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10 Great Overlooked Films From The 1970s

by The Playlist Staff
April 24, 2014 3:51 PM
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If you've had a conversation with a serious cinephile in the last week or so, there's probably only been one real subject of discussion. Well, once you've finished talking about "Heaven Is For Real," anyway. Tuesday saw the release of a shiny new Blu-ray of the brand new restored version of William Friedkin's "Sorcerer." Long unavailable on home video, Friedkin's 1977 remake of "The Wages Of Fear" was an expensive flop buried in part by the release of "Star Wars," but it has only grown in estimation over the years, and after a long legal wrangling, was finally reclaimed by the director last year, and hit stores earlier this week.

This means that one of the holy grails of 1970s American cinema has had its reputation mostly restored; what was dismissed in many quarters on release is now deemed to be one of the director's finest films, to sit alongside "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection." But the reevaluation of "Sorcerer" is only the tip of the iceberg: as one of the most celebrated decades in the history of the medium, there are plenty more relatively undiscovered classics where that came from.

Not everything can be "The Godfather" or "Nashville," and so for every '70s movie that won the acclaim they deserved, there's another that was overshadowed or undersung, and is somewhat forgotten these days. In celebration of the release of "Sorcerer," we've picked out ten other films from the 1970s that we love, but aren't as widely known as they should be, in the hope that a reevaluation of the kind that Friedkin's film has had might be forthcoming. Read our ten picks below — which are admittedly random and perhaps subjective, but hopefully off the beaten path enough to pique your interest — and pick your own favorites in the comments section below.

"Wanda" (1970)
Like Charles Laughton's "Night Of The Hunter," “Wanda” belongs to the tiny sub-category of great directorial outings by actors who only helmed the one picture. Sadly, it’s nowhere near as well-known as Laughton’s masterpiece, but it certainly deserves to be. Barbara Loden was best known for her Broadway roles and a part opposite Warren Beatty in “Splendor In The Grass” (directed by her husband, Elia Kazan), but “Wanda” is sort of borderline revolutionary, a remarkable drama that presages contemporary independent cinema by several decades. Loden also takes the title role of a fading beauty in a Pennsylvania mining town who abandons her life to hook up with a bank robber. It feels like something of a parallel life for her — she hailed from a North Carolina background, and said in an interview “If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night.” The result is like a European arthouse take on a Douglas Sirk film, meditative and bruising, with Loden the almost inscrutable and passive center of events. It carefully and compellingly walks the line between docu-drama realism and something more experimental (it feels like an obvious precursor to the modern slow cinema movement, and will test less patient viewers as a result). It’s a fascinating film about a fascinating woman (as much a rarity in the 1970s as it is now), and it’s a crying shame that Loden didn’t make a follow-up before her premature death from breast cancer in 1980.

"Martin" (1978)
George Romero
’s obviously best-known for his pioneering ‘Dead’ series of zombie films, most notably 1968’s “Night Of The Living Dead” and 1978’s “Dawn Of The Dead.” But Romero’s own favorite of his pictures is one that doesn’t have anywhere near the same kind of genre-changing reputation, in the shape of lo-fi horror “Martin.” And he might be right to consider it his best film. Romero abandons zombies to dig into, for the only time in his career, the vampire mythos, but it’s not quite that simple. The film centers on John Amplas’ title character, a young man who claims to be a vampire. Romero never includes any supernatural elements, and keeps it deliberately ambiguous as to whether that’s the case, or whether Martin is simply psychotic. The result is the most grounded genre film he ever made, and probably as a result, it might be his most terrifying: the psychology of the character, complete with a troubled relationship to sexuality and a powerful ego, seems drawn more from real-life serial killers than from Bram Stoker’s Count and his like. And yet Martin is curiously sympathetic too: Amplas’ finely tuned performance embodies a certain kind of adolescent desperation even as he’s draining blood from his victims. The film’s arguably limited by its budget in places, but the social satire and top-notch filmmaking of Romero’s Dead trilogy remains here in spades. “Let The Right One In,” among many others, simply wouldn’t exist without this one.

"Girlfriends" (1978)
It feels that for years, almost no one had seen “Girlfriends.” Claudia Weill’s film was overlooked on release, and severely neglected after, unavailable on DVD many years. But the film did have one notable supporter: Stanley Kubrick, who in an interview, famously said “I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood — American films — that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s 'Girlfriends.' That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe.” As with so many things, Kubrick was bang on. The script (by Vicki Polon) focuses on the friendship between Susan (Melanie Mayron), an aspiring photographer, and Anne (Anita Skinner), her apartment-mate, who’s on the verge of moving out, and their gradual estrangement over time. Shot gradually over a period of about a year or so, thanks to a grant from the AFI, and with a supporting cast including Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach and Christopher Guest. It’s to some extent a film of its time, dealing with the conflict between having a career and being a wife that would feel somewhat out of time now (or then again, perhaps not...), but there’s a universality to Susan and Anne’s friendship that means that it still feels as fresh as a daisy. Indeed, thanks to the patronage of Lena Dunham (who says she was introduced to the film after she broke through), and the success of “Frances Ha,” with which it shares a lot of DNA, the film’s finally starting to get the reputation it deserves, but there’s still some way to go.

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  • jcm | August 9, 2014 9:34 AMReply

    Great comedies: Howard Zieff's SLITHER with an understated James Caan, Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ with the best worst date scene ever between Gena Rowlands and the great unsung Val Avery, Mike Leigh's NUTS IN MAY (originally for TV).

  • jcm | August 9, 2014 9:29 AMReply

    Great comedies: Howard Zieff'S SLITHER by starring an understated James Caan, Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Mike Leigh's NUTS IN MAY (originally a TV movie).

  • scott | July 20, 2014 12:25 AMReply

    I don't know if anyone mentioned Ted Kotcheff's "Wake in Fright" yet but if you haven't seen it definitely seek it out.A truly powerful and disturbing madhouse of a film about an Australian teacher that goes on an epic drunk during his vacation in a crazy little town in the outback.Just NUTS.

  • Graham | July 3, 2014 4:44 PMReply

    The Driller Killer. Very underrated film.

  • Sean Sweeney | May 2, 2014 7:00 PMReply

    Great list, great suggestions The Wanderers, Duck You Sucker and Over The Edge are some of my favorites.

    Some favs that I think have never gotten official DVD releases in America...
    State of Siege
    Movie, Movie
    Looking for Mr Goodbar
    Little Darlings
    Saint Jack
    American Hot Wax (never on VHS either)

    Some other favs from the 70s that are often overlooked and could use the Criterion treatment....
    Black Sunday - (Frankenheimer)
    Bless the Beast and the Children
    Blue Collar
    The Day of the Jackal (Zinnemann)
    The Driver
    I Wanna Hold Your Hand
    King of the Gypsies
    The Onion Field
    Real Life
    The Silent Partner
    Where’s Papa

  • RobMiles | May 1, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    Three Women by Altman. Incredible film.

  • JamDenTel | May 1, 2014 5:43 PMReply

    One word: PAYDAY.

    Rip Torn as a drunken, pill-popping SOB country singer.

    Absolutely incredible.

    Oh, and THE ANGEL LEVINE: Harry Belafonte is a dead thief turned angel-in-training, and Zero Mostel is the desperate old man he's sent to help. Really a fascinating little film.

  • smith | May 6, 2014 6:54 AM

    YES. PAYDAY. THAT. sadly, kids dont know that movie, and this site is full of kids

  • Jon | April 30, 2014 5:18 PMReply

    Great list and great comments. I essentially agree with what everyone has suggested. I personally would add GOING IN STYLE, THE WANDERERS, OVER THE EDGE, THE SQUEEZE in terms of films that haven't been mentioned.

  • Christopher M | April 29, 2014 4:43 PMReply

    I nominate Zulawski's "The Main Thing is to Love". It's kind of bonkers, but brilliant.

  • wademan646 | April 29, 2014 2:23 AMReply

    Been mentioned already. Worth reiterating. Straight Time. Ulu Grosbard took over directing after Dustin Hoffman stepped down. Adapted from Eddie Bunker's novel. If you don't know who Bunker is look him up. Influenced a ton of crime films of the 70s 80s and 90s. John Voights hair moustache and make-up is Mr. Bunker in Heat. Which Michael Mann had a pass on this script. Film stars Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Barbara Hershey, M. Emmit Walsh, Kathy Bates. This submission is for newbies to the 70's. I'm sure many readers and the writer of this article know it. Also one more film Cassavette's Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Ben Gazzarra outstanding.

  • cristiano | April 27, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    j'aime les films antiques

  • Sebastian Hau | April 27, 2014 11:44 AMReply

    Sydney Pollack, Castle Keep

  • Jon Jost | April 27, 2014 11:21 AMReply

    As the magazine is called "Indie" why not list a real indie film, compared favorably with, say, Wanda on your list. Last Chants for a Slow Dance. 1977.
    You can buy DVD from me, $30 + $3 shipping USA, +$2 if by PayPal.
    Last Chants cost $3000 to make in 16mm color synch sound. Google it.

  • El Goro | April 27, 2014 9:35 AMReply

    Looks like the only one I've seen is Martin, though I am familiar with Johnny Got His Gun thanks to Metallica's "One" video.

  • Ted Hicks | April 26, 2014 8:23 PMReply

    Have seen all on the main list except "Wanda," and agree that they're all very strong films. Am surprised no one has mentioned Arthur Penn's great "Night Moves" (1975), a neo noir if there ever was one. His "Missouri Breaks" the following year is a bit of a mess, but has some very good moments; Harry Dean Stanton is a standout.

  • Doc | April 26, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    Once again, everyone omits Sergio Leone's best film, "Duck You Sucker." Of all his ground breaking wild and weird films, this one stands out. It stars James Coburn as a fugitive from the troubles in Ireland and Rod Steiger as a country bandit who dreams of hitting a bank in the small town of Mesa Verde. It's a rich and complex study of the Mexican Revolution and rewards multiple viewings. Despite being released in the U.S. in a severely cut version, it offers more depth and insight than any other Leone film. With great music by Ennio Morricone. Check it out on DVD if you don't believe me. It's a masterpiece.

  • Ted Hicks | April 26, 2014 8:26 PM

    You're right about "Duck You Sucker." James Coburn is great in it.

  • Brian | April 26, 2014 2:25 PMReply

    Little Murders is a far more interesting film than almost all on this list.

  • James Smith | April 26, 2014 10:31 AMReply

    Some of my favorites that haven’t been mentioned:
    Cisco Pike - Kris Kristofferson, Gene Hackman.
    Desperate Characters - Shirley MacLaine, Kenneth Mars.
    Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx - Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder.

  • Chris Doherty | April 26, 2014 3:09 AMReply

    Who'll Stop the Rain - Karel Reisz (1978) for the amazing Robert Stone dialog (much of it straight from the book) and outstanding performances from the whole cast.

    The Boys in Company C - Sidney J. Furie (1978) Lee Ermey's debut, for the script, the performances and capturing the essential blundering absurdity of that war. It's a "War Movie" set in a combat zone, but much more "Catch-22" than "Sands of Iwo-Jima"

    And YES! Smile! which is a much more vicious indictment of middle class hypocrisy than you make it sound.

  • Max VonMeyerling | April 26, 2014 1:36 AMReply


  • SETH | April 25, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    Lots of great suggestions here (in the article and in the comments). Thanks! And....
    All 70s Wim Wenders
    All 70s Eric Rohmer
    All 70s Mike Leigh
    All 70s Truffaut
    All 1970-77 Robert Altman
    The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978)
    Every Man For Himself (Godard, 1979)
    Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (Alain Tanner, 1976)
    King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
    La Rupture (Claude Chabrol, 1970)

  • MFF | April 25, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    Any film from Marco Ferreri of that period!!!

  • Levene | April 25, 2014 7:34 PMReply

    Great article, this is why I keep coming back to this site. But I have to agree with Yep: why give away the ending to Robin and Marian? Surely you could have just said that the ending was memorable? Try to stay away from spoilers, guys, even when discussing older movies. There's really no need for them and you should know better.

  • JD | April 25, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    John Milius' DILLINGER.

  • e | April 25, 2014 2:06 PMReply

    Excellent list! I thought for sure you'd include Milos Foreman's "Taking Off" in your honorable mentions. I'm adding a bunch of these to my watchlist.

  • Rick Libott | April 25, 2014 12:32 PMReply

    ROBIN AND MARIAN doesn't end with a suicide pact, but with a murder-suicide.

  • Jason Ulane | April 25, 2014 10:47 AMReply

    Great list. Agree about Bad Company - it's a neglected film that needs to be rediscovered. I'd throw in Aldrich's Hustle in there, and also say that Michael Richie probably was one of the best director's of the 70's - The Candidate, Prime Cut and Smile all are amazing movies.

  • Sanker fro. India | April 25, 2014 6:58 AMReply

    I shouldn't say this. I really shouldn't. I'm sorry. I love Short Cuts. I watched this next film I'm gonna mention twice. I love the ending. I really really tried loving it all. But it leaves me cold. I feel horrible about it but this movie just doesn't give me anyway to love it. I'm sorry again. The 70s "classic" that did nothing for me was...


  • DUDDI | April 25, 2014 6:04 AMReply

    Good of you to include Wim Wenders's "The American Friend". This was the best movie based on Tom Ripley character alongside "Purple Noon". I hope more people will see it.
    I'd like to recommend these movies:
    - THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (Drama) with James Earl Jones dir. by Martin Ritt
    - BURN ! (Drama,Thriller) with the great Marlon Brando
    - SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (Drama) with the great Paul Newman and Henry Fonda dir. by Paul Newman
    - CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (Drama) with the almighty Jack Nicholson dir. by Mike Nichols
    - THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (Drama) with Al Pacino
    - SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (Drama) with Piter Finch
    - THE HEARTBREAK KID (Comedy) with Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd ...
    I have a bunch of great movies to recommend... I'll give more in the future... ;-)
    and especially Wim Wenders "road triology" that contains

  • Nicole | April 25, 2014 12:06 AMReply

    I just added some new films to my list of films to watch.

    I also think that Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 film Hester Street is overlooked a lot. Carol Kane was awesome in it and its a really interesting story.

  • HPYGY | April 24, 2014 11:42 PMReply

    More of these, please!

  • Yep | April 24, 2014 11:07 PMReply

    Robin and Marion is excellent, but why did you have to give away the ending? I saw it with my father as a kid and will never forget that movie, especially the ending. It is so touching and well acted.

  • JD | April 25, 2014 7:29 PM

    Agreed about the end of ROBIN AND MARION. One of the saddest in all of cinema, right down to the very last shot. It'd make a great double bill with PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID.

  • cinema expert | April 24, 2014 9:32 PMReply

    "The Offence," connery most disturbing performance

    "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle," mitchum best after farewell my lovely

    "Straight Time," rian man as a violent ex con

    "Prime Cut" Hackman versus lee marvin

    "The Seven-Ups." worth a look for the car chase

    "Scarecrow," hackmans favourite film

    "Fingers," beat that skipped my heart

    "Day Of The Locust," burgess meredith best performance

    "Hardcore," reminds me of in the valley of elah

  • cirkusfolk | April 24, 2014 8:57 PMReply

    I think a good inclusion would've been Bad Company ('72) starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Robert Benton. I still don't know why Barry Brown didn't become more popular than he did.

  • Chris | April 24, 2014 8:39 PMReply

    This piece is one of many reasons why I stick around this place. Well done. "Smile" will always rule in my book.

  • Todd | April 24, 2014 8:07 PMReply

    Excellent list. For me, "The Terminal Man" even more than "Pulp" in the under-appreciated Hodges category.

  • Andy Rubio | April 24, 2014 6:29 PMReply

    Alain Tanner's 1970s films including Messidor, Middle of the World spring to mind. Billy Wilder's Fedora anyone? The Patriot by Alexander Kluge. Alain Renais' Providence. And so on...

  • FRY | April 24, 2014 6:00 PMReply

    Great job on mentioning Martin!!, that was one of the very first films I saw as a young cinephile and no matter how much time passes I still enjoy the hell out of it, brilliant, brilliant movie. Cannot recommend it enough.

    Also, you missed Wise Blood, also my favorite Houston, it has a great performance from Brad Dourif and it has one of the quietest, most powerful endings I've ever seen. It's one of the few movies I can recommend watching before reading the novel.

  • Ted | April 24, 2014 5:29 PMReply

    Great list, especially Wanda, a sadly under-recognized American masterpiece.

    I'm not as keen on Fat City as much as some people. I actually prefer one of his other 70s film, Wise Blood (actually my favorite Huston).

  • gerard kennelly | April 24, 2014 9:35 PM

    keach played doc holiday when harris yulin played wyatt in '' DOC ''

    don't search for it
    thinking it is some lost masterpiece like i did
    it is incredibly disappointing

  • BEF | April 24, 2014 5:26 PMReply

    Well done! Was expecting some regulars.
    Would've liked a little more on "Little Murders" but hey, glad it got a mention!
    Also, I'd toss in "Deathdream"

  • Rob | April 24, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    Wow, awesome list. Haven't even heard of a lot of these.

  • hank | April 24, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    interesting that you list fat city on here, when a few years back on the old blogspot sight, one of you wrote a juvenile, negative review of it. still feel the same?

  • Scott Cooper | April 24, 2014 4:40 PMReply

    Great list!

  • MDL | April 24, 2014 4:26 PMReply

    Good lists. Here's a few:
    THE OUTSIDE MAN - Jacques Deray 1972
    THE LAST RUN - Richard Fleischer 1971
    THE HIRED HAND - Peter Fonda 1971
    DEEP END - Jerzy Skolimowski 1970

  • brad pitt 54321 | April 24, 2014 9:36 PM

    thanks :)

  • Nathan Duke | April 24, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    Overlord, The Ascent, Who Can Kill a Child?, Rolling Thunder, Siberiade and The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Some of these are pretty well regarded, but not mentioned very often.

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