From Don’t Look Now to The Godfather – why the 1970s is my favourite film decade

First, the bad news. The 1970s found Hitchcock and Lean waning, Michael Powell a pariah and Pasolini beaten to death. Disaster movies were falling from the skies. Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the modern blockbuster, bestowing undue weight for ever on the words “opening weekend”. In Britain, the mackintoshed masses made mega-hits out of the Confessions and Adventures sex comedies. The dismal softcore romp Come Play With Me ran for four years straight.

As for the good news – well, where to start? Primed by 1960s countercultural successes such as Last Year at Marienbad and Bonnie and Clyde, audiences were ripe for a challenge. They were well placed, for instance, to decipher the enigmas of Don’t Look Now, released in the UK in 1973 in a double-chill-bill with The Wicker Man. In the same year, Lindsay Anderson made O Lucky Man!, the most richly ambitious British film since the heyday of Powell and Pressburger. Albert Finney, keen to use his clout and cash to back daring outsiders, had helped finance Anderson’s If…, and he came through again for two up-and-comers: Stephen Frears, who made his debut with Gumshoe, starring Finney as a bingo-caller with delusions of Bogart, and Mike Leigh, whose Bleak Moments created a new kind of comedy measured out in squirms and winces. Frears and Leigh didn’t return to cinema until the 1980s, but the 1970s was where their film-making began.

Even the studios embraced the spirit of experimentation, bankrolling daredevil projects such as Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Godfather; Terrence Malick, an arthouse genius on the corporate dime, pocketed a $1m, no-strings stipend from Paramount. US cinema’s enduring maverick, Robert Altman, dissected the damaged American psyche in the monumental Nashville. Black lives mattered, long before #BlackLivesMatter, in Killer of Sheep and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Elaine May’s acidic comedies (A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid) peeled the comforts from the romcom genre like a sadistic child plucking the wings off flies. There was affection as well as iconoclasm, as proved by Peter Bogdanovich’s sparkling homages to old Hollywood, such as The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?

Any overview of the decade tends to be monopolised by the US new wave, not least because its directors (Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg) would dominate cinema for the rest of the century, but there was dynamism everywhere. Ousmane Sembène made his masterpiece, the mischievous Xala, and his fellow Senegalese visionary Djibril Diop Mambéty conjured the ravishing Touki Bouki, destined to be known now as the film that inspired Jay Z and Beyoncé’s 2018 tour poster. There was a new wave in Australia, fronted by Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), as well as in Germany, where Fassbinder and Herzog were in their prolific pomp, producing cinematic provocations faster than audiences could devour them. Buñuel bowed out with a hat-trick of barbed, subversive comedies, beginning with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage showed that Bergman’s rage had survived into middle age.

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