With Tomas Alfredson's big screen version of John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy currently garnering plaudits, it's good to see one of the bleakest Cold War spy thrillers, John Huston's The Kremlin Letter (1970), finally getting the due it has long deserved. Needing a hit after the critical and commercial failure of A Walk With Love and Death (1969), Huston turned to Noel Behn's novel and cast it in the mould of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) to show the grim reality of operating in a benighted netherworld. But in eschewing the gadgets and gimmicks that the James Bond series had introduced into espionage pictures, he shared the fate of another Le Carré adaptation, Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), in frustrating audiences demanding a focus on action rather than character.

As in all good thrillers, the plot depends on what Alfred Hitchcock called the macguffin. In this case, it's a communication suggesting that the United States and the Soviet Union call an end to their superpower hostility and turn their united attention to the growing threat of China. However, hawks in both Washington and Moscow want the missive suppressed and naval intelligence officer Patrick O'Neal is recruited by a shadowy cabal of independent agents led by Dean Jagger and placed in the charge of wily veteran Richard Boone, who teams him with drug dealer Nigel Green, San Francisco drag queen George Sanders and cracksman Niall MacGinnis and his dutiful daughter, Barbara Parkins.

The trouble is, the Russian author of the letter committed suicide on being detected by counter-intelligence colonel Max von Sydow, who had married his widow, former hooker Bibi Andersson, to exploit her profession to ascertain guilty secrets. Meanwhile, the Americans have based themselves in double agent Ronald Radd's apartment and started prostituting themselves in order to gain information, with O'Neal suppressing his feelings for Parkins to embark upon an affair with Andersson, Green using his friendship with brothel owner Lila Kedrova to latch on to Chinese spy Anthony Chinn and Sanders finessing the gay network to discover that the dead man once had an affair with Central Committee bigwig Orson Welles. However, just as they seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough, Radd betrays them and O'Neal is left alone to play a potentially deadly game of working out who knows what and who is on which side.

With the protagonists employing such nicknames as The Highwayman, The Warlock and The Erector Set and nobody quite being what they seem, this is a satisfyingly complex saga that exposes the pitiless cynicism and cruelty of international subterfuge and the unchanging greed and corruptibility of human nature. Some may find the all-star cast distracting, but the performances are knowingly slick, right down to guest spots by the likes of Raf Vallone, Micheál MacLiammóir and Huston himself, who handles the plot twists with typically brusque aplomb and plays slyly on the notion of agents having to sell both body and soul to serve their often ungrateful country. In this regard, the standout turn comes from Andersson, who suffers with a nobility that almost matches her exceptional displays for Ingmar Bergman.

Sombre authenticity of a different kind infests Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park (1971), which utilises guerrilla-style handheld cameras to capture the seediness and despair that Life reporter James Mills had detected among the junkies haunting New York's Sherman Square. Scripted by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion and providing 30 year-old Al Pacino with his first starring role, this wants to be both a hard-hitting piece of vérité art and a sociological tract that finds the good in the addicts while denouncing their habit. Unfortunately, what seemed audacious and shocking to contemporary audiences now seems dated and artificial, with the consequence that this is now more valuable as a snapshot of its times than as a compelling drama.

When artist boyfriend Raúl Julia disappears, Indiana waif Kitty Winn moves into heroin dealer Al Pacino's apartment on 72nd Street and Broadway to recover from a botched backstreet abortion. However, he is hooked on his own merchandise and, when he is jailed for robbery, Winn begins an affair with his brother, Richard Bright, and turns to prostitution to feed her own growing habit. She spirals further into despondency when Pacino is paroled and lapses from cold turkey to go on a bender that culminates in Winn being arrested by narcotics cop Alan Vint for selling pills to school children. However, she is so afraid of going inside that she cuts a treacherous deal.

In some ways, this is a tragic junkie love story. But Dunne and Didion fail to provide sufficient backstory to persuade the viewer to root for such selfish and self-deluded characters. Any pity one feels for Winn (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) at the outset is quickly dissipated by her pathetic weakness, while Pacino is so intent on giving a Method masterclass that it's difficult to relate to him as a weaselly pusher-cum-thief. Adam Hollander's raw imagery and Evan Lottman's abrupt editing give the action a credible toughness, but Schatzberg's stand-offish direction is too predicated on the neo-realist mood and being hiply non-judgmental to delve with any depth into the human aspect of the social misery.

Another picture with magazine origins was Lamont Johnson's The Last American Hero (1973), which was loosely inspired by Tom Wolfe's Esquire piece about stock-car racer Elroy `Junior' Johnson. Published in 1965, the same year that Howard Hawks released the superior racing saga Red Line 7000, the article discussed the role of the motor car in opening up the Deep South and liberating rural youth. However, Wolfe's peerless prose simply provides the background for this genial, but unremarkable melodrama starring Jeff Bridges as the eponymous petrol-head.

Living on a North Carolina farm with father Art Lund, mother Geraldine Fitzgerald and brother Gary Busey, Bridges is never happier than when helping his system-loathing pappy transport moonshine to his ever-thirsty customers in his souped-up Mustang. However, in trying to burst through a police blockade, Bridges succeeds only in having Lund arrested and, when he receives a one-year sentence, Bridges turns to driving in the illegal demolition derbies staged by Ned Beatty to keep food on the table.

It's not long, though, before he is spotted by NASCAR boss Gregory Walcott and a fierce rivalry develops with suave racer William Smith. But the competition isn't restricted to the track, as both men are enamoured of Walcott's fickle secretary, Valerie Perrine and team boss Ed Lauter has his work cut out keeping Bridges on the straight and narrow.

Were it not for the auto action and Jim Croce's theme song `I Got a Name', this would be as unremarkable as the period's other major motor movies, James Goldstone's Winning (1969) and Sydney Pollack's Bobby Deerfield (1977). The hillbilly opening has promise, with the relationships between Bridges and his rebellious father and brother building nicely before the focus shifts to the rather soap operatic shenanigans between Bridges, Smith and Perrine. The performances are fine and William Roberts's screenplay has a few interesting things to say about the rat race and being true to oneself. But Johnson never matches the empathy that Hawks had shown for the drivers, the people who worry about them and the rarefied world they inhabit.

Bridges also headlines Hal Ashby's last feature, 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), which was adapted by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry (with a little help from the uncredited Robert Towne) from the Matt Scudder detective stories written by Lawrence Block. Dismissed on its first release amidst rumours of untrammelled improvisation and editorial barbarism, this latterday noir has been claimed as a misunderstood work of significance by Ashby aficionados. But it's hard to see in this mélange of stock situations and lowlife stereotypes the hand responsible for such modern American classics as The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Bound for Glory (1976) and Being There (1979).

Jeff Bridges is a narcotics cop with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who kills petty dealer Wilfredo Hernandez in front of his family during a shootout with partner Vyto Ruginis and loses his own wife and daughter (Lisa Sloan and Christa Denton) when post-traumatic stress exacerbates his drinking problem. After six months attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, however, he is deemed fit to resume his career. But a chance encounter with hooker Alexandra Paul at a party being hosted by supposedly reformed dealer Randy Brooks and his factotum Rosanna Arquette sends Bridges back to the bottle after he fails to prevent the terrified Paul from being murdered.

Arquette is convinced that gang boss Andy Garcia is behind the killing and attempts to seduce Bridges in a bid both to protect her and avenge Paul. But things don't go smoothly when Bridges decides to pose as a fallen cop in the hope of luring Garcia into an indiscretion and he realises he has placed Arquette in danger by lacing a consignment of cocaine with gasoline. A shootout ensues at the San Pedro warehouse, but it takes a climactic confrontation on the local tramline before the case can be closed.

It's evident from the choreographing of the action sequences that these matter less to Ashby than the exploration of how people react under duress. Thus, the key to this muddled, but far from hopeless picture are the dialogue passages (whether inexpertly improvised or floridly scripted) that reveal much about the mental state of characters who are rarely in control of their circumstances. This theme is ironic, as Ashby was fired before post-production began and defenders of the film have blamed editors Robert Lawrence and Stuart Pappé for its flaws. But Ashby approved the garish work of production designer Michael D. Haller and cinematographer Stephen H Burum and acquiesced in the actorly inconsistencies that often result in the emotional timbre of scenes going haywire.

William Friedkin was another 70s titan whose best days were behind him when he came to make The Guardian (1990). Returning for the first time to the genre he had taken to new levels of excruciating viscerality, he makes a solid job of adapting Dan Greenburg's novel about a babysitter with an unhealthy obsession with her new charge and a curious affinity for trees. But not even the director of The Exorcist (1973) can overcome the eccentricity of the storyline, the erratic nature of the performances and the decided mediocrity of the special effects.

Moving from Chicago to Los Angeles when he gets a better job, Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell quickly discover they are pregnant and hire nanny Jenny Seagrove when something unexpected happens to their first choice. She is calm, efficient and seemingly knowledgeable about babies - right down to the fact that their blood cells reach a new maturity after 30 days. But architect Brad Hall isn't sure Seagrove is as perfect as she pretends and he follows her home, only to be mauled by the pack of wolves who help her protect the flesh-eating tree she tends with druidic devotion in the woods.

Barely noticing that their friend has mysteriously disappeared, Brown and Lowell celebrate the birth of their child. All seems cosy and domesticated for a while. But strangers begin expressing concerns about Seagrove and Brown finally uncovers her secret and charges into the forest wielding a whirring chainsaw.

Despite the odd moment of invention - such as the infant visages visible in the bark, the stump that chomps into a helpless victim and the gouts of gore that erupt from the carnivorous - this is an almost risible attempt to re-imagine Mary Poppins as a supernatural slasher. As Greenburg's The Nanny omitted to give its anti-heroine a backstory, Friedkin and his co-scenarists devised one and then promptly failed to refer to it in the actual picture. Consequently, there is no basis for Seagrove's malevolence and the irrationality of the demonic voice on the soundtrack only seems to reinforce the impression that the detached Friedkin was making things up as he went along.

Seagrove delivers a decent performance and handles the excessive amounts of nudity with grace and poise. She even makes a fair stab at being sinister. But neither Brown nor Lowell register and only the presence of the great John A. Alonzo behind the camera makes this worth viewing as anything other than a generic curio and a sad reminder of how badly a once fine film-maker managed to lose his way.

As Friedkin's star was fading, Frank Darabont's was on the rise. However, his 1990 horror, Buried Alive, was no better than The Guardian. Indeed, it would be impossible to predict from this lacklustre TV-movie that its director would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999). Yet, two decades ago, this was considered a daring piece of television and it earned its director the chance to write for shows like Tales From the Crypt and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

City girl Jennifer Jason Leigh is bored of being left alone while small-town builder husband Tim Matheson works every hour God sends. So, she allows a mild flirtation with doctor William Atherton to develop into such a passionate affair that they decide to murder Matheson and start afresh with his insurance money. Unable to suppress her glee as Matheson succumbs to the poison she has drawn from one of the fish in Atherton's aquarium, Leigh poses as the grieving widow and buries her spouse with the kindly physician by her side.

However, Matheson was only in a coma and wakes to find himself in a coffin. Luckily, Leigh was in such a hurry to get him six feet under that she purchased such a cheap box that Matheson is able to break his way out and come looking for revenge. But, by this stage, few viewers will care what happens to any of this repulsive triumvirate, although some may be wondering what kind of town they live in that allows the victim of a sudden death to be buried without an autopsy or any form of embalming.

Such details didn't seem to bother Darabont or scenarist Mark Patrick Carducci, though. Moreover, ratings were sufficiently high for the network to commission a sequel, which Matheson directed. Only a cameo from singer Hoyt Axton as the sheriff and the brattish antics of the ever-watchable Leigh make this even vaguely worthwhile. Indeed, those familiar with Roger Corman's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Premature Burial (1962) or George Sluizer's Dutch and English-language versions of The Vanishing (1988 & 1993) will find this dismally dull and not a little bit insulting.

The same can't quite be said for another genre outing, Tiller Russell's The Last Rights of Ransom Pride (2010), although this self-consciously anachronistic curio can't decide whether it's a quirky Western or an action flick that just happens to be set on the Tex-Mex border in 1912. The premise is promising and an able cast works hard. But Russell and editors Joel Plotch, Mike Wolf and Douglas Rath are unable to resist rapid fire sequences that obliterate any semblance of spectacle and periodic interludes that provide unnecessary summations of the story so far and intimations about what might happen next.

The stage is set in the town of Glory, as prostitute Lizzy Caplan approaches preacher Dwight Yoakam to ask for his assistance in recovering the body of her lover (Scott Speedman) from Mexican desperado Cote de Pablo. Ashamed of his son's misdeeds, Yoakam refuses to co-operate and, so, Caplan arranges to swap Speedman for his younger brother Jon Foster. However, he turns out to be every bit as wild as his sibling and Caplan is soon being pursued across the wilds by bounty hunters and bandits with only Siamese twins Alfonso and Rene Quijada and dwarf Peter Dinklage for protection.

With a snarling Kris Kristofferson and Jason Priestley contributing knowing cameos, this might have been a rousing sagebrusher. Caplan proves a feisty heroine, while Yoakam lets rip with a display of decidedly unchristian fury. But Russell never knows when to stop and his limitations at choreographing action sequences, shootouts and steamy sex scenes are readily apparent (hence, perhaps, the reliance on obfuscatory editing and flashbacking monochrome). When not tinkering with camera speeds, cinematographer Roger Vernon sometimes struggles to make Canada look like the Lone Star State, while Jeff Danna's score has a booming insistence that quickly becomes as irksome as the use of motorised vehicles and semi-automatic weapons. But the nagging feeling persists that, in the hands of a more experienced and less flamboyant director, this might have been a half-decent B movie.

Changing the mood again, we finish this week with Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up (1993), which is one of the banner films of the New Queer Cinema wave that broke in the early 1990s. Essentially a gay and lesbian rethink of the kind of Brat Pack picture that John Hughes had churned out in the previous decade, this is the first part of the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy that concluded with Nowhere (1995) and The Doom Generation (1997). Divided into 15 segments, it's also a rousing comedy that mocks homophobic ignorance as much as it celebrates same-sex lust. However, watched in conjunction with Kaboom (2010), it shows how little Araki has developed as a film-maker, as what was fresh and cool two decades ago now seems a little forced and tired.

James Duval has a tough time at his Los Angeles high school, as not everyone is as enlightened about sexuality as he is. However, he would much rather be mooching around with wannabe Latino film-maker Gilbert Luna and his black boyfriend Lance May, skateboarder Roko Belic and acerbic lesbians Susan Behshid and Jenee Gill than making pride statements. However, he can't resist confiding his insights to Luna's ever-running camera and the pals spend much of their leisure preening around like players in their own little Warhol Factory.

However, Araki then steps in with a caption announcing that the plot has to begin and suddenly Luna begins cheating on May, Belic's attempts to get laid become increasingly rampant, Behshid and Gill throw a party to elicit sperm donations to fulfil their desire to become parents and Duval falls madly in love with Alan Boyce - only it's doomed not to last.

Lacking the steel and restraint of The Living End (1992), this clearly owes much to Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, Araki also packs the action with throwaway references to contemporary pop culture, which will amuse those less enamoured with the posturing and quipping of the ridiculously photogenic leads. It's a shame that Gill and Behshid disappear in the latter stages, as they are by far the most entertaining characters. Moreover, the actresses also handle the improvised-sounding dialogue with more snap than their male counterparts. Ultimately, this is a film about being young and alienated rather than an exclusively Queer flick. But what's most important is the climactic realisation that no matter how messed up the world might be, life is still worth living.