It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Hollywood studios invested in making adventurous and engaging movies year-round and not just for Oscar season.
While the halcyon days of American cinema during the 1970s have been shrouded by mythology so thick the truth of the era is frequently obscured, there’s no denying that the New Hollywood era produced a larger quotient of quality works than we’ve seen in any single period since.
The Metrograph on the Lower East Side is hardly the first repertory cinema to acknowledge this truth with a program, but they’ve found a unique and intriguing way of doing it with their Universal in the ’70s series, the first part of which begins Wednesday.
The studio stood at the vanguard of this exciting new era thanks to the efforts of chief Ned Tanen, who fostered the directorial projects of everyone from John Cassavetes (“Minnie and Moskowitz”) to Monte Hellman (“Two-Lane Blacktop”) and Peter Fonda (“The Hired Hand”), while launching the careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the giants who would change the industry forever.
This edition of the Universal series, which runs through Feb. 7, commences with “Puzzle of a Downfall Child,” the directorial debut of Jerry Schatzberg starring Faye Dunaway as a former fashion model living an isolated existence who looks back on her life in the spotlight. Schatzberg, who shot Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” cover image, made his filmmaking debut here and would go onto further success with movies like “The Panic in Needle Park” and “Scarecrow.” He’ll hold a Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening.
Other highlights include the early Spielberg car-movie duo of “Duel,” the thriller about a trucker stalking a driver on a California highway, which the young filmmaker originally made for ABC TV in 1971, and “The Sugarland Express,” in which Goldie Hawn and her escaped prisoner husband William Atherton hit the road to reunite with their son, with a lawman hostage in tow.
Paul Newman spent his career making movies rife with gravitas and dramatic power. “Slap Shot” was not one of those pictures, but George Roy Hill’s effort about a misfit minor-league hockey team stands out as one of the best sports movies ever made, understanding that when it comes to the big screen, quirky personalities matter more than athletic accomplishments.
Also showing: Alfred Hitchcock’s final movies — “Frenzy” and “Family Plot” — and George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” among many others.
The latter picture, made four years before “Star Wars,” practically invented the single-evening, teenage nostalgia subgenre and maintains great novelty value as one of the few examples of Lucas’ talents beyond his galaxy far, far away.
Universal in the ’70s Part 1 is at the Metrograph from Wednesday through Feb. 7. 7 Ludlow St., 212-660-0312, metrograph.com