When we last left the career of Alan J. Pakula, he had just completed the first of his major thriller-mysteries, Klute. Hindsight tells us that the director would become one of the decade's most important makers of such movies, and thus we could be tempted to assume that he'd found his "correct" path as a filmmaker; that he would (having dipped his toes into paranoid adventure) keep on going in the same vein. Hindsight would be a damn idiot, for Pakula's next feature instead reunited him with his screenwriter on The Sterile Cuckoo, Alvin Sargent, for a film that I would generally like to think of as "a version of The Sterile Cuckoo that almost completely lacks the sometimes great flaws which kept that film from being much more than an historic curiosity." With the magnificently wandering title Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Pakula's third film is one of those immensely modest little 1970s dramedy gems that nobody talks about except for the couple that won Best Picture Oscars, but every time anyone sees one of them, their response is always the same: "holy shit, that was a great little movie - why haven't I ever heard of it before?"

For lo! Love and Pain... is indeed a great little movie that I had never heard of before doing my homework on Pakula, and now that I've seen it, I half want to call it one of the best films of the 1970s, not necessarily because it is one of the best films of the 1970s (it absolutely isn't), but because it's so absolutely pleasing that I want to clutch it to my bosom like a kitten and promise that I will do everything I can to rescue it from its present obscurity. It's one of those solid movies for grown ups that doesn't really "do" anything except be a well-mounted story of interest to those with a love of human behavior, a genre that was far more robust in those days when intelligent adults were still in charge of Hollywood, before the actuaries who didn't give a shit about people over the age of 18 or in possession of a vagina muscled into the studio offices.

The subject could hardly be simpler: a young man of precarious emotional state and debilitating asthma, Walter Elbertson (Timothy Bottoms), is shipped off to Spain on a biking trip by a family that clearly has little use for him. At the same time, Lila Fisher (Maggie Smith), a middle-aged Brit who lives with her aunts, has managed to escape her own dull life for a bus tour of Spain. Their paths cross when Walter's asthma proves too strong for Walter's biking, and he hitches a ride on her bus. Over time, and quite without either of them intending to, they begin to fall in love a little bit, and eventually agree to explore Spain on their own terms, and to learn more about each other. Which includes the awkward fact that Lila has a terminal disease.

Pakula and Sargent had come a very long way indeed in the scant four years separating The Sterile Cuckoo from Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (the latter title wouldn't have been half bad for the former movie). Where the first film was at times a bit too studied for its own good, and clearly the work of a director looking towards other films to figure out what he was doing, Love and Pain... is much freer in its style and story, breezy even at its most serious. This is nowhere clearer than the moment where the audience learns that Lila's film-long stretch of fainting and coughing is in fact the symptom of Something Dreadful: it's couched in a gently comic sequence where she's trying to stave off the affections of a duke (Don Jaime de Mora y Aragon), and presented without tragedy. We'll learn from watching Lila in the remainder of the film that she's done mourning, and while she's not excited at the notion of dying, she's not permitting it to be a crippling thing in her life - something the innocent Walter has to learn on the fly, when the time comes. It's her view, not his, that informs the movie's tone, as we could have figured out from the title: when a movie dismisses a fatal disease as "the whole damn thing", we're clearly not being asked to wallow in misery and pathos. This is maybe the chief difference between Pakula's first and third features: The Sterile Cuckoo is taken up with its own seriousness in a way that Love and Pain... avoids.

As I see it, there are two things that Pakula's films had mostly been concerned to this point, and Love and Pain... exemplifies them both. First there is the tendency, imported from the features he produced with Robert Mulligan, to tell what I privately think of as "fishbowl stories": put a person or group of people in a particular context, and observe what they do with themselves: a mentally imbalanced young woman and her inexperienced first boyfriend at college, a tired prostitute thrust into a race to save herself from a murderer, and now a dying woman and an asthmatic wandering through Spain. The biggest difference between Mulligan and Pakula is that generally, Pakula is more psychoanalytic, watching his characters rather than empathising with them; even as he asks us to agree with Lila that her impending death is not to be obsessed over, and dreaded, he does not really let us into her mind. Walter, meanwhile, is too unformed to have much personality, and he honestly seems more of a rare Manic Pixie Dream Boy than a proper character; yet he is still a far more complete figure than the male leads in either The Sterile Cuckoo or Klute.

And this is then the second thing that Pakula had made a pet theme by 1973: giving actresses a chance to be amazing as hell. Unlike Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith does not actually give her all-time best performance with Pakula, but that's more a function of the tremendous quality of her work across 50-something years as a professional actress. She gives a subtler performance in Love and Pain... than is usually the case (none of the operatic broadness of her career-defining Jean Brodie here), inhabiting the meek Lila Fisher as a small, slight, receding figure. It is the most delicate aspect of a film drenched in delicate touches (the unassuming cinematography by the great Geoffry Unsworth is especially good), and continuing proof of Pakula's yet-underappreciated skill with using actors as the linchpins for the whole emotional palette of his movies.

Love and Pain... is unarguably the most emotionally rich of his films to that point, though not in other ways as good as Klute. Its story of an older woman awakening something in a young, untested man is not the rarest in the world (it's been used everywhere from the majestic Tea and Sympathy to the brand-new, please-God-cancel-it-soon Cougar Town), but it is well-done here, as well as I think I've ever seen it done, in fact. Small-scale personal narratives like this are one of the treasures of 1970s cinema, and it pleases me to know that after doing so much to inaugurate the "grimy urban" subgenre of that decade, Pakula could switch back into the other dominant mode of adult cinema of those years so gracefully. Love and Pain... is not one of the all-time great Lost Films, but it's infinitely better than its non-existant reputation suggests.