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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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"Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1977)
One of the weirdest, funniest and coolest movies of the '70s (period), "Twilight's Last Gleaming" concerns a group of men who escape from a military prison, who take over a top secret military instillation and threaten to start a nuclear war unless the President reveals some very dirty business involving Vietnam. It even takes place slightly in the future of...1981! Burt Lancaster plays the leader of the rogue military guys (in a performance that clearly inspired Ed Harris in Michael Bay's hugely popular "The Rock"), heading up an admirably all-star cast of noted character actors that includes Joseph Cotton, Paul Winfield, Burt Young (who casually refers to Winfield's character as "Africa"), Richard Widmark and Charles Durning as the hapless president whose thorny moral position is established early and put to the test throughout the movie. "Twilight's Last Gleaming," directed by the colossally underrated journeyman filmmaker Robert Aldrich (who else could have directed "Kiss Me Deadly" and "The Dirty Dozen?"), makes wonderful use of the split-screen editorial technique, utilized often to show the geographic relationship between different characters at the same time (a year after De Palma used it to similarly great effect in the climax of "Carrie"), adding to the mesmerizing, almost hypnotic nature of the movie (also helpful: Jerry Goldsmith's punchy, unobtrusive score). "Twilight's Last Gleaming" was unjustly marginalized and, until recently, only notable in the pop culture mainstream for inspiring the title of the season seven Sideshow Bob air-show episode of "The Simpsons." Thankfully, Olive Films recently released the film, with a sparkling new high-definition transfer on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with an extensive documentary detailing the film's importance as a pulpy confrontation of America's involvement in Vietnam. [B+]

"The China Syndrome" (1979)
Released mere weeks before the real-life nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the reception of "The China Syndrome" undoubtedly benefited from its topicality and seeming prescience. But the film still holds up years later as an effective, compelling thriller. Admirably stripped of unnecessary embellishments like a romantic subplot or an overly tricksy shooting style, instead it focuses on Jane Fonda's TV reporter, ambitious to graduate from fluff pieces to hard news, after she and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) witness a nuclear near-disaster, which is only narrowly averted by company employee Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon). Godell's subsequent transition from line-toeing company man to suspicious investigator to justifiably paranoid whistleblower, provides the film with much of its emotional power, detailing the toll that such activity can take on one good man, who is inevitably treated as a pariah by colleagues anxious not to rock their bosses' boat. One of the highlights of James Bridges' directorial back catalogue, it is said that his more classical style of filmmaking found him out of favour in the blockbuster era of the 1980s. But this restraint means the film has stood the test of time well: in its low-key tone it is almost the archetype for a whistleblower film, yet it never feels too familiar. It garnered Oscar nominations for Fonda and Lemmon, and also for the script, though ironically, Fonda was beaten out by Sally Field for "Norma Rae," a role Fonda turned down. [B+]

We could obviously keep going on and on. Other well-known ‘70s thrillers you should know include “Marathon Man,” “Night Moves,” “Klute” and crime thrillers like “The Seven Ups,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle," “The Outfit” and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." Slightly lesser known but just as interesting is crime film “Charley Varrick" (you could do a whole sub-genre of Walter Matthau or James Garner ‘70s flicks too). Other ‘70s thrillers to watch (and some we’ll surely tackle next time) include Costa Gavras’ hard-to-find on DVD “State of Siege,” Bernardo Bertolluci's hard-to-find "The Spider's Stratagem," Steven Spielberg's little-seen 1973 Made-for-TV political thriller, "Savage," Sam Peckinpah's espionage thriller "The Killer Elite," Irvin Kershner's "Raid on Entebbe," Richard Lester's "Cuba" starring Sean Connery, Theodoros Angelopoulos' "Days of 36," Claude Chabrol's "Nada," "The Boys From Brazil," "Winter Kills," “The Carey Treatment,” “Farewell, My Lovely,” "The Eagle Has Landed,” “Report to the Commissioner” (Richard Gere’s screen debut), “Freelance,” “Man On A Swing,” and maybe “Capricorn One” if we ever do ‘70s thrillers with an outer-space bent. Thoughts? Your favorite lesser-seen/little-known ‘70s thriller? We’ll surely be back for more at some point.

- Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Katie Walsh and Jessica Kiang

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  • charles in charge | August 3, 2014 1:28 AMReply

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Alec Guinness - best le Carre adaptation ever.. Suitably paranoid and really well done.

  • 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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