1976 – Top 10 Films
John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man is little more than slick pulp, scribed by one of the best in the business (William Goldman, who also delivered the No.1 in this list). It rode the crest of a mini-wave of Nazi war criminal movies that included The Odessa File and saw Laurence Olivier go from villain in this to hero in the amusingly crackpot The Boys from Brazil.
Hoffman’s dedication to his role – running and running, and staying up nights before a scene, leading to the famous “Why don’t you just try acting?” quote attributed to Olivier; used as vilification of Hoffman’s methods, Hoffman’s version is inevitably more humorous and less extreme – lends the proceedings a sincerity that a deranged Nazi’s quest for diamonds doesn’t really merit.
The most famous scene is the randomly cryptic “Is it safe?” interrogation in which Olivier’s psycho dentist gives Dustin a painful cavity probing. It’s a good representation of the movie generally; a collection of effective sequences and contrivances (Olivier just happens to be spotted by not one but two Holocaust survivors in midtown Manhattan) that don’t amount to much in terms of coherent plotting but have enough verve to see them through.
Olivier was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but one feels it’s more a result of obligation (and being alive) than his agreeable hamminess. It’s a shame Roy Scheider, as Hoffman’s big brother government agent, is only in the first half of the picture, although one wonders how much that was designed as a shock exit (the actor was at the peak of his fame at the time). Goldman’s name might fool the uninitiated into thinking this included serious commentary on the Holocaust, but it’s very much the Goldman who wrote Magic and Maverick, rather than the Oscar winner of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.
Christian Szell: Oh, please don’t worry. I’m not going into that cavity. That nerve’s already dying. A live, freshly cut nerve is infinitely more sensitive. So I’ll just drill into a healthy tooth until I reach the pulp. Unless, of course, you can tell me that it’s safe.
Brian De Palma’s mesmerising Stephen King adaption (screenplay courtesy of Lawrence D Cohen) is an assured assault of the uncanny and the elevated. Carrie represents his leap into the mainstream, but bringing a toolbox of split-screen, expertly crafted set pieces. It’s been adapted or sequelised several times since, but none with an ounce of the impact.
Part of the problem might also be that so much here has since been relegated firmly to the realm of cliché. From the thunderously signposted awakening of Carrie’s powers in tandem with her hitting womanhood (Sissy Spacek, effectively meek and mild until roused), to the high school bullying and revenge, to the mad mother (Norman Bates obviously came first), to the signature shock ending that De Palma would repeatedly borrow from himself, this is a picture that does it all with maximum technical finesse and minimum subtlety.
Right from the opening sequence, a dreamy slow-motion schoolgirl shower scene (accompanied by the usual brilliant yet flagrantly operatic score from Pino Donaggio) turning to the horror of Carrie’s first period, we’re informed that De Palma is going for broke with the Freudian and indulging his penchant for the lurid. This culminates in the prom sequence when all hell breaks loose. Some might find this unintentionally funny now, but De Palma’s always walked a knife-edge between giddy hysteria and self-parody.
De Palma and Lucas shared casting calls for this and Star Wars, of course, so we might have seen William Katt as Luke Skywalker and Nancy Allen as Princess Leia, or John Travolta as Han Solo (the latter duo are particularly good as bitch and jock respectively). Spacek and Piper Laurie (as the chillingly repressive religious freak matriarch, she steals the film, the only actor here as bold and vivid as De Palma’s virtuoso camerawork) both received Oscar nominations, not that common for a horror movie unless you’re The Silence of the Lambs.
Margaret White: I should’ve killed myself when he put it in me. After the first time, before we were married, Ralph promised never again. He promised, and I believed him. But sin never dies. Sin never dies. At first, it was all right. We lived sinlessly. We slept in the same bed, but we never did it. And then, that night, I saw him looking down at me that way. We got down on our knees to pray for strength. I smelled the whiskey on his breath. Then he took me. He took me, with the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I liked it! With all that dirty touching of his hands all over me. I should’ve given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding, and now the devil has come home. We’ll pray.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
I’m suspect Philip Kaufman’s version of The Outlaw Josey Wales, before Clint axed his ass, would have been superior; Kaufman didn’t want to cast Sandra Locke for a start (very wise) and he was in favour of toning down the anti-government politics of the novel upon which it was based (Forrest Carter was an alias of former Klan leader Asa Carter). But the essence of the story remains (credited to Sonia Chernus and Kaufman), and despite Clint’s customarily perfunctory direction, it remains a lengthy but engrossing tale. And a very spitty one.
This was Clint’s most political western since his days with Leone, but in very much a revisionist tone. Josey Wales is wronged by Unionists (they kill his wife and son) and joins the Confederacy, refusing to submit when the war is over. With a bounty on his head, he ends up forming his own unique family (Vin Diesel would doubtless be proud). It’s one that includes a very memorable, and amusing, Chief Dan George.
There’s very much a post-Vietnam theme running through the picture (the war isn’t over for Wales, see also Rambo), but I can’t help but feel it would have been a richer piece of work if Kaufman or Milius had been entrusted to steer the ship.
Lone Watie: (Josey Wales has sneaked up on him and pulled a gun) They said a man could get rich on reward money if he could kill you.
Josey Wales: Seems like you was looking to gain some money here.
Lone Watie: Actually, I was looking to gain an edge. I thought you might be someone who would sneak up behind me with a gun.
Josey Wales: Where’d you ever get an idea like that? Besides it ain’t supposed to be easy to sneak up behind an Indian.
Lone Watie: I’m an Indian, all right; but here in the nation they call us the “civilised tribe”. They call us “civilised” because we’re easy to sneak up on. White men have been sneaking up on us for years.
The Missouri Breaks
There’s no claiming The Missouri Breaks as a neglected classic, but it’s a fascinating example of ’70s strangeness and excess bound up in a western format. It features Brando in a dress, and Nicholson on the cusp of caricature. It’s an unrepentant, sprawling mess of a comedy western, both very violent and highly enjoyable.
This was Nicholson’s first picture after his Oscar success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, compared to his later descent into self-parody, he’s relatively straight here. His work rate diminished just as his coke habit accelerated in the later ’70s (the latter predilection most evident in self-directed western Goin’ South a couple of years later).
It takes a lot to eclipse Jack, but Marlon proved more than able. Brando could no longer give a toss, unless it was about eating pies, but one couldn’t say his four post-Godfather screen appearances during the decade were less than memorable. There’s notable support too from Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton and Frederic Forrest.
Arthur Penn had scored big time with Bonnie and Clyde, but he was never quite able to rekindle that glory. Little Big Man was the kind of big picture of an Oscar winner who doesn’t quite know what to do. The Missouri Breaks takes that to the next level; he’s pretty much given up trying to control the piece, especially with his biggest name. Whenever Brando’s on screen, thanks in no small part to his improvisations, The Missouri Breaks is weirdly compelling. His character, bounty hunter Robert E Lee Clayton, dispenses with Nicholson’s gang in a variety of creative and costumed ways. And kisses his horse. Brando and Nicholson share few scenes, and reputedly didn’t get on. It’s little surprise Robert Towne was called in as fix-it man to make sense of Thomas McGuane’s corrupted screenplay.
Robert E Lee Clayton: (wearing a bonnet and shawl, having killed Harry Dean Stanton) Well, old granny’s tired now.
Network is one of those movies people say was prescient, but they were actually saying it was pretty on-the-nose at the time. Sydney Lumet’s film was not a portent of things to come, but a statement of how things were/are.
It’s not a subtle picture (satire and “straight” comedy were not Lumet’s strong suits), but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a sporadic punch, as Peter Finch’s disillusioned, and soon to be fired, news anchor has a meltdown on air that is exploited by the network for the ratings his rants fuel. When it’s focussing on the money, Network remains pretty sharp, less so when it looks in other directions, political or evangelical, for topicality (The Mao Tse-Tung Hour). As such, the last line sounds good, but is too glib too really land.
Finch took home the Oscar for his tirades (memorably misquoted by George Clooney in Out of Sight), but Robert Duvall is particularly impressive as the calculating boss, as is William Holden as Finch’s old friend (and news division president). Dunaway landed Best Actress for an appropriately icy role, having struggled throughout the decade (both in terms of being difficult and finding effective roles). However, the romance between her and Holden’s characters may be thematically relevant but also translates as padding. Likewise, the reapplication of Finch’s clout at the behest of Ned Beatty’s corporate messiah is rather ungainly.
Paddy Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay for the film, having previously grabbed Adapted for the all-but forgotten The Hospital, and Marty twenty years earlier (I’m actually most partial to Altered States, which he was unhappy with after Ken Russell got his paws on it). The statuette comes via the kind of Academy-friendly raging that more commonly finds an actor playing disabilities garlanded. In all, Network took four wins from ten nods.
Which makes it sound like a begrudging inclusion on the list, but it’s not. It’s only to recognise that Network is a movie of scattergun precision, raging hither and thither such that its assaults are frequently potent but could do with a little more temperance at times.
Howard Beale: I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Assault on Precinct 13
While the goofy sense of humour found in John Carpenter’s first feature Dark Star surfaces sporadically in later work (most notably Big Trouble in Little China), it’s this sophomore outing that really set the template for what was to come. Carpenter was given the opportunity to make whatever he wanted, but on a very limited budget. So he made a western… an urban western.
The director was inspired by Rio Bravo and fashioned a base-under-siege story (he’d work up variants of the same on a further five occasions) in which cops and criminals reluctantly join forces in order to fend off the altogether deadlier intent of a criminal gang bent on revenge.
The result is a tense, spartan picture informed by Carpenter’s (hugely influential) trademark synth score. The opening is particularly chilling scene-setter, in which a little girl is shot through her ice cream cone in broad daylight; it’s her father’s retaliation and flight to the police precinct staffed by a skeleton crew that leads to the main action.
Carpenter, using the anamorphic 2:35:1 ratio for the first time, creates an ambience in which nowhere is safe, and it’s instructive that he subsequently graduated to the likes of Halloween and The Fog; the construction and mood is closer to a horror film than thriller (just one with added gunfights). He cited Night of the Living Dead as an influence, and there are references to Rio Bravo, Once Upon a Time in the West and Hitchcock, but the picture doesn’t feel gimmicky or over-referential. If there’s a criticism, it’s that Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer aren’t the most memorable or charismatic leads, yet perversely, this goes to emphasis the pared-down economy of the piece.
Julie: Why would anybody want to shoot at a police station?
The Pink Panther Strikes Again
How many comedy series reach a fourth entry, let alone come up with their best entry at such a juncture? Thirteen years after the actually quite sensible and respectable in comparison original, Blake Edwards and Peter Seller knock it out of the park in the most lunatic of the Pink Panther series.
Of course, there are bum moments in The Pink Panther Strikes Again – comedies rarely have a 100 percent hit rate – but this one is remarkably consistently funny. In a decade where memorable work for Sellers had all-but dried up, the return of Inspector Clouseau was galvanising (Return of the Pink Panther, two years earlier, provided an unexpected reheat for his career, and this was an even bigger hit).
It would be short-lived, in more ways than one. An Oscar nomination was only a few years away for the near-sublime Being There, but so was the descent of the Pink Panther into inevitable laziness and repetition. Sellers would cap such desperate gigs with spoofs of Fu Manchu and the Count of Monte Cristo. Blake Edwards was also sinking into irrelevance; he’d make a couple of vanity vehicles (of which Victor Victoria was well received) with wife Julie Andrews and unwisely hitch his wagon to rising star Bruce Willis, but by the ’90s, he was trying to near-reboot Clouseau with Roberto Benigni (when Benigni was still loveable and not one to make woefully bad-taste Holocaust movies).
So savour The Pink Panther Strikes Again. With its ever-expanding hunchback disguises, dogs that bite, “berms”, the October Fest assassination, Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus going utterly insane and doing the unthinkable (stealing scenes from Sellers), Clouseau’s melting nose (“Your whole face has changed”), and a climax so OTT, it’s the series’ equivalent of Bond’s Moonraker a few years later. Where do you go from there? Downwards.
As for the score, from ever-ready Henry Mancini, it’s absolutely perfect, replete with the spoofy Richard Williams’ opening animation and the utterly sublime Inspector Clouseau Theme (accompanying Clouseau’s valiant attempts to enter the Dreyfus’ castle).
Clouseau: Does your dog bite?
Hotel Clerk: No.
Clouseau: (Bends to pat dog.) Nice doggie. (The dog barks and bites Clouseau’s hand.) I thought you said your dog did not bite!
Hotel Clerk: That is not my dog.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The one-two of this and Don’t Look Now represent Nicolas Roeg’s peak period. He would never again be quite so feted, or greeted quite so receptively. Even then, The Man Who Fell to Earth isn’t the easily accessible picture of its predecessor. You’ll have to flash forward to The Witches for something as audience-friendly as Don’t Look Now.
Based on Walter Trevis’ novel. The Man Who Fell to Earth reinvents the ever-changing David Bowie as the Howard Hughes-esque Thomas Jerome Newton. Newton is an alien on Earth, his noble intentions to save his race thoroughly thwarted and corrupted by the ways and vices twentieth-century man.
At least, in its most literal sense. A Roeg movie has multiple themes and layers acting upon one other simultaneously and at different levels, often in the same scene. This is a tale of the innocent corrupted, of high ideals brought low, money and power usurping philanthropy, and physical emptiness supplanting love. Newton falls into alcoholism, his love Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) leaves him (albeit both state they never did love the other), and his closest colleague Bryce (Rip Torn) is instrumental in his downfall. Newton is detained by the government (who may have been aware of his presence from the beginning) to waste away (although he doesn’t actually age), and by the end his home world has perished.
Casting Bowie at the height of his cocaine pallor proves a masterstroke. There are those who claim this is his only great acting role because he’s playing himself, an eccentric outsider at odds with his own persona, but I’d scoff at such notions; it’s easy to reel of a dozen movies where the Thin White Duke makes a strong showing.
As ever with Roeg, themes of time, mortality and sexuality are to the fore; the latter carries an unrefined immediacy suggestive of an era where physical intimacy has become instantaneous but absent of true connection. The leaps to Bowie on his home planet with a lost family are suitably odd and exotic. But it’s Newton’s relationship with Mary-Lou that is most compelling, and includes the memorably unvarnished moment where she loses bladder control at the sight of his unsheathed true form. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Thomas Jerome Newton: We’d have probably done the same to you, if you’d come round our place.
It was David Cronenberg who called this a better science fiction film than Blade Runner. But then, Taxi Driver’s themes of alienation and the outsider are very dear to Cronenberg’s mutated, hybridised heart. There isn’t much in the way Dave’s trademark body horror in Taxi Driver, the climax aside, but it embeds itself in the consciousness as a piece where the filmmaker (Scorsese, of course) surrenders himself to the distracted mindset of his Vietnam vet protagonist.
And so do we too, as viewers. We can empathise with Travis Bickle, would-be vigilante, wholly estranged from the New York he inhabits. He is unable to connect, most of all with the reporter (Cybill Shepherd) he takes on a date to see a porn movie. Travis’ desire to make a difference is indulged (no doubt why the picture attracted obsessives, most famously John Hinckley, Jr) and he is even offered vindication of a sort. Whether the final scene extends from Travis’ own imaginings or occupies a more defined terrain is, it seems, intentionally debatable. Certainly, Travis is shown sympathy in a way Rupert Pupkin, in Scorsese’s companion piece exploration of sociopathy King of Comedy (complete with another obtuse ending), is not.
Travis wants to wash the scum off the streets, and that scum and sleaze are palpable in this festering ’70s NYC. But he doesn’t differentiate between scum; the senator is scum because the woman who rejects Travis is his campaigner. And there’s little doubt that the sexually askance Travis’ heroic deeds are, in one shape or form, a means to impress the girls.
Scorsese acutely captures that limbo state between sleep and waking, just as he intended, and one can feel (and see, in a memorably warped cameo) him insert himself onto the material. If there’s an issue with many of the director’s later movies, it’s a distancing of the maker from the material, a technician at work rather than an impassioned artist.
Of course, one cannot ignore the progenitor of all this, Paul Schrader, whose own ravaged psyche inspired Bickle. The performances need little fanfare; De Niro’s is legendary, and the current version of the actor seems like an entirely different person. Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Shepherd, Jodie Foster, and a quite brilliant Albert Brooks all hit their marks perfectly. Bernard Herrmann’s score has the brooding oppressiveness of a horror movie, as appropriate a genre designation as science fiction.
As Scorsese has eased himself into serviceable and respectable Hollywood fare, with only occasionally hiccups (about two-thirds of The Wolf of Wall Street showed that the old fire), it’s good to remember just how vital and uncompromising he could be. This was another one nominated for Best Picture (and actor, supporting actress and score); that it walked away empty handed, and that its screenplay and director weren’t even acknowledged, is in some way to the credit of material so undiluted it’s hard to imagine it coming from any other decade.
Travis Bickle: All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
All the President’s Men
The master-class conspiracy thriller, made all the more powerful through its factual basis*. All the President’s Men’s legacy and influence are enormous, but even the derivative repetition of others fails to dim its light. A tale of little men pulling down giants, the film represents a paean to journalistic integrity and bygone days when there was available money and will to chase the story. Yet Alan J Pakula’s film also keeps an eye on the realities of the profession, one that can sink the reputations of not just the reported the reporter.
Pakula had already entered the murky world of surveillance and paranoia with Klute and The Parallax View, All the President’s Men completing an unofficial trilogy. It may not be as bleak as his middle chapter, but he and screenwriter William Goldman, operating at the peak of his powers, are almost anti-intuitive in their desire not to go for easy victories or melodrama.
Really, their only concession is casting two superstars. The cinematic landscape surrounding Robert Redford (an instigator of the project, he plays against his own political convictions as Republican Bob Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (scruffy, instinctive and more experienced as Carl Bernstein) is subdued and underplayed. This is a real-world milieu, knocked off kilter by Gordon Willis’ camera-as-unseen-observer and an unsettling, insistent score from David Shire.
It’s also a lightning-in-a-bottle film; an immensely wordy screenplay, one that offers no concessions to its audience if they can’t keep up, the picture somehow manages to be enormously gripping. Pervading paranoia takes hold, fuelled by the quest to follow the clues and leads even when they do not pay off with fireworks. The scene with Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat has passed into legend (lifted wholesale by The X-Files, just for starters) and is the closest the movie comes to an “action” beat. Since it consists of two guys chatting in a darkened car park, it is indicative of the general tenor.
Oscars were forthcoming, for Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Art Direction and Supporting Actor (Jason Robards as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee), but it missed on the big prize to crowd-pleaser Rocky. All the President’s Men can take satisfaction, though, in being both a critical and a commercial smash, and one that only exceeds its reputation when revisited almost forty years later.
*Addendum 25/08/22: Factual basis officially, of course. For which, taken in also any ideas of journalistic integrity at that time.
Ben Bradlee: Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you’re right.
And then there were…
Best Picture Oscar
The Academy, and the public, would never see Stallone with such innocent eyes again, particular as the pugilist sequels piled up, even when it came to a back-to-basics “proper” acting role like Copland. Rocky’s audience-friendliness hasn’t dwindled over the years, and in that sense, it remains a potent Best Picture winner; the only question is whether it deserved the top statuette. Stallone received Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nods, Talia Shire for Best Actress, Burt Young and Burgess Meredith Best Supporting Actor, Bill Conti Best Original Song and Best Sound Mixing was nominated too. But it took only two additional Oscars out of its total of ten, besides Picture; John G Avildsen for Best Director and Best Film Editing.
All the President’s Men
The prestige choice, rather than the life-affirming one. Four nominations yielded three wins (Robards, Goldman, Art Direction and Sound), missing Best Picture, Best Director (perhaps surprisingly, Pakula’s solitary nomination in that role) and Best Film Editing. David Shire’s score and Gordon Willis’ cinematography weren’t even nominated. It’s a tie between this and Taxi Driver for which of ’76’s nominees has the greatest cinematic legacy.
Bound for Glory
The proto-hippy not-quite-biopic choice, rather than the life-affirming one. Hal Ashby’s ’70s output represents a string of studio pictures it’s hard to imagine occurring in any other decade, and it may be no coincidence that his work subsequently found him struggling for both quality and success. Bound for Glory is the Best Picture nominee from this year I’ve yet to see, and it’s the title that has somewhat slipped between the cracks. It received six nominations (cinematography, score, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Film Editing) and took home two (cinematography and score).
The satirical choice, rather than the life-affirming one. Ten nominations, like Rocky. Four wins (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay) and misses for Actor (Holden) Supporting Actor (Beatty), Cinematography and Film Editing. Probably the one most likely to get the Academy to bite, had Rocky missed the big prize, as it’s quite loud and unsubtle about its targets. The voters like that kind of thing.
The edgy choice, rather than the life-affirming one. Receiving just the four nominations is impressive, even during a decade more willing to recognise the innovative. Possibly De Niro’s greatest performance, and Foster (Best Supporting Actress) is no slouch either. Bernard Herrmann’s finally score is masterfully menacing.
Other notables: Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both getting rare nominations for a horror movie (Carrie; see also The Exorcist), Nicholas Meyer receiving a nod for his The Seven-Per-Cent Solution screenplay, Jerry Goldsmith’s win for The Omen score, Paul Williams for Bugsy Malone.
Top 10 US Box Office
1. Rocky $117.2m ($456.8m adjusted for inflation)
2. To Fly!* $86.6m
3. A Star is Born $80m ($311.7m adjusted)
4. All the President’s Men $70.6m ($275.1m adjusted)
5. The Omen $60.9m ($237.4m adjusted)
6. In Search of Noah’s Ark $55.7m
7. King Kong $52.6m ($205m adjusted)
8.. Silver Streak $51.1m
9. The Enforcer $46.2m ($180m adjusted)
10. Midway $43.2m
Silent Movie $36.1m ($140.9m adjusted)
The Pink Panther Strikes Again $33.8m ($131.8m adjusted)
Carrie $33.8m ($131.8m adjusted)
Murder by Death $32.5m
The Bad News Bears $32.2m ($125.5m adjusted)
The Outlaw Josey Wales $31.8m ($124m adjusted)
Taxi Driver $28.3m ($108.2m adjusted)
Freaky Friday $25.9m ($96.3m adjusted)
Logan’s Run $25.0m
Marathon Man $21.7m ($84.6m adjusted)
The Shootist $8.1m
Bugsy Malone $2.8m
* To Fly! isn’t one you’ll find on many lists recognising high grossers, but it seems it was the highest grossing documentary ever until Fahrenheit 9/11 was released; IMAX is the key to its success. In Search of Noah’s Ark, another documentary, one attracting the faith-based audience with more acumen than many a recent release, also managed to tap into zeitgeist themes (evidence for ancient mysteries and myths, see also Chariots of the Gods etc.)