Concluding our series with the best of the rest from the golden age of gritty crime thrillers.
The 70s were not an optimistic time, and most American cinema carried and echoed that cynicism. Cop films were no exception, eschewing the traditional white hat/black hat simplicity in place since the 1950s in favor of darker shades of gray among its cops and crooks alike.
Looking past the “D’Antoni Trilogy” of Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups, movie theatres of the era premiered dozens of gritty police and crime thrillers, many of which rivaled or in some ways surpassed the blueprint those three films laid down. Known for their realistic settings, amoral protagonists, and meticulous attention to violent detail, the era’s crime films were often as bleak and unremitting as the real-life stories that sometimes inspired them.
The edges of film genre are seldom clear and almost never straight, but the following list includes films of a certain recognizable kind but deliberately omits others. There’s no question that Chinatown, for example, was one of the 70s best films. Including it as a crime film, however, both sells its considerable achievements short while ignoring the criteria of texture and mood that defines most “crime” films of the period. Likewise for other films such as Taxi Driver, Murder On The Orient Express, The Godfather and its sequel, The Parallax View, Dog Day Afternoon, and no doubt many others.
Shaft (1971): The decade saw the rise (and fall) of the blaxploitation sub-genre, typically low-budget efforts that brought the new cop movie morality to the inner city at a time when real-world crime and corruption were reaching catastrophic levels in those areas. Films including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Dolemite, Black Caesar, and Super Fly pitted strong black men against, in one film or another, evil white people, crooks, mobsters, revolutionaries and politicians.
The mack daddy of them all, however, was 1973′s Shaft, an eye-popping swirl of color, attitude, and especially violence. Richard Roundtree played the titular private detective on the trial of a local kingpin’s kidnapped daughter, bucking criminals and cops with help from a Black Panthers-like revolutionary cell. Touted as “The Black James Bond,” Roundtree reprised the role of John Shaft in three sequels, though none match the original. Note that the following is a fan-made trailer.)
Dirty Harry (1971): A film that’s become somewhat archetypal over time, Don Siegel (The Killers) directed this ultra-violent crime thriller about rogue San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a role that after thirty-eight years and four diminishing sequels has become synonymous with star Clint Eastwood’s public and screen image. The plot puts the remorseless Callahan against a serial sniper loosely based on the real-life Zodiac killer, then at the height of his reign of terror over the Bay Area.
The story is straightforward and the characterizations rote, but Siegel keeps the mounting tension taut. Callahan and “Scorpio” are both unstoppable objects, making their inevitable collision loom mercilessly over the audience. At least the trailer gives fair warning:
The Getaway (1972): Mastermind criminal Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) is paroled from a Texas prison on the condition that he plan a bank robbery for corrupt businessman Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). One of the businessman’s goons kills a security guard during the heist, and Doc and his wife Carol (Ali McGraw) flee to the border crossing at El Paso while eluding pursuit by Benyon and the killer. McQueen and MacGraw became real-life lovers during filming despite her marriage to producer Robert Evans, making them a kind of 70s Brangelina. Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) directs the sleek, swift-moving thriller purely for the sake of entertaining the audience, who loved the palpable chemistry between its stars.
A 1994 remake starring then-married couple Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger flopped.
Serpico (1973): Director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men) returned to the theme of police corruption time and again through his career, though probably none of his works equal the haunting intensity of this true-life story of whistle-blowing narcotics detective Frank Serpico. Shunned and eventually set up for a near-fatal shooting by his NYPD colleagues, Serpico (Al Pacino) personified the righteous outcast persona typical of 70s film protagonists, as the film’s grim ending perfectly demonstrates.
Pacino was only just coming into his commanding screen presence, and the on-location shots of a crime-devastated New York showcase Lumet’s attention to precise realism. The two reteamed for the bank heist classic Dog Day Afternoon two years later.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): The poster on the left isn’t meant to be cheap – it’s just that this film about the working class ranks of the Boston underworld is actually that stark and bleak. Faced with an impending jail sentence, low-level hood Eddie Coyle (the great Robert Mitchum, kicking off a late-career resurgence) agrees to snitch a gang of home invaders to the feds, only to learn that the gang was already caught that same morning.
Meanwhile the Irish Mob, believing Coyle was actually the informant, sends his friend Dillon (Peter Boyle) to kill him in retribution. Mitchum and Boyle, two consummate pros, build their characters comfortably and with unforced but nonetheless mounting tension, while great turns by unjustly forgotten character actors such as Richard Jordan, Steven Keats and others fill in the grimy, desperate world they inhabit. Peter Yates (Bullitt) directs, and after years of sporadic availability the film now enjoys a gorgeous Criterion edition DVD release.
The Conversation (1974): Francis Ford Coppola made this smart conspiracy yarn between the first two Godfather sagas, distilling the decade’s paranoia and fear of technology into an intense character study barbed with wicked irony. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who leads a life of deliberate isolation from others while keeping morally removed from the consequences of his discoveries. Haunted by a previous mistake that left three people dead, he becomes obsessed with the meaning of his latest taped investigation, ultimately finding himself the target of eavesdropping and pursuit for reasons not immediately apparent.
The script was written in the mid-60s, yet the film saw release during the height of the Watergate scandal. A pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford makes a rare screen appearance as the heavy.
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974): A British mercenary (Robert Shaw) and his three henchmen hijack a crowded New York subway train and demand a million dollar ransom. A Transit Authority detective (Walter Matthau) scrambles to stall the gang, which includes former subway system employees who know how to exploit the weaknesses in its safety features. Directed by veteran TV director Joseph Sargent, Matthau and the versatile cast imbue the film with a cynical New York humor, while Quentin Tarantino lifted the hijackers’ color-coordinated code names for his Reservoir Dogs.
We’ll be back next week with review of newer films. Thanks for reading.
- Michael Kabel