The 1980s was an excellent time for thrillers; Blow Out, Gorky Park, Frantic, the list goes on and on. We all know them, and some of us love them. But some films, although just as good, can get left behind.
Due to little or no exposure on streaming sites or never getting that fancy Blu-ray release, some movies can get lost on YouTube, sometimes popping up in the wee small hours, helping to fill up a television schedule. So, let’s begin by looking at ten thrillers, all from the 1980s, some more famous than others, but all deserving a little more exposure and a little more love.
1. The Jigsaw Man (1983)
Directed by Bond director Terence Young, The Jigsaw Man marks the onscreen reunion of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier from more than ten years earlier in Sleuth, where both actors received Academy Award nominations. Although there is little chance of Academy Award nominations here, The Jigsaw Man still has something to offer – I’m just wondering what it is.
It’s the Cold War, and after some nifty plastic surgery, Michael Caine’s Soviet defector returns to England to play a tense cat-and-mouse game with British spymasters. Okay, the plot may be your average Cold War thriller. Yet, the onscreen presence of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, supported by a stream of British acting talent, including Susan George, Robert Powell and Charles Gray, keeps The Jigsaw Man ticking over.
Loosely, based on the Cambridge Five, The Jigsaw Man is neither John le Carré, James Bond, nor Harry Palmer. There is a car chase, some shootouts, albeit brief and plenty of Cold War shenanigans. It plays like a TV movie with too many plot threads and a director past his best, with some scenes appearing rushed and poorly lit.
The Jigsaw Man offers up a retirement home for actors who couldn’t find bit parts on Minder or Tales of the Unexpected, as director Terence Young litters the film with past collaborators Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson and Sabine Sun. Yet just the sight of Michael Caine lurking around a church, pocketing some hidden microfilm, gladdens the heart. His Russian and American accents are also fun, as Caine helps dignify the familiar dialogue and sequences.
The Jigsaw Man had a troubled shoot, where the production ran out of money, and the film probably could have done with a memorable set piece. However, these shortcomings are what make The Jigsaw Man so appealing. It’s no Ipcress File, but it has a good cast, a decent story and a strangeness, a puzzle of why it even exists.
2. Target (1985)
Gene Hackman reunites with director Arthur Penn in this excellent spy thriller from 1985. Hackman plays Walter Lloyd and seemingly leads a simple life, working in a lumber business in Dallas, Texas.
Walter and his son Chris (Matt Dillon) have a strained relationship, with Chris, a college dropout and race-car driver, believing his Dad to be a dull old oaf. A generation gap narrative continues for about fifteen minutes as father and son go fishing as mom Donna (Gayle Hunnicutt) heads off to Europe on holiday.
Suddenly, the story steps up a gear when Walter gets a phone call in the middle of the night, informing him that his wife has gone missing whilst on holiday. Father and son decide to travel to Paris to find Mom, and soon Chris finds out that his mum was kidnapped, and that dear old Dad speaks fluent French, is ex-CIA, has a different identity and knows how to handle a gun.
Via an effective car chase, the pair travel to Hamburg, where Walter (or Duke as he was formerly known) becomes a mixture of George Smiley and Jason Bourne. There’s another car chase in Hamburg, a better one, as Walter dodges bullets and meets an old flame (Victoria Fyodorova) and an old Colonel (Richard Münch), with the Cold War plot unfolding, revealing double agents and secret code names.
Target is a compelling Cold War thriller with Gene Hackman grounding the plot in reality with a believable performance. Matt Dillion, a teen heartthrob in 1985, offers a solid performance as a kid who slowly learns that his Dad is James Bond with a receding hairline.
Although not the box office smash it needed to be for director Arthur Penn, after the failure of Four Friends in 1981. Target is a top-notch thriller, with a great score by Michael Small, who had scored such seminal seventies thrillers as The Parallax View and Marathon Man—all in all, a fast-paced thriller that undoubtedly hits the target.
3. North Sea Hijack (1980)
By the late 1970s, Roger Moore had starred in four Bond films and several potboilers like Gold, Shout at the Devil, and The Wild Geese. Partnering up for a second time with Wild Geese director Andrew V. McLaglen, Moore starred in the ambitious thriller North Sea Hijack (also known as ffolkes), in which he gave one of his best performances as Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, a whisky-drinking counter-terrorism specialist with a love for cats.
The plot concerns ffolkes and his crack team trying to stop a group of bad guys and their plan to blow up oil rigs in the North Sea. The main bad guy, Kramer, is played by Anthony Perkins, who adds a steely and captivating presence. Moore, sporting a full beard, has some great dialogue and witty exchanges with Jennifer Hilary and James Mason. Mason, a massive star on both sides of the Atlantic since the late 1940s, plays Admiral Sir Francis Brinsden, who, as well as giving the film a bit of gravitas, becomes Moore’s sparring partner in a war of words.
The story bounces between the crew of the stolen ship and the discussions between the British government on when to involve ffolkes and his team in resolving the situation, with ffolkes suggesting that “Kramer and his odious colleagues will be dead or disabled” before any bombs went off.
North Sea Hijack is a tense thriller, perhaps dated in parts, but a terrific film, nonetheless. Andrew V. McLaglen was best known as an action director, typically featuring an ageing John Wayne in a string of cowboy films. Yet North Sea Hijack is surprisingly short on action sequences, with McLaglen successfully relying on suspense, solid performances and a convincing plot, all slowly ticking towards a crowd-pleasing finale.
4. Thompson’s Last Run (1986)
It’s the mid-1980s, and screen icon Robert Mitchum has a lead role in a low-key thriller. Okay, this is straight to television fare, but it’s Mitchum as a safe cracker on the run from a lawman (Wilford Brimley); what’s not to like?
Mitchum is John Thompson, a career criminal who has spent much of his life behind bars. Thompson gets a visitor, his niece Louise (Kathleen York), who is desperate for her Uncle to become a much closer family member. Yet, Louise learns that Thompson will remain in prison for life due to the “habitual criminal act,” and her dream of a happy family is short-lived.
Wilford Brimley is Red Haines, a soon-to-be-retired lawman, an old friend and adversary of Thompson’s who asks his superiors for one last job. Red’s job is to transport his old friend to another prison, and the story moves along at a leisurely pace as both men reminisce about their shared history, lived on both sides of the law.
Thompson’s niece Louise -re-enters the story, and the film steps up the pace as the gun-toting Louise forces her Uncle John to make a run for it, with the old lawman promising, “I’ll be coming for ye.”
Thompson and Louise get on the road, with Thompson coming to terms with his life as a fugitive from justice. While Red is not exactly in hot pursuit, Thompson has time for a spot of fishing, and the film returns to its leisurely pace as the pair turn to robbery and family dilemmas.
It’s hardly The Getaway, but Thompson’s Last Run is a slow burn, with a typically charismatic performance by Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum’s career by the 1980s had chugged along nicely with a string of television spots and character roles in TV movies before Martin Scorsese plucked Mitchum from the television schedules for an extended cameo in his remake of Cape Fear. Yet, in Thompson’s Last Run, much like his role in the earlier TV movie A Killer in the Family, Mitchum proved he was still a formidable presence onscreen.
Let’s face it: Mitchum is excellent with his bit part in Scrooged and good value in War and Remembrance if you can stick to the protracted running time. But in the twilight days of his career, with Thompson’s Last Run, Mitchum, once more in a leading role, proves he’s still the coolest anti-hero in cinema.
5. Tightrope (1984)
It’s New Orleans, and a killer in town enjoys murdering sex workers in the neon-lit French Quarter of New Orleans. Clint Eastwood is Wes Block, a police detective, in another cop film that will please most Dirty Harry fans with its suspense, sex and violence. Yet, Eastwoods’ Wes Block is no Harry Callahan. Wes Block is a family man with two devoted daughters, but he’s also a cop who enjoys the same erotic side of town as the killer, as each time another dead body turns up, it’s clear that Block knows each victim intimately.
With the mud-wrestling women and kinky sex scenes, director Richard Tuggle not only ties sex and violence together in Tightrope, but in Eastwoods’ introduction into the film, Tuggle connects Eastwood’s homicide detective with the killer with a simple ‘match shot’ of a pair of shoes. The film pulls cop and killer together, as a criminal psychologist tells Wes, “There’s a darkness inside all of us…Some have it under control. Others act it out; the rest of us try to walk a tightrope between the two.” While juxtaposing Block’s cosy homelife with his daughters (one of which is Eastwood’s actual daughter, Alison Eastwood), Block enters the seedy underbelly of New Orleans while interviewing sex workers and wrestling with his own sexual obsessions.
It’s a dangerous psychological tightrope where Block must walk the fine line between his sexual demons and his life as a police detective and father. Geneviève Bujold plays Beryl Thibodeaux, who runs a rape crisis centre and challenges Block’s thought processes and notions about women. In a way, she becomes Block’s moral compass and confidant as Block grows concerned about how “close” the killer is getting to him.
Released a few years before Hollywood spewed out 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, Tightrope offers an erotic thriller with an engaging performance by Clint Eastwood, exploring his onscreen masculinity as an icon in American cinema.
In Tightrope, everything you expect from this type of thriller materialises. Does his two daughters become in danger when the killer gets too close? Check. Does Block’s relationship with Beryl melt some of Block’s hard exterior? Check. Does Block catch the killer? Well, that would be telling.