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Stephen Hunter Recommends

Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page N03

Three perfect small thrillers that illustrate how well this kind of movie can be made:

Hickey and Boggs (1972). A tough private-eye caper, set in a gassy, steamy Los Angeles, it stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was directed by Culp a few years after the end of their run on "I Spy," when their chemistry and timing were superb and long before Cosby had morphed into the sentimentalized Dr. Cliff Huxtable. In the screenplay, by the very young Walter Hill, these two guys try to track down the $400,000 from a violent bank job; the mob, alas, wants it too, and so do the cops. Far from being the comic TV spinoff you might expect, the movie is harsh, nihilistic and full of bravura character touches. It's also surprisingly violent, given the middle-class icon that Cosby later became. But the best thing about it is, it knows exactly what it's doing every step of the way.


Things get downright explosive in 1974's "Juggernaut." (United Artists)

Charley Varrick (1973) is the film Don Siegel made after "Dirty Harry," and it's superb in every way. As with Cosby's performance, this one has an unusual casting stroke, in the title role: A shrewd small-time crook, on the run from the mob after a rural bank job netted an extraordinary fortune, is played by Walter Matthau. And he's terrific as a guy who knows the score and figures the angles and, without any shooting, cleverly outmaneuvers several more imposing antagonists, all set against hardscrabble rural New Mexico.

Juggernaut (1974) is a small masterpiece of naturalism by an extremely unnaturalistic filmmaker: Richard Lester, of the Beatles movies, known for his camera high jinks. He subjected himself to serious story discipline in this tight, unbearably suspenseful tale of a liner at sea with complex bombs aboard that will detonate if a payment isn't made. Omar Sharif is the captain, Richard Harris the Royal Navy bomb specialist flown in with a team to defuse the ticking infernal machines, and the very young Anthony Hopkins (is that a cast or what?!) as the London detective charged with finding the mastermind behind it all. Again: no giganticism, no absurd implausibilities, no incredible coincidences. They knew how to do it in the '70s.


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