One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 84
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
As any worthy cinephile with an eye on film history will tell you, 1972 was one helluva fine year in American cinema. They also might say that it runs neck and neck with 1939 or 1959 or 1982 or any one of a number of others. One of movie lovers’ favorite parlor games is endlessly debating what the greatest year in film history was.
I usually go with 1972 right out of the gate and I’m proud to say it’s rarely anybody else’s first choice. I recently wrote an Insider column celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, which had its premiere on a snowy March 14, 1972 at New York City’s Loew’s State Theatre in Times Square. I took a few minutes while doing my Godfather research to remind myself why 1972 is so often my first choice.
There’s just so much quality cinema to choose from: The Candidate, Fat City, The King of Marvin Gardens, Jeremiah Johnson, 1776, The Hot Rock, The Getaway and The Poseidon Adventure are all from ’72. Then there are the comedies What’s Up, Doc?, Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid To Ask) and The Heartbreak Kid. Hitchcock’s Frenzy. The award-winning documentary Marjoe, on evangelist Marjoe Gortner. All 1972.
That doesn’t even include the movies that were nominated for that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, an Oscar that ultimately went to The Godfather: Cabaret, Deliverance, Sounder and The Emigrants.
And then there are the foreign-language films—a bunch of undeniable greats like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Last Tango in Paris, The Seduction of Mimi, Solaris and Fellini’s Roma, to name a healthy cross section
It was while I was compiling this list that I came across the breakdown of movies released in May, 1972—50 years ago this month—and was very surprised to discover that not a single film on my list of great ones came out that month. Not a one.
The most popular film released in May, 1972 would have to be Play It Again, Sam, based on Woody Allen’s popular 1969 play of the same name. The story finds Woody portraying a neurotic film critic obsessed with old movies who receives advice on life and love from the spirit of his idol, a Casablanca-era Humphrey Bogart.
One of the only times that Woody wrote and starred in a film that somebody else directed (in this case, the serviceable Herbert Ross), Play It Again, Sam clicked with critics and audiences while also presenting its star as a viable leading man. It might not rise to the heights of 1972’s greats, but it remains an entertaining and heartfelt romantic comedy.
Now I know there are 12 months in a year and that it’s far from a mathematical certainty that any of the aforementioned goodies would have been released in May. But what are the odds that not even one would come out that month?
The past 20 years have seen May evolve into one of the film’s industry’s most vital release months—it’s considered “the early summer” in Hollywood-speak and that’s the time the studios begin to roll out their big guns. Granted, 1972 came a few years before Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) created the concept of the “summer blockbuster” season, and I’m not saying that the aforementioned May, ’72 films are blockbuster material, not by any stretch. But, still, you’d think that a couple of them would have sprung up that spring.
What I did discover when tapping the archives is one of the strangest, most varied and offbeat collections of movies I’ve ever seen released to theaters in a single month. There aren’t more than a couple of critically lauded and commercially popular films among them. And an overview of the balance of the titles seems to hearken back to a time hen a number of films of very specific genres and trends were released on a national scale, even though they clearly had more of a regional or niche appeal.
That’s as good an explanation as any for the numerous drive-in-friendly and grindhouse-styled flicks that can be found in May, 1972’s stack of nearly three dozen theatrical titles.
For starters, there are no less than a half-dozen horror movies, beginning with a pair of sexy British supernatural flicks with an archaeological angle: Tower of Evil, about the uncovering of a mystical Phoenician treasure and the subsequent rash of murders it triggers; and the sexy Hammer Studios’ production Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, starring lovely Valerie Leon as the spirit of an unearthed Egyptian queen who takes her cues from a vengeful severed hand. (Don’t ask.)
The four other chillers include Susan George as a babysitter up against a mental institution escapee in the dreadful low-budget Fright, and not one but two “bad twins” movies: The Other, based upon Thomas Tyron’s bestselling 1971 psychological horror novel and featuring grand dame Uta Hagen and twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky; and Twins of Evils starring sibs Madeline and Mary Collinson as orphaned sisters in 19th century Europe who move in with their devil-worshipping uncle (Peter Cushing). Possession and the black arts also play a central role in The Possession of Joel Delany, a not-bad pre-Exorcist supernatural thriller about a Manhattan divorcee (Shirley MacClaine) whose brother (Perry King) has been possessed by the spirit of a serial killer with a penchant for beheading young women in Spanish Harlem.
May, ’72 also offers a pair of titles that key into the growing women’s liberation movement of the era. There’s the feminist comedy-drama Stand Up and Be Counted, starring Jacqueline Bissett, Stella Stevens, Madelyn Rue, Loretta Swit and Dr. Joyce Brothers (!), a quintet of actresses who certainly deliver on the femininity front. The fight for equal rights is equally front and center in the revisionist Western Hannie Caulder, wherein shapely Raquel Welch sets out for revenge against the outlaws who raped her just before killing her husband.
Then there are five more that resist any of my attempts to neatly group them together as they hop, skip and jump across the flavorful genre gameboard of the early 70s.
It’s airline pilot Charlton Heston to the rescue when his plane is seized and terrorized by crazed Vietnam vet James Brolin in Skyjacked, a moderate box-office hit. There’s The Honkers, a forgettable rodeo flick starring James Coburn and Anne Archer in her screen debut. Young Billy Dee Williams steps out as a college student turned revolutionary in the fiery blaxploitation race drama The Final Comedown. Overpopulation and birth prevention are the issues that drive the futuristic sci-fi thriller Z.P.G., where couple Oliver Reed and Geraldine Fitzgerald risk having a real baby rather than legally adopting a cyborg child. (Z.P.G. stands for “Zero Population Growth,” in case you were wondering.) Heading into even more outlandish turf, is Pink Angels, a low-budget motorcycle spoof about a gang of gay and transvestite bikers who head to L.A. to attend a drag ball.
Sooo, I’m not going to suggest that you rush to stream any of the movies of May, 1972, except for the very enjoyable Play It Again, Sam (if you haven’t already seen it). It definitely stands out as a worthwhile film...in a strange month...in a great year!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.