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A Golden Year for Cinema

Golden times ahead... Sarah Helm revisits ten films that celebrate their half century this year

So, June came and went, folks. It busted out, all over the meadow and the (Chiltern) hill(s), at least according to the cast of epic fantasy Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel (1956).

I apologise for the prolonged hiatus, but the sixth month of this year was a busy one here at Helm Towers. Annually, the pagan rituals of Midsommar (2019) and the hijinks that come with fairies replacing hapless men’s heads with that of donkeys (Eeyore in the ill-advised slasher travesty Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023) – yes, you read that correctly – got off lightly by all accounts) are faithfully observed.

This June saw the additional celebrations of my husband’s 50th, my parents’ Golden Wedding and Father’s Day all within a week of each other. It has taken a while for me, and my bank balance, to recover from such revelries – very lovely so they were. It has also given me inspiration for the content of the latest film blog.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in no particular order, ten films that celebrate their half century this year!

Served for starters on this celluloid celebration menu – it’s bleak, repugnant and both the characters and food offerings come across as completely unpalatable. No folks, it wasn’t inspired by Come Dine With Me. (You didn’t need a trip to Barnard Castle to see that punchline coming a mile away. And yes, I am particularly pleased with both those up-to-the-minute topical references.)

1) La Grande Bouffe (The Big Feast) – dir. Marco Ferreri

The French/Italian language cult satire deriding the perils of consumerism. Four friends meet one weekend for a non-stop sumptuous feast at a Parisian villa, with the aim of eating themselves to death. Three sex-workers, a school teacher (one way to avoid OFSTED), exploding toilets and a Bugatti sports car become entwined in the plot, which has been described as a disgusting and perverse critique of decadence. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw stated: ‘Everything about this is grotesque and horrifying…’ before recommending it as DVD of the week. 

One to watch should you feel that you’ve over-indulged on holiday – you’ll feel instantly better about yourself. (It’s the only reason why I watch The Apprentice.) For those of you not quite at rock bottom following the screening, (how many times can you actually watch those repeats of Dad’s Army?), may I suggest pairing La Grande Bouffe with the Depression Era dance-gruelathon They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack, for a thoroughly mirthless double bill. (To which the answer is: yes they do, and the chef in La Grande Bouffe probably served them up on the menu.)

Speaking of whom…

2) The Way We Were – dir. Sydney Pollack

She’s a militant Marxist Jew…he’s a carefree, politically apathetic WASP. They’re the original odd couple!

Hollywood royalty Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford star in this classic melodrama which charts the relationship of Katie Morosky and Hubble Gardiner, against the backdrop of the McCarthy witch hunts, which mirrored the screenwriter, Arthur Laurents’ own experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Streisand was Oscar nominated for Best Actress for her role, and the film’s title song, which she also sang, won an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Grammy for Best Original Song and Song of the Year respectively – credit to writers Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch.

Robert Redford had a very good year in 1973. The Sting, in which he co-starred with his old pal Paul Newman, was released in America on Christmas Day and went on to be nominated for ten Oscars, walking away with seven. (Both these films are well worth a watch or a revisit, and will probably be broadcast on a classic movie channel, or BBC1 late at night, pretty soon.) And it also had a catchy soundtrack.

Robert B and Richard M Sherman, songwriters most known for their work on Mary Poppins (1964), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), The Jungle Book (1967) and the Disney attraction It’s A Small World (After All) (sorry about the earworm folks, but I actually thought both the song and the ride where pretty sweet). The brothers were also responsible for the tunes in our next offering:

3) Charlotte’s Web – dir. Charles A Nichols and Iwao Takamoto

Alongside Disney’s Robin HoodCharlotte’s Web was the most notable animated film of 1973. Produced by Hanna (‘Zoiks, Scoob’)-Barbera Productions, and based on the beloved novel by E B White (who famously didn’t like the songs), the film tells the story of Wilbur the pig, who is saved from the slaughterhouse by Charlotte (Debbie Reynolds), a spider who convinces everyone that Wilbur can spell, by spinning words above the barn in which he lives. (At no point does anyone point out that pigs cannot spin webs, but spiders can… but that is the suspension of disbelief and the magic of the movies, right?)

So, is Charlotte’s Web a celebration of true friendship?

A cry to support humane farming practices?

A feminist critique that women’s work often goes unnoticed while the men they support are bedecked with accolades?

Best to ask your friendly, neighbourhood arachnid for a definitive answer.

In the 80s, I was a member of the Barbican Centre’s Children’s Cinema Club, which showed films on a Saturday morning. Charlotte’s Web was repeatedly screened as it was so popular, but we could never get tickets as it was always sold-out weeks in advance (days of having to phone up using the one ticket hotline, or hedging your bets with a cheque and paper booking slip in the post – that’s living history, kids! Pass your A Levels with us…). 

4) Enter The Dragon – dir. Robert Clouse

Bruce Lee stars as a martial artist, hired by the British Intelligence Service to investigate a suspected crime lord at a tournament on a private island. Whilst undercover, he must also avenge his sister’s death and fight for his own life in a series of increasingly elaborate set pieces.

Filmed on a budget of just $850,000 in Hong Kong, Lee, a renowned martial artist, staged the fights himself. Jackie Chan also appears briefly, uncredited as a guard. The cast features Asian, White and Black protagonists and the film was included in the National Film Registry in 2004 for being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.

Bruce Lee died, aged 32, on 20th July, 1973 from a cerebral edema.

Enter the Dragon premiered a month later in Los Angeles on 19th August, and became one of the most influential and successful martial arts films ever made, eventually grossing $400 million worldwide.

5) Don’t Look Now – dir. Nicolas Roeg

Following the tragic drowning of their young daughter at their family home, grieving couple John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) travel to Venice off season, for a church restoration project as part of John’s work. The heartbroken pair believe a change of scene will help them to reconnect with each other, but have hardly set foot on a gondola before they encounter two clairvoyant sisters who inform them that their daughter is trying to reach them, and that danger is afoot…

Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now uses a non-linear timeline and editing techniques to distort the viewers’ perception of the narrative, adding to the heightening menace, which made it a standout example of British horror. It was also infamous at the time for its explicit sex scene (did they or didn’t they? Apparently, they did… that was the ’70s for you… but audiences these days would probably wonder what the fuss was about…)

I went to Venice in the winter once. It was all going very nicely until the afternoon when we stopped for sustenance in a café just by the Rialto Bridge. There at the counter was a small blonde-haired child in a red plastic hooded anorak. Don’t Look Now? Not likely…I was running away so fast that I almost dropped my Cornetto.

No-one got a postcard that year…

And from one disturbing tale about offspring to another. This one is for anyone who’s ever had experience with moody teenagers…

6) The Exorcist – dir. William Friedkin

Sweet little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) goes to bed one evening innocently enough, and wakes up the next day possessed by a demon (wouldn’t you just know it?). (Teenagers, am I right?) Her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), becomes understandably concerned by her daughter’s increasingly unhinged behaviour and summons two Catholic priests (Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism, in the hope of nipping the shenanigans in the bud… (It takes a lot for the neighbours to complain, but when they do…) ‘with hilarious results’.

Hailed upon its release as the most scary and/or blasphemous film ever made, and based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is movie critic Mark Kermode’s favourite ever film. It was banned on video in the UK between 1986 and 1998, after which time it was released, uncut, to the British market, and even shown on Channel 4 in 2001. Gawd bless us, everyone.

I watched it when it was re-released at the cinema when I was a film student at university, because it was the law. I don’t think I would use the term ‘enjoyable’, and I could have done without the projectile vomiting, but the full impact of my experience was probably most marred from the memory of the French and Saunders’ parody, which had been on the BBC during primetime some years before. Jennifer asking Dawn if she was feeling any better, as her head turned a full three-sixty, was both bewildering and a celebration of the classic British understatement. Absolutely fabulous indeed, ladies.

7) Sleeper – dir. Woody Allen

In 1973, shy and nerdy (really???) health-food store manager Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) is admitted to hospital for a routine procedure. He wakes up 200 years in the future, having been subjected to cryopreservation, and finds himself entangled in an espionage plot to derail the ‘The Leader’, who is now ruling America under an assumed dictatorship (…was he orange?). Miles tries to escape by disguising himself as a robot and goes to work as a butler at the lavish home of socialite Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton). When his true identity is discovered, the two go on the run to infiltrate The Leader’s evil plan.

A lot has been said about Woody Allen over the years, particularly about personal life imitating art, or vice versa. Thankfully, times have changed for the better (in some respects) and what was acceptable 50 years ago doesn’t always sit right now.

Allen has made 49 films, with Sleeper considered to be one his best early comedies, owing to the use of sight gags, slapstick and zingy one-liners, and the great chemistry between the leads. A case of love the art, not the artist? Perhaps in 200 years we will evaluate Sleeper again.

Espionage and gang infiltration seemed to be the hot themes of 1973. Next on the list is…

8) Coffy – dir. Jack Hill

Pam Grier stars as Flower Child Coffin (what was wrong with Jane Smith you may well ask), known as Coffy, a nurse turned vigilante who goes undercover as a sex worker to rid her city of the mob, drug dealers and to punish those responsible for her sister’s addiction to cocaine.

Pam Grier became famous in the 1970s for her roles in blaxploitation pictures, and was considered to be the first African-American female action star, before she branched out to other genres later on in her career. Grier’s stand out roles of this period were Coffy (Tagline – The baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town) and Foxy Brown (Tagline – The meanest chick in town), which was released in 1974. (Which town were they talking about? It certainly never came up on any RightMove search…)

Director Quentin Tarantino was such a fan of Grier’s work that he cast her in Jackie Brown (1997), which pays homage to the blaxploitation films of the era. The role helped to revive Grier’s career and introduced a new audience to her work. And now you’ll be singing Across 110th Street for the rest of the day… sorry, not sorry.

9) American Graffiti – dir. George Lucas

Four years before he headed to a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas co-wrote this classic coming of age tale. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, American Graffiti tells the story of a group of teenage friends in 1962, and their drag racing adventures on the last night of the summer holidays, before embarking for college or the world of work after High School. The cast included Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams (who was BAFTA nominated for her role), Harrison Ford (still going strong) and Ronny (I bet he loved being called this) Howard.

American Graffiti reignited audience’s taste for early ’60s nostalgia, received many nominations and prizes – from both home and international awarding bodies and, in 1995, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Long running US sit-com Happy Days, starring Howard and Williams, was inspired by American Graffiti. The film’s box office success made George Lucas a bankable director, and millionaire, who was able to put aside $300,000 of his own money for a little space-opera project that he had his heart set on making. And that turned out nicely for everyone, except Alec Guinness, who maintained that it ruined his career. (British thesps, what can you do? Never satisfied…)

10) Amarcord – dir. Federico Fellini

Set over one year, this semi-autobiographical story sees young Titta (Bruno Zanin) growing up in a seaside town, in the shadow of 1930s Italian Fascism and Mussolini.

Fellini based Titta on his childhood friend Luigi Titta Benzi, who grew up to become a lawyer. The supporting cast include many eccentric characters living in Borgo San Giuliano, who feature in a series of nostalgic or carnivalesque misadventures.

Amarcord won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1975 (owing to international distribution deals) and was Fellini’s last major commercial success, praised by both audiences and critics.

In 2008, Cahiers du Cinema voted Amarcord as number 50 of the ‘100 Greatest Films’ (50? Not 8½? – I’ll get my coat…), not bad for 30 plus years after the fact.

So, there you have it, a sample of movies from fifty years ago, when you were young, and your heart was an open book. You don’t like all of the choices? Live and let live, I say.

I hope there are a few titles in here that you’ll want to watch or find out more about.

But if you’re shaken, not stirred by this list, and would like to discuss Moore films that celebrate their half century, it’s not long now until CFS opens its doors again and begins the new season at The Elgiva. Time to renew or purchase membership? Roger that! (Sorry. There is NO PRIZE, but I’m very proud of you for getting the reference).

So a very happy birthday to Martin, huge congratulations to Jean and Tony, and for everyone else, hopefully see you at The Elgiva very soon!

Stay safe and see you at the movies!


Information about the Chiltern Film Society can be found HERE

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