The Taking of Pelham 123 (Directed by Joseph Sargent)
From my review: The most fascinating character, in my opinion, is Mr. Blue, the head of this quartet of criminals. The audience will eventually learn he’s Bernard Ryder, a former British Army Colonel who became a mercenary in Africa. We’re never entirely sure how this crew came to be, but we can assume they met in prison or after getting out. Blue is a rotten man, down to his core. He sees no value in human life but is also calculating. He’s not going to run in shooting; he’ll figure out the angles and force his opponent’s hand. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is, as his name implies, not confident in this criminal activity. Green got involved in the drug trade and was arrested in a bust; upon release, he had trouble getting a job of any means. We learn he operates an airport forklift and leaves in a hole of an apartment. One is utterly unsympathetic, while the other will likely elicit empathy from the audience. Green doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he has gone all-in with this crew. Society seems not to have a way to reintegrate these people, leading to the revolving door of crime.
The Cannes Film Festival has kicked off this year. Many new films will be unveiled, from the Hollywood studio ones to small, independent pictures. Forty-eight years ago, the documentary Hearts & Minds debuted at Cannes. However, its distribution in the United States would be held back when a restraining order was issued by one of the interview subjects, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. Columbia Pictures, which owned the rights, refused to distribute the film to venues. This led to director/producer Peter Davis and his colleagues being forced to buy back their own movie from Columbia. Why would so many people and institutions work so hard to prevent the public from seeing a film? Because it is a searing condemnation of America and the atrocities it committed in Vietnam.
The Phantom of Liberty (1974) Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière Directed by Luis Buñuel
The comedy anthology film is a rare beast but experienced some popularity in the 1960s and 70s. Monty Python’s contributions are notable, sometimes using an overarching plot to structure the sketches or just featuring scenes that exist independently. Most recently, we have The French Dispatch as a prime example. I think these movies come out of the filmmakers having ideas that weren’t big enough for a feature film but not wanting to make short films as those aren’t as marketable. People want to see a movie, so you take all these little ideas, maybe create some links to move from one bit to the next, and release them that way. This is precisely what Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty is.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) Written by Gordon Dawson, Sam Peckinpah, and Frank Kowalski Directed by Sam Peckinpah
The films of Sam Peckinpah are violent and coarse. They were considered so shockingly gory that it led to X-ratings and bans in some places. Although they are relatively tame on a technical level by today’s standards, emotionally, there is still a lot of pain present in the work. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia came at the end of Peckinpah’s most fruitful period, and you can see it in the production quality. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was a box office failure, so the budget is less. Peckinpah was also known to be an alcoholic, and while the technical filmmaking is very tight here, the anger in the script feels like a seething drunk hunched over a typewriter, dripping with misanthropy for their fellow man.
Female Trouble (1974) Written & Directed by John Waters
Divine was a god damn movie star. Annoyingly he was born Harris Milstead to conservative middle-class parents in the 1940s. The indoctrination into their mundane cult of straight boringness didn’t take, and after being introduced to drag while working as a hairdresser, destiny called. Watching Divine perform feels like an assault and a command performance wrapped up in one. He is so abrasive and confident that I understand why most people were turned off. They aren’t used to experiencing that much glory in a single person. Here we get a mash-up of Divine’s own backstory and a narrative inspired by John Waters’ friendship with incarcerated Manson family member “Tex” Watson. In the world of Waters, things get really wild real fast.
Black Christmas (1974) Written by A.Roy Moore Directed by Bob Clark
If you asked me whether or not I’d enjoy a slasher film made by the director of Porky’s and A Christmas Story before watching Black Christmas, I would probably have said I wouldn’t. However, much to my delight, this proved to be one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Black Christmas is not what you probably expected it would be. It was one of the earliest modern slashers, and therefore it’s not bogged down by the tropes and cliches its modern counterparts carry as baggage with them. Everything about this movie feels like it has what those pictures are missing. The humor is balanced with the horror, and the characters are strongly performed, making each person stand out and not get lost in the shuffle.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) Written by Peter Stone Directed by Joseph Sargent
Despite the bemoaning of “high crime” in contemporary America, it’s nowhere near the epidemic levels it reached in the 1970s. New York City was one of the most significant crime outliers during that period. In 1974, NYC saw 145,000+ violent crimes, including almost 2,000 murders and over 5,000 rapes. Over 100,000 cars were stolen in the city during that year. Jump to 2019, where there were 69,000 violent crimes. Only 558 of those were murders. Rape, however, has increased to over 6,000. Car thefts dropped to over 12,000 in that year. (Source). It’s clear that, in most cases, crime is down. That rape number is alarming, though, and I wonder from a sociological perspective how it is explained. I have ideas related to a rise in right-wing reactionary misogyny, but I would like to learn more. The Taking of Pelham 123 was part of a wave of films about crime in NYC in the 1970s, a social catastrophe that had to be addressed across politics, art, and every medium.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper Directed by Tobe Hooper
I’m going to get right to the point here. I didn’t like this movie very much. I did not hate it, but by the third act, I was extremely bored. When the film became just a woman running through the woods screaming with Leatherface chasing her at night, I felt very disengaged. I would argue that Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is a better movie, and it is undoubtedly my favorite film in the franchise because it leans into comedy. So many brilliant techniques and creative choices are happening in this first film, and I was highly impressed. I don’t think anyone could argue that TCM was a failure. It’s a foundational text in the horror film canon, and we can view it as establishing tropes that continue into today.
The Parallax View (1974) Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Robert Towne Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Since the colonial period, conspiracy and paranoia have been foundational to the American psyche. Europeans crossing the Atlantic to rape & pillage grew to fear Indigenous people whether they were an actual threat or not. This would continue as closed religious communities struck out against themselves (see the Salem Witch Trials), and Westward Expansion bolstered bootstraps ideology which led to further social atomization.
The Sugarland Express (1974) Written by Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, and Matthew Robbins Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s name has become associated with the transitory period in the late 1970s as the Hollywood system went from promoting bleak & introspective pictures to escapist suburban fantasy. In tandem with George Lucas, Spielberg’s work centered on childhood and wonder, pulling audiences into theaters with the promise of amazing sights to behold. However, Spielberg followed the trends before his catapult into a chronicler of Americana fantasia. The Sugarland Express fits right in with the other American movies of the time and showcases the director’s burgeoning style, particularly his choices in using the camera to tell his stories. The film exists as such a strange anomaly that begs the question as to why Spielberg made such a marked shift in his later work (the answer is money, yes, I know).