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15 Thrillers From The ‘70s You May Not Know

by The Playlist Staff
February 20, 2013 2:54 PM
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The Day of the Jackal” (1973)
Probably the best known title on this list, it’s relatively underseen status may come as a result of the fact that this crackling procedural doesn’t boast any name-brand stars. Indeed, Fred Zinneman would later wonder if his decision to go with the (at the time) largely unknown Edward Fox in the title role would be one of the reasons for its middling box office reception. And perhaps it was, but artistically the choice was the first of many that led to one of the genre highlights of the decade. Based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth and adapted by Kenneth Ross (who also penned “The Odessa File”), the film takes place just after the real-life assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle in August 1962, and dreams up another coordinated effort by the French Organization of the Secret Army (OAS). Beleaguered by their failures and slowly being undone by leaks from within their own organization, the OAS decide to hire an outsider for one last shot (pun intended) at killing De Gaulle, and the man for the job is The Jackal. As internationally renowned for his reputation as his anonymity, The Jackal accepts and quickly gets to work, and the first half of the film is marvel of intrigue as we see this chameleon put all the pieces together for his job, with a cool, calculating head, combined with a hand that isn’t afraid to quietly kill anyone who gets in his way. But as ‘Jackal’ shifts into the second half, it turns up the heat and becomes a manhunt as the unflappable detective Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) is tasked by the French government to track him down. Even running at two and a half hours, Zinneman’s picture moves at a breathless pace, racheting up the tension right up until De Gaulle gets into the crosshairs. It’s easy to see how this film’s combination of stylistic cool and crime-solving realism influenced contemporary efforts like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” or Anton Corbijn’s “The American.” But none of it works without Fox’s chilling lead perfomance as The Jackal, a charming chameleon, who commands terror by the simple measure of his everyman persona. And Lonsdale is equally strong as the foil, with Zinneman’s movie presenting two analytical minds headed on a collision course. Boasting gorgeous European locations and strong combination of action and tactical problem solving, ‘Jackal’ is a must watch, sitting among the top tier of the ticking clock thrillers. [A-]

"Badge 373" (1973)
Released two years after "The French Connection," and quite obviously inspired by it (to the point that it was even based on the exploits of the same gruff New York City detective that Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle was inspired by), "Badge 373" doesn't quite pack the same punch but it's still an admirable thriller that tries to capture much of the city's social and racial unrest within a nifty murder mystery. In the opening sequence, Robert Duvall's detective is involved in a raid on a disco, which results in a young Puerto Rican man falling to his death from the roof of the club. Duvall is kicked off the force, but drawn back into intrigue when his ex-partner is murdered in what appears to be a professional hit. Making things considerably more complicated is that the mystery leads him back into the world of Puerto Ricans in New York City (a world that includes drugs, gunrunners, and revolutionaries). The movie has a tendency to ramble (at 116 minutes, it's way too long, with whole sections that could have been easily trimmed), but it's also pretty groovy (complemented wonderfully by J.J. Jackson's infectiously jazzy score), anchored by a truly great and almost uncomfortably intense performance by Robert Duvall. Directed by TV director and film producer Howard W. Koch, at the time of its release, cries of racism were leveled against the movie, which aren't entirely unfounded, but it's still a compelling page-turner of a film, and if you've ever wanted to watch Duvall drive a bus full of people into an army/navy surplus store, then this is the movie for you. [B]

"Executive Action" (1973)
Only in the 1970s could a studio (albeit small one) green light and make a film about a JFK conspiracy theory that posits that a right wing faction with military and industrial interests had the President killed. And no, we're not talking Oliver Stone's "JFK" that turns Warren Report crusader Jim Garrison into a truth seeking hero and seems optimistic by comparison. In a modern-day movie, this film would center on protagonists trying to stop an assassination in a what-if scenario. But in the dark and cynical "Executive Action," the leads of the movie are all villains who carry out the assassination of John F. Kennedy without even one moralistic note to sugarcoat their actions. An unsentimental, cold, matter-of-fact type procedural, "Executive Action" depicts a right wing cadre -- shady industrial, political and former U.S. intelligence figures -- who simply cannot sit back and abide the President pulling out of Vietnam and backing the Civil Rights Movement. David Miller’s film doesn't depict the men as patriots, just cold, ruthless politicians whose dissatisfaction with the current administration won’t abate. Starring Burt Lancaster as a black ops specialist and Robert Ryan as the mastermind behind the plot you've got to wonder what kind of actors would agree to star in such a picture if it was made today (Ed Lauter and other character actors co-star; Will Geer plays a conspirator who looks like Colonel Sanders). Much more apolitical than you'd think, while the right-wing agenda is clearly at work, its hardly a GOP smear film and more like the typically paranoid ‘70s thriller. Still, released on November 7, 1973, almost two weeks before the tenth anniversary of the JFK Assassination, the film hit theaters amid major political outrage and controversy and was pulled after only a few weeks (and wouldn’t hit home video until at least a decade later). "Executive Action" isn't completely convincing, and sometimes is a tad dry, but it’s a decently entertaining and engaging thriller despite having no one to sympathize with or root for and no actors terrifically compelling aside from Lancaster, doing serviceable, but hardly essential work. [B-]

"The Laughing Policeman" (1973)
One of the great overlooked thrillers of the '70s, "The Laughing Policeman" is a loose adaptation of a best-selling Swedish novel of the same name (by authors/lovers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö). It's a just-the-facts-ma'am thriller starring a grim-faced Walter Matthau as a detective investigating the death of his partner, who was murdered in a seemingly random massacre on a bus. Of course, it's not at all random, and it takes a whole bunch of detectives (including his new partner, played by a heavily mustachioed Bruce Dern, and a charismatic Louis Gossett Jr.) to figure out exactly what the fuck happened. Directed by underrated journeyman filmmaker Stuart Rosenberg, "The Laughing Policeman" is dazzling in its simplicity. The first thirty minutes of the movie consist of only the bus murder set piece and the aftermath, which includes everything from the little Asian man calling in the crime to the toetags being wrapped around the bodies. Other times Rosenberg leaves the main investigation to follow other cops for no other reason than additional atmosphere (like Gossett Jr., who throws a pimp on the ground and then yells, "You better be reaching for a sandwich because whatever it is, you're gonna have to eat it!"), or stages sequences where dialogue overlaps to an almost Robert Altman-degree. Even the final confrontation has an air of documentary-style plainspokenness. (Less admirable is the film's sometimes queasy attitude towards sexuality and – specifically – women. At one point Matthau slaps around his dead partner's girlfriend because she took some racy photos and he repeatedly refers to a gay character as a "fruiter.") Still, it's easy to imagine that director David Fincher was inspired by the film's San Francisco setting and no-nonsense approach when making his own cut-and-dried masterpiece, "Zodiac." [B]

"The Anderson Tapes" (1974)
Starring Sean Connery, boasting the feature debut of Christopher Walken and directed by Sidney Lumet, what's not to love about this heist and crime thriller? Well, it turns out, quite a bit. While the actors are fine -- including character actors Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, and comedian Alan King playing against type as a mob boss -- the material is weak and the pace and direction is often far from thrilling. Connery plays Duke Anderson, a just-released career-criminal who uses mob funding to pull off an ambitious heist. He recruits prison pals (Walken, Stan Gottlieb) and is also forced to work with men he doesn’t know or fully trust (Val Avery, Paul Benjamin). What he doesn’t knows is his every move is being taped and surveilled by several law enforcement agencies trying to put a squeeze on the mobsters. Being that it's the '70s and fads came into vogue, the film is punctuated and peppered by a transitional Quincy Jones-written score of swirling electronic hiccups, burbs and farts, surely there to imply the sinister machinations of being observed and tracked at all times, but serving nothing other than to make the picture appear more dated than it is (the rest is overly jazzy in a Lalo Schifrin sort of overdone way). During its heist, the picture picks up and the character actors are interesting throughout, but "The Anderson Tapes" lacks the spark and rudder of most classic crime thrillers from the '70s. The second Connery/Lumet collaboration of five films together, the movie is a minor Lumet misfire, but at 98 minutes, it actually relatively painless as well. [C+]

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  • Michael A. Gonzales | February 24, 2013 6:57 PMReply

    Wonderful list, but how you can call a great film like The Anderson Tapes a "misfire" is a mystery to me.

  • Gaines | February 21, 2013 7:57 AMReply

    Great list, love the sub-genre, lots of titles I haven't heard of, and definitely gonna check out.

    One of my favourite '70s thriller was "Two-Minute Warning" (1976). Mind you, it's not a great film (not sure if it's a little known gem, or simply little known; last time I've seen it was 10-ish years ago, so I probably need to rewatch it at some point to see if it holds up), but it builds its suspense nicely - it's about a nameless, faceless sniper targeting a football stadium, the authorities trying to prevent the attack, and a bunch of disparate people, including Beau Bridges, Martin Balsam and Gena Rowlands, going to/preparing for the big game -, and it has Charlton Heston's detective playing off of John Cassavetes as a SWAT team leader.

  • Marshall Fox | February 21, 2013 7:38 AMReply

    Here's a worthy, offbeat title: "Winter Kills" (1979) --a totally interesting paranoid folly (from a book by Richard Condon) with a killer cast: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor!

  • Fürchtegott | February 21, 2013 5:39 AMReply

    Paul Schraders "Blue Collar" with a fantastic cast (Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto). No supercops, no supervillains - but a very realistic view to the economic downfall at the end of the Seventies. A "social" thriller.

  • Dave | February 20, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    Straight Time and another Connery flick, The Great Train Robbery

  • sidney falco | February 20, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    Great article...I could read about 70's thrillers forever...a very under-rated TV gem is Michael Crichton's PURSUIT. It's based on a book he wrote under John Lange entitled "Binary" and he directed it too. Top tension as a political extremist plans to spread stolen nerve gas in a city where a political convention is being held. Government agent Ben Gazarra is sent to catch him. Joe Bob says, "Check It Out!!"

  • max | February 20, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    Good list.
    Another picture I'd love to shoe-horn in is Richard Lester's terrific sea thriller from 1974, JUGGERNAUT. It was an obvious influence on Jan De Bont's 1994 action thriller, SPEED.

  • James | February 20, 2013 5:55 PM

    Agreed! One of the finest 70s thrillers, unjustly forgotten. It has an almost documentary style as they rented a real ocean liner and shot the whole movie on board it, at sea.

  • Ron Paul Reubens | February 20, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    "John Williams scored both movies and we swear he subtly steals from his own oeuvre"

    Wouldn't be surprising considering he has stolen from everyone else's.

  • G.T.O. | February 20, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    Nice article ! Day of the Jackal is a great film.

  • Todd | February 20, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Into the "interesting other" category I'll throw out 1972's "Prime Cut" by Michael Ritchie. Featuring the seedy underbelly of the Kansas City ground meat mafia (in an apparent drug war with the Chicago mob), Lee Marvin, and Gene Hackman as a character named Mary Ann.

    Not great, but awesome.

  • The Playlist | February 20, 2013 5:08 PM

    Prime Cut is solid. We featured it here in this semi-recent piece about '70s crime thrillers.

  • wes | February 20, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Day of the Jackal and Z!

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