Genres I: Revision, Transformation, and Revival
5The Youth-Cult Film
Genres I: Revision, Transformation, and Revival
Genre and Television
The Gangster Film
Film Noir and Other Crime Genres
Horror and the Mainstreaming of Exploitation
The Science Fiction Film
The Disaster Film
Genre films essentially ask the audience, "Do you still want to believe this?" Popularity is the audience answering, 'Yes." Change in genres occur when the audience says, "That's too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated."
Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame, 1977
There is general agreement among critics and scholars that the 1970s witnessed the regular production of genre films for the first time since the classical studio era (excepting the musicals and Westerns made during the 1950s).1 The return to genre production grew out of the preoccupation of New Hollywood auteurs with film history and film form, and was underwritten by the studios as a form of risk reduction since genre films, like stars, were inherently "pre-sold" and easy to package. Influenced by the French New Wave, early Hollywood Renaissance directors like Penn, Peckinpah, and Kubrick had experimented within classical genres (the gangster film, the Western, and the science fiction film respectively), whereas Altman, Bogdanovich, and others were interested in revising, "correcting," and/or deconstructing them. Collateral to this revisionism was the recycling of former exploitation genres (for example, AIP-style monster and horror movies, rock 'n' roll musicals, "race" movies, and pornography) into the mainstream, as producers sought ever more sensational audience hooks and "movie brat" directors were called upon to recreate the subversive cinema of their youth as a series of big-budget features. By mid-decade, genre parody, a staple of prime-time television since the late sixties (e.g., The Wild, Wild West [1965-1969], Batman [1966-1968], Get Smart [1966-1970], Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In [1968-1973]), was firmly entrenched in the work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen; and, with Star Wars (1977), George Lucas pioneered the genre pastiche in which several classical genres were melded into one (in this case, science fiction, the Western, the war film, and the quasi-mystical epic). At this juncture, nostalgia became an important market element, both as a Saturday-matinee-style appeal to lost innocence and as the last viable response to classical genre. For such "film generation" auteurs as Steven Spielberg, the nostalgic genre pastiche—as in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)—would become the blockbuster paradigm for the eighties.
Classical narrative and generic conventions had both been called into question during the 1960s under the influence of the European art film,2 especially in the work of the French New Wave, whose particular brand of modernism called attention to cinematic style through exaggeration and parody. Popularized by Richard Lester's commercially successful Beatles films, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman (Un Homme et une Femme, 1966),3 such disruptive New Wave techniques as jump-cutting and optically violent camera movement had entered mainstream American cinema shortly thereafter. Traces of New Wave style can be found in the freeze-frame ending of Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) and the elliptical flashbacks of his The Pawnbroker (1965), as well in the hand-held, cinema verité-style camera work of John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966). By 1967, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde could offer audiences a compendium of such practices without jeopardizing narrative coherence, but did risk alienating them by imitating the radical mood swings of such New Wave paragons as Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Like the French films, Bonnie and CLyde mixed an inherently serious genre (the gangster film) with an inherently unserious one (slapstick), producing violent shifts from comedy to tragedy that outraged contemporary critics like Bosley Crowther.4 Yet these New Wave borrowings hardly foretold the death of classical narrative, because they were largely cosmetic. Continuity editing, mimesis, and stars remained crucial to the Hollywood mode of representation throughout the coming decades, and the New Wave's stylistic reflexivity was quickly assimilated into more conventional forms (including, most visibly, the television commercial). As Robert B. Ray has put it, the influence of the 1960s European art film on American cinema was one of "superficial stylistic exuberance, leaving Classic Hollywood's paradigms fundamentally untouched."5 If proof is needed one has only to compare the narrational mode of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970), produced in the United States by MGM, with that of Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud (or any other Altman film of the decade, except perhaps 3 Women ) produced in the same year for the same studio. Although Altman has long been regarded as an authentic American practitioner of art cinema,6 his film is a formally closed narrative, and its editing structure, if somewhat elliptical, is unambiguous. Antonioni's film, by contrast, is episodic, open-ended, and distinctly modernist in form, yielding its meaning less through linear narrative than polyphonic montage and a densely allusive subtext. (Ironically, whereas MGM's new president James T. Aubrey hated Brewster McCloud and condemned it to an early death on the exploitation circuit, he told Antonioni that Zabriskie Point "may be the best movie I've ever seen in my life."7 (Of course, Aubrey had more capital—both literal and political—invested in Antonioni than Altman, which surely colored his opinion.)
If the directors of the New Hollywood were self-avowed modernists, then, they were not modernists who sought to demolish primary forms like representation and narrative. Rather, they concentrated their attack on secondary forms—most notably, individual genres—and, as Stephen Schiff has argued, they were so successful at it that by the mid-1970s genre could scarcely be said to exist at all, except where it provided experiences unavailable on television—that is, in spectacle and pornography—or as a function of nostalgia.8 What had made genres an integral part of the studio system was their reliability as a product, their ability to provide an audience with a consistently familiar and repeatable experience. Genre was also an important factor in product differentiation and standardization, and genre production was highly costefficient: the same sets, props, costumes, and creative personnel (including writers, actors, and directors) could be recycled from one genre film to the next, enabling the studios to virtually mass-produce them. (For example, during the 1943-1944 season, sixty-two of the 397 features released by the eleven largest distributors [the five majors, the three minors, and the three largest B-studios] were Westerns produced in this way.)9 And it was this predictability that caused a return to genre production as negative costs soared in the wake of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) as the risks associated with blockbuster production demanded stories that were pre-tested, pre-sold, and easily packaged for global distribution. In fact, late seventies blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), Superman (Richard Donner, 1978), and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) were even "more classical," in Thomas Schatz's phrase, than their generic predecessors owing to their narrative sophistication and technical prowess10—a reintensification made possible both by the film-school training of New Hollywood directors and an acceleration in special effects and other production technology. Before this neo-classicism took hold, however, there was a splintering and dislocation of classical genres that began with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), proceeded through Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and the "youth-cult" boom of 1969-1971, leading to their ultimate explosion in the first half of the 1970s.
The youth-cult or counterculture film was a response by the studios to the exemplary success of Columbia's Easy Rider (released in July 1969), whose $19.2-million rental return on a $375,000 investment made all Hollywood take note.11 During the 1969-1970 season, the only other distributor to stake a serious claim in the youth market was United Artists, whose Alice's Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969) and Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) were both shrewdly marketed to what New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman was then calling "the Film Generation."12 Although Paramount had picked up the independent H and J production Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969), MGM had Antonioni's Zabriskie Point in production as the second in a three-film deal that had begun with Blow Up (1966), and Warner Bros. had contracted with a twenty-six-year-old cameraman named Michael Wadleigh and the promoters of the Woodstock rock festival in upstate New York (Woodstock Ventures) to film that event when it took place in August 1969,13 there was little other action on the youth market front until the revelatory success of Easy Rider, which opened in mid-July and shortly thereafter sent the studios scrambling after similar projects. As 1970 began, the banner headline for Variety's year-end wrap-up proclaimed "B. O. Dictatorship By Youth," while the accompanying article commented that "Hollywood's current problem is to engage in a film production program that it can survive under, attuned to the contemporaneous market."14 A few months later, the Variety B. O. Chart for 1969, tracking the gross performance of 1,028 features in the domestic market through the year's end, placed nine youth-oriented films among the top twenty (#4—I Am Curious Yellow; #5—Midnight Cowboy; #6—Easy Rider; #8—Romeo and Juliet; #9—Bullitt; #11—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; #13—2001: A Space Odyssey; #16—Alice's Restaurant; #20—The Wild Bunch).15 Some of these were clearly "corrected" classical genre films whose youth appeal was circumstantial (or, like that of 2001, grounded mainly in style), but the Easy Rider phenomenon led studios to speculate wildly low-budget movies produced directly for the youth market.
This was what motivated Warner Bros. to lend Francis Ford Coppola $600,000 to form the alternative studio that became American Zoetrope and Columbia to negotiate the six-film deal with Easy Rider-producer BBS that led to Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), and other notable films (see Chapter 4). By early 1970, virtually every major studio had youth-cult films in development or production that bore the influence of Easy Rider their themes of youthful rebellion and their documentary-like intention—that is, their desire to be vibrantly contemporary, or, variously, "hip," "with it," "relevant," and "now." MGM released Zabriskie Point in February and The Strawberry Statement (Stuart Hagmann) in June, both of which were unconvincingly set in the context of student radicalism, although the former contains some of Antonioni's most brilliantly expressive montage and the latter somehow managed to win the 1970 Special Jury Prize at Cannes. In May 1970, Columbia also released two films about student unrest—Getting Straight (Richard Rush), and R.P.M. (Stanley Kramer)—which were similarly superficial in their political commitment; as was United Artists' youth-oriented The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (Leonard Horn), also released in May, and The Revolutionary (Paul Williams), released in July. The Warner Bros. rock documentary Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh) was probably the most "pre-sold" of all youth-cult properties when it appeared in August 1970. But Gimme Shelter, shot by the Maysles brothers at The Rolling Stones' Altamont concert and distributed by Cinema V, featured a real, on-camera murder and was similarly popular at year's end; as was Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (United Artists, 1971—the first theatrical release shot in a videotape-to-film transfer process) shortly thereafter. Universal, which had distributed the liberated confessional Coming Apart (Milton Moses Ginsberg) in 1969, produced a fine satire on the generation gap in Taking Off (1971), Milos Forman's first American film since emigrating from Czechoslovakia in 1969 and the enigmatic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), which became a cult classic later in the decade. At Paramount, Sidney J. Furie attempted to clone Easy Rider with the motorcycle-racing epic Little Fauss and Big Halsey (1970) (as did Avco Embassy's C. C. and Company [Robbie Seymour, 1970]),16 and Mike Nichols's muchanticipated adaptation of Joseph Heller's absurdist World War II novel Catch-22 (1970) was spiked with contemporary antiwar rhetoric to enhance its youth appeal. The anti-Vietnam subtext was even clearer in both 20th Century-Fox's revisionist "combat" film M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970), a black comedy in which only combat's bloody aftermath is shown, and National General's revisionist Western Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), where the massacred Indians stand in for nonviolent flower children, as well as for Vietnamese villagers. But the year's ultimate expression of youth-cult fear and loathing for the Establishment was probably Cannon Film's Joe (John G. Avildsen), in which a hardcore blue-collar bigot (Peter Boyle) and a weak-willed business executive go on a murderous rampage against a hippie commune that harbors the latter's daughter (Susan Sarandon, in her debut); the film ends in a freeze-frame in which the businessman unwittingly shoots his own daughter in the back as she runs away from him towards the camera, suggesting an unholy alliance between working class and bourgeoisie to exterminate the counterculture.
Most of the youth-cult films of 1970 shared a dual impulse to capture the Zeitgeist and to be stylistically innovative, often through the adaptation of cinema verité and/or art film techniques to narrative, but just as often through conspicuous abuse of rack-focus composition and the zoom lens—newly available in high-resolution, high-speed formats with a 5 to 1 ratio from Taylor-Hobson (London), Canon (Tokyo), and Angenieux (Paris).17 Many also shared some kind of high-concept advertising logo, a portentous, "with-it" marketing slogan, and a rock-music sound track, often tied in to a simultaneous album release—all in imitation of Easy Rider, whose Dunhill Records sound track of cuts by Steppenwolf, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Byrds, The Band, and The Electric Prunes was certified "Gold" in January 1970.18 (For example, Zabriskie Point was advertised with a huge graphic of the title in which the letters were formed from the stars and stripes of the American flag. This echoed Easy Rider's poster art, where images of the flag appear prominently on the crash helmet, fuel tank, and jacket of "Captain America" [Peter Fonda] as he sits on his Harley and stares off into what is left of the American frontier. Easy Rider's slogan, "A man went looking for America, but couldn't find it anywhere," became for Zabriskie Point: "Zabriskie Point…where a boy…and a girl…meet…and touch…and BLOW THEIR MINDS!!" Or, alternatively: "Zabriskie Point…How you get there…depends on where you're at!" And Zabriskie Point's sound-track album was released by MGM Records, with songs by The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd, who also pioneered a synthesized rock score for the film.19) Implicit in many of these films was the equation of the youth culture with the drug culture, so that the odyssey of Easy Rider's protagonists from Los Angeles to Louisiana is bankrolled by a cocaine deal (although they explicitly eschew coke themselves for marijuana and LSD); the Korean War servicemen in M*A*S*H anachronistically smoke a joint during an intramural football game; the entire cast gets stoned in Taking Off (Milos Forman, 1971); and Woodstock is a veritable pharmacopoeia (for which, according to Stephen Farber, it very specifically received an R rating from CARA20). The darker side of drug use would become the focus of Fox's The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971); United Artists' Born to Win (Ivan Passer, 1971); MGM's Believe in Me (Stuart Hagmann, 1971); Warner Bros.' Dealing: or The Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (Paul Williams, 1972); the documentary Dusty and Sweets McGee (Floyd Mutrux, 1971); Columbia's Cisco Pike (B. W. L. Norton, 1972); and several other early seventies productions targeted (unsuccessfully in the main) for youth.21 A notable film in this category was Conrad Rooks's independently distributed Siddhartha (1973), an adaptation of Hermann Hesse's novel of expanded consciousness that was shot on location in India by the Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Originally published in 1922, Hesse's visionary bildungsroman had become a bible of late-sixties drug consciousness; and Rooks had become a hallucinogenic cult hero when Chappaqua (1966; released 1968), his mesmerizing film about heroin withdrawal, won a Silver Lion at Venice in 1966. The final youth-cult films were independent productions tending toward black humor—Alan Myerson's Steelyard Blues (1972), James Frawley's Kid Blue (1973), and James William Guercio's Electra Glide in Blue (1973)—which anticipated the music-video format in their integration of sound and vision.
In pursuing the youth-cult boomlet of 1969-1971, the majors followed a pattern of exploitation laid out for them by Roger Corman at James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff's American-International Pictures (AIP) in the fifties and early sixties. (Easy Rider was in fact a variant of several Corman-produced AIP biker films, made largely by AIP alumni.)22 The AIP-Corman strategy was to abjure the mass audience and target market segments demographically (teenagers) in order to exploit their tastes (monster-themed science fiction, horror, hot-rods, rock 'n' roll) with sensational, low-budget material. As with pornography—which is the ultimate exploitation genre—swift delivery of the goods compensated for a multitude of sins at the level of form and packaging, and low budgets meant high returns for success and minimum risk for failure. The majors' venture into youth-cult exploitation was recession-driven and produced uneven results: of the specifically engineered youth-cult films cited above, only Woodstock and Joe met with unqualified success, generating rentals of $16.4 and $9.5 million, respectively (which put them at sixth and tenth place for the year). M*A*S*H was a bigger hit, earning $36.7 million in rentals (and third place), but it had mass market as well as youth appeal.23 Nevertheless, the studios' youth-cult gambit set the stage for a blurring of distinctions between mainstream and exploitation genres that would characterize the first half of the 1970s until, around 1975, the distinctions themselves disappeared. And once Hollywood began to travel this road, the authority of mainstream classical genres was diluted and finally lost.
Not all of the majors' efforts to court the youthful market during the 1969-1971 recession went into youth-cult exploitation. For every film keyed to the hippie values of drugs, sex, radicalism, and rock 'n' roll, there were others calculated to appeal to urban professionals and other young adults who had not yet chosen, in the words of Dr. Timothy Leary, to "turn on, tune-in, and drop-out."24 There were numerous films about coming of age or sexual awakening like Paramount's The Sterile Cuckoo (Alan Pakula, 1969), Goodbye, Columbus (Larry Peerce, 1969; adapted from Philip Roth's novel) and A Separate Peace (Larry Peerce, 1972; adapted from the John Knowles classic), Fox's John and Mary (Peter Yates, 1969), Warner Bros.' Summer of '42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971), and Allied Artist's Last Summer (Frank Perry, 1969), as well films about middle-class marital angst—many of them based on prestigious women's novels—such as Universal's Diary of a Mad Housewife (Frank Perry, 1970; adapted by Eleanor Perry from a novel by Sue Kaufman) and Play It As It Lays (Frank Perry, 1972; adapted by Joan Didion from her own novel), Columbia's Loving (Irvin Kershner, 1970), Fox's Marriage of a Young Stock Broker (Lawrence Turman, 1971), Paramount's Desperate Characters (Frank D. Gilroy, 1971; adapted from a novel by Paula Fox) and Such Good Friends (Otto Preminger, 1971; adapted by Elaine May [as Esther Dale] from Lois Gould's novel), and National General's Up the Sandbox (Irvin Kershner, 1972; adapted from a novel by Anne Richardson Roiphe). Whatever their other merits, these films were able to deal frankly with sexual situations—within CARA guidelines—for the first time since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934, which gave them a certain freshness and novelty.
Other studio films honed for the new demographics focused on middle-class youths or young adults in search of identity and meaning. Warner Bros.' Rabbit, Run (Jack Smight, 1970), Paramount's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (Jeffrey Young, 1971), Universal's Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971), National General's Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (Ulu Grosbard, 1971) and The Christian Licorice Store (James Frawley, 1971), Avco Embassy's The Steagle (Paul Sylbert, 1971), and Columbia's The Pursuit of Happiness (Robert Mulligan, 1971) fall into this category, as do BBS Productions' Columbia-released Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), Drive, He Said (Jack Nicholson, 1972), and A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom, 1971). Finally, several films evoking urban paranoia—a newly urgent theme after years of ghetto riots and rising crime rates—were given youth appeal through their casting: most obviously United Artists' X-rated Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), whose stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were both nominated for Oscars (which the picture and screenplay won), and Fox's Move (Stuart Rosenberg, 1970) and Little Murders (Alan Arldn, 1971; adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own stage play), both of which starred M*A*S*'H's youth-cult icon Elliott Gould.
Another crucial factor in the explosion of genres was television. When series television subsumed the function of Â-films during the late fifties and sixties, it reproduced nearly all of the classical Hollywood genres—the Western, the crime melodrama, the screwball comedy, etc.—and there was an inevitable debasement and cheapening of the original formulas. As Stephen Schiff comments, "When the mass audience was regularly exposed to Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Wild, Wild West, and so on, it realized how limited and boring the Western could be."25 In this argument, the self-awareness that enters the "adult" Hollywood Westerns of the late fifties and early sixties, as well as the self-consciousness of the Italian "spaghetti Westerns," may be traced to the infinite repetition of genre iconography on television, until finally, by the decade's end, the Western setting could only be used in ways that emphasize either its exhaustion (The Wild Bunch) or its quaintness (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Another complementary way in which television exploded genre was to become a kind of museum of classical cinema. Between 1955 and 1957, all of the majors but MGM sold the bulk of their pre-1948 films (those owned outright and not subject to residual payments) to distributors who syndicated them to local stations.26 In the early 1960s, the networks followed suit and increased their prime-time programming of Hollywood features. Starting with the NBC Saturday Night Movie in 1961, by 1968 there was a network prime-time movie showcase for every night of the week, which had the effect of turning every household in America into a private film museum. As Robert B. Ray puts it, "By plundering Hollywood's archive, television encouraged a new attitude toward the popular cinema and the traditional mythology it embodied."27 Christopher Anderson has pointed out how this situation helped to foster the New Hollywood both materially and culturally. On the one hand, income from teleproduction and profits from film library sales helped to subsidize the boom-or-bust mentality of the New Hollywood by reducing the risk of blockbuster production; on the other, television's "archiving" of classical cinema by constantly recycling of studio-era films helped to form the New Hollywood's historical consciousness—that unique sense of retrospection that informs the work of nearly every major figure of the 1970s from Altman through Spielberg—becoming a major point of demarcation between the "old" Hollywood and the new.28 For the mass audience, however, the constant diet of genre-based TV shows and classical Hollywood genre films bred something like contempt for traditional generic conventions, reinforcing a sense that they had become old-fashioned, "unrealistic," and culturally irrelevant.
The 1970s revision of the Western genre provides a striking example of this process. Traditionally associated with conservative cultural and political values (in the hands of John Ford, say), the Western became a vehicle for antiwar protest and social criticism in the early years of the decade. Six months before the release of Easy Rider, Richard Nixon had been inaugurated as the thirty-sixth president of the United States, and three months later the toll of Americans killed in Vietnam reached 33,641 and exceeded that of the Korean War. Despite Nixon's election-year pledge to end the war and "bring us together," his strategy in office was to escalate it and stifle dissent by exploiting the "generation gap" he had promised to close. His ultimate move in this direction was the invasion of Cambodia, announced in a television address on April 30, 1970, which unleashed a storm of protest across the nation, culminating in the killing of the four college students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard on May 4th. This event and the public response to it (according to a Newsweek poll, 58 percent of respondents thought the shootings were justified)29 capped several years of political violence and divisiveness, which had begun with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in April and June 1968, and the police riot at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. This violence, together with the conviction that the United States was waging a pointless and immoral war in Southeast Asia, produced a mood of cultural despair among America's youth that, after Kent State, bordered on the apocalyptic. The hopelessness and romantic fatalism that pervades so many of Hollywood's 1969-1971 youth-cult films, starting with Easy Rider and continuing through Zabriskie Point (whose release was delayed by MGM until outrage over Kent State had abated) and Joe, can be traced very specifically to this despair and the Nixonian politics of division that produced it. So too can the infusion of the Hollywood Western with antimilitary, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist themes that occurred at precisely the same time—it was a brief historical moment in which American genre films, like their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, became vehicles for symbolic political expression because the real thing had become too dangerous (or, at least, too controversial) for the studios to subsidize directly.
The "Vietnam Western"
Prefigured by Abraham Polonsky's parable Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Universal, 1969) and Elliot Silverstein's A Man Called Horse (Cinema Center Films, 1970)—an anthropologically correct account of Sioux tribal life circa 1820—a number of Westerns appeared in the early 1970s that for the first time depicted native Americans as heroes in their struggles against the U.S. cavalry. These new-Left "Vietnam Westerns," as Thomas Schatz has called them, used the taming of the West as a metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam and were distinctly revisionist in terms of theme.30 Pre-eminent among them was Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (National General, 1970), which portrayed the "pacification" of the frontier as a genocidal war against the Indians, who were clearly intended to represent the people of Vietnam and whose way of life was equated with the contemporary American counterculture. (The film's set piece is a shocking re-creation of the Washita River Massacre of 1868, which the title character/narrator [Dustin Hoffman] bluntly refers to as "an act of genocide.") Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue (Avco Embassy, 1970), according to its epilogue, was prompted by the recent revelation of American atrocities in Vietnam in the American press (specifically, the My Lai massacre of March 16, 1968). Much of the film is irrelevant to this issue, but there is a truly horrific massacre at its conclusion in which an American general—played, like Custer in Penn's film, as a half-mad racial chauvinist—orders his troops to raze a Cheyenne village. This sequence contains images of rape, pillage, and dismemberment modeled on photographs from My Lai, which had to be cut to avoid an X rating from CARA and were sensationally touted in the press.31 As a film, rather than as a political tract, Soldier Blue fell far below the achievement of Little Big Man. Yet both spoke to the genocidal policies of the U.S. high command (and, as we now know, the CIA) in Vietnam, and to the paranoid sense of imminent extinction that Kent State had fostered among America's youth. (The most direct and extreme expression of this paranoia was Peter Watkins's independently produced Punishment Park , a cinema verité-style "docudrama" in which antiwar protestors are literally hunted down by National Guard troops in a game park; the film received only limited distribution [through Francoise], for obvious reasons.) The "Vietnam Western" theme was updated by Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack (1971; re-released by Taylor-Laughlin, 1973), where the title character is a half-breed Vietnam veteran who defends the children of his reservation against a mob of white townies backed by the local sheriff. (Billy Jack was actually the only movie to realize Hollywood's post-Easy Rider fantasy of huge grosses from a cheaply produced youth-cult film, and did so, ironically, by circumventing the industry's own distribution machinery: when Warner Bros. failed to adequately distribute the $800,000 film, Laughlin successfully sued the studio for the right to distribute it himself and then four-walled Billy Jack in a regional saturation re-release in May 1973—a strategy that brought in $32.2 million in rentals and became the model for blockbuster distribution several years after [see Chapter 2].)
Modernist or Anti-Westerns
"Vietnam Westerns" were made as late as 1972 (e.g., Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid [Universal]; re-edited several times by its producer-distributor), but were soon displaced in the symbolic political hierarchy by Watergate and the new genre of "conspiracy films." Meanwhile, the mainstream Western of the 1970s became increasingly "modernist," either through overt myth-debunking as in Little Big Man, or through subversive, ambiguous style as in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Warner Bros., 1971), or both. Some films in the first category focused on deconstructing specific Western myths and stereotypes, such as Edwin Sherrin's Valdez Is Coming (MGM, 1971), Phil Kaufman's The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (Universal, 1972), Stan Dragoti's Dirty Little Billie (WRG/Wamer Bros., 1972), Frank Perry's Doc (United Artists, 1971), John Hustons The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (First Artists, 1972), and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (MGM, 1973). Others attempted to offer a historically realistic depiction of the harshness of Western life in general, for example, William Fraker's Monte Walsh (Cinema Center, 1970), Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Warner Bros., 1970), Blake Edwards's
Wild Rovers (United Artists, 1971), Michael Winner's Lawman Robert Benton's Bad Company (Jaffilms/Paramount, 1972), Dick Richards's The Culpepper Cattle Company (Fox, 1972), Jan Troell's Zandy's Bride (Warner Bros., 1974), and Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw—Josey Wales (Malpaso/Warner Bros., 1976). Among the 1970s Westerns that took the art film route are Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (Universal, 1971), Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie Sydney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson (Warner Bros., 1972), Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (Malpaso/Universal, 1973), James Frawley's Kid Blue (Fox, 1973), Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe (United Artists, 1975), Richard Brooks's Bite the Bullet (Columbia, 1975), Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (De Laurentiis, 1976), Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks (United Artists, 1976), and Monte Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37 (CEA, 1978). These self-conscious films, acutely aware of their classical heritage, were the logical culmination of the demystifying strain injected into the genre during the sixties by the Italian "spaghetti Westerns" (such as Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars , For a Few Dollars More , The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , and Once Upon a Time in the West ) by such antiheroic domestic Westerns as Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (Columbia, 1965), Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), Tom Gries's Will Penny (Paramount, 1968), and, preeminently, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros., 1969)—often described as the first "anti-Western," although it simultaneously functions as a bitter elegy to western myths and values.
Modernist Westerns of the 1970s were often unconventional in form, resorting to loosely structured narratives and New Wave-style reflexivity, both French and Eastern European (the latter partially attributable to the influence of the two great Hungarian émigré cinematographers—Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond—who worked on many of them).32 Altman's Westerns, for example, resemble nothing so much as the Czech New Wave films of Jan Kadar (The Shop on Main Street ) and Milos Forman (Fireman's Ball ) in their use of nondiegetic music for thematic (as opposed to dramatic) reinforcement and their allusively dissident evocation of national institutions: McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as much a critique of corporate capitalism as Fireman's Ball is of Czechoslovak communism; and Buffalo Bill and the Indians interrogates racial zealotry no less than The Shop on Main Street in a different context. But Buffalo Bill is also relentlessly American, in a post-Watergate kind of way, as it attempts to show the myth of the Wild West in the very process of construction. Indeed, the ultimate burden of all 1970s modernist Westerns was to critique this myth-making process and aspire towards the condition of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (United Artists, 1980), where the historical West is presented as an economic and cultural evil—a malignant capitalist tumor on Eden's body.
American-produced traditional Westerns continued to be popular during the decade, many of them owing to the presence of John Wayne (1907-1979), whose star power remained considerable throughout the 1970s, despite strong competition from such newcomers as Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) and Robert Redford (b. 1936).33 Four of Waynes seventies Westerns were made by his own production company, Batjac,34 for distribution by Warner Bros.—Chisum (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1970), Big Jake (George Sherman, 1971), The Train Robbers (Burt Kennedy, 1973), and Cahill—United States Marshall (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1973)—and were extremely conservative in their approach to the genre (unsurprisingly, given Waynes ultra-rightist politics). But others—Howard Hawks's last film Rio Lobo (Malabar/Cinema Center Films/NGC, 1970); Mark Rydell's The Cowboys (Sanford/Warner Bros., 1972); and Stuart Millar's Rooster Cogburn (Universal, 1975), a sequel to Henry Hathaway's hugely popular True Grit (Paramount, 1969), were less so—especially Waynes last film, The Shootist (Don Siegel, 1976), where he played an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, as Wayne himself was dying of the disease in real life. In fact, many of these traditional Westerns featured aging cowboys, and some (like Hawks's, Hathaway's, and Siegel's) were actually about aging, suggesting the creakiness of the Old West mythology and making the boundary between them and the revisionist Western less clear-cut than one might suppose.35 Nonetheless, "spaghetti Westerns"—like Sergio Corbucci's Companeros! (1971), Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker, 1972), and Tonino Valerii's My Name Is Nobody (1973)—held on to their market share in the early part of the decade, but lost much of their appeal in the wake of Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (Crossbow/Warner Bros., 1974), whose parodic deconstruction of the Western form made their own inflated generic posturing difficult to take seriously (if, indeed, it had ever been).36
Comic And Parodic Westerns
Although it is true that the huge popular success of Blazing Saddles proclaimed genre parody as the quintessential comic film form of the seventies, it was hardly without precedent. Robert B. Ray points out that by the spring of 1966, as the New Hollywood stood poised to emerge, an enormous volume of television and motion picture fare was devoted to genre parody.37 As noted earlier, television series such as Batman, Get Smart, and The Wild, Wild West (a parody of the already parodic Maverick series, popular from 1957-1962) subsisted exclusively on spoofing their respective genres, while such films as United Artists' Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965) and Columbia's Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965) were straws in the wind for hundreds of movies produced between 1967 and 1980 that would depend on their audiences' ability to recognize them as corrections, exaggerations, or revisions of mainstream classical genres. The critically acclaimed Cat Ballou, which starred Lee Marvin in an Oscar-winning role as a drunken gunfighter, inaugurated the parody of Western generic clichés that reached its textual limit in Blazing Saddles. Cat Ballou was followed almost immediately by such imitators as Universal's Texas Across the River (Michael Gordon, 1966), Paramount's Waterhole #3 (William Graham, 1967) and a series of comic Westerns directed by Burt Kennedy, including The War Wagon (Universal, 1967), Support Your Local Sheriff (United Artists, 1969), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (Warner-Seven Arts, 1969), Young Billy Young (United Artists, 1969), and Dirty Dingus Magee (MGM, 1970), that culminated in Support Your Local Gunfighter (United Artists, 1971) and Hannie Caulder (Paramount, 1971). This tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre was so well established by the late sixties that it informed nearly every line of William Goldman's script for George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Fox, 1969), which, with $45.9 million in rentals ($21 million in 1969; the rest from re-release), became one of the most successful Westerns ever made. (It's worth noting that two other popular Westerns of 1969, both from Paramount, contained parodic elements—Henry Hathaway's True Grit, the eighth-highest earner of the year with $14.2 million in rentals, and Josh Logan's musical comedy Paint Your Wagon, which was the seventh with $14.5 million but still a loser given its negative cost of $20 million.)
By the early 1970s, even the "spaghetti Western" had begun to parody itself with films like Blindman (Ferdinando Baldi, 1972), and the "Trinity" series: They Call Me Trinity (E. B. Clutcher, 1971), Trinity Is Still My Name 1972), and Man of the East (E. B. Clucher, 1972), which also contained a parody of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.38 Clearly, Blazing Saddles had many predecessors, but it was unique in the extremity of its deconstruction, much of which is directed toward a subversion of film form itself—by revealing the source of nondiegetic sound on-camera, by exposing the two-dimensionality of apparently three-dimensional sets, and by having its characters crash through the Western set at the film's conclusion into several other studio sets, and finally into a movie theater where they watch themselves on screen. Western genre conventions and character types are parodied throughout the film, but a striking amount of its humor derives from the manipulation of racial stereotypes that have little or nothing to do with the Old West (but everything to do with the movies). Thus Blazing Saddles is considerably more deliberate than the "raunchy, protracted version of a television comedy skit" that Variety found it to be; but it scarcely dealt a death blow to the Western, as some critics have charged.39 (In fact, the reverse could be argued, since its $47.8 million in rentals made it the most financially successful Western of all time.)40
Printing the Legend
If there was a death blow to the Western genre, it was delivered by the political violence of 1968, Vietnam, and Watergate, after which the heroic Utopian mythography of the American West became impossible to sustain. Domestic production of Westerns declined dramatically and proportionally year by year in the wake of these phenomena, so that after 1976 there was little but parody (Fox's The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox [Melvin Frank, 1976], AIP's Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday [Don Taylor, 1976]), comedy (Paramount's Goin' South [Jack Nicholson, 1978], Columbia's The Villain [Hal Needham, 1979], Warner Bros.' The Frisco Kid [Robert Aldrich, 1979]), and sequels (United Artists' The Return of A Man Called Horse [Irvin Kershner, 1976], Fox's Butch and Sundance: The Early Days [Richard Lester, 1979]—actually a "prequel"), spiked by an occasionally serious contemporary Western (United Artists' Comes a Horseman [Alan J. Pakula, 1978]; Columbia's The Electric Horseman [Sydney Pollack, 1979]). By 1980, Hollywood production of Westerns had dwindled to six films—one of them bizarre (Windwalker [Pacific International; Kieth Merrill]), two of them resolutely silly (Bronco Billy [Warner Bros.; Clint Eastwood], Cattle Annie and Little Britches [Hemdale; Lamont Johnson]), and the rest grim to the point of nihilism (Heaven's Gate [United Artists; Michael Cimino], The Long Riders Artists; Walter Hill], Tom Horn [Warner Bros./First Artists; William Wiard])—and there were only four each in 1981 and 1982. The Western has been an undeniably impoverished genre since the 1970s, although popular Western films continue to be made. It has been noted, for example, that whereas only one Western had won an Academy Award for Best Picture before 1989 (RKO's Cimarron , directed by Wesley Ruggles), two have won since (Orion's Dances with Wolves , directed by Kevin Costner; and Warner Bros.' Unforgiven , directed by Clint Eastwood),41 but both are films that succeed by standing classical conventions on their head and taking a deeply pessimistic view of human nature in general, and (white) society in particular. More and more, it begins to seem that the period 1969-1980 was the Western's last great moment, after which, to paraphrase Lee Clark Mitchell's Westerns, there was little but repetition of plots, visual fetishes, and character types.42
Other action genres experienced a similar transformation during the 1970s, notably the gangster film and the detective film, or film noir. (The combat film was another action subtype revised in the early 1970s, but with great caution, since America was still deeply conflicted about its involvement in Vietnam, yielding such anomalies as the release of M*A*S*H [Robert Altman], Patton [Franklin Schaffner], and Tora! Tora! Tora! [Richard Fleischer] by the same studio [Fox] in the same year —when they became numbers 3, 4, and 8 at the box office, respectively. Things became somewhat clearer after the American withdrawal in 1975, and by the end of the decade films like The Deer Hunter [Michael Cimino, 1978], Coming Home [Hal Ashby, 1978], and Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979] could address the conflict directly.) As with the Western, skepticism about American values undercut classical conceptions of heroism and individual destiny in both genres, leaving their protagonists to face a world too complicated to control or even understand. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), with its sympathetic protagonists and graphic violence, was the premiere revisionist gangster film, and its reworking of the "criminal couple" subgenre (e.g., They Live by Night [Nicholas Ray, 1949]) inflected many seventies variations of the form. These include low-budget imitations like Fox#x0027;s Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (John Hough, 1974), Warner Bros.' Aloha, Bobby and Rose (Floyd Mutrux, 1975), and New Worlds Crazy Mama (Jonathan Demme, 1975), as well as such original productions as Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (National General, 1972), based on Jim Thompson's novel; Terrence Malick's Badlands (Warner Bros., 1973), based on the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree of 1957-1958; Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (United Artists, 1974), based on the source novel for They Live by Night; and Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (Universal, 1974), also based on real-life fugitives. The most unusual criminal couple film of the decade, and in many ways the most distinguished, was unquestionably Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (Warners, 1975), based on a real-life incident in which a bisexual man (played by Al Pacino) held up a bank in New York City in order to finance a sex-change operation for his male lover. In nearly all of these films, the criminal couple is portrayed sympathetically (though not without irony) and martyred at the film's conclusion by callous lawmen, reversing the moral order of the classical universe. Yet the American gangster film had always been used as a vehicle to explore wider social and cultural issues, and the criminal couples of the seventies were in many ways configured as romantic revolutionaries against the system that gave us Watergate and Vietnam (and could therefore expect to be dealt with by the authorities in the same manner as the Kent State Four). As usual, AIP contributed several low-end but creatively distinct versions of the mainstream prototype—Bloody Mama (Roger Corman, 1970), Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972), Dillinger (John Milius, 1973)—films with romanticized criminal heroes, whose murderous behavior is tempered by winning personality or mitigating circumstance.
The corruption of the system was implicit in another type of gangster film prominent during the 1970s—the Mafia family saga as apotheosized by Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (Paramount, 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Paramount, 1974). Before The Godfather unexpectedly became the first great blockbuster of the decade, and inspired many imitations, there had been only a handful of films dealing with organized crime families (most recently, Paramount's The Brotherhood [Martin Ritt, 1968], and the TV-movie Honor Thy Father [Paul Wendkos, 1971], based on Gay Talese's nonfiction best-seller). Taken together, the two Godfather films trace the history of the fictional Corleone family from the early years of the twentieth century through the 1960s as its criminal business empire evolves in tandem with that of corporate America from free market capitalism to oligopoly, monopoly, and finally hegemonic global imperialism. In Part II, the equation of legitimate and illegitimate business is made quite clear when the Corleones' partners in taking control of the Cuban gambling industry are shown to be a combination of American conglomerates (real and fictive)—United Fruit, United Telephone and Telegraph, and Pan-American Mining—as well as the Teamsters union and assorted U.S. senators. Appropriately bracketing the Watergate scandal (the break-in occurred on May 28, 1972, and Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace on August 8, 1974), The Godfather and the Godfather, Part II stopped just short of confirming the prediction of a leading Mafia expert that "organized crime will put a man in the White House some day, and he won't even know it until they hand him the bill."43 Other seventies gangster films that focussed on the Mafia, or Cosa Nostre, were Dino De Laurentiis's Columbia-released The Valachi Papers (Terence Young, 1972) and Crazy Joe (Carlo Lizzani, 1974), Universal's The Don Is Dead (Richard Fleischer, 1973), the Italian-produced Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1974), and Warner Bros.' Lepke (Menahem Golan, 1975). (There were also numerous black action films with plots that revolved around conflicts between black mobsters and white Mafiosi—for example, United Artists' Across 11oth Street [Barry Shear, 1972], Columbia's Black Gunn [Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972], AIP's Black Caesar [Larry Cohen, 1973] and Hell Up in Harlem [Larry Cohen, 1973], and Cinemation's The Black Godfather [John Evans, 1974].) Although no subsequent gangster film came even close to the magisterial sweep of Coppola's work, the small-time Italian American hoods of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets [Warner Bros., 1973] provided a sort of miniature version in the form of an urban youth-crime drama. Toward the decade's end, an unusual musical parody of the classical Hollywood gangster film appeared from Britain in Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1976), cast entirely with children (whose machine guns shot whipped cream instead of bullets), and United Artists produced F.I.S.T. (Norman Jewison, 1978), a film about labor racketeering in the thirties that depicted a union's infiltration by organized crime for the first time since Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (Columbia, 1954). However, the Godfather films dominated the mobster subgenre until the appearance of Sergio Leone's epic and compendious homage Once Upon a Time in America (Ladd, 1984).
The detective film, or film noir, reappeared in the 1970s after a long dry spell in the late fifties and sixties when the cultural malaise that had driven it since the end of World War II was replaced by prosperity, consumerism, and fear of nuclear holocaust. Postwar film noir was fundamentally a "cinema of moral anxiety" dealing with the conditions forced upon honest people by a mendacious, self-deluding society,44 and the sense of alienation, corruption, and pessimism that this implies returned to the American detective film with a vengeance during the era of Watergate and Vietnam. (Geoffrey O'Brien has suggested that film noir was not a genre at all but "a slick new variety of packaging" designed to attract dwindling postwar audiences back to the theater with a blend of sex, violence, and fashionable nihilism.45 If true, the same logic would apply to the 1970s, whose confused cultural politics were quite similar to those of 1944-1950.)
Created by the "hard-boiled" school of American crime-writers—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Horace McCoy (later joined by Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson)—the film noir detective was originally a paragon of courageous individualism: tough, resourceful, and, above all, heroic in combating the moral anarchy that surrounded him.46 The seventies noir detective, by contrast, is bemused, vulnerable, and inept—as often as not the victim of an anachronistic code of honor. For example, in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (United Artists, 1973), adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler but updated to contemporary Los Angeles, Marlowe (Elliott Gould) becomes a fall-guy for his best friend, who abuses the detective's trust to cover up the murder of his wife. At the conclusion of Roman Polanski's period noir Chinatown (Paramount, 1974), from an original screenplay by Robert Towne, private eye J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) unwittingly helps the Los Angeles police assassinate the woman he loves and is sworn to protect. (As Polanski later wrote, "I saw Chinatown not as a 'retro' piece or conscious imitation of classic movies shot in black and white, but as a film about the thirties seen through the camera eye of the seventies.")47 Harry Mosbey (Gene Hackman), the detective in Arthur Penn's Night Moves (Warner Bros., 1975), fails miserably to comprehend the larger picture that his obsessively assembled clues suggest, facilitates the deaths of several innocent people, and finally stumbles onto the truth when it is no longer relevant. Penn's description of Night Moves as "a counter-genre film, a private-eye film about a detective who finds that the solution is not solvable" could apply to most 1970s films noirs.48 Others that conform more or less to this revisionist pattern are MGM's Chandler (Paul Magwood, 1972—not to be confused with MGM's Marlowe [Paul Bogart, 1969], which is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel The Little Sister); Warner Bros.' Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971); United Artists' Hickey & Boggs (Robert Culp, 1972); Columbia's Shamus (BUZZ Kulik, 1973); Warner Bros.' The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1975), from an original script by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne about an American investigator confronting the mob in Japan, The Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg, 1976), based on Ross Macdonald characters, and The Late Show (Robert Benton, 1977); Avco Embassy's Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975), adapted from the Chandler novel originally filmed in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk); United Artists' The Big Sleep (Michael Winner, 1978), a remake of Howard Hawks's 1946 version of the Chandler novel scripted by William Faulkner, et al.; and Universal's The Big Fix (Jeremy Paul Kagan, 1978), a post-youth-cult film, noir, in which the detective is an ex-1960s radical in search of an ex-hippie cult leader. Central to all of these films are protagonists who are lost in a world that they no longer understand and are therefore powerless to master. What J. J. Gittes is told by another character in Chinatown is emblematic of this condition in general: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." Or, as Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) expresses it at one point in Farewell, My Lovely: "I've run out of trust in this joint….Everything I touch turns to shit." (A highly specialized subtype of detective movie, the Sherlock Holmes film, also experienced considerable revision during the 1970s [not to mention parody] in such sophisticated treatments as United Artists' The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes [Billy Wilder, 1970], Universal's The Seven-Per-cent Solution [Herbert Ross, 1976], and Avco's Murder by Decree [Bob Clark, 1979], all of which revealed Holmes's cocaine addiction and suggested an emotionally complicated relationship with Watson.)
A close counterpart of the tired and alienated private eyes in the detective film was the noir cop as represented in Warner Bros.' "Dirty Harry" series with Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1971]; Magnum Force [Ted Post, 1973]; The Enforcer [James Fargo, 1976]) and The Gauntlet (Clint Eastwood, 1977); Fox's The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), The Seven-Ups (Philip D'Antonio, 1973), and The French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 1975); Paramount's Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) and Hustle (Robert Aldrich, 1975); Columbia's The New Centurions (Richard Fleischer, 1972); Universal's The Choirboys (Robert Aldrich, 1977); and Avco Embassy's The Onion Field (Harold Becker, 1979)—the last three adapted from novels by Joseph Wambaugh. Like Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, which Pauline Kael lambasted as "a deeply immoral movie," many of the cops in these movies operated outside of the law.49 Their high quotient of vigilantism seems to confirm the argument of Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner in Camera Politica that the 1970s film noir revival signaled the death of political liberalism, which found itself suddenly powerless against the economic realities of corporate capitalism and the military-industrial state.50 On the other hand, it seems clear that the deep cultural pessimism engendered by Vietnam and Watergate cut across the entire political spectrum—bearing out Kael's 1973 dictum that "[t]oday, movies say that the system is corrupt, that the whole thing stinks." Such is the case in such films as National General's Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972); Paramount's The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973) and Framed (Phil Karlson, 1975); MGM's The Outfit (John Flynn, 1974); Universal's The Midnight Man (Ronald Kibbee, 1974); Fox's The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1974) and 99 and 44/100% Dead (John Frankenheimer, 1974), The Nickel
Ride (Robert Mulligan, 1975), and The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978); Warner Bros.' Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) and The Killer Inside Me (Burt Kennedy, 1976); Faces Distribution's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976); Columbia's Shamus (BUZZ Kulik, 1973), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), and Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979); and United Artists' The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974), and Who'll Stop the Rain (Karel Reisz, 1978), the latter an adaptation of Robert Stone's corrosive, award-winning novel Dog Soldiers (1974), about the fury that engulfs two Vietnam veterans when they smuggle several kilos of heroin back into California.51 As one critic wrote, Who'll Stop the Rain (Stone's title was changed so that the film could be cross-marketed with its Creedence Clearwater Revival sound-track album) embodied "the ethical fragmentation and moral paralysis that spread like a plague through America's intellectuals as they witnessed Vietnam."52 In all these films, however, whatever their specific motive force, a sense of fatality, hopelessness, and dread threatens to overwhelm the characters even as they struggle against the disorder of the modern world.
The "Vigilante Revenge" Cycle
In a related 1970s subgenre, the "vigilante revenge film," populist heroes took the law into their own hands to fight against crime, corruption, and authoritarian bureaucracy, often from a rightist perspective. Typically, the protagonist was a decent man who had been wronged but cannot receive justice under law and is forced to seek redress by violating it. Billy Jack (Warners, 1971; re-released by Taylor-Laughlin, 1973) was the model for this type of film, and its basic strategy was that a vicious attack upon the hero's loved one(s) catalyzed his general sense of abuse and pushed him to seek violent retribution.53 (Like Howard Beale in Network [United Artists; Sidney Lumet, 1976], he's "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.") Billy Jack earned $32.5 million through its re-release and generated two successful sequels from Warners—The Trial of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1974), which indicts the criminal justice system and blames Nixon personally for Watergate; and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (Tom Laughlin, 1977), a virtual remake of Frank Capra's depression-era classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It also inspired the AIP/CRC release Walking Tall (Phil Karlson, 1973), an ultraviolent exploitation film based on the true story of Buford Pusser (played by Joe Don Baker), the club-wielding rural sheriff who had single-handedly cleaned up the vice-ridden town of Selma, Tennessee, after thugs murdered his wife. Opening slowly on the regional drivein circuit, this brutal endorsement of vigilantism became the sleeper of the year when it went into national release and returned $10 million in rentals against its tiny budget by attracting significant urban crossover. At the same time that Photoplay readers of 1973 voted Walking Tall their "Favorite Motion Picture of the Year," New York critics like Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris were praising its "accomplished artistry."54 Two AIP-distributed theatrical sequels—Walking Tall, Part 2 (Earl Bellamy, 1975) and Walking Tall—The Final Chapter (Jack Starrett, 1977), both nearly as popular as the original—continued the story through Pusser's death in a suspicious car accident in 1974. And a 1978 CBS-TV movie based on his career, "A Real American Hero" (Lou Antonio, 12/9/78), became the pilot for a brief series.
The Walking Tall franchise inspired many imitations in the exploitation field and was itself a prime example of a general re-mythologizing of the country—particularly the rural South—in American popular culture during the 1970s. Stimulated by the decline of the nation's central cities and the rise of a "rust-belt" in the urban North, as well as by an economic boom in southern-rim states like Florida and Texas, this new mythos reflected the region's very real transformation in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was manifest materially in the national popularity of country-and-western music, CB (Citizens Band) radios, and movies with working-class rural or "redneck" heroes. By mid-decade, Southern-based car-chase movies (The Last American Hero [Lamont Johnson, 1973], Eat My Dust! [Charles Griffith, 1976], Smokey and the Bandit [Hal Needham, 1977]); trucker movies (White Line Fever [Jonathan Kaplan, 1975], Breaker! Breaker! [Don Hulette, 1977], Convoy [Sam Peckinpah, 1978]); romantic melodramas (Buster and Billy [Daniel Petrie, 1974], Ode to Billy Joe [Max Baer, 1976]); horror films (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [Tobe Hooper, 1974], The Hills Have Eyes [Wes Craven, 1977]); and crime thrillers (Macon County Line [Richard Compton, 1974], Jackson County Jail [Michael Miller, 1976], Gator [Burt Reynolds, 1976]) were booming as newly created state film commissions helped to make location shooting in "the new South" an economically attractive alternative to filming on location elsewhere.55
The boom had extended to television by the late 1970s, where the rural South figured prominently in such series as The Dukes of Hazzard (CBS, 1979-1985), B. J. and the Bear (NBC, 1979-1981), and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (NBC, 1979-1980). But it was in the vigilante revenge subgenre that the South figured most prominently during the 1970s, perhaps because, "new" or not, it had always registered statistically as the most violent part of the country. (Since records began to be kept in the nineteenth century, the South has had the highest homicide rate in the United States—nearly double that of the Northeast—a key factor in America's disproportionately high murder rate relative to other industrialized nations.)56 Rural revenge provided the basic plotline for such films as White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973), Framed (Phil Karlson, 1975), Fighting Mad (Jonathan Demme, 1976), Vigilante Force (George Armitage, A Small Town in Texas (Jack Starrett, 1976), The Black Oak Conspiracy (Bob Kelljan, 1977), Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977; story by Paul Schrader), The Farmer (David Berlatsky, 1977), and Wolf Lake (Burt Kennedy, 1978)—all of which pit an individual (often a returned Vietnam veteran) or a small town against dark forces of crime, greed, or corporate cupidity. The populist impulse of these rural revenge films is clearly related to the ideal of working-class purity enshrined in urban films like Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976; see below), whose heroes overcome impossible odds to rise above their "betters." At the core of both is the resentment of wealth, sophistication, and high culture that informs all populist mythologies of the little man, spiked with Watergate-Vietnam era mistrust for institutional authority.
The vigilante revenge scenario was given an upscale urban context in Paramount's Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), in which a self-professed pacifist (Charles Bronson) becomes a free-ranging vigilante killer to avenge the murder-rape of his wife and daughter. This slickly directed, cynical film became the anchor for its own franchise, spawning three sequels in the eighties (Death Wish 2-4, 1982-1987) and inspiring both blatant imitations (The Exterminator [James Glickenhaus, 1980]; An Eye for an Eye [Steve Carver, 1981]; The Annihilators [Charles E. Sellier, Jr., 1985]), and a "feminist" rape-revenge cycle (i.e., women avenging their own rapes) that included Paramount's Lipstick (Lamont Johnson, 1976), as well as such gory exploitation fodder as I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1977) and Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981). As this progression would suggest, the vigilante revenge subgenre became increasingly exploitative as the 1970s concluded, and finally became associated with the sadistic horror of films like Maniac (William Lustig, 1980) and Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980) which Variety christened as "demented revenge."57 Nevertheless, we should recall that the rape-revenge motif was central to much 1970s cinema, appearing as the motive force in such important mainstream films as Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971) and Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), as well as providing the opening scene of The Godfather (1972), wherein Don Corleone vows to avenge the gang-rape of an undertaker's daughter that the law has failed to punish. Furthermore, the most critically acclaimed film noir of the decade, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (Columbia, 1976), falls squarely within the category of vigilante revenge in its subplot of Travis Bickle liberating a twelve-year-old prostitute from her pimp.
The "Paranoid" Conspiracy Film
The sense that oppressive forces were at work against individual liberty, and that the law could not protect its citizens from them, was central to another subgenre of 1970s film noir. In both mood and theme, the conspiracy film was a type of paranoid political thriller that placed the blame for American society's corruption on plotters pursuing secret agendas to control national life. (These films were paranoid in the sense of Richard Hofstader's usage of the term in his 1967 essay: "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," where he argues that an extremist strain runs throughout American political history, whose central preconception is "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character."58) Inspired by the snowballing critique of the Warren Commission's investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, and intensified by the revelations surrounding Watergate (as well as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Pentagon Papers, and the CIA-led coup against the Allende government in Chile), films about conspiracy began to appear in 1973.59 (Appropriately, the Watergate cover-up came to national attention most prominently during the summer of 1973 as a result of the televised Senate Watergate Committee hearings, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, May 17-August 7.) The first was the theatrical feature Executive Action (David Miller, 1973), scripted by blacklist victim Dalton Trumbo (an original member of the "Hollywood Ten") from a story co-authored by Mark Lane, whose Rush to Judgement (1967) was the first and foremost documentary film to challenge the Warren Commission report. Produced with private funds and distributed by National General, Executive Action marked the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination by attributing it to a conspiracy of right-wing businessmen. (Intriguingly, though its dramatic scenes are woodenly directed, the film mixes newsreel and staged footage of events surrounding the assassination with an impressive verisimilitude that clearly influenced Oliver Stone's JFK .) Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (Paramount, 1974) uses the assassination of a fictive U.S. senator and its subsequent cover-up to evoke the murder of both Kennedys and a vast corporate conspiracy that runs the country by assassinations disguised as accidents or the work of "lone nut" killers. The film's mystery-like plot revolves around the attempts of an investigative reporter (Warren Beatty) to penetrate the ultra-secret Parallax Corporation, a company whose only business, it transpires, is the recruitment of sociopaths to carry out political murders which blue-ribbon government panels—like the Warren Commission—then help to conceal through collusion, stupidity, or both. The invisible operations of corporate power also stand behind Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (The Directors Company/Paramount, 1974), although it is more concerned with the limits of personal responsibility than with politics. In it, a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) is hired by a corporation's director to record a conversation between a man and woman as they stroll together in a San Francisco park at noon. Playing back the recording, he thinks he has uncovered a murder plot and must decide whether to act on the discovery or not; he does act, but in misreading the audiotape inadvertently facilitates a crime he had sought to prevent. Deliberately evocative of Antonioni's Blowup (1966) in both its theme and art-film ambience, The Conversation describes a world where conspiracies appear and disappear like cobwebs and where recording media are inherently duplicitous—a world very much like that of the real-life Watergate co-conspirators who were the subject of Alan Pakula's next film, All the President's Men (1976), which has been called "the centerpiece of the conspiracy subgenre."60
Adapted by Willam Goldman from the best-selling account by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who broke the case at great risk to their careers (and ultimately, the film implies, their lives), All the President's Men is constructed like a detective story in which the two principals (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, who also produced)61 move clue by clue and tip by tip toward uncovering a criminal conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of the White House. To do this, they must coax bits and pieces of the truth from a wide range of low-level administration officials, most of whom are very scared, and one unidentified White House insider (the legendary "Deep Throat") in order to establish an indisputable link between funds donated to CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President) and the money used to pay the Watergate burglars. Although it is fairly conventional in form, All the President's Men is extraordinary in its evocation of police-state-like menace and its semi-documentary integration of television news footage and dramatic text. Unlike other Watergate films (e.g., the 1979 CBS-TV miniseries Blind Ambition [George Schaefer], or Oliver Stone's 1995 feature Nixon), none of the administration principals are portrayed by actors; Nixon and his lieutenants reveal (or, more accurately, expose) themselves only through the real television interviews, addresses, and newscasts that had taken place during the previous three years, and had the currency of "instant history." Thus the film is able to focus on its mystery plot, and offer little exposition of the scandal itself, because contemporary audiences had just been inundated by media coverage of it. Yet polls showed that the public was becoming as cynical about the media as it was of other national institutions, a circumstance reflected in the popularity of three late seventies films: Network (United Artists; Sidney Lumet, 1976), a satire on the interrelationship of television and corporate capitalism written by Paddy Chayefsky; Capricorn One (Associated General [ITC]; Peter Hyams, 1978), a political thriller in which a manned-flight landing on Mars is faked by a deadly conspiracy involving NASA, elements of the press, and the CIA; and The China Syndrome (Columbia/IPC; James Bridges, 1979), a "doomsday" thriller—released just weeks before a near-fatal accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, forced the evacuation of 1,000,000 local residents—that posits collusion among the media, Federal regulatory agencies, and the nuclear power industry to conceal the latter's threat to public health. (Earlier, Michael Ritchie's The Candidate [Fox, 1972] had suggested the kind of unsavory relationship of media and politics that both elected Richard Nixon and brought him down.)
In 1975-1976, revelations surfaced of the CIA's involvement in several foreign assassination attempts, successful (South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem) and abortive (Cuban Premier Fidel Castro), and the agency itself became the target in Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975) and The Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah, 1975), which were basically high-powered espionage thrillers with a political edge. In the former, a CIA researcher (Robert Redford) becomes a hunted man when he stumbles onto a plot by a renegade faction of the agency to invade the Middle East and liberate its oil supplies; in the latter, several members of a private assassination bureau subcontracted to the CIA become double agents, and turn against the agency. In Twilight's Last Gleaming (Robert Aldrich, 1977), Vietnam is the issue and conspiracy is pandemic as renegade Air Force officers commandeer a nuclear missile silo, threatening to start World War III unless the president reveals the contents of a secret blueprint for continuing the war. The document will prove that the military-industrial complex kept the war going to ensure its credibility long after intelligence had deemed it unwinnable, costing tens of thousands of lives. (This was not exactly a revelation: Jonathan Schell said more or less the same thing in his 1976 book The Time of Illusion on the catastrophic Nixon presidency: "The war had become [by 1969] an effort directed entirely toward building up a certain image by force of arms. It had become a piece of pure theater.")62 In the end, both the terrorists and the president are killed, and the document is suppressed. Other 1970s assassination films with conspiracy genes are Scorpio (United Artists; Michael Winner, 1973), a tale of contract killers inside the CIA; The Day of the Dolphin (AVCO Embassy; Mike Nichols, 1973), in which dolphins are trained by plotters (who may be renegade CIA agents) to carry bombs to the presidential yacht; The Day of the Jackal (Universal; Fred Zinnemann, 1973), based on Frederick Forsyth's best-seller about a right-wing plot to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle, with clear parallels to the JFK murder; The Mackintosh Man (Warners; John Huston, 1973), about the CIA's efforts to assassinate a high-placed spy within the British government; and The Domino Principle (AVCO Embassy; Stanley Kramer, 1977) in which a secret assassination bureau recruits an ex-convict to kill a key government official (unspecified in the film, but probably Nixon or Kissinger). Political murder is also the motive force of Richard Lester's Cuba (United Artists, 1979), a dark and brilliantly executed satire set during the final days of the Batista regime in 1959, which forms a nearly perfect pendant with Coppola's The Godfather, Part II: Sean Connery plays a British mercenary sent to train government security forces in Havana, where the CIA-backed military works feverishly with Cuban factory owners and American businessmen to drain the last ounces of capital from a country whose only remaining social contract is graft, before its inevitable revolution.
By the end of the decade, the conspiracy subgenre was so well codified that it could be parodied in Winter Kills (AVCO Embassy; William Richert 1979; re-released 1983). (Nasty Habits [Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977], a British film distributed by Fox, had already satirized the Watergate conspiracy in an allegory of political corruption inside a Philadelphia convent run by a paranoid abbess.) Adapted from a novel by Richard Condon (whose novel The Manchurian Candidate was the source for John Frankenheimer's ur-conspiracy film of 1962), Winter Kills is actually less a parody than black comedy in which the half-brother of the assassinated President Kegan (Kennedy) tracks his way through an interlocking network of witnesses, survivors, and conspiracy theorists to discover that family patriarch Pa Kegan (Joseph Kennedy) was behind the murder—basically to protect his business interests when his son, the president, waxed too liberal, returning in a comic way to the premise of Executive Action. Finally, conspiracy was cross-bred with other genres in ways that reflected, not merely political mistrust, but the significant "collapse of confidence in business" that Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider discovered had occurred between 1965 and 1975.63
Such generic hybridization—a general trend in late-seventies Hollywood—produced films like Coma (United Artists; Michael Crichton, 1978), in which the health industry conspires to harvest organs from the living; North Dallas Forty (Paramount; Ted Kotcheff, 1979), a satire on the conspiratorial nature of professional football; and The Formula (MGM; John G. Avildsen, 1980), wherein a multinational oil cartel conspires with ex-Nazis to suppress the development of a cheap synthetic fuel. Even a sci-fi/horror thriller like Alien (Fox; Ridley Scott, 1979) could have a strong anticorporate subtext (in this case, a corporation plots against its own employees to salvage a monstrous polymorph). The theme of government/corporate conspiracy remained strong in the early eighties, when films like Hangar 18 (Sunn Classic; James L. Conway, 1980), Eyewitness (Fox; Peter Yates, 1981), Cutter's Way (United Artists; Ivan Passer, 1981), Outland (Warner Bros.; Peter Hyams, 1981); Blow Out (Filmways; Brian De Palma, 1981), Missing (Universal; Constantin Costa-Gavras, 1982), and Silkwood (Fox; Mike Nichols, 1983) made it clear that the post-traumatic stress of Watergate could not be laughed away. (The popular interest in conspiracy unleashed by Watergate also facilitated the first American films to speak openly of the 1950s industry blacklist, dovetailing nicely with the downfall of veteran anti-Communist witchhunter Richard Nixon: The Way We Were [Columbia; Sydney Pollack, 1973], a glossy love story produced by Ray Stark, used blacklisting as a plot device to end a romance between two attractive Hollywood insiders played by Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, whereas The Front [Columbia; Martin Ritt, 1976] was made by people who had suffered the effects of blacklisting themselves—director Ritt, scriptwriter Walter Bernstein, and star Zero Mostel—and had the blacklist at its core in its story of a nobody, played by Woody Allen, who "fronts" scripts to studios on behalf of "tainted" writers.)
Yet, for all of this free-floating paranoia, films of mystery and detection were parodied throughout the decade, beginning with Fox's Sleuth (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1972), adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own play, and two Agatha Christie adaptations from Paramount that border on parody—Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974) and its follow-up Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978). It was also during the 1970s that two Blake Edwards films (The Pink Panther  and Shot in the Dark , produced by the Mirisch Company for United Artists), starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling French detective Inspector Clouseau, became part of a series. The appearance of three new entries, all produced and directed by Edwards for United Artists—The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)—created a brief franchise for visual slapstick long after its mainstream demise. Neil Simon spoofed the "locked room" subgenre of detective fiction in Columbia's popular Murder by Death (Robert Moore, 1976)—which brings five of the world's greatest detectives together under one roof, and it was followed, in true seventies fashion, by an inferior sequel: The Cheap Detective (Robert Moore, 1978), in which the Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) character from Murder by Death is run through a Maltese Falcon parody. In fact, Bogart and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) became parodic icons for the 1970s, beginning with Paramount's Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972; adapted by Woody Allen from his own play), in which Bogart's ghost rises from the frames of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) to instruct the protagonist on life and love. The Black Bird (David Giler, 1975) was a Maltese Falcon parody/sequel/remake where Sam Spade, Jr. pursues the valuable statue mislaid by his dad, with Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook, Jr. reprising their original roles. Parody of the hard-boiled school punctuated the decade's end with Fox's The Man With Bogart's Face (aka Sam Marlowe, Private Eye [Robert Day, 1980]), in which a contemporary detective has plastic surgery to give him the face of his idol and becomes involved in a Maltese Falcon-type case, replete with references to classical personalities and stars. The master of classical genre parody during the 1970s, however, was Mel Brooks, and his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (Fox, 1977) is a locus classicus of the type. Simultaneously a tribute and a send-up, Brooks's film contains legible quotations from Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), and The Birds 1963), as well as some purely stylistic allusions that incarnate the decade's dual (and somewhat schizoid) impulse toward cynical nose-thumbing and reverent nostalgia.
Related to these mystery spoofs were "buddy caper" films, a comic variation of the criminal couple subgenre—usually focusing on the relations between two men—that became extremely popular during the 1970s. Some took the form of heist films like Columbia's $ (Dollars) (Richard Brooks, 1971) and Fox's The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972), whose high-water mark was the blockbuster success of Universal's period caper The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), which returned $78.2 million in rentals to become the second highest grossing film of the year. Other buddy caper films had a more serious social edge (e.g., MGM's Slither [Howard Zieff, 1973]; United Artists' Thunder-bolt and Lightfoot [Michael Cimino, 1974]; Universal's Charley Varrick [Don Siegel, 1973] and Blue Collar [Paul Schrader, 1978]; and AIP's Special Delivery [Paul Wendkos, 1976]), but many were purely comedic in both pacing and tone (Warners' Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins [Dick Richards, 1975], Freebie and the Bean [Richard Rush, 1974], and The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979); Columbia's Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977); and Universal's The Brink's Job (William Friedkin, 1978) and Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977). The unexpected $59 million return of Smokey and the Bandit—primarily a southern rural car-chase film in the mode of United Artists' White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) and Gator [Burt Reynolds, 1976]—led to many imitations (Ron Howard's Grand Theft Auto [AIP/Warners, 1977], and Hal Needham's own Hooper [Cinerama, 1978] that attempted to mainstream the formula with considerably less success. In the 1980s, buddy capers became more violent and action-oriented, as witnessed by such successful "buddy cop" franchises as Paramount's 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill, 1982) and Warners' Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) series, whose origins lay in Fox's popular French Connection films of 1971 and 1975.
The musical entered the 1970s with the onerous distinction of having helped more than any other single genre to create the financial crisis of 1969-1971. Seeking to emulate the success of Fox#x0027;s The Sound of Music (Robert Wise) in 1965, over-produced big-budget musicals had generated more than $60 million in losses for the majors between 1967 and 1970, leading directly to an industry-wide production moratorium in October 1969.64 Several spectacular musicals then in post-production were released in early 1970 with similarly dismal results. Paramount's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Vincent Minnelli; based on an Alan Jay Lerner stage show about reincarnation), and Darling Lili (Blake Edwards; from an original screenplay by Edwards and William Peter Blatty about a World War I British stage star who is also a German spy), were both disappointments. Clear Day broke even, but Lili lost $18.7 of its $22-million negative cost to become the biggest box-office failure of the 1970s, despite award-winning music by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Another stalled behemoth was ABC/Cinerama Releasing Corp.'s Song of Norway (Andrew L. Stone, 1970), a musical biography of Edward Grieg adapted from a 1944 Broadway hit and shot on location in Super Panavison 70, which earned just under $4.5 million and failed to return its negative cost. Coming at the end of a long string of late-sixties flops (which included Fox's Doctor Dolittle [Richard Fliescher, 1967], Star! [Robert Wise, 1968], and Hello, Dolly! [Gene Kelly, 1969], Warner Bros.' Camelot [Joshua Logan, 1967], United Artists' Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [Ken Hughes, 1968], Universal's Sweet Charity [Bob Fosse, 1969], and Paramount's Paint Your Wagon [Joshua Logan, 1969]), the poor performance of these big-budget musicals in 1970 seemed to confirm the fact that the form was dead, or perhaps ready for replacement by "alternative" musicals like Warner Bros.' Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), whose youth-cult appeal brought in $16.4 million in rentals and placed it sixth on Variety's annual box-office chart. (It also won the 1970 Academy Award for best documentary feature.) In what seemed an immediate contradiction, 1971's biggest hit was United Artists' Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison), a $9-million adaptation of a Broadway musical based on stories of Shalom Aleichem that had been running since 1964. Shot on locations in Yugoslavia (and at Pinewood Studios, London) in Panavision and recorded in six-track stereo, the three-hour film earned $38.2 million (about half The Sound of Music's rentals, 1965-1967) and eight Academy Award nominations. Yet 1971 also saw the release of MGM's The Boy Friend (Ken Russell), a musical which, though based on a popular Sandy Wilson stage play, would provide a paradigm for the genre's revision. Filmed at EMI-MGM Elstree Studios as an homage to the studio musicals of the thirties, the film is genrecoded with a typical backstage romance and Busby Berkeley-style crane choreography (virtually indistinguishable from the original except for its Panavison aspect ratio and color), but it is also self-reflexive to a degree: the plot revolves around a repertory company attempting to stage a provincial production of Sandy Wilsons The Boy Friend which a film crew is simultaneously shooting as a motion picture. The Boy Friend achieves the almost-perfect balance between nostalgia and parody that would become a hallmark of 1970s revisionism. But it was Bob Fosses Cabaret (ABC/Allied Artists, 1972) that most dramatically changed public perception of what a musical could be by appropriating it as a vehicle for serious social criticism.
Revisionism: FromCabarettoNew York New York
In adapting the John Masteroff-John Kander-Fred Ebb stage show, screenwriter Jay Presson Allen incorporated elements from its sources in John van Druten's play I Am a Camera and the writings of Christopher Isherwood to create a chilling picture of pre-Nazi Berlin on the brink of a catastrophic fascist revolution. In a reaction against the artificially "integrated" musicals of the fifties and sixties, Fosse segregated the production numbers from the dramatic action and contextualized them as cabaret performances at the seedy "Kit Kat Club," a locus classicus of Weimar decadence. Further-more, by intercutting these interludes of lurid staged entertainment with scenes of Nazi violence in the streets, he instantiated a Brechtian irony more characteristic of the European art film than the American musical. (Fosse was no stranger to art cinema, having recently directed a film version of Sweet Charity [Universal, 1969], the Broadway musical based on Fellini's Nights of Cabiria .) Finally, in developing its historical anti-authoritarian theme, Cabaret clearly suggested the political and moral price of withdrawing into self-indulgence at a time when many sixties activists had done just that in the face of the Nixon ascendancy. Cabaret, which starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, was both critically and financially successful (earning $20.2 million in rentals and winning eight Academy Awards), but if industry leaders took note of this condition, they failed immediately to act on it. Instead the studios continued to crank out standard Broadway and off-Broadway adaptations (Columbia's 1776 [Peter Hunt, 1972] and Godspell [David Greene, 1973], United Artists' Man of La Mancha [Arthur Hiller, 1972], Universal's Jesus Christ Superstar [Norman Jewison, 1973], Warner Bros.' Mame [Gene Saks, 1974]) and conventional musical biopics (MGM's The Great Waltz [Andrew L. Stone, 1972], about Johann Strauss; Paramount's Lady Sings the Blues [Sidney J. Furie, 1972], about Billie Holiday) with scant reward—of the above named films, only Lady Sings the Blues and Jesus Christ Superstar grossed more than $10 million. They even managed to produce one certified, late-sixties-style disaster in Columbia's Lost Horizon (Charles Jarrott, 1973), a musical version of Frank Capra's 1937 fantasy classic that lost $8.2 million of its $12-million investment and is still reviled as one of the worst musicals ever made. In 1974 and 1975, however, several films confirmed the genre's modernist turn, including the nostalgic compilation of excerpts from MGM musicals entitled That's Entertainment! (Jack Haley, 1974), which announced the death of the classical musical by eulogizing it and became integral to the retrospective consciousness of the decade. (It was also extremely popular, earning $19.1 million in rentals to place tenth on Variety's annual chart and generating the 1976 sequel That's Entertainment, Part II [Gene Kelly].) Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was a camp musical version of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera (already given straight treatment in four earlier films), with a pounding contemporary rock score by Paul Williams. Ken Russell's Mahler (Mayfair, 1974) and Lisztomania (Warner Bros., 1975) were irreverent, musical biopics in the style of his earlier portrait of Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (United Artists, 1971)—the Liszt film offering a wild burlesque of nineteenth-century musicians in general.
These films were all to some extent self-conscious, but none was so reflexive as Robert Altman's Nashville (Paramount, 1975) the musical entry in his project to revise all of the major classical genres. The film traces the overlapping (and, finally, intersecting) paths of twenty-four characters through the country-and-western music capital over a five-day period, and it contains twenty-seven songs presented in performance contexts and recorded in Lion's Gate eight-track stereo. (The Dolby noise reduction system was also used in recording Nashville, as well as in mastering the stereo magnetic release prints—see below.) Like Cabaret, Nashville has a political subtext, which has to do with the way in which American media and historical reality have become intertwined, but is much more subtle than Fosse's film in terms of rhetoric. There was nothing subtle about Fox's British import The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), which took generic hybridization to new heights by combining a rock musical with a horror film (one highly reminiscent of Hammer Films' The Curse of Frankenstein [Terence Fisher, 1957]) and parodying both forms.65 This film version of a kinky, longrunning London stage show about a heterosexual couple who stumble onto an old dark house full of "transvestites from transsexual Transylvania" has been described as "a high camp blend of Gay Liberation and B-movie Gothic,"66 and it quickly became a cult phenomenon, catalyzing audience participation at midnight movie screenings for years to come—initially, at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village where it ran for 95 consecutive weeks between 1976 and 1978. (The 1970s were the golden age of midnight movies in cities around the nation; they were institutionalized with the premiere of Alexandra Jodorowksy's El Topo at the Elgin Theater in New York late 1970 and had become a regular feature of urban distribution by the time of Rocky Horror.)
If Rocky Horror represented the epitome of generic pastiche, Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love (Fox, 1975) attempted to be the ultimate homage to the RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals of the 1930s and failed miserably at the box office, despite its superb art deco sets and sixteen Cole Porter songs. Lingering public tolerance for old-style musicals was demonstrated by the success of Columbia's Funny Lady (Herbert
Ross, 1975), a sequel to its popular Fanny Brice biography Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968); but whereas the earlier film's $26.4 million in rentals had made it by far the highest earner of 1968, the sequel's $19.3 million placed it eighth in the year Jaws. Significantly, several mid-seventies rock musicals performed nearly as well as or better than Funny Lady—Ken Russell's visually extravagant version of The Who's rock opera Tommy (Columbia, 1975) earned $17.8 million; and Warner Bros.' fourth remake of A Star Is Born (Frank R. Pierson, 1976), with Barbra Streisand as a stellar rock singer, earned $37.1 million and set the standard for film/music cross-marketing with its "Evergreen" sound-track album (see Chapter 3). But the decade's most aesthetically successful essay in musical revision was New York New York (United Artists, 1977), Martin Scorsese's homage to the big band era, based on his viewing of literally hundreds of MGM musicals from the 1940s and 1950s. With Liza Minnelli as a rising singer (the kind of role her mother Judy Garland had played in many such MGM films) married to saxophonist/band leader Robert De Niro, the film mixed musical buoyancy with postwar angst that was perfectly captured by the moody Technicolor cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs. As in Cabaret and Nashville, the production numbers are segregated onto the stage, and the narrative focus is on the failed relationship of the Minnelli and De Niro characters. In the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though, it was probably inevitable that Scorsese's pessimistic vision would go unrewarded, and New York returned only $7 million in rentals on its $9-million investment.
Another failure, but for different reasons, was the U.S.-Austrian-German coproduction of A Little Night Music (New World-Sascha-Wien; Harold Prince, 1978), adapted from Stephen Sondheim's ratified, Tony-award winning 1973 musical version of Bergmans Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) by its original stage director Harold Prince. The film was part of an Austrian attempt to jumpstart its industry, which had been languishing since the end of World War II: the action was moved from turn-of-the-century Sweden to Vienna and given an operetta-like quality out of tune with the wistful, thought-provoking original—none of which was helped by casting Diana Rigg and Elizabeth Taylor in singing roles.67 Hated by critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, A Little Night Music was an enormous flop that ended the film career of Harold Prince, although it did win an Oscar for Best Adapted Scoring in competition against Disney's Pete's Dragon (Don Chaffey, 1977) and a British retelling of Cinderella called The Slipper and the Rose (Bryan Forbes, 1976), whose exteriors were also shot in Austria.
Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and The Advent of Dolby Stereo Optical Sound
In the first years of the Carter presidency there was a newly affirmative national mood as Americans began to come to terms with the dual traumas of Watergate and Vietnam. Carter, who was elected in the Bicentennial year of 1976 on a solemn pledge "never to lie to the American people," promised to bring a new era of openness and honesty to government. Predictably, Paramount's upbeat dance film Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) was more in step with the new rhythm than either Scorsese's or Prince's work. In its vibrant portrait of working-class kids who come alive at a local disco, it became one the decade's most successful musicals, earning a remarkable $74.1 million in rentals to place third for the year behind Star Wars (George Lucas) and Close Encounters (Steven Spielberg). Like those films, Saturday Night Fever generated multiple repeat viewings among young people, who consumed it much as they would a rock concert. It also had the novelty of being the first post-"youth-cult" youth film with a contemporary setting, and stimulated Paramount to cast its star, television crossover John Travolta, in a similar musical production the following year—an adaptation of the long-running Broadway hit Grease. Directed by Randal Kleiser, Grease was a parody of 1950s rock 'n' roll programmers and 1960s beach-party movies containing seventeen production numbers that were integrated with the narrative, which was less a conservative reflex than a knowing bow to its stage origins. (As Kleiser said at the time, "Stylistically, the actors will stop and break into song—that's old—but we are using all the '70s film techniques we can muster, like split screen and high-powered sound.")68 Grease was even more successful than its predecessor, earning $96.3 million to become the top-grossing film in the year of such blockbusters as Superman (Richard Donner) and National Lampoon's Animal House (John Landis). The popularity of both Saturday Night Fever and Grease was enhanced by the installation of Dolby stereo reproduction equipment in theaters around the country in the wake of Star Wars, the first wide-release film with a Dolby-encoded stereo optical sound track, whose astounding success was understood to stem at least in part from its use of high-quality sound. (Fox's surveys of theaters playing the film indicated that Dolby-equipped venues significantly outgrossed non-Dolby ones.)69 The sound-track albums of Saturday Night Fever and Grease sold tens of millions of copies (thirty-five and twenty-four, respectively) worldwide. Saturday Night Fever, in fact, became the first film to earn more from its album sales than from its very considerable rentals (a $350 million gross, making it the best-selling LP of all time), and it became the prototype of synergy between the film and record industries.70 Worth noting here is the phenomenal growth of the popular music industry during the 1970s: from $1 billion in 1967, record and tape sales reached $2 billion in 1973 and $4 billion in 1978—$1.5 billion more than the total 1978 grosses of the American film industry in its 15,000 theaters.71
Most of those theaters were equipped to play optical prints only (in which the sound track is printed as a small strip to the left of the picture for reading by a photoelectric cell in projection), and therefore did not have access to the superior quality of pre-Dolby magnetic stereo. There were two magnetic stereo systems available to theaters before Dolby—the four-track CinemaScope system for 35mm introduced by Fox in The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), and the six-track Todd-AO system for 70mm film introduced in Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, 1956), both of which placed their separate magnetic tracks directly on the theatrical print outside of the picture frame.72 Although magnetic prints offered the highest possible quality of sound reproduction, they cost about twice as much to produce as optical prints (in the mid-1970s, $1,200 vs. $800) and degraded faster (the longevity of an optical sound track was approximately that of the image track).73 Exhibitors had to make expensive adjustments to projection equipment in order to play magnetic prints, and distributors had to supply theaters with both formats. Before 1977, therefore, the American industry was geared to the production of monophonic films, with stereo magnetic sound reserved for 70mm road shows and other special events. For this reason, the majority of American and European theaters chose not to support magnetic stereo playback, and until 1977 provided their patrons mainly with undistinguished and limited monophonic sound. Cabaret, for example, winner of multiple Oscars for its music and sound, was never exhibited in stereo, although a stereo premix was used by the producers of its best-selling sound-track LP;74 and Jaws, which won the 1975 Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Sound, was recorded and released completely in monaural. The Dolby noise reduction system, which electronically reduces background noise and increases frequency response, was developed by Ray Dolby at Dolby Laboratories during the late 1960s for use in the recording industry (where, among other things, it helped to innovate stereo cassette recording). It entered the film industry in 1971, when it was used by Stanley Kubrick in the mixing stages of A Clockwork Orange (1971), although the film itself was released with a conventional—if aesthetically brilliant—monaural sound track. Dolby noise reduction was subsequently applied to several musicals, where it was used for both monaural optical (Steppenwolf [Fred Haines, 1974]; Stardust [Michael Apted, 1974]) and stereo magnetic sound tracks (The Little Prince [Stanley Donen, 1974]; Nashville [Robert Altman, 1975]) in both recording and theater play-back. Beginning in 1973, however, Eastman Kodak and RCA worked with Dolby to develop a simple two-track stereo optical system that would first be used in the musicals Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975), Lisztomania and A Star Is Born (Frank R. Pierson, 1976).75 In the 1970s, most 35mm theaters deployed three speakers—the left, right, and center—behind the screen.76 The Dolby stereo optical system reproduced the two basic tracks through the left and right speakers and sent a phased signal through the center channel synthesized from the differences between the left and right tracks, making high-fidelity stereo possible for a relatively modest conversion cost to theaters of about $5,000.77 It cost about $25,000 more to dub a film in Dolby stereo than in monaural, and the conversion of an existing film-mixing studio to Dolby cost around $40,000, but these were modest sums relative to then-average production costs of $5 million per picture. When Star Wars (1977) was both recorded in a four-channel mix (left, right, center, and surround) and released in Dolby stereo optical for either two or four channel playback, it produced a revolution in theater sound that very quickly caused a large-scale conversion to the system. Lucas's film was followed by several other blockbusters that exploited Dolby effects and confirmed its market potential—Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Grease (1978)—as well as by other films that had the lifelike reproduction of sound at their conceptual core—The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978; United Artists), The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978; Recorded Pictures), and Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978; Paramount), which later (like Grease and Hair) was road-shown in 70mm stereo magnetic because of the improved sound quality made possible by the wide-gauge format. (As subtle as Dolby stereo would prove to be at registering such sounds as insect chirps, bird calls, and human breathing, voices and lip movements were occasionally out of synchronization and directional stereo separation was often problematic; it soon became clear that to achieve an effective Dolby mix, the sound track would have to be planned and even scripted as part of the overall production design—an imperative most brilliantly realized by Walter Murch's sound design/editing for Apocalypse Now in 1979.) By the end of the decade, there were 1,200 Dolby-equipped American theaters; by the mid-1980s Dolby counted over 6,000 installations worldwide, and almost 90 percent of all Hollywood films were being released in four-channel Dolby stereo.78 For motion picture and theater sound, as for so much else, the 1970s was a formative decade, beginning as generally monophonic and ending on the road to full stereo optical surround.
Dolby-Driven Rock Musicals
In the immediate post-Star Wars period, the increased sonic clarity of Dolby was subordinated to increased power, as the lucrative ancillary market in record sales inspired several Dolby-encoded rock musicals that were clearly conceived around their sound tracks.79 Universal produced three of these, having learned the importance of high-quality sound since its experience with American Graffiti in 1973 (which it had compromised by not releasing in stereo)—FM (John A. Alonzo, 1978), a comedy-drama about an urban radio station with more than thirty pre-recorded rock songs; SGT. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Michael Schultz, 1978), an attempt to weave a narrative around songs from the classic Beatles album (performed mainly by the Bee Gees, of Saturday Night Fever fame); and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis, 1978), a celebration of early Beatles music keyed to a story about their 1964 American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Paramount produced American Hot Wax (Floyd Mutrux, 1978), a tribute to the early years of rock 'n' roll centered on disc jockey Alan Freed that featured forty songs performed by their original artists; and Columbia distributed two films produced independently by record companies—Casablanca/Motown's disco comedy Thank God It's Friday (Robert Klane, 1978) and Innovisions/ECA's biopic The Buddy Holly Story (Steve Rash, 1978). (As was typical of these films, the songs in The Buddy Holly Story were recorded in stereo, but the rest of the film was recorded in mono, so that, as Charles Schreger noted at the time, "you can almost hear the extra speakers click on when the songs start, and off when they're finished."80 In fact, The Buddy Holly Story was partially financed through the sale of its sound-track album.)81 None of these films were financially successful, but the year's biggest musical flop was Universal's The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978), an updated, all-black version of The Wizard of Oz (MGM; Victor Fleming, 1939). Although The Wiz had been a Broadway hit, Joel Schumacher's screenplay changed its setting from Kansas to New York City and made Dorothy a 24-year-old Harlem school teacher, robbing it of any resemblance to Frank Baum's original novel. Despite a spectacular production design and music by Quincy Jones, The Wiz became one the decade's biggest failures, producing a net loss of $10.4 million against its $24-million investment. The more modest failure of United Artists' Hair (Milos Forman, 1979)—a net loss of $4.2 million against a negative cost of $11 million—suggested that musicals adapted from the stage had lost their audience appeal simultaneously with countercultural values. The last popular musicals of the decade seemed to confirm both propositions: what succeeded in 1979 was either clearly self-reflexive and revisionist—such as Itc's The Muppet Movie (James Frawley), New World's Rock 'n' Roll High School (Allan Arkush), and Columbia-Fox's coproduction All That Jazz (Bob Fosse)—or countercultural critiques like Fox's The Rose (Mark Rydell), which depicted the meteoric implosion of a doomed, Janis Joplin-like rock star. Correspondingly, two of 1980's biggest flops—EMI's Can't Stop the Music (Nancy Walker) and Universal's Xanadu (Robert Greenwald)—were updated versions of 1940s Hollywood musicals (MGM's Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney cycle and Columbia's Cover Girl [Charles Vidor, 1944], respectively).
When the 1970s began, the horror film was a fundamentally disreputable form, associated almost exclusively with exploitation, yet Robin Wood has suggested that in the course of the decade it became "the most important of all American genres and perhaps the most progressive."82 While the second part of this proposition is arguable, the first part of it true—to the extent, at least, that horror moved from the margins of the exploitation field into the mainstream to become a vital and disturbingly influential genre.
Horror had experienced a classical period during the 1930s when Universal produced its elegantly mounted gothic series—Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), and The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)—under European (specifically, German Expressionist) influence, and sustained it through the decade with several worthy sequels. At the same time, RKO originated King Kong (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) and later the poetic psychological horror films of producer Val Lewton (e.g., Jacques Tourneurs Cat People  and I Walked With a Zombie ). In terms of budget, these latter were B-films, as were most horror films of the studio era, but they were tastefully produced and literately scripted. In 1941, under new management, Universal started a second cycle of monster films with George Waggner's atmospheric The Wolf Man (1941), but at this point movie horror began to contrast poorly with the real horror of World War II, and the second cycle degenerated into silliness (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man [Roy William Neill, 1943]) and self-parody (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein [Charles Barton, 1948]). By the late 1950s, horror had become a despised teenage exploitation genre wielded like a blunt instrument in the hands of such producers as Herbert Cohen (I Was a Teenage Werewolf [Gene Fowler, 1957]), William Castle (Macabre [William Castle, 1958]), and AIP's legendary Roger Corman [The Wasp Woman [Roger Corman, 1960]). In the early 1960s, however, Corman took a large step toward reinvigorating the genre by producing and directing a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in color and CinemaScope for AIR These modestly budgeted but expressive films—which included The House of Usher (Roger Corman, 1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (Roger Corman, 1961), The Premature Burial 1962), The Raven (Roger Corman, 1963), The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman, 1965), and several other titles—drew favorable reviews and helped to lift horror out the exploitation sub-basement it had occupied since the late 1940s. So too did the imaginatively produced versions of the Universal classics arriving from Britain's Hammer Films at about the same time—Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959)—whose eroticism Technicolor gore provided the inspiration for Corman's Poe series.
The Legacy ofPsycho
Yet the film that lent the most legitimacy to horror in the 1960s was Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), which many critics consider to be the first modernist American film in its calculation, detachment, and reflexivity.83 Psycho was also the first horror blockbuster, produced for around $800,000 and earning $8.5 million in rentals (around $18 million in grosses) to become the most profitable film of the year; and it received four Academy Award nominations (including one for direction—Hitchcock's last of five). From a marketing point of view, Psycho was a clear signpost to the 1970s: like an exploitation film (a form that Hitchcock was consciously imitating),84 it was released in a modified saturation pattern and promoted through gimmickry; and it attracted an audience comprised largely of teenagers and young adults.85 But, like the blockbusters of the next decade, the key to its success was its status as an "event" that generated multiple repeat viewings. (The New York Times reported at the time, for example, that "any number of teenagers have gone to see this movie several times over and the word is apparently out in the suburbs that 'the blood in the bathtub scene' is hot stuff.")86 Not only did Psycho contain the "illusion," as Hitchcock put it, of graphic violence and nudity in a way that confounded censorship (i.e., through montage), but it read as a radically different text on second and third viewing, with rich ironies of dialogue and plot not apparent on first encounter—which were appreciated by the critics, at least, if not the teenagers. Genetically, Psycho spawned a few immediate imitations (for example, Homicidal [William Castle, 1961]), but its true impact wasn't felt until the 1970s when the monstrous Oedipal family would become the primary subject and source of American horror. Psycho would then provide the prototype for the "slasher" subgenre that exploded after the catalytic success of Halloween in 1978, when CARA rating system had replaced the Production Code and illusion in the depiction of graphic sex and violence was no longer necessary. (It was in this climate that the film's three sequels were produced—Psycho II [Richard Franklin, 1982], Psycho III [Anthony Perkins, 1986], and Psycho IV: The Beginning [Mick Garris, 1990]—which have more in common with contemporary slashers than with Hitchcock's original.)
The Advent of R-Rated Horror
Two landmark films of 1968 indicated the directions American horror would take in the 1970s. In his big-budget production of Rosemary's Baby for Paramount, directed by the much-celebrated Roman Polanski, William Castle took the genre up-market for the first time since the 1930s. Adapted by Polanski from Ira Levin's best-seller and starring the then highly bankable Mia Farrow, the film concerned a young woman unsuspectingly impregnated by the Devil, and it sounded the religious-horror theme that would infuse such 1970s blockbusters as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976). Rosemary's Baby not only received lavish critical praise and several Oscar nominations, but it earned $15.5 million in rentals and became the seventh most profitable film of the year. The other signal film of 1968 was the independently distributed Night of the Living Dead, made by novice director George A. Romero and friends on a shoestring budget (under $114,000) in Pittsburgh over the course of several weekends, with Romero also serving as co-writer, cinematographer, and editor. Loosely based on Richard Matheson's apocalyptic vampire novel I Am Legend, this gory, black-and-white account of a plague of flesh-eating zombies deflated several generic clichés and became the model for such subversive rural gothic films of the 1970s as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977). It earned a respectable $3 million in the year of its release (by comparison, Fox's twentieth-ranked Fantastic Voyage [Richard Fleischer] earned $4.5 million), and quickly became a cult classic, generating two sequels (Dawn of the Dead [George Romero, 1978], Day of the Dead 1985]) and a color remake (Night of the Living Dead [Tom Savini, 1990]). Taken together, Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead foretold the death of classical horror, whose gothic monsters and European origins would become unviable for American audiences in the coming decade except as satire (Andy Warhol's Frankenstein [Paul Morrissey, 1974]; Andy Warhol's Dracula [Paul Morrissey, 1974]; Love at First Bite [Stan Dragoti, 1979]) or parody (The Werewolf of Washington [Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1973]; Young Frankenstein [Mel Brooks, 1974]), or both (The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Jim Sharman, 1975]). Significantly, they were both released in the year that the MPAA scrapped the Production Code in favor of the Code and Rating Administration (CARA) system, whose guidelines allowed for the representation of graphic violence in its R and X categories; and, almost without exception, the modern horror film went on to become an R-rated genre.87
As the 1970s began, AIP released a brace of offbeat horror films that suggested imminent generic mutation. Count Yorga, Vampire (Bob Kelljan, 1970) and its sequel The Return of Count Yorga (Bob Kelljan, 1971) were low-budget, revisionist vampire films set in contemporary Los Angeles, where society has become so secularized that it is difficult to find a crucifix. Like Rosemary's Baby, they forecast by inverse corollary the conservative, theological coloration of much 1970s horror, as did New World's feminist variant The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971), but they also maintained an ironic distance towards their own genre codes. (The production of vampire films, high and low, would become a virtual growth industry during the decade—approximately 120 were made domestically, 1970-1979.)88 AIP's more generously produced British imports The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (Robert Fuest, 1972) were camped-up hybridizations of several horror classics, including The Beast with Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946) and Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925; Arthur Lubin, 1943; Terence Fisher, 1962), suggesting the trend toward genre-blending and parody that would mark the decade. The Phibes films were big hits for AIP, earning nearly $2 million apiece, and the original was cited by Variety in June 1971 as part of a new wave of films "containing extreme screen gore."89 (Their central concept—a series of fiendishly imaginative revenge killings carried out by a mad Vincent Price character—was reprised in United Artists/Cineman's Theatre of Blood [Douglas Hickox, 1973].) Two other British films with horrific themes attracted considerable attention among American critics in the early 1970s—Warners's The Devils (1971), written and directed by Ken Russell, the Paramount-released Don't Look Now (1973), directed by Nicolas Roeg. The former was based on a play by John Whiting adapting Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of London (1952), itself based on an infamous seventeenth-century case in which church authorities accused an entire convent of demonic possession and imposed a murderous exorcism upon it. Laden with images of sexual hysteria, religious sadomasochism, and graphic, stomach-turning torture, The Devils became a landmark in censorship when CARA gave it the first X rating for violence (although it was subsequently re-edited to receive an R). Don't Look Now was a haunting supernatural thriller about a couple who go to Venice after the drowning of their young daughter and become fatally involved with two psychics and a serial killer. Based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, the film was provocative in its display of sex and violence, earning an R rating from CARA, but is ultimately a psychological mystery tale. It was Warner Bros.' The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), however, that brought sensationalist horror into the blockbuster mainstream where it has remained more or less ever since (without, however, ceding its dominance—with pornography—of the exploitation field). As one reviewer concisely put it, The Exorcist did for horror "what 2001 did for science fiction: legitimized it in the eyes of thousands [read millions] who previously considered horror movies nothing more than a giggle."90
The Impact ofThe Exorcist
Produced for $9 million with no major stars, The Exorcist earned $89.3 million in rentals in the year of its release and became the most commercially successful horror film ever made, as well as the first to be nominated by the Academy as best picture of the year. It also became a cultural phenomenon of large proportions, complete with a Newsweek cover story and complaints by serious journalists that controversy over the film had replaced Watergate in the news. The reason was its lurid depiction of a demonically possessed 12-year-old girl in assorted acts of cursing, urination, vomiting, and masturbation with a crucifix (easier to find, apparently, in the nation's capital than in Los Angeles)—acts that had never before appeared in any context in a mainstream film, not only because the Production Code forbade them but presumably because they were beyond the pale of public decency. Far from mitigating this situation, the film's Roman Catholic religiosity (authenticated by the technical advice of three Jesuit priests) seemed to perversely heighten it. Crowds lined up for blocks to see The Exorcist, critics put it on their "Ten Best" lists, and the R-rated film was given the industry imprimatur of ten Academy Award nominations, two of which it won (for Screenplay and Sound). For many, however, Hollywood's embrace of sensationalism was a clear sign of decay, and the fact that horror had entered the mainstream did not free it from the stigma of exploitation. Rather, that stigma now applied to the industry as a whole in which, as Stephen Farber wrote in the New York Times for July 7, 1974, "movies are now conceived as kinky, gory, decadent circus spectacle…[and] the studios are marketing a new brand of sensationalism, gaudier and more lurid than at any time in movie history."91 (Warners' initial booking strategy for The Exorcist—four-walling it for exclusive runs in prestigious downtown theaters—suggests that it did not regard the film as an exploitation product, which before the experience of Jaws  would have called for saturation rather than platform release.)92
The immediate effect of The Exorcist was that every major studio in Hollywood rushed to turn out a film about demonic possession or other occult phenomena, with high-tech prosthetic makeup effects like those produced for the Warners' film by Dick Smith and some element of theological "seriousness." Of the many Exorcist imitations the most obvious (and best) were Fox's The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), Universal's Sentinel (Michael Winner, 1977), and United Artists' Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis, 1976) and Audrey Rose (Robert Wise, 1977). Another expensive production with Roman Catholic trappings, The Omen focuses on the family of a 5-year-old boy who is the son of Satan; it earned a handsome $28.5 million, making it the sixth most profitable film in the year of Rocky, and generated two Fox sequels—Damien: Omen II (Don Taylor, 1978) and The Final Conflict (Graham Baker, 1981). The Sentinel is a glossy Grand Guignol piece about a Brooklyn Heights brownstone built literally on the mouth of hell, while Audrey Rose concerns the reincarnation of a 12-year-old girl, credibly informed by the Hindu doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and Burnt Offerings is about the possession of an entire household by evil spirits. None of them was commercially successful, although The Sentinel generated a parodic blockbuster sequel (of sorts) in Columbia's Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984), and Burnt Offerings was the inspiration for AIP's unprecedented hit The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979).
There were countless cheap Exorcist imitations abroad, the most notorious of which was La Casa Dell'Esorcismo [The House of Exorcism, 1975], a badly re-cut and doc tored version of Mario Bava's brilliant Lisa e il Diavolo [Lisa and the Devil, 1972]. Exorcist-driven occult thrillers appeared in the United States until the end of the decade (Universal's The Legacy [Richard Marquand, 1979]; Columbia's The Manitou [William Girdler, 1978]; AFD's The Changeling [Peter Medak, 1979]); whereas The Exorcist'S own sequels appeared thirteen years apart because the first—Warner Bros.' Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977)—was a commercial and critical deba cle, although subsequent reappraisals of Boorman's direction and William Fraker's cinematography have earned the film increased respect. (The same cannot be said for Fox's The Exorcist III, directed by the original novel's author William Peter Blatty in 1990, an uneasy blend of psycho-slasher and spiritual-questing motifs.)
Horror in the Family: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The explicitly familial context of horror in The Exorcist, The Omen, and other such films (The Beguiled [Don Siegel, 1971]; The Possession of Joel Delaney [Waris Hussein, 1972]; The Other [Robert Mulligan, 1972]) indicated a sea change in the genre that had been implicit since Psycho and was most fully articulated in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), a low-budget independent feature based like Hitchcock's on the true case of Ed Gein, the "Wisconsin ghoul " who had butchered at least eleven women during the mid-1950s and was found living in a charnel house surrounded by their body parts (and, like Norman Bates, the mummified corpse of his mother).93 In Hooper's film, shot in 16mm and blown up for 35mm exhibition, Gein becomes an all-male family (fathers and sons) of cannibals who terrorize some stranded young people in an old farmhouse full of decaying human and animal remains. Unexpectedly, this vision of the American family as monstrosity and the American home as slaughterhouse was inflected by both cinematic style and ironic humor, and it ignited yet another critical controversy over movie violence and gore (although there is, in fact, relatively little of either onscreen in the film itself). Reviled by many mainstream critics (Stephen Koch, writing in Harper's for November 1976, called it "a vile little piece of sick crap…with literally nothing to recommend it"),94 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a critical cause célèbre among cineastes. In 1975 alone it was showcased at Cannes, the London Film Festival (after which it was refused a certificate for general exhibition by the British Board of Film Censors), and the Museum of Modern Art's "Re/View" program, and Hooper was awarded a five-film contract by Universal Studios when the film earned $14.4 million in rentals to become the year's fourteenth-highest grosser.95
In fact, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was as influential of the low end of the horror market as The Exorcist was of the high end, and it also fully legitimized the rural gothic subgenre inaugurated by Night of the Living Dead. Like that film and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972), it was the independently produced feature debut of a regional director whose work would have great impact on the Hollywood mainstream. It later generated two unremarkable sequels—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Cannon, 1986), directed by Hooper, and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (New Line, 1990), directed by Steve Burr. Hooper went to Universal where he directed a slasher called The Funhouse (1981) and the megahit Poltergeist (1982), produced by Steven Spielberg (and thought to be more his work than Hoopers), before he left the studio and went to work for Cannon.
Independent Filmmakers and the Rise of "Slasher" Horror
Because the 1970s was so clearly, in Robin Wood's phrase, "the Golden Age of the American horror film," several of the decade's more talented independent directors chose to specialize in the genre. The most prominent of these was Brian De Palma (b. 1940) who, after a brief period as an avant-gardist, made nothing but horror/thriller films from 1972 through 1984, when feminist outrage against his misogyny forced him into more conventional forms. De Palma's career is discussed in detail elsewhere in Chapter 4 of this book, but his specific contributions to horror must be briefly noted here. Deeply influenced by the work of Hitchcock, De Palma created an intertextual cinema of both psychological and visceral horror in Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Orsession (1976), Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Body Double (1984). The quality of these films varied as radically as did their budgets (though not necessarily with their budgets), but it seems clear that at least three of them represent lasting contributions to the genre: Sisters, a quasi-experimental variation on Rear Window and Psycho; Carrie, highly stylized version of The Exorcist's demonic child motif set in the social context of Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955); and Dressed to Kill (1980), an artistic slasher film that combines elements of Psycho and Vertigo to become reflexively voyeuristic.
George Romero (b. 1939), on the other hand, whose Night of the Living Dead was a watershed of modern horror, continued his career as an independent writer-director in Pittsburgh with three low-budget nonhorror features before returning to the genre in Martin (1978), a modern-day vampire film set in a decaying steel town with a clear element of social satire. This context also informs his first Living Dead sequel Dawn ofthe Dead (1978), which stages most of its action in a shopping mall: here zombies attack humans and go on a mindless materialistic rampage that is the moral equivalent of "shopping." Its darkly comedic elements notwithstanding, the film has an unusually high quotient of gore provided by makeup effects artist Tom Savini (who also worked on Martin and appeared in both films as an actor). Romero continued to work the horror genre during the 1980s and 1990s, although his budgets for films like Day of the Dead (1985), the third and final Living Dead sequel, were limited by his decision to remain independent.
Wes Craven (b. 1949), who began his movie career as a production assistant and editor of soft-core porn (before which, in logical progression, he had been an academic), wrote and directed as his first feature, the brutal revenge film The Last House on the Left, in 1972. Produced for $70,000 partnership with Sean S. Cunningham, who later directed the slasher blockbuster Friday the 13th (1980), Craven intended The Last House on the Left as a reflexive indictment of the America's high tolerance for violence—the film is about the rape and torture-murder of two teenage girls by a gang of thugs who later seek shelter at the home of one of their victim's parents. As in Bergmans The Virgin Spring (1960), from which it was loosely adapted, the gang members are identified by the parents, who then exact a savage, horrific revenge. Filmed in 16mm and blown up for 35mm distribution by AIP, The Last House on the Left had a grainy, cinema verité quality, as well as a kind of grim seriousness of purpose that was not present in Craven's next feature, the more slickly produced The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which was also shot in 16mm but on a budget of $250,000.96 Based on the history of the infamous Sawney Bean tribe that preyed on travelers in seventeenth-century Scotland, Hills is another revenge film in which an ail-American tourist family is attacked in the Arizona desert by a family of cannibals that is in some ways its mirror image. The utterly compulsive nature of Craven's villains here set the standard for the slasher films that followed, most notably John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), whose psychotic killer Michael Myers obstinately survives the heroine's strenuous efforts to kill him. Craven attracted the attention of Hollywood and, after several middling horror films (Deadly Blessing  is an example), had his mainstream breakthrough with the surrealistic teenage gore fest A Nightmare on Elm Street (Fineline, 1984), which became a lucrative franchise for the rest of the century, generating five sequels and several ingenious metacommentaries (Wes Craven'S New Nightmare ).
Like De Palma, Canadian-born David Cronenberg (b. 1948) made avant-garde films before turning exclusively to horror during the 1970s. His feature debut, made in partnership with Ivan Reitman (then an exploitation producer, later the producer-director of Ghostbusters and other hits) with funds from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), was They Came from Within (1975; retitled from Shivers by its U.S. distributor AIP). In this film, which as with most of his work Cronenberg also wrote, phallic parasites created by science as a sexual stimulant attack the residents of a Montreal high rise, adding a new trope to the growing repertoire of movie "splatter" when one of the parasitic invader erupts from the abdomen of its human host. (This device would be copied in films as various as Fox's Alien [Ridley Scott, 1979] and New World's Humanoids from the Deep [Barbara Peeters, 1980] until it was finally exhausted and ready for Mel Brooks to parody in Spaceballs  ten years later. The exploding heads in Cronenberg's Scanners  came to occupy a similar status in the realm of physical effects.) Rabid (1977), also produced by Reitman, is another medical horror story: here a woman's life is saved by a plastic surgeon after a motorcycle accident but she is at the same time turned into a rabid vampire who infects the entire city of Montreal; and in The Brood (1979) a woman is able to externalize her rage as a pack of monstrous dwarves. In all of these films there is an allegorical dimension—they are both monster movies and meditations on social decay in the form of sexual promiscuity, child abuse, etc.—because Cronenberg's horror is a unique blend of the cerebral and the visceral, as such later mainstream work as Fox's The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988) clearly demonstrate.
A similar tension exists in the work of Larry Cohen (b. 1938), a former screenwriter who wrote and directed several black action films (Black Caesar ; Hell Up in Harlem ) before turning to horror with the self-financed It's Alive (1974), a reductio ad absurdum of The Exorcist about a mutant baby who goes on a rampage and terrorizes Los Angeles. (According to Dick Atkins's Method to the Madness, Cohen shot Hell Up in Harlem and It's Alive with the same non-union crew simultaneously in four weeks.)97 With makeup effects by Rick Baker (who was Dick Smith's assistant on The Exorcist) and an effective Bernard Herrmann score, It's Alive was a modest hit for Warner Bros. ($7.1 million in rentals), which distributed it, and Cohen was able to finance a sequel, It Lives Again (aka It's Alive II, 1978), featuring several murderous infants instead of one. (Eight years later, Cohen would write, produce, and direct another: It's Alive III: Island of the Alive .) Both films used the subjective camera technique employed in Jaws to represent the killer's point of view, demonstrating that the idea did not originate with Spielberg but was actually a function of new light-weight hand-held camera equipment introduced in the early 1970s. Between the Alive films, Cohen produced God Told Me To (aka Demon, 1977), a bizarre mystery that he called "a dark version of the Superman story" about the second coming of a new (and murderous) Messiah, and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), which suggests the FBI's involvement in the RFK assassination and was described by Robin Wood as "perhaps the most intelligent film about American politics ever to come out of Hollywood."98 In the 1980s and 1990s, Cohen remained an independent writerproducer-director of horror and horrorcomedy films (Full Moon High ; Q[aka The Winged Serpent, 1982]; The Stuff ; The Ambulance ), occasionally writing mainstream screenplays for others.
All of the independent filmmakers discussed above—Hooper, De Palma, Romero, Craven, Cronenberg, and Cohen—started out as auteurs in the original French sense of the term, that is, as writer-directors who shaped their material from script through post-production, but these particular auteurs did so exclusively in the underfinanced netherworld of low-end exploitation. What happened to them in the late seventies and early eighties was an alternative version of what happened to Hollywood's "movie brats" during the industry recession and shake-out of 1969-1971. Like the brats, these young directors came from outside of the mainstream industry, and some, like De Palma and Cronenberg, were originally associated with the avant-garde. Unlike the brats, however, they had not attended film school or apprenticed with Roger Corman at AIP; so, in the absence of professional training or experience, the ultra low-budget exploitation field offered them an entry into features. Each scored an early hit heavily dependent on prosthetic gore provided by innovative makeup artists like Rick Baker, Tom Savani, and Rob Bottin, then managed to sustain their success through the end of the decade. Concurrently, mainstream Hollywood was discovering the rewards of bigbudget horror and other once-disreputable genres and turned increasingly toward exploitation tactics at the level of both production and distribution. As this happened, the services of successful writer-directors from the industry's exploitation fringes became proportionally valuable, so that by the early 1980s, all of the above named figures but Romero were working on projects for major distribution companies, and some like Hooper were under studio contract."99 (Conversely, studio-produced horror from mainstream directors was bombing out—for example, Paramount's Prophecy [John Frankenheimer, 1979] and Phobia [John Huston, 1980] both earned less than $1 million.) This explains how a self-taught filmmaker like Wes Craven was able to become a Hollywood franchise virtually unto himself, moving from the sleazy but engaging crudeness of Last House on the Left to the ultra-slick A Nightmare on Elm Street in just twelve years, and becoming in the nineties the kind of filmmaker whose work is regularly profiled in the New York Times.
The film that pushed the mainstream industry irrevocably into producing and distributing exploitation material was Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), which shared with classical horror the presence of a monster (albeit a natural rather than a preternatural one) and with modern horror the fantasy of mutilation and dismemberment implicit in the "psycho-slasher" subgenre. The innovation of Jaws was to apply the exploitation technique of saturation booking to studio-produced exploitation material with a marketing force that only a major distributor could achieve and actually sell the film to the public through the process of commodity packaging. This practice was refined and crystallized as the "blockbuster syndrome," but it was grounded in strategies used by exploitation producers like "Jungle" Sam Katzman (1901-1973) and Roger Corman for decades. Formally, Jaws used a technique that would become as widely imitated by other filmmakers as Peckinpah-style slow-motion bloodbaths were after The Wild Bunch (1969). In Jaws from the very outset, the underwater attacks are preceded by moving subjective camera shots from the sharks point of view, forcing identification with the attacker rather than the victim (which, for contemporary viewers, was one of the most striking and disturbing aspects of the film).
Applied to human killers as they stalked their (usually female) prey, the device would cause a great deal of controversy in the early 1980s, but not before another exploitation film of 1975 had produced a firestorm of protest on its own.100 This was Snuff, produced by the notorious gore-and-sexploitation entrepreneurs Roberta and Robert Findlay (Shriek of the Mutilated ). The film, whose original title was Slaughter, was a gory, inept thriller based on the Manson murders and shot in Argentina without sound in 1971.1O1 It was picked up and reshaped in 1974 by Alan Shackleton of Monarch Releasing Corporation, who tacked on an ending shot in New York in which a woman appears to be dismembered and disemboweled by the film's director at the end of shooting. Cashing in on rumors that a "snuff" film had been smuggled into the United States from South America, Schackleton retitled his movie Snuff and released it in late 1975, advertising its faked evisceration as the real thing. (On-screen, the "snuff" sequence seems to be shot by the camera crew after the main film has wrapped and visited upon an unsuspecting script girl, heightening its illusion of authenticity. In both advertising and prefatory statements, films like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had touted their basis in actual crimes, but Snuff was the first such film to insist that the murders it depicted were real. It was also the first to connect murder directly with sexual intercourse, since the script girl is seduced by the director as a prelude to his slashing her.) Although it was exposed as a hoax by Variety in early 1976, Snuff was a smash hit in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, and other cities,102 and it provoked the appropriately horrified reaction among feminists that became a turning point in their consciousness about misogyny in film and other media. In fact, it was that produced the "generic confusion between horror and hard core" identified by Linda Williams103 as a distinguishing feature of the feminist antipornography campaign—a campaign that would create a cultural backlash against horror in the early 1980s and return it to the status of a despised, if still extremely popular, genre. (In the seminal anthology Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, Beverly La Belle would write, "The graphic bloodletting of Snuff finally made the misogyny of pornography a major feminist concern.")104 Whether this "generic confusion" was in the minds of the filmmakers or their feminist critics, however, would become clear only after the windfall success of the independently distributed Halloween (1978) had caused an unprecedented boom in violent, low-budget horror.105
Halloween: Slashers Enter The Mainstream
John Carpenter had directed two low-budget genre features—the science fiction satire Dark Star (1974), and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a violent homage to Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959)—before he made Halloween for less than $400,000 and it unexpectedly grossed over $50 million ($80 million worldwide), thereby becoming the model for the psycho-slasher subgenre that would dominate American horror for the next decade and beyond. Although the American slasher film is ultimately traceable to Psycho, a more immediate influence on 1970s filmmakers was Dario Argento's internationally successful mystery thriller The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1969), itself a revival of the sadistic-terror subgenre inaugurated in Italian cinema by Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino [literally, Six Women for the Murderer], 1964). In these films, the murder of women became pure voyeuristic spectacle cut loose from the gothic moorings of earlier Italian horror (such as Riccardo Fredas I Vampiri [Lust of the Vampire, 1956] and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock [L'Orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, 1962], and Bava's own Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio/The Demon's Mask, 1961]), but their ornate visual style tended to disguise them as art, more decadently romantic than their graphic display of violence would portend. Argento's cinema of "shock-horror " was closely monitored during the 1970s by American exploitation directors like John Carpenter, who borrowed elements of both plot and technique from Four Flies on Gray Velvet (Quattro mosche di velluto grigio, 1972—the conclusion of Halloween, where the heroine is assaulted while trapped in a closet), Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975—the pre-Oedipal psychopathology of Halloween's killer), and Suspiria (1977—the hallucinatory atmosphere of The Fog ). (Argento, in fact, was a script consultant on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead  and recut the film for European distribution as Zombie, adding a score by the Japanese keyboard group Goblin, who had given Suspiria its acoustic frisson.)106 These borrowings aside, however, Halloween's contribution to the slasher form was crucial—as acknowledged by Wes Craven's own 1996 hit Scream, a self-reflexive field guide to the subgenre for which Carpenter's film provides the basic intertext; not only does a whole network of allusion evolve around it, but during the penultimate murder sequence, the doomed teenagers actually watch Halloween on video while being stalked.
Halloween's plot is simple: an escaped lunatic stalks a small town and butchers series of teenagers—mainly girls and mainly after they have had sex with their boyfriends (the killer is a psychotic who murdered his own sister for this reason when he was six). One girl (Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of the actress who played Marion Crane in Psycho) survives and eludes the killer until his psychiatrist arrives from asylum to shoot him. Halloween is stylishly made, and it attracted considerable critical praise on first release in October 1978; but, as Robert Kapsis points out, it provided a formula that would be repeated ad nauseam by countless inferior imitations—a formula that calls for 1) a male psycho-killer who stalks sexually active teenage girls in some recognizable youth precinct (baby-sitting jobs, high school gatherings, college rituals, summer camp); and 2) the graphic depiction of violence and gore engineered by hightech "splatter " artists like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin, which provides product differentiation from television.107 (These makeup experts became stars in their own right among the teenagers who made up the bulk of the nascent slasher audience.)108 Halloween's most significant stylistic feature, however, was its extensive use of handheld subjective tracking shots to represent the killer's point of view as he stalks and murders his victims for their sexually transgressive behavior. Carpenter clearly borrowed this camera strategy from Jaws, where it was used to force an identification with the attacker rather than the victim. (Significantly, the technique appeared earlier that year in the stalking sequences of Columbia's The Eyes of Laura Mars [Irvin Kershner, 1978], a glossy murder mystery set in the world of high-fashion photography for which Carpenter wrote the screenplay.)
Identification with the killer and his point of view had, of course, been an essential component of Psycho, where it was accomplished technically through montage and sustained by the logic of the script. But as Roger Ebert pointed out in an influential American Film article on slashers in 1981, the use of a mobile subjective camera to represent the killer's point of view tends to displace his center of consciousness from the film and relocate it in the audience.109 (This mobility was made possible by the Steadicam technology introduced in 1976, which was still a novelty at the decade's end—see Chapter 9.) It would become commonplace in eighties horror for audiences to share the perspective of the killer or monster (see, for example, Wolfen [Michael Wadleigh, 1981] and Predator [John McTiernan, 1987]), but in the late 1970s it seemed profoundly anti-social, and Ebert argued that the strategy had the effect of transferring "the lust to kill and rape"—psychologically at least—to the audience.110
For whatever reason, there was a significant boom in slasher-style horror between 1979 and 1981, when first independent producers and then the majors applied the Halloween template to their product and came up with a dizzying array of similar (and, in some cases, nearly identical) titles: in 1978, Killer's Moon and The Toolbox Murders; in 1979, Don't Go in the House, The Driller Killer, Tourist Trap, and When a Stranger Calls; in 1980, The Boogeyman, Christmas Evil, Don't Answer the Phone, Friday the 13th, Maniac, MOtel Hell, Mother's Day, Prom Night, Silent Scream, and Terror Train; in 1981, Blood Beach, The Burning, Dead and Buried, Deadly Blessing, Eyes of a Stranger, Final Exam, Friday the 13th, Part 2, Graduation Day, Halloween II, Happy Birthday to Me, He Knows You're Alone, Hell Night, Hospital Massacre, My Bloody Valentine, New Year's Evil, Nightmare, Night School, and The Prowler. "Horror Is Hot!" proclaimed Film Comment in late 1979,111 and if only a handful of these films achieved the popularity of the original (Friday the 13th earned $17.1 million in rentals compared with Halloween's $18.5; and the first sequels to both earned in excess of $10 million), nearly all were profitable relative to their costs, and most performed strongly both at home and abroad. Production of slashers continued unabated through 1982 (Friday the 13th Part 3, Slumber Party Massacre), when the media backlash against them reached its height, causing many newspapers to stop reviewing them and CARA to tighten its rating standards for violence.112 (CARA chairman Richard D. Heffner admitted to Robert Kapsis in late 1981 that many R-rated slasher films of 1979 would have received an X just two years later.)113
Combined with a glut of product on the market, these circumstances generated a horror bust in 1983 when even big-budget horror failed to find an audience.114 Yet slashers had become a permanent part of the generic landscape, with sequels to many of the above named films (as well as newer ones like Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street ) continuing profitably into the 1990s. This was perhaps the most important result of horror's exponential growth during the 1970s—that a genre associated for much of the fifties and sixties with low-budget monster films became identified in the early 1980s with the heretofore marginal psycho-slasher subgenre: itself the most extreme expression of misogyny in the history of American cinema. It is estimated that by the end of the decade, 60 percent of all horror films were slashers; and by 1981 fully one-third of the twenty-five top-grossing domestic films were in the violent horror category, as were 25 percent of all films presented at international market assemblies in Cannes, Milan, and Los Angeles,115 to the disgust of many attendees.116
It has been suggested that a sea change in political and social attitudes during the late 1970s, as well as the presence of escalating inflation and unemployment, created a context for the slasher film in the same way that it catalyzed the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.117 While there is no question that the cultural climate of the time represented a pendulum swing away from the libertarian ethic of the late 1960s, with its agitation for women's rights and passage of the ERA, it is also true that a deep strain of misogyny had been present in certain American genres—notably film noir and the Western—since their inception. When the CARA system effectively ended censorship in American cinema, the wraps came off of misogyny, as they did for race, sex, violence, obscenity, and other kinds of subject matter specifically forbidden by the Production Code. Contempt for women ("chicks") is a salient feature of counterculture movies like Easy Rider (1969), and misogyny takes the form of rape, torture, and murder in such early seventies classics as A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), and Frenzy (Hitchcock, 1972), so it would be wrong to see the rise of slasher horror at the end of the decade as an isolated trend. Since the overwhelming audience segment for slashers was teenagers118 (the same ones who paid to see Star Wars, Grease, and Animal House again and again), it seems likely that producers simply followed their nature and played to market strength. (Debra Hill, line producer of the Halloween series, has commented: "I make films for audiences, not critics. It is a business, I'm not dumb.")119 At a time when average per-picture costs had risen to $9.4 million, the fact that most horror films were produced for $2 million or less made them attractive.120 But whatever the reason, no other genre experienced a greater infusion of creative richness and financial capital during the 1970s than horror. According to a Variety survey, between 1970 and 1980 rentals for horror films went from $6.5 million to $168 million a year, while the number of horror films produced tripled from twenty-two to sixty-six, of which no fewer than twenty-six topped the million-dollar mark.121 By the close of this period, even Stanley Kubrick was attracted by the market for slasher-style horror and pitched his adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining (1980) toward it with notable ($30 million in domestic rentals) success. Although briefly displaced in popularity by science fiction in the mid-1980s, horror was institutionalized in the American cinema as the significant, controversial mainstream genre it had become during the 1970s.
The Example of2001
Science fiction, like horror, entered the 1970s as a disreputable B-film genre, somewhat redeemed by the success of MGM's 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) and Fox's Planet of the Apes (Franklin Schaffner) in 1968. These two films were the fifth- and sixth-highest earners of the year ($17 and $15.5 million, respectively) and gave producers some hope that science fiction might be ready to emerge from the bargain-basement category it had occupied, with a handful of exceptions (such as MGM's Forbidden Planet [Fred M. Wilcox, 1956]), since the mid-fifties. The makeup effects of Planet of the Apes (by John Chambers) and the special visual effects of 2001 (by Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull, et al.), both of which won Academy Awards, set new industry standards and raised higher audience expectations for the genre. 2001's spectacular space travel sequences—nearly three years in production—were especially influential, since they were accomplished through the time-honored process of traveling matte photography but yielded results of striking verisimilitude on-screen. Computer-assisted motion control systems would make this process much simpler and cost-effective just eight years later, but the precision-tooled realism of Kubrick's film upped the ante for all science-fiction spectacle to come and linked the genre permanently with state-of-theart special effects. (The impulse toward heightened realism was in some respects a revival of the effects standards set by producer George Pal in Paramount's When Worlds Collide [Rudolph Maté, 1951] and War of the Worlds [Byron Haskin, 1953], which had been debased in the late fifties by exploitation producers like Roger Corman [Attack of the Crab Monsters, 1957] and Bert I. Gordon [The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957]; but it was also a response to recently published photographs of deep space emanating from NASA's Apollo program.)
Dystopia: Watergate-Era Science Fiction
Science fiction in the seventies, however, began not with special effects but technophobia, another heritage of 2001. Universal's Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970) was adapted by James Bridges from a D. F. Jones novel about the creation of an American doomsday computer called "Colossus," capable of launching an allout nuclear attack on the Russians which, like HAL in Kubrick's film, develops a mind of its own and merges with its Soviet counterpart. ("Colossus" was actually a mammoth $4.8-million Control Data Corporation electronics system hauled to the studio piece by piece and reassembled on a soundstage by CDC technicians.)122 Linked together and holding all the nuclear cards, the two supercomputers blackmail the human race into world peace (because war is economically counterproductive) and servitude to their new machine-dominated order. The theme of machines usurping human control is also central to Warner Bros.' The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges, 1974), adapted from a Michael Crichton novel; MGM's Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973) and its sequel Futureworld (AIP; Richard T. Heffron, 1976), in which a computer glitch causes robots in the adult fantasy park of Delos to run amok (like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park [Steven Spielberg, 1993]); and The Demon Seed (MGM; Donald Cammell, 1977), whose heroine (Julie Christie) is impregnated by a "Proteus IV" computer. The same kind of paranoia about technology (biomedical in this case) and nuclear weapons runs through Universal's The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971) and Warner Bros.' The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971). The former, adapted from yet another novel by Michael Crichton, is about the attempt to control a deadly virus brought back from space by a crashed satellite and features special effects by Douglas Trumbull and James Shourt; the latter is based on Richard Mathesons 1954 novel I Am Legend (also the inspiration for Romero's The Night of the Living Dead), and is about a plague of post-nuclear vampires, rendered here as the mutant survivors of germ warfare between the United States and China.
The same year witnessed similarly grim but all-too-human visions of the future in two Warner Bros, releases, George Lucas's THX-1138 (1971) and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In Lucas's film, an expanded version of his award-winning student short made at USC in 1965, the future is a sterile, computer-driven dystopia in which drugs and television have replaced human emotion. Kubrick's future is closer to home—a kind of social-science welfare state where tendencies toward "ultraviolence" are eradicated through consignment to mass spiritual torpor. Two films that followed shortly thereafter—Universal's Slaughterhouse-Five (George Roy Hill, 1972) and United Artists' Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973)—are nominally science fiction but fall more truly into the category of fantasy-satire: the one an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel about a contemporary character (Billy Pilgrim) who becomes "unstuck" in time, and the other Woody Allen's comic vision of Central Park West, circa 2073. None of these films depended heavily on special effects, but Universal's Silent Running (1971) strove for a realism in its deep space sequences that would compare favorably to that of 2001. Directed and co-written by Douglas Trumbull, a former NASA illustrator who had supervised the effects for 2001 and The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running was also one of several early 1970s films projecting a catastrophic ecological future for the human race. (Others were The Hellstrom Chronicle [Walon Green, 1971], an independently produced documentary examining the behavior of insects and suggesting that they will inherit the earth; MGM's Soylent Green [Richard Fleischer, 1973], a dramatic feature envisioning a world so overpopulated by 2022 that it must be fed on nutrients from recycled human corpses; and Phase IV [Saul Bass, 1974], an independent feature about an ant colony that mutates into an intelligent entity and attempts to conquer all other life forms.)123
In Trumbull's film, which is set in 2008, the earths atmosphere can no longer support vegetation and the last remaining forests have been shipped into space in giant geodesic domes hauled by "space freighters" at the expense of an interplanetary conglomerate. When the corporation orders the forests destroyed, a botanist on the freighter "Valley Forge" rebels, kills his crewmates, and pilots the ship and its biospheres into the isolated haven of deep space. Though shot on a modest budget of $1.4 million aboard an abandoned aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Valley Forge), Silent Running nevertheless has some breathtaking traveling matte effects accomplished by Trumbull, Steve Yuricich, and John Dykstra (who would begin supervising the computerized traveling matte effects of Star Wars four years later), building on the experience of 2001—as well as using several outtakes from it. For this reason, it was a modest box-office success.
In 1974, two unconventional science fiction films appeared that commented selfreflexively on the genre. John Carpenter's independently distributed Dark Star, coscripted by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, began as a 16mm student film while the director was at UCLA, and was later expanded into a 35mm theatrical feature. It is set aboard a twenty-first-century space cruiser on a mission to search the universe for planets that might shift dangerously in orbit and then to destroy them with nuclear weapons. But the crew has been out nineteen years, discipline is non-existent, and the ship's technical infrastructure is slowly falling apart. This situation provides the context for a satire of generic conventions, including the recent fetish for high-tech special effects (which here revert to 1950s-style process work), as well as a critique of contemporary social attitudes and politics. Fox#x0027;s Zardoz (1974), which was written, produced, and directed by John Boorman and shot at Irish locations, explores traditional science fiction themes in a future that looks more like the Bronze Age past. In a post-nuclear 2293, "Civilization" has developed a tripartite structure: the Eternals are immortals who possess all power and knowledge; the Brutals are primitives living in the ruins of earth's former cities, who are allowed by the Eternals to breed but are subject to strict population control; and the Exterminators, an elite class of barbarians, provide control by hunting and killing Brutals. The film's plot is catalyzed when one of the Exterminators aspires to godhead (literally), challenges the Eternals, and robs them of their computer-generated immortality. The film is simultaneously a parable of birth, death, and resurrection; an allegory of aesthetic creation; and a technically brilliant work of science fiction (thanks in large part to Geoffrey Unsworth's hypnotic cinematography), and is a landmark of metaphysical cinema that shares thematic lineage with Boorman's Arthurian mystery play Excalibur (Orion, 1981), which was also shot on location in Ireland. Inevitably, it was a commercial failure in a year when big-budget disaster movies and Mel Brooks genre parodies were king, although it is now regarded by some as one of the decade's richest films.
With Star Wars looming on the horizon, the science fiction films of 1975-1976 must seem transitional in hindsight, but they provide an interesting glimpse of the context in which Lucas's film was conceived, pitched, and marketed. The independently produced and distributed A Boy and his Dog (L. Q. Jones, 1975) was adapted from Harlan Ellison's award-winning story about life in a devastated postnuclear world where men and their canine companions are both telepathically and existentially linked. Like Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975), a darkly comic Roger Corman (New World) exploitation vehicle that set the ultimate car-chase in a desolate and barren future, it earned less than $2 million. More horror than science fiction, Columbia's The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) was based on a satirical novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) and has the men of an upscale bedroom community killing their wives and replacing them with (nearly) perfect robots. An occasionally eerie mixture of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) and Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973), with a literate script by William Goldman and high production values, The Stepford Wives addressed contemporary feminist concerns in a stylish and witty fashion, but it barely broke even, returning just $4 million in rentals. United Artists' Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975) did a similar turn for anxiety about the growing power of corporations in American life: by 2018, the world has achieved a lasting peace thanks to the several giant corporations who run it, and the ultraviolent sport of rollerball has been invented as a channel for natural aggression. A combination of roller derby, motocross, and hockey in which contestants are permitted to maim or even kill their opponents, the brutal game serves as a metaphor for the control the corporations exercise over all aspects of human life, and the plot revolves around one rollerball champion (James Caan) who ultimately rejects this form of organized warfare. Distinctly less conventional, The Man Who Fellto Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) was a British Lion production shot on location in the United States with a mainly American cast, except for David Bowie in the title role. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from a novel by Walter Tevis, the film is about an alien who drops to earth seeking a means to save his drought-ridden planet. He creates a human identity, having observed the ways of the earth for years and, as "Thomas Newton," becomes briefly wealthy by licensing high technology patents and forming his own conglomerate, but he is finally betrayed by the venial earthlings who work for him and left at the film's conclusion a desolate, isolated figure in a still-strange land. Roeg's genius here—abetted by the art direction of Brian Eatwell—lies not so much in the narrative but in his depiction of the earth as an alien planet, very much as an extra-terrestrial might see it, reminding us yet again that he was a world-class cinematographer before he became a director. The MGM release of Logan's Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) was touted in publicity as the most elaborate science fiction movie since 2001. In the twenty-third century, life is regulated by a giant computer and carried on inside huge domed cities where, as a means of population control, all must commit ritual suicide at the age of thirty. (On the plus side, life until this day of "renewal" is almost completely pleasurable and hedonistic.) Some, however, refuse to die and become "Runners," who must be hunted down and killed by state police called "Sandmen." The film tells how one of these Runners (Logan, played by Michael York) is convinced by a rebel girl to join the underground and seek a full life in the legendary "Sanctuary" outside the domes, which, in a clear bit of post-Watergate irony, turns out to be the ruins of Washington, D. C. Shot on location in Dallas, with matte-work isolating the city's newly postmodern architecture, Logan's Run was critically successful and received much praise for its futuristic sets and visual effects, which made pioneering (if not very impressive) use of laser holography and won a noncompetitive Special Achievement Award from the Academy—effects that would be rendered obsolete by Star Wars just one year later.124 Both Rollerball and Logan's Run earned close to $10 million in rentals ($9.1 and $9.4 million, respectively), and so low were producer expectations for science fiction films at the time that both were considered successful.
The Impact ofStar Wars
Neither George Lucas nor 20th Century-Fox expected their $11.5-million production of Star Wars to earn more than twice its costs, and market analysts projected that $35 million would be a windfall.125 When the film earned $100 million in its first three months and then went on to become the top-grossing film of all time ($262 million in worldwide rentals through 1979), the industry was stunned. Even more amazing was the fact that tie-in merchandise marketed under the "Star Wars" brand (to which Lucas had retained the exclusive rights) generated hundreds of millions of dollars in excess of box-office sales—ultimately more than the film itself—creating the first true film franchise (see Chapter 3). Star Wars also revolutionized the practice of special effects when F/X director John Dykstra perfected a computerized motion-control system for traveling matte photography that made the process both highly realistic and cost-effective. For his elaborate battles in space, Lucas was able to create hundreds of stop-motion miniature sequences at a fraction of their cost for earlier films—$2.5 million for 365 traveling matte shots, as compared with $6.5 million for less than thirty in 2001. Furthermore, Star Wars was the first film to be both recorded and released in four-track Dolby stereo, greatly enhancing the realism and majesty of these sequences. More even than Kubrick's film, Star Wars ratcheted up the standards for science fiction spectacle and reconfigured the genre around them (an achievement acknowledged by seven Academy Awards in technical categories, including Visual Effects and Sound).
Ironically, perhaps, Star Wars also pioneered the genre pastiche, that characteristically postmodern response to a world, as described by Fredric Jameson, where "stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [and] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum."126 For cinema, the "imaginary museum" houses artifacts of film history, which Star Wars offers as a kind of collage, drawing on elements the Western (The Searchers [John Ford, 1956]), the combat film (Air Force [Howard Hawks, 1943]), film noir (Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942]), and the Japanese samurai film (The Hidden Fortress [Akira Kurosawa, 1958]), with glosses on what J. Hoberman called "fantasies as varied as The Wizard of Oz and Triumph of the Will."127 Thus Star Wars was a science fiction film that was also a "nostalgia film" in the sense of evoking in its 1977 adult audience the experience of Saturday afternoon serials and early series television, while at the same time appealing to children and teenagers as a thrilling action-adventure. This was the force of Time magazine's absolutely accurate description of Star Wars as "a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure,"128 and it was the reason that the film became a cult blockbuster. It appealed to different audiences at different levels and to all audiences at one level, becoming a repeatable and multilayered cultural experience for the American mass public and, ultimately, for virtually every sentient human being on the face of the globe.
In the years to come, the Star Wars phenomenon would change the American film industry and films themselves in fundamental ways, but its most immediate effect was the sudden repositioning of science fiction as a blockbuster genre. A similar repositioning had occurred for horror after the runaway success of The Exorcist in 1974, with the important difference that horror films were relatively cheap to produce, while science fiction became relatively expensive once high-quality special effects had become the order of the day. In fact, some of the most extravagant and spectacular films of the late 1970s were in the science fiction genre—Columbia's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Universal's Battlestar: Galactica (1978), Warner Bros.' Superman (1978), Disney's The Black Hole (1979), Paramount's Star Trek—The Motion Picture (1979), and Fox's Alien (1979)—as the majors rushed to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Only one of these, Close Encounters, was an unqualified financial success; others proved disappointing relative to their costs (Superman, Star Trek, Aliens), or lost money (Battlestar: Galactica, The Black Hole). But the investment in special effects continued unabated, as companies like Industrial Light and Magic, Apogee, Inc., and Digital Productions were formed for the exclusive purpose of providing them. And the Star Wars mystique continued into the early 1980s, when epoch-making grosses of Fox's The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), Universal's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), and Fox's, Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) restored industry confidence that science fiction was a profitable form.
Late Seventies Science Fiction
The changes that science fiction had gone through as a genre during the 1970s were underscored by three end-of-the-decade films that are generally considered to be classics of the form—Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978), and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). The most widely admired of these is Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, an affirmative UFO movie that celebrates both childhood wonder and science fiction B-films of the 1950s (particularly The Day the Earth Stood Still [Robert Wise, 1951] and It Came from Outer Space [Jack Arnold, 1953], which was shot in 3-D), with Star Wars-grade special effects by Douglas Trumbull and Academy Award-winning cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Produced for $19.4 million at no small risk to Columbia's solvency, Close Encounters earned $82.8 million in rentals. While the film inarguably stands on its own merits—which are mainly those of special effects, especially the Mother Ship sequence at its conclusion—there is no question that it benefited from sharing the nostalgic, generically hybridized, "feel-good" quality of Lucas's film. (In John Williams, they also shared a composer and similarly portentous scores.) Both Star Wars and Close Encounters were perfect escapist entertainment for a public weary of post-Watergate cynicism and disillusionment.
However, United Artists' Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978) and Fox's Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) were proof that much dis-ease still afflicted the body politic. Kaufman's film was a slick remake of the Don Siegel 1956 B-movie original, with star performers (Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams), striking location photography of San Francisco by Michael Chapman, and state-of-the-art makeup effects by Tom Burman. By relocating the site of the alien pod invasion from the small town of Santa Mira to San Francisco, Kaufman and screenwriter W. D. Richter were able to comment obliquely on the moral climate of contemporary America, as well as take advantage of the scenery. In 1978, San Francisco was the acknowledged capital of the "culture of narcissism" denounced by Christopher Lasch, Peter Marin, Tom Wolfe, and others129 (including, finally, President Jimmy Carter). It epitomized the contradictions of the "Me-Decade" in both its hedonism and its anomie—functions, generally, of the nation's soaring divorce rate and 60 percent increase in the number of people living alone between 1970 and 1978.130 The notion of an American city suddenly populated by disconnected, alien "pod-people" who look like everyone else but are actually insentient clones speaks very specifically to the 1970s "cult of the self" and its pursuit of "new consciousness"—tendencies that in San Francisco would lead to the ritualized mass suicide at Jonestown in November 1978 and, inversely, to the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk a few days later.131 (Kaufman told Film Comment that "modern life is turning people into unfeeling, conforming pods who resist getting involved with each other on any level—and we've put them directly into the script,"132 or as a psychiatrist in the film—amusingly portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock—tells one of his friends, "People are changing; they're becoming less human." The narcissistic cultural context of San Francisco was put to similar use in Warner's Time After Time [Nicholas Meyer, 1979], a science fiction fantasy in which H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper are both transported from Victorian London to the modern, sexually liberated city in a time machine: Wells is impaired by the future's dystopic moral lassitude, but the serial killer fits right in.) Moreover, whereas the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers attributed the pods' origin to radiation contamination, the remake emphasized genetic manipulation, suggesting the rising popular distrust of the biological and medical sciences that appeared in other late seventies science fiction—Cine Artists' Embryo (Ralph Nelson, 1976); AIP's The Island of Dr. Moreau (Don Taylor, 1977); Fox's The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978); MGM/United Artists' Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978), and the independently distributed Parts: The Clonus Horror (Robert S. Fiveson, 1979).
Biology is also a subtext of Ridley Scott's Alien, written by Dan O'Bannon (clearly influenced by It! The Terror from Beyond Space [Edward L. Cahn, 1958] and its AIP remake Planet of Blood [Curtis Harrington, 1966]), in which an intergalactic freighter is infiltrated by a monstrous polymorph while visiting a dead planet. Like some incurable virus, the creature incubates within the bodies of crew members—erupting from the abdomen of one of them in a landmark, much-imitated special effect—and finally kills all of them except for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the film's iconic feminist heroine, who ultimately destroys it. With Academy Award-winning visual effects designed by H. R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi, Alien became an instant science fiction classic, prefiguring Scott's brilliant direction of Blade Runner (Warner Bros., 1982) and inspiring three Fox sequels (Aliens [James Cameron, 1986]; Alien 3 [David Fincher, 1992], and Alien Resurrection [Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997]); it also generated numerous inferior imitations (Jupiter Film's Inseminoid/Horror Planet [Norman J. Warren, 1982]; New World's Galaxy of Terror [B. D. Clark, 1981]; Embassy's Forbidden World [Allan Holzman, 1982]). Alien was heavily marketed, and became the fifth highest earning film of 1979, but Fox spent so much on advertising—much of it on network television—that the $11 million film did not show a profit until the summer of 1980, after it had earned $40.3 million in domestic rentals. Thus, the last important science fiction film of the 1970s, while sharing motifs with its 1950s avatars (especially RKO's The Thing [Christian Nyby, 1951] and Warner Bros.' Them! [Gordon Douglas, 1954]), forecast many of the next decade's trends: huge marketing costs, soon to exceed 25 percent of total domestic earnings; an emphasis on the realistic depiction not merely of space travel but of the grotesque and horrific, made possible through a complex merging of makeup, special effects, and robotic puppetry (soon to be known as "animatronics"); and a concentration on the potentially virulent nature of alien life forms—appropriate to a planet about to discover in its midst an incurable virus called AIDS.133
The transformation of science fiction from B-genre into big-budget, special-effects laden spectacle was coincident with the rise of the disaster film, a closely related genre that originated in the 1970s and remains popular today.134 In disaster films, a manmade systems failure or a force of nature, often monstrously perverted, threatens to destroy a group of characters brought together more or less by chance (as passengers on a jet or ocean liner, for example, or vacationers at a resort), and while many of them die, a few prevail through their courage and resourcefulness. (As producer Irwin Allen described the situation of his paradigmatic The Poseidon Adventure to The Hollywood Reporter for July 5, 1972: "We have the perfect set-up of a group of people who have never met before and who are thrown together in terrible circumstances…[in which]…1,400 people are killed and only the stars survive.")135 The form is rich in possibilities for "all-star" casting and special effects—although during the 1970s the practice was usually to mix one or two current stars with myriad performers who no longer held that status—and it is ripe for marketing abroad, since disaster is a kind of international language.136 As to the generative mechanisms, the term systems failure originated in the 1970s to describe the breakdown of networked computers, but it might have been equally well applied to the Vietnam War or Watergate because, culturally, the disaster film expresses a fear of powerlessness or loss of control,137 an equation that was widely recognized at the time. (As an editorial on disaster films in the Wall Street Journal for January 7, 1975, put it: "In a time when leadership at every level of society is believed to be wanting, disasters caused or aggravated by the errors of those in charge make sense to the audience.")138 This is why the genre traces its origins to the depths of the Depression, when many studios produced movies with spectacular disasters in their plots or subplots (e.g., RKO's The Last Days of Pompeii [Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1935] and King Kong [Merian C. Cooper, 1933]; MGM's China Seas [Tay Garnett, 1935], San Francisco [W. S. Van Dyke, 1936], and The Good Earth [Sidney Franklin, 1937]; Fox's In Old Chicago [Henry King, 1938] and The Rains Came [D. Clarence Brown, 1939]; Sam Goldwyn's The Hurricane [John Ford, 1937], released by United Artists); and to the Cold War era with its countless B-films about the power of atomic blasts and radiation to produce havoc-wreaking mutants and monsters (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ; Them! ;. It Came from Beneath the Sea ; Attack of the Crab Monsters ; The Deadly Mantis ; The Monster that Challenged the World ; Beginning of the End ; The Amazing Colossal Man ; etc.). There were few examples of the disaster film in the 1960s (Hitchcock's The Birds ; Krakatoa, East of Java [Bernard Kowalski, 1969], one of the last films presented in Cinerama), but during the 1970s, it became a staple of blockbuster production.
High Watergate Disaster: AirporttoThe Hindenburg
The film that launched the 1970s disaster film was Universal's Airport (1970), adapted by its director George Seaton from a best-selling Arthur Hailey novel. Although its plot was inspired by an earlier film/novel sensation, Warner Bros.' The High and the Mighty (William Wellman, 1954) adapted by Ernest K. Gann from his own best-seller, Airport established the formula of microcosmic melodrama combined with catastrophe-oriented adventure that would be followed by virtually all of the decade's disaster films, regardless of their original source. Its state-of-the-art special effects and Todd-AO cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo) lent realism to the plight of a crewless, bomb-damaged jumbo jet that must be landed by passengers during a blizzard. (For the final sequence of the landing, producer Ross Hunter leased a Boeing 707 and had it landed in a real snowstorm; the film's interior sets were converted from the fuselage and pilot's compartment of a salvaged Mexican Airline DC 8.)139 Universal executives, who had been nervous over the film's then-spectacular negative cost of $10 million, were ecstatic when it earned $45.2 million in rentals and ten Oscar nominations, ensuring that would be replicated through a series of sequels (Airport 1975 [Jack Smight, 1974]; Airport '77 [Jerry Jameson, 1977]; The Concorde—Airport '79 [David Lowell, 1979]) and imitated generically for the rest of the decade.
Irwin Allen (1916-1991), the successful producer of several science fiction films (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea [Irwin Allen, 1961]) and TV series (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 1964-1968; Lost in Space, 1965-1968), became a mainline impresario of the disaster epic with Fox's The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972), adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a Paul Gallico novel. Here the Grand Hotel-like melodrama of Airport was replaced with an action-oriented plot, as a group of passengers (among them Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and Shelley Winters) struggle to free themselves from a capsized ocean liner whose physical dimensions were based by set designer William Creber on the Queen Mary. (In fact, many of the film's pre-disaster sequences were shot aboard the Queen Mary, greatly enhancing its realism.)140 Produced at a cost of $5 million, The Poseidon Adventure reaped a windfall when it earned $42 million in rentals and eight Academy Award nominations, winning for its best-selling theme song, "The Morning After," and Special Effects (a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects went to Fox's L. B. Abbott and A. D. Flowers). The key to the film's popularity was unquestionably its verisimilitude,141 a lesson quickly learned by other producers. As with science fiction, the burden of proof in the disaster film fell upon special effects.
For Universal's $7-million Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974), executive producer Jennings Lang hired three special effects artists—Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson, and Jack McMasters—and the art directors Alex Golitzen and Preston Ames, all of them assisted by matte painter Albert Whitlock, who produced forty elaborate background scenes for the film in only three weeks.142 As head of Universal's visual effects department, Whitlock had painted the mattes for all of Hitchcock's post-Psycho films and helped to recreate 1930s Chicago for The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). His work on Earthquake, in which Los Angeles is destroyed by "the Big One," earned a Special Achievement Award from the Academy, but the film's most prominent effect was achieved through "Sensurround," a low-frequency sound system used to simulate tremors during the eight-minute quake sequence. Essentially an amplification process (for which Universal rented a special package to theaters for $500 a week), "Sensurround" won a Class II Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy, which also gave Earthquake the Oscar for Best Sound. The system was used in several other Universal films of the decade (Midway [Jack Smight, 1976]; Rollercoaster [James Goldstone, 1977]) before it was abandoned. This audience participation feature of Earthquake combined with special effects that provided, in Variety's words, "an excellent, unstinting panorama of destruction,"143 made it the third highest grossing film of 1974 (with $35.9 million in rentals).
The highest-grossing film of the year was Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno with rentals of $55.8 million, which made up for its lack of a gimmick with an intelligent script by Stirling Silliphant and real acting by real stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, and Faye Dunaway (as opposed to the vapidity of Mark Robson's uncredited screenplay for Earthquake, and the walk-through performances of its leads: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and George Kennedy). Adapted from two separate novels and coproduced by Fox and Warner Bros. at a cost of $14 million, The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) had special effects by A. D. Flowers and L. B. Abbott and was designed by William Creber. Its story of a fire destroying the world's tallest building on the night of its gala opening because of shoddy construction practices had a strong anticorporate message, but like all disaster films this one existed largely to display spectacular illusions. These were provided by four production units working on fifty-seven sets distributed over eight Fox soundstages, the largest of which were the "Promenade Deck" where the celebration is held, completely surrounded by a 340-foot cycloramic matte painting of the San Francisco skyline, and a full-scale replica of a five-story section of the skyscraper on a former Fox backlot.144 Sixty stunt artists were employed in the pyrotechnical action sequences (as compared to 141 for Earthquake), which were directed by Allen himself in close collaboration with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and by the end of seventy days of principal photography only eight of the sets remained standing. Opening on December 16, 1974, just a month after Earthquake, The Towering Inferno was both a critical and commercial hit, receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and winning three (Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Song).
That the disaster film as Hollywood genre had clearly arrived, was demonstrated by two other 1974 entries. Universal's Airport 1975 (Jack Smight, 1974) originated as a TV movie script and was reworked by its author, Don Ingalis, into a screenplay with twenty-two main characters for "all-star" casting. (Only one true star, Charlton Heston, actually found his way into the movie.) The film concerned a 747 crippled by a mid-air collision and flown by a stewardess until a spectacular mid-air pilot transfer is arranged. Executive producer Jennings Lang secured the cooperation of the FAA, the Defense Department, and the Air Force in leasing a real 747 for the flight and transfer sequences, and the film was completed in just forty-four days at a cost of $4 million. Opening in October 1974, Airport 1975 earned $25.2 million in rentals and became the eighth most profitable film of a year in which no fewer than three disaster films ranked among the top ten. United Artists' Juggernaut (Richard Lester, 1974) was filmed aboard The Britannic—a microcosm of British society, in which nothing works—and concentrated on suspense above spectacle, and was the less successful commercially for it. This film of a luxury liner wired with seven sophisticated terrorist bombs that are defused by a team of demolitions experts conforms to the disaster formula in all respects but one: there is no disaster. But the awesome potential for one and an omnibus cast headed by Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Hopkins enabled United Artists to market Juggernaut as a disaster film, despite its taut direction and clearly intelligent script. The public, however, wasn't fooled, and Juggernaut became the first film in the cycle to lose money.
Universal's The Hindenburg (Robert Wise, 1975) was next. This melodramatic and highly speculative re-creation of the giant luxury dirigible's last flight was based on Michael M. Mooney's book of the same title, and it had Oscar-winning special effects by Albert Whitlock and Glen Robinson (they received a noncompetitive Special Achievement Award, as did sound effects expert Peter Berkos). The fiery 1937 crash was meticulously restaged on Universal's Stage 12 and intercut with actual newsreel footage and radio broadcasts of the tragedy that consumed the hydrogen-born aircraft in a spectacular explosion and took thirty-six lives.145 The replication of this thirty-four-second event, which became an early mass media icon, could not salvage the film's creaky plotting and lackluster performances from what Variety called "an array of characters…dealt boringly from a well-thumbed deck"146 including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, and Gig Young. Produced for $14 million, The Hindenburg returned only $14.5 in rentals and signaled that the public's eagerness to know "Who Will Survive?" (as advertising copy for The Poseidon Adventure put it) had passed over into indifference. Another signal was the appearance of a popular genre parody in Paramount's The Big Bus (James Frawley, 1976), in which the ill-fated journey of a nuclear-powered Trailways bus, complete with a cocktail lounge, works the all-star (here "no-star") disaster formula for all it is worth. The fact that Irwin Allen began producing made-for-TV disaster films the same year (Flood [NBC, 11/24/76]; Fire! [NBC, 5/8/77]) suggests that the genre had gone from its classic stage to decadence without an intervening period of stabilization. (So too did New World's 1975 domestic release of Tidal Wave, a horribly recut, dubbed version of the Japanese science fiction epic The Submersion of Japan [Toho; Shiro Moriana, 1973], with added American footage.)
Jawsand the Revenge-of-Nature Cycle
In fact, the disaster film remained popular for the rest of the decade and beyond, but it mutated in 1975 (like everything else in American cinema) with the appearance of Universal's Jaws. The formative importance of Jaws to subsequent marketing and distribution practices is discussed elsewhere, as is its crucial role in the emergent blockbuster syndrome, but the film also occupies landmark status in terms of genre because it combined motifs from several of them to create a new kind of disaster film. Jaws, as Thomas Schatz was first to point out, is basically an action-adventure that contains elements of the 1950s monster film, the slasher film, the buddy film, and the chase film.147 But it is also a disaster film that Spielberg trimmed down and turned into a pure mechanism,148 a visceral machine of entertainment designed to achieve maximum cinematic punch on every level. As with all disaster films, special effects were crucial: for Jaws they accounted for approximately one-fourth of the final negative cost of $12 million. (Most expensive were the mechanical effects designed by Robert A. Mattey, which included three full-scale, hydraulically operated great white sharks; underwater photography of real sharks was provided by Ron and Valerie Taylor, who had shot the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death [Peter Gimbel].)149 But Spielberg achieved an integration of effects and narrative that made disaster sequences in earlier films seem canned by comparison and brought a sophistication of form to the genre unrivaled since Hitchcock's work in The Birds. Generically, Jaws is also linked with contemporaneous revenge-of-nature/creature revenge films—Paramount's Willard (Daniel Mann, 1971) and Ben (Phil Karlson, 1972), both featuring renegade rats; AIP's Frogs (George McGowan, 1972); MGM's Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972), about monster rabbits; Crown International's Stanley (William Grefe, 1972) and Universal's SSSSSSS (Bernard Kowalski, 1973—an early project of Jaws producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown), which are both about snakes; Cinema Group 75's The Giant Spider Invasion (Bill Rebane, 1975); and William Castle's Paramount-released Bug (Jeannot Szwarc, 1975), where normality is threatened by giant, incendiary, meat-eating cockroaches. The revenge motif continued in the welter of post-Jaws imitations that appeared in the realm of exploitation product (Selected's Mako: the Jaws of Death [William Grefe, 1976]; Mar Vista's Dogs [Bruce Brinckerhoff, 1976]; AIP's Food of the Gods [Bert I. Gordon, 1976], Squirm [Jeff Lieberman, 1976], and Empire of the Ants [Bert I. Gordon, 1977]; New World's The Bees [Alfredo Zacharias, 1978]), inferior knock-offs (Film Venture's Grizzly [William Girdler, 1976] and Day of the Animals [William Girdler, 1977]; Paramount's Orca [Michael Anderson, 1977]; Embassy's Tentacles [Oliver Hellman, 1977]; Dimension's Kingdom of the Spiders [John "Bud" Cardos, 1977]; Columbia's Nightwing [Arthur Hiller, 1979]), outright spoofs (New World's Piranha [Joe Dante, 1978] and Piranha II: The Spawning [James Cameron, 1981]), and Jaws's own inferior sequels (Universal's Jaws 2 [Jeannot Szwarc, 1978]; Jaws 3-D [Joe Alves, 1983]; and Jaws, the Revenge [Joseph Sargent, 1987]). But it was in the streamlined disaster film of the late 1970s, with its aspiration towards a Spielbergian economy of means combined with elaborate special effects, that the generic influence of Jaws was most clearly visible—mainly in action thrillers like Universal's Two Minute Warning (Larry Peerce, 1976) and Rollercoaster (James Goldstone, 1977), Paramount's Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer, 1977), and Avco Embassy's The Cassandra Crossing (George Pan Cosmatos, 1977); but also in conspiracy films (Associated General's Capricorn One [Peter Hyams, 1978], Columbia's The China Syndrome [James Bridges, 1979]), war films (Universal's Gray Lady Down [David Greene, 1978], and even such comedies as Fox's Silver Streak (Arthur Hiller, 1976), with its thunderous climactic train wreck.
Disaster Strikes Out
Still, some producers continued to flog the original disaster formula into the realms of near-parody. Irwin Allen, who had virtually invented it in the first place, produced and directed two final entries: Warner Bros.' The Swarm (1978), in which African killer bees (a staple of late 1970s creature revenge movies) attack a small Texas town, a train, and finally the entire city of Houston; and Fox's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), in which salvagers attempt to loot the ship that capsized in the original film. Both lost money, but the exhaustion of genre is particularly apparent in The Swarm, which attempted to revisit the triumph of The Towering Inferno by employing the same screenwriter (Stirling Silliphant), cinematographer (Fred Koenekamp), and visual effects artist (L. B. Abbott). Even The Swarm's marketing logo aped that of the earlier film with its image of a glass-and-steel skyscraper engulfed in flames (now bees), but the result was what one critic called "one of the shoddiest major films to ever come from Hollywood."150 In fact, The Swarm is a virtual textbook example of how the industry corrupts genre by running winning formulas into the ground. Almost every aspect of the film is worthy of the disaster-film parodies that found their way into Drive-In (Rod Amateau, 1976), The Kentucky Fried Movie (John Landis, 1977), and several Saturday Night Live skits of the era, but its visual effects are ludicrous, especially in a big train wreck sequence whose sloppy miniature work is clearly just that. (Nevertheless, Allen struck one more time, as producer of Warner Bros.' When Time Ran Out…[James Goldstone, 1980], the very last gasp of the "all-star" disaster epics, with Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, et al. scrambling to escape a volcanic eruption on a South Sea island.)
Terrible special effects were also a problem for Meteor (Ronald Neame, 1979), whose tangled financing involved exploitation producers on both sides of the Pacific (Sir Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong and Samuel Z. Arkoff in Hollywood) and distribution by Warner Bros. of an American International release. This $20 million production went through three separate teams of effects artists and was released with poor detailing and visible process lines in major disaster sequences, which the public refused to tolerate; it lost $14 million and became one of the decade's biggest losers.151 It was joined in the same year by another historic flop, Dino De Laurentiis's $22-million remake of The Hurricane (Jan Troell, 1979), released by Universal for a loss of $17.5 million. Thus, from producing some the decade's biggest hits early on, the disaster genre quickly came to generate some of its biggest losses, and disaster ended the 1970s scraping bottom (for example, New World's Avalanche [Corey Allen, 1978], with special effects that were achieved through photographic superimpositions recalling 1950s-style monster films). In a complete reverse spin, the fourth highest grossing film of 1980 ($40.6 million in rentals) would be Paramount's disaster-movie parody Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker), a send-up of 1970's second-highest grosser, Airport ($45.2 million in rentals)—indicating both a seismic shift in popular taste and a new standard in planned obsolescence for the Hollywood product.
The ten years it took Airport to travel from paradigm to parody were those in which the mainstream American film industry embraced exploitation. In marketing and distribution, as well as in production content, the majors adopted practices from the industry's margins that were designed to maximize profit quickly, regardless of a film's quality or merit. But rapidly escalating costs dictated that a film also needed "legs," in Variety's terms, that is, staying power at the box office once the initial strike was made. Various opinions over time equated good legs with the presence of bankable stars, best-selling properties, popular genres, and so on, but by the end of the 1970s special effects were clearly foregrounded in the formula for success. The initial popularity of disaster films underscores the importance that special effects had begun to assume in the blockbuster calculus of the mid-1970s. In fact, in retrospect it is clear that all three of the decade's most popular genres depended on them—most obviously the science fiction and disaster film, but also the horror film, whose appeal depended increasingly on the realistic depiction of such pathological phenomenon as mutilation, violent death, and corporeal putrescence. The disaster film's rapid fall from favor suggests the importance of novelty in the realm of such effects, which is why the genre has enjoyed a considerable comeback with the refinement of computer-generated imagery in the 1990s. Finally, the rapid rise and fall of the 1970s disaster film demonstrates the toll that exploitation can take on generic form. Repetition with variation is the stuff that genres are made of, but when producers like Irwin Allen adopt a cookie-cutter approach to same material again and again, they soon invite parody—as did both the slasher film (for example, Paramount's Student Bodies [Mickey Rose, 1981]) and the Star Wars-style space opera (for example, Universal's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century [Daniel Haller, 1979]) by the decade's end.
"Genres I: Revision, Transformation, and Revival." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/genres-i-revision-transformation-and-revival
"Genres I: Revision, Transformation, and Revival." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved January 15, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/genres-i-revision-transformation-and-revival
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