Great Year for Cinema: 1973

Skipping backward a few decades from the previous entry in this series, we explore the greatness of 1970s, where every single year bred classics aplenty, thus crowning it as one of the best decades for film period. In all likelihood I will be returning a couple more times to this marvelous era, but we shall begin with 1973. This was a year of transition, a changing of the guard in which seasoned international masters delivered fresh masterpieces, and new hotshots were proving themselves with breakthroughs that would come to define their early careers in cinema. We commence with two elder masters who herald from across the pond…

Amarcord – Federico Fellini

The first of these cinematic titans in Federico Fellini, who delivered what is considered to be his final masterpiece: Amarcord. Less a narrative experience, and more a cinematic letter of childhood nostalgia, Amarcord literally feels like piece of unearthed history. It comes as no surprise that the title of the partially autobiographical film translates to “I remember.” It chronicles the year in the life of a young man (an avatar of Fellini himself) coming to terms with his adolescence under the shadow of Mussolini’s fascist rule. Remarkably, Fellini deftly finds the balance of hilarity and resonance, and his cinematic sensibilities are as sharp and uncanny as they were during his height in the 1950’s and 1960’s. What impresses most here is his sense of atmosphere, from the changing of the seasons, to the tempests raging in young men’s minds (and pants). A truly wonderful and evocative masterwork, Fellini’s Amarcord is among the master’s crowning achievements.

Day for Night – Francois Truffaut

Although the documentary aesthetic in narrative cinema has become quite commonplace today with the merging of reality television and the sitcom, it is hardly anything new. Among the earliest of these came from one of the princes of the Nouvelle Vague, Francois Truffaut, whose Day for Night ranks as one of the best films ever made about the process (and chaos) of filmmaking. Featuring Truffaut himself as a central figure in a milieu of actors, technicians, producers, and hundreds of others, the film chronicles the fictitious shoot of the director’s next film, and all of the trials and tribulations (both public and private) which impede him along the way. Much like Fellini’s Amarcord was a love letter to his youth, so is Day for Night (named for an in camera technique for making daytime scenes appear to be shot at night) Truffaut’s expression for his adoration of the process of filmmaking. Every plausible thing occurs on this set, and Truffaut’s film is quite remarkable for how it changes its mood on a dime. Gut-busting funny scenes (of which there are many) quickly change pace at the drop of a hat, and it all makes sense given the frenetic nature of production. Day for Night might not match the profound nature of some of Truffaut’s earlier efforts, but it carries enough weight to make all of the fun matter.

The Sting – George Roy Hill

Moving back to domestic shores, the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1973 was awarded to George Roy Hill’s The Sting, a major classic which represented the aesthetic end of an era. Marked by some of the visual tendencies of the studio system era, where backlots and stages are more apparent as opposed to going out and shooting in the streets, The Sting feels like a final visual gasp from that elephantine era. What makes it relevant to the era of New Hollywood is that it is propelled by the two of the best actors of that generation: Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Having previously partnered together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both actors have a genuine rapport with each other on screen. Though the film is about a high stakes con played out for revenge, the execution is not particularly dark, with ragtime music and a light tone pervading throughout, making the film less of a gale and more of a breeze. Nevertheless, George Roy Hill’s film is a fine and necessary addition to the American greats of 1973.

American Graffiti – George Lucas

Shifting to the new kids on the block, one of the most prominent directors to emerge in 1973 was none other than George Lucas, who had made a name for himself 1971 with his dystopian THX 1138 but truly emerged two years later with American Graffiti. Like an American response to Fellini’s Amarcord, the film is one of the best depictions of post-high school life ever on screen. Featuring a youthful cast among which includes Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford, American Graffiti follows these lads as they soak in their last night of summer before moving on to the perils of higher education. Set in the 1950’s, what makes Lucas’ sophomore effort so exceptional is how soaked it is in atmosphere, from chasing girls around town, to the drive-in diners, and the nostalgic soundtrack. Even the corny dialogue has its charms, a staple feature of Lucas’s screenwriting for which he would be maligned in future films. Lucas has always asserted himself as a visual filmmaker, and the proof lies here. There is no overarching goal or narrative drive to the film, but the lessons these kids learn over the course of one night change their perspectives on life. It’s not a new theme, sure, but rarely is it carried across so flawlessly.

Badlands – Terrence Malick

Arguably among the most unique directorial voices to emerge not only in 1973, but in the entire decade was that of Terrence Malick, whose first feature Badlands is his most narratively accessible, yet features the seeds of his future style. Based on a true story, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) are two young lovers who run away together and go on a killing spree across the Dakotas.  A graduate of the American Film Institute, Malick consistently defies expectations in Badlands, for what could have been a simple tale of lovers on the run becomes something graceful and elegant even in its most violent moments. With a narrative as transparent as this, Malick’s attention nevertheless lies elsewhere, from the stunning landscapes, to the initially unseen minutiae of things occurring from scene to scene. His film is less a psychological meditation on the reasons for these people’s actions, and more of an acceptance of their violence within nature itself. Malick’s style would fully bloom five years later with Days of Heaven, but very few filmmakers throughout history have so immediately distinguished themselves in their very first feature.

Mean Streets – Martin Scorsese

The biggest directorial breakthrough of 1973 was easily that of Martin Scorsese, whose Mean Streets didn’t simply arrive on the cinematic scene, it charged in, cleaned out the liquor cabinet and refused to pay the tab. What could be considered a grittier, ganglier cousin to GoodFellasMean Streets represented the first of Scorsese’s gangster pictures, and immediately distinguished the director as a major talent. Entirely shedding the formalities and refinement that so defined the The Godfather from only the preceding year, Mean Streets is a real rag tag story influenced by Scorsese’s own experiences in Little Italy. Seen through the eyes of the Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, the mob world that Scorsese would come to quintessentially define is in its infancy, more of a gang than an actual mobilized organization. Trying to come to grips with his religious beliefs, his new girlfriend, and his place in the social hierarchy, Charlie’s struggles are as personal as they are universal. As strong as Keitel is here, Robert DeNiro’s breakout role here made him a star, and he’s never been as much of live wire as he is here. Of course, this film also represents the true beginnings of Scorsese’s style, from the bravura editing, to the gritty handheld cinematography, to the pulsating rock and roll music driving the narrative. Still one of Scorsese’s very best, Mean Streets is a pure hit of cinematic energy.

Serpico – Sidney Lumet

Among the great collaborations on display during this decade was the duo of Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino, and their first pairing in 1973 with Serpico represents a career highlight for both talents. Lumet, a veteran of television, first emerged in 1957 with 12 Angry Men and had built up a strong resume over fifteen years, and his film about a good cop in a city of corruption may sound familiar, but it fits seamlessly into the catalogue of 1970’s cinema. Lumet imbues his New York here with a constant sense of realism without ever drawing his visual stylings to accentuate it. Where some filmmakers yearn to give their films a sense of grit and earthiness, it simply exists naturally in the world of SerpicoPacino’s performance ranks among his best, assertive when he needs to be yet honed in on nuance. Most impressive here is how he stands in stark contrast to his breakout role in The Godfather from the previous year, as Pacino becomes ragged and bearded the further he goes undercover. He’s a rogue cop, but only to a point: a Popeye Doyle without the brashness.

The Exorcist – William Friedkin

Although I must admit that I am not an avid fan of horror, I would be amiss if I failed to mention William Friedkin’s exceptional piece from the genre. One of the most infamous films of its time, The Exorcist was certainly found to be controversial in terms of its subject matter, yet its history seems to overshadow the true craftsmanship and cinema that can be found within this grisliest of tales. Coming off of a Best Picture win for his searing cop drama, The French Connection, William Friedkin switched out a French drug ring for the most infamous villain of all of storytelling history: the devil himself. The plot may feel fairly standard considering how many exorcism riffs have been done since the film’s release, but none of the films that followed can match this original execution. From the memorably chilling score, to the truly great performances from the likes of Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow, and of course, the palpable atmosphere as captured through the photography and elevated through editorial, The Exorcist still holds up after nearly forty years.

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~ by romancinema on July 13, 2012.

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