Judging from the films that the decade produced, the 1970s were truly a paranoid time. (Of course, 2015 is a paranoid time as well, which is probably why so many of the classic films of the 70s still feel incredibly relevant.) Some weekend, you should watch a marathon of 1970s films and I guarantee that, by the time Monday rolls around, you will be looking for lurkers in every shadow and automatically distrusting any and all authority figures. The 1970s were a good time to be paranoid.
And it’s really not surprising at all. The previous decade was a time of turmoil and upheavel, a time when some people feared protestors and some people feared the establishment but, ultimately, everyone was afraid of someone. When you think of the 1960s, you think about all the leaders who were violently assassinated — John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and more. (And that’s just in America!) And then the 70s came along, with Watergate and the revelations about the CIA partnering up with the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro.
The 70s were a good time to be paranoid and the films of the 70s reflected that fact.
Take for instance, 1974’s The Parallax View. The Parallax View opens and ends with assassination. In both cases, the victims are U.S. politicians who are running for President and whose ambitions have caused concern for the shadowy and rarely seen leaders of the established order. In both cases, the official story is that the assassin was a lone gunman, a nut with a gun and absolutely no political or religious motivations. Of course, both accused assassins were apparently involved with the shadowy Parallax Corporation and, over the course of the film, anyone who knows anything about Parallax ends up dying. Reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) goes undercover to investigate the group but, as he does so, he grows increasingly paranoid and unstable, until finally it’s easy to mistake him for any other paranoid madman, ranting in the street and, in many ways, indistinguishable from the accused assassins that he’s been investigating. In many ways, Joe becomes like a character in a H.P. Lovecraft short story who, upon laying eyes on Cthulhu, is driven mad as punishment.
It’s a good film, one that’s enhanced by Gordon Willis’s trademark shadowy cinematography and the convincing desperation of Warren Beatty’s performance. In the film’s best scene, Frady applies for a job with the Parallax Corporation. As a part of his job interview, he’s taken a dark room and he’s told to watch a short film. His reactions will help to determine what role he could possibly play at Parallax.
Needless to say, The Parallax View feels just as relevant today as it did when it was first released. We still live in paranoid times and hints of conspiracy are still everywhere to be seen. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is that, back in 1974, conspiracies could still take people be surprise.
For the past few years, it seems that, whenever someone has wanted to make the argument that America is heading in the wrong direction, Detroit gets mentioned. The once thriving city and industrial center is now best known for high unemployment, high crime, and a declining population. After years of civic mismanagement, Detroit went bankrupt. Fairly or not, many people will always view Detroit as being the city that can’t afford to keep the lights on and where citizens can’t afford to pay their water bill. It doesn’t matter how many “Detroit is making a comeback!” commercials run during the Super Bowl.
I have to admit that, for someone like me who lives on the other end of the country, Detroit might as well be on another planet. (And that planet is called Michigan.) I have no way of knowing what Detroit was like before the media started to bombard me with stories about the city’s decline. And that’s one reason why I have to feel sorry for the city of Detroit. Anything positive about Detroit will never be reported but you can rest assured that anything negative will be recorded, reported, and repeated until everyone in the country can recite the details by memory.
If I’ve got Detroit on the mind, it’s because I recently watched a fairly memorable crime film from 1973 that was set and filmed in Detroit. It was a film that — long before Only Lovers Left Alive — attempted to use the city itself as a metaphor for the political issues and social concerns of the day. In fact, the city was such an important part of the film that the film itself was even named Detroit 9000.
(Reportedly, the film was originally meant to be set in Chicago but, when the Chicago political establishment objected to the film’s violence, production was relocated to Detroit, where apparently the script’s violence was not a problem.)
Detroit 9000 opens with a fundraiser for Congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challeneger), who is running for governor of Michigan. A group of masked gunmen break into the hotel and rob the fundraiser. (While the guests are forced to kneel on the floor while being robbed, a woman stands on stage and sings a gospel song, which just adds to the surreal feel of the scene.) To investigate the case, the laid-back, casually corrupt Lt. Danny Basset (Alex Rocco) is partnered up with upright Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes). Because Clayton is the first black man to ever have a real chance to be elected governor and because everyone robbed at the fundraiser was black, Williams believes that there had to be a racial motivation behind the robbery. Danny, meanwhile, insists that it was just an ordinary robbery.
Detroit 9000 is a favorite film of Quentin Tarantino’s and, watching it, you can see why. From the soundtrack to the hard-edged dialogue to the morally ambiguous heroes, Detroit 9000 is a masterpiece of 1970s exploitation. The film ends with a genuinely exciting chase through the streets (and cemeteries) of Detroit that eventually gets so excessively violent that it takes on an oddly operatic beauty of its own.
And, in the underrated style of so many so-called grindhouse and exploitation films, Detroit 9000 has a lot more on its mind than most mainstream film. Even today, I think you’d have a hard time finding a big-budget, studio production that would be willing to take as honest a view of race relations as Detroit 9000 does. Beneath all of the exploitation trapping, there lies a film that was actually saying something about the way life was being lived in 1973 and which still has a lot to say about how life is being lived today in 2015.
And, much like Jim Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive, director Arthur Marks finds a strange sort of life in Detroit’s abandoned buildings and dark alleys. As odd as it may seem, this cynical and violent film will actually make you love Detroit more than a hundred “Detroit is making a comeback!” super bowl commercials ever could.
First released in 1973, The Werewolf of Washington is one of those obscure films that always seems to pop up in Mill Creek box sets. That’s largely because Werewolf of Washington has slipped into the public domain and anyone can release and sell a copy of it. (It’s also been uploaded to YouTube by a few hundred different users.) It’s a film that I’ve actually watched quite a few times, largely because it is so easily available.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any good. I have to admit that, in between viewings, I always seem to convince myself that The Werewolf of Washington is a better film than it actually is. The idea behind the film sounds clever. The President’s press secretary (played by Dean Stockwell) is a werewolf. When the full moon shines, he transforms and wrecks havoc on the streets on D.C. Stockwell still wears his suit, even when he’s a wolfman. The President (played by Biff McGuire) is a total idiot who spends a lot of time bowling. The Attorney General (Clifton James) is a paranoid fascist who is quick to blame the werewolf’s murders on outside agitators. For no particular reason, a dwarf mad scientist (Michael Dunn) shows up.
Yes, the idea is clever but the execution … actually, the execution is not terrible. Dean Stockwell gives a good performance and there’s a funny scene where he starts to turn into a werewolf while bowling with the President. Stockwell’s fingers swell up and get stuck in the bowling ball and Stockwell totally freaks out. And then there’s a scene where the werewolf attacks a woman in a phone booth and it’s actually rather suspenseful and almost scary. Plus, Biff McGuire is great and all too plausible as the vapid President.
And yet, overall, the film itself is never as good as you want it to be. I think a large part of the problem is that the film opens with a long voice over from Dean Stockwell, which explains why his character ended up in Budapest (that would be where he gets bitten by the werewolf) and why the President subsequently named him press secretary. It’s so much backstory that you get the feeling that the opening narration must have been added in post production in order to cover up scenes that either did not work or that the film’s director never got a chance to shoot.
And really, the entire film is like that. The film is a collection of scenes that never really flow together or establish any sort of steady pace. And, when it comes to both horror and comedy, pace is key.
The Werewolf of Washington is a clever idea. I just wish the execution had been just as clever.
And I’ll probably continue to wish that the next time that I rewatch it.
“I got something for your mother and Sonny and a tie for Freddy and Tom Hagen got the Reynolds Pen…” — Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather (1972)
It probably seems strange that when talking about The Godfather, a film that it is generally acknowledged as being one of the best and most influential of all time, I would start with an innocuous quote about getting Tom Hagen a pen.
(And it better have been a hell of a pen because, judging from the scene where Sollozzo stops him in the street, it looked like Tom was going all out as far as gifts were concerned…)
After all, The Godfather is a film that is full of memorable quotes. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “It’s strictly business.” “I believe in America….” “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”
But I went with the quote about the Reynolds pen because, quite frankly, I find an excuse to repeat it every Christmas. Every holiday season, whenever I hear friends or family talking about presents, I remind them that Tom Hagen is getting the Reynolds pen. Doubt me? Check out these tweets from the past!
But all that love also makes The Godfather a difficult film to review. What do you say about a film that everyone already knows is great?
Do you praise it by saying that Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire all gave excellent performances? You can do that but everyone already knows that.
Do you talk about how well director Francis Ford Coppola told this operatic, sprawling story of crime, family, and politics? You can do that but everyone already knows that.
Maybe you can talk about how beautiful Gordon Willis’s dark and shadowy cinematography looks, regardless of whether you’re seeing it in a theater or on TV. Because it certainly does but everyone knows that.
Maybe you can mention the haunting beauty of Nina Rota’s score but again…
Well, you get the idea.
Now, if you somehow have never seen the film before, allow me to try to tell you what happens in The Godfather. I say try because The Godfather is a true epic. Because it’s also an intimate family drama and features such a dominating lead performance from Al Pacino, it’s sometimes to easy to forget just how much is actually going on in The Godfather.
The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family. Patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has done very well for himself in America, making himself into a rich and influential man. Of course, Vito is also known as both Don Corleone and the Godfather and he’s made his fortune through less-than-legal means. He may be rich and he may be influential but when his daughter gets married, the FBI shows up outside the reception and takes pictures of all the cars in the parking lot. Vito Corleone knows judges and congressmen but none of them are willing to be seen in public with him. Vito is the establishment that nobody wants to acknowledge and sometimes, this very powerful man wonders if there will ever be a “Governor Corleone” or a “Senator Corleone.”
Vito is the proud father of three children and the adopted father of one more. His oldest son, and probable successor, is Sonny (James Caan). Sonny, however, has a temper and absolutely no impulse control. While his wife is bragging about him to the other women at the wedding, Sonny is upstairs screwing a bridesmaid. When the enemies of the Corleone Family declare war, Sonny declares war back and forgets the first rule of organized crime: “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”
After Sonny, there’s Fredo (John Cazale). Poor, pathetic Fredo. In many ways, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Fredo. He’s the one who ends up getting exiled to Vegas, where he lives under the protection of the crude Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). One of the film’s best moments is when a bejeweled Fredo shows up at a Vegas hotel with an entourage of prostitutes and other hangers-on. In these scenes, Fred is trying so hard but when you take one look at his shifty eyes, it’s obvious that he’s still the same guy who we first saw stumbling around drunk at his sister’s wedding.
(And, of course, it’s impossible to watch Fredo in this film without thinking about both what will happen to the character in the Godfather, Part II and how John Cazale, who brought the character to such vibrant life, would die just 6 years later.)
As a female, daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is — for the first film, at least — excluded from the family business. Instead, she marries Sonny’s friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). And, to put it gently, it’s not a match made in heaven.
And finally, there’s Michael (Al Pacino). Michael is the son who, at the start of the film, declares that he wants nothing to do with the family business. He’s the one who wants to break with family tradition by marrying Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), who is most definitely not Italian. He’s the one who was decorated in World War II and who comes to his sister’s wedding still dressed in his uniform. (In the second Godfather film, we learn that Vito thought Michael was foolish to join the army, which makes it all the more clear that, by wearing the uniform to the wedding, Michael is attempting to declare his own identity outside of the family.) To paraphrase the third Godfather film, Michael is the one who says he wants to get out but who keeps getting dragged back in.
And finally, the adopted son is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). Tom is the Don’s lawyer and one reason why Tom is one of my favorite characters is because, behind his usual stone-faced facade, Tom is actually very snarky. He just hides it well.
Early on, we get a hint that Tom is more amused than he lets on when he has dinner with the crude Jack Woltz (John Marley), a film producer who doesn’t want to use Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a movie When Woltz shouts insults at him, Tom calmly finishes his dinner and thanks him for a lovely evening. And he does it with just the hint of a little smirk and you can practically see him thinking, “Somebody’s going to wake up with a horse tomorrow….”
However, my favorite Tom Hagen moment comes when Kay, who is searching for Michael, drops by the family compound. Tom greets her at the gate. When Kay spots a car that’s riddled with bullet holes, she asks what happened. Tom smiles and says, “Oh, that was an accident. But luckily no one was hurt!” Duvall delivers the line with just the right attitude of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!” How can you not kind of love Tom after that?
And, of course, the film is full of other memorable characters, all of whom are scheming and plotting. There’s Clemenza (Richard S. Catellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), the two Corleone lieutenants who may or may not be plotting to betray the Don. There’s fearsome Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who spends an eternity practicing what he wants to say at Connie’s wedding and yet still manages to screw it up. And, of course, there’s Sollozzo (Al Lettieri, playing a role originally offered to Franco Nero), the drug dealer who reacts angrily to Vito’s refusal to help him out. Meanwhile, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is busy beating up young punks and Al Neri (Richard Bright) is gunning people down in front of the courthouse. And, of course, there’s poor, innocent, ill-fated Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)…
The Godfather is a great Italian-American epic, one that works as both a gangster film and a family drama. Perhaps the genius of the Godfather trilogy is that the Corleone family serves as an ink blot in a cinematic rorschach test. Audiences can look at them and see whatever they want. If you want them and their crimes to serve as a metaphor for capitalism, you need only listen to Tom and Michael repeatedly state that it’s only business. If you want to see them as heroic businessmen, just consider that their enemies essentially want to regulate the Corleones out of existence. If you want the Corleones to serve as symbols of the patriarchy, you need only watch as the door to Michael’s office is shut in Kay’s face. If you want to see the Corleones as heroes, you need only consider that they — and they alone — seem to operate with any sort of honorable criminal code. (This, of course, would change over the course of the two sequels.)
And, if you’re trying to fit a review of The Godfather into a series about political films, you only have to consider that Vito is regularly spoken of as being a man who carries politicians around in his pocket. We may not see any elected officials in the first Godfather film but their presence is felt. Above all else, it’s Vito’s political influence that sets in motion all of the events that unfold over the course of the film.
The Godfather, of course, won the Oscar for best picture of 1972. And while it’s rare that I openly agree with the Academy, I’m proud to say that this one time is a definite exception.