4 great 1974 movies you need to watch right now

Gene Hackman opening up a toolbox on top of a toilet in The Conversation (1974)
Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures

A 50th birthday is a momentous occasion and marks a prodigious milestone — halfway to a century is nothing to squawk at. It’s only fair that we respect our movies the same way, especially considering film itself is less than 150 years old. We’ve only broken the surface on what the art form can be, and much like a museum patron appreciating Renaissance greats, it’s our job as the viewer to keep the legacy of these movies alive.

Luckily for us, the movies of 1974 are not only great, but often mirror the same thoughts, paranoias, and experiences that we see in our present-day lives. While exaggerated to a point and perfectly placed within their time, here are a few films ranging from true classics to underrated gems that are celebrating the big 5-0 and are just as successful through a modern lens.

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson standing on a dock in the movie Chinatown (1974)
Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures

You have probably been told by a lot of people to watch Chinatown. Well, there’s a good reason for that. The neo-noir classic is a highlight of 1970s cinema and that’s due largely to Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated performance as cop-turned-private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes. What starts as simple surveillance of an apparent cheating husband turns into a web of lies surrounding the water supply of Los Angeles in 1937. When Jake finds out the original job was a ruse via a proxy wife, the real, now widowed Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) wants him to investigate the death of her husband.

Nicholson is effortlessly cool as he researches the engineer’s murder, which takes him to bureaucratic offices, local farms, and retirement homes, with each adding a new breadcrumb to the trail. The film is perfectly paced, buildinf up the tension (just what is Evelyn hiding, anyway?) while also allowing for each clue to not be lost on the viewer.

While not the only political conspiracy thriller from this year, Chinatown feels the most real as it ditches shadowy organizations for everyday criminal activities like bribery and exploitation. While it lacks the guttural impact of true-crime movies like 1967’s In Cold Blood and, much later, David Fincher’s Zodiac, it still packs a wallop, especially that now-iconic ending, and remains the benchmark that other modern film noirs are judged by today.

Stream Chinatown on Amazon Prime now.

The Parallax View (1974)

Multiple Men Fighting on the Space Needle in the movie The Parallax View (1974)
Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures

Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View takes political conspiracy theories to their max with a fictional tale of how shadow corporations are the secret puppet masters behind America’s institutions of power and influence. The film follows reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) as he investigates how many of the same people he was with at the time of a senator’s assassination are mysteriously dying. As he pursues the truth behind the deaths, he slowly unravels a plot that goes far deeper than he could imagine, putting himself and others at risk in the process.

The movie draws inspiration from the conspiracy theories that arose after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy and asks, “What if those conspiracies were true?” Pakula uses the movie as an almost dreamlike journey into what believers think is occurring behind the scenes and what would happen to them if the sinister powers that be targeted them. He uses wild speculation to fuel his story and positions Joseph as an ersatz Alice plunging further and further into a wonderland of paranoia.

Even though it came out a half-century ago, the film remains just as relevant today as it was in its post-Nixon era. At the time, conversation about conspiracies was almost taboo, but now it is impossible to escape the onslaught of “they don’t want you to know” viewpoints. The Parallax View is an engrossing political thriller with a twisty narrative that will keep you guessing until the very end.

Rent The Parallax View on VOD now.

California Split (1974)

Elliot Gould & George Segal playing poker in the movie California Split
Columbia Pictures / Columbia Pictures

A buddy comedy with a gambling backdrop, Robert Altman’s California Split is all about the enjoyment we get by doing the things we love with our best buds. Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliot Gould) first meet at a poker table, and their shared enjoyment for the thrill of gambling takes them on a journey looking for the next big score. Jumping from horse racing to boxing, then back to the casino, there is not a game of chance that the pair doesn’t look for to feel the thrill of hitting the jackpot.

California Split works primarily because of its classic odd couple pairing: Bill is the one focused on his job and who uses gambling as an outlet while Charlie has the happy-go-lucky, nothing-can-go-wrong attitude that is just as smug as it is endearing. Both bounce off each other effortlessly as Charlie floats through life, even when he loses, who Bill is weighed down by pain felt from each defeat. Some of the details may seem dated now, but California Split still holds up in its portrait of two friends who support each other in their shared addiction.

Stream California Split on Amazon Prime now.

The Conversation (1974)

Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."
Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures

The Godfather Part II will always be Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus of 1974, but in the same year, he released a more understated and claustrophobic masterpiece, The Conversation. In the movie, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the best at what he does: listening in on other people’s personal lives through any means necessary to get what he calls “a nice fat recording.” His latest job, eavesdropping on an adulterous couple while they walk around a park, seems simple, but it quickly devolves into something far more sinister.

Even in 1974, The Conversation was an intense thriller that spins the mundane action of listening to a conversation into a nail-biting descent into the madness of morality as Harry is forced to choose between doing what he’s been hired to do versus what is right. The movie provides a fascinating early look at the invasion of privacy that we often feel now not only from the tracking of things like cookies on the internet, but the oversaturation of sharing on social media platforms like Twitter/X and Instagram. And the ending remains one of the most devastating to ever be captured on film.

Rent or purchase The Conversation on VOD.

Editors’ Recommendations