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10 Great Overlooked Films From The 1970s

by The Playlist Staff
April 24, 2014 3:51 PM
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American Friend

The American Friend (1977) 
German filmmaker Wim Wenders is known for his ‘80s films, “Wings of Desire” and “Paris, Texas,” but he came up during the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and so some of his best work comes from his fertile 1970s period, though unfortunately, not a lot of prestige-y, Criterion-like DVD/Blu-Ray editions of these films exist. 1974's "Alice in the Cities" (the first installment of his roadtrip trilogy) is on Hulu's Criterion Channel, so that’s probably getting some attention soon, but even more deserving is 1977's moody and existentialist neo-noir, "The American Friend." An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel “Ripley's Game” (the same character modern audiences would know best from 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), Wenders' film starred Dennis Hopper as Highsmith’s sociopathic career criminal Tom Ripley. Living abroad as a wealthy American in Hamburg, Germany, Ripley gets into the art forgery game where he meets a dying picture framer (played by Wenders regular Bruno Ganz). A shady associate (Gerard Blain) ropes Ripley into a contract hit to square some debts, but ever the slimy operator, the American realizes his “friend” — suffering from an incurable blood disease with nothing left to lose — can easily be manipulated into taking the job for him. Enigmatic and atmospheric, the dynamic within is not unlike Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train” but played out with a sinister, ambiguous slow-burn that’s hauntingly unnerving and featuring terrifically textured cinematography from the great Robby Müller (known for shooting a lot of the classic Jim Jarmusch films of the '80 and ‘90s and a few Lars Von Trier movies). Wenders’ being the cinephile that he was couldn’t resist adding some notable, Godard-like cameos, giving roles to then-still-unsung living film legends Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray (he was so enamored of Ray he would immediately thereafter shoot “Lighting Over Water,” a “co-directed” documentary about Ray dying of cancer and coming to terms with his last days). Low on plot, high on mood and suffused with a sick air of desperation, the humanity (or lack thereof) in the movie is chilling and tragic — which is in itself fine reason to give this one a second look.

The Outfit

The Outfit (1973) 
Grim, dark and downright nasty, when one realizes the director of the overlooked crime/revenge noir “The Outfit” is John Flynn, it all starts to makes sense. Flynn of course, directed the notoriously violent revenge movie “Rolling Thunder” (another picture that could have easily made this list). If the movie feels like it shares some of the narrative severity of John Boorman’s similarly unflinching crime drama “Point Blank” that’s because they’re both based off the same source material: Richard Stark's thriller “The Hunter.” Fresh out of a long stint in prison, Robert Duvall stars as a hardened thief with steely resolve who learns that his brother has been murdered by two mob hit men. Exacerbating his anguish and anger, now that he’s out, the criminal learns that he and an old partner are on the next hit list for a previous bank crime connected to the same organization that offed his brother. Fuelled by the promise of bloody retribution, Duvall’s character than decides to go on a merciless offensive, and his vicious and violent vendetta essentially takes down every individual from the inside one by one. There’s a terrific supporting cast too: Karen Black as his girlfriend, excellent character actor Joe Don Baker as the partner he tries to warn and save, the great Robert Ryan who plays the lead mobster and various thugs played by Timothy Carey, Richard Jaeckel and Bill McKinney (let’s not forget Anita O'Day; Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr., who like Ryan and Carey, also appeared in Kubrick’s “The Killing”). Nicely unpolished and harsh-around-the-edges thanks to DP Bruce Surtees (Clint Eastwood's DP on many of his similarly bleak '70s pictures), there’s so much to love in this fierce and unforgiving picture. It’s doubtful any special editions are going to come and give this one more play, but it’s available on the Warner Archive, so if you love down-and-dirty ‘70s crime films, we certainly recommend you add it your collection.


"Smile" (1975)
Better known for his later commercial work like “The Bad News Bears,” “The Golden Child” and “Fletch,” Michael Ritchie’s often overlooked by cinephiles in the 1970s-auteur club, and that feels like something of an injustice — it’s hard to think of a more impressive opening salvo in a career than 1969’s “Downhill Racer,” 1972’s “The Candidate,” the same year’s “Prime Cut” and 1975’s “Smile.” The latter in particular is overlooked even within Ritchie’s canon: a gentle, occasionally caustic but mostly warm satire looking behind the scenes at the fictional Young Miss America beauty pageant, with Bruce Dern’s head judge, Barbara Feldon’s executive director, and contestants including Melanie Griffith, Annette O’Toole and Colleen Camp all cropping up. The film feels like the midpoint of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, and perhaps one of the reasons it’s been overlooked is that it arrived the same year as two similar masterpieces from those directors, in “Nashville” and “Shampoo,” and if this isn’t quite as flawless as those films (it’s admittedly somewhat sprawling and unfocused), it’s nevertheless worth a watch for many reasons. The performances, especially from Dern, Feldon and Michael Kidd, are uniformly top-notch, and Ritchie carefully balances the tone, stopping it from getting too broad while still highlighting the total absurdity of the institution he’s digging into, and making broader points about relations between the genders while he’s at it. Subsequent beauty-pageant movies like “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Little Miss Sunshine” have tended to feel like pale imitations next to it.

The Shout

“The Shout” (1978)
Despite winning the Cannes Grand Prix, Jerzy Skolimowski’s “The Shout” has largely fallen into obscurity since. Partly that’s because the film’s been unavailable on DVD stateside for many years, and partly it must also be due to the odd career arc of its director: after critical successes (1967’s Berlin-winning “The Departure” and 1970’s “Deep End” among them) and a 30-year career, the Polish filmmaker stopped making films for 17 years, and his legacy became somewhat neglected. But if his successful return (2010’s “Essential Killing” won the Special Jury Prize in Venice) spurs interest in his catalogue, “The Shout” feels ripe for rediscovery. It’s a creepy, deliberately confusing, enigmatic story, told in flashback by asylum inmate and unreliable narrator Crossley (Alan Bates) while he adjudicates a cricket match. It details how he terrorized a young couple (Susannah York and John Hurt) in their home in the English countryside, using only the magical powers he’d learned from some Aboriginal Australians, including the titular shout — so dreadful that all who hear it instantly die. As silly as it sounds, the atmosphere of disquiet Skolimowski builds has something of “The Wicker Man”’s uncanniness about it — primitivist voodoo knitting itself into a banal village setting. Based on the short story by Robert Graves (played by Tim Curry in the film, which also features Jim Broadbent), lies and truth constantly battle and you're never sure what's real, but the cleverest trick is how the horror of being magicked into subjugation is superseded by a more unsettling suspicion: that the madman Crossley is a charlatan whose only real power is that of suggestion over weaker minds. And possibly sheep.

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  • jcm | August 9, 2014 9:34 AMReply

    Great comedies: Howard Zieff's SLITHER with an understated James Caan, Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ with the best worst date scene ever between Gena Rowlands and the great unsung Val Avery, Mike Leigh's NUTS IN MAY (originally for TV).

  • jcm | August 9, 2014 9:29 AMReply

    Great comedies: Howard Zieff'S SLITHER by starring an understated James Caan, Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Mike Leigh's NUTS IN MAY (originally a TV movie).

  • scott | July 20, 2014 12:25 AMReply

    I don't know if anyone mentioned Ted Kotcheff's "Wake in Fright" yet but if you haven't seen it definitely seek it out.A truly powerful and disturbing madhouse of a film about an Australian teacher that goes on an epic drunk during his vacation in a crazy little town in the outback.Just NUTS.

  • Graham | July 3, 2014 4:44 PMReply

    The Driller Killer. Very underrated film.

  • Sean Sweeney | May 2, 2014 7:00 PMReply

    Great list, great suggestions The Wanderers, Duck You Sucker and Over The Edge are some of my favorites.

    Some favs that I think have never gotten official DVD releases in America...
    State of Siege
    Movie, Movie
    Looking for Mr Goodbar
    Little Darlings
    Saint Jack
    American Hot Wax (never on VHS either)

    Some other favs from the 70s that are often overlooked and could use the Criterion treatment....
    Black Sunday - (Frankenheimer)
    Bless the Beast and the Children
    Blue Collar
    The Day of the Jackal (Zinnemann)
    The Driver
    I Wanna Hold Your Hand
    King of the Gypsies
    The Onion Field
    Real Life
    The Silent Partner
    Where’s Papa

  • RobMiles | May 1, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    Three Women by Altman. Incredible film.

  • JamDenTel | May 1, 2014 5:43 PMReply

    One word: PAYDAY.

    Rip Torn as a drunken, pill-popping SOB country singer.

    Absolutely incredible.

    Oh, and THE ANGEL LEVINE: Harry Belafonte is a dead thief turned angel-in-training, and Zero Mostel is the desperate old man he's sent to help. Really a fascinating little film.

  • smith | May 6, 2014 6:54 AM

    YES. PAYDAY. THAT. sadly, kids dont know that movie, and this site is full of kids

  • Jon | April 30, 2014 5:18 PMReply

    Great list and great comments. I essentially agree with what everyone has suggested. I personally would add GOING IN STYLE, THE WANDERERS, OVER THE EDGE, THE SQUEEZE in terms of films that haven't been mentioned.

  • Christopher M | April 29, 2014 4:43 PMReply

    I nominate Zulawski's "The Main Thing is to Love". It's kind of bonkers, but brilliant.

  • wademan646 | April 29, 2014 2:23 AMReply

    Been mentioned already. Worth reiterating. Straight Time. Ulu Grosbard took over directing after Dustin Hoffman stepped down. Adapted from Eddie Bunker's novel. If you don't know who Bunker is look him up. Influenced a ton of crime films of the 70s 80s and 90s. John Voights hair moustache and make-up is Mr. Bunker in Heat. Which Michael Mann had a pass on this script. Film stars Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Barbara Hershey, M. Emmit Walsh, Kathy Bates. This submission is for newbies to the 70's. I'm sure many readers and the writer of this article know it. Also one more film Cassavette's Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Ben Gazzarra outstanding.

  • cristiano | April 27, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    j'aime les films antiques

  • Sebastian Hau | April 27, 2014 11:44 AMReply

    Sydney Pollack, Castle Keep

  • Jon Jost | April 27, 2014 11:21 AMReply

    As the magazine is called "Indie" why not list a real indie film, compared favorably with, say, Wanda on your list. Last Chants for a Slow Dance. 1977.
    You can buy DVD from me, $30 + $3 shipping USA, +$2 if by PayPal.
    Last Chants cost $3000 to make in 16mm color synch sound. Google it.

  • El Goro | April 27, 2014 9:35 AMReply

    Looks like the only one I've seen is Martin, though I am familiar with Johnny Got His Gun thanks to Metallica's "One" video.

  • Ted Hicks | April 26, 2014 8:23 PMReply

    Have seen all on the main list except "Wanda," and agree that they're all very strong films. Am surprised no one has mentioned Arthur Penn's great "Night Moves" (1975), a neo noir if there ever was one. His "Missouri Breaks" the following year is a bit of a mess, but has some very good moments; Harry Dean Stanton is a standout.

  • Doc | April 26, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    Once again, everyone omits Sergio Leone's best film, "Duck You Sucker." Of all his ground breaking wild and weird films, this one stands out. It stars James Coburn as a fugitive from the troubles in Ireland and Rod Steiger as a country bandit who dreams of hitting a bank in the small town of Mesa Verde. It's a rich and complex study of the Mexican Revolution and rewards multiple viewings. Despite being released in the U.S. in a severely cut version, it offers more depth and insight than any other Leone film. With great music by Ennio Morricone. Check it out on DVD if you don't believe me. It's a masterpiece.

  • Ted Hicks | April 26, 2014 8:26 PM

    You're right about "Duck You Sucker." James Coburn is great in it.

  • Brian | April 26, 2014 2:25 PMReply

    Little Murders is a far more interesting film than almost all on this list.

  • James Smith | April 26, 2014 10:31 AMReply

    Some of my favorites that haven’t been mentioned:
    Cisco Pike - Kris Kristofferson, Gene Hackman.
    Desperate Characters - Shirley MacLaine, Kenneth Mars.
    Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx - Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder.

  • Chris Doherty | April 26, 2014 3:09 AMReply

    Who'll Stop the Rain - Karel Reisz (1978) for the amazing Robert Stone dialog (much of it straight from the book) and outstanding performances from the whole cast.

    The Boys in Company C - Sidney J. Furie (1978) Lee Ermey's debut, for the script, the performances and capturing the essential blundering absurdity of that war. It's a "War Movie" set in a combat zone, but much more "Catch-22" than "Sands of Iwo-Jima"

    And YES! Smile! which is a much more vicious indictment of middle class hypocrisy than you make it sound.

  • Max VonMeyerling | April 26, 2014 1:36 AMReply


  • SETH | April 25, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    Lots of great suggestions here (in the article and in the comments). Thanks! And....
    All 70s Wim Wenders
    All 70s Eric Rohmer
    All 70s Mike Leigh
    All 70s Truffaut
    All 1970-77 Robert Altman
    The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978)
    Every Man For Himself (Godard, 1979)
    Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (Alain Tanner, 1976)
    King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis (1970)
    La Rupture (Claude Chabrol, 1970)

  • MFF | April 25, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    Any film from Marco Ferreri of that period!!!

  • Levene | April 25, 2014 7:34 PMReply

    Great article, this is why I keep coming back to this site. But I have to agree with Yep: why give away the ending to Robin and Marian? Surely you could have just said that the ending was memorable? Try to stay away from spoilers, guys, even when discussing older movies. There's really no need for them and you should know better.

  • JD | April 25, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    John Milius' DILLINGER.

  • e | April 25, 2014 2:06 PMReply

    Excellent list! I thought for sure you'd include Milos Foreman's "Taking Off" in your honorable mentions. I'm adding a bunch of these to my watchlist.

  • Rick Libott | April 25, 2014 12:32 PMReply

    ROBIN AND MARIAN doesn't end with a suicide pact, but with a murder-suicide.

  • Jason Ulane | April 25, 2014 10:47 AMReply

    Great list. Agree about Bad Company - it's a neglected film that needs to be rediscovered. I'd throw in Aldrich's Hustle in there, and also say that Michael Richie probably was one of the best director's of the 70's - The Candidate, Prime Cut and Smile all are amazing movies.

  • Sanker fro. India | April 25, 2014 6:58 AMReply

    I shouldn't say this. I really shouldn't. I'm sorry. I love Short Cuts. I watched this next film I'm gonna mention twice. I love the ending. I really really tried loving it all. But it leaves me cold. I feel horrible about it but this movie just doesn't give me anyway to love it. I'm sorry again. The 70s "classic" that did nothing for me was...


  • DUDDI | April 25, 2014 6:04 AMReply

    Good of you to include Wim Wenders's "The American Friend". This was the best movie based on Tom Ripley character alongside "Purple Noon". I hope more people will see it.
    I'd like to recommend these movies:
    - THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (Drama) with James Earl Jones dir. by Martin Ritt
    - BURN ! (Drama,Thriller) with the great Marlon Brando
    - SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (Drama) with the great Paul Newman and Henry Fonda dir. by Paul Newman
    - CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (Drama) with the almighty Jack Nicholson dir. by Mike Nichols
    - THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (Drama) with Al Pacino
    - SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (Drama) with Piter Finch
    - THE HEARTBREAK KID (Comedy) with Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd ...
    I have a bunch of great movies to recommend... I'll give more in the future... ;-)
    and especially Wim Wenders "road triology" that contains

  • Nicole | April 25, 2014 12:06 AMReply

    I just added some new films to my list of films to watch.

    I also think that Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 film Hester Street is overlooked a lot. Carol Kane was awesome in it and its a really interesting story.

  • HPYGY | April 24, 2014 11:42 PMReply

    More of these, please!

  • Yep | April 24, 2014 11:07 PMReply

    Robin and Marion is excellent, but why did you have to give away the ending? I saw it with my father as a kid and will never forget that movie, especially the ending. It is so touching and well acted.

  • JD | April 25, 2014 7:29 PM

    Agreed about the end of ROBIN AND MARION. One of the saddest in all of cinema, right down to the very last shot. It'd make a great double bill with PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID.

  • cinema expert | April 24, 2014 9:32 PMReply

    "The Offence," connery most disturbing performance

    "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle," mitchum best after farewell my lovely

    "Straight Time," rian man as a violent ex con

    "Prime Cut" Hackman versus lee marvin

    "The Seven-Ups." worth a look for the car chase

    "Scarecrow," hackmans favourite film

    "Fingers," beat that skipped my heart

    "Day Of The Locust," burgess meredith best performance

    "Hardcore," reminds me of in the valley of elah

  • cirkusfolk | April 24, 2014 8:57 PMReply

    I think a good inclusion would've been Bad Company ('72) starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Robert Benton. I still don't know why Barry Brown didn't become more popular than he did.

  • Chris | April 24, 2014 8:39 PMReply

    This piece is one of many reasons why I stick around this place. Well done. "Smile" will always rule in my book.

  • Todd | April 24, 2014 8:07 PMReply

    Excellent list. For me, "The Terminal Man" even more than "Pulp" in the under-appreciated Hodges category.

  • Andy Rubio | April 24, 2014 6:29 PMReply

    Alain Tanner's 1970s films including Messidor, Middle of the World spring to mind. Billy Wilder's Fedora anyone? The Patriot by Alexander Kluge. Alain Renais' Providence. And so on...

  • FRY | April 24, 2014 6:00 PMReply

    Great job on mentioning Martin!!, that was one of the very first films I saw as a young cinephile and no matter how much time passes I still enjoy the hell out of it, brilliant, brilliant movie. Cannot recommend it enough.

    Also, you missed Wise Blood, also my favorite Houston, it has a great performance from Brad Dourif and it has one of the quietest, most powerful endings I've ever seen. It's one of the few movies I can recommend watching before reading the novel.

  • Ted | April 24, 2014 5:29 PMReply

    Great list, especially Wanda, a sadly under-recognized American masterpiece.

    I'm not as keen on Fat City as much as some people. I actually prefer one of his other 70s film, Wise Blood (actually my favorite Huston).

  • gerard kennelly | April 24, 2014 9:35 PM

    keach played doc holiday when harris yulin played wyatt in '' DOC ''

    don't search for it
    thinking it is some lost masterpiece like i did
    it is incredibly disappointing

  • BEF | April 24, 2014 5:26 PMReply

    Well done! Was expecting some regulars.
    Would've liked a little more on "Little Murders" but hey, glad it got a mention!
    Also, I'd toss in "Deathdream"

  • Rob | April 24, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    Wow, awesome list. Haven't even heard of a lot of these.

  • hank | April 24, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    interesting that you list fat city on here, when a few years back on the old blogspot sight, one of you wrote a juvenile, negative review of it. still feel the same?

  • Scott Cooper | April 24, 2014 4:40 PMReply

    Great list!

  • MDL | April 24, 2014 4:26 PMReply

    Good lists. Here's a few:
    THE OUTSIDE MAN - Jacques Deray 1972
    THE LAST RUN - Richard Fleischer 1971
    THE HIRED HAND - Peter Fonda 1971
    DEEP END - Jerzy Skolimowski 1970

  • brad pitt 54321 | April 24, 2014 9:36 PM

    thanks :)

  • Nathan Duke | April 24, 2014 4:07 PMReply

    Overlord, The Ascent, Who Can Kill a Child?, Rolling Thunder, Siberiade and The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Some of these are pretty well regarded, but not mentioned very often.

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