A few weeks ago, a friend noted that his favorite movie of all-time — “Chinatown” — would be marking its 40th birthday this year, and that made me recall that the Roman Polanski/Robert Towne drama lost in the best picture Oscar race to another amazing movie, “The Godfather Part II.”
That set me to digging around for other notable 1974 releases and I quickly felt like I had hit a mother lode something like that fabled Hollywood year of 1939 (which produced “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among other classics).
In 1974, moviegoers were able to feast on “The Conversation,” “The Parallax View,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Thieves Like Us,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Young Frankenstein,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Lenny,” “The Sugarland Express” and “The Great Gatsby.”
The notable second tier releases of 1974 included “The Longest Yard,” “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Conrack.”
Horror fans welcomed a classic into their canon that year as well, with the release of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
It was such a fervent time that two major filmmakers each delivered a pair of classic titles in 1974. In addition to “Young Frankenstein,” which opened late in the year, Mel Brooks scored another big hit with a summer release, “Blazing Saddles.”
Francis Coppola had an astounding year, with “The Godfather Part II” winning for best picture and his other drama that year “The Conversation” nominated in the same category.
In 1974, major studios still released difficult, small movies that would now be handled by studio subsidiaries such as Fox Searchlight. The only independently released films listed above were “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and John Cassavetes’ self-produced “A Woman Under the Influence.”
Mainstream movies were darker then, and the directors didn’t have to bow to the results of pre-release testing. It’s hard to imagine a major studio today allowing the harrowing finales of “Chinatown” and “The Parallax View” in which above-the-title stars were brutally murdered in the final moments.
The most notable directorial debut that year was Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” which showed such confidence and technical expertise that producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown decided to give Spielberg the 1975 assignment that would change his career and create the idea of the “summer blockbuster” — “Jaws.”