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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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Sporting the old '70s Warner Bros. logo at the top (much like "Magic Mike" did earlier in the year), Ben Affleck's "Argo" spells out its throwback intentions right from minute one -- this is going to be a picture in the mold of the '70s thriller, which often came with a strong political bent. Affleck's movie is also part Hollywood satire which trades in some loose and from-the-hip Hal Ashby tenors, but at the end of the day, the movie is a CIA thriller with a political nature that has upset both modern-day Iranian and Canadian governments.

You already know the big ‘70s thrillers such as "All The President's Men," "The French Connection," "Three Days Of The Condor," "The Parallax View," "The Conversation" and many many, but the genre goes far and deep. With Affleck's "Argo" hitting DVD/Blu-ray this week (and very possibly winning the Best Picture prize at the Oscars on Sunday) and clearly indebted to the movies of this bygone era, we picked out 15 lesser-known '70s thrillers you may not have seen yet. Some are great, others surprisingly far from perfect, some are just kind of flat and uninspired. Consider this the second and third advanced course of genre, assuming most of you have already passed the introductory class.

Z” (1969)
We begin with a movie that technically doesn't belong, but we're putting it in here anyway. This 1969 film directed by Costa-Gavras sets the benchmark for the modern fast-paced political thriller, and remains as fresh, exciting, and thematically charged today. There would be no "Argo" if there were no "Z," and its influence is readily apparent especially on the style of Ben Affleck's film. Based on novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, it is the thinly fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, and from the beginning, the film goes so far as to say that any resemblance to real events is not accidental, and is purely intentional. From that, we know this film won't be pulling any punches in its indictment of dictatorial government corruption. "Z" is French language, though the city or country where it takes place is never specified, and much of the filming took place in Algiers. The plot revolves around a politician (Yves Montand) who is killed during a riot after a campaign rally stop, and the surrounding investigation that indicates the military's role and premeditation in what appeared to be a random act of violence. As the outside Examining Magistrate brought in to investigate the events, Jean-Louis Trintignant earned himself a Best Actor award at Cannes in 1969, and he is absolutely riveting, even behind his character's trademark sunglasses. He is steely, methodical, and unrelenting, swayed only by the facts. During the film's explosive climax, while he starts to pull all the threads together during his questioning of witnesses, the restless camera moves in and around their faces within a confined space, heightening the tension as he puts every little seemingly random event together to paint a picture of widespread corruption and guilt. He hits the phrase "nom, prenom, occupation" harder and harder with each witness as he goes higher and higher up the food chain, stopping only with the general, played by Pierre Dux. Aside from sharing the same star as "Amour" in Trintignant, like that film, "Z" is also one of the few films to be nominated for both the Best Picture and Best Foreign Film Oscars. The fast-paced and visceral thriller drops the audience directly into the events right away and without much introduction, the constantly moving camera keeping up with its ensemble cast as they careen through the spaces they inhabit, maintaining the electric energy of the events (helped in no small part by the percussive score). Zooms, handheld and tracking shots keep us in step with them on streets of Algiers, or zipping along on a tiny three-wheeled truck with murderous thugs or in a car full of campaign staffers. This taut and tightly wound film manages to be both epic in scale and intimate in scope, and is completely ballsy in its direct address of the inner workings of governmental and military corruption head on, and from a variety of different angles. A classic that has managed to feel as edgy and explosive today as it might have 44 years ago, this is the gold standard for political thrillers with bite. [A]

"The Kremlin Letter" (1970)
"If you miss the first five minutes, you miss one suicide, two executions, one seduction and the key to the plot,” boasted the 20th Century Fox poster for John Huston’s Cold War espionage thriller. And it’s true, the complex and ultimately convoluted plot of "The Kremlin Letter" has so much going on you need a scorecard to keep up, but by then it's hard to care about what happens to this cast of characters during the bitter betrayals that follow. Set in the winter of 1969-1970 at the height of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the film begins with a brilliant young naval officer with an eidetic memory mysteriously thrown out of the navy to be recruited by an ageing collection of freelance mercenary spies trying to recover a stolen letter that could implicate the U.S. government in a conspiracy with Russia against Red China. Neither side can afford to let this letter come to light and so infiltrating their way into Moscow, they quickly discover all kinds of treason, crosses upon double crosses, betrayals and twists. The team is colorful and includes a drug-dealing pimp, the daughter of a safecracker taught the tricks of the trade, a ruthless avuncular figure and a sophisticated gay man who knits in the middle of meetings. But much like "The Anderson Tapes” (which you’ll read about shortly) this spy thriller co-starring Ingmar Bergman actors Bibi Anderson and Max Von Sydow, plus Orson Welles and George Sanders sounds intriguing and appealing only on paper. The reality is this Moscow-set thriller stars a bunch of unexceptional lesser-known character actors (Patrick O'Neal, Richard Boone, Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, Barbara Parkins) none of whom are compelling enough as individuals or even as supporting members of this large ensemble. As Rone, the naval officer, O’Neal, perhaps the de facto lead, is particularly emotionally aloof (or bored) in an already dispassionate movie which doesn’t help its case. There’s sexual blackmail, sexual violence, perversion and bits of juicy-sounding intrigue here and there, but “The Kremlin Letter” lacks suspense and momentum -- its narrative engine is constantly stalled by some overly complicated tangent, subplot or double cross. While Jean-Pierre Melville himself endorsed the film as one of the best of its genre, it’s far from it. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or “All The President’s Men” this is not. [C-]

The Offence” (1972)
While many of Sidney Lumet’s films centered around the police dealt with corruption, this curious, minimal entry asked what would happen if an officer was compromised by something from within his own mind. Starring Sean Connery as Detective Sergeant Johnson, “The Offence” opens with a slo-mo sequence that would make Zack Snyder proud, with the detective savagely beating and killing a suspect in an interrogation room. The movie then jumps back, and in the first half hour, shows us the events leading up to what we’ve just seen. Johnson and the rest of the department are looknig for a serial child molester preying on local children, and after an exhaustive manhunt, they bring in somebody who Johnson and even his colleagues think may be their man -- based not on evidence, but on their gut instinct. Johnson is so determined to get an answer he winds up killing the suspect. From there the film really only has two more long extended scenes. In one, which nearly grinds the film to a halt, Johnson returns home and gets into a domestic squabble with his wife who wants him to share his dark secrets and feelings with her and when he does, she’s horrified to the point of vomiting. The next is an interview back at the police station with an investigator tasked with getting Johnson’s complete version of events. Finally, the film closes by jumping back to the talk Johnson had with the suspect and the dark, disturbing explanation for his overreaction is posited. It’s bold, challenging material but it’s ultimately trumped by the time-jumping narrative which treats the revelation as a twist, cheating the film of greater dramatic heft. And while Connery is in great form, the overly talky two-hour picture drags at times and never quite matches the crackling intensity the actor is bringing to the part. An interesting but not entirely rewarding inversion on Lumet’s continued study of law enforcement. [C]

"Day of the Dolphin" (1973)
One of those premises that make you wonder what everyone was thinking when they signed on, "Day of the Dolphin" is perhaps now most famous for its tagline -- "Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States." This makes it sound like a campy classic, but it's actually much more interesting than that, and well worth a watch, even if it is wildly uneven. Based on the best-seller by Robert Merle, and originally set to be directed by Roman Polanski (who pulled out after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate), the film ended up as a reteam of "The Graduate" pair of director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry, who underlay some knowing absurdity, even if the film is incredibly earnest on the surface. George C. Scott headlines as Dr. Jake Terrell, a marine biologist who, with his wife Maggie (Trish Van Devere, who married Scott after filming) has managed to teach dolphins to communicate with humans. But their backer (Fritz Weaver) turns out to actually be the head of a sinister conspiracy, and kidnaps two of the creatures, Fa and Bea, in order to train them to the kill the President of the United States by attaching a limpet mine to his yacht. Nichols' refusal to treat the film as a B-movie is sort of admirable, and when you subtract the far-fetched premise (which isn't that much sillier than "The Ipcress File"), it's actually a remarkably effective paranoid thriller to sit alongside something like "The Parallax View," with shadowy semi-government organizations and corporate conspiracies. Scott is committed and winning in the lead role, and the film, while bonkers, is very rarely boring. If only it had ended the way the novel did, with dolphins towing the central characters out to sea as a nuclear war breaks out... [B-/C+]

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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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