Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Comedy, Horror, Crime, Drama, Dustin Hoffman, Roman Polanski, Al Pacino, Movies, Reviews, Biography, 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Young Frankenstein, The Conversation, The Phantom of Liberty, A Woman Under the Influence, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Godfather Part II, Lenny, Chinatown, Fear Eats the Soul, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Gunnar Hansen, John Cassavetes, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Gene Hackman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bob Fosse, Luis Buñuel
Pick any year and you’re likely to find ten really good films that were released during that year, but 1974 is a year when there were ten really great films released. It’s not a year that stands out when first thought about, but upon closer inspection it seems like a banner year, when movie makers pulled out all the stops and gave us a succession of impressive movies that even now, still resonate and attract viewers in high numbers. (And if truth be told, this list could have been stretched a little further, but 13 Movies That Are 40 Years Old This Year didn’t sound right.) So, in no particular order, here are those ten movies we’re all still talking about.
1) Chinatown – Roman Polanski’s stunning neo-noir thriller transformed Jack Nicholson into a superstar and made Robert Towne’s elaborate, gripping screenplay – one of the most compelling, intelligent screenplays ever written – the main reason for seeing the movie. With superb performances from Faye Dunaway and John Huston, this incredible movie still has the power to unnerve and startle with its story of corruption and greed in 40’s Los Angeles, and that tragic revelation.
2) Lenny – Revisiting the life of counter-culture, angst-ridden comic Lenny Bruce was always going to depend on the actor playing him, but Dustin Hoffman turns in an amazing, detailed performance that is possibly his best ever. With a career best turn from Valerie Perrine, deft, sympathetic direction from Bob Fosse, and a grimy, authentic recreation of the clubs where Bruce vented his anger at the hypocrisies of society, Lenny still has the potential to shock and surprise, and takes no prisoners (just like Bruce himself).
3) Fear Eats the Soul – German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder had made a number of excursions into movies for TV before he wrote and directed this vital, important tale of the relationship between a Moroccan migrant worker (the soulful El Hadi ben Salem) and a German woman in her mid-sixties (the affecting Brigitte Mira). Ageism and racism are given short shrift by Fassbinder’s script, and the growing relationship is portrayed naturally and with little sentiment. It’s a dour movie, to be sure, but uplifting at the same time.
4) The Godfather Part II – The crowning glory of Francis Ford Coppola’s career and a movie that’s nigh on faultless, The Godfather Part II is the classic example of a sequel that is better than its predecessor… so, so much better. Even Brando’s presence isn’t missed. With its flashback sequences detailing the origin of Vito Corleone’s role as Godfather conflated with the inexorable rise of his son Michael to the same position, this has tragedy and triumph in equal measure, and features astonishing achievements in directing, scripting, acting, cinematography, sound, editing, costumes, art direction, and set design. In short, it’s a masterpiece.
5) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – With its fierce, tension-wringing set up and feral, nightmarish family of cannibals, Tobe Hooper’s second feature still has the power to shock, and leave audiences feeling drained by the end. The iconic image of Gunnar Hansen with a literal “face”-mask and revving a chainsaw – once seen, never forgotten – sums up the movie’s terrifying approach to its subject matter, and confirms (if anyone needed reminding) that low budget horror can be startling, original and a once in a lifetime experience.
6) A Woman Under the Influence – Possibly the finest examination of mental illness within the family, John Cassavetes’ stinging, heart-rending drama features a tour-de-force performance from Gena Rowlands as the emotionally downtrodden Mabel, a woman whose ill treatment by her husband and children leads her to suppress any positive feelings for fear of being judged as “unbalanced”. Not a movie for everyone but one that isn’t afraid to confront a complex, contentious issue with poise and a piercing intelligence.
7) The Phantom of Liberty – If you like your movies chock-full of symbolism, surrealism and absurdist humour, then Luis Buñuel’s collection of barely connected episodes will capture your attention and never let go. It’s a modern masterpiece of (mis)direction and subversive behaviour, and features a seasoned cast that includes Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti and Adolfo Celi, all of whom enter into the spirit of things with undisguised gusto.
8) The Conversation – It’s that man Coppola again, this time with an introspective low-key look at the self-contained life of a surveillance expert (the superb Gene Hackman) who finds himself drawn – against his better judgment – into a perfectly weighted mystery. The chilly, withdrawn mise-en-scene is expertly crafted, and Coppola’s script delivers more and more as the movie heads toward its incredible denouement. To release both this and The Godfather Part II in the same year – well, that’s just insane.
9) Young Frankenstein – Mel Brooks’ finest hour, even though Blazing Saddles was also released in ’74, this grand homage to the Universal horrors of the 30’s and 40’s is an undeniable treat, full of terrific one-liners – “To the lumber yard!” – and wonderful visual flourishes. Co-writers Brooks and Gene Wilder are on top form, and their affection for the Fronkensteen movies made by Universal adds to the joy of watching Mary Shelley’s classic tale unfold in its own, very unique manner. And the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” sequence is just inspired.
10) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – Ignore the turgid remake with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, this is ten times as good and ten times as gripping. Walter Matthau is the grizzled cop engaged in a battle of wits with train hijacker Robert Shaw, and as the movie ratchets up the tension, audiences are treated to one of the finest thrillers ever made. Bravura movie making from all concerned but anchored by a fantastic job of direction by the underrated Joseph Sargent.
If you agree or disagree with my choices, feel free to let me know. And if there’s another year with an equally brilliant selection of movies released, feel free to let me know as well. But more importantly, if you haven’t seen some or all of the movies listed above, then what are you doing reading this? Get out there and watch them!