By James David Patrick
Horses begat motorcycles, and motorcycles begat cars. The Western genre transformed into the road movie in little more than a decade. The mythology of the American West, the hope brought about by expansion and new beginnings gave way to a distinct brand of disillusionment. If the 1960s promised hope in the form of social progress, equality, financial stability, the 1970s represented the dark reality of that extinguished hope, or worse – that the expectation of real progress was nothing more than an illusion all along. Is it more disturbing to have lost hope? Or to have learned that hope was a mirage all along?
Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls championed 1970s cinema as an era that “challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily.” This “New Hollywood” populated by young renegade filmmakers such as Scorsese, Coppola, and Arthur Penn believed that writers and directors should be driving the car, not the stodgy old money-men who’d long controlled the industry’s creative direction.
A fleet of new drivers got behind the wheel. And with the removal of the old production code at the end of the 1960s, unlimited creative potential opened up before these new voices like the open road. I don’t want to paint the decade with a single, broad brush, however. Not all of these films became “important” American cinema, but so much of this creative freedom trickled down into all genres and modes of filmmaking.
While I don’t subscribe to Biskind’s reductionist theory that everything outside the 1970s is popular tripe – I do believe that the detour taken by American cinema in the 1970s provides a wellspring of fascinating cinema ripe for rediscovery. For every Raging Bull and The Godfather, there’s a dozen more worthy films idling just outside your Netflix queue.
The following movies available to rent through Netflix DVD resonate today just as they did 40 years ago. Only a couple of these films burned box office rubber. I didn’t include massively popular movies like Smokey and the Bandit or Five Easy Piece (it goes without saying that you owe each of those a viewing). Oscar nominations and Brinks trucks filled with box office earnings distract from the spirit of the true 1970s road movie. Simple premises. Unlimited potential. Man vs. the open road and all the physical and emotional obstacles in the way.
If you like your driving with a side of that post-1960’s existentialism, Two-Lane Blacktop serves up your particular brand of cinema. What starts as a routine, narrative film quickly becomes an abstract exercise in beautiful, unsettling metaphor and metaphysical beauty.
Two street racers, The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drift from town to town earning money by challenging locals to drag races. As they travel east on Route 66, they pick up a “Girl” and develop an ongoing feud with another driver, GTO (Warren Oates). Describing more would be an injustice to the film, because the stark narrative leaves little room for description. What makes Two-Lane Blacktop such a memorable film is specifically that ambling and unpredictable 1970’s filmmaking methodology. What feels organic and fresh to some might feel aimless to others. In our current age of cinema, I keep returning to the 1970’s for refreshing alternatives. Movies that build character and narrative without hitting predictable narrative beats. Hellman’s status as a cult filmmaker might obscure the fact that his movies remain accessible by mainstream and modern audiences.
Vanishing Point wraps a similar brand of post-revolution malaise into the story of Kowalski, a delivery driver who bets his drug dealer that he’ll make it from Colorado to San Francisco by 3:00pm the next day. Through flashback and diegetic exposition, we learn that Kowalski is a Vietnam veteran, a Medal of Honor winner, and that he was dishonorably discharged from the police force. He’s pursued by police officers as the chase continues on into Nevada. A blind, black disc jockey by the name of Super Soul (Cleavon Little) begins championing the renegade driver and encourages him to keep going. Super Soul calls Kowalski the “last American hero” and incites his own counterculture movement. People gather around the radio station to offer their support. Bikers give him pills to help him stay awake at the wheel.
The establishment conspires to silence and corrupt these radical voices that champion the man against the machine, the lone renegade nihilist evading the institution. As the chase winds down, the outcome begins to feel inevitable, but the viewer’s hope endures. In these final moments, Vanishing Point becomes a poignant mediation on existentialism – Kowalski continues to drive without real purpose, to underscore that his agency as a cinematic character (and his ultimate transgression) had been the acquisition of true freedom.
Despite being a critical disaster at the time of its release (Ebert: “a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy”), The Getaway would become one of the biggest commercial successes of Peckinpah’s and screenwriter Walter Hill’s careers, grossing more than $36million in the U.S. In the years since, the critical masses have come around to its notable charms. Namely, Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen operating at “full throttle.” In 2019, The Getaway might get dismissed because it’s a commercial success, a straight-forward and action-thriller that aims to entertain rather than enlighten.
In 1972, many saw it as “vulgar” or “aimless” and discounted Ali MacGraw’s performance, but Gene Siskel’s appraisal seems to have ultimately carried the day. Siskel called the renegade lovers-on-the-run flick “a 1970’s Bonnie and Clyde.” Viewers may come to expect more from the film based on pedigree, but Steve McQueen fans know better than to discount the potency of iconography. An observation made even more relevant considering the uninspired and paint-by-numbers 1994 remake starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Nobody looked better behind the wheel of a car than Steve McQueen.
The Getaway represents a more polished crowd-pleasing side of Peckinpah’s output. For the dark underbelly, the film you’ll never escape for the rest of your days, watch Peckinpah’s long misunderstood masterpiece, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Book this as your next double feature to experience the width and breadth of Peckinpah.
Best known for 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal’s Academy Award winning performance, Peter Bogdanovich’s black-and-white Depression-era dramedy offers a road movie of a different shade. While many of these films champion freedom of the individual and celebrate counter-culturalism, Paper Moon embraces the simplicity of human connection.
A movie about a con man (Ryan O’Neal) and a little girl (real-life daughter Tatum) surviving in depression-era in 1936 Kansas doesn’t sound like much fun. Suggesting that levity could come part and parcel with a film that weaves poverty into its central message sounds as atonal as a jamboree in the middle of The Grapes of Wrath, and yet Alvin Sargent’s screenplay based on the book Addie Pray by Joe David Brown does just that. Tomboy Addie Loggins sees a way out of her miserable existence by hitching her star to Moses Pray, con man, grifter, and potentially her father. Addie turns out to be a special kind of con artist and the two set off across the south plying their trade – but the beauty of Paper Moon has nothing to do with a big score and the movie doesn’t hinge on its own cleverness. The con brings two lost souls together and their individual characters create a series of wonderful, understated moments of comedy and pathos.
Tatum O’Neal’s performance isn’t just a great child performance; it’s a great performance, period. She becomes the central character in Paper Moon, asserting a kind of confidence that transcends the cuteness that generally passes as a strong child performance. Easy to overlook, however, is Ryan O’Neal, an actor that probably deserved more accolades than he received. In films like The Driver (1978), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Wild Rovers (1974), he displays an understated versatility. Due to his pristine features and soap opera connections, it may have been too easy to write him off as a pretty face rather than a real actor.
If you want your road picture stripped of sentimentality and symbolism, Daryl Duke’s backstage drama about country musicians is your slice of pie. Rather than gussy up our entertainers, Duke strips them down to lay bare the grimly untoward behavior of men living on the road and in the shadow of country music celebrity.
Rip Torn gives a tour-de-force performance as Maury Dann, a rootless, wandering and often vile semi-celebrity. Nothing short of 100-watt charisma could balance this character’s repugnant behavior but Torn sustains our interest in this scoundrel. It may not sound like much of a movie – a character drama about a low-grade country musician and his entourage – but Payday’s brutal authenticity will hook you like a catchy old country ballad about dead dogs, jealous wives, and half-empty beer bottles.
Paul Mazursky directed a certain kind of film. He made intelligent, often understated sentimental social commentaries disguised as offbeat comedies. If you were to watch a Mazursky without giving it your full attention, you might not even notice the movie at all. It could just wash over you without leaving an impression. Harry & Tonto happens to be such a film. It’s a road movie in the purest form (our main character sets out on a literal cross-country journey), but it also happens to be totally original – a sentimental screwball comedy without pratfalls or punchlines.
Art Carney (in an oft-overlooked Oscar winning performance) plays Harry Coombes, an elderly widower, who finds his life in a state of upheaval and decides to go to California with his cat Tonto. The episodic narrative takes him to airports and bus terminals, to see his daughter (Ellen Burstyn) and a former sweetheart (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and into the company a pretty prostitute. Shadows of his life weave in and out of his travels until he finally finds himself alone again in Los Angeles. The bittersweet final moments, punctuated by Bill Conti’s wonderful score, will leave lasting emotional scars of the best kind.
Michael Cimino represents one of the truly fascinating figures of 1970’s cinema. Beginning with this, his 1974 directorial debut, Cimino became a supernova, a darling of the New Hollywood auteurism, until the critical and commercial failure of Heaven’s Gate destroyed his promising career. Heaven’s Gate lost so much money that it drove United Artists out of business. Despite a modern re-evaluation of the film, Cimino never recovered personally or professionally. In light of his other success, The Deer Hunter, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot feels like a relative footnote – but a footnote that should not be overlooked.
A small-time miscreant by the name of Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) steals a car and accidentally runs over a man chasing after a preacher. The preacher turns out to be a notorious bank robber known as “The Thunderbolt” (Clint Eastwood) who’d been hiding out as a man of the cloth after a Montana bank robbery. He’s also the only member of his gang that knows the location of the loot. Now his former partners are coming to kill him and retrieve the money – unless Thunderbolt and Lightfoot can get there first.
Cimino’s film boasts many brutal, comedic moments shaped by Bridges affable personality and strong turns from supporting cast members like George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, and Gary Busey. Critics once again tossed out the terms “atonal,” “vulgar,” and “rambling” in their dings against the film, but modern viewers should approach Thunderbolt & Lightfoot as a crime flick that transcends the genre. For every moment of cruelty, Cimino has imbued the rambling, idiosyncratic film with moments of earnest brotherly connection between its stars.
After sampling some of that 1970’s New Hollywood auteurism of Peckinpah, Cimino and Mazursky, you might need a palette cleanser in the form of goofball road-race entertainment. Before The Cannonball Run and Speed Zone, there was The Gumball Rally – a thoroughly pointless comedy about illegal coast-to-coast racers.
A bored, but eccentrically wealthy businessman (Michael Sarrazin) sends out the code word “gumball” and his fellow racers join him in a New York City garage before embarking on a road race with one rule: “There are no rules.” The racers fall into rather routine stock characters and engage in frequent stunts and sequences of fast driving. Raúl Juliá steals all of his scenes as an Italian seducer of beautiful women. Gary Busey also makes his second appearance on this list as an eccentric co-pilot and mechanic. No matter where he goes he’s unmistakably Busey.
Compared to the broader and more star-laden The Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally feels like a smaller film – but all the movies that came later ripped ideas straight from these original lunatics on wheels.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music, and ‘80s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter @007hertzrumble, Instagram, and Facebook.