Chinatown     This past Tuesday, we lost an actor whose cinematic work spanned sixty years- Eli Wallach. Throughout his career, primarily in supporting roles, Mr. Wallach left an indelible impression. While his roles in two landmark westerns- “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly”- secured his place in movie history, I remember particularly enjoying his work in two movies from the ‘80’s: the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas comedy “Tough Guys” and the Barbra Streisand courtroom-drama “Nuts”. In 1990, he appeared in two movies that were sequels to movies I love- Wallach portrayed the not-so-nice Don Altobello in “The Godfather III” and appeared as Cotton Weinberger in “The Two Jakes”. His roles in these films not only made me instantly remember these movies’ predecessors, but also the year in which these films’ predecessors were released- a year I feel was the best in American cinema.

My thoughts began revolving around memories of New Year’s Eves spent with my family in the ballroom of my Uncle Jim’s business in Almonesson, N.J., Auletto Caterers. This, in turn, reminded me of the New Year’s Eve ballroom in Havana where Michael gave Fredo the ‘kiss of death’ in “The Godfather, Part II”. “The Godfather, Part II” was released in a year that featured writers, directors and actors at peaks in their respective crafts- a year that produced an amazing number of great movies. I was reminded of my favorite year for movies- 1974.

In 1974, while I sat practicing penmanship on big sheets of pulpy, pale green paper in Mrs. Throop’s first-grade class at Haines School, the world’s tallest building caught on fire. Paul Crewe ran an amazing quarterback sneak to burrow his way through tough Guards into the end zone and score a last-second touchdown to lead his team of fellow Georgia state prison inmates, the ‘Mean Machine’, to victory (and the ultimate act of defiance against their captors) in an exhibition game. Architect Paul Kersey became a vigilante hero in New York City as Lenny Bruce cried out for ‘freedom of speech” in his stand-up act. Count Basie and his band performed ‘April in Paris’ on a desert plain near a peaceful town called Rock Ridge while a Transylvanian hunchback named Igor broke into the local brain depositary to steal the brain of Hans Delbruck (upon accidentally dropping Delbruck’s brain, Igor stole ‘Abby Normal’s’ brain instead). These films (respectively) ‘The Towering Inferno”, “The Longest Yard”, “Death Wish”, “Lenny”, “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” just scratch the surface in my love for the movies of 1974.

As evidenced by Mel Brooks’ work (with “Blazing Saddles”and “Young Frankenstein”), 1974 was a great year for notable directors. Directors in 1974 included Martin Scorsese (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), Paul Mazursky (“Harry & Tonto”), Blake Edwards (“The Return of the Pink Panther”), Sidney Lumet (“Murder on the Orient Express”), Hal Ashby (“The Last Detail”), Bob Fosse (“Lenny”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“The Conversation” and “The Godfather, Part II”). 1974 also introduced two new directors who went on to receive Academy Awards for directing- Steven Spielberg with “The SugarlandExpress” (he later won directing Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”) and Michael Cimino with “Thunderbolt andLightfoot” ( later winning the directing Oscar for “The Deer Hunter”). While Coppola walked away with the directing Oscar of 1974 for “The Godfather, Part II”, Roman Polanski (directing Oscar recipient for 2002’s “The Pianist”) gave us 1974’s Chinatown, my favorite movie of all time-“The Two Jakes” (featuring Mr. Wallach) was its sequel.

“Chinatown”, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, was one of my mother’s favorite movies. She introduced me to it. While “Chinatown”was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won only one- for Robert Towne’s original screenplay. “Chinatown” still holds my favorite line from any movie. When private detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is hired to investigate the death of Evelyn Mulwray’s (Dunaway’s) husband Hollis, Gittes visits Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn’s father and Hollis’ business partner. Cross states that Gittes may think he knows what’s going on surrounding the death of Mulwray, but doesn’t (insinuating Gittes is out of his league trying to confront Cross). Cross asks Gittes, with subtle malice, what Gittes knows about Cross. Gittes replies simply that Cross is rich and respectable. Cross snorts, evading Gittes’ attempt at innocence, sarcastically replying he’s respectable because he’s old. “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”, Cross retorts through a sneer that only John Huston could provide.

As each of these films from 1974 celebrates their 40th anniversary this year, some of the people involved in the making of these films will, like Mr. Wallach, not be able to join in that celebration. Though physically absent, they still live through their movies-those perfectly-encapsulated animated memories. Steve McQueen will always extinguish a towering inferno, Madeline Kahn will always be the’ teutonic titwillow’ to men who ride blazing saddles, Art Carney will always travel with a cat named Tonto, Vincent Gardenia will always play ‘cat-and-mouse’ with vigilante Charles Bronson, Peter Sellers will always be a bumbling French inspector who somehow prevails, and John Huston will continue to sneer and get away with murder.

As we remember Eli Wallach and thank those who’ve left indelible impressions in our lives, I thank my Uncle Jim for great New Year’s Eve parties and my mother for introducing me to “Chinatown” and the world. They still live in the movies of my mind.

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