The Ingrid Pitt column: the joy of 70s cinema

Ingrid looks back at a decade filled with cinematic treats, from Star Wars and The Exorcist through to Grease and Duel...

Ingrid Pitt

It is said of the Sixties that if you remember them you weren’t there and if you can remember the Seventies – you wish you couldn’t. A bit harsh? I guess so. The Seventies were inevitable after the social and financial liberation of the preceding decade. The Mods and Rockers had been ousted by the Hippies and Skinheads. The Hippies hung on but the fashions were transmuted into more defined outlines. Drugs were available but there was a general consensus that you indulged your habit in private. Teenagers were encouraged to do their own thing and society took a seismic shift in its efforts to accommodate them. It was a time when the young took over the world and have never looked like giving it back. It was the generation conceived and born in the War Years and its stringent aftermath of austerity and shortage. In Europe at least. America was a whole different kettle marked Caviar.

The skeleton at the party was the Vietnam war. It seemed nobody wanted it but the politicians and there was nothing to gain. Just losers! Early in the decade there was the shock of the possibility that oil had had its day and the pumps ran dry. Anti-nuclearism was a popular mood and demonstrations a day out for the thinking classes and professional agitators. The unions ran the country and nobody dared to say ‘nay’ to them. Three day weeks and blackouts were the norm. And if you think two weekly bin emptying is bad, compared to the Seventies it seems like over indulgence. Then, the waste just piled up in the streets and dustmen were hard to spot on the hoof.

By the end of the decade, Egypt and Syria had signed a peace treaty with Israel and President Sadat had been assassinated in Cairo. Ayatollah Khomeini had ousted the Shah of Persia from the Peacock Throne and the Soviet Union made an all out attempt to take over Afghanistan. The Afghans fought back with weapons supplied by the USA.

And what was the film industry doing at this time? Contracting! The directors of Columbia Films, after the company sustained the worst losses in its history, were forced to give up the company offices in Piccadilly and return to the mother lode in Burbank. Even there the directors didn’t feel secure enough to go it on their own so did a deal with Warner Brothers to share its facilities.

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Even worse hit were MGM. The great company, which had done so much to put Hollywood on the map as the centre of the cinematic world, had to sell off a hundred acres of back lot to pay the wages. The producers also had to have a car boot sale to get rid of the surfeit of the props and scenery garnered from some of the most amazing films made in the preceding years. The cry from the Hollywood hills was “The Indies are coming.” And when they did, they took over the film industry.

Although in many ways it was the fashion industry that took the public by storm. The movie makers hadn’t entirely lost the plot. There was a bunch of director/producers, most of them straight out of film school, ready to lead the way. William Friedkin sealed the fate of the British-led Horror genre with its old-fashioned reliance on story plotting and dramatic colours when he signed up Linda Blair for the projectile vomiting and brought The Exorcist (1973) into the public domain. Hammer, the main exponent of gore since Universal bowed out a decade or so before the British company had seized the stake, had been on a course of diminishing returns for some years. The Sting (1973) turned the con-man into a hero when George Roy Hills paired up-and-coming Robert Redford with mature Paul Newman and let the ‘baddies’ walk away with the proceeds at the end of the scam.

And then there were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg threw his kippa into the arena with Jaws (1975) and made swimming in the sea a nerve-racking indulgence for generations to come while Lucas, with a little help from his friend and producer, Gary Kutz, moved on from American Graffiti (1973). The role of Kutz in bringing Star Wars to the fans has been carefully expunged from the Lucas story.

Day of the Triffids (1973), directed by Francois Truffaut, was a valiant attempt to get European films into the ‘future’ business on the back of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The antics of a bunch of kids seemed a little outré at the time, but now, with the rise and rise of feral youth, seems all too familiar.

Merchandising was a Seventies thing. Before that, any attempts at supplementing the spin-offs from films were usually confined to books and the occasional plastic toy. Lucas changed all that. He saw merchandising as a major part of revenue raising and jealously guarded any attempts at copying anything without his expressed and signed permission. It was a mine that every producer worth his Ferrari made sure to exploit once pointed in the right direction.

And then there was Spielberg, Mr. Blockbuster. He came to public notice in the riveting Duel (1971) and never let the attention lapse. The drama of Dennis Weaver as the hapless car driver being hunted down by a marauding lorry has still to be bettered for hidden menace Spielberg’s early sci-fi epics are still rated at the very top of the genre. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) broke new ground and gleaned awards in various categories and gave him the freedom in later years to take on projects such as Schindler’s List, the ultimate adventure story, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan amongst a plethora of Academy Nominations and Awards.

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It wasn’t just the golden quartet making the tills ring. Looking through a list of Seventies films it is amazing how many stick in the memory. Anti-heroes became fashionable. Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) had Clint Eastwood as the cop that was as bad, if not worse, than the crooks he remorselessly hunted down. Gene Hackman cemented the genre into place with his portrayal, taken from life, of ‘Popeye’ in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971).

It was in the Seventies that sex emerged from the swift cut-aways and the pan to the heaving ocean so that everyone could be thrilled by what was going on before your very eyes. Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the middle-ages tales of lust and lechery, were spruced up for a modern consumption and delivered on film by Paolo Pasolini in 1971. Fellini contributed his views on louche Italian society with Roma (1972 ) and Amarcord (1974) (I actually auditioned for this but Fellini told me I was too skinny.) Another Italian, Bernado Bertolucci, employed Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972) to make sinful sex respectable, Don’t Look Now (1973) showed Donald Sutherland enjoying a lustful romp with Julie Christie while their baby daughter drowns in a pool and Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuel made sex fun. And I must ‘fess that I helped the industry out by getting my kit off in films like Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Wicker Man (1973).

Keeping a watchful eye on the world’s deteriorating situation following the Kennedy Assassination and the Watergate scandal were a clutch of films that were not always friendly towards the establishment. In The Parallax View (1974), directed by Alan Pakula and starring Warren Beatty, a boozy reporter stumbles on an organisation that makes a habit of killing political opponents. Three Days of the Condor (1975) extends and engages the premise of political shenanigans set up by Parallax and All the President’s Men (1976) confirms what we already guessed – that politicians are not to be trusted.

Martial Arts also found an outlet with the versatile but short lived Chinese karate powered destroyer, Bruce Lee. Long on action and short on verbals, Fists of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) established fast moving Oriental action as a high-octane attention grabber in many subsequent films.

On a more serious note, The Vietnam war was being castigated, reflecting the mood of the man on 42nd Street. One of the most amazing films was Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Copolla and starring Marlon Brandon and Martin Sheen. It also produced one of the great lines of filmic history, uttered reverentially by Robert Duvall, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Coppola, after the runaway success of The Godfather (1972) could do no wrong. The aftermath of war was also well served in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) that made Robert De Niro a star and introduced teenaged Jodie Foster to an appreciative public. De Niro made it a double with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and set Meryl Streep on the road to stardom.

Disaster was the overriding feature of the decade’s film output. Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974) and The China Syndrome (1979) showed just how fragile the modern world was. As frightening as that thought might be, there was always the musical to help the brighten the mood. Fiddler on the Roof (1971), with the wonderful Topol singing the lead, broke new ground by setting the stage in the turmoil of the increasingly manic Tsarist Russia of 1905. Cabaret the following year made a star of Liza Minnelli against a background of Nazi persecution of the Jews. In 1973, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice got it on with Jesus Christ Superstar – also about the persecution of the Jews but this time Jew on Jew. To finish the decade with a flourish John Badham voted John Travolta King of the Disco in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Randal Kleiser confirmed Travolta’s status when he got hot and moody with Olivia Newton John in Grease a year later.

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In spite of 1970s being a transition year in society, it is amazing the number of films, in an industry increasingly losing the shielding umbrella of the ‘Studio System’, that managed to come out ahead of the pack and become trend setters by the turn of the decade. But that’s Showbiz!

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It seems I touched a nerve giving my opinion on Daniel Craig. At least it got some mail. What did hurt was the assumption that because I’m a dumb blonde I have to get someone else – presumably a man – to write this column. And you are right, Sorkinfan, I have never read a Bond novel. But we were talking movies!

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

6 January 2009