The Spirit of ’74 Lives On

Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

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 the audience.”

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 that way.

“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 and compromise.

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.”