The Best '70s Crime Films You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week, we head back nearly half a century for some great crime films of the 1970s!)

Some may try to argue otherwise, but most reasonable film lovers with taste will agree that the best decade for movies was the 1970s. There are obviously fantastic feature films from every year since 1906 – the year the very first feature was produced – but pound for pound, the ’70s remain unbeatable across nearly every genre.

While the decade produced fantastic comedies, horror films, dramas, and more, its record when it comes to the gritty, shifty, and violent world of crooks, thieves, and killers is unmatched. The Godfather (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Hot Rock (1972), Shaft (1971), Get Carter (1971), Freebie and the Bean (1974)… this entire page could be filled with titles of terrific crime-focused movies from the 70s. But those are all ones you’re already aware of – which brings us to this list of the best ’70s crime films you’ve never seen.

And Hope to Die (1972)

Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) isn’t having the best of days. After barely escaping a group of thugs exacting an unclear revenge, he accidentally intrudes into a shootout in progress. A dying man gives him cash and a strange message, and two others abduct Tony and take him back to a remote fishing cabin. From there he’s forced to think quick and act even faster to avoid being killed by the group’s leader (Robert Ryan), and soon he talks his way into participating in a high-stakes caper while finagling the advances of two desperate women.

Director René Clément’s penultimate feature isn’t all that highly regarded, but it remains an engaging character study. His previous collaboration with screenwriter Sebastien Japrisot (Rider on the Rain, 1970) is better remembered, but there’s something about this one that makes it surpass its reputation. The opening foot chase thrills without much dialogue, and the action kicks in again in the third act as the details of the job come clear. Crime doesn’t pay, as they say, and that’s doubly true when they’re speaking French… and are weighed down by guilt.

The original cut of this early ’70s crime/thriller was far longer than American audiences could apparently abide, leading it to be cut by roughly 40 minutes, but that longer version is now the one that’s available on Blu-ray. It’s the richer version, albeit the slower one, as it sandwiches in more time spent between these troubled characters. Tony’s playing games for his life while the others are various degrees of mad, delusional, and hopeful, and it leaves viewer loyalty in a malleable state. Some find that to be a negative, but it’s a far more honest reflection of humanity.

And Hope to Die is available on Blu-ray.

The Day of the Wolves (1971)

Six men, each of them a thief to one degree or another, receive an envelope in the mail with a plane ticket and an offer they can’t refuse. $50,000 awaits each of them, and all they have to do is come together, train for an elaborate heist in an empty ghost town, and then execute the plan for real by robbing out an entire town. The men are identified only by number – if any of them get pinched they have no way to snitch on their fellow crooks – and the plan is simple. What could possibly go wrong?

The idea of an anonymous gang isn’t entirely new, and yes, this is one more movie you can add to the list of “influences” towards Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Taken on its own merits, The Day of the Wolves delivers with ingenuity and B-movie thrills. The six men are joined by the organizer, Number 1, and together they do drills, fire off machine guns, and lock down a plan that’s actually pretty thorough and well thought out. What they don’t know, though, is that the town’s sheriff has just been canned for being a bad-ass, and stopping their assault might just be the highlight of his early retirement.

The heist element is smart in a high-concept, B-movie kind of way – it could have been a contender on my earlier list of the best oddball heist movies you’ve never seen – and it’s executed in such a way as to make it believable in a world before cell phones and small town SWAT units. The film is very much a low-budget affair, was made for television, and features a cast consisting of character actors and Lake Havasu locals. Still, it’s a well-crafted little ride for fans of criminal mayhem, modern day westerns, and beards. Did I not mention the beards? They’re part of the plan, see…

The Day of the Wolves is not currently available.

Fear is the Key (1972)

Before I offer up some thoughts on this absolute miracle of a forgotten gem, I’m going to recommend that you stop reading, head straight to Amazon Prime, and take a 10 dollar gamble without reading the synopsis there (or anywhere else). I highly doubt you’ll regret it, and you can always return to thank me later. [Waits a beat.] You’re still here, aren’t you?

Anyway, some time after hearing a distressing radio call, John Talbot (Barry Newman) arrives in a small Louisiana town with agitation on his mind. He stirs up trouble with citizens, cops, and crooks alike, and he’s only just getting started. He soon trades southern hospitality for the harsh seas of the Gulf of Mexico, and as the method behind his madness comes clear there will be hell to pay for anyone left standing in his way.

British director Michael Tuchner makes his first of two appearances on this list with a ridiculously entertaining banger based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. While all films can benefit from knowing as little as possible going in, Fear is the Key is the epitome of that conceit as things start with style before shifting more gears than the winner of the Daytona 500. A mystery, a slice of Southern exploitation, a muscle car chase film, and more – it’s all of these and none of these, and you’re going to wonder why you’ve never heard of the film before. Come for the legitimately thrilling 20-minute car chase and stay for a killer plot and a supporting cast that includes John Vernon, Suzy Kendall, and baby Ben Kingsley in his feature film debut.

Fear is the Key is available to stream.

Sudden Fury (1975)

Al (Dan Hennessey) is many miles from home on a casual road trip through a rural part of the country, and nothing’s gonna get him down. That changes, though, when he crosses paths with a bickering couple who almost cause an accident. Fred (Dominic Hogan) is irritated with his wife Janet (Gay Rowan) because she won’t support his latest financial scheme by dipping into her inheritance, so after another accident – he was temporarily blinded by his own plaid jacket – leaves her injured, he decides to let nature take its course. Al arrives on the scene and tries to save her, and soon the two men are entangled in a cat and mouse blame game with more death on the horizon.

This lean Canadian gem is probably more of a thriller than a “crime” film, but last I checked attempted murder and plaid jackets were still against the law. It’s a suspenseful ride as Fred manages to stay one step ahead of everyone, and Hogan is a twisted delight as a manipulative husband who takes to being a sociopath with remarkable ease. I’m not saying you’ll root for the guy, but by the time the end credits roll, you can’t help but admire his on-the-fly gumption.

The cast is mostly unrecognizable to today’s audiences, and it remains writer/director Brian Damude’s only feature film, which is a damn shame. While the title is something of a tease – there’s nothing sudden here as Damude allows the first act to keep pace with Fred’s slowly increasing desperation and anger – there’s plenty of fury on display. One man’s furious with his wife, another is highly pissed off by the first, and a young couple on a nearby farm are irked that their day is ruined by two guys with mustaches and competing stories. This is a tight little thril– err, crime film, and it’s one of the finest Canadian exports you’ve never heard of.

Sudden Fury is available on Blu-ray and to stream.

Trick Baby (1972)

Blue Howard (Mel Stewart) and ‘White’ Folks (Kiel Martin) are good friends and great con artists, and they’re celebrating a successful job the only way they know how – with alcohol, women, and plenty of bragging. The pair have already moved on to their next con when they catch word that their previous mark has suffered a heart attack, and that the man’s nephew, a mean as hell gangster, is looking for revenge. Leaving town is the best option, especially as a dirty cop is also on their tail, but that would mean leaving a fortune behind in a safe deposit box that doesn’t open until the morning.

The synopsis leaves Trick Baby sounding pretty straightforward, but it’s actually got quite a bit more going on beyond its narrative. Race is a major thread here, and while it never leans fully into blaxploitation (and arguably leans away from the source novel’s deeper dive into the Black experience) it still ticks several of the boxes. Blue is a longtime crook, and ‘White’ Folks – a white-passing man born to a Black woman impregnated by a white john, hence “Trick Baby” – is the perfect con partner as his white skin adds a whole new element to their game.

There’s a casual banter between them showing real respect and loyalty, and they make for an engaging and appealing pair. Both Stewart and Martin give strong, charismatic performances, and as the vice tightens around them the tension ratchets up for viewers. Director Larry Yust doesn’t shoot a flashy film and instead captures both the calm and the storm unfolding in Philadelphia with an eye for faces, expressions, and the emotion that comes with “bad” guys on the run from even worse ones. Fans of Iceberg Slim’s novel might take issue with the film’s softer edges, but those coming in cold should find an entertaining downer of a ride.

Trick Baby is not currently available.

Villain (1971)

Mob boss Vic Dakin (Richard Burton) is a mean son of a bitch with a soft touch for no one but his elderly mother. He makes money in numerous ways, all illicit, but when an opportunity arises to make a big score off a robbery, he jumps a bit too eagerly at the chance. It requires cooperation with some nearby criminal peers, and it’s unfolding while Vic is under intense scrutiny by a dogged detective, but if they’re smart neither element will stand in his way. Or at least, that’s the way Vic Dakin sees it.

The most traditional crime film to make the list, Michael Tuchner’s Villain is an old-school British gangster flick in the vein of The Long Good Friday (1980) with its snarling and spitting mobsters, tough-talking musclemen, and seemingly doomed leads. It can’t quite reach that film’s highs, but Villain is absolutely worth it for a highly visceral robbery sequence and Burton’s animalistic performance that shows he was more than capable of delivering the good stuff long after critics of the time had written him off – he just needed a sharply written and meaty role to bite into.

The film’s other big draw is an early performance from Ian McShane as Vic’s right-hand man capable of supplying anything anyone needs. He’s terrific as a smart crook whose loyalty to – and fear of – Burton’s mob boss threatens to lead to his own downfall. Quite unusually for the genre and time period, it’s also made fairly clear that Vic and Wolfe are lovers. While a racier scene was apparently filmed and then deleted, what’s left are gestures, expressions, and one sequence that fades to black in telling fashion. It’s far from the film’s focus, but in addition to adding an interesting wrinkle it also layers in unexpected pathos to the film’s third act.

Villain is available to stream.

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