During the late 1960s, the world – and more specifically the United States – was in the midst of serious change as it took a long, hard look in the mirror. Coming off of the drug-addled haze of free love, the madness of the Vietnam war, and the hypocrisy of authority, people were no longer afraid to make a statement about the ugly side to human nature and of what man was truly capable. Hollywood was always known to play it safe, even with its grittier films about life’s seedy underbelly and living on the edge. Few films dared to break the mould prior to the 70s, but there were a few that would set trends for the upcoming years, such as groundbreaking trailblazers POINT BLANK (1967), IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) or BULLITT (1968).
So, THN has decided to take a look back at the best the crime-thriller genre had to offer during the 1970s that were no longer willing to play by the mainstream rules. They brought us iconic anti-heroes, nail-biting stories, legendary filmmakers and performances, and lots of ultra-over-the-top violence.
Walter Hill’s fast-paced cult movie set the director on his way as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. Ryan O’Neal headlines as a quiet, moody getaway driver for hire, who finds himself the obsession of ‘The Detective’, played by Bruce Dern. Those who’ve seen it will know the character was the inspiration for Nicolas Winding-Refn’s outstanding DRIVE, with that brutal, but profound performance by Ryan Gosling. What a shame star O’Neal’s private life went off the rails, as this suggested he was destined for greatness.
Sean Connery leaves suave super-spy 007 behind to play Sergeant Johnson, a man coming apart at the seams as he questions Ian Bannen’s suspected child molester. A controversial tale that was perhaps ahead of its time, Connery certainly showed he was more than a pretty face with a (sometimes) licence to kill, and oodles of charm for the ladies. Sidney Lumet’s direction is claustrophobic, gripping and hard to watch at times. Trever Howard is terrific support too.
Walter Matthau unites with the ever-superb Robert Shaw and a great supporting cast (Martin Balsam, Hector Elizlondo, Jerry Stiller) for this cat and mouse classic. Shaw’s team of trigger-happy, colour-coded kidnappers who hold a train full of passengers hostage was in part stolen by Tarantino for RESERVOIR DOGS. It’s left to Matthau’s wise-craking transit cop to figure out their plan of escape. The film was given a slick overhaul in Tony Scott’s enjoyable remake of only a few years ago.
The film that put both De Niro and Scorcese on the movie map is really Harvey Keitel’s film – at least until De Niro’s scene-stealing character arrives. Keitel’s smart, low-level hood wants to be more than a debt-collector for his gangster uncle on the ‘Mean Streets’ of Little Italy. His cushy living threatens to destroy everyone around him when he helps out his lover’s hot-headed (and scarily psycho) cousin Johnny Boy (De Niro) by bringing him along on the job. The first of many collaborations between the legendary actor and maverick director.
Walter Matthau plays against type as a bank robber who knocks off a small town bank, only to find he’s hit the very place where the mob launder their money. And predictably, they want their cash back and to make an example. Matthau makes a viable anti-hero who oozes charm, ready with classic smart-mouthed quips even when he’s in mortal danger. Director Don Siegel’s film has a number of tension-building set-pieces, leaving you rooting for CHARLEY VARRICK to come out on top.
The great Joe Don Baker takes the lead in this true-life tale of Tennessee legend Buford Pusser who grows tired of organised crime in his town and takes on the corrupt Sheriff, even if his plan comes at a cost. The character is known for dishing out justice with only strong piece of timber, cracking skulls with a brutal swing of the arm without the need for bullets. Ten times more violent and realistic than the tepid remake starring The Rock. The original spawned two enjoyable sequels in 1975 and 1977 with Bo Svenson taking over Baker in the role.
War veteran Major Charles Rane comes home to a hero’s welcome, but soon finds it’s now filled with low-life scum when his wife and son are murdered during a robbery, and his left arm is destroyed in the process. With nothing left to live for, he seeks out his life-long buddy and fellow war vet Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones) to help him in his quest for vengeance, leaving a trail of destruction as he hunts down those responsible. William Devane is outstanding in what is well known to be Quentin Tarantino’s all-time favourite film.
John Carpenter’s low-budget exploitation thriller is essentially a re-imagining of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, ZULU and RIO BRAVO. The unlucky titular police station in the process of relocating comes under attack from a gang of ruthless street thugs who lay siege, seeking revenge on a man who has gunned down one of their own. A controversial scene in which a young girl with ice cream in hand is shot at point blank range sums up the film’s savagery (and perhaps the decade as a whole). Darwin Joston is ace as the death row bound anti-hero Napoleon Wilson.
An iconic character as you’re likely to ever see, Eastwood’s Harry Callahan was never bettered, not even in the four sequels that followed over the next 16 years. The film saw the movie legend take over directing duties for the first time (although Eastwood was never credited) after his mentor Don Siegel fell ill halfway through shooting. It features a risky plot inspired by the still-unsolved case of the Zodiac serial-killer (who was in the midst of his spree at the time of production), as Eastwood’s maverick San Francisco cop becomes determined in stopping Andrew Robinson’s psycho Scorpio.
Michael Caine’s finest hour comes as Tyneside-bound enforcer Jack Carter, who returns home from London to attend his brother’s funeral and find his killer. Despite Caine’s lack of Geordie accent, Mike Hodges’ GET CARTER is as gripping and shocking as the movies get. The mystery of Jack’s backstory and subsequent ‘investigation’ into the complex web of lies and scandal around his brother’s death plants a seed into the sleazy workings of organised crime. Another classic remade with dire results, with Sylvester Stallone in the lead. Stick with the original.
Al Pacino and John Cazale portray amateur bank robbers Sonny and Sal. They need cash to pay for Pacino’s gay lovers’ sex-change operation. Another story certainly ahead of its time, despite being based on real events. The duo’s sticky situation soon turns into a media circus before that shocking finale becomes firmly implanted in your memory. Sidney Lumet’s film is taut, nail-biting and often funny, yet you can’t help but feel for the hapless twosome. Now who’s with me…ATTICA…ATTICA…ATTICA!
Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie? Gene Hackman’s hard boiled narcotics cop Popeye Doyle attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle together to stop Fernando Rey’s Frog 1 and his New York partners’ major drugs smuggling ring. Strong support comes from Roy Scheider’s loyal partner Buddy Russo, who follows Doyle every step of the way. William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning film features that breathtaking car chase and a brave ending that leaves much to the imagination. John Frankenheimer’s terrific sequel saw Doyle track Rey’s Alain Charnier to Marseilles only to be captured and hooked on crack before being rescued, forced to go cold-turkey and finally getting back on his trail.
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga chronicles the Corleone family and its efforts to control the mafia underworld, and the first two instalments may possibly be the two finest films ever made. The focus is really on young Michael (Pacino) and his ascent (or should that be descent) from war hero – reluctant to join the family ‘business’ – to ruthless chieftain. The legendary films won a total of nine Oscars from 22 nominations, and gave us some of cinema’s most iconic performances and scenes. The sequel’s dual timelines are a masterstroke, juxtaposing the early rise of Vito Corleone from petty criminal to feared mastermind (a masterful Italian-accented Robert De Niro) with his son Michael’s attempts to cement a current criminal empire behind a facade of ‘legitimate’ operations.
In terms of movies, have the 1970s ever been bettered? No fucking way… not even close!