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What Were the ‘70s Trying to Tell Us? A Recap, with Cold Turkey (1971) and The Conversation (1974)

Our first movie series at the Severna Park Library is over. While it was a lot of work, “What Were the ‘70s Trying to Tell Us?” was totally worth it, showing these films to audiences on a large screen, the way they were meant to be viewed, followed by a group discussion. I previously discussed the first film in our series, Network (1976), then Blue Collar (1978) and Cutter’s Way (1981). Last week, after a couple of heavy films, it was time to lighten things up a bit with Cold Turkey, and last night we closed the series out with Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation.


Cold Turkey takes place in Eagle Rock, Iowa, a small town of 4,006 that’s fallen on hard times since it lost its military base a few years earlier. Families are leaving and Eagle Rock is becoming a ghost town. BUT things are looking up! An advertising executive at the Valiant Tobacco Company has dreamed up a contest he knows no American town can win, but will instead provide Valiant with a world of publicity and perhaps even a twisted display of altruism. The challenge? Every person in town must stop smoking for 30 days. The prize? $25 million (around $160 million in 2019 dollars). A local minister (Dick Van Dyke) is convinced the town can win this contest, but the ad executive (Bob Newhart) is determined to catch at least one Eagle Rock local smoking during the 30-day period, disqualifying the town and saving Valiant $25 million.

Most people in our audience were shocked to discover that Cold Turkey was the only major motion picture directed by Norman Lear (still with us at age 96). As much as we enjoyed it, most agreed that Lear’s talents are best suited to the smaller screen of television. Many of the film’s gags run too long and several scenes reiterate what we already know.

And what about the tobacco industry then vs. now? Believability was certainly stretched, even in this comedy, but most agreed that the tobacco companies (to no one’s surprise) have continued to engage in various shenanigans. Yet people continue to smoke, although there are far fewer public places to do so these days. Others commented on how prevalent smoking was in the ‘70s, which actually led some of those present to smoke back in the day. Those who’d successfully kicked the habit were thankful those days were behind them.

Cold Turkey was clearly the film our audiences enjoyed most, which was not a huge surprise. We’d see what they thought of The Conversation.

In April 1974, many critics were convinced Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was going to walk away with the Oscar for Best Picture. That was the buzz for several months until another Coppola picture hit the theaters, a little film you may have heard of called The Godfather Part II.

Gene Hackman (in one of his finest performances) plays Harry Caul, a surveillance professional obsessed with his own personal privacy. He fears that his current assignment may lead to murder. It’s happened before and Caul’s level of guilt (closely tied with his Catholicism) tells him it’s happening again. The Conversation is a terrific thriller that touches on issues of Big Brother-type surveillance, invasion of privacy, trust, betrayal, guilt, and more. I warned the audience not to scoff at the very dated technology they’d see in the film, but to realize this was pretty sophisticated stuff for 1974.

Although Coppola’s film had nothing to do with the infamous Watergate surveillance and wiretapping scandal, it’s eerie to discover that much of the surveillance equipment used by the members of the Nixon Administration was practically identical to the devices used in the film. (Coppola’s inspiration was the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blowup, not Watergate. Coppola wrote his screenplay before Nixon ever took the oath of office for President.)


So where is the microphone at the end of the film? We heard many interesting answers last night: the saxophone itself, the window(s), the door (which Caul may have partially dismantled; we can’t tell from our POV), the Shell No-Pest Strips hanging from the ceiling (doubtful). In the Blu-ray audio commentary, Coppola states that some have suggested the mic is in Caul’s saxophone strap. (To hear Coppola’s answer, you’ll have to listen to the commentary.) Others suggested that perhaps the microphone is a manifestation of Caul’s guilty conscience and doesn’t exist at all. In fact, several audience members suggested that the unreliability of Caul’s point of view calls into question several of the film’s key moments.

We all agreed that Caul is a terribly complex character, unable to have any kind of meaningful relationships with people, content to hide (underneath his transparent raincoat, in the “cage” of his warehouse workshop, etc.), his only real voice coming from his saxophone. In the end, he’s totally isolated. Can we imagine him any other way?

Here at the end of the five-week series, I’ve learned much about my audience and myself. While I knew a couple of the films would be a challenge for some of our regulars (people walked out of both Blue Collar and Cutter’s Way), I thought those challenges would stretch their cinematic muscles and I believe they did. (Some of those who walked out of those films returned last night for The Conversation.) While a few mentioned, “This one wasn’t for me,” others said they hoped to rewatch them (especially Cutter’s Way).

With the exception of Network, most of the audiences had never seen these films. Oddly enough, Cutter’s Way, the least-known film, brought in the largest audience for the series. I’m thankful that the Great Movies has developed enough of a loyal following that many are willing to take a chance on whatever we show. I also have to balance challenging, unfamiliar titles with films they’ll feel right at home with. (The primary purpose for showing Cold Turkey was to lighten things up in a fairly bleak series.) For the past four years I’ve been leading the Great Movies at the library, I’ve tried for a balance, screening popular favorites (Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, Rear Window) with films that are less-familiar (Ace in the Hole, In a Lonely Place, The Night of the Hunter). I’m still working on striking that balance. It’s a challenge, but it’s so much fun.

One of my friends/co-workers doesn’t attend the library movies (she’s usually working, after all), but we’ve had a wonderful movie exchange/discussion going on for a few years. She sometimes tells me of a movie she’s seen or rewatched, noticing things she previously wouldn’t have noticed (for good or bad). “You’ve taught me to look at movies in a completely different way,” she once said. Sometimes that’s a frustration for her in that she sees the problems in many movies. I’m honored and humbled by that, but glad that I had a small part in helping her see things with a different perspective. My purpose in the Great Movies isn’t so much to educate, but to help them appreciate both familiar and unfamiliar films and, most importantly, to get people talking about them, keeping these films alive.

So thanks to all who come out to our movie events. I appreciate your support and your love for movies. Let’s keep this thing going.

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