A 40 Years Later Movie Time Travel List
Elevators, CB radio, dancing poultry. As but a few of the threads that ran through my annual Grand Moviewatching Project, this year’s list brings me through time to the year I was born. Starting in early December, I re-watched, and in some cases watched for the first time, several movies released in 1977. Though it didn’t start out as my intention, my 40 years later film-viewing program grew to include nearly 40 films. An extraordinarily varied year in movies, 1977 in retrospect may have been the calendar year in which commercial filmmaking, for reasons suggested at greater length below, changed forever.
To suggest the complexity of this change, I have selected at great personal pains of thought and taste ten films that affected me most as a 40-year-old watching 40-year-old movies.
10. Demon Seed
The biggest surprise on my list, Demon Seed is the one film in my Top Ten that I knew solely by reputation. The second film from ill-fated writer-director Donald Cammell, following his and co-director Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 crime thriller-cum-psychedelic chamber drama Performance, Demon Seed is possibly the most overlooked film of the 1970s. Based on a 1973 science fiction-horror novel by Dean Koontz, Julie Christie stars as a terrorized housewife kept as home prisoner by an artificial intelligence program called PROTEUS (voiced, uncredited, by Robert Vaughn). With almost disconcerting accuracy, and in equally frightening 1977 terms, director Cammell uses a dizzying array of imaginative techniques to prophesize the world in which we now live.
Dario Argento’s ravishing Technicolor nightmare, one of the last to be shot using the storied process, is one of a handful of moments in movie history where style definitively trumps substance. A sustained 98-minute hallucination, Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) stars as a young ballet dancer whose studies bring her to the renowned Tanz Academy on the edge of Germany’s fairy tale-like Black Forest. Co-starring a ridiculously severe Alida Valli as her instructor and, in her final role, a coolly acidic Joan Bennett as the assistant to the Academy’s mysterious headmistress, the cloistered conspiracy shrouded behind the menacing structure’s deep inner recesses unfolds with a bizarre lack of story-sense equal to the impossibly imposing designs of Surpiria’s deeper reds, menacing blues, and sickly greens. Shattering glass, crawling maggots, and barbed wire create a visual symphony of horror equal to the pulse-pounding, operatic soundtrack by Goblin.
8. Cross of Iron
Sam Peckinpah’s one-and-only war film updates All Quiet on the Western Front to the German-held Russian Front of the second World War. James Coburn stars as Sgt. Steiner, a legendary infantryman and platoon leader whose talent for tactical warfare and concern for those under his command is equal only to his disdain for war and hatred of its perpetrators. Maximillian Schell co-stars as an aristocratic Prussian officer, blinded by his ambition for the title military honor, who quickly becomes Sgt. Steiner’s greatest antagonist. As much an assault on reason and compassion as war is on one’s own humanity, Cross of Iron imagines battle lines in the starkest of terms possible, with Peckinpah’s trademark slow-motion and sharp-jagged stylistic devices employed (deployed, rather) to maximum screen effect.
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg inaugurates the era of the science-fiction blockbuster with his extravagant re-imagining and magical re-purposing of the 1950s alien invasion movie. Richard Dreyfuss stars as an ordinary family man beset by a majestic rock-formative image implanted in his mind by the close encounter of the title, an obsession that will ultimately lead him to where no man (or woman) has gone before. Frightening, awe-inspiring, and deeply emotional, Spielberg plays on the raw feelings of his audience with a virtuosic intensity equal to the aliens’ musical language invented by the score’s conductor, John Williams. Co-starring Melinda Dillon and French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, and including one of the most naturally beguiling performances by a three-year-old ever captured on film, by young Cary Guffey, Close Encounters aims to overwhelm by sheer force of its filmmaking technique, and more than succeeds 40 years later in reducing 40-year-olds to tears.
An intended blockbuster of another kind, William Friedkin’s “thinking man’s” action thriller, based on the same 1950 novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear, fizzled spectacularly at the box office, singlehandedly dissuading many major studios from large-scale investing in ambitious, challenging screen fare. The tale of four desperate international characters, led by Roy Scheider, who are brought by fate to South America to man two massive dump trucks carrying nitroglycerine though the jungle, to blow out a raging petroleum fire on the other side of the country, this 281-mile journey into the literal heart of an impenetrable darkness represents the precise moment in film history where future cineplexes may have had the potential to reach audiences beyond the car chases, explosions, and mayhem the succeeding decade of action fare would so successfully trade on. Sorcerer has these in equally literal force, but the crucial difference here being that there is intellectual weight and rigor to each succeeding and mind-boggling, elemental screen stunt. With the trance-like, synth-driven rhythms of its Tangerine Dream score, Sorcerer viewed today succeeds in retrospect beyond the wildest imaginings of its utter failure in 1977.
Infamous in pop culture history as the last film Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis watched before his suicide by hanging in May 1980, Werner Herzog’s career-crowning masterpiece follows real-life street musician Bruno S. as the title figure who, as the film opens, is released from a Berlin institution and, along with an elderly inventor (Clemens Scheitz) and an abused prostitute (Eva Mattes), travels to the promised land of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, only to find some distant rainbows fail to end in a pot of gold. A haunting, seriocomic meditation on a culture devoid of real values, where wide open spaces are filled with so much emptiness and desolation, Stroszek is a vision of my home state of Wisconsin turned back on me with a far deeper weirdness than the locale’s deceptive blandness might otherwise suggest. A screen presence of powerful humanity, Bruno S. proves himself Herzog’s great muse as his compassionate gaze registers such uniquely American images as shotgun-toting farmers on tractors, a mechanic pulling a back molar with a pair of pliers, swilling a beer to cauterize the gaping wound, and a mortgage banker whose kindly smile and brisk manner conceals a bankruptcy of soul. And oh, yes: lest we forget to at least mention the dancing chicken.
4. The Rescuers
My all-time favorite Disney film, their 23rd animated feature, is based on two children’s novels by Margery Sharp, and concerns two representatives of the mouse-lead Rescue Aid Society, Miss Bianca and janitor Bernard, who volunteer to answer a distress call, by a note in a bottle, from kidnapped orphan Penny. Alongside Disney veterans like Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, younger animators like Don Bluth and Ron Clements invest the rainy New York milieu of the opening and the atmospheric Devil’s Bayou of its pyrotechnic conclusion with the rich texture of a motion oil painting. On a personal note, what I truly love about this film, besides its voice cast, is that all these efforts, all the cooperation and inventiveness of these marvelously drawn and beautifully-detailed animal characters, are taken on behalf of a child in distress. (It’s something I really appreciated as a kid growing up during the “milk carton” generation of missing children.) And besides the two songs “Tomorrow is Another Day” and “Someone’s Waiting for You” appearing on the soundtrack, Rescuers is the first Disney animated feature that is not a musical, but compensates for its deviation from the time-tested Disney formula with character-work that rivals the studio’s best efforts.
3. Annie Hall
Though film fans in the summer of 1977 may have been visually bowled over by the sight of a massive spaceship filling the screen, with its seeming mile-long glitter exhaust trailing in the stardust behind, equally revolutionary in terms of film openings was a medium closeup of a bespectacled, 40-year-old comic, against a plain beige background, telling two jokes that express his entire philosophy on romance. Using narration, wisecracks, witticisms, punchlines, oneliners, overlapping dialogue, flashbacks, childhood memories, vivid fantasy, wish fulfillment, and even animation, Woody Allen as Alvy Singer tells us, his captive audience, the story of his relationship with the title character, portrayed with a groundbreaking and equally grounded whimsy by Diane Keaton. If a popular film ever captured a moment where relations between men and women began to change, Annie Hall may be that film, and its updating of screwball tactics from Hollywood films of the 1930s and ‘40s result in a screen romance – and, eventually, an inevitable breakup – that rings painfully though hilariously true. With Gordon Willis’s gorgeous skylines, art cinema posters lining Manhattan, and the vibrant bustle of uptown boulevards, Woody Allen’s vision of New York City in 1977 is the movie locale I’d most like to visit.
2. Star Wars
Unless you are in fact from a galaxy far, far away, my next selection is absolutely in no need of introduction or commentary. As THE movie that loomed largest over my childhood – a droid clock waking me up every morning, its action figures filling my playing hours, and lightsaber images on my pillowcase putting me to sleep every night – there is not a memory I have of my earliest years that is not somehow Star Wars-related. In fact, I can’t even remember the first time I saw the film; Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, and the rest effectively precede my self-awareness as a human being. Space opera, fantasy, science fiction, whathaveyou, George Lucas plunges us in the middle of this fully-realized universe, without any explanation beyond a Republic/Monogram serial opening crawl, and with each successive screenwipe and jump to speeds beyond light shows us visions that could only be realized by the movies. Truly, the most powerful artistic force of the medium.
David Lynch’s feature debut is maddening, mystifying, and eternally marvelous. Putting avant-garde visual techniques developed as an art student in service of a sustained narrative, the mood of this science fiction/horror hybrid has achieved a 40-years later resonance well beyond its midnight movie origins. A film that cannot be put into words, beyond its inscrutable title, any lucid attempt to describe its plot or images falls apart with the ultimately unknown and inexpressible power of dreaming. Eraserhead does feature the birth, care, death, and possible resurrection of a movie mutant, however, so it was a temptation I simply could not resist to feature it here as the top favorite film of my birth year. Star Wars may have dominated my childhood, but the potential of cinema as a medium to evoke wonder and terror, in one awestruck, hair-raising gaze into a white-blinding abyss of light, is realized to its fullest in Eraserhead. So much so that I’ll never be able to explain this scene’s powerful effect – but that, in effect, is precisely what keeps this 40-year-old watching.
Part of the fun in re-visiting these films released in the year I was born was seeing the world as it was when I came into it, as reflected in popular cinema. Whether it was seeing a dress or a hairstyle that my mother wore, or registering on-screen the exact make and model of a green-wall station wagon parked in my next-door neighbors’ driveway for a decade, viewing these 1977 movies in succession was, quoting Major Briggs of Twin Peaks, certainly a return to a “wellspring of being”. As my selections might show, the variety of films, styles, and genres that audiences in 1977 saw was simply astonishing.
Well beyond the dividing point between the era of personal, auteur-driven film statements of the 1970s to the era of Blockbusters and special effects-driven films in the decade that followed, the range and choice given to audiences – most of whom would have still been attending single or double-house theaters – seems to suggest a film-viewing paradise that is not likely to come again. As such, I would like to round out and conclude my Top Ten with All The Others I considered for this list; a list which, equally astonishing, is by no means comprehensive for the year of great movies, 1977.
In alphabetical order:
The American Friend – Wim Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second Ripley novel is a German New Wave riff on three decades of film noir. With Dennis Hopper as Ripley and Bruno Ganz as his dying victim Jonathon, American Friend features one of the most tender friendships captured in an action thriller, the emotional stakes of scheming, deception, and killing laid bare.
Black Sunday – John Frankenheimer’s terrorist thriller – about the efforts of Lebanese freedom fighters to blow up the Super Bowl with the Goodyear Blimp – has Robert Shaw as an Israeli soldier and Bruce Dern as one of the terrorists. The scene where Dern’s character, a Vietnam veteran, breaks down in a federal services office is absolutely shattering.
The Devil Probably – Robert Bresson, adapting and updating a Dostoevsky story*, mercilessly details an idealistic young Parisian student’s relentless drive towards self-destruction. The scenes of felled forests, clubbed baby seals, and melting polar ice caps, we should realize as watching, is the world in which we now live.
*Actually, the story is entirely original, although Bresson had previously adapted three Dostoevsky stories, and would later adapt Tolstoy. Mea culpa.
The Duellists – Ridley Scott’s feature film debut, an adaptation of a tale of the Napoleonic War by Joseph Conrad, concerns the decades-long rivalry between two French officers, played by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. The final shot, with its stretching and vibrant screen flaring, is like a Romantic-era landscape portrait sprung to motion-visual life.
The Goodbye Girl – Neil Simon’s original script of an emerging Broadway actor rooming with a single mother – reportedly based on the pre-fame experiences of actor Dustin Hoffman – stars Richard Dreyfuss in his Oscar-winning performance, hamming it up hilariously on-stage as a gay Richard III, and Marsha Mason as the woman frequently bid adieu.
High Anxiety – Mel Brooks’ broader-than-broad parody of everything Hitchcock – from Spellbound to Psycho – hits all the high notes for fans of the director-comedian who famously “rises below vulgarity”. Young Frankenstein it ain’t, but any film that points out the logical endpoint of malevolent birds gathering en masse in a park has my vote.
The Hills Have Eyes – Wes Craven’s post-nuclear blast, Southwestern-set horror-thriller features a family of cannibals terrorizing a family of lost RV vacationers. I spent the last half of the movie worry-wondering, “Are they really gonna eat that baby?”
Julia – Fred Zinnemann’s final film tells the true-life story of playwright Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, and her experiences in pre-wartorn Europe helping her title friend, played by Vanessa Redgrave, fight the Fascists. The prestige picture of 1977, besides tellingly containing the first screen appearance of Meryl Streep, commits its greatest movie sin in underutilizing Jason Robards’ compellingly understated performance as mystery writer, and Hellman’s longtime romantic companion, Dashiell Hammett.
Kentucky Fried Movie – Another proud Wisconsin connection, Milwaukee natives Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker originally developed and performed these outrageous skits as part of Madison’s Kentucky Fried Theater. John Landis’s film of these discreet moments of equal opportunity offending is miraculous in the sense that their “theater” origin is almost entirely absent in this pioneering comedy skit satire.
Killer of Sheep – Charles Burnett’s first feature received a belated release nearly 30 years after it was completed, but this mid-70s portrait of L.A.’s Watts neighborhood is possibly the most rawly true film of that decade. Using a period source score that seems to tell the history of the African-American experience through music – from Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong to Dinah Washington and Earth, Wind & Fire – the slaughterhouse worker of the title meets every indignity his life and circumstances present both him and his family with an almost inexhaustible inner source of personal dignity.
The Last Wave – Peter Weir’s metaphysical thriller stars Richard Chamberlain as a Sydney, Australia barrister who is called on to defend a group of Aborigines accused of murdering a fellow Aborigine. Premonitions and unexplained visions beset his investigations – which all seem to presage the coming natural disaster of the title – until his rain-soaked world comes literally crashing down upon him. David Gulpilil co-stars to otherworldly effect, as a leader of a Tribe that has somehow persisted through the white settlement, in a medium-reflexive storyline where dreams become reality.
Martin – Shot in the summer of 1976, in the streets, houses, and dingy locations of Philadelphia, George A. Romero’s modern updating of the classic vampire tale demystifies two centuries of horror lore with his title character portrait of a seemingly normal young man with an insatiable taste for blood. This film gains an additional level of real-life horror just before the advent of AIDS, and there is just enough of the unexplained in the character’s motivations and biology to question the possible nature of his monstrosity.
New York, New York – Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli duke it out, as an uneasily married saxophonist and vocalist, through the post-Big Band era of popular music in Martin Scorsese’s ludicrously-scaled tribute to the Golden Era of Hollywood Studio Musicals. This equally uneasy though fascinating mixture of John Cassavetes-style improvisatory dramatics with the sort of fare that Minnelli’s parents specialized could have only been made under the imprimatur of Hollywood’s Second Golden Era.
Oh, God! – Scripted by Larry Gelbart and directed by Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar’s legendary writer’s room was obviously having a quite extraordinary year in 1977. Gravel-voiced George Burns stars as the Creator Himself, with grocery store assistant manager John Denver his unlikely chosen prophet and Teri Garr this good man’s initially doubting though ultimately supportive wife. Still a great comedy, with the Deity’s high court testimony a highlight, I must admit my favorite moment is the director, in a TV interview cameo, recreating his famed five-second impersonation of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
Opening Night – Name-dropped a few entries above, John Cassavetes drops his own personal stamp on this theatrical cinema reflection on the theater, giving real-life wife Gena Rowlands the dramatic chance to rip the heart and soul out of a famed Broadway actresss, driving herself to the brink of sanity to find her stage character. Co-starring the director as the production’s co-star, Ben Gazzara as the production’s director, Joan Blondell as the playwright, and Paul Stewart as its producer, Opening Night is an actor’s feast for both theater and film lovers.
Pete’s Dragon – Disney’s live-action film was the movie musical their animated feature, The Rescuers, was not, but continues the seamless mixture of animation and camera photography so successfully commenced with 1964’s Mary Poppins and, in another personal favorite, 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Returning to the halcyon days of the turn-of-the-century, the Main Street vision of Americana that daily continues to greet visitors entering Disney’s Magic Kingdom, by way of the lighthouses and shores of the Atlantic Northeast, Elliott the dragon – as character-animated by Don Bluth – is an eternally goofy delight for troubled children in need of a good imaginary friend.
Rabid – David Cronenberg casts former porn actress Marilyn Chambers as an attractive “carrier”, from mutated skin grafts following a motorcycle accident, for a horrifyingly infectious disease – turning those infected into zombie-like, unstoppable cannibals – which rapidly creates an apocalyptic-level pandemic throughout Canada. A Christmas scene at a mall, where police officers unload an arsenal of weaponry into a Santa Claus display, is essential holiday viewing.
Saturday Night Fever – Disco culture reaches its high-water mark in the film that made John Travolta a star, his Tony Musante absolutely owning his high platform shoes, higher-coiffured hair, and open-necked white leisure suit. Director John Badham’s and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode’s eye for location captures mid-70s, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in all its scuzzy glory, and, set to some prime cuts from the Brothers Gibb, creates unequivocal screen magic.
Semi-Tough – Michael Ritchie’s three-cornered romantic comedy, set against the backdrop of mid-70s professional football and New Age humbuggery, stars Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson as best friends, a wide receiver and running back, vying for the affections of team owner Robert Preston’s daughter, who is also their roommate, played by Jill Clayburgh. As with Ritchie’s other satirical comedies of the period, including Smile and the previous year’s smash-hit The Bad News Bears, character bits and throwaway moments – such as frighteningly Teutonic Lotte Lenya subjecting Reynolds to a “PELF” massage – create a vivid comic world of grand absurdity in the best tradition of Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder.
The Sentinel – Michael Winner’s controversial, post-Exorcist religious thriller is another of the great overlooked films of the period. Utilizing aging Hollywood veterans, ranging from Burgess Meredith and Arthur Kennedy to Jose Ferrer and Ava Gardner, in service of a supernatural tale about a New York City brownstone that is the actual physical location of the entranceway to Hell, that unlikely premise is given an extra dose of horror by scenes, locations, and casting that reveal equally sinister layers beneath initially pleasant-seeming and familiar faces and facades.
Slap Shot – Paul Newman stars as an aging player-coach in director George Roy Hill’s gleefully foul-mouthed, violently unapologetic sports comedy, set in the world of third-tier (or lower) minor league hockey. The background of a failing Eastern mill town gives Slap Shot a ring of hard realism that would be highly complementary with the short fiction of Raymond Carver.
Smokey and the Bandit – Starring an impossibly charismatic Burt Reynolds as the “Bandit”, former stuntman Hal Needham makes his directing debut in possibly the greatest, or at least the most entertaining, car chase movie ever made. With country-western star Jerry Reed as a CB-chomping semi-driver, Sally Field as a runaway bride, and, in a late career comic tour-de-force, Jackie Gleason as the Texas sheriff, CB-coded as “Smokey”, in hot pursuit.
Soldier of Orange – The unearthly attractive Rutger Hauer made his international breakthrough as a Dutch resistance fighter in director Paul Verhoeven’s World War II epic, based on an autobiographical work by writer Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema. A large-scale adventure film with bracing levels of violence and sexuality, Soldier of Orange co-stars a cavalier Jeroen Krabbe, whose ultimate experience of the war and resistance starkly diverges from his steadfast friend’s.
The Spy Who Loved Me – Roger Moore’s third and possibly best outing as James Bond 007 finds his match and counterpart in Russia’s top female agent Triple X, neatly side-stepping the inherent misogyny of the designation (and series) by the cool-tempered and supremely capable characterization of co-star Barbara Bach. With the tongue-in-cheek mix of action and wit that characterized Moore’s tenure as Bond, including the memorable stunt of a ski-side leap off a mountain cliff revealing a giant Union Jack emblazoned on the opening parachute, one might even forgive the truly execrable Disco-inflected arrangement of Monty Noman’s classic theme, by composer Marvin Hamlisch (stepping in for an absent John Barry), called “Bond 77”.
Telefon – Don Siegel’s white-knuckle Cold War thriller stars preternaturally masculine Charles Bronson as a Russian agent dispatched by his Soviet superiors on a death mission to thwart rogue KGB official Donald Pleasance’s terrorist scheme involving a “telephone line” of brainwashed former spies living near Stalinist-era military targets across the United States. Saddled with double (and possibly triple) agent Lee Remick, this tense road movie gains immeasurably from Bronson’s terse screen presence.
3 Women – Robert Altman’s anti-Hollywood art thriller co-stars Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall as two spa workers in Southern California who undergo a series of bewildering role reversals and personality switches under the measured heat of the desert sun. A third woman, played by a near-silent Janice Rule, paints mystifying murals of evolutionary distress – on the bottom of pools and in offroad Western resorts – in this equally mystifying though entirely mesmerizing screen drama.
That Obscure Object of Desire – Luis Bunuel’s final feature features Fernando Rey’s aristocratic screen persona once again put through the metaphysical and spiritual ringer, but this time by two actresses, fair-haired and full-bodied Carole Bouquet and dark-haired and lean-bodied Angela Molina, playing the same sexually-thwarting role. Based on Pierre Louys popular fin-de-siècle melodrama La Femme et la pantin, adapted dozens of times for the screen (including the final 1935 Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration, The Devil is a Woman), the grand old master of surrealism grafts on international terrorism, sexual politics, and crumbling social values to a well-worn story.
White Buffalo – My list’s great guilty pleasure features Charles Bronson as Wild Bill Hickok and Will Sampson as Crazy Horse, along with an old trail hand played by Jack Warden, teaming up to hunt the giant title animal through the Sierras. Jaws by way of Moby Dick, with a healthy dash of The Wild Bunch, this may be the silver screen’s sole revisionist Western-horror thriller.
Wizards – Ralph Bakshi’s first foray into animated fantasy, a concurrent Twentieth Century-Fox production with Star Wars, has ambition and imagination to spare, even when biting off a little more in its 82-minute running-time than it can thematically chew. The post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy, with immortal twin wizards dueling throughout time, details the apparently eternal war between technology and magic, with elves and fairies battling Nazi-inspired human mutations 10,000 years in the future.
If keeping count, my list grew to include 39 movies representing 40 years ago in film. Growing up, my late mother’s several embroidery projects would always feature, at finishing, what she would call a “loose thread” sewn into her nearly completed pattern. As a tribute to her, and among the many threads followed on this movie-watching list, this 40th spot is my own thread dangling loose.
As such, my 40th spot is reserved for Jonathan Demme’s rural Nebraska ensemble comedy Handle With Care (originally Citizens Band); a film I unfortunately was not able to view in time for this list. There were many other films I might have included, but with its uniquely 1977 subject matter of CB radios and smalltown camaraderie, the late Demme’s underseen classic deserves at least a concluding mention with a rousing Over and Out!
*Special shout out to my co-worker and fellow ’77er Michael ‘Dubbs’ Williams for lending me DVD copies of Demon Seed, Rabid, and Martin. 10-4, good buddy!