It's the day of the national pro football championship in Los Angeles and various people are descending on the city, including an unnamed sniper who has staked out the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as his hunting ground. It's up to police captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston) and SWAT team sergeant Chris Button (John Cassavetes) to bring the killer down before he starts a panic in a stadium loaded with more than 90,000 fans.
The film includes an All-Star Cast and a sinister tone throughout, thanks to it being one of the few R-rated disaster movies. The movie is also notorious for having an alternate Lighter and Softer TV-version that adds 40 minutes of footage including a new subplot that shows the events at the stadium are meant to cover up an art heist taking place across the street. This version cuts out most of the deaths and edits the storylines from the theatrical version.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: The Cold Sniper Carl Cook in the TV version is not as Ax-Crazy as in the theatrical version and has less if not none of a body count.
- Adaptational Personality Change: In the book the sniper isn't a spree killer determined to kill as many people as possible, but was a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds who wanted to kill Richard Nixon to make a political statement, and then tried to shoot a trio of astronauts at the game when Nixon decided not to come, ultimately only killing three people (two spectators he hit by accident while shooting at the astronauts, and a police sniper) before being shot himself.
- Artistic License: Even for the standards of the mid-Seventies, security at the Coliseum is implausibly lax. Any venue where the President of the United States was scheduled to make an appearance would have been sealed well in advanced, thoroughly guarded by local and federal law enforcement agencies and repeatedly searched before the event. Any obvious snipers nest would have been presided by Secret Service agents.
- Ax-Crazy: The Cold Sniper Carl Cook.
- Bittersweet Ending: The sniper is killed by the police, but dozens of fans, police officers and stadium workers are dead or injured. The forlorn look on Sam McKeever's face as he sits in the now empty stadium says it all.
- Boom Head Shot: The sniper takes out two police sharpshooters this way.
- The Cassandra: Partially subverted: Mike Ramsay spots the sniper through his binoculars and warns the police. Instead of being thanked, he's detained. However, the police are fully aware of the presence of the sniper and are only trying to avoid panic.
- Cold Sniper: So very, very cold. In his first scene, the sniper shoots a random bicyclist for target practice so the viewer knows he means business.
- Expy: Unlike Black Sunday, this film couldn't get NFL approval and had to use fake football teams and a championship football game that's the Super Bowl in everything but name only.
- For the Evulz: The sniper apparently kills for no reason.
- Hope Spot: The sniper leaves his cover to return fire against a police helicopter and one of the SWAT sharpshooters finally hits him. Cut to the TV feed showing that the sniper is still alive and moving.
- Knight of Cerebus: Whenever the sniper appears, things become dark very fast.
- Mass "Oh, Crap!": There is an anguishing one towards the end, when one of the police snipers is eventually able to land a shot on the shooter and the camera lingers on the TV operators in the control room silently staring to their monitors that show that the sniper is not incapacitated and is reaching for his rifle.
- Murderer P.O.V.: Used so much it would put a Slasher Movie to shame. Almost every scene starring the sniper uses first-person perspective.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The sniper's face is almost not seen, which gives an impression that he is an evil and ominous force then just a some human killer.
- Oh, Crap!: Unsurprisingly there is one of these moments almost every time one of the character sees the shooter.
- Police Are Useless: Partially averted. Police officers are depicted as competent and determined to stop the sniper without causing casualties. But they fail spectacularly.
- Re-Cut: The TV version adds a major subplot that shows the events at the stadium are to cover up a robbery at an art gallery. The sniper's face is clearly seen throughout in this version to make him less scarier and more human, as opposed to the theatrical version where almost all of his scenes are first person perspective or quick cuts where you don't get a clear view of him. Also, he intentionally misses his targets. This was done to appease NBC (who bankrolled the new scenes), as they were against showing a film about a crazed, motiveless gunman in the wake of killers such as Charles Whitman. Director Larry Peerce disowned this version of the movie and the TV version's credit instead goes to editor Gene Palmer, who prior directed additional scenes for the network television version of Earthquake.
- Sniper Duel: The sniper trades some shots with the SWAT sharpshooters.
- Sniper Rifle: Holly goes into great detail describing the sniper's weapon, including pointing out it has a custom-made extended magazine.
- Spared By Adaptation: All of the supporting cast survived and at least go through an Uncertain Doom which results in a case of What Happened to the Mouse? in the TV Re-Cut.
- Spree Killer: In the original theatrical version the sniper is one of the first realistic depictions of one in fiction.
- Take Me Out At The Ballgame: The sniper targets the fans at a football stadium.