1970 Ten Best Movies

Colin Blakely and Robert Stephens, as Watson and Holmes

Although the movie year 1970 was rife with American counterculture offerings and announcements that Hollywood was tearing itself apart from within, my Ten Best list for the year leans in another direction: a classically composed movie at the top and a bunch of French films thereafter. Not trying to be perverse here, and deny the tide of change heralded by the likes of Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H, but over the years and re-viewings, the accomplishments of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes look all the brighter.

“Re-viewings” helps, as I have observed that almost nobody gets Billy Wilder’s movie the first time. That’s not just because severe post-production cutting imposed by the studio made the film (designed to be episodic, yet intricately woven) choppier than it was meant to be. Mostly it’s because Wilder’s shifts in tone are unpredictable and sometimes jarring – the film is both a glib sitcom (Wilder had been recently fond of The Odd Couple on Broadway and nearly directed the film version) and a deeply Romantic love story.

I suspect Wilder saw Sherlock Holmes – a misanthrope suffering from an excess of intellectual energy, a cocaine user because the world is too boring to keep up with him, a cynic waiting for someone to come along and reveal his deep romanticism – as a self-portrait, which might account for the movie’s resonance. With Wilder’s method (working here with his longtime literary Watson, I.A.L. Diamond), the screenwriter becomes Holmes in reverse, carefully layering in all the clues that the fictional detective will uncover.

At the time it flopped. Now it sits atop the ten best of 1970:

1. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder)

2. The Wild Child (Francois Truffaut)

3. Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)

4. Claire’s Knee (Eric Rohmer)

5. Tristana (Luis Bunuel)

6. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski)

7. Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville)

8. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)

9. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg)

10. M*A*S*H (Robert Altman) and Catch-22 (Mike Nichols)

Great year for French movies, and Le Boucher is one of Chabrol’s best (he had La Rupture out that year too, which could be on the list). I think Tristana was the first Bunuel film I ever saw, at a church basement or something across the street from the University of Washington campus. I have no idea why it was being shown in those circumstances, but I have a lot of affection for it (it seems like the movie Pedro Almodovar has been aspiring to make for many years). Deep End is still an obscure title, a remarkable study of obsession and London (no longer really Swinging London). Much less famous than Performance, it does a better job of articulating a somewhat similar moment. Neither M*A*S*H nor Catch-22 is a fully-realized film, but together they announce the arrival of a new kind of thing, and especially a new kind of cruelty in humor.

Just missing: Zabriskie Point, plus a couple of old-school Big Ones that were critically unappreciated at the time: Blake Edwards’ Darling Lili and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. Women in Love brought Ken Russell onto the big stage, while a couple of other directors were in their early stages: Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and Brian DePalma’s Hi Mom! didn’t get a lot of attention outside the underground at first, but look pretty interesting now. It says a lot that a movie as scathing as Little Big Man was the second-highest grossing movie of the year (in the 1971 receipts), leaving old-fashioned sure-fire behemoths such as On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in the dust. However, I like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which is more of a Vincente Minnelli film than a Barbra Streisand film. Which I’m glad about.

Postscript to Wilder: There’s an on-the-set Private Life of Sherlock Holmes interview in a book I did of Billy Wilder interviews, which is available here. I merely mention it.

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