There’s no question that the ’80s—meaning the concept, rather than simply the chronological period—were well underway at America’s movie theaters by the beginning of 1981. Whereas 1980 was a transitional year during which trends from the ’70s began to wane, 1981 saw some of the best and worst narrative concerns and stylistic tropes of the new decade take hold of the public’s attention.
Michael Crichton’s prescient thriller Looker anticipated not only the aesthetic and moral quandaries associated with computer-generated imagery, but also the rise of ads so slick they have the power to mesmerize. The loathsome slasher-movie genre continued to grow in popularity with the sequels Friday the 13th Part 2 and Halloween II, as well as such viscera-strewn stand-alone films as Happy Birthday to Me and My Bloody Valentine. Meanwhile, Sam Raimi’s outlandish The Evil Dead, a gorefest with a wicked sense of humor, left the slasher genre behind and ventured into parts unknown. Elsewhere in the realm of shock cinema, Canadian fantasist David Cronenberg edged closer to the mainstream with Scanners, and a mini-trend for werewolf movies came and went, leaving in its wake the brilliantly eccentric An American Werewolf in London, the enjoyably campy The Howling, and the woefully underrated Wolfen. Fun fact: Wolfen is, to date, the only fictional feature directed by Michael Wadleigh, helmer of the classic rock-music doc Woodstock (1970).
Another mini-trend that surged in 1981 was a vogue for sword-and-sorcery pictures, presumably stemming from the rise of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Memorable medieval epics from 1981 include Dragonslayer, a gorgeously rendered grown-up adventure story from Walt Disney Pictures that features one of the most spectacular monsters in movie history, and John Boorman’s gloriously overwrought King Arthur saga Excalibur. (The sword-and-sorcery genre entered its self-parody phase a year later, with the male-fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian and the cartoonish duo of The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer all hitting screens in 1982.) Kinda-sorta riding the sword-and-sorcery trend was the 1981 kiddie fantasy Clash of the Titans, featuring Harry Hamlin fighting monsters created by stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. For imaginative people of a certain age, Clash of the Titans was an irresistible guilty pleasure during the glory days of HBO and Cinemax. Release the Kraken!
Mainstream hits from 1981 covered a broad spectrum of subject matter, with Dudley Moore playing an endearing drunk in Arthur, British runners soaring over hurdles to the accompaniment of Vangelis music in Chariots of Fire, Brooke Shields playing yet another beautiful young woman exploring sexuality in Endless Love, Alan Alda playing yet another sensitive middle-aged man exploring sexuality in The Four Seasons, the Fondas (Henry and Jane) sharing the screen with the legendary Katharine Hepburn in the well-crafted weepie On Golden Pond, and primitive men and women embarking on a wordless adventure in the evocative Quest for Fire. If there’s a commonality bonding these pictures, it might be a dispiriting shift toward slickness in terms of presentation and storytelling—in other words, early fodder for the endless style-over-substance laments that critics and fans made about mainstream movies throughout the mid- to late 1980s. Yet not every successful film of 1981 adhered to the principle of glossy aesthetics. Viewed in retrospect, Louis Malle’s all-talk dramedy My Dinner With Andre seems like a crie de couer against where big-budget Hollywood was headed.
Speaking of Malle, he directed another 1981 release that gets to the heart of the matter—the following highly subjective survey of the 25 movies from 1981 that have the strongest connections to the 1970s. Some of these pictures sprang from development processes that began in the 1970s, and some were direct sequels to 1970s hits. Others were spiritual cousins to the great New Hollywood pictures of the early 1970s.
1. Atlantic City. An original screen story written by playwright John Guare and masterfully directed by Malle, Atlantic City is akin to the grungy stories about desperate losers and misguided strivers that John Huston made in the early ’70s. Set in the titular New Jersey town, which Malle captured at a moment of metaphorically rich blight, the movie features the unlikely romantic pairing of aging gangster Burt Lancaster and lissome casino worker Susan Sarandon. Beautiful and sad in equal measure, this is the movie that made it impossible for some fans to think about lemons without their temperatures rising.
2. Blow Out. Even with its operatic finale, this conspiracy thriller—shades of Alan J. Pakula’s anxious masterpieces—is one of Brian De Palma’s most disciplined films. Riffing on a concept from Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), this picture is also a movie about movies, because John Travolta plays a film-industry soundman who accidentally records audio of a murder, then tries, unwisely, to discover the truth about what happened. De Palma’s onetime on- and offscreen muse, Nancy Allen, is the sexy leading lady, and future stars Dennis Franz and John Lithgow excel in supporting turns.
3. The Cannonball Run. Yes, it’s dumb and pandering and sexist, approaching the nadir of Burt Reynolds’ various car comedies and reaffirming why director Hal Needham was better suited to stunt work than storytelling. Still, The Cannonball Run is so ’70s it hurts. Burt’s moustache. Costar Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ gleaming hair and teeth and—well, the lady was never shy about showcasing her attributes. Roger Moore playing a character who acts like James Bond and thinks he’s the actor Roger Moore. And then there’s the story itself, a jacked-up version of the real-life illegal road race that inspired a number of ’70s flicks. Come for the kitsch, stay for the blooper reel during the end credits.
4. Cutter’s Way. Perhaps more than any other 1981 movie, this offbeat character study/thriller captures the ennui-drenched zeitgeist of the mid- to late ’70s. Jeff Bridges, doing amazing work, plays a gigolo who can’t get it up, while John Heard, giving his career-best performance, plays a physically and psychologically shattered veteran desperately looking for someone to blame. Lisa Eichorn, quietly heartbreaking, is the woman caught between them. Magnificently photographed by Jordan Cronenweth, a year before he achieved cinematic immortality by shooting Blade Runner, this strange little movie has significant narrative problems, but it more than compensates with intoxicating style and simmering intelligence. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve been transported by Jack Nitzsche’s eerie musical score.
5. The Dogs of War. Despite giving acclaimed supporting turns in hit films and being the nominal protagonist of a weird Western called Shoot the Sun Down (1978), Christopher Walken didn’t get his name above the title until this mercenary-themed combat movie. Playing a soldier of fortune who experiences a crisis of conscience after getting embroiled with African politics and the corruption of international business interests, Walken channels his famous otherworldly quality into a grim saga of betrayal and revenge that echoes the UK actioner The Wild Geese (1978). Alternately exciting and soulful, the movie has more in common with the bleeding-heart combat movies of the ’70s than the jingoistic macho spectacles of the ’80s, even though a key scene involves Walken blasting away with a massive grenade launcher that’s like a handheld Gatling gun.
“A Glimpse at 1981” continues tomorrow . . .