10 great American films of the 1970s

And what a decade it was…

Oliver Lunn

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The face of American movies was changing in the late 1960s and 70s. The so-called New Hollywood movement had put classical Hollywood and European art cinema in the blender. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich tossed the rulebook aside and started making American movies with a European sensibility: shooting on location, incorporating existential themes, loosening the nuts and bolts of their narratives.

The result? Films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Mean Streets (1973) and Badlands (1973), which brought a thoroughly modern sensibility to Hollywood movie-making. At the crest of this movement, in 1975, when it went up against Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Nashville and Dog Day Afternoon in a golden year for the Oscars, was One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Directed by the Czech New Wave filmmaker Milos Forman, who found a home in 70s Hollywood making films with countercultural themes, it became a huge critical and audience favourite, capitalising on the era’s appetite for rebellion.

Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, Forman’s film follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a criminal who pleads insanity and gets thrown in a mental institute. There he befriends a colourful cast of patients, including Martini (Danny DeVito), Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) and ‘Chief’ Bromden (Will Sampson). McMurphy becomes their leader and buddy, the one who leads them astray in the name of adventure.

In doing so, he makes an enemy of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), whose eyes are 10 times as fierce as your strictest teacher, and who’s been considered one of the most iconic screen villains of all time. It’s Nicholson who owns the screen though. His performance – unhinged and deranged but not bloodthirsty like The Shining’s Jack Torrance – is the jewel in the crown of his 70s movies.

To celebrate One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest return to cinemas, let’s set the scene with 10 more highlights from one of the finest decades in American film history.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Director Bob Rafelson

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Written and directed by Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is a razor-sharp character study of a complicated man: an oilrig worker who’s a piano prodigy, a blue-collar barfly with an upper-class background. Jack Nicholson is the troubled protagonist who hits the road with his waitress girlfriend (Karen Black) when he learns his father is dying. They bicker on the way. She talks a lot; he doesn’t. We don’t know much about the guy’s past, but his restlessness, his outbreaks at roadside diners, his short fuse with his girlfriend all suggest something’s not quite right.

Five Easy Pieces features jaw-dropping performances from Nicholson and Black (both nominated for Academy Awards) and a soundtrack that contrasts Chopin with Tammy Wynette. In the film’s most memorable scene, Nicholson hops on the back of a random truck during a traffic jam and starts tapping at the keys of an old piano. The truck begins to move with him on it, and boy does he not care.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, adapted from Larry McMurtry’s book of the same name, shows what it might have been like to come of age in the Lone Star state in the early 1950s. The Last Picture Show follows a group of high school kids in a culturally and economically deprived town where nothing ever changes. There’s nothing to do but shoot pool, go skinny-dipping, get into brawls, get laid – all against the lonely backdrop of a desolate Texas town.

Bogdanovich deftly weaves the twin themes of love and loneliness as the teens are torn between a future beyond the town’s borders or staying with what little they’ve inherited. It’s a beautiful monochrome slice of Americana, and it features a very young, very fresh-faced Jeff Bridges, who, with his buckets of charm, somehow manages to make us warm to his unlikable character. The cast also includes Cybill Shepherd in her film debut.

The Godfather / The Godfather Part II (1972/74)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Some people prefer part one, some people prefer part two. But let’s face it, both films – epic family dramas wrapped up as a mob saga – deserve their place among the very greatest of the decade. Breaking box office records on release in 1972, the first of Coppola’s iconic adaptations of Mario Puzo’s novel focuses on Michael Corleone’s transformation into the son his dad (Marlon Brando) always wanted. The second, which followed in 1974, deals more with brotherhood, loyalty, backstabbing (“I know it was you, Fredo,” says a po-faced Al Pacino). Both movies are endlessly quotable (“My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse”) and chock-full of knockout performances, and each reveals peculiar ways of running a family business (a decapitated horse head in the bed, anyone?).

American Graffiti (1973)

Director George Lucas

American Graffiti (1973)

George Lucas’s classic coming-of-ager is set in 1962, on the last night of the summer holidays. College is just around the corner, but for these teens it’s too much of a bummer to think about now. Tonight is about cruising, adventure and an endless stream of rock’n’roll hits. Lucas’s camera hops out of one car and into another, so you feel like you’re right there, along for the ride. It’s hard to imagine Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) without American Graffiti, the former doffing its cap to the latter with a similar scene featuring an underage kid trying to score beer from a gas station. This is a film that makes the simplest idea – driving around at night – seem like the coolest thing ever. It’s all you want to do when the credits roll.

A Woman under the Influence (1974)

Director John Cassavetes

A Woman under the Influence (1974)

In John Cassavetes’ scalding domestic drama, the magnificent Gena Rowlands plays Mabel, a mentally unstable LA housewife and mother. Mabel’s construction worker husband (Peter Falk) becomes increasingly concerned by her odd behaviour and reluctantly commits her to an institution. Mabel is less than thrilled about it.

Coming during an extraordinary run of independent features made by Cassavetes in the 60s and 70s, A Woman under the Influence is about the complicated nature of love, madness and how people cope when they fail to recognise the ones they love. Anchored by two phenomenal performances from Falk and Rowlands, the film was nominated for two Oscars, with Rowlands losing best actress to Ellen Burstyn in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. More shockingly, it was Cassavetes’ only nomination for best director. Make of that what you will.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director Alan J. Pakula

All the President’s Men (1976)

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford light up Alan J. Pakula’s movie about Woodward and Bernstein, the two young reporters at The Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate conspiracy in one of the biggest journalistic scoops of the 20th century. Pakula, who had made his name making paranoid thrillers Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), lays bare the cold, hard facts in forensic detail amid a world of cover-ups, codenames, typewriters and telephones.

As in the best edge-of-your-seat thrillers, you find yourself donning your detective’s hat, trying to piece the details together, trying to figure out the significance of ‘Deep Throat’ and the shady guy in the car park. No wonder so many journalists point to this as the film that inspired them to grab a pen and speak truth to power. They don’t come much better than this.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Director Martin Scorsese

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro’s late-night cabbie and Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle, is a compelling if unpredictable character: he takes the girl of his dreams to a dirty movie, burns his fist over a flame and shaves his head into a Mohawk. His cab – beautifully described by scriptwriter Paul Schrader as “a metal coffin” – emerges from a plume of smoke in the grimy backstreets of NYC that Bickle describes as “an open sewer, full of filth and scum”. This is the side of the city that Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) sidestepped. It’s sleazy, atmospheric, dangerous and worlds away from the gentrified metropolis of today. No wonder Scorsese’s movie is now warmly embraced as a time capsule of a lost city.

For his last soundtrack, Hitchcock’s favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann, created a dark, jazz-inflected score that matches the seductive visuals every step of the way.

Eraserhead (1977)

Director David Lynch

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch spent most of the 70s making his nightmarish debut, the film that you’ll spend the rest of your life thinking about. What was that freaky fetus thing? Why was there a lady singing in a radiator? There’s so much to wrap your head around, but it’s best not to search for a coherent meaning. Better to accept it as a dark surrealist body horror that may or may not be based on Lynch’s own fears of fatherhood.

Eraserhead was partly inspired by the bleak industrial backdrop of Philadelphia, where Lynch spent a troubled period of his life, but it was shot mainly in stables in sunny California. Watching it now, you can spot those Lynch obsessions that pop up time and time again: zigzag floors, curtains, light bulbs, female singers. This is where it all began, with the ultimate midnight movie head-scratcher.

Girlfriends (1978)

Director Claudia Weill

Girlfriends (1978)

Girls creator Lena Dunham was bowled over by Girlfriends, and you can see why. It’s an NYC-set tale about female friendship, following a struggling photographer whose life up-ends when her best friend and roommate moves out to get married. The photographer, Susan, clumsily navigates her new life, making questionable choices, dating the wrong guys. And yet she’s always endearing, in that self-deprecating Woody Allen kind of way.

Directed by Claudia Weill – whose film career sadly never fully took off – Girlfriends is a woefully overlooked gem. Even Stanley Kubrick thought so, comparing Weill to the best, most sensitive European directors of the day. Most recently, Dunham handed the camera to Weill, who directed an episode of Girls. Think of it as a homecoming.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Director Charles Burnett

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Written, produced, directed and shot by Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep is not only one of the best films of the 70s, it’s also one of the best films about LA – specifically the then-impoverished Watts district. It shows, without conventional story arcs or character development, the hardscrabble lives of those who lived there at that time. Kids throw rocks at passing freight trains. People argue on front porches. It’s a long way from Beverly Hills.

The film is heartfelt and poignant in its depiction of Stan, a family man who works at a slaughterhouse and wants nothing more than to raise his kids right. Burnett serves up a slice of their life, like a photographer capturing a single moment with no beginning or end. Add to that a warm, soulful soundtrack, featuring Dinah Washington and Elmore James, and this is a timeless classic.

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