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The Best Movies of 1973

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The Golden Year of Movies: 1973

The Best Movies of 1973

You’ve heard me before (no doubt to the point of annoyance) beating the drums about how Hollywood was in a creative paroxysm from somewhere around the mid-1960s into the 1970s.  Turns out I was righter than I thought.

Don’t misunderstand:  as in any year, the movie business turned out a goodly amount of crap because in any given year it always turns out a goodly amount of crap.  In 1973, that included titles like Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Deadly Trackers, Savage!, The Doll Squad, The Stone Killer, and then there were the misfires, movies that were supposed to be good but didn’t quite come out that way, like Stanley Kramer’s Western Oklahoma Crude, Mike Nichols’ Day of the Dolphin, and John Huston’s spy thriller, The Mackintosh Man.

But, man, there was a lot of good stuff, and some of that good stuff was very good!

You like cops and robbers?  No matter your taste, 1973 had something for you.

The Best Movies of 1973
Image: Paramount

Sidney Lumet gave us Serpico, with Al Pacino delivering a fiery performance in this true story of the NYPD cop who blew the lid off systemic corruption in the department despite institutional indifference, political reluctance, and administrative complicity.  The movie gave Pacino an Oscar nod for Best Actor and Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler a nomination for their adapted screenplay of Peter Maas’ book.  It also kicked off a hot streak for Lumet which would include Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and one of the director’s all-time best, Network (1976).

If you’re more in the mood for hardboiled crime stories, Don Siegel turned in Charley Varrick, a lean, mean neo-noir set in the southwest with Walter Matthau as a smalltime bank robber who stumbles into a bigtime payday when he inadvertently knocks over a bank that’s actually a front for a Mob money-laundering operation.  Varrick’s got the cops to worry about as well as Mob enforcer Joe Don Baker, and Andy Robinson as a member of his gang whose recklessness is as big a danger as the cops or the Mob.

And if you want hardboiled cop stories, there’s Stuart Rosenberg’s The Laughing Policeman.  Transposing a Swedish policier by Majo Sjowall and Per Wahloo to San Francisco, Matthau and testy partner Bruce Dern are trying to figure out why someone climbed on a city bus and machine gunned the entire passenger load.  The dialogue is sharp, Matthau and Dern bounce off each other nicely, and it’s the kind of tough-hided, life-sized cop thriller you don’t see much of on the big screen these days.  

Want urban gritty realism?  Law of the streets?  Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s second movie, but the first one to show the promise in a young director who would become one of the greats in the American filmmaking pantheon.  Filmmaker John Sayles once made the point that Scorsese’s crime films were inspired by what he could see from the apartment window of his childhood home in New York’s Little Italy, and Mean Streets and its story of a group of low-level criminal wannabes reeks of the kind of authenticity that only someone who has walked those streets could bring.

Mean Streets - The Best Movies of 1973
Image: Warner Bros.

Go up the crime ladder just a rung or two and you’ll meet the working-class hoods of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  Based on a novel by George V. Higgins, a one-time Boston ADA, much of the dialogue has been taken straight from Higgins’ novel; dialogue he polished by listening to surveillance tapes of Boston hoods.  This ain’t The Godfather (1972); Coyle is barely making a living and now he’s squeezed by a possible prison sentence, Feds who want him to rat, and trying to hustle enough money so that if he does go to prison, his frumpy wife won’t have to go on welfare.  Not issues Michael Corleone ever had to face.

Maybe you like a lighter touch and crime stories don’t come any more fun than The Sting, with director George Roy Hill reuniting his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a competition of who had the bluest eyes in Hollywood!  Often imitated, Oscar-winning The Sting twists and turns as Newman and Redford try to play out a masterful con on underworld kingpin Robert Shaw as financial revenge against the guy who offed a close friend.  Plausible?  Not very.  Fun ride?  As fun as it gets.

Speaking of cons, there’s Peter Bogdanovich’s homage to times gone by with Depression-set Paper Moon, featuring Ryan O’Neal and his real-life daughter Tatum as a father/daughter con team working their way across Kansas, shot in glorious black and white by cinematographic great Laszlo Kovacs.  Tatum would become the youngest competitive winner in the history of the Oscars with her Best Supporting Actress statuette.

Then there’s The Last of Sheila, an all-star campfest about a bunch of Hollywood glitzy types on a Mediterranean cruise engineered by James Coburn to play an elaborate mystery game which turns lethal.  The cast seems to be having as much fun gobbling up the scenery as you will watching them.

And then there’s one of those overlooked little gems, Slither.  It’s a slight but tasty confection as just-released con James Caan finds himself caught up in a chase after a cache of embezzled money, making the trip with a loopy crew of Peter Boyle, Sally Kellerman, and Louise Lasser.

Badlands - The Best Movies of 1973
Image: Warner Bros.

Let’s talk art house and Terrence Malick’s Badlands.  Malick, in his directorial debut, based his screenplay on the real-life killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.  It’s a beautiful, hypnotic, even poetic film disturbingly capturing a casual, careless slide into a body-strewn cross-country trek.

Robert Altman deconstructed the private eye flick with The Long Goodbye, with Elliott Gould as classic shamus Philip Marlowe, only this Marlowe looks like he wandered in from a 1940s noir to find himself blithely wandering through the pop-cultural chaos of the 1970s.  Typical of Altman, there’s as much good stuff being mumbled under breaths or occurring in the margins as there is center focus.  An all-time classic bit of criminality:  Mark Rydell’s hood smashes a Coke bottle across his mistress’s face, then turns threateningly to Marlowe:  “That’s someone I love!  And you I don’t even like!”

Electra Glide in Blue is a personal favorite, although I know opinions on the movie are split.  Conrad Hall turns in an extraordinarily beautiful film set in the American southwest, and Robert Blake, whose early career wonders have been forgotten under a load of late-life scandal, is terrific as John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop who dreams of something better, but typical of 1970s flicks, such dreams come with a soul-crushing price tag.

The 1970s saw the rise of what some dubbed the “Bubba” market.  It had always been there on a low simmer; an audience out in Red State America (before we got into calling them red states) that liked movies set in their backyard built around rural archetypes:  big-bellied sheriffs, moonshiners, tobacco-chewing Good Ol’ Boys, and the like.  The Bubba’s got their biggest hit since Thunder Road (1958) with Walking Tall, inspired by the true story of Buford Pusser (played here by club-wielding Joe Don Baker) who fought corruption and all manner of vice in his Tennessee home county with – if the movie is to be believed – a lack of concern for the Constitution that makes Harry Callahan look like the model of judicial restraint.

Image: Warner Bros.

For my money, the best of the Bubba flicks is White Lightning.  Forget that business about “Bubba flicks” – this is a nicely made little thriller with Burt Reynolds as a charming booze runner trying to get evidence on the corrupt sheriff (Ned Beatty) who murdered his brother.  Director Joseph Sargent and screenwriter William W. Norton give what should be a formula revenge flick a nice authentic feel along with some fun backroad chase sequences.

If you prefer your cop movies without a lot of introspection and reflection, you’re not looking for the lyrical or the philosophical, and authenticity and realism aren’t even on your radar, then Magnum Force is for you.  The first sequel to Dirty Harry (1971), Clint Eastwood is back in all his raspy, squint-eyed glory; the Eastwood from years before he stepped behind the camera to become one of Hollywood’s most modulated classicists.  Director Ted Post doesn’t get the same atmospheric mileage from the San Francisco setting Dirty Harry’s Don Siegel did, and as might be expected from a script by Macho Man John Milius (Michael Cimino is also credited), a provocative concept – a death squad within the SFPD – is delivered without much examination and a higher body count than some war movies.  Still, it’s Clint the Squint doing what Clint used to do best.

And speaking of Clint, he channels Sergio Leone in one of his early directorial efforts with High Plains Drifter.  Eastwood is a mysterious stranger engaged by a scraggly desert town to protect the residents from some vengeful bad guys, but what the townspeople find out too late is they’ve hired an avenging angel come to punish them for their own sins.  Eastwood manages an almost surreal feel, as if Rod Serling had written a Western.

And as long as we’re way out West, there’s Sam Peckinpah’s flawed gem, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Between Peckinpah’s own booze-fueled demons and an MGM recut, Pat Garrett was a muddled affair when released but which would later be partly redeemed by a restoration cut.  It’s not Peckinpah’s best, and it doesn’t have the driving energy of his The Wild Bunch (1969), but it does have a delicious melancholy to it, and a gallery of wonderful supporting characters (seems like every character actor who’d ever done a Western is in it:  Chill Wills, Slim Pickins, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam, Gene Evans, L.Q. Jones…I could go on).  It’s sort of a more poetic version of the same Death of the West thesis that drove The Wild Bunch.

The Long Goodbye - The Best Movies of 1973
Image: United Artists

The year wasn’t all about body counts.  There was touching romance as well.  Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (yup, the same Rydell who was smashing pretty faces in The Long Goodbye) is a touching piece about James Caan’s Navy sailor between assignments who falls for hooker Marsha Mason and her hostile son.  If you like your romances without a lot of gush, that captures the bumps and bruises that go with trying to make a difficult situation work, this is for you.

But if you like your romance more romantic, it’s hard to beat one of the all-time great date movies, The Way We Were, with aspiring writer Robert Redford and political idealogue Barbra Streisand bumping heads when they’re not smooching as they try to stay connected against the background of the McCarthyist 1950s.  Ultimately bittersweet, it does make the case that love doesn’t always conquer all.

Speaking of bittersweet, there’s Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love with George Segal as a divorce lawyer who can’t seem to get over his own divorce or understand his compulsive infidelity which provoked it.  It’s the rare combination of the funny with a painfully acute probe into human foibles.

If, however, you want your laughs without the bittersweet or the examination of human frailty or any of the other encumbrances that ground them in life as we know and live it – you know, just unrestrained belly laughs – there’s Sleeper from back when Woody Allen was funny.  I mean really funny.  Allen plays Miles Monroe who was put into a cryogenic sleep in the 1970s when his routine operation went bad, and then is awakened two hundred years later to become a pawn between the police state running the country (wait; are we sure this is two hundred years in the future?) and a motley group of rebels.  This is check-your-brain-at-the-door-and-laugh comedy with a subtle streak of acidic cleverness underneath.

Image: Warner Bros.

One of the signatures of the era were small, intimate human dramas, something one only finds now on the arthouse circuit or lost in streaming menus.  Many of them picked up on a general disaffection and disillusionment bred out of Vietnam, Watergate, long-simmering racial tensions which had bubbled up into a wave or urban riots.  There was a sense that America wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, that if the American dream wasn’t dead, it had certainly taken a beating in those years.

Scarecrow is in the vein of Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969), with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two societal fringe dwellers – Hackman has just gotten out of prison, Pacino a merchant seaman home from the sea – who buddy-up when they cross paths while hitching to their respective hometowns.  It’s not a plot-driven piece, but sweetly ambles along as the relationship between two souls who don’t quite fit anywhere find they fit with each other.

Save the Tiger brought Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar as a man whose business is failing, is bewildered by the vast social changes of the times and finds an unhealthy refuge in his memories of the past.

The Paper Chase cut close to the bone for the college crowd, written and directed by James Bridges adapting John Jay Osborn Jr.’s novel which was, in turn, inspired by his own time at Harvard Law School.  The pressure for grades, the hunger for professorial approval, the hollowness of the “paper chase” – the pursuit of a degree expected to somehow enfranchise the graduate – all registered with young ticket-buyers and made a geriatric star out of John Houseman, Orson Welles’ one-time collaborator, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the imperious, acerbic Professor Kingsfield.

For those who’ve only known Robert De Niro as America’s favorite hood, Bang the Drum Slowly has to be a revelation.  De Niro plays a dimbulb ball player who finds he’s dying of Hodgkin’s Disease and is befriended by his team’s hotshot pitcher (Michael Moriarty) who learns a lesson in humility as he tries to help De Niro through his last days.

Bang the Drum Slowly
Image: Paramount

Beginning with his supporting part in Easy Rider (1969), Jack Nicholson quickly built up an image in movies like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) as the quintessential social misanthrope in an era that cultivated misanthropy like weeds; an attitude which made him a favorite among the young ticket-buyers of the time.  The Last Detail is one of those iconic Nicholson flicks with the actor playing “Badass” Badusky, a Navy lifer who, with another long-timer (Otis Young) gets tasked with escorting Randy Quaid to a naval prison.  Badusky gets it into his head to show the virginal youngster a last good time before the barred doors close on him.  Nicholson’s full-blooded performance brought him the Best Actor Award at Cannes as well as an Oscar nomination.  To steal from one of his lines in the movie:  he is the badass!

On a lighter note – and by now we could use one – there’s an American classic:  American Graffiti.  Written and directed by George Lucas who’d been looking for a success after his first feature – icy sci fier THX 1138 (1971) – stiffed, he went back to his memories growing up in Modesto, California in the early 1960s.  The movie so beautifully captured the last days of a generation’s innocence and its time that it kicked off a massive 1950s retro pop culture wave and gave Lucas the commercial cachet to get Star Wars (1977) made.  Its story of four teens in the hours after their high school days have closed and before their undefined future begins will resonate with any generation from any time.  I may get some blowback for saying this, but in a filmography almost completely dominated by Star Wars flicks and spinoffs, this is easily Lucas’ most humanistic and warm-blooded offering.

The year had its visceral fun as well with some grand adventures.  Richard Lester directed what, in my view, is easily the best film rendering of the Alexandre Dumas classic swashbuckler, The Three Musketeers.  Opulently produced, laced with Lester’s trademark offhanded wit, featuring some truly dazzling swordplay, and perfectly cast (Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, and Richard Chamberlain are the musketeers with Charlton Heston as their nemesis, the ever-plotting Cardinal Richelieu, and Christopher Lee as his chief minion), the movie is notorious in Hollywood front offices for its legal fallout.  Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind took Lester’s three-hour movie, and cut it in half releasing the second half as a sequel without paying his actors for it.  Thereafter, SAG required all actors’ contracts to include the “Salkind Clause” to protect performers against any such further fiscal hanky-panky.

Papillon is based on the autobiography of Henri Charriere, a French convict who managed to escape from France’s inescapable Devil’s Island prison colony.  Steve McQueen is Charriere (nicknamed Papillon – Butterfly – for a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and it’s a role tailor-made for the King of Cool; a variation on the same give-me-lined-paper-and-I’ll-write-the-other-way character he played a decade earlier in The Great Escape (1963).  The film is long (150 minutes) and episodic, but director Franklin J. Schaffner was an old hand at these kinds of epics with previous credits like The War Lord (1965), Best Picture Oscar-winner Patton (1970), and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).

The Best Movies of 1973
Image: Paramount

For sheer spectacle, it’s always hard to beat a James Bond flick.  Live and Let Die introduced Roger Moore as the new Bond after Sean Connery did his last turn as the superspy in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).  What’s to say?  It’s James freakin’ Bond; gadgets, big action set pieces, quippy lines from Bond, James Bond.  It’s a bit more problematic than other Bonds, coming out during the height of the “blaxploitation” craze and trying to plug into the trend but on those counts, the gears grind.  Still, for the most part, it’s the usual pre-Daniel-Craig-grimness Bondian fun.

A different kind of fun is Enter the Dragon, martial arts master Bruce Lee’s final and most upscale film.  The fight choreography is nothing short of amazing and it says something about the impact the film had that in 2004, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry selected it for preservation.  (If you have a sense of humor about Lee and the martial arts genre, I recommend Kentucky Fried Movie [1977], an anthology flick which includes a lengthy parody of Dragon – “A Fistful of Yen”).

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn’t really in the same league as the aforementioned, but it’s still worth a watch thanks to the work of stop motion maestro Ray Harryhausen.  Let’s call it lightweight Saturday afternoon fun for the whole family.

Speaking of family fun, there’s the animated feature Charlotte’s Web, with voices provided by Debbie Reynolds (as Charlotte) and Henry Gibson (Wilbur the pig).  The animation is on the bland side and a lot of critics typed it as about Saturday morning TV quality, but the story of how Charlotte saves Wilbur from the slaughterhouse still manages to come through with all the sweetness of the E. B. White book.

Heavy Traffic is another noteworthy animated feature from that year but one that’s definitely not for the kiddies!  It may not even be for easily offended adults!  Ralph Bakshi had begun his animation career on Saturday morning cartoons but challenged preconceptions about what animation could/couldn’t/should/shouldn’t do with his X-rated Fritz the Cat (1972).  Heavy Traffic was Bakshi’s follow-up to Fritz, a then daring mix of live-action and animation in an impressionistic view of New York through the eyes of an aspiring cartoonist.  It might be a bit too impressionistic for some; Heavy Traffic was also branded with an X-rating.

The Excorcist
Image: Warner Bros.

In a bit of synchronicity, two religious-themed musicals based on successful stage musicals were released the same year:  Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, with music and lyrics by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, tunefully deals with the issues between Judas and Jesus in the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion; and David Greene’s version of the John-Michael Tebelak/Stephen Schwartz stage musical Godspell which transposed parables from the Gospel of Matthew to modern day New York City. I’m not a musical guy myself but some classic tunes came out of each show and if you are into the form, you’ll be fine with these two critically-acclaimed offerings.

We looked at the heavenly, now let’s look in the other direction.

The Exorcist was director William Friedkin’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971) and he delivered his second blockbuster hit in a row (Exorcist would be the top earner of the year) with this tale of Satanic possession, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty who also penned the adaptation.  Its effects may be less shocking now than they were then, but it is impressive what Friedkin and his crew could manage in those pre-CGI days.  I’ve always found the movie a little emotionally cool; there’s not a lot to the characters, Friedkin spending most of his screen time trying to dazzle us with levitation, projectile vomiting…  You know, the usual possession stuff.  But this is still one of the all-time horror biggies.

Science fiction was not the industry cornerstone it is today.  Star Wars, and how it changed the direction of the motion picture industry and enshrined the concept of the money-minting franchise, was still four years away.  Up until then, more often than not, sci fi was used as a platform to address the ills of an illness-ridden time.  One of the better entries was Westworld.  In a left-handed way, Westworld – a resort where guests can live out their fantasies in genre worlds populated with robot characters – sort of presaged videogame addiction, the possible psychologically addictive properties of virtual reality, and the risks of Artificial Intelligence.

Westworld did a better job at dealing with possible future risks than Soylent Green which, today, plays more like camp than straight-shooting sci fi.  Soylent takes place in the same kind of futuristic dystopia as Blade Runner (1982) – a world so abused by its inhabitants that it’s dying.  Except Soylent looks like a community theater version of Blade Runner, with a vision of the future that seems out of corny 1950s sci fiers.  It’s a shame because like Westworld, it anticipates a lot of legitimate problems:  overpopulation and everything that goes with it (poverty, scarcity of food), climate change, and resource exhaustion.  Still, it gives us that great closing line (spoiler alert!):  “Soylent Green is people!”

Black Caesar
Image: American International Pictures

I was on the fence about including this last entry, but what the hell:  The Devil in Miss Jones.  With Deep Throat, porn came out of the shadows and became suburban chic.  Gerard Damiano, the man behind Throat, followed with Devil, which is as sophisticated as hardcore porn gets, I guess, inspired as it is by Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.  There is actually a plot:  a prudish spinster commits suicide which stains her otherwise pure life and thus damns her to hell.  Now regretting that she hadn’t indulged herself while she was alive, she cuts a deal with an angel to give her some opportunities to, well, you know.  Ok, it’s not much of a plot and it serves only to send star Georgina Spelvin through a series of sexual escapades but compared to the circles of Internet Porn with plotless videos of amateurs who, for God knows what reason, feel compelled to share their own awkward sexcrobatics, The Devil in Miss Jones is like the Citizen Kane (1941) of porn.

There was a host of other movies released that year and, like any year, some were good, some bad, some unjustly overlooked, some unjustly successful.  Some Honorable Mentions:

This was peak season for the blaxploitation genre and some biggies came out in 1973 including Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Gordon’s War, Cleopatra Jones, and starring that blaxploitation icon Pam Grier, Coffy;

George A. Romero took a break from the living dead with The Crazies and a town full of the next best thing to zombies:  people infected by a military bio weapon that drives them – can you guess? – crazy;

Robert Aldrich tried to recapture some of the glorious nihilism of The Dirty Dozen (1967) with Emperor of the North, reuniting Dozen stars Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in a grim Depression-era tale of a duel between hobo king Marvin and sadistic train conductor Borgnine;

Harry In Your Pocket is a slick little crime flick about master pickpocket James Coburn and his crew served up by Bruce Geller, creator of the hit TV series Mission:  Impossible;

The Iceman Cometh was part of an oddity; the American Film Theatre, a group of thirteen film adaptations of significant stage works.  John Frankenheimer’s take on Eugene O’Neill’s play is waaay long (almost four hours) and even as a play, that’d be asking a lot of the audience, but this was one of the better reviewed AFT offerings;

The Legend of Hell House, a nifty little horror tale that manages to squeeze more mileage out of old haunted house tropes than you might think possible.

The thing about 1973 was it wasn’t an exceptional year for the period.  The mix of gold and dross, of the ambitious and the pretentious was fairly typical of the time.  Within a few years, with Hollywood drooling over the unprecedented success of first Jaws (1975) and then Star Wars just two years later, the industry would change direction…and so would the sensibilities of a new generation of movie-going audience.  

It’s hard not to look over this list and get a little, well, down.  We don’t get years like that very often anymore, and it’s not likely we ever will again.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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