It was the first year in a disbanded Beatles world. The Summer of Love had been and gone. Nixon was up to his old tricks, and he was soon to be found out again. Troops were still being shipped out, however reluctantly, to the South China Sea. It was a disruptive, chaotic and bewildering time for society, and I’ve always been fascinated by this period, because as the saying goes life imitates art and the art we were privy to in 1971 was the greatest, darkest imitation of them all.
There was something in the water fifty years ago because a swathe of films with powerful, cynical narratives were released in that time period. The tail end of the studio system, compounded by the wave of destruction caused by the prominence of television, meant a host of artists, beatniks and individualists were left standing in the wreckage and took advantage of this lull in activity to really say something. They took risks, with gritty, hard-hitting works inspired by their European counterparts who had been taking chances since Mussolini was in power. And while mainstream audiences had already been primed for this shift with revolutionary counter-culture movements like Easy Rider, seventies movies were of a far darker and nuanced pedigree centered around cynicism, fear, underworlds and seediness. Set against the backdrop of this new cultural shift, it represented the briefest moments in Hollywood when creativity could reign supreme unencumbered by censorship constraints, imposed either legislatively or socially. The artists had taken back the reins, however briefly from studio heads who were rear their heads again by the end of the decade; but for the time being the inmates were running the asylum.
Cynicism was alluring
People tend to look back on history fondly, or with a certain rose-tinted element as if to say that it was a chronological improvement as time passed. Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show highlights how change has been minimal, glacial at best, and prospects were just as dire then as they had been 20 years previous. ‘Anarene, Texas, 1951 – nothing much has changed,’ is the tagline and that misanthropic view of the world is rife throughout the film that centres on the happenings of a small town. This cynical outlook was alluring to young artists like Bogdanavich, because in many ways this film begins at the end, starting on the day troops were first sent to the Korean peninsula. The town is mourning the loss of Sam the Lion’s town picture show, the central heart around which the town had revolved up until that point. These final days of the picture show signalled a new era that sneered at its predecessor rather than welcoming it, and that sense of hopelessness is reflected in its characters. Many call it a coming of age story with baby-faced Cybil Shepherd and Jeff Bridges leading the pack, but stalwarts like Ellen Burstyn play a huge part in reinforcing how at any age, you can be at sea.
Nothing much has changed
Anarene, Texas, 1951
Another film which dealt with that cynical outlook through blinding realism is The Panic in Needle Park, a long-forgotten film that put Al Pacino on the map. ‘God Help Bobby and Helen. They’re in love, in Needle Park,’ reads the film’s poster setting you up for a sobering watch of Pacino and his co-star Kitty Winn, falling desperately into the depths of heroin addiction in New York City. Both in love, but neither ever on the same track, it charts a relationship with all its peaks and troughs accelerated by the illness of addiction. With a demanding $80 a day habit, it underscores the rawness and helplessness that artists poignantly show on screen.
God Help Bobby and Helen. They’re in love in Needle Park
Show me the underworld
Another theme artists were keen to explore were seedy, corrupt underworlds that hadn’t up to that point been shown in all their ugliness on screen. We were presented with that in films like Klute, The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange as they all dealt with their own underworlds in their own way. Klute is a delicate watch, set at a rhythmic pace by the director, Alan J. Pakula. Jane Fonda plays a self aware and righteous call girl Bree, who becomes entangled with Donald Sutherland’s PI John Klute who is looking for a missing person of which he believes was once one of Bree’s johns. Roger Ebert remarked on its release that Klute should really have been called Bree, given Fonda’s tremendous performance and he’s not wrong. The missing person’s killer terrorises Fonda’s character throughout the film, sending obscene letters and ominous phone calls. There’s a terrifying anxiety throughout that Pakula builds up, making you feel just as alone and isolated as Bree in her apartment that appears to literally be closing in on her.
And of course how could we forget, the now renowned classic for a then relatively unknown British director Stanley Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange who knew anxiety and claustrophobia like the back of his hand. Truthfully, it’s a nightmare of a film, a trippy, primal and unhinged piece of work that leaves you restless by the end credits. Ultimately one can choose to view Clockwork however seriously or amusingly you like, but it’s undeniable how it spoke to the real anxieties we feel in a Dostoyevsky, ‘when reason fails, the devil helps!’ type of way in grappling with morality. It’s difficult to hold the view that we’re the same species as the sadistic main character, Alex, but we are. Kubrick taps into your inner demons by appealing to our senses with a brash assault of them, leaving you feeling invaded afterwards.
The French Connection is so much more than just a cop thriller, and it’s certainly more than just an impeccable car chase (but it certainly helps). Corruption in the police force is its subject matter and Gene Hackman and Rob Schneider are cops intent on busting a heroin ring coming in from Europe. Hackman in particular plays Popeye Doyle with such an unflinching, tenacious voracity to take his opponent down at all costs. He is relentless and as eager to destroy as his enemy is, making him the perfect anti-hero for what could have been a sanitised, run of the mill cop drama. That, my friend is the difference creatives in the seventies were resolved to portray; that we’re far from angels ourselves.
What about fear itself? That was addressed throughout the decade of the seventies, but in 1971 two films stand out as absolutely terrifying in the traditional sense. Play Misty for Me, was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut centring around a man who happens to meet a woman who quickly becomes obsessed with him. It all seems standard courting procedure until Jessica Walters’ character repeatedly requests the radio DJ in their town to play the song ‘Misty’ for her at the same time every night. The predictable ritual request coupled with her erratic, intensifying obsession makes for a thrillingly terrifying film. It’s a raw depiction of obsession and it would ultimately become the template precursor to the blockbuster ‘bunny boiler’ genre in later years.
An honourable mention goes to Duel, in my opinion one of the greatest, most underrated Spielberg films I have ever seen. In a sentence, I sum it up to people with “it’s like Jaws; except if you swapped the shark for an eighteen wheeler.” That truly is the premise, a man is terrorised and stalked by an anonymous driver of a truck in the desert. The idea of a lorry creeping out from around corners and turning up unexpectedly sounds unbelievably ridiculous but it works in the same way that the driver you can’t see is just as terrifying as the shark in the water’s depths.
It seems in 2021 that there are similarities in terms of the world in turmoil and how global events are dictating our discourse everyday. What is missing however is that artistic drive to respond truthfully to the world being imposed on you, alongside your view of the world. Maybe it’s too early to see the creative endeavours as a result of the pandemic but I hope it’s coming. It’s the darkness that creates the light like these works of art that shine more brightly than ever fifty years on.
When Jane Fonda picked up her Oscar for Klute the following year, it was against the backdrop of the final year of the Vietnam War when despair was creeping into the public psyche. She reluctantly took to the stage to utter one of the shortest speeches in Academy Awards history, subtly pointing to the fact that ‘there’s a great deal to say tonight and I’m not going to say it.’ It’s true that Fonda and her contemporaries didn’t have to say anything, they showed it on screen and for the briefest, most beautiful moment in time, the creatives were running the joint because in many ways they were the sanest ones in the room.