6 Movies From 1974 That Stood the Test of Time (50 Years Later)

Sugarland Express, Chinatown and Texas Chainsaw Massacre collage
Everett Collection

Some 200 films were released in the U.S. during 1974, and plenty were memorable. The disaster genre hit a peak of sorts, represented by The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975, Earthquake, Heatwave! and Hurricane. John Cassavetes reached the top of his creative arc with A Woman Under the Influence. Burt Reynolds continued to be box office gold with The Longest Yard, and Robert Redford and Mia Farrow were the heartthrobs of the year, costarring in The Great Gatsby. But looking back 50 years later, a smaller group of movies made just as lasting a mark. They reinvented genres and showcased certain stars in front of and behind the camera that have had an enormous sway in Hollywood and what we click on while sitting at home today. In fact, you might want to queue up these highest-impact movies and remember what the originals have brought us in the 50 years since.

The Godfather Part II

What It Did: Made the world safe for sequels

Other sequels came out long before Francis Ford Coppola had Al Pacino suiting up again to play a more mature, icy Michael Corleone. But by both continuing the Mafia saga and adding in the prequel with Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone, Coppola made the first truly artistic follow-up. Like 1972’s The Godfather, this 202-minute epic won Best Picture Oscar gold, becoming the only sequel to do so until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). But with The Godfather Part II, the practice of putting a Roman numeral after a popular title suggested a promise of quality. Not to say they all lived up to it, but Superman II, Jaws 2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and others got their chance for big opening weekend grosses as a result.

Death Wish

What It Did: Made it somehow OK to take revenge

Crime rates were high in big cities in the 1970s, creating the perfect atmosphere for architect Paul Kersey (played with dark determination by Charles Bronson) to thrive onscreen in the first Death Wish movie. After his wife is killed and daughter assaulted, Kersey becomes a vigilante killer, taking matters of murder into his own hands. The film made money and elevated Bronson to icon status, secured through four Death Wish sequels and other action films. Try to imagine Harrison Ford’s string of “my family’s in peril” films of the 1990s without this franchise, to say nothing of Liam Neeson boasting of his “particular set of skills” in Taken.

The Sugarland Express

What It Did: United Steven Spielberg with John Williams

By the time prolific composer and conductor John Williams won his first Oscar for adapting the score of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof, he was already a big Hollywood name; he then further sealed his style of mixing emotion and excitement in Irwin Allen’s disaster movies. All of that didn’t go unnoticed by 26-year-old wunderkind director Steven Spielberg, who was given a chance to make his first ever theatrical film, a chase drama starring Goldie Hawn as a young mom hoping to keep her son out of foster care. Williams admired how much Spielberg already knew about his talents and agreed to work on The Sugarland Express. A year later, they teamed up once again for a little feature called Jaws, which gave birth to the summer movie blockbuster. Since Sugarland, Williams has scored all but five of Spielberg’s films, creating decades of memories for filmgoers.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

What It Did: Showed us the grisly side of horror

Whoever thought of killing someone with a power tool in a movie? Director and cowriter Tobe Hooper, that’s who. The slasher film may be a staple now; so is the masked, menacing murderer. Those elements were never brought all together with such success before Gunnar Hansen donned the mask of cannibalistic psycho Leatherface. And while his “Chainsaw Dance” never caught on in the clubs, it certainly scared the bejesus out of both his unfortunate victims in this movie and filmgoers in the years since. Based on several serial killers — Ed Gein among them — Leatherface has since fronted a continuing killing-spree franchise in sequels and prequels, comics and video games, wielding a weapon that always looks sharp!


What It Did: Truly put Jack Nicholson in the limelight

The star with the most expressive eyebrows of his era was already a film fixture by the time Roman Polanski tapped him to play private eye Jake Gittes opposite Faye Dunaway in this extraordinary noir mystery. He’d started his career nearly 20 years before, working for legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman, toiling for a decade before his breakout role (and first Oscar nomination) in the 1969 counterculture favorite Easy Rider. Then he accrued a small string of bigger hits in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971) and 1973’s The Last Detail. But it wasn’t until Chinatown that Nicholson found a role perfectly suited to his ability to bring drama, humor and a sense of danger to a part. With its bigger budget and much bigger box office gross, Chinatown led Nicholson to his Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and films as beloved and admired as The Shining, As Good as It Gets, A Few Good Men and Something’s Gotta Give.

Blazing Saddles

What it Did: Caused a seismic shift in humor

People love to talk about how Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ outrageous sendup of the Old West, could never have been made today, mostly in large part to its near constant use of the N-word, jokes about every taboo subject under the frontier sun and a celebration of the fart joke. But Brooks’ brilliance has always come in trying to combat hate through laughter as The Producers had done so well several years prior. What’s a better follow-up to a musical about Adolf Hitler than the tale of a Black town sheriff?

But Blazing Saddles was, thankfully, much more than that. It had heart, as did Brooks’ next film later that year, the horror satire Young Frankenstein, which also starred the brilliant Gene Wilder. Without those two films, and Ken Shapiro’s crazy sketch-filled comedy The Groove Tube (costarring Richard Belzer and a pre-SNL Chevy Chase), we might not have had Airplane!, the Naked Gun movies, or a slew of joke-heavy, school-set faves, like the Police Academy movies and Porky’s.

Netflix recently announced that they have a special 1974 anniversary collection, where many of these movies can be found.


1974 (50 Years Ago)
Want More?

1974 (50 Years Ago)

January 2024

In this time capsule issue of ReMIND Magazine we look back 50 years ago to 1974!

Buy This Issue