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Arguably the most fruitful decade for American cinema, the 1970s birthed a new kind of studio picture. A picture where the filmmakers were in control and were given a budget to run with their vision instead of being studio-noted to death — but also, a surprising amount of existential, cynical, and nihilistic worldview permeated the films that have stood in relevance across decades.

While the 1970s had great dramas, comedies, and horror films, the genre of crime churned out an unusual high in great movies. Year after year, month after month, great directors turned to crime to say something about America: Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, and even the legend Steven Spielberg took turns making films about charismatic anti-heroes. Crime thrillers were a way to flex not only an aesthetic, but also a way to talk about the country at large. Here are the best 70s crime films, ranked.

Related: Best Films Set in New York, Ranked

10 Across 110th Street

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One of the better Blaxploitation films to come out during the early 1970s, and an indelible piece of Harlem crime cinema about dirty cops, drug dealers, and innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place — Across 110th Street is brutal in its depiction of the criminal life and begins with a massacre after the iconic opening song title sequence to set the tone for the rest of the film. The script, with expertise, shows the racial and class tensions between the Black community in Harlem and the racist police who assume all their suspects are guilty before talking. Across 110th Street is as depressing as it is compelling to see so many innocent bodies fall victim to the violence of a racist institution.

9 Mean Streets

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Before Martin Scorsese started cutting his teeth on long winding, mafia epics that span decades, he made a small film about the people he grew up with in Little Italy. The director showed all of his interests from the go, featuring a classic-rock-driven soundtrack with montages splashed in a deep red hue, with a long list of unforgettable wise guys trying to make it big time. Mean Streets is so good because Scorsese has a heart for these characters and would be the first time he collaborated with long-time friend, Robert De Niro, who plays the hotheaded Johnny that helps drive the film to its tragic ends.

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The best of crime films defy genre. In part, that’s what Michael Cimino’s debut film does. Working in elements of a road trip, screwball comedy, and hangout films, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a 70s crime film that coasts by on the charm of its stars: a steely Clint Eastwood as the legendary bank robber Thunderbolt who accidentally bumps into the impossibly young Lightfoot, played by the goofy cool of Jeff Bridges. The two slug beers and coast the highways in the hot sun, soaking it up until they get to the next score hoping to arrive at some endpoint if it ever comes. It’s one of the more laid-back, inventive films the crime genre has to offer.

Related: Best Clint Eastwood Westerns, Ranked

7 The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

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Not one setting suits the 70s crime genre more than the dirty streets and subways of New York City in the 1970s. Rife with crime and racialized violence, the subways were a setting susceptible to the worst New York had to offer during this turbulent decade. But what makes The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 so effective, is the heist of a subway cart and how great the script is at revealing the slow bureaucratic process of the city’s governance. Walter Matthau is great as the lazy transit Lieutenant tasked with dealing with the crisis but, no one in the film quite holds a candle to the late Robert Shaw, whose intellect prevails at making him sinister and intriguing as well.

6 The Hot Rock

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A dynamite script from legendary screenwriter William Goldman, The Hot Rock is a crime film that sets an elaborate heist in motion then continues to evolve from one daring rescue and theft to the next. Starring Robert Redford as his coolest, he elects to rob a bank with his loyal crew of misfits to obtain a rare diamond. But, after one member gets arrested the film precedes into a prison escape film, then they have to retrieve the diamond all over again. It’s incredibly fast-paced and laid the foundation for many heist films to come like Ocean’s 11.

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5 The Long Goodbye

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Lionsgate Films

Noir has long been deconstructed and reassembled to suit a new audience or style of filmmaking. This is true of the 1970s and one of the masterpieces to come from the decade in the form of The Long Goodbye. At times, a hard-boiled noir but always light on its feet, Robert Altman’s long winding humorous tale of the legendary hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe as a slacker stumbling his way through a murder mystery is an American New Wave gem. With star Elliot Gould smoking cigarettes like he’s Jean-Paul Belmondo reincarnated, and a fantastic crime actor icon Sterling Hayden giving a drunken performance for the ages. The Long Goodbye is a crime classic and even features an Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo.

4 Straight Time

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A staple of the 70s crime film is fantastically long-haired protagonists, mustaches, and mutton chops. Of the era is Straight Time. Originally meant to be Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut which he then opted to star in, is an underrated gem. The film effectively stages elaborate crime schemes and plotting, but it also shows the downfall of being addicted to the thrills. Hoffman embodies a man on the margins, economically in shambles incapable of breaking away from the allure. Even when the regular life starts to happen, he can’t say no to crime.

3 The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Based on the novel of the same name, the late Peter Yates directs this part crime caper, heist film, bad guy hangout with relative ease that never draws attention to itself. Full of colorful Boston banter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a mesmerizing exercise in restraint, taking us from dirty pool halls to low-level banks where gun-runners supply the criminal food chain. Robert Mitchum stars as Eddie Coyle, a man who’s too smart for his own good and unfortunately finds himself, friends, with the wrong people.

2 Chinatown

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One of the best scripts ever written from the fine pen of Robert Towne, Chinatown has cemented itself as one of the great American films ever made. With a twisty plot, covering its tracks up until the final moment. Chinatown represents the corrupt, nihilistic, and virtueless legacy of Capitalism, nearly running a major city dry. With John Huston’s tormented performance looming over the story and Jack Nicholson at the center of it all, he slowly has to learn, “This is Chinatown.”. Roman Polanski’s work of genius will stand the test of time.

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1 The Godfather

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Every other crime epic made will live in The Godfather‘s shadow. It’s perhaps the most influential film and the most artful piece of pop cinema ever to touch the big screen. A mafia film about powers corruption in America’s model of becoming your boss, AKA, capitalism. A king (Marlon Brando) with his three sons Michael (Al Pacino), Sonita (James Caan), and Fredo (John Cazale) all vying for their father’s throne as the future of the business closes in on him. The Godfather thrived in the darkness, where the best of crime lives.

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About The Author

Erik Nielsen
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Erik Nielsen is a working writer and photographer living in NYC. His writing on film has been published in the online film magazines The Film Stage and Little White Lies. While his writing on photography has been published in The Independent and Musèe Magazine. As a photographer, you can find Erik’s work in places like Pitchfork, Juxtaprose, the NY Post, and The Daily News.

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