The Top 7 Performances of 1970s neo-noir films

The Top 7 Performances of 1970s neo-noir films

Recently Cody Lang and I have been producing a series on 1970s neo-noir films. In that series we discuss thirteen films, starting with the first Harper (1966) and ending with The American Friend (1977). As neo-noir films tend to lean heavily on their main characters, many of these films are the result of astounding performances. In this post I list seven of my favorite performances from these thirteen films.

Note: I’m leaving Jack Nicholson from Chinatown and Robert DeNiro from Taxi Driver off this list as their performances are too pantheonic to include. 

Ben Gazzara – Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

This is one of my personal favorite films. Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a strip club owner who fancies himself a dramatist, a

grinning, self-estranged protagonist, Cosmo, a small-time, rough-around-the-edges businessman trying to maintain an invented persona of Mr. Lucky suavity and charm. — Via Criterion

Gazzara’s Cosmo is a sad-sack man who is constantly trying to live up to a playboy image that he never can, and it’s wonderful to watch. And as with many of these films, the plot is secondary to his performance.

Jane Fonda – Klute (1971)

At first I didn’t like her character, or Fonda’s portrayal all that much. But after re-watching the film once or twice her work has grown on me. Fonda won an academy award for her portrayal of Bree Daniels, and unfortunately, is one of the only main female characters of 1970s neo-noir film, though there are certainly many good female secondary character performances.

I certainly wonder what happens to Fonda’s Bree after the film is over, once she moves out to the pure, clean countryside.

Lee Marvin – Point Blank (1967)

I always feel like Lee Marvin, especially in Point Blank, is a “man’s man.” But the reality is that this character is extremely varied and has many more layers than similar characters in most typical revenge flicks, most of which were spawned by this film (for example Mel Gibson’s film Payback (1999). I can’t see anyone else playing this part.

Elliot Gould – The Long Goodbye (1973)

Who can’t resist the mumbling charms of Elliot Gould’s take on Marlowe? A brilliant character played brilliantly and directed brilliantly.

Gene Hackman – The Conversation (1974)

Without Hackman, what would this film be?

Michael Caine – Get Carter (1971)

Nice guy Caine plays one of the ultimate British badasses.

Robert Mitchum – Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

An amazingly subtle performance by a major star. Mitchum inserts his sad-sack Eddie Coyle into a cast of great character actors and becomes part of a wonderful ensemble film. Why there aren’t more films like this I’ll never know. Perhaps it’s just based on the strength of Higgins’ novel. While Eddie holds the story together, the film is one of the few 1970s neo-noirs that is not completely driven by the likability and/or watchability of the main character.

Honorable Mentions

– Angie Dickinson – Point Blank

– Donald Sutherland – Klute

– Sterling Hayden – The Long Goodbye

– The Cat – The Long Goodbye

– Paul Newman – Harper series