In retrospect, the 1970s has been solidified as one of, if not the most important decade in modern cinema. The era produced the greatest cinematic masterminds and films of all time. Not since the invention of the motion picture had such a single period of artistic proficiency impacted culture and the industry so assuredly. Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese are all legends to the contemporary film student, but in the seventies, these men were just setting out to take risks and tell the stories that they felt were important. Their films stand as major milestones and benchmarks of aspirations to perfection, but they had no way of knowing that while they were producing them. I think that is what truly makes them unique and ensures their influence and relevance. The films these men gave us will never be able to be recreated or remade with the same precision. They are all true gems.
We’ll start with Mike Nichols, famous of course, for The Graduate, released in 1967. That film, along with his debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned a total of twenty Academy Award nominations and six wins. With that level of acclaim, he signed on to adapt the widely popular Joseph Heller novel Catch-22 into a feature film. The end result was a strangely dark and surreal look at life on an American bomber squadron in Italy during World War II. The film was faithful to the novel by most accounts, despite it rearranging and omitting certain aspects of the original plot. It follows the same main character, Captain John Yossarian, portrayed excellently by Alan Arkin. This casting decision shows us how the “everyman” trend that Friedkin is often credited to have pioneered with Gene Hackman in The French Connection was catching on. However, Catch-22 was released a year before The French Connection, so it just goes to show how underrated and influential Nichols actually was as a filmmaker. In Catch-22, we embark on this wild ride with Captain Yossarian as he struggles with maintaining his sanity in the midst of a group of his fellow airmen who have all but lost their own minds. Nichols effectively puts us in his shoes, and we get lost in this sort of in-between headspace on the brink of explosion fueled by death, war, lust, and pain.
Nichols’ immediate follow-up, Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, was released one year later. Written by Jules Feiffer, the film’s script was originally intended for the stage, but Nichols — perhaps not so coincidentally a former theater director — thought it best suited for the screen. Carnal Knowledge is often regarded as the first American film to deal so frankly with the topics of sex, love, and relationships. Before the seventies, Hollywood had agreed to avoid any such taboos. In fact, Nichols himself was one of the first filmmakers to directly break the Hayes Code (precursor to the MPAA) with Virginia Woolf in 1966. It was because of this that he was able to confidently tackle the sensitive subject matter in Feiffer’s script.
Garfunkel and Nicholson play lifelong friends, and the story jumps forward in time, stopping every few years to let us catch up on the state of their love lives. Nichols was known as the actor’s director, bringing out the best possible performance in each of his collaborators. It didn’t hurt that he worked with the very best, either. This, compounded with his astute attention to detail regarding the colors, blocking, and composition of each frame, truly conveyed engaging characters and tone.
Keeping with the original intention of Knowledge as a stage production, Nichols heavily employs the use of long takes, sometimes drawn out by silence, often shrouding his talent in shadow, and defocusing the lens. The shot of Bobbie (played by Ann Margret) laying naked on the bed as Nicholson’s Jonathan showers in the background is iconic because of its silent simplicity. Seldom do we get such a scene in a Hollywood film, in which our main characters are just there, existing. Nichols allows us to be true spectators of their lives. Later on in the film, Jonathan and Bobbie get into a huge argument, and as Nicholson’s performance gets increasingly more furious, it also reveals a certain vulnerability. He is terrified of marriage and commitment, and Nichols helps us see this by placing the two actors on the total opposite ends of the frame. This simple yet overlooked technique shows a real advanced level of maturity and intelligence in Nichols’ work that elevates his storytelling.
Francis Ford Coppola, now an old and rich recluse who only shows his films to his close friends, may die knowing he produced the greatest films of all time (hopefully). While he famously denounces its third entry as a mere epilogue, The Godfather series is often at the top of most publications’ lists of the best films ever. The Godfather Part I and Part II are universally acknowledged as the masterclass in filmmaking and storytelling. They are perhaps the closest thing we’ll ever get to perfection in the art form. While each film stands on its own individually, they are truly two halves of one grand story. It is the story of Michael Corleone — played absolutely gloriously by Al Pacino — and his ascension from unassuming Army boy to ruthless mafia boss. The Godfather Part I was a critical darling and financial success, a rarity in today’s world. Part II was even more so, but it stands on the shoulders of Part I. It is difficult to imagine a world where Part II exists without Part I. Most critics regard Part II as the superior of the two, but it only works because of what we know about these characters and this world after watching Part I.
The Godfather is, as I see it, one complete work that happened to be produced as two separate films. The most distinct aspect of Part II is the nonlinear narrative, with Robert De Niro portraying a young Vito Corleone (famously played by Marlon Brando in Part I) trying to survive in the Italian immigrant neighborhoods of New York. This was a genius move on Coppola’s part to save that portion of the book (originally penned by Mario Puzo) for the second film, adequately mirroring and accentuating the tangential chronicle of his son Michael’s life. However, Coppola expanded on Puzo’s original vision by turning the crime novel into an epic tale of loyalty, family, and the American dream. The film immensely altered the gangster genre, lifting it out of B-movie status. The synthesis of such homegrown themes with the humanization of a criminal family gives the film its richness, which is in turn fleshed out by the stellar performances and Coppola’s perfectionist eye for color and texture. Each period is recreated masterfully, particularly all the young Vito scenes with De Niro, which are given a nostalgic sepia-like look.
I think it would be foolish to expect a film like The Godfather to be made today, especially at a big-budget level. A film with no major stars, no big action set-pieces, no attachment to a broader brand or franchise, and a total runtime of 377 minutes (Parts I and II) cannot possibly be made outside of an indie budget. This is partially why these films are such gems: they were products of the times and proved themselves to be monumental artistic and cultural milestones.
Coppola followed The Godfather Part II with was by far his most ambitious film: Apocalypse Now, a visceral and violent take on the insanity of the Vietnam War. After much delay due to a chaotic and way over-budget shoot, the film finally opened in 1979. Continuing some of The Godfather’s themes of alienation, corruption, and power, the film is a hallucinatory hero’s journey, and as much a mythic poem as it is a war movie.
The adventure we follow is that of Captain Benjamin Willard (portrayed by Martin Sheen in exemplary fashion), a haunted spec-ops officer tasked with locating and terminating a rogue Colonel Kurtz (a terrifying and manic Marlon Brando). The horror that Coppola endured to shoot and assemble this project from page to completion is translated to screen via vibrant colors and the sweeping sounds of Wagner and The Doors. The madness that engulfed the day-to-day of the film’s shoot is resonant in every frame of it. It is a frantically fantastic fever dream, an explosive work of art.
Willard’s journey to find Kurtz is also a journey to find the source of his madness, and when he arrives at Kurtz’s “palace,” every previous sequence in the film retroactively clarifies itself as one step closer to this horrible truth. The truth that has consumed Kurtz and encroaches itself upon Willard: that the only thing keeping us from madness is bliss and ignorance. A happy life is an innocent life, and a man exposed to the nightmare of war and the cruel violence of humanity’s’ most primal instincts cannot possibly remain sane. Willard faces many trials in his journey, each time getting closer and closer to the edge of that precipice, until he finds himself teetering off. Coppola excels on every level, giving us what feels a properly heightened and visceral look at the hellish blaze of destruction. The cinematic scope is not occupied by bravado and heroism, but rather an intoxicated fury of discovery. As Willard uncovers “the horror… the horror” of man’s animalistic ability to kill with dispassionate vigor and without judgement, we get a chance to re-evaluate our own humanity and how close we may be finding that same truth.
While Mike Nichols passed away in 2014 and Coppola has now essentially retired, the only maverick from the seventies that still blesses us with his art is the great Martin Scorsese. He found early recognition for Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but it was 1976’s Taxi Driver that really put him on the marquee as one of the best directors of the time. Taxi Driver is a wretched portrait of New York, and a dark dive into the cynicism and despair of the era.
What Scorsese was able to do with his lead performer, — and frequent collaborator — Robert De Niro, was craft a vile and lonely antihero, quite representative of his generation and environment. Through De Niro’s iconic Travis Bickle as well as Scorsese’s meticulous direction, they were able to get to the core of urban rot, capturing the solemn mood of a decaying city. We find ourselves rooting for Travis, even though we don’t know what his intentions or motivations really are. We know that he’s fed up with the filth of New York and its people, and we know wants to do something about it. In his quest for purpose and some real forward direction in his life after returning from Vietnam, Travis becomes consumed by the sleaze and the grime. We’re led to believe he died a hero, but what did he truly accomplish other than offing a couple of pimps?
It is this moral ambiguity that makes Taxi Driver and Travis as a character so fascinating. There are similar themes throughout all the previously mentioned films, particularly The Godfather with Michael Corleone, but Scorsese and De Niro are the most effective at putting us right in the perspective of the protagonist, allowing us to understand his frustrations while maintaining a constant unpredictability of his actions. Travis buys a bunch of guns, so we know he intends to use them. He keeps saying the city needs to be flooded and cleansed of all its inferiority. It is not until Travis starts interacting with Iris (thirteen year-old Jodie Foster in an Oscar-nominated role) that we get a true sense of his humanity. He doesn’t quite see it at first, but we can tell that this girl is the key to his redemption, or at least his attempt at it. While Travis fails at finding love and companionship, or any sort of real meaning or motivation (his plans to assassinate a presidential candidate pathetically fall apart), it is Iris who sparks that fire for which he was so anxiously waiting. In the end, we get a conclusion in which Travis lives on, a hero and a savior, but I think it’s wise to assume this is but his dying fantasy as he bleeds out by his fallen victims.
Scorsese’s New York, New York, released the year after Taxi Driver, is considered by some to be his greatest masterpiece. However, it was commercial flop. Audiences failed to connect with Scorsese’s take on the musical, which incorporated some of the slow and gritty drama he had been known for. Scorsese attempted to do something different by telling a grand story about New York, love, and music by juxtaposing it with the artificial sets that the old classic Hollywood was known for. While audiences at the time did not respond with their wallets, it is undeniable that the film had a lasting impact on cinema. New York, New York was in part an experimental deconstruction of the musical romance. It was bold and daring, and way ahead of its time. Today, we can see its direct influence on the Best Picture-nominated La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Chazelle crafted a film that celebrates these old musicals, and he clearly borrowed (stole?) a significant amount of imagery, themes, and plot points from New York, New York, among other films. Scorsese, along with Coppola and Nichols, will forever be remembered as landmark icons of cinema, and pioneers of inventive and thought-provoking storytelling.