While the classic detective was pretty much absent from movie screens during the 1960’s, he made a major comeback in the 1970s. “He” was the operative word; V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone had yet to break into the “boy’s only” world of detective novels, and movies have lagged behind on that score. Here are my choices for the best mystery movies of the 1970s, in no particular order:
The hard-boiled 1930s private detective roared back into the movies in Roman Polanski’s stylish take on film noir. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) pokes his nose into a murder and almost gets it cut off, even as he falls for the victim’s widow (Faye Dunaway). With a script by Robert Towne and haunting theme music by Jerry Goldsmith, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars, though only Towne won.
The Last Of Sheila (1973)
A year after losing his wife Sheila to a hit and run driver, Clinton Green (James Coburn) invites a group of friends (Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, James Mason, Joan Hacket and Raquel Welch) onto his yacht for a scavenger hunt-style mystery game that soon turns deadly. The script was written by the unlikely pair of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim and was directed by Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Footloose, Steel Magnolias).
The Conversation (1974)
In between doing the first two Godfather pictures, Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed this classic. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who can bug any conversation and record it. In the course of an assignment, he begins to suspect the couple he’s watching has been targeted for murder. It’s an exercise in paranoia, but as the phrase says, “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.”
Dirty Harry (1971)
San Francisco Homicide Inspector Harry Callahan became a pop culture icon the first time he asked a punk if he felt lucky. Don Siegel’s tight procedural movie, loosely based on the still-unsolved Zodiac killer case, has Harry not only trying to stop a killer but having to battle with the Mayor, the Police Chief, and the D.A. who want to rein him in. All the exterior filming was done on location, with the exception of the bank robbery sequence.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Agatha Christie got the all-star treatment in Sidney Lumet’s version of this Hercule Poirot mystery. A man is discovered murdered on the snowbound train of the title and Poirot is called upon to investigate. Albert Finney was the best Poirot on film (though David Suchet owns the role on television), and the movie won Ingrid Bergman the last of her three Oscars. It also launched a series of Christie adaptations in the 70’s and 80’s, but Murder on the Orient Express was the first and the best.
For the first time in decades, Alfred Hitchcock returned to England to film this movie, and he recovered some of his 1930’s mojo. London is terrorized by a serial killer who strangles women with neckties. Suspicion falls on Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) when his estranged wife becomes one of the victims. As the noose closes around Blaney, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowan) begins to doubt they’re chasing the right man. While it’s not in the same class as his movies in the 1950s (North By Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Vertigo), this film was the last flicker of brilliance from a director whose name has come to define mystery and suspense on film.
The Late Show (1977)
Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) wrote and directed this private eye movie that teamed Art Carney and Lilly Tomlin. Carney plays a semi-retired P.I. who, with the help of a quirky client (Tomlin), investigates the murder of his partner. Benton manages to blend in comedy while keeping the tension and mystery high. Tomlin was nominated for an Oscar for her role, and the film won an Edgar award as the best film mystery of the year.
The French Connection (1972)
William Friedkin’s gritty police procedural, based on an actual NYPD case, won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. It also featured one of the best car chases on film, rivaling Bullitt. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play cops who stumble onto a major heroin smuggler. The cops who were actually involved in the case, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso, appeared in the movie and then made the move from New York to Hollywood. Egan stayed on the acting side, playing cops in films and on TV series, while Grasso became a producer of TV movies and series, usually with a crime theme.
Night Moves (1975)
This is the third Gene Hackman movie on this list. He reunites with his director from Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn, to play Harry Moseby, a former football player turned private detective who’s hired by an aging Hollywood actress to find her runaway granddaughter (Melanie Griffith in her first movie role). Unusual for a movie, Harry is oblivious to a deeper mystery swirling around him until near the end of the film, and doesn’t realize the person who’s behind it all until a final, shattering reveal in almost the last shot.
Farewell My Lovely (1975)
It’s rare when the remake of a classic can match the original. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novel was filmed as Murder My Sweet in 1944, with Dick Powell as the iconic detective. (This was two years before Humphrey Bogart played the role in The Big Sleep.) The 1975 version had Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, following a missing person case into a web of lies, blackmail and murder. The movie actually stays truer to the source by including the seamier parts of Chandler’s story that couldn’t make it past the Production Code in 1944. Strangely enough, there is a third, earlier version of the story; the plot was used in the 1942 B picture The Falcon Takes Over starring George Sanders.