Leaving aside Blaxploitation, westerns, and horror cinema, as genres of their own - and written kind of off-the-cuff, such that I might have missed one or two films, my top ten would be (in no significant order):
1. Three Days of the Condor: A low-level CIA analyst whose job is to analyze spy thrillers (Robert Redford) stumbles unknowingly onto a plot to invade the Middle East and gets his entire department killed. He then has to figure out what the hell is going on, with the coerced help of a somewhat masochistic, mistrustful photographer (Faye Dunaway). The shots of the twin towers look weirdly, presciently ominous in hindsight; the great Max von Sydow is at the top of his form as the assassin Joubert.
2. Marathon Man: There's a weirdly surreal quality to this crime drama, which touches (but not too overtly) on both the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and of the left by McCarthy. Dustin Hoffman plays a jogger, trained for endurance, with a brother (Roy Scheider) in intelligence work; an escaped Nazi war criminal, on a high-stakes trip to New York (Laurence Olivier) decides Hoffman may or may not know something about some of Olivier's plans, and tortures him - using dental tools! - to find the answer to the eternal question, "Is it safe?" The idea of torturing someone while repeating this question always struck me as a wonderful image of operant conditioning - since only one conclusion can possibly be reached at the end. The best scene in the movie, though, involves a soccer ball that bounces out of the dark towards a paranoid Scheider, imbued with more menace than a soccer ball should rightly ever be able to carry; the irreducable pregnancy of such images, the niggling feeling that the film is accomplishing more than you can ever consciously pin down, and a sense of the omnipresence of history make it a film you can always return to.
3. Sorcerer: Scheider again, here in William Friedkin's terrifically re-envisioned remake of Clouzot's (also-great) The Wages of Fear, with desperate men from diverse backgrounds hiding out in a Central American country, where they agree to what may be a suicide mission: trekking cases of sweating dynamite across impassible jungle roads to help put out a fire at an oil well. Tangerine Dream's finest soundtrack, and Bruno Cremer - recently deceased - is just great as one of the drivers, a corrupt French businessman hiding from his past. Oh, and one of the four is a Palestinian, uh, militant... Friedkin might be some sort of cryptofascist or spook or something, but who better to adapt a white-knuckled existentialist thriller? His finest moment - I was delighted to read that Alex Cox likes it, too. Come to think of it, I betcha G. Gordon Liddy would dig this movie.
4. The Friends of Eddie Coyle: anyone who thought The Town was a good Boston crime thriller needs to wash that film out of their minds and chew on this: a very grim, very sad, very gritty, perfectly written story about the decline of a low level hood (Robert Mitchum), who may or may not be so desperate as to be cooperating with the authorities. George V. Higgins' novel is also terrific, and has a bit of plotting the film leaves out that enhances the story.
5. Who'll Stop the Rain: this is a dark horse choice for me, since it's just not as good as the book it adapts (Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone - which for most of my 20's and 30's I described as my favourite novel; I'm not sure I can name a favourite novel now, but it's still the one I've read the most and feel the most sentimental attachment to). Nick Nolte plays a self-styled Nietzschean -cum-Zen warrior, a romanticized, countercultural figure of American strength inspired by Neal Cassady (whom Stone knew), who, against his better judgment, agrees to smuggle heroin out of Viet Nam for a morally mediocre, deeply confused, and somewhat perverse buddy (John Converse, terrifically played by Michael Moriarty; I am happy I once got to compliment Moriarty on this role. Converse, more than any other character in American literature, captures my sense of life, God help me). Trouble, of course, ensues, as a corrupt Fed and his thuggish henchmen, wanting the heroin for themselves, pursue Nolte and Converse's drug addicted wife (Tuesday Weld, interestingly cast against type) across America. The film is good, but nowhere near as good as the book; still, there's such great work from the cast - also featuring a great Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey - that it's well worth watching.
6. The Gambler: Not entirely an action thriller, unless by "action" we mean high-stakes gambling, but there's plenty of psychological suspense and danger. James Caan plays an utterly compelling asshole - a literature professor who spouts Dostoevsky, is addicted to self-destructive behaviour, and caught up in a very strange relationship of dependency on his parents, which is where the text gets really rich. You won't want to recognize yourself in this man, but you might. James Toback has made a few films I've appreciated (Fingers, Exposed); this one is only written by him, but, despite being directed by Karel Reisz (who also made Who'll Stop the Rain) it's really Toback's baby.
7. Blow Out: technically from 1981, but no matter, this film is '70's, spiritually: Brian DePalma's masterpiece, mixing a vast host of his areas of obsession - Kennedy assassination stuff, voyeurism, conspiracy theory, the lone man fighting injustice (also well-developed in his much later Casualties of War). The title, of course, references Antonioni's Blow Up, so it helps a bit if you know that film. A soundman (John Travolta) records what might be evidence of an assassination, and decides he's too pissed off to partake in a hush-up...
8. The Long Goodbye: It's been a long, long time since I've seen this film, but it's brilliance remains with me; my favourite Altman. A withdrawn, joking Philip Marlowe in 70's LA, perfectly realized by Elliott Gould, tries to preserve his dignity and ideals while wisecracking his way through a convoluted murder case, which places him in the orbit of an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden). Because so much of the film seems to be a comment, at times with transparent self-reflexivity, on Hollywood cynicism, I always wonder if Hayden was cast because of the horrible experiences that resulted from his being called before HUAC... another film that history echoes through...
9. The Getaway: Peckinpah's most perfectly realized film, probably. I once played the film for a friend, who was completely unmoved by the desperation and intensity of the prison sequences at the beginning, finding them boring, drawn out, and annoying; though I said nothing, I lost a great deal of respect for both his ability to read montage and his perceptual/emotional intelligence. Particularly interesting in that the ending takes a bleaker-than-bleak Jim Thompson and twists it, against the odds, into some sort of triumphant ratification of (elitist, criminal) male-female romance. My eyes wet up every time; my favourite film roles by either Steve McQueen or Slim Pickens. (I'd say it's my favourite Ali McGraw, too, but I can't recall seeing a single other film she's in, so it'd be disingenuous).
And now we get to number 10, and I start to have trouble. I watched Thunderbolt and Lightfoot for the first time the other week (!) and loved it, but I'm not sure I liked it THAT much, y'know? Electra Glide in Blue is a really interesting film, which dares to "like" a cop (Robert Blake) at a time when respect for cops was at an all-time low in America, but it doesn't personally move me the way these other films do. Blake is also really good, as I remember, in a 1974 cop film called Busting, also with Elliott Gould and Allen Garfield; but I haven't seen that movie in so long I can't really praise it fairly. If I'm going to cheat with Blow Out, I could also, I suppose, cheat with Prince of the City (also 1981), with Treat Williams doing great work as a young cop who agrees to participate in investigating police corruption; it would get Sidney Lumet on the list, too - except it's not really an action movie or thriller, it's a straight drama (a great one, tho'). Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is also a film I have fondness for; it reads, like Race With the Devil, as figuring a sort of death for the '60's counterculture (call'em thematic sequels Easy Rider)... but I don't feel confident that it's of significant cinematic merit to warrant inclusion here. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has a great Warren Oates role, but Peckinpah's drinking takes an even heavier toll on this film than on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which makes it a bit sad to watch (it's also a bit bitter, maybe even sloppy). I don't really like a lot of Scorsese's films, save for his first (Who's That Knocking at My Door, AKA I Call First, made in the 60's, also the debut of Harvey Keitel); thanks, I think, to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I have too much moral suspicion of Paul Schrader 's intentions to really praise Taxi Driver. And while I do understand why some people out there love The Parallax View, I just don't think it's that well made! Much as I hate to bow to popular opinion, I guess I have to go, all things considered, with:
10. The Conversation: but surely nothing more needs to be said about this film, right? Delighted to have seen it introduced by Walter Murch - I wrote about that night somewhere on this blog, a few years ago.
Okay, so... what am I missing?