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The Spirit of '74 Lives On

Commentary: A quarter-century later, the year stands out as a pinnacle of daring, diverse work.

February 28, 1999|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

Twenty-five years ago, the country was in the grips of the Watergate hearings, an economic slump and the last vestiges of the Vietnam War. But the films we saw on the big screen in 1974 were anything but diversionary--they were revelatory.

Michael Corleone gained a powerful Mafia kingdom but lost love, loyalty and family in "The Godfather Part II,"; private eye J.J. Gittes uncovered an incestuous political scandal of biblical proportions in "Chinatown"; and surveillance wizard Harry Caul created his own voyeuristic trap in deconstructing a murderous plot in "The Conversation."

And that's just the Big Three from 1974. There's a slew of other film pleasures from that astonishing year, so daring and diverse that one is hard-pressed to find its equal over the past three decades. Among the others: "Lenny," "Harry and Tonto," "A Woman Under the Influence," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "Murder on the Orient Express," "The Parallax View," "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "Thieves Like Us," "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," "The Longest Yard," "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."

Of course, not everything was so good. "Daisy Miller" didn't live up to its potential, breaking Peter Bogdanovich's auspicious streak of critical favorites ("The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon"). And let's not forget those kitschy "shake and bake" twins of disaster and destruction, "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno." Yet in their own way they too captured a painful reality of broken dreams.

"As with wines, there are vintage years for films because of their significance," says Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Chinatown." "It's true of '39, '40, '46 and '74.

"Whatever the quality that history decides, the consistent level of ambition was higher [in the '70s]. . . . Filmmakers thought people would see movies more relevant to their lives and problems than today. Their assumption was that their taste was similar to that of the audience."

Yet even then no one was quite prepared for the boldness of "The Godfather Part II." Francis Ford Coppola somehow managed to exceed the brilliance of "The Godfather"--"a romance about a king and three sons," as he once put it--by masterfully jumping back and forth in time to juxtapose a father's ascension and a son's destruction.

These two compelling stories coalesced into a complex narrative about America's past and future. Robert De Niro (in his assured Oscar-winning performance) as the young Vito Corleone rises to success as the don of New York's Little Italy in the early 20th century, thinking only of his family's future. Al Pacino as Michael (never better, with his slow-burning, introverted horror) ruthlessly tries to recapture his father's success by venturing into Las Vegas and later Cuba in the late 1950s.

The film's somber, gothic tableaux reveal the seduction of power and ambition, and the inevitability of evil and paranoia.

But then darkness and dysfunction encompassed so many films that year. In "The Conversation," Coppola's smaller, more intimate work, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, the archetypal techie, obsessive to a fault. (In last year's hit "Enemy of the State," Hackman plays a character that's like Harry, only 20 years older; in fact, a photo of Hackman from "The Conversation" is used in "Enemy.")

What makes Harry so interesting is his own desperate need for privacy. The irony really kicks in, though, as he tries to decipher what he's heard, becoming less certain of what it means, with the conspiracy seemingly closing in on him. Coppola's warning couldn't have been more prescient: Our reliance on high-tech toys confuses rather than clarifies our perceptions.

There were plenty of other conspiracy films to go around in 1974, including the political assassination underlying Alan Pakula's "The Parallax View," and the ritualistic murder at the heart of "Murder on the Orient Express," the lavish Agatha Christie adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet with a wicked sensibility.

Of course, the jewel in the crown was "Chinatown," an allegorical mystery for the ages, now considered a modern masterpiece. Doing Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler one better, Towne achieved a continuity of corruption that helped explain the mess we were in. Lucky for us he found such a fresh and daring scandal from L.A's past that we could relate to: the rapacious thirst for land, water, power and sex.

Written with elegant intricacy by the L.A. native and directed with narrative precision by Polish emigre Roman Polanski, "Chinatown" exquisitely captures the powerlessness of going up against a corrupt establishment. Jack Nicholson widened his appeal as the tarnished detective, the classic counterculture hipster who can't quite talk his way out of everything.

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