Top 10 Badass Antiheroes from ’70s Movies

No one ever said movie heroes were perfect. In fact, the most imperfect ones—the deeply flawed, the morally suspect—are often the most fascinating.

1. Alex (Malcolm McDowell), A Clockwork Orange
Though his ultraviolence is repugnant, it’s really quite difficult not to be charmed by the charismatic Alex (Malcolm McDowell) as he leads his pack of droogs through the dystopian society Stanley Kubrick so richly depicts. Given his grotesque “rehabilitation,” we can’t help but wonder which is to blame: the criminal or the society that birthed him.

2. Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), All the President’s Men
Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook)—whose true identity was ultimately revealed to be FBI bigwig W. Mark Felt—was critical in cracking the Watergate scandal. Was the information he fed Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) meant to bring down a crooked president, or was that an unintended consequence of a disgruntled employee? His motives were (and remain) murky.

3. Sonny (Al Pacino), Dog Day Afternoon
Sonny (Al Pacino, in an Oscar-nominated portrayal) is the ultimate antihero: The hapless bank robber whose heist goes amazingly wrong was doing the job to pay for his pre-op wife’s gender-reassignment surgery (never mind that he’s still married to a different woman). He’s unfailingly sympathetic—despite, you know, holding up a bank and taking hostages and failing miserably. A badass antihero for the ages.

4. Babe (Dustin Hoffman), Marathon Man
A victim of circumstances, Babe (Dustin Hoffman) starts off as an innocent caught up in his brother’s line of work (monitoring a former Nazi war criminal). But as he gets deeper and deeper into said Nazi’s (Laurence Olivier) stolen-diamond drama, Babe discovers his own capacity for tolerating torture (of the dental kind—owww) and dishing out retribution.

5. Norma (Sally Field), Norma Rae
It should perhaps come as no surprise that women are seriously underrepresented on this list, given the era and cultural expectations. Norma (Oscar winner Sally Field) is one big exception. Driven to “act out” by organizing a union in her North Carolina sweatshop, she is vilified for putting her family life second and has to fight on two fronts, to keep her job and to keep her role as wife and mother.

6. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In Miloš Forman’s seminal 1975 film about a mental hospital populated by crazies—patients and staff alike—Mac (Jack Nicholson), who is supposedly sane and gaming the system, may in fact be the craziest of all. He rallies his fellow inmates and restores to them a taste of freedom and independence, but his excesses and instability ultimately lead to his own (and others’) destruction.

7. Tony (John Travolta), Saturday Night Fever
It’s easy to forget just how dark this movie is. Blame it on the Bee Gees and their upbeat harmonies. But when Tony (John Travolta) isn’t holding court as king of the disco dance floor, he’s dealing with a crappy job, a dead-end group of friends and a dysfunctional family—and playing his own part in the misogyny, violence and tense race relations of late-’70s Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

8. Travis (Robert De Niro), Taxi Driver
Isolation and insomnia send vigilante cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) into a cycle of violence that is as riveting to watch as it is inexplicable. He is so compelling and contradictory that it’s hard to define him: child-prostitute savior? Would-be assassin? Yes—making him one of the great antiheroes in one of film’s greatest period pieces.

9. Swan (Michael Beck), The Warriors
One of the great cult classics of the ’70s, THE WARRIORS is also one of the campiest. Set in a New York overrun by fancifully uniformed gangs, it’s an urban mythological tale of antiheroism, where the “good guys”—led by Swan (Michael Beck)—are as violent and lawless and anarchic as the rest. But that doesn’t stop us from rooting them on.

10. Kowalski (Barry Newman), Vanishing Point
A Vietnam vet and former cop, Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a car-delivery driver (the profession alone dates the film) who sets a breakneck pace with the fuzz and a bevy of fans following his every move. Amphetamine-guzzling, fast-driving, smooth-talking Kowalski is a perfectly flawed action antihero.

Want more badasses? Check out these 6 movies by Martin Scorsese you must see before you die—each movie has at least one.