One of the most fruitful eras in cinematic history, movie fans are often wistful for the days of the 1970s. Coming off New Hollywood, counterculture, and the Vietnam War, 70s movie-making saw studios giving the green light to many young and bold directors who would go on to define cinema for the decades to come.
A favorite genre of that era was the thriller, with many of the decade’s best movies falling under that umbrella. While many thrillers from that time were big hits and are now considered classics, others failed at the box office but have gone on to be reappraised.
1 ‘Sorcerer’ (1977)
Coming off the back-to-back successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin expected Sorcerer, his most audacious film to date, to become his defining legacy. Unfortunately, after a troubled production that blew up the budget, grossing less than half its $22 million allowance and poor reviews upon release, Sorcerer didn’t live up to the director’s expectations.
In hindsight, many attribute the commercial failure of the film to the release of Star Wars at the same time. However, more recent audiences have looked admiringly at the film, which has been characterized as “the last undeclared masterpiece of the 70s.” In addition, numerous modern directors such as Benny Safdie and Quentin Tarantino have called Sorcerer one of their all-time favorite films.
2 ‘Winter Kills’ (1979)
Adapted from the novel by Richard Condon, who’s The Manchurian Candidate bears similar themes, Winter Kills is a black comedy political thriller that satirizes the conspiracy of the John F Kennedy assassination. Featuring an all-star cast that includes John Huston, Jeff Bridges, Anthony Perkins, and many more, the film was a box office bust, grossing a little over $1 million against a $6.5 million budget.
Perhaps some of the dissonances around the film came from its hellish production, characterized by erratic financing, marijuana dealing producers, and possible mafia involvement. Unfavorably compared to the likes of Dr. Strangeloveand M.A.S.H., many critics were hostile to the film’s treatment of the JFK assassination. Yet still, the movie has gone on to develop a cult following.
3 ‘The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane’ (1976)
Part of the issue around the marketing of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, besides its mouthful of a title, is that distributors didn’t know what to classify the movie as. Is it a mystery? A horror? A thriller? Ask director Nicholas Gessner, and he’ll call it “a teenage love story.” Whatever it is, it is literate, chilling, and brilliant.
Starring a then 14-year-old Jodie Foster, the movie’s release was stalled due to debate over the film’s nudity. Only garnering mild praise upon release, the movie has since been called a “cult film,” with critic Leonard Maitlin reevaluating it in 2015 as a “complex, unique mystery.” Other evaluators have argued over the movie’s themes, which include feminism and adolescent rebellion.
4 ‘The Last of Sheila’ (1973)
The Last of Sheila is like a game of movie Boggle where everyone’s usual positions in making a film have been switched around. Anthony Perkins is writing the script? So is Stephen Sondheim? Joel Schumacher is doing the costumes? The rare original whodunit, The Last of Sheila is, despite being a thriller, bursting with fun and creativity that is sometimes lost in the genre.
Grossing just over its $2 million budget, the film’s reputation has grown with the years, with Empire’s Kim Newman calling it “an underrated pleasure” in a 2007 retrospective review. Many modern filmmakers have also offered praise for the film, such as Edgar Wright and Rian Johnson, who cite it as an inspiration for his films Knives Out, and especially Knives Out 2, which features a similar setting as well as a cameo from Sondheim.
5 ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ (1973)
One of the great Boston movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is one of the top crime neo-noirs that the ’70s had to offer. Starring a weathered Robert Mitchum, this is a tough movie that doesn’t romanticize a life of crime. Although adapted from the acclaimed novel by George V. Higgins, which Elmore Leonard described as “the best crime novel ever written,” the movie’s financial reception was minimal.
A mid-year release, the movie failed to place in even the top 30 in film revenue for 1973. However, worship of the film has only mounted over time. Added to the Criterion Collect in 2009, the movie currently holds a staggering 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
6 ‘Hardcore’ (1979)
A not un-divisive filmmaker, Paul Schrader‘s movies are often distinguished by their repressed protagonists battling internal struggle, often of a lurid or sexual nature. Hardcore, which follows a strict Calvinist father who must search for his daughter through Los Angeles’s seedy pornographic underworld, is no exception.
Met with mixed reaction upon release, while some praised the movie’s performances and the vigorous script, it was still nominated for Worst Picture at the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Possibly because of Schrader’s unrelenting prurient imagery juxtaposed with violent restraint, some found the movie challenging to watch, as it achieved meager economic success. But with striking performances and dazzling cinematography, Hardcore is one of Schrader’s best.
7 ‘Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
A remake of Murder, My Sweet starring Dick Powell, which in turn is adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely is one of the best Philip Marlowe films to date. With an always-arresting Charlotte Rampling, a laconic Robert Mitchum as the eminent detective, and a well-drawn script, the movie slips into neither parody nor gloom.
Despite being released in the heart of the private detective film boom in the mid-70s, Farewell, My Lovely couldn’t even match its $2.5 million budget, grossing a mere $2 million. In a recent 2019 review, Dennis Schwartz commended the film’s “twisty plot and moody atmosphere.” Considering the flop that was Liam Neeson’sMarlowe, Farewell, My Lovely offers a finer alternative to an aging Marlowe story.
8 ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973)
Another Raymond Chandler adaptation that failed for a very different reason: notably, people didn’t get it. Critics nor audiences could wrap their heads around Robert Altman‘s hilarious, dire, postmodern Marlowe. Grossing under a million dollars, many critics detested the film, lambasting it with insults like “lazy.”
Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2021, modern audiences have come to appreciate The Long Goodbye for its masterpiece. Even some critics who were dismissive of the movie’s excellence upon release have come to walk back their earlier criticism, such as Roger Ebert, who later added the film to his ‘Great Movies’ collection in 2006.
9 ‘The American Friend’ (1977)
Tom Ripley has become one of the most adapted characters ever put to the screen. While few characters deserve it more than the American con man, perhaps it’s getting a little excessive now, with Steven Zaillain‘s Ripley series at Showtime coming later this year. However, one movie that is deserving of Patricia Highsmith’s complex charlatan is The American Friend.
The English language debut of Wim Wenders, this is an enigmatic painting worthy of Ripley’s multiplicity. The film underperformed financially and with audiences, including Highsmith. However, she would later go on to praise the film’s “stylishness” and performances. An undying study into loyalty, with some of Wenders’ most spellbinding visual spectacles, The American Friend is as rich as any thriller put to screen.
10 ‘Night Moves’ (1975)
Featuring one of Gene Hackman’s greatest roles right up there with The Conversation, Night Moves is an elusive puzzle of broken people. Unlike the private eye films that it builds off, Night Moves’ protagonist is not about honor or ease. Instead, the movie plays closer to one of Alan Pakula‘s “paranoia thrillers,” where Hackman is struggling to come to grips with the fractured and ever-changing world.
The film was not a commercial success, as documented by film writer Irv Slifkin in his book about the decade in film, VideoHound’s Groovy Movies. In addition, some viewers responded adversely to Alan Sharp’s dazing, cryptic script. Modern re-examinations have been far kinder, with the movie being regarded as “a seminal modern noir” as well as “a no-exit comment on the post-1968, post-Watergate times.”
KEEP READING: 10 Underrated Thrillers That Are Destined To Become Cult Classics