The 1970’s were a great decade for thrillers, as production code restrictions had been lifted in favor of a ratings system, allowing “R” rated films considerable leeway in the amount of sex and violence that could be included. Armed with this new freedom, filmmakers ran wild making movies that titillated and thrilled audiences, resulting in some of the best (and worst) thrillers ever made.
These are 20 films that either did not connect with audiences at the box office or for some other reason have been somewhat overlooked in the years since their release, and might be worth re-visiting or even seeing for the first time.
20. How Awful About Allan (1970)
Plot: Allan (Anthony Perkins) succumbs to hysterical blindness after an accident in which he caused a fire that killed his father and facially scarred his sister Katherine (Julie Harris). One his return home from a mental hospital to live with Katherine, Allan has partially overcome his blindness, but his vision is still very blurry.
Allan’s former fiancee Olive (Joan Hackett) attempts to reconnect with him, but Allan is bothered when his sister rents out a room in the house to a mysterious boarder who can only speak in a hoarse whisper. Allan comes to believe the boarder is out to kill him before the truth is revealed and Allan seems to be cured…or is he?
Why it’s great: Only in a time like 1970 could you have acting talents as great as Anthony Perkins, Julie Harris and Joan Hackett appearing in a made for TV movie. But this was before cable, and so network made for TV movies were actually big deals and How Awful About Allan, while not a masterpiece, is still a far better than average thriller.
The film keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat trying to figure out what is happening to Allan as he struggles to separate reality from illusion. The film is somewhat in the tradition of the 1962 hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (screenwriter Henry Farrell also wrote Baby Jane) as well as Hitchcock’s Psycho.
19. The Town That Dread Sundown (1976)
Plot: In 1946 in the town of Texarkana, Texas, a killer dubbed ‘the Phantom’ carries out a series of attacks on the locals. First a couple is attacked, then another couple are found dead, and the local authorities call in well known crime fighter and Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) to try and track down the assailant.
After the murder of another couple after a high school prom, the town is in a panic. Helen Reed (Dawn Wells) is attacked in her home by the Phantom and her husband is killed, but she escapes from the lunatic. Finally, Morales tracks down the killer and chases him into the woods.
Why it’s great: On the heels of the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, numerous low budget horror and slasher ‘shlock-fests’ were made with the idea of cashing in on the trend. Produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was made by American International Pictures, a studio specializing in this type of film.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is far better than most, however, featuring the brooding presence of Ben Johnson as Morales and the always perky Dawn Wells as the perfect victim. Audiences were kept on the edge of their seat, and responded with a box office return of 5 million dollars, realizing a hefty profit for AIP. If you’re in the mood for some gore, check this one out.
18. Two Minute Warning (1976)
Plot: An unknown sniper places himself in position before a championship football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Spotted by the aerial Goodyear blimp, the police, headed by Captain Peter Holley (Charlton Heston) and Chris Button (John Cassavetes) are called in to stop him.
As the police try to devise a plan to take out the sniper, various fans at the game are introduced and their back stories are explained. Former NFL quarterback Joe Kapp plays the quarterback in the film. Finally, just after the two minute warning, the SWAT team moves in on the sniper.
Why it’s great: Two Minute Warning was made in the style of the disaster genre that had been very popular in the early part of the decade, but was on the wane when this film was released in later 1976. The movie is really more of a thriller, however, as the audience is kept in suspense as the police deal with the problem of catching a sniper who has so many people at risk during a public event.
Two Minute Warning is similar to but not as successful as 1977’s Black Sunday, in which the Super Bowl is threatened by a terrorist plot, but the film is still a taut and engaging thriller that is worth seeing.
17. The Killer Elite (1975)
Plot: Locken (James Caan) and Hansen (Robert Duvall) are best friends who work as contractors for an organization called Com-Teg, carrying out CIA assignments. They help a defector escape, but Hansen has been bought out by a rival group, and he kills the defector and shoots Locken, wounding him in his elbow and knee.
After Locken is rehabilitated, he takes another Com-Teg assignment, protecting an Asian client, Yuen Chung. It’s a perfect assignment for Locken, as his old friend Hansen is part of the group trying to assassinate Yuen Chung, and it gives Locken a chance for some much needed revenge.
Why it’s great: The Killer Elite was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who made some of the great action and violence films of the late ‘60s and early ’70’s such as The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Getaway. This film is typically violent and uneven, but the theme of betrayal and revenge between former friends and allies makes for great suspense and moments of brilliant tension.
Unfortunately, The Killer Elite flopped at the box office (as most of Peckinpah’s later films did) but it has developed something of a cult following and now is highly regarded.
16. Winter Kills (1979)
Plot: Nick Keegan (Jeff Bridges), the son of a wealthy tycoon Pa Keegan (John Huston) hears a death-bed confession by a convict Arthur Fletcher claiming to be the second of two assassins who shot President Timothy Keegan, Nick’s older half brother. Nick goes to Philadelphia to investigate the shooting, which happened many years earlier, and he begins to uncover evidence of a conspiracy.
As he goes from place to place trying to find the truth, all of the people that he meets who were connected to his half-brother suddenly seems to find themselves dead. Nick is determined to find the truth, however, despite the interference of his meddling, domineering father (John Huston).
Why it’s great: Many conspiracy films came out in the 1970’s, and of these a number of them concerned themselves with assassinations related to political figures. Winter Kills was released late in the decade, after this trend had largely peaked, and so failed at the box office despite the all star cast.
The film, which had a troubled production history including being financed supposedly by drug dealers, has a dark, black humor that was somewhat rare for a conspiracy film. Directed by screenwriter William Richert, the movie was based on a book by Richard Condon.
15. Audrey Rose (1977)
Plot: A man named Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins) is stalking Janice and Bill Templeton and their 11 year old daughter, Ivy. Hoover believes that Ivy is the reincarnation of his daughter, Audrey Rose, who along with his wife was killed in a car crash just moments before Ivy was born.
Ivy begins to act out behavior that starts to convince Janice (Marsha Mason) that Elliot is actually onto something, despite the continued disbelief of her husband. Finally, Elliot is arrested and put on trial for kidnapping Ivy, and he must prove to the court that his actions were necessary in order to give his dead daughter the peace for which she is looking.
Why it’s great: Aside from conspiracy films, ghost and reincarnation thrillers were also popular in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, the box office failure of Audrey Rose (as well as Exorcist II: the Heretic, also released in the same year, 1977) did much to dampen this sub-genre. The film was directed by veteran Robert Wise and taken from a popular novel of the same name.
Marsha Mason is excellent as Ivy’s mother, torn between her husband’s skepticism and her desire to believe in reincarnation, and Anthony Hopkins lends an air of credibility to the film. Hopkins would appear in another super-natural thriller the following year, Magic, which fared better at the box office than Audrey Rose.
14. The Laughing Policeman (1973)
Plot: Dave Evans, the partner of Jake Martin (Walter Matthau), a San Francisco policeman, is gunned down on a public bus by a hit man. Martin is obsessed with finding evidence to prove businessman Harry Camerero murdered his wife, and he comes to believe that the hit on the bus is connected to the Camerero murder.
Jake and his new partner, Inspector Leo Larson (Bruce Dern) are assigned to interview suspects in the case and despite Jake’s best efforts to shut Larson out from his suspicions, the two begin to uncover information that may help them break the case and avenge Evans’ death.
Why it’s great: Walter Matthau made his name play Oscar Madison, the slovenly roommate in The Odd Couple, and by 1973 Matthau was eager to break out of the comedic mold by playing tough guys, which he did in both this film and Charley Varrick. Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett, Jr. were also along for the ride, and the film was set in scenic San Francisco and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who also did Cool Hand Luke.
Audiences didn’t appear ready for the change of direction of Matthau, and the film died an abysmal death at the box office, so Matthau returned to comedy and found success again a few years later in The Bad News Bears. The Laughing Policeman, though, is an unheralded hard boiled gem that now demands to be seen and appreciated by audiences at last.
13. Images (1972)
Plot: Children’s author, Cathryn (Susannah York) receives a series of disturbing phone call from a woman saying that her husband is having an affair.
When her husband (Rene Auberjonois) comes home, he finds his wife hysterical, even to the point of seeing him as a completely different man, before she finally regains her senses. Disturbed, he takes Cathryn to an isolated cottage in the countryside, but their she finds it even more difficult to discern reality from fantasy and delusion.
Why it’s great: Altman wrote and directed this film, which definitely falls into the category of psychological terror. The film was critically praised, with York winning the best actress award at Cannes, but did not connect with audiences and failed at the box office; Altman’s The Long Goodbye also flopped at the box office the next year, but The Long Goodbye has since become embraced by critics and cineastes, while Images remains relatively forgotten.
Atmospheric and tense, with great use of John Williams’ score and various sound effects, Images recalls Polanski’s Repulsion, another film in which a woman begins to have difficulty discerning reality from illusion.
12. Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)
Plot: A rogue U.S. Air Force General, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) escapes from prison and along with two accomplices, infiltrates an ICBM complex in order to gain control of its nuclear missiles. They contact the President and issue their demands: a ten million dollar ransom as well as the public release of a document detailing absolute proof that the U.S. knew the war in Vietnam was futile but kept going in order to show the Soviet Union our commitment to deter the spread of Communism.
After much debate, an elite team led by General Mackenzie (Richard Widmark) is dispatched to stop the terrorists, but the President must finally agree to be taken hostage in a last ditch attempt to save the situation.
Why it’s great: Twilight’s Last Gleaming was directed by hard boiled filmmaker Robert Aldrich, who make a number of great thrillers in the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as the comic masterpiece The Longest Yard. This film failed badly at the box office on its release in 1977, possibly because America’s experience in Vietnam was not yet far enough behind us for audiences to feel comfortable with a film that so bluntly deals with our failure in that war.
With an all star cast of veteran Hollywood actors, however, including Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Joseph Cotton and Melvyn Douglas, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a film that is certainly worth seeing. Lancaster also starred in a similar film, Seven Days in May, in which he also played a renegade member of the U.S. Military.
11. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Plot: Christine, the daughter of John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter, drowns in a stream behind their house in England. Sometime later, John accepts a commission to go to Venice and restore an old church. Laura is depressed about the death of their daughter (which she partly blames on John) until she encounters two sisters in a Venice restaurant.
The blind sister claims she has ‘second sight’ and can see Christine with the couple, and that the girl is happy. Laura is thrilled by this and goes along with the sisters until she is called back to England after their son has a minor accident at boarding school. John is perplexed when he appears to see visions of his dead daughter in the streets of Venice and finally sees an image that portends his own possible doom.
Why it’s great: Don’t Look Now was an English-Italian co-production, directed by esteemed former cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. Although some might not consider Don’t Look Now to be overlooked due to its fairly good box office take and controversial sex scene between Christie and Sutherland, the film’s avant-garde cinematography and ‘arty’ editing have caused it to be thought of as a highly unconventional thriller.
While Don’t Look Now was clearly influenced by director Alfred Hitchcock, particularly its unconventional use of color and point-of-view shots, the film’s style also influenced many films and filmmakers to come. Don’t Look Now is definitely worth…another look!