20 Overlooked 70s Thrillers That Are Worth Your Time

10. Charley Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick (1973)

Plot: Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) a former stunt pilot, robs a small town bank with two accomplices and his wife. The job goes awry and one of the accomplices and his wife are killed by police, but he and Sullivan (Andy Robinson) survive, finding they have stolen an extraordinary amount of money.

Surmising correctly that the bank is a drop point for the mob, Varrick wants to lay low, but Sullivan wants to spend the money. Eventually mobsters Boyle (John Vernon) and Molly (Joe Don Baker) come after the pair, killing Sullivan. Varrick flies his plane to Reno, where he confronts Molly and Boyle in a final showdown.

Why it’s great: Directed by Don Siegel, fresh off his success with Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick is a typical neo-noir thriller in the sense that the audience is rooting for the bad guys to get away with a crime (particularly since they are stealing from even worse bad guys…)

Matthau’s Varrick is a particularly cagey and intelligent criminal, staying one step ahead of his pursuers until the very end, and the audience identifies with him and enjoys the chase. Don Siegel made the film in his usual tough and gritty style, utilizing realistic Reno, NV locations that give a film the sense of cinema verite. Long overlooked, Charley Varrick has begun to develop a cult following that is putting the film on the map.


9. The Eiger Sanction (1975)

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

Plot: Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is an art professor whose sideline is collecting art masterpieces, which he finances by performing hits or ‘sanctions’ for a covert government agency headed by Dragon, an albino with hemophilia. An agent named Wormwood has been killed by two agents while stealing some microfilm, and Dragon wants Hemlock to perform sanctions on the two killers.

After killing the first one, Hemlock (a former mountain climber) goes to climb the notoriously dangerous Eiger mountain with the help of his friend Ben Bowman (George Kennedy) in the hopes of performing his second sanction on one of the other climbers.

Why it’s great: The Eiger Sanction performed poorly at the box office when it was released in 1975, which may have been due to the somewhat esoteric subject of mountain climbing as the basis for a thriller.

Eastwood directed the film himself, which features many great locales, tense mountain climbing scenes and beautiful woman, as well as an outstanding cast including the always reliable George Kennedy and Jack Cassidy in a strange role as Miles Mellough, Hemlock’s gay adversary. Clint plays his usual persona with typical aplomb, and that and the surprise ending make The Eiger Sanction an overlooked film worth seeing.


8. The Odessa File (1974)

The Odessa File (1974)

Plot: Freelance German journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) is given the diary of a German Jew who has killed himself on the day Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The diary contains the story of the man’s imprisonment at Riga concentration camp and the atrocities inflicted by the brutal head of the camp, Edward Roschmann (Maximilian Schell).

Miller begins to investigate the whereabouts of Roschmann and discovers an organization in Germany called Odessa that is hiding and giving new identities to former SS officers. Miller agrees to infiltrate Odessa with the help of some zionist Nazi hunters, and although his cover is blown, he ends up finding the ‘Odessa file’, which actually details the names and new identities. This eventually leads Miller to a showdown with Roschmann, who is a respectable businessman now running an electronics company.

Why it’s great: Many felt that The Odessa File – based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth – was a disappointment, particularly compared to the adaptation of Day of the Jackal, based on a Forsyth novel and released the year before. But The Odessa File is a taught and suspenseful thriller, with good performances by Voight and Schell and an interesting reveal at the end.

The film also was noteworthy in that the real “Butcher of Riga”, Edward Roschmann, was apprehended by Argentinian police after the film came out, although he later skipped bail and died in Paraguay shortly thereafter. This was one of several high quality Nazi hunter films released in the mid 1970’s.


7. Hustle (1975)

Hustle (1975)

Plot: A prostitute named Gloria Hollinger is found dead on a stretch of isolated beach, and LAPD Sgt. Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is assigned to the case. Gaines and his partner feel Gloria’s death was a suicide, and are encouraged to close the case quickly by their commanding officer.

But shortly before her death, Gloria had attended a party at the home of corrupt attorney Leo Sellers (Eddie Albert), a man who is also known to patronize Phil’s girlfriend, French prostitute Nicole Britton (Catherine Deneuve). When Gloria’s headstrong father (Ben Johnson) decides to investigate the death on his own, he finds out about Sellers, leaving Gaines with nothing but trouble on his hands.

Why it’s great: Directed by Robert Aldrich, Hustle carries the neo-noir tradition forward with its tale of death, vice and corruption in the City of Angels. Burt Reynolds’ Phil Gaines is a man who must walk a fine line as he navigates through a murder investigation that threatens to sink his career.

Hustle was only a modest box office success at the time of its release, despite the cast, and has always been somewhat underrated. Now the film deserves to be seen for what it is – an example of a great hard boiled 1970’s thriller.


6. The Boys from Brazil (1978)

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

Plot: Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Lawrence Olivier) is contacted by Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenburg), who has discovered notorious Nazi Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) living in Paraguay. Though Kohler is killed shortly thereafter, he is able to get enough information to Lieberman that the Nazi hunter begins to investigate.

He discovers that Mengele had stored Hitler’s frozen DNA and, in the mid 1960’s, had used the DNA to impregnate a number of surrogate mothers in Brazil. These children had been sent out all over the world for adoption, and now Mengele is systematically killing their adopted fathers so he can reclaim his ‘boys’. Eventually Lieberman tracks one of the boys to a home in rural America, where he has a final showdown with Mengele and some Dobermans.

Why it’s great: The Boys from Brazil was another of the Nazi hunter movies that came out in the 1970’s, but this one was released rather late in the cycle and was based on a story by novelist Ira Levin, author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.

The rather fantastic tale of a clan of junior Hitlers being born was a little hard for audiences to swallow, and the film performed only marginally at the box office. But The Boys from Brazil is a well acted, solid thriller, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner – who also did Patton and The Planet of the Apes – and so should not be overlooked just because the story is a bit hard to believe.


5. The Last of Sheila (1973)

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Plot: Movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) invites six film industry people on his yacht one year exactly after his wife Sheila, a gossip columnist, was killed by a hit and run driver during a party. All of the people one the yacht except one were at the party, and Clinton tells them that they are going to participate in an elaborate game in Sheila’s memory.

Cards are given out to each person with a secret on them and each night the group goes into port to follow a series of clues and discover that night’s secret. It quickly becomes clear that the secrets on the cards are actual secrets of each of the people aboard the yacht (though nobody has their own secret) and when Clinton is murdered on the second night in port, the game turns very real and very deadly. After one of the guests commits suicide, another guest puts the pieces together and finally figures out the last of Sheila.

Why it’s great: A clever script written by Steven Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (that won the 1974 Edgar Award for best screenplay by the Mystery Writers of America), The Last of Sheila was only a very modest success when released in the summer of 1973. But the film’s interesting plot, macabre humor and sly ending have beguiled many people for years, and the film now is something of an overlooked classic.

Additionally, the film has a great cast including James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch and the late Joan Hackett. Check out The Last of Sheila and see if you can solve the mystery!


4. Duel (1971)


Plot: David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is an electronics salesman on a business trip driving on a two lane highway in his small red sedan. He passes a slow moving tanker truck, only to have the truck pass him and get back in front of him, blocking his way.

The cat and mouse game continues along the highway, accelerating in pace and seriousness, until Mann is almost killed. Panicked now, he goes into a diner, but sees the truck parked in the lot and tries to figure out who the driver is so he can confront him. After being unable to find the driver, Mann goes back on the road, only to encounter the truck again and, after a lengthy battle, the story comes to a fiery conclusion.

Why it’s great: Duel was a made for TV movie, shown on NBC in late 1971. The movie was so successful, NBC expanded the original running time was some extra footage, and the film was actually released as a feature in Europe in 1972.

Duel shows Spielberg’s penchant for being able to direct great suspense sequences, something that would become even more evident a few years later when he made Jaws. Dennis Weaver is great as the average man threatened by the ultimate faceless, nameless nightmare and Spielberg ratchets up the tension until the viewer can hardly stand it and the final showdown, at last, takes place.


3. Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves

Plot: Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), an L.A. private investigator, is hired by former actress Arlene Iverson to find her 16 year old daughter, Delly Grastner (Melanie Griffith, in an early role). Harry’s wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him, but despite this distraction he begins to work on the case, tracking down Delly’s last boyfriend, Quinten an auto mechanic.

Harry gets a tip that Delly is living in the Florida Keys with her step-father, Tom Iverson and goes after her; there he finds Delly and has a brief affair with Paula (Jennifer Warren). Delly eventually agrees to return to Los Angeles with Harry to live with her mother and on his return he tries to work out his problems with Ellen. But some surprise news about Delly comes as a shock and may lead Harry to uncover a deeper plot.

Why it’s great: In 1974, Gene Hackman appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a neo-noir film about a sound recordist that performed only moderately at the box office, but achieved great critical acclaim, winning the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The next year, he starred in Night Moves, directed by another ‘new Hollywood’ director, Arthur Penn, which failed at the box office on its initial release.

Like The Conversation, however, the film almost immediately began to acquire a strong critical reputation and a following among film noir devotees. Featuring an early and provocative appearance by Melanie Griffith (the 16 year old filmed some nude scenes for the movie), Night Moves is now regarded as a cult classic and, according to some critics, Penn’s greatest film.


2. The Parallax View (1974)

The Parallax View

Plot: Senator Charles Carroll is assassinated during a public event atop the Seattle Space Needle, an event witnessed by newswoman Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) and many others. Three years later, Carter visits newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) and tells him that six people who witnessed the event have been murdered and she is worried she is next; her fears are justified as she dies shortly thereafter.

Picking up on her leads, Frady uncovers a group called The Parallax Corporation, which recruits political assassins. After visiting the senator’s former aide, Austin Tucker (William Daniels) aboard his boat, the boat explodes killing Tucker, but Frady survives. As he is believed to be dead, Frady can now go undercover to join Parallax and find out about the treacherous group from the inside.

With his only ally, editor Bill Frintels (Hume Cronyn) poisoned by Parallax, Frady knows that he is all alone in his battle to expose the killers.

Why it’s great: Many films of the 1970’s focused on various conspiracy theories, but The Parallax View suggested a vague conspiratorial threat, as opposed to an earlier film, Executive Action (1973) that focused directly on the Kennedy assassination. The lack of specificity in who the Parallax Corporation is and why they were trying to kill various political officials, allowed the film greater latitude and enhanced the sense of paranoia and distrust.

As a result, over time, The Parallax View has gained a growing reputation, and it is now considered one of the best conspiracy thriller of the 1970’s. Director Alan J. Pakula had previously made Klute and followed this film with All the President’s Men, make for a trio of top flight conspiracy films.


1. French Connection II (1975)

French Connection II (1975)

Plot: Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) arrives in Marseilles, France in search of the elusive drug kingpin Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped from New York at the end of the first film.

He is met by Henri Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson) who, along with the other French police adopt an antagonistic attitude towards Doyle, particularly after his unpredictable behavior causes the death of an undercover officer during a drug raid. Charnier spots Doyle and has his men kidnap the New York cop; they proceed to inject him with heroin by force, causing him to become a helpless addict.

Eventually Doyle is returned to French police and Barthelemy assists him in kicking the drug cold turkey. After his recovery, Doyle and Barthelemy eventually put their differences aside and work together to bust the drug enterprise of Charnier in an explosive climax.

Why it’s great: French Connection II was directed by great action and suspense director John Frankenheimer; despite its big buildup, the film did only marginally well financially, which may have had to do with the fact that it was released during the summer in which Jaws ruled the box office. But the film also may have failed because its harsh portrayal of Doyle’s humiliating forced drug addiction and subsequent ‘cold turkey’ withdrawal may have also been too much for audiences to accept.

The film is a gritty masterpiece from the moment that Doyle sets foot on French turf, finding himself in conflict with virtually everyone, including the people who are supposed to be on his side. The final sequence, in which the police tail a suspect to uncover the drug warehouse and then Doyle sets out on foot to chase down Charnier, is a masterwork of suspense filmmaking. See this neglected classic.

Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.