At the dawn of the 1970s, the British film industry was going through a tumultuous period. Many producers were struggling to find the outside investment UK productions largely relied on, with fierce competition developing, especially from American independents. Censorship, which had stifled the industry for decades, was loosening its grip, ushering in the age of sex and violence, especially in genre film. British cinema – although not as prolific as many other western nations – rose to the challenge, and thus began a short but sweet period of wild invention.
1971, in particular, was a vintage year for innovation. It’s hard to believe, given how some of the films featured in this list are still considered shocking or controversial even by today’s standards, that half a century has passed since they were made. While Hollywood at the time enjoyed an outpouring of refreshingly mature works by a younger wave of filmmakers, the UK was stunted by lack of money. Yet the films that were made here reflected many of the same values as the movies of New Hollywood, and quite often were willing to push the bar just that little bit more.
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As such, 1971 was a bounteous year for British film, producing many memorable films, some of which remain cult classics to this day. Here – in the order in which they premiered in the UK – are 10 of the best.
10 Rillington Place
Director: Richard Fleischer
American Richard Fleischer started his career as a contracted Hollywood studio workhorse, but when that system broke down he proved more than capable of embracing a freelance mode. This newfound freedom brought him to the UK to make 2 films in 1971, both of which expanded on the stirring violence he’d experimented with in his 1968 serial killer movie The Boston Strangler.
10 Rillington Place found Fleischer returning to the theme of serial killers in a British setting, with Richard Attenborough giving a chillingly restrained performance as the infamous John Christie. Not content with sketching out a sensational body-count-by-numbers account of the crimes, Fleischer foregrounds one of Christie’s accidental victims: the husband Tim Evans (John Hurt) who was charged with killing his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson), when she was murdered by Christie. This absorbingly grim drama lays out how the death of Beryl Evans impacts the life of her widower, who not only had to suffer through her senseless loss, but faced damning legal consequences as a result.
Director: Mike Hodges
Mike Hodges’ debut film Get Carter was a turning point for British crime films, notable for its grittily realistic approach to depicting the vicious world of organised crime. It was this aspect that attracted lead actor Michael Caine, who had had brushes with real gangsters during his working-class upbringing in London and was able to employ personal experience in his depiction of underworld criminal Jack Carter. It lends a bleak sense of authenticity to his performance, and so firm was Caine’s belief in the project that he took on an uncredited role as co-producer too.
Dropping the cheeky charisma and easy charm seen in some of his previous hits – such as Alfie (1966) and The Italian Job (1969) – Caine essays a man for whom violence is business, as he sets out to avenge the murder of his brother. He’s restrained yet savage, unforgivable yet completely understandable, as he trawls seedy bingo halls, dog tracks, smoke-filled back alley pubs, bedsits and docklands, resolute in his quest to take out one low-life at a time, until he uncovers the truth.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Director: Robert Fuest
Horror legend Vincent Price built up a devilish persona in gothic cinema over the decades, with many of his roles delivered in his inimitable stylised form of decadent camp. For The Abominable Dr. Phibes, director Robert Fuest took this essence to extravagant heights, allowing the actor to dial it up to 11 in his performance as Dr Phibes. Phibes is a disfigured man out to avenge the death of his wife through a series of murders inventively based on the Ten Plagues of Egypt – all with the help of his clockwork band and glamorous robotic assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North).
This is a wildly playful work of genre cinema, memorable for its baroque operatic qualities, its art-deco style and its tragicomic performances. Boasting an impressive supporting cast (including Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas and John Laurie), it’s an irresistible counterpoint to the gritty realism that dominated the horror genre during the 70s, losing itself entirely to the world of the fantastic and the bizarre.
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Director: John Schlesinger
Following his triumphant Oscar-winning success Midnight Cowboy (1969), director John Schlesinger returned to the UK to make Sunday Bloody Sunday, an altogether different film in many respects, but one which was nonetheless as groundbreaking as its predecessor.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is an intimate film, centred on the suffering and anguish of 2 lovers – a man and a woman – locked in a struggle over another man. It doesn’t set out to sensationalise queer identities, nor does it present homosexuality or bisexuality as othered or perverse. Jon Finch, who plays gay Jewish doctor Daniel Hirsch, is completely down to earth in his role, while Glenda Jackson, the more heteronormative side of the triangle, is less interested in her lover’s sexual proclivities, and more concerned that she might lose him to a rival. The film broke boundaries by having 2 men kiss on screen, and remains a landmark in British LGBTQ film history.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw
Director: Piers Haggard
Nowadays Piers Haggard’s film The Blood on Satan’s Claw is considered alongside Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) as one of the trailblazing landmarks of folk horror. This recently formulated subgenre has its dark roots in these years, but has been expanded by fans and scholars alike to encompass an ongoing pantheon of esoteric works in cinema, TV, literature and the other arts.
Filming largely on location in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the director set out to create something that broke the confines of staged gothic tradition. The result is notable for its depiction of wild rural Britain, soaked in the superstition of the early 18th century – a far cry from the frock coats and candles of Hammer. It also elicits a profane sense of dangerous sexuality, drawn by Haggard and his young cast through the central theme of the corruption of the innocent. Rising star Linda Hayden gives a remarkable performance as Angel Blake, the ingénue teen turned mistress of Satanic ceremony.
Director: Ken Russell
Ken Russell’s deliciously profane adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel The Devils of Loudun is outstanding for its luxuriant visual style (set design by Derek Jarman), its defiantly blasphemous subject matter and the wild abandon of its performances. It manages to be a horror, a historical drama, a statement, an erotic work, an opera, a tragedy and a fantasy epic all rolled into one.
With its focus on 17th-century witch trials, religious hypocrisy, nun possession and the trial of religious figure Father Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed), it’s perhaps not surprising the film courted much controversy when it was released. At the time of writing, there’s still no definitive version of the film available outside of fan edits. The infamous ‘rape of Christ’ scene, featuring a group of nuns, including Vanessa Redgrave, fornicating over a fallen statue of Christ, and the ‘femur’ scene – in which it’s insinuated a hunchback nun masturbates with a crucified man’s burnt bone – remain censored.
See No Evil
Director: Richard Fleischer
Just over 8 months after the release of 10 Rillington Place, the second of Richard Fleischer’s British projects arrived in cinemas. See No Evil is a harrowing thriller that seeks to redefine genre, taking aspects of gothic tradition – Mia Farrow’s blind protagonist is a modern equivalent to the mute girl under attack in Robert Siodmak’s psychological thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946) – but widening the scope to include a realistic sense of contemporary terror, as Farrow is terrorised and hunted in and around the Berkshire countryside.
It may be hard to relate the Fleischer of See No Evil to the director of breezy Hollywood projects such as musical extravaganza Doctor Dolittle (1967) or colourful adventure films like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), The Vikings (1958) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Yet his penchant for tackling the dark side of human nature was there from the early stages of his career, in noir thrillers such as The Narrow Margin (1952), Violent Saturday (1955) and Compulsion (1959). Yet some of the credit for See No Evil’s savage appeal must go to British screenwriter Brian Clemens, whose wit and macabre imagination was so key to TV’s The Avengers.
Director: Joseph Losey
One of the most fortuitous creative partnerships to emerge from British cinema of the 1960s is that of blacklisted Hollywood director Joseph Losey – who made Britain his home after he fled McCarthyism – and playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter. Together the pair made 3 films: The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and, in 1971, their adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.
It’s easy to see why Losey was attracted to Pinter, whose work often reflected the passive-aggressive torment lurking beneath the thin veneer of respectability and politeness inherent in the British middle classes. The Go-Between presents a lady-and-the-groom situation, with Julie Christie the lady and Alan Bates the tenant farmer she embarks on an affair with in turn-of-the-20th-century Norfolk. While the romance is compelling, it’s the nastiness that hides under the hazy facade of idyllic countryside locations and delicate tea parties that remains the most potent aspect of the film. Losey’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 1971 before going on release in the UK in late September.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Breaking out of his beloved western genre, American maverick Sam Peckinpah followed the understated romanticism of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with one of the most unflinching examples of British rural terror ever committed to celluloid. Straw Dogs attracted controversy for its explicit depiction of violence, especially scenes of gang rape. The film features an affluent couple – an American academic (Dustin Hoffman) and his British wife (Susan George) – who relocate to Cornwall, but receive brutal treatment at the hands of her labourer ex-boyfriend and his gang of deranged goons.
Peckinpah has frequently been labelled misogynistic in some quarters because of this film. But in light of some of the extreme toxic masculinity highlighted by the media in recent years – including the incel movement, revenge porn and online stalking – Straw Dogs, while uncomfortable to watch, highlights the enduring problem of male entitlement brought to its most dangerous extremes. It’s unsettling, but as relevant now as ever.
A Clockwork Orange
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s audacious adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange scrapes onto this list by virtue of its American premiere in December 1971, although UK audiences didn’t see it until January 1972. It was then withdrawn just a year later at the direct request of Kubrick after it was blamed for a couple of high-profile copycat crimes. As a result, the film couldn’t be viewed legally on home turf until the director’s death in 1999. It finally saw its first uncut television screening in 2001.
Not known for his strict adherence to literary originals — see also his revisioning of Stephen King’s The Shining – Kubrick made key changes to the moral message of Burgess’s book, focusing on the first 2 thirds to highlight the sordid crimes of a gang of juvenile delinquents named Droogs. In some respects it makes the central antagonist Alex (a brilliantly deranged performance by Malcom McDowell) an antihero, even though he is completely amoral. Today, A Clockwork Orange stands as one of, if not the most, nihilistic depictions of dystopia on film.