Though The Weinstein Company are selling it as a Tarantino-esque shoot ’em up, audiences going to see “Killing Them Softly” once it opens this Friday will find they’ve been subjected to something of a bait-and-switch. This is because Andrew Dominik‘s film (his first since the acclaimed “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford“) is something of a throwback to the crime pictures of the 1970s when the films were rich in political subtext, full of characters beaten down by a rotten economy, and not necessarily packed with action or lightness.
And as a result, the film feels unlike any recent crime picture, and in the eyes of many Playlisters, it’s one of the very best of the year. To celebrate the film’s release, we’ve picked out five of our favorite ’70s crime movies. We’ve tried to avoid some of the more obvious ones — we assume you’ve seen “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico” (and if not, you really should). Instead, we’ve gone for five slightly less well-known pictures, ones which aren’t just underseen, but also feel of a piece with “Killing Them Softly.” See our picks below, and you can make your own recommendations in the comments section.
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973)
Perhaps the closest cousin to “Killing Them Softly” — not least because it’s based on a novel by George V. Higgins, who wrote “Cogan’s Trade,” the source material for Andrew Dominik‘s film — Peter Yates‘ terminally undervalued film was only middlingly received on release, but partly thanks to a Criterion release, its reputation has only grown and grown over time. Robert Mitchum, in one of his greatest performances, plays the titular Eddie, a lifelong criminal with many years inside, who’s left facing another stretch after being caught for gun-running. Desperate to avoid prison, he reluctantly turns stool-pigeon, but he’s quickly found out, with friend and bar owner Dillon (Peter Boyle, equally superb) tasked with the hit, and his law enforcement pals apathetic about his survival. It’s a bleak, low-key film, not the kind of thing that suspense is usually made of, and it’s pretty clear from the off that Coyle isn’t going to be long for this world. But the trade-off is for a marvelous authenticity; Higgins was a crime reporter and deputy U.S. attorney, and clearly knew his Boston underworld setting back-to-front, and Paul Monash‘s script is wonderfully terse in its rat-a-tat dialogue. More than anything else, there’s a heavy sadness that weighs over the film that means that, while it’s not the most pulse-pounding crime picture you’ll ever see, it lingers long afterwards. And among a cast of character actor greats, it’s Mitchum who’s right at the center — slow, dignified and hangdog, it’s a magnificent performance, and one inseparable from the film around it.
“Blue Collar” (1978)
“Killing Them Softly,” like many key ’70s crime movies, is a film as much about the problems of capitalism and the toughness of recession as it is about hits and robberies. And one of the more impressive examples in that milieu is “Blue Collar,” the directorial debut of “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader, which stars Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of Detroit auto workers who, fed up with management and their “representatives,” decide to rob the union headquarters. They don’t find much cash, but do find evidence of corruption and links to organized crime, which leads them to attempt to blackmail the union instead. There was almost as much drama on set as there was on the screen. The three leads hated each other, and Pryor pulled a gun on Schrader at one point, contributing to the director having a nervous breakdown. But it certainly doesn’t harm the film, as it’s a near-classic crime tale that mostly avoids trappings of the genre, searing in its evisceration of corporate and union corruption, noble in its defense of the working man, and feeling drawn deeply from real life. And its honesty carries over to the performances; they might not have gelled in real life, but Kotto, Keitel and Pryor’s friendship is entirely authentic, and the strains in it, when they come, are heartwrenching. Pryor in particular is excellent, cast way against type, but proved that his talents went beyond his comic genius.
“Straight Time” (1978)
Based on Eddie Bunker‘s novel “No Beast So Fierce” — an ex-con turned crime fiction author and occasional actor (he played Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”) — in many circles of cinephelia, “Straight Time” is an uncrowned jewel that doesn’t get enough love. Originally meant to be Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, after several weeks of shooting, Hoffman realized he was in over his head by starring and directing in the same movie and he asked his friend, Belgian-born filmmaker Ulu Grosbard, to take over the movie (they met when Grosbard was directing an off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” where Hoffman served as stage manager and assistant director). While it nearly cost them their friendship (and did for several years), “Straight Time” is a somber, gritty and vastly underestimated thriller. Featuring an excellent supporting cast including Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates, Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a lifelong thief just paroled after six long years who’s hoping to go straight, play by the rules and get a regular job. But hounded by a manipulative asshole parole officer (Walsh) who’s more than happy to throw him back in the pen at a moment’s notice, Dembo’s desire to stay on the straight and narrow is severely tested with every second of his newfound freedom. While he meets and woos a young girl (Russell) while job hunting and wants to start something anew with her, Dembo eventually snaps when the officer tries to pin a bullshit drug charge on him, realizing he’s simply never going to catch a break. The inevitable happens, and Dembo returns to a life of crime, eventually planning a big jewel heist with some old accomplices. Throughout, Hoffman embodies this gentle ex-con with a short fuse with effortless realism, and if you didn’t know better at the time, you’d have thought the actor was simply playing himself, his natural cool and confidence is so in the pocket. There’s a lot of nice atypical texture for a convict; Dembo is a charmer who is soft-spoken, empathetic, tense and nervy when crimes are going down. Simply put, “Straight Time” is one worth tracking down.
“Prime Cut” (1972)
While “Prime Cut,” the third film directed by Michael Ritchie — the filmmaker behind such ’70s classics as “Downhill Racer” and “The Candidate,” but also “The Bad News Bears” and “Fletch” — is loved in crime film aficionado circles, it’s definitely lesser known than other films of the era. Ritchie at this point had been known for his satirical light touch on “The Candidate,” but “Prime Cut” sees him entering “Dirty Harry” and Don Siegel territory as the picture is raw, brutal and downright ugly and risque (its violence is ferocious for its day and it even has a graphic scene of naked female slaves being sold off as cattle). As surly as ever, Lee Marvin plays Devlin, a hatchet man sent from Chicago to Kansas to collect a debt from a crooked meatpacking scion played by Gene Hackman. Things get more complicated when it’s revealed that Hackman’s Mary-Ann character (yes, Mary-Ann) is involved in complex drug deals and pimping women on his farm. To exacerbate it all, it’s revealed that Devlin has had a past romantic relationship with Hackman’s perennially-naked-around-the-house wife played by Angel Tompkins. In their film debuts, Sissy Spacek and Janit Baldwin play two of the naked, drugged-up girls in the film being pimped and auctioned off to these southern heathens. If that sounds fucked up, that’s because it is. But part of the fun, if you want to call it that, is the bile and disgust that Marvin’s character has for all the sordid happenings and the godless, backwood barbarians.
“The Seven-Ups” (1973)
The only directorial effort by Philip D’Antoni, the producer of police thrillers “Bullitt” and “The French Connection,” this exec-turned-filmmaker had a thing for groundbreaking and memorable car chases in his pictures, and “The Seven-Ups” also features a ridiculously long, and pretty awesome car chase. The thrillers D’Antoni produced were gritty and documentary-like, and “The Seven-Ups,” starring the great Roy Scheider, was very much in this same milieu. Co-starring character actors Tony Lo Bianco (NBC‘s “Police Story” in the 1970s), Larry Haines (“The Odd Couple“) and Richard Lynch (known for playing villains on TV on “Starsky & Hutch,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “T. J. Hooker,” etc.), Scheider stars as a renegade NYPD investigator running a type of dirty and unorthodox task force made up of plainclothes officers charged with taking down criminals guilty of offenses and ensuring them a minimum sentence of seven years in prison upon conviction (hence the name). Lo Bianco plays Scheider’s street informant who tips them to a rash of kidnappings, only the victims are mob bosses and high level players. Things get muddled when one of the Seven-Ups gets killed in action and Scheider’s character is out for revenge. D’Antoni used “Bullitt” and ‘French Connection’ stunt coordinator and driver Bill Hickman to pull off his elaborate chase — the film’s major set piece (watch below) — and the scene was edited by the Oscar-winning Jerry Greenberg of “The French Connection” fame. Somewhat slight in the ‘70s crime oeuvre, it’s still an engaging and loose pic in this era worth tracking down.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez