“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” (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.
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” (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.