Though The Weinstein Company are selling it as a Tarantino-esque shoot 'em up, audiences going to see "Killing Them Softly" once it opens this Friday will find they've been subjected to something of a bait-and-switch. This is because Andrew Dominik's film (his first since the acclaimed "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford") is something of a throwback to the crime pictures of the 1970s when the films were rich in political subtext, full of characters beaten down by a rotten economy, and not necessarily packed with action or lightness.
And as a result, the film feels unlike any recent crime picture, and in the eyes of many Playlisters, it's one of the very best of the year. To celebrate the film's release, we've picked out five of our favorite '70s crime movies. We've tried to avoid some of the more obvious ones -- we assume you've seen "Dog Day Afternoon" or "Serpico" (and if not, you really should). Instead, we've gone for five slightly less well-known pictures, ones which aren't just underseen, but also feel of a piece with "Killing Them Softly." See our picks below, and you can make your own recommendations in the comments section.
Perhaps the closest cousin to "Killing Them Softly" -- not least because it's based on a novel by George V. Higgins, who wrote "Cogan's Trade," the source material for Andrew Dominik's film -- Peter Yates' terminally undervalued film was only middlingly received on release, but partly thanks to a Criterion release, its reputation has only grown and grown over time. Robert Mitchum, in one of his greatest performances, plays the titular Eddie, a lifelong criminal with many years inside, who's left facing another stretch after being caught for gun-running. Desperate to avoid prison, he reluctantly turns stool-pigeon, but he's quickly found out, with friend and bar owner Dillon (Peter Boyle, equally superb) tasked with the hit, and his law enforcement pals apathetic about his survival. It's a bleak, low-key film, not the kind of thing that suspense is usually made of, and it's pretty clear from the off that Coyle isn't going to be long for this world. But the trade-off is for a marvelous authenticity; Higgins was a crime reporter and deputy U.S. attorney, and clearly knew his Boston underworld setting back-to-front, and Paul Monash's script is wonderfully terse in its rat-a-tat dialogue. More than anything else, there's a heavy sadness that weighs over the film that means that, while it's not the most pulse-pounding crime picture you'll ever see, it lingers long afterwards. And among a cast of character actor greats, it's Mitchum who's right at the center -- slow, dignified and hangdog, it's a magnificent performance, and one inseparable from the film around it.
"Blue Collar" (1978)
"Killing Them Softly," like many key '70s crime movies, is a film as much about the problems of capitalism and the toughness of recession as it is about hits and robberies. And one of the more impressive examples in that milieu is "Blue Collar," the directorial debut of "Taxi Driver" writer Paul Schrader, which stars Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of Detroit auto workers who, fed up with management and their "representatives," decide to rob the union headquarters. They don't find much cash, but do find evidence of corruption and links to organized crime, which leads them to attempt to blackmail the union instead. There was almost as much drama on set as there was on the screen. The three leads hated each other, and Pryor pulled a gun on Schrader at one point, contributing to the director having a nervous breakdown. But it certainly doesn't harm the film, as it's a near-classic crime tale that mostly avoids trappings of the genre, searing in its evisceration of corporate and union corruption, noble in its defense of the working man, and feeling drawn deeply from real life. And its honesty carries over to the performances; they might not have gelled in real life, but Kotto, Keitel and Pryor's friendship is entirely authentic, and the strains in it, when they come, are heartwrenching. Pryor in particular is excellent, cast way against type, but proved that his talents went beyond his comic genius.