10 great American TV movies of the 1970s

Fifty years after Steven Spielberg’s feature debut Duel terrified television audiences, we recall the American TV movie’s heyday of big issues and big talents.

11 November 2021

By Chloe Walker

Duel (1971)

Fifty years ago, Duel barrelled on to TV screens across North America. From the comfort of their own homes, millions of viewers watched in thrilled terror as that now-iconic truck menaced poor Dennis Weaver. The ratings were so impressive that the film received subsequent theatrical distribution throughout the rest of the world. And the success of Duel started its director – a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg – on one of the leading Hollywood careers of the last half-century. Not a bad result for a humble TV movie.

TV movies were still a relatively new phenomenon at the time of Duel’s debut. Movie studios had been charging US TV networks increasingly large amounts to air their features, so from the mid-1960s the networks decided to start making their own, and the 1970s saw the nascent form properly find its footing. With many millions of TV sets and only a few major channels to choose between, audience numbers could dwarf those of even the most popular cinema releases. Big stars, controversial subjects and dramatic narratives were key to luring viewers and keeping them tuned in. 

From their infancy, TV movies have struggled to shake off a reputation as a second-tier product – the cheap and cheesy cousin of the theatrical feature. While that might be an accurate description of the majority, it also doesn’t take a lot of digging to find entertaining, artful TV films that are well worth tracking down – even if they can be harder to find now than major theatrical releases of the time. Here are 10 of the very best that the 1970s had to offer.

Brian’s Song (1971)

Director: Buzz Kulik

Brian’s Song (1971)

Based on true events, Brian’s Song follows the friendship of two NFL players, the avuncular Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and the more reserved Gale Sears (Billy Dee Williams), as they navigate the pressures of elite sports, and later, Brian’s terminal cancer.  

Brian’s Song deftly sidesteps the schmaltziness of many terminal illness films, and doesn’t labour over the unusually progressive nature of Piccolo and Sears’ friendship (the two were the first interracial NFL teammates to also become roommates). Instead it finds a simple, affecting power in depicting the relationship between two men who grow to love each other. Warm performances from Caan and Williams and a witty Emmy-winning script from William Blinn rightfully earn the film its reputation as one of the most enduring of all TV movies. Brian’s Song was remade in 2001 (again for television), but the original remains the must-see version.

See the Man Run (1971)

Director: Corey Allen

See the Man Run (1971)

When struggling actor Ben Taylor (Robert Culp) receives a ransom-demand phone call meant for someone else, he – at the encouragement of his callous wife Joanne (Angie Dickinson) – decides to insert himself as a middle man, intending to manipulate a profit from the hostage’s terrified parents (Eddie Albert and June Allyson). Unsurprisingly, his plan backfires. Many times over. 

See the Man Run is an excellent example of the TV movie at its most unabashedly fun. A ubiquitous presence in the genre for his entire career (notably in the Columbo features, where he was the murderer on three separate occasions), Robert Culp plays his antihero as a pitiable, pathetic figure, ripe for manipulation from his Lady Macbeth of a wife – and Angie Dickinson’s villainous turn as the film’s cruel mastermind is deliciously overblown. That combination of bombastic acting and a plot that won’t stop twisting make See the Man Run a gleefully good time.

The Night Stalker (1972)

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey

The Night Stalker (1972)

Veteran reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is on the scene in Las Vegas for a string of grisly murders, all of which involve bites to the neck and exsanguination. He comes to the obvious conclusion – the murderer is a vampire – while the officials in charge of the case call him crazy. Determined to prove himself right and catch the killer, Kolchak goes it alone on his investigation. 

Adapted for TV by screenwriting legend Richard Matheson (who also wrote Duel), The Night Stalker scored such high ratings on its original airing that it inspired both a sequel – The Night Strangler (1973) – and a short lived supernatural detective series with McGavin reprising his lead role. McGavin’s weather-beaten appeal as Kolchak is in large part why this original film is so appealing, but a supporting cast packed with 50s B-movie legends such as Ralph Meeker and Charles McGraw, and some evocative Las Vegas location shooting, certainly help too.

That Certain Summer (1972)

Director: Lamont Johnson

That Certain Summer (1972)

Hal Holbrook almost turned down his lead role in That Certain Summer; not because he’d be portraying a gay character – a perilous career move in 1972 – but because he worried too little happened in the story. He plays divorced dad Doug Salter, whose son Nick (Scott Jacoby) comes to spend the summer. Gradually, Nick discovers that Doug’s friend Gary (Martin Sheen) is actually his romantic partner. That’s it. 

Still, that scantness of narrative belies the import of the production, which is considered to be among the first positive mainstream on-screen depictions of homosexuality – indeed, shamefully, it would not be until the following year that homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Despite a raft of strict restrictions on the central relationship from a nervous network (Holbrook and Sheen weren’t even allowed to share ‘lingering eye contact’), the sensitivity of the lead performances and the heartfelt screenplay from Columbo masterminds William Link and Richard Levinson have helped That Certain Summer age with surprising grace. 

Reflections of Murder (1974)

Director: John Badham

Reflections of Murder (1974)

At a private boys school near Seattle, the wife Claire (Joan Hackett) and mistress Vicky (Tuesday Weld) of cruel fellow teacher Michael (Sam Waterston) have had enough of his unrelenting malice. They decide to team up and murder him. Once the deed is done, however, guilt and paranoia threaten to destroy the women and their unlikely friendship. 

A classy remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques (1955), Reflections of Murder transposes the action from Paris to the Pacific Northwest, a move that gives the TV movie its own eerily damp, autumnal identity. The three central turns are all strong, particularly Hackett as the overwhelmed, rapidly unravelling Claire. Even when you know what’s coming, the legendary climax loses none of its terrifying impact. Two more remakes of Les Diaboliques were aired in the 1990s – House of Secrets (1993) and Diabolique (1996) – but neither was as creepy or compelling as Reflections of Murder. 

Hustling (1975)

Director: Joseph Sargent 

Hustling (1975)

Inspired by the real-life reporting of Gail Sheehy, Hustling tracks journalist Fran Morrison’s (Lee Remick) investigation into prostitution on the streets of New York City and the corrupt, powerful men who illicitly control the industry. During her enquiries, Fran becomes close to several of the women she interviews, especially canny Wanda (Jill Clayburgh) and naive Dee Dee (Melanie Mayron).

Hustling is notable for its lively, grimy atmosphere, with director Joseph Sargent bringing the same eye for the gritty colour of NYC that he’d shown the year before on The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. More than anything else here though, it’s the performances and rapport of the predominantly female cast that give Hustling its emotional heft. Melanie Mayron’s sweet naif is a forerunner of the character she’d play in Girlfriends (1978), and Jill Clayburgh was nominated for an Emmy for her complex portrayal of a feisty but conflicted sex worker.

Griffin and Phoenix (1976)

Director: Daryl Duke

Griffin and Phoenix (1976)

Clayburgh followed Hustling with Griffin and Phoenix. She stars as the terminally ill Sarah Phoenix, who – in the last few months of her life – falls in love with the similarly fated Geoffrey Griffin (Peter Falk). As they try to fill their remaining time with as many adventures as they can, each chooses to keep their deadly diagnosis a secret from the other. 

Terminal illness is a risky proposition on screen, all too easily resulting in mawkishness or cliché. Griffin and Phoenix – much like Brian’s Song – evades those traps by establishing a central relationship that transcends the obvious narrative contrivance: essentially, Clayburgh and Falk share such a warm and genuine chemistry that they make it easy to overlook the inherent emotional manipulation of the screenplay. And on the back of its enormously successful TV airing, Griffin and Phoenix was released in select cinemas later that year. 

Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Director: Boris Sagal

Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Right in the middle of his run as James Bond, Roger Moore took on another iconic character of literature and film: Sherlock Holmes. Together with the ever trusty Watson (Patrick Macnee), Holmes heads off to New York City for his latest attempt at defeating Moriarty (John Huston). Along the way, he falls for the beautiful, mysterious Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling).

Flat direction excludes this feather-light take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation from the top tier of films about the famous detective, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the starry cast. Moore’s charming urbanity proves as comfortable a fit for Holmes as it is for Bond, and Macnee’s take on Watson gives him an enjoyable foil. It’s the inimitable John Huston who runs away with the picture, however – though his screen time is minimal, whenever he does appear, his maniacal Moriarty commands all your attention.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Originally written as a theatrical movie before being reformatted for television, John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me! follows Leigh (Lauren Hutton), a TV producer who’s just moved into a lavish new apartment. She immediately starts being menaced by threatening phone calls from a man who professes to be watching her. With the help of new friends Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Paul (David Birney), she sets about trying to discover her stalker – before it’s too late…

Carpenter made Someone’s Watching Me! straight before Halloween (1978), and Lauren Hutton’s Leigh is every inch as smart, brave and formidably capable as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie. In fact, watching her magnetic performance today, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of regret that Hutton’s heroine never got to lead a similar franchise. Her charisma aside, Someone’s Watching Me! sees Carpenter riff on Alfred Hitchcock – most obviously Rear Window (1954) – to tremendously entertaining effect. His slick direction belies the project’s modest TV movie status. 

Hollow Image (1979)

Director: Marvin J. Chomsky

Hollow Image (1979)

After a hardscrabble upbringing in Harlem, Harriet (S. Pearl Sharp) has become a buyer for an upmarket Manhattan clothing store. After a visit back home to see her old boyfriend Danny (Dick Anthony Williams), she’s distressed to notice how little has changed since she lived there. She decides to use her new wealth to try and help her old neighbourhood, but her good intentions don’t prove as welcome as she’d hoped. 

Lee Hunkins’ thoughtful screenplay contends with still-pertinent issues around code switching and the difficulties of upward social mobility for Black people in America. The location shooting around New York City gives the film additional grounding in reality (the sequence set in Coney Island is a particular highlight). Among a strong supporting cast, it’s a pre-fame Morgan Freeman – still a whole decade out from his breakthrough role in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – who proves the biggest scene-stealer, as a starry-eyed, ill-fated addict. 

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free