Fifty years ago, The Godfather was released and American cinema changed forever. The meteoric impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s epochal gangster epic is difficult to express with any brevity – entire books have been written about it, after all – but, among many other things, it made Al Pacino a star, launched a whole new wave of operatic mafia movies, and introduced a wealth of quotes and iconography into our shared cultural lexicon. There are influential films, and then there’s The Godfather.

You might think that such a behemoth would completely overshadow every other American release that year, but 1972 still had plenty more to offer. Ned Beatty, Jodie Foster, Samuel L. Jackson and Nick Nolte all made their big-screen acting debuts. Wes Craven, Robert Benton and Sidney Poitier directed their first features. After The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure was the highest grosser; at the other end of the spectrum, cult king John Waters unleashed his infamous Pink Flamingos.

The New Hollywood movement, which had by then become firmly ensconced as the biggest and most exciting force in American movies, continued to dominate the year’s releases. As a result, the cinematic landscape was still getting looser, sexier, more violent, more realistic. In 1972, directors who’d go on to become the movement’s major names – Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick – were mere months away from the opening of their breakthrough films.

They’d get there soon enough, but in the meantime there was plenty to keep cinemagoers riveted.

The Hot Rock

Director: Peter Yates

The Hot Rock (1972)

One of 1972’s most underappreciated gems was Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock, adapted by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. It stars Robert Redford as career thief John Dortmunder, who immediately after his latest stint in prison is recruited by his brother-in-law (George Segal) to help him plan the heist of a precious gemstone. Their attempts fail in increasingly absurd fashion, and it becomes a race against time as to whether Dortmunder will get the titular rock before he loses his sanity.

A comedic heist movie packed with ambling charm, The Hot Rock boasts one of Redford’s funniest performances, and terrific supporting turns from Segal, Zero Mostel and William Redfield, among many others. It was released to little acclaim, but over the years has had a lasting legacy in the world of music, with Eminem sampling from the Quincy Jones score on his song ‘Like Toy Soldiers’ and Sleater-Kinney naming their 1999 album after the film.

Cabaret

Director: Bob Fosse

Cabaret (1972)

Opening to a glowing reception from both critics and audiences, Cabaret would rampage through the 1973 Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars to The Godfather’s three. The grimily decadent tale of Weimar-era Berlin follows an American nightclub singer with dreams of movie stardom (Liza Minnelli) and her seemingly reserved new English friend (Michael York) as they engage in a series of hedonistic adventures against the backdrop of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Reinvigorating director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s flailing film career after the critical disappointment of Sweet Charity (1969), many of Cabaret’s musical numbers – as well as the image of Minnelli in that infamous bowler hat – are justly famous. Atypically downbeat for a movie musical of the era, as well as being unusually frank about its characters’ sexuality, its success would pave the way for later musicals with adult themes, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Fosse’s own All That Jazz (1979).

What’s Up Doc?

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

What's Up Doc? (1972)

Decades after the classic screwball comedy era came to an end, Peter Bogdanovich directed his love letter to the genre in the form of What’s Up Doc? Starring Barbra Streisand as the irrepressibly kooky leading lady and Ryan O’Neal as the buttoned-up chap on whom she’s set her sights, the movie rockets through a series of riotous mishaps that all stem from the mix-up of four identical-looking overnight bags.

Marking a big tonal shift from his earlier features Targets (1968) and The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? allowed Bogdanovich’s famous cinephilia to take full, ridiculous flight. It includes references and homages to everything from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Bullitt (1968), with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) providing the inspiration for the dynamic between Streisand and O’Neal. Although Bogdanovich’s movie failed to usher in a screwball comedy renaissance, it was the third highest grossing film of 1972.

Jeremiah Johnson

Director: Sydney Pollack

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Robert Redford’s second movie of the year contains his favourite performance of his own career, and it’s easy to understand why. As the title character, who moves to the mountains, falls unexpectedly in love, and then becomes embroiled in a furious mission of revenge, he gets to play everything – humour and tenderness, hatred and brutality. (A shame then, that such a varied, riveting turn has been flattened into a meme).

Director Sydney Pollack shapes his hero’s journey with satisfying symmetry; we track Jeremiah both up and down the mountain, and he encounters the same characters at both ends of his journey, though the changes he has undergone in the interim are as vast as the landscape he now inhabits. Jeremiah Johnson was shot ravishingly in various freezing rural locations around Utah – the production reportedly suffered through seven cases of frostbite – with some of the filming taking place on Redford’s own land.

Fat City

Director: John Huston

Fat City (1972)

John Huston made classic movies in every decade from the 1940s to the 1980s – Fat City was his masterpiece of the 70s. Based on the novel by Leonard Gardner (who also wrote the screenplay), it follows a washed-up boxer (Stacy Keach) and an exciting new prospect (Jeff Bridges) as they make their way through a world filled with an eclectic cast of down-and-outs.

Although Fat City is a downbeat, scuzzy tale about people life has treated unkindly, Huston’s affection for his characters affords them a dignity that may well have been eschewed by a less generous director. Even the perpetually drunken Oma (Susan Tyrrell, in a hypnotic turn that deservedly earned the stage actress an Oscar nomination) is granted a measure of appealing hauteur. Huston was a boxer himself, and populated his supporting cast with genuine fighters. His experience in the ring, in addition to the charismatic performances from both professional and non-professional actors, lend the film a tangible aura of truth.

Deliverance

Director: John Boorman

Deliverance (1972)

Four businessmen from Atlanta (Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds, and Ronny Cox) head off into rural Georgia on what is meant to be a fun wilderness retreat for the friends. Disaster ensues.

Deliverance was the definitive work of director John Boorman’s career, introducing the world to Ned Beatty, making Burt Reynolds a household name, and launching a thriving tourism industry around the Appalachian shooting locations that continues to this day (despite the film not exactly being the best advertisement for the area). Boorman’s movie remains best known for two pivotal moments: the ‘Duelling Banjos’ number that serves as the men’s unsettling inauguration into their strange new environment, and a horrifying rape scene in which Beatty’s character is notoriously commanded to “squeal like a pig”. Deliverance has been endlessly referenced and parodied in the half century since its release, but these scenes have lost none of their shocking power.

The Getaway

Director: Sam Peckinpah

The Getaway (1972)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill, The Getaway was the one and only big screen pairing of Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. They star as a married couple trying desperately to evade both the cops and their crooked partner (a demonically captivating Al Lettieri) as they head for Mexico with the proceeds of a bank heist.

McQueen and MacGraw were both married to other people when they met and fell in love on set, and the palpable frisson between them makes the many exquisitely directed action sequences all the more exciting. Peckinpah’s penchant for bloody, nasty nihilism is in full effect throughout – it’s difficult to imagine what this would have looked like as a Peter Bogdanovich movie, as originally intended. Although it opened to lacklustre reviews, The Getaway made more at the box office than all but seven other 1972 movies, and has come to be considered a highlight of the filmographies of both Peckinpah and McQueen.

The Heartbreak Kid

Director: Elaine May

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Charles Grodin had been acting in film and TV since his uncredited 1954 appearance in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it was Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid – written by Neil Simon – that shot him to fame and determined the put-upon persona that would shape the rest of his decades-long career. He plays a newlywed who falls in love with a stranger (Cybill Shepherd) and decides to jettison his new wife (Jeannie Berlin) while they’re on their honeymoon. Despite his character being monstrous in his selfishness and insensitivity, Grodin’s lead turn still manages to invite a peculiar kind of pity.

May’s second directorial effort established her as a peerlessly and hilariously astute chronicler of fragile masculinity, a reputation she’d truly solidify with Mikey and Nicky (1976). While The Heartbreak Kid is first and foremost a very funny comedy, there’s a poignancy to the needless wreckage created by Grodin’s character that gives the laughs a bitter aftertaste.

Across 110th Street

Director: Barry Shear

Across 110th Street (1972)

Three men steal $300,000 from the mafia, along the way killing seven others. That leads to their pursuit by both a racist older cop (Anthony Quinn) and his younger Black superior (Yaphet Kotto), and a terrifying mafia boss (Anthony Franciosa) determined to catch the thieves in order to violently dissuade anyone else from following in their footsteps.

Beginning with the massacre in question and only becoming more bloody from there, Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street is an intense, uncompromising journey through a dangerous Harlem in 1972. The contemporaneous reaction was mixed to negative, with the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold called it “so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers”. But its reputation has grown in the decades since, thanks in large part to the grimly unvarnished portrayal of the era’s race relations and the popular title song by Bobby Womack, which Quentin Tarantino later featured in Jackie Brown (1997).

Images

Director: Robert Altman

Images (1972)

Sandwiched between McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973) in Robert Altman’s formidable filmography is Images: the only horror movie the genre-spanning director ever made. The film stars an enthralling Susannah York as Cathryn, a children’s book author who becomes plagued by disturbing images of violence – some just her fevered imagination, some that are terrifyingly real.

Images isn’t one of Altman’s most lauded features, and it opened to a muted reception in 1972. Yet despite having little experience in the genre, Altman engineers many moments of genuine skin-prickling unease. John Williams’ fascinatingly clamorous score is a world away from the lush orchestral sentimentality he’d become known for in his work with Steven Spielberg, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography mines the stunning Irish setting for all its eerie beauty. That Images is still considered minor Altman is as good a testament as any to his cinematic legacy.