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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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Johnny Got His Gun

"Johnny Got His Gun" (1971)
As you might imagine for someone who inspired both a documentary (2007’s “Trumbo”) and an upcoming biopic starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo led quite a storied life: blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, winning two Oscars for his fronts while being unable to work (for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”), and penning “Spartacus” (while his unmade script “Montezuma” is currently set to be directed by Steven Spielberg). But one of his finest achievements is one that’s so often overlooked: his sole directorial effort, an adaptation of his 1939 National Book Prize-winning novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which Trumbo had initially wanted Luis Bunuel to direct. Timothy Bottoms plays Joe Bonham, a young World War One soldier left without limbs, eyes, ears and a mouth after being hit by a shell, a prisoner in his own body. He drifts between flashback and fantasy, remembering his girl back home, his father (Jason Robards) and even imagining dialogues with Christ (Donald Sutherland) before expressing a wish to either be allowed to die, or being displayed in a freak show as a demonstration of the horrors of war, neither of which the Army bureaucracy allows him to do. The film is unrepentantly a piece of anti-war propaganda, but manages to avoid feeling like it’s bashing you over the head, instead emphasizing the human loss created by conflict. Trumbo’s direction isn’t always subtle, but the more surreal touches are inspired enough, and his facility with actors so evident, that you wish he’d been allowed behind the camera more often. As it was, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but has been generally overlooked since. Time to change that, we’d say .

Robin And Marian

“Robin And Marian” (1976)
More than most, and despite his later blockbuster work on the likes of “The Three Musketeers” and “Superman II,” Richard Lester is associated inextricably with the 1960s — Lester practically invented, or at least captured, the Swinging Sixties thanks to directing “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Help,” “The Knack or How To Get It” and “Petulia.” But one of his finest and most mature films came slap-bang in the middle of the 1970s, in the shape of “Robin And Marian.” The film is the kind of expansion of a pre-existing property or legend that’s pure multiplex fodder these days, but this is a much more melancholy take, closer to Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes” (another under-sung 70s classic) than to, say, Ridley Scott’s more recent version of the tale. Set many years after the prime of Robin Hood (Sean Connery), it sees the bandit returning to England after the death of Richard the Lionheart, and reuniting with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn, in her return to the screen after eight years away), only to come into contact with King John (Ian Holm) and the Sheriff Of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) once again. There’s a certain amount of derring-do involved, with some satisfying action that sees Lester importing his skills from the ‘Musketeers’ films that preceded this, but what lingers is the autumnal, elegiac tone of the film (which ends with a suicide pact between the title characters). And among a very fine cast also including Denholm Elliott, Nicol Williamson and Ronnie Barker, Connery and Hepburn give arguably the best performances of their careers. It might not be as restlessly inventive as the best of Lester’s 60s output, but it’s just as memorable.  

Fat City

"Fat City" (1972)
John Huston was a true legend of the medium, a filmmaker who made classics from his first film (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”) to the last (1987’s “The Dead”), with plenty of classics in between, as well as plenty of stinkers. Aside from the glorious “The Man Who Would Be King,” his 1970s work isn’t especially highly regarded, but that ignores the two terrific films he made in 1972: “The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean” and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Fat City,” a sober, downbeat drama that stacks up among Huston’s very best films, even if it’s not really remembered as such these days. It pairs up Stacy Keach and a just post-“The Last Picture ShowJeff Bridges as respectively, a burnt-out aging boxer and his young protege, but the film resists straying anywhere near a sports-movie narrative: this is a delve into the grittier, more desperate side of life, full of broken dreams and getting the tar beaten out of you for $100 a bout. The film has a careful, slow energy which is a real testament to the way that Huston kept evolving as an artist through his career (it’s much closer to the New Hollywood films that were its contemporaries than you’d imagine for a man of his vintage), is gorgeously shot by the great Conrad Hall, and features two titanic performances from the brash, jockish Bridges, and especially, the pathetic (in the truest sense) Keach. In an alternative, better world, this, and not “Rocky,” is the seminal boxing film of the 1970s.

Honorable Mentions: Honestly, we could do this all day, but we've all got homes to go to. But if this is whetted your appetite, there's plenty more where these came from. We wrote about some under-sung 1970s thrillers last year, including Sidney Lumet's "The Offence," the Walter Matthau-starring "The Laughing Policeman," Robert Aldrich's bonkers "Twilight's Last Gleaming," while an earlier similar piece showcased the great "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle," Dustin Hoffman vehicle "Straight Time," Michael Ritchie's "Prime Cut" and great cop movie "The Seven-Ups."

And among the other films from the era that are worth a mention, there's James William Guerico's "Electra Glide In Blue," Peter Hyams' "Busting," Ingmar Bergman's "The Touch," Alan Arkin's "Little Murders," Arthur Penn's "Night Moves," Hal Ashby's "The Landlord," Stephen Frears' "Gumshoe," Elaine May's "Mikey & Nicky" and "A New Leaf," Jerry Schatzberg's "Scarecrow," Robert Altman's "California Split," Martin Ritt's "The Front," Sidney Pollack's "The Yakuza," Don Siegel's "Charley Varrick," James Toback's "Fingers," Mike Hodges' "Pulp," John Schlesigner's "Day Of The Locust," Paul Schrader's "Hardcore," Arthur Hiller's "The Hospital," Robert Benton's "The Late Show" and Jonathan Demme's "Handle With Care." Any others we've missed? Let us know below. — Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez

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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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