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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 Odessa File" (1974)
Based on the best-selling novel by "Day of the Jackal" author Frederick Forsyth, "The Odessa File" begins with an almost "Indiana Jones"-y prologue, where sweaty Nazis conspire in the desert about launching warheads that will effectively wipe out Israel (some are nuclear bombs while others carry germs and other assorted nastiness). This is followed by on-screen text (by Forsyth) claiming that the film is based on "carefully documented research," that Odessa really existed, and that that there really was a plot hatched after World War II by former Hitler higher-ups to launch an attack that would effectively end Israel. Um. Okay, except that the real Odessa was mainly used to facilitate the escape and relocation of former Nazis, sort of like an evil version of the Underground Railroad. Anyway, "The Odessa File" is still a crackling thriller about a reporter (Jon Voight, rocking a surprisingly solid German accent) who, immediately following the Kennedy assassination (and the suicide of an elderly concentration camp survivor), sets about to infiltrate and expose the mysterious and sinister Odessa. The film boasts a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (probably the least annoying thing he's ever composed) and a scenery-obliterating performance by Maximilian Schell as Eduard Roschmann, the so-called "Butcher of Riga." Ronald Neame directs with all the seriousness he can muster (it mostly works), and it's aided hugely by British cinematographer Oswald Morris' lush, almost 3D photography. Its provocative historical setting gives it some much-needed oomph, even if the premise sometimes borders on the insanely ludicrous. [B]

"The Internecine Project" (1974)
Perhaps the weakest thriller in this bunch, sometimes you wonder if studios just picked out a semi-enigmatic word out of a hat and said, "I wonder if we could make a thriller out of this?" Not to be confused with American writer-director-producer Barry Levinson, ‘Internecine’ was produced and written by the other American Barry Levinson (i.e. the guy who had nothing to do with “Diner,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Rain Man," etc. and sadly has no interesting credits to his name). Starring James Coburn, this mildly interesting but mostly unremarkable and run-of-the-mill-thriller centers on a cunning and opportunistic former secret agent on his way to become a key Presidential advisor. However, he’s got a shady past, so he concocts an intricate plan where the four people who have dirt on him -- including a high-class prostitute and a masseur -- will kill one another. While Lee Grant (as a journalist and former lover) and Harry Andrews have some colorful supporting turns within, the rest of the cast is as forgettable as the movie. Notable British jazz musician and composer Roy Budd ("Get Carter") wrote the score, but it’s not particularly compelling. Directed by British filmmaker and writer Ken Hughes (known for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and 1967's "Casino Royale"), if you’re looking to fill all the holes and gaps in your ‘70s thriller knowledge, we suppose you can take the movie for a requisite spin, but it’s for completeist die-hards of the genre only. [C-]

"Black Sunday" (1977)
Best be assured that when Steven Spielberg was preparing to make "Munich" -- easily his best film of the aughts -- the filmmaker was screening John Frankenheimer's terrorist thriller "Black Sunday" for mood, tenor and tone (John Williams scored both movies and we swear he subtly steals from his own oeuvre). Fortunately for Spielberg he wasn't watching the picture for pace and rhythm as this is the achilles heel of what might be an otherwise excellent thriller fit for the top of the '70s canon. As it is, "Black Sunday" is a very good picture, but one that comes with engrossing sequences that are soon delayed by long passages of expository plot talk that lets the air out of the tension. Sprawling and lengthy at two-and-a-half hours, Frankenheimer's picture centers on three central characters, an American Vietnam POW turned against his country (Bruce Dern), a European member of the Palestinian Black September terrorist movement (Marthe Keller) and Robert Shaw, aka Quint from "Jaws," showing his range as a an Israeli Mossad agent hot on the trail of this plot to blow up a blimp above of a Super Bowl game in Miami that the President is scheduled to attend. Fritz Weaver co-stars as an FBI agent, but the film is largely a three-wick fuse that could have burned a little faster. The opening is electrically charged, the conclusion gripping (minus the climactic visual FX explosion which is sadly pathetic) and the character beats throughout are rich. But the middle isn't taut and sags -- this is a picture that should have had more running tension throughout. Still, it’s an engaging and occasionally crackling thriller despite its flaws. [B]

"The Domino Principle" (1977)
One of the weirder thrillers from this period (which is really saying something), "The Domino Principle," directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Gene Hackman and Mickey Rooney (wait, what?), begins with a confrontational faux documentary sequence with voiceover that basically suggests that every person in the audience is under the control of some shadowy unseen power. It's a pretty nutty way to start a movie, and somewhat tonally inconsistent with what follows, which is compelling in its own right. The film follows Hackman's character, a Vietnam vet convicted of killing his lover's husband, who is approached by a mysterious man (Richard Widmark) and given the opportunity to leave prison in exchange for pulling an assassination for an unnamed organization. At 97 minutes, the film is incredibly leisurely paced, with the first act basically consisting of a series of interviews with Hackman trying to figure out whether or not he's fit for the mission, and the second act focusing on Hackman's non-assassination work outside of prison, which includes reconnecting with his former flame (Candice Bergen with a thick, not-entirely-convincing Southern accent). But part of the fim's distinct charm is the way that it combines a small, human story of redemption with these kind of overtly stylistic flourishes (exemplified by a soft-focus love scene that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian De Palma movie). And while it somewhat sags under the weight of too many third act plot twists (and there isn't nearly enough Eli Wallach as one of the agents), it remains a beguiling, offbeat '70s thriller just the same, one that strives for social consciousness (it is Stanley Kramer, after all) but ends up instead just being super entertaining. [B-]

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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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