The common conception of British cinema in the 1970s is that it was in terminal decline. Deprived of investment in the face of dwindling box-office returns, producers resorted to peddling period horrors, softcore romps and sitcom spin-offs to stay afloat. Yet, the decade also witnessed a mini thriller boom that exploited the BBFC’s relaxation of censorship to bring a new psychological authenticity and depth to such suspense-filled stories as David Greene’s I Start Counting (1970).
Like many of the decade’s thrillers and horrors, the action of this adaptation of Audrey Erskine Lindop’s 1966 novel centres on violence against women. However, Greene and screenwriter Richard Harris avoid the excess that mired Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (both 1971) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) in controversy. Instead, there’s a social realist feel about the way in which 14-year-old Wynne Kinch (Jenny Agutter) comes to terms with leaving the family home for a new high-rise flat and the dreadful prospect that older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall) is the Dalstead strangler.
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Despite the sensitivity of the treatment of a young girl’s awakening, the film was wrongly dismissed in some quarters as a ‘slasher’. Sex did play a prominent role in 70s thrillers as different as See No Evil (1971), Sleuth (1972) and Schizo (1976), But there were plenty of other subjects on offer too, with Mark Lester fleeing assassins in Eyewitness (1970), Roger Moore being stalked by his döppelganger in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) and Rod Steiger seeking to blow up parliament after the death of his family in Belfast in Hennessy (1975).
By the time of the latter’s release, the brief heyday was over. In the post-Hammer period, the line between thriller and horror started to blur. Nevertheless, it leaves a lingeringly disconcerting legacy.
I Start Counting is now available in a 2K restoration on BFI Blu-ray.
And Soon the Darkness (1970)
Director: Robert Fuest
Having helped shape two of British television’s most influential 1960s shows, The Avengers and Doctor Who, writers Brian Clemens and Terry Nation joined forces on this 1970 thriller. And Soon the Darkness saw director Robert Fuest swapping the Yorkshire moors of his version of Wuthering Heights (1970) for the flat fields of rural France, where Nottingham nurses Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice) are on a cycling holiday. What ensues borders on horror, as Cathy goes missing after staying behind to sunbathe following a row on the road. Jane is left struggling to know who to trust after learning that another blonde tourist had been murdered at the same spot a few years earlier.
Isolating her in tight close-ups that contrast with the sprawling vistas, Fuest exploits an air of malevolent ambiguity. Jane’s fear of the unknown is rooted in the everyday and in the clash of language and culture that would have felt intimidating to audiences still getting used to holidaying abroad.
Fragment of Fear (1970)
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
David Hemmings was no stranger to baffling mysteries, having played the photographer who struggles to convince anyone that he has witnessed a murder in a London park in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). He has a similar problem in this adaptation of a 1965 novel by John Bingham (John le Carré’s model for George Smiley). He plays writer and recovering addict Tim Brett, who can’t even persuade fiancée Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt) that he has been persecuted since his aunt (Flora Robson) was murdered in the ruins of Pompeii.
Such are the fiendish deceptions perpetrated by Paul Dehn’s screenplay that it’s impossible for Brett (and the audience) to know who to trust, as just about everyone he meets seems to be part of a conspiracy intent on discrediting him in order to keep any number of dastardly secrets buried. The ensemble cast is as exceptional as Oswald Morris’s noir-meets-giallo photography and Johnny Harris’s jazz score.
Figures in a Landscape (1970)
Director: Joseph Losey
Widely seen as an allegory on the Vietnam war, Barry England’s novel Figures in a Landscape was nominated for the inaugural Booker Prize before being reworked by Robert Shaw for Joseph Losey’s Andalucía-shot thriller. Precious little context is given as to why MacConnachie (Shaw) and Ansell (Malcolm McDowell) are fleeing the black helicopter that relentlessly pursues them across unyielding terrain with their hands tied behind their backs. But Losey and his cinematographers use the unnamed enemy’s aerial perspective to highlight the insignificance of the fugitives and the dehumanising nature of their Sisyphean struggle to survive.
The script sprinkles snippets of information that stress the generational gap between the callow Ansell and the ruthlessly resourceful MacConnachie. But Losey exploits the implacability of their plight to reinforce their common commitment to hard-won freedom – the kind with which Losey was wholly familiar, having fled his homeland during the HUAC inquiry into communism in Hollywood.
The Night Digger (1971)
Director: Alastair Reid
Originally released as The Road Builder, this adaptation of Joy Cowley’s novel Nest in a Falling Tree was scripted by Roald Dahl for his actor wife Patricia Neal. It was the only time they collaborated. Dahl chose the project because protagonist Maura Prince has survived the same sort of cerebral aneurysm that had prompted Variety to declare Neal prematurely dead in 1965.
Cowed by her blind adoptive mother, Edith (Pamela Brown), Maura becomes increasingly coy around handyman Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), as their quiet Home Counties village buzzes with gossip about the vicar’s sex change and a predatory serial killer. Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s disquieting score, the camera prowls around sets whose shabby grandeur has kept Maura trapped since she had been forced to return home after an ill-starred love affair two decades earlier. The script is studded with cruel insights into the Dahl-Neal marriage, but the writing is actually this superbly acted thriller’s weak link.
Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)
Director: John Mackenzie
If the Midwich Cuckoos had studied racing form, they might well have passed for Lower 5B at Chantry School in this cult film from future Long Good Friday director John Mackenzie. Schools proved a popular setting for 70s thrillers, with Suzy Kendall in Assault (1971) and Richard Burton in Absolution (1978) sharing the unhappy fate of David Hemmings, a chalkface novice who finds teaching tougher than expected after discovering that his form had murdered his predecessor.
Rowan Atkinson memorably spoofed the roll call in The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979), but there’s little to laugh at as the boys seek to teach Hemmings a lesson by assaulting his wife (Carolyn Seymour) in a squash court. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth reinforces the sense of menace by contrasting the cramped classrooms and darkened corridors with the ferocity of the waves crashing against the rocks beneath cliffs that will claim one more victim before term ends.
Director: Peter Collinson
Susan George spent much of 1971 in peril, as her performance in Fright led to her being cast in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Cornish siege saga, Straw Dogs. In Peter Collinson’s chiller, she plays George, the teenage babysitter who finds herself being targeted by an escaped asylum inmate (Ian Bannen) who resents his wife (Honor Blackman) for divorcing him after he had tried to murder her.
Taking time off from Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, screenwriter Tudor Gates deftly builds suspense by switching between a celebratory dinner involving the grown-ups and the creaky old house in which George is trapped with a toddler and the corpse of her boyfriend. Having previously endangered Suzy Kendall in The Penthouse (1967), director Peter Collinson would do the same to Rita Tushingham in Straight on Till Morning (1972).
Endless Night (1972)
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Although overshadowed by Sidney Lumet’s all-star, Oscar-winning Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Sidney Gilliat’s thriller is the decade’s best Agatha Christie adaptation. The 1967 source novel remained among the author’s favourites, containing echoes of her 1924 story ‘Philomel Cottage’.
Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills play a chauffeur and an heiress who marry and set up home on a Devonshire plot, but are forced to share it with Mills’ disapproving best friend (Britt Ekland) amid a succession of suspicious happenings. Christie tutted at the film’s nudity, but with Bernard Herrmann’s score counterpointing the flying sparks, the results prove very compelling. It would form an unnerving Mills double bill with Sidney Hayers’ Deadly Strangers (1975).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
In returning to Britain to make his first feature here since Stage Fright (1950), greengrocer’s son Alfred Hitchcock revisited the familiar childhood haunt of Covent Garden for this adaptation of Arthur La Bern’s 1966 novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. Another of Hitch’s ‘wrong man’ thrillers, the action contains echoes of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), as screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (who had stepped in after Vladimir Nabokov had cried off) examined the prudish British attitudes to sex that seemed to have survived the swinging 60s intact.
The presence of Anna Massey provides another connection with Powell’s film, although Helen Mirren was originally considered for her role. Michael Caine similarly turned down the chance to play the Necktie Murderer, who was based on 1940s killer Neville Heath (who also inspired Hitchcock’s unrealised project, Kaleidoscope). Awash with local colour, dark humour and flashes of sordid misogyny, Frenzy followed Hitch’s Torn Curtain (1966) in showing how difficult taking a life can actually be.
Director: Mike Hodges
Having triumphed on his debut with Get Carter (1971), director Mike Hodges took a left turn in reuniting with Michael Caine on this quirky, hardboiled pastiche. It was originally going to be called Memoirs of a Ghost Writer. The action is set in Italy, but filmed in Malta to avoid Mafia interference. It centres on pulp hack Mickey King (Caine), as he comes to regret accepting a commission to help faded Hollywood star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney) write his autobiography.
With Pulp, Hodges indulged his fascination with B movies, gangster movie star George Raft, the social elite’s involvement in the 1953 Wilma Montesi scandal and the revival of fascism in the wake of the 1960s economic miracle. But he also toys with the conventions of the noir thriller, as King (who also narrates in the style of the books he pens under such pseudonyms as Les Behan) becomes increasingly bemused by the murderous madness into which he has stumbled.
11 Harrowhouse (1974)
Director: Aram Avakian
Overlooked on its release and pretty much forgotten since, this adaptation of Gerald A. Browne’s heist thriller spent a couple of years in development, as the likes of Sidney J. Furie, Elliott Kastner and Bryan Forbes all struggled to make the material work. In truth, the screenplay muffs the ending by tagging on a knockabout chase that director Aram Avakian stages with little finesse. But there’s plenty to enjoy, as small-time American diamond dealer Howard Chesser (Charles Grodin) is coaxed by swindled collector Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) into robbing the high-security London establishment run by the snooty Meecham (John Gielgud).
Taking a role once linked with Jack Nicholson, Grodin provides a witty voiceover that reinforces the parodic noir elements, while he sparks insouciantly with fast-driving girlfriend Maren Shirell (Candace Bergen). But, as it often does, the picture belongs to James Mason, who excels as Charles Watts, the pen-pushing jobsworth who’s been pushed too far.