A series where the Failed Critics look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.
I am fully prepared to get a bit of stick for this one. I know how popular Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are, but I just couldn’t fit them into the list. Similarly, whilst researching this article, I found a few films to watch specifically in preparation for writing this piece and none of those could break the top five either. A rather surreal coming of age / life retrospective Japanese film called Pastoral: To Die In The Country narrowly missed out, whereas Phase IV, about some scientists observing super-intelligent ants in the desert that are threatening to overthrow humanity, did not miss out by such a close margin. I also gave John Carpenter’s Dark Star another go having turned it off half way through on a previous attempt. I made it to the end this time but wish I’d switched it off at the midway point. Needless to say, the following five films just could not be topped, no matter how hard I tried.
5. The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue
“You’re all the same, the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth!”
I’m slightly cheating by including this in my Decade In Film: 1974 list. Technically this low-budget Italian zombie horror, set in deepest darkest Cumbria (yes, not technically where Manchester is located, I know, I know, but don’t tell director Jorge Grau that) wasn’t released in the UK or the US until 1975. However, in its original limited theatrical run in its home country, it just scraped into 1974 by the rotten peeling skin of its blood drenched teeth.
If the title doesn’t sound familiar to you, then maybe you know of it by one of the fifteen other names it goes by? Let Sleeping Corpses Lie? Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead? Don’t Open the Window? Zombi 3? Or even the rather playful sounding Weekend with the Dead? Whatever you know it by, it is but one of the many dubbed Italian/European zombie movies that flooded out of the continent in the 70’s-80’s, like a ghost galleon full of flesh eaters ready to commit a cinematic zombie-holocaust. Some of which were better than others; specifically, this little English countryside graveyard b-movie.
Like so many good zombie movies, its real message is buried underneath the living dead that occupy the screen. An anarchic anti-establishment theme is predominantly the main focus, as a couple of kids on their way to the Lake District run into trouble. Accused of being murderers, just like every other good-for-nothin’ hippy cult like they’ve got in that there ‘merica, our protagonists fail to convince the authorities of their innocence as, quite frankly, the idea that the atrocities are actually being committed by walking corpses instead does indeed sound preposterous. Tonally it’s rebellious and youthful, whilst stressing the point that not all young kids are hoodlums. So just back off, dude! Never trust the man, man!
It begs, borrows and steals from a variety of other genre movies from the era, most notably the 1968 originator of the (then modern) zombie-movie, Night of the Living Dead. From the outbreak being caused by radiation, to the one building under attack in the middle of the countryside with no signs of escape – even to the fact that there’s a single zombie shuffling his way over to a woman in a graveyard – it owes a lot to George A Romero and is not ashamed of this. Yet it still manages to achieve a unique identity of its own on the whole. The gore (as these films are so often judged on) is top notch and very effective despite the obviously low budget. It may not scare your regular z-fan, but it definitely has something interesting to say and a lot to admire, even for the most experienced of dead-heads.
4. The Conversation
“I’m not following you, I’m looking for you. There’s a big difference.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s first of two releases in 1974 coming out just weeks ahead of the other (that happens to be arguably his most celebrated movie – but I’ll come to that in a little while). The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as a secretive, paranoid, surveillance.. erm, guy? A spy, if you will. He becomes riddled with guilt and suspicion when he begins to suspect that the people he’s spying on may be murdered, depending on the outcome of the work he’s been hired to do.
It’s quite a slow burning character driven drama, rather than a typical goofy espionage thriller of the era. There’s not a single belly-dancer to be seduced or secret criminal lair with its midget butler in sight. Whilst Hackman is very good, as you would expect, a lot of his role requires a steady calmness with twinges of desperation. It’s a convincing portrayal of a (perhaps) hypocritical but moralistic devout Catholic, and it’s through his performance as much as it is the writing that you understand why he doesn’t share his personal life with others. Not just because of the nature of his work, but it’s also down to his borderline schizophrenia; he’s obsessed with the notion that people just like him will be listening to and monitoring everything he says and does. And as well we all know, just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.
In that regard, whilst the supporting cast (John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr etc) are all excellent, it’s the character of ‘Harry’ who quite rightly dominates everything. He’s such a strong character to base the film around that the other members of the cast are sadly reduced to mere distractions.
There’s a tendency for The Conversation to get a bit trippy. Personally, the dream sequences weren’t my cup of tea, although it’s important to recognise their role in developing Harry. You could argue that the constant looping of the audio of the recorded conversation is necessary, but no less annoying when played for the 30th time. But there is no arguing that this Oscar nominated film is one of the best of the seventies.
“Loach: What happened to your nose, Gittes? Somebody slammed a bedroom window on it?
Jake Gittes: Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick. You understand what I mean, pal?”
Whilst investigating a seemingly routine adultery case, our P.I. finds himself embroiled in a case much larger than anything he could have expected. And I’m sorry, but if the thought of Jack Nicholson playing a private detective in a neo-noir thriller doesn’t at the very least even slightly raise your interest, then you might as well give up on watching movies altogether. That’s it. End of the line for you, pal.
Nominated for eleven different categories at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Roman Polanski’s mystery thriller is as revered by its peers as it is by critics and regular movie watchers alike. Criminally, it only picked up one of those awards, for its screenplay written by Robert Towne – who also happened to pen the screenplay for another Jack Nicholson film called The Last Detail, which featured in my 1973 list. The competition it was up against in 1974 was fierce, but in almost any other year, it would not be too difficult to have imagined it running away with every award going. From the classic crime-noir direction employed by Polanski with shadows and light in perfect harmony, to each and every spectacular performance (particularly Nicholson and Faye Dunaway) and even the costumes and cinematography. Every aspect of this movie is meticulously crafted into something extraordinary.
The plot is full of mystery and intrigue, which is in debt primarily to its wonderfully characteristic script. But the performances, the visual flair and snappy delivery of some tremendously witty lines of dialogue are all to be applauded. It’s packed to the rafters with homages and odes to the film noir genre, whilst itself being a gloriously entertaining genre-piece. The style, the look, it’s got it all. It seems unbelievable that there could be two better films than it released in the same year, but that just shows how tough these Decade In Film articles can be!
2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
“Well now, look, you boys don’t want to go messin’ around some old house. Those things is dangerous. You’re liable to get hurt. You don’t want to go fooling around other folks’ property. If some folks don’t like it, they don’t mind showing you.”
Tobe Hooper announced himself as a director to look out for in the 1970’s with this remarkably scary, intense, sickening and twisted original horror. The reputation it still holds today (in the UK especially) is that of one of the most notorious “video nasties”. A chainsaw wielding, mentally handicapped, leather-mask wearing, violent psychopath did not lend itself kindly to the rating systems of the 70’s and 80’s and thus grew a cult of die hard fans for what is unquestionably one of the most iconic and influential horror films ever made.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is completely and utterly horrendous – and not in a ‘it’s really bad’ way. No, when I say “horrendous”, I mean in a ‘truly scares you half to death’ way. One of the most important life lessons I think anybody could learn from Hooper’s horror is to never knock on a strangers door if you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere, where the locals have already warned you away, you’ve met a psycho hitch-hiking hill-billy already that day and you find some human teeth scattered around the front porch. I, for one, have followed this advice ever since seeing this movie and I’m still alive today. Let it never be said that this film is nothing if not educational.
There are plenty of scenes here to totally mess you up for a long time after seeing them for the first time, but without spoiling specific scenes, the worst moment that stayed with me for a while afterwards is most definitely the scene with the Grandpa. Just… Jesus. Wow. I’m sure anybody reading this who has already seen the movie will know exactly to which moment I am referring. The brutality of some scenes in the film towards a group of pretty much innocent kids, coupled with the almost nonchalant delivery of its violence via the nightmarish Sawyer family, is masterful and terrifying. The slamming of the metal shutters could send shivers down the spine of a polar bear. The sign of a great horror movie is in how long it lingers in your mind and subconscious after you’ve hit that “stop” button. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does not leave your thoughts for days. It is just that good.
1. The Godfather: Part II
“In my home! In my bedroom! Where my wife sleeps and my children play with their toys!”
As good as every film in this list is, how many can claim to have had quite as significant a cultural impact as Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster series?
Continuing from where the previous film (and best of 1972) left off, Al Pacino reprises his role as Michael Corleone, now the head of the Family (upper case ‘F’). He tries to expand and protect their business, whilst also keeping his family (lower case ‘f’) together. With no Marlon Brando in the sequel to play the original Godfather, Vito Corleone, we instead get to see his back story and arrival in the US in the early 20th century, as played by Bobby (oooOOOH) De Niro (aaaaAAAHH).
The debate that has raged over the decades since their release is mainly over which of the Godfather films is the best. Very rarely does ‘The Internet’ agree on anything, but it’s almost a unanimous decision that both movies are exceptional. Looking to see which of the two is the most well regarded, however, can induce fits of nausea. Just edging it between the two in the popularity stakes (according to IMDb’s Top 250) is the first film, which sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? As good as De Niro is and as brilliantly as Pacino steps up to being the face of the film, it misses a certain something that Brando brings. Him not being there perhaps means there’s more room for the other actors to expand into; and maybe he outshone everyone else in the original a smidgen. He was unequivocally the star of the film. I know it’s slightly unfair as there’s just no possible way to have included him in Part II without it overshadowing everyone involved in this sequel, but I missed the ol’ broken jawed mob boss.
Other than that one tiny personal niggle, there is practically nothing separating the two in terms of quality. I certainly can’t fault it. The development of Michael and the rich tapestry woven for Vito is impossibly complex and executed to near perfection. The third and final film in the trilogy is an utter embarrassment, but these two original movies made fifteen years prior are two of the greatest achievements in cinematic history. From how beautiful the sets are, to how superb the music is; from how stunning the performances are, to how emotional the story is. Even, yes, the camera angles. They are unparalleled in the genre. Hell, they’re probably even unmatched by any film from the decade. Maybe even the century!