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5 Great '70s Crime Thrillers

by The Playlist Staff
November 29, 2012 12:27 PM
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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.

"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973)
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.

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  • Craig | March 13, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    While you have all submitted great movies from the 70s that you have seen,
    and they are all GREAT movies i'm glad you guys appreciate in this age of...franchising...
    I dont think the movies you're listing are, in part, so to speak, what the thread's author is shooting for or about what Killing Them Softly or the 5 classics KTS pays homage to or represents.
    I feel like we're listing them to show our intelligence of 70s cinema.

    No disrespect! Please! I am a fan of 70's cinema as you guys are. The movies you posters are listing are great milestones in a forgotten, and sometimes under-rated 70's cinema scene, but they dont have "throwback" political sense or "omerta" of what KTS was resurrecting (from Eddie Coyle, Straight Time, Prime Cut or the other 2 of the 5 movies mentioned by the thread's author) in it's story.

    Where (i'll pick Prime Cut to begin with) the mob, represented by Lee Marvin, went to the mid-west to clear up a clerical error with Gene Hackman, this was where the "discipline" of what has to done within an organization came in. And an undisciplined "member" of the organization needed to be re-disciplined. Just as Pitt's character does to Liotta's character in KTS.

    The state of the U.S., the underdevelopment shown, barren and broken down real estate and the pipe dream schemes explained, to make a sense for the break down in the "system", the trust issues in the mob, the hate and distrust for the government, its filthy corruption, hollow it effected "business as usual" within the "businesses".

    In each of the 5 classic movies , every main character(s) had a way to beat the system or keep their system running their way. The filth, the dirt, the attitude of these 2nd story characters and scumbag wanna-be drug dealers (whose plans faded and crumbled) was always present and overbearing. That looming gov't shadow of despair was always following these characters.

    Im sorry, but, although Bad News Bears was a great movie, it has nothing to do with what the author is pointing to. Across 110 St, Serpico (more of a core-value me...of police corruption and blue brotherhood) and Dirty Harry follow that value as law enforcement. They'd be a great representations to call back on for a movie released today.
    Such as, if the new movie dealt with the lone-wolf, no rules cop who got things done (like Dirty Harry).

    The Outfit?...maybe...
    Hickey and Boggs?...definitely had a tie-in with 2 guys caught quite by accident in a machine they became small cogs in, but, they were private dicks. Absolutely a great picture!!
    Mean Streets was a character that was dealing with himself as well as tryin to keep his friend alive in a business he just wanted to leave. Not really a piece to point at this time, but, a great movie all the same. Charley Varrick was more focused on a thief and his mistake, no mob affiliation at all, who wanted to get out alive. Great movie, great period, but didnt focus on what KTS and the 5 predecessors focused on.

    But, then, i could be COMPLETELY wrong about what the author of this thread was sayin.
    'Ats just me.
    Peace n Love!

  • Andy | January 29, 2014 12:09 AMReply

    Really terrific list

  • VigilantSkeptic | December 14, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    Here's another five that would look great on there.

    Dirty Harry - 1971
    Across a 110th Street - 1972
    Mean Streets - 1973
    Serpico - 1973
    Taxi Driver - 1976

    The 70's were something else, especially in New York.

  • Cousinkevin | December 3, 2012 10:48 AMReply

    I would add Don Siegel's fantastic Charley Varrick, with Walther Matthau. Amazing film!

  • Rodrigo | December 3, 2012 11:13 AM

    That's a great one too. The Outfit? So many to chose from. We'll do another for sure.

  • Rob Roy | November 30, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    Great list, seen all of them.

  • George | November 29, 2012 7:49 PMReply

    Really Great List but I've seen everything on here except for Prime Cut and Straight Time. Guess be watching them soon though.

  • Tom Block | November 29, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    What do you mean by "but also 'The Bad News Bears' "? I don't know when you last looked at it, if ever, but except for "Eddie Coyle", "BNB" is better than any of the movies you've listed here.

  • Rodrigo | November 29, 2012 4:35 PM

    I love Bad News Bears, but I'm not sure it's cherished in the same way, by the same group of cinephiles.

  • Fred | November 29, 2012 2:06 PMReply

    Flawless choices, superbly written piece about an era and genre closer to my heart than most. Might suggest the Bill Cosby/Robert Culp private-eye drama "Hickey and Boggs," penned by Walter Hill and about as far removed from the world of I Spy and Cosby's comedy as one could imagine and Hill's "The Driver" which has been covered in recent times as an antecedent of "Drive" but is worth mentioning again.

  • Christian | November 29, 2012 12:56 PMReply

    Badass American cinema!

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