Lieutenant Garber. Also worth noting is the edgy, driving score by David Shire. It's neat to watch this film today and see New York City from almost 40 years ago- it seems like an entirely different world.

F For Fake (Orson Welles)
This documentary from Welles is about reality, magic and swindlers; the director includes stories about famous art forgers as well as Clifford Irving, who convinced a famous publisher that his biography of Howard Hughes was authentic; soon afterwards it was proven that the book was a scam. Welles is seen at his editing table commenting on the various stories he presents; it's a neat trick, as editing lets the filmmaker alter reality - or present a fake, if you will. While a less important work from Welles than his earlier masterpieces, even a second-tier opus from Welles is more impressive than most films seen then or now.

Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman)
At the height of his powers, Altman gave us two excellent films in 1974: California Split, a wild look at gambling starring Elliot Gould and George Segal and this more subdued film about small-time crooks; I slightly preferred this work. Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine star as two lovers in this 1930s depression era piece. Carradine and his partners rob banks; one day Carradine meets Duvall during some down time for the gang and they celebrate a lovely affair, one that examines two real people with plenty of doubts, fears and dreams. Altman uses popular radio broadcasts of the day to comment on the action; in lesser hands, this might have come across as obtrusive and obvious, but here it is well done. There's plenty of quiet humor and irony and Altman just feels at home here with this story and his characters. A small gem from this director and one that's not as well remembered as many of his other works.

Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks could always write a wildly funny screenplay (as with The Producers or Blazing Saddles), but with this work, he gave us his most successful visual film as well. This is a loving tribute to the famed Univeral Studios horror films of the 1930s (this is also filmed in beautiful black and white), Young Frankenstein is a success on its own, thanks to the sweet nature of the film as well as the marvelous ensemble acting, especially from Gene Wilder (who also co-wrote the screenplay); Marty Feldman; Peter Boyle (hilarious as the monster); Teri Garr; Cloris Leachman and even Gene Hackman (in a great cameo). It's a shame that Brooks, while continuing to make funny films for another decade, never put as much love and care into his other works as he did with this classic comedy.

Lenny (Bob Fosse)
After his great success with Cabaret  in 1972, Bob Fosse went in an entirely different direction with this film, a biography of the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. Fosse moves from the inner workings at small comedy clubs to the fame and notoriety of Bruce's career including his relationship with his wife Honey, played affectionately by Valerie Perrine. Clearly influenced by Orson Welles' storytelling approach with Citizen Kane, Fosse, gives us tape recording glimpses into the smallest details of Bruce's personal details.  A particularly mesmerizing scene occurs late in the film when Bruce (a great performance by Dustin Hoffman, who has rarely been better), breaks down in a nightclub, when trying to perform his act without breaking any obscenity laws. Beautifully photographed in high contrast black and white by Bruce Surtees, Lenny is a dazzling film to watch. You do note the director at work in this film, but here, I think Fosse's influence is necessary to give additional meaning to the historical nature of this film.