Ten Movies From ’70s Hollywood You Need To See (If You Haven’t Already)

I was discussing with a friend via instant message (note for younger readers: “instant message” is how old people chatted online before Twitter was invented) today how I’d recently seen the documentary version of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a book I’ve been meaning to read forever. Both the book and the documentary take as their subject the explosion of creativity that came out of Hollywood in the 1970s — a period that, while brief, was pivotal in establishing on these shores the idea that film could be taken seriously as art rather than just being another disposable popular entertainment. (We came late to that line of thinking; it was pioneered by the French New Wave filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s, whose work was a major influence on ’70s Hollywood.)

Anyway, said friend mentioned to me that he wasn’t really sure why the “New Hollywood” of the ’70s gets the critical worship it routinely receives, since he found many of the films from that period that he’d seen to be terrible.

Part of the explanation for this reaction can be found in the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls doc, which tells the story of how a wave of young directors found its voice and then, intoxicated on their own talent and success (and, um, lots of drugs), fell from brilliance into self-indulgence. For one example, look to the career of Martin Scorsese, who was vaulted to prominence by his debut film, Mean Streets (1973), but a few years later found his reach exceeding his grasp with New York, New York (1977) — a musical. Yes! A Martin Scorsese musical! Starring Liza Minnelli (!!!).

Which raised a question: if your conception of New Hollywood was formed by the products of its burning-out, what should you see to understand the flip side — the sparks that lit the fire in the first place?

I started to suggest some movies that he should check out to get an idea of why the critics regard this period as such a milestone, and then it occurred to me that among people in our age bracket there are probably quite a few people — basically everyone who isn’t a movie nerd — who are in the same position as him. And that’s a shame, because it means you’ve been missing out on some great movies!

The movies that came out of New Hollywood are fascinating on two levels. First, there are a whole lot of genuinely brilliant movies when you simply take each on its own merit. And second, when you look at them chronologically, in the order they came to theaters, they collectively form a record a generation’s disillusionment — of young people coming of age in the mid-60s riding a wave of optimistic idealism, reveling in breaking taboos and shocking their elders, only to see their hopes lost in the quagmire of Vietnam, the crimes of Richard Nixon, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. By the end, their idealism gone forever, they had retreated into cynicism and near-paranoia, making films that called into question the very legitimacy of American society itself.

I made a start at trying to explain all this to my friend via IM, but that is not a medium that is particularly suited for such things. So I thought I would post my suggestions here so they could be of use to everyone who wonders why movie critics so routinely look back to the ’70s for examples of great filmmaking.

Before I begin, some notes:

  • These movies are all movies that I think hold their entertainment value today. In other words, this is not a menu of broccoli and Brussels sprouts. These are movies that I’m recommending because I think you will enjoy them, not because I think they’re good for you. (For this reason, for instance, I omitted Easy Rider, which, while it is still a great movie and well worth watching, is very much a product of its times.)
  • This is not a comprehensive list. It’s not “the best movies of the ’70s”, it’s “a selection of the movies from the ’70s that I recommend.” I’m leaving lots of good stuff out. If you like something you picked up from this list and want more like it, follow my advice from 2006 and look for other movies by the same director and/or screenwriter. (To make this cross-referencing easy, I’m listing both director and screenwriter with each suggestion, with links to their IMDB filmographies.) Additionally, Wikipedia has a pretty good list of major films from the New Hollywood period.
  • When people talk about “’70s Hollywood”, they’re not talking about the 1970s in a strictly chronological sense. They’re talking about a period that ran from the mid-1960s (when the old studio system finally collapsed) to 1977 or so (when mega-blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars put the bean counters back in control). “The Seventies” is just a convenient way to refer to this span of time. So don’t get all flummoxed when you see movies on this list that were made a couple years before the 1970s proper.

(One final note: I’ve embedded the trailer for each movie along with its listing. If you’re reading this via Facebook or through a feed reader, you may have to click through to read it on my blog to see the videos.)

OK! Enough preamble, let’s get to the suggestions.

Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Director: Arthur Penn
Screenwriters: David Newman & Robert Benton; uncredited assistance from Robert Towne

“They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people.”

If there can be said to be any single movie that announced to the world that Something Different was going on in Hollywood in the late 1960s, that movie was Bonnie and Clyde. Inspired by the innovations of the French New Wave, Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty set out to make a movie unlike anything American audiences had ever seen — something that would tackle head-on the taboo subjects that the studios had banned from their movies via the “Hays Code,” all the way back in 1934.

(The Hays Code was Hollywood’s first attempt to regulate “decency” in its content. As early films became more and more adventurous in exploring subjects like sex and violence, and stars’ indiscretions with sex and drugs started to become national news, the studios worried that a conservative cultural backlash could end up saddling them with government regulation. To head that off, they developed the Hays Code, a set of standards for what content was acceptable in a studio film, and voluntarily pledged that all their films would abide by it. Even by the standards of the 1930s the Code was quite constraining — it outright banned any story that would “lower the moral standards of those who see it,” as well as any story that presented criminals in anything resembling a sympathetic light — and by the 1960s its strictures were hopelessly out of sync with the culture at large.)

This could have been a recipe for disaster; in less capable hands, it’s not hard to imagine such an impulse leading to a schlocky exploitation film rather than a classic. But Penn and Beatty were smart enough not to fall into that trap. Instead, they took the real-life story of two-bit bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and turned it into a metaphor for the seismic changes that were rippling through American youth culture at the time. They start off on their crime spree not because they’re accomplished crooks, but because they’re dumb kids looking to make a quick buck and have some fun in the midst of the grinding Great Depression. As violence starts to become a bigger and bigger fact of their lives, you can feel their claustrophobic sense of losing control, of the wheels starting to come off of the car as it flies down the highway. And then it all comes to a head in a conclusion that was frankly shocking for 1967 America — and while we’re considerably more jaded moviegoers than they were, it still makes an impact even today. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you.)

They’re criminals and murderers, but they’re also kids in love. It’s hard not to root for them to make it all work out, somehow. That reaction — identifying with an “anti-hero” — is is exactly the sort of audience reaction the Hays Code had struggled so mightily to prevent. But Bonnie and Clyde takes you there, and does so with such style and wit that it’s easy to see why other filmmakers found themselves lining up to go there after seeing it themselves.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: William Goldman

“They’re taking trains… they’re taking banks… and they’re taking one piece of luggage.”

Where Bonnie & Clyde looked at the anti-hero through the lens of doomed romance, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid approaches it from a different perspective — that of male friendship. Butch and Sundance, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are the leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang, a gaggle of late 19th Century crooks who specialize in robbing trains. The two men’s personalities complement each other perfectly; Butch is the grand schemer, Sundance the wary realist. As played by Newman and Redford they have an easy, effortless charisma that makes them great fun to watch together. Their increasingly improbable plans (and the increasing sophistication of the law in the previously lawless West) lead them through a series of failures and setbacks, finally driving them all the way to Bolivia in a desperate bid to find someplace where a fellow can make a decent living robbing banks in the 20th Century.

On top of the great performances, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid offers gorgeous Western scenery, a good mix of humor and action, and an ending that’s unexpectedly moving. But the main draw of the film is right there in the title — seeing two of the best actors of their generation sparring with each other at the top of their form.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenwriters: Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah

“They came too late and stayed too long.”

Sam Peckinpah was a poet. His medium was violence.

Not real-life violence, of course, but screen violence, which he depicted in a frank, unflinching manner unlike anything ever before seen in film. But unlike many action directors working today, to Peckinpah violence was not the point of a story; it was the punctuation. He viewed it without sentiment, without romance or mythmaking; it was simply a cold fact of a harsh world.

The Wild Bunch is a great example of this. It’s a Western, but unlike the John Wayne Westerns that had colonized the American imagination for decades, it is a Western viewed without nostalgia, without airbrushing out the hard facts of life on an untamed frontier.

That life is one that has no room for old men; and the protagonists of The Wild Bunch are getting old. Led by Pike Bishop — played unforgettably by William Holden — they were great gunfighters in their day, but civilization is starting to come to the West and their day is unmistakably ending. But a man still has to eat — even a man who earns his living by the gun; even when the world no longer needs such men, or at least, no longer thinks it does.

The Wild Bunch is a modern classic, a reinvention of the Western for an age exhausted by a seemingly endless war, an age that saw promises of glory and honor as sales pitches for war in the same way that promises of minty freshness were sales pitches for mouthwash.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: John Milius and Edward Anhalt; uncredited assistance from David Rayfiel

“His mountains… his peace… his great hunts… his young bride.

With all of that, it should have been different.”


Jeremiah Johnson is about solitude, and determination, and failure. Among other things.

It’s a story of a man — the titular Johnson, played by Robert Redford — who, sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, turns his back on civilization and heads into the mountains, aiming to carve a life for himself out of the wilderness.

His journey is hard and long, but he grows; he meets challenges, but (for the most part) overcomes them. He finds joy in unexpected places, sees it snatched from his grasp by unpredicted forces, and finds an unforeseen legend growing around himself as he metes out retribution. In the end he is hardly recognizable as the same man who wandered into the mountains at his journey’s beginning. He has become the mountain man he wanted to be; but the cost to acquire that identity has proven to be higher than he anticipated.

This is not a film that’s driven by dialogue. The characters are almost universally taciturn. Yet we come to feel we know them nonetheless; they express themselves through their actions, not through words. You won’t come away from this movie with a particular speech or catchphrase stuck in your memory; what you will remember are the vast, forbidding vistas, and the brief moments of connection, and the silences that fill the spaces in between.

American Graffiti (1973)
Director: George Lucas
Screenwriters: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck

“Where were you in ’62?”

Now that the long national nightmare of the Star Wars prequels is finally over, it might seem that the evidence is simply overwhelming that George Lucas is an awful director.

Well, it is, and he is. But even a stopped clock can be right twice a day, and even an awful director can turn out a good movie. And that’s what Lucas did when he made American Graffiti.

Maybe it’s because the story is based on a scene that Lucas himself participated in as a young man — cruising and racing cars in early ’60s Modesto, California. Maybe it’s because of the great cast he assembled, including Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, and Mackenzie Phillips. Maybe it’s because he had yet to sell his soul to Satan for a Burger King merchandising tie-in. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, American Graffiti is a gem, a keenly observed portrait of a particular moment in time — the moment just after the ’50s ended and just before anybody realized it. It’s also a portrait of a particular stage in life — the stage when high school is ending, and every senior knows life is about to change radically, but hasn’t quite figured out how, or even why. It’s about the shiver that runs down your spine when you find yourself standing on the precipice of The Future.

I don’t know how someone as profoundly untalented as George Lucas made a movie like this. But make it he did, and I’m grateful for it.

Not grateful enough to forgive him for The Phantom Menace, mind you. But still, pretty grateful.

The Last Detail (1973)
Director: Hal Ashby
Screenwriter: Robert Towne

“No #@!! Navy’s going to give some poor !#!@ kid eight years in the #@!% brig without me taking him out for the time of his #$@! life.”

The plot of The Last Detail is incredibly simple: a young sailor, convicted of a petty crime, is being shipped off to military prison, and two other sailors are assigned to make sure he gets there.

But what makes The Last Detail special isn’t the plot. It’s the performances — especially the lead performance by Jack Nicholson, who plays one of the two guards, the salty, cynical NCO “Bad Ass” Buddusky. At first Buddusky sees the assignment as just a way to get out of the tedium of life on the base for a while, but as he gets to know the young sailor on his way to the brig, Seaman Meadows (played with wide-eyed innocence by Randy Quaid), he finds himself sympathizing with the kid’s plight. The military justice system has given him a raw deal, a tough sentence that’s wildly out of line with the actual severity of his offense.

Buddusky hadn’t planned on Meadows’ story getting underneath his weathered hide. But once it does, he finds himself in the awkward position of having to carry out his orders anyway. Or does he? Maybe he should just turn away for a moment and let Meadows slip away, orders be damned. Or maybe he should use the few days they have before they’re expected to report in to give Meadows one last good time before he hears the cell door slam shut.

As a character, Buddusky is right in Nicholson’s wheelhouse — tough and no-nonsense, but with a bit of humanity peeking out from underneath the armor. But Nicholson doesn’t phone the performance in. Instead, he invests it with subtle humanity, bringing us into Buddusky’s head as he struggles with the conflict between his duty and his sympathy. And neither of those concepts is untarnished, either — sympathy pushes him to defy his orders and risk his own freedom, while duty seems hollow in a military demoralized by the long, grinding decay of Vietnam. All of which makes the conclusion especially powerful and poignant.

Jack Nicholson has long held a reputation as one of the great actors working in movies today. Performances like the one he gave in The Last Detail are a big part of the reason why.

The Conversation (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola

“Harry Caul is an invader of privacy. The best in the business. He can record any conversation between two people anywhere.

So far, three people are dead because of him.”

Francis Ford Coppola’s towering achievement is, of course, the Godfather trilogy, especially its first two chapters. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are landmark New Hollywood films in their own right.

So why am I not including them here? Because everybody’s already seen them, that’s why. And because they’re not the only great work Coppola did during the New Hollywood era. For proof, one need look no further than The Conversation.

The Conversation is a different kind of movie than the Godfather films were. Where the Godfather films were panoramic epics, The Conversation takes us inside the mind of a man whose life is lived almost entirely in his own head — Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman.

Harry Caul is a surveillance expert. He makes his living eavesdropping on people. He stays sane doing this work by telling himself that he’s not doing anything directly to the subjects of his surveillance — he’s only listening. But his work has made him a zealous guard of his own privacy, to the point where he has essentially withdrawn from contact with other human beings.

Then one day he takes a job to listen in on a woman and a man conversing in a park, and overhears something that leads him to question the rationalizations he has constructed so meticulously. He starts to worry that his surveillance of the couple in the park will lead to their deaths. And when he tries to prevent that from happening, he finds himself wondering if he has not put his own life on the line by doing so.

The Conversation is a cautionary tale that has only become more relevant in the years since its release. Our privacy is infinitely more threatened today than it was in Harry Caul’s day; we live our lives on easily monitored electronic networks, and carry cell phones that betray our location to our wireless provider — and anyone they care to share the information with — each time they reach out to a cell tower.

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the national security bureaucracy, there lives an army of modern-day Harry Cauls, reconstructing motivations and betrayals from a tangled web of ones and zeros. Coppola’s film prompts us to think about them — and ask whether the intelligence they glean is worth its cost, both to us and to them.

The Sugarland Express (1974)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins

“The true story of a girl who took on all of Texas…and almost won.”

Steven Spielberg is maybe the best-known director in the world today. And he built that reputation by making special-effects epics that push the technical boundaries of filmmaking.

But before all that, before Steven Spielberg became STEVEN! SPIELBERG!, he was just another young director full of ideas. And in 1974 he released his first major studio picture, The Sugarland Express.

The first thing that’s fascinating about The Sugarland Express is that it’s not a special-effects epic. It’s not the sort of thing people think of today when you say “Steven Spielberg” to them. It’s a character study of two people — a young couple facing the prospect of having their child taken away from them by the state, and willing to go to nearly any length to keep that from happening.

The second thing that’s fascinating about it is how completely it succeeds. The couple, played by William Atherton and Goldie Hawn — whose performance here is especially rich and nuanced, and will surprise you if your image of her is as a gum-popping blonde with a vacant stare — are simple people, but warm and winning. You see the logic that leads them down the road that ends with half the cops in the state of Texas on their trail, even as you shake your head at it. But the cops — the men who are chasing Our Heroes in hopes of breaking up their family — are multidimensional and human too. The Sugarland Express is about how often all of us find ourselves pawns on the chessboard of fate.

To be sure, it’s not a completely uncharacteristic film for Spielberg to have made. Visually there are moments where you can see embryonic Spielbergisms peeking out for the first time; its visual style will be familiar to anyone who knows Spielberg’s later pictures. And the theme of a family being threatened by outside forces is one that Spielberg would later come back to again and again.

But it’s small and personal in a way that future Spielberg productions are not — and, after he became the World’s Greatest Living Director, perhaps never could be again.

Is it the best film Steven Spielberg ever made? Probably not. But it’s still damn good.

The Parallax View (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenwriters: David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr.; uncredited assistance from Robert Towne

“There is no conspiracy. Just twelve people dead.”


In genre, The Parallax View is a political thriller. But as an experience, what it is about can be summed up in one word: paranoia.

Warren Beatty plays Joe Frady, a newspaper reporter whose career is going nowhere. When a political candidate is gunned down during a rally at Seattle’s Space Needle, Frady gets a tip from an old lover that there is more to the assassination than meets the eye. He starts digging, and begins discovering things — disturbing things — about the case, the candidate, and a company called Parallax.

And as he digs, all around him, people start to die.

The plot of The Parallax View is good enough, as these things go. But what makes the movie great aren’t the details of its plot; it’s the atmosphere. The movie captures better than any other I’ve seen what it must feel like to feel dark clouds of paranoia gathering around you. Is what you’re seeing real? Can you believe your own eyes? What do you do when your mind tells you one thing and the rest of the world tells you something different? And is it true that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone really isn’t out to get you?

It all builds to a conclusion that is simultaneously unbearable and inevitable. To its credit, unlike the vast majority of conspiracy-theory movies, The Parallax View doesn’t pull back from its own logic at the end to produce a deus ex machina happy ending and send audiences out of the theater whistling a happy tune. It follows its logic all the way to the end of the road — even though it produces an outcome that flies in the face of what audiences expect from a Hollywood movie, and from a character played by a star on the level of Warren Beatty.

It’s a challenging movie. But it’s provocative, and compelling, and memorable too.

Network (1976)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenwriter: Paddy Chayefsky

“Television will never be the same.”

Network was so shockingly, scathingly brilliant — so prescient about where America was going, and so hilarious about how it was going to get there — that even though almost nobody you know has actually seen it, everybody you know can reel off quotes from it. Even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing.

The central figure of the movie is Howard Beale, an over-the-hill TV news anchor who has just been told as the movie opens that he’s losing his job anchoring a low-rated nightly news program. Despondent, he announces live on the air that since his job is the only thing in his life that has any meaning, on his final night on the air he will put a pistol in his mouth and blow his brains out.

His producers freak out. They think it’s a disaster. They throw him out of the studio with orders to never come back practically as soon as the “on air” light goes out. But then they’re persuaded to bring him back, ostensibly to apologize for his behavior, and his return — in which, far from apologizing, he launches into an even more unhinged diatribe — scores incredible ratings, sending his producers a message they can’t ignore: if Howard Beale wants to immolate himself on the air, America wants to watch.

And so begins Howard Beale’s new career, not as a TV journalist, but as a kind of deranged prophet, a mad Jeremiah urging America to join him in throwing open their windows and screaming “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”

What exactly is Beale so mad about? Even he seems not to know. But it makes great TV.

Network was made in a media age that’s scarcely recognizable today — an age before cable, before 24-hour news, before the Internet. In 1976 “television” meant ABC, CBS, NBC, and maybe a local independent station or two showing grainy black-and-white Creature Features. But even in such an age, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky recognized the seeds of the media Panopticon we are all imprisoned in today. He saw coming at him a world where passion trumps reason, where celebrity is valued more highly than integrity, where people will line up to follow a madman if he amuses them enough. And he set out with razor-sharp wit to cut that world to ribbons before it stepped on us all.

A quick glance at the TV will show you that he didn’t succeed at that. But what he did succeed at was making a depiction of that world so darkly insightful, so scathingly hilarious, that it struck the mediasphere with incredible force and left an indelible impression. And even now, more than thirty years later, faint echoes of its impact are still being heard, and felt.


Sandy Smith

December 18, 2009
10:31 am

The horror…the horror…the lapels…and the ties… 😉

Jason Lefkowitz

December 18, 2009
10:48 am

Hey, half those outfits are in style again!


December 18, 2009
6:32 pm

I can’t take seriously any list that omits Superman the Movie.