The Best Thriller Films Ever Made
The perfect thriller film is a complicated beast.
It requires a pace, tension, a compelling plot and the characters to carry it off. Most of all, it needs plenty of twists that avoid clichéd a-ha! moments. On top of that, they've got to be entertaining as hell.
Whether it is psychological tales of dark minds as in Silence of the Lambs or the visceral horrors that make you jump like a child in Seven, here's ten of the best.
Rear Window (1954)
An insight into voyeurism long before the internet age, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window follows L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a magazine photographer cooped up in his New York apartment during a swelteringly hot summer. Jeff becomes obsessed with watching his neighbours through their open windows until he witnesses a murder and takes justice into his own hands. Grace Kelly is magnetic as Jeff's girlfriend Lisa as is the 50s soundtrack of Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.
North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant at the peak of his game–wearing one of cinema's greatest suits, no less–joins Hitchcock at the peak of his in this classic crime caper. A New York ad executive is mistaken for a government agent and pursued across the country by a (real) spy, as Grant's ineffable charm and Hitchcock's flair for producing an iconic action sequence (the crop duster scene is one of the most influential in movie history) culminate in a thriller many have copied but few have equalled.
Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The Manchurian Candidate tells the story of the son of a prominent right-wing political family who becomes an unknowing assassin in a communist conspiracy. The original adaptation of the novel is an iconic thriller with Frank Sinatra playing the tortured platoon commander. And it's awesome.
Blood Simple (1984)
Blood Simple is a noir thriller about a bartender who starts an affair with his bosses wife only for it to end in gunshot and bloodshed - quite literally a tense affair from start to finish. Frances McDormand's terrified facial expressions and whispered scenes make the directorial debut of the Coen Brothers one that stands the test of time - even if it was grossly underrated when it was first released.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The film that launched the 90s cinema obsession with psychopathic killers (Se7en, Scream, Halloween, etc.) as well as one of the most memorable bad guys ever committed to celluloid, it's easy to forget that the second Hannibal Lecter film was a taut as hell thriller that also featured brilliant performances from Jodie Foster as the cop playing psychological tennis with Anthony Hopkins' cannibal and Ted Levine as 'Buffalo Bill'. A clean sweep of the major Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress) made it one of the most successful films of the decade and it still stands up just as well today.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays an enigmatic con-man whose four partners attempt a multi-million dollar heist whilst in hot pursuit by the police. A blazing cult classic with legendary plot-twists and a stellar cast that rewards repeat viewings.
David Fincher's dark, seedy worlds are unrivalled in cinema and Se7en is up there with them all. A pair of detectives played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman investigate a series of gruesome murders each one symbolic of one of the seven sins: pride, lust, gluttony, wrath, sloth, greed and envy. Brutal, brilliant and with a final twist that 12 years later will still drop your heart to your stomach.
A rabbit-warren of confusing flashbacks and twists, Christopher Nolan's Memento plays brilliantly with the unreliable and fractured narrator, Leonard and his severe short-term memory loss. Intent on tracking down his wife's rapist and murder, he tattoos crucial clues to his body to guide him to the culprit.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
For our money the best film the Coen Brothers have ever produced, this majestically shot, thrillingly acted and unbelievably tense cat and mouse story sees Josh Brolin's chancer making off with some stolen money pursued by a mercenary played by an utterly chilling Javier Bardem. The set pieces are mini masterpieces in their own right, including a dog chase at dawn they'll be showing at film schools for decades to come.
Denis Villeneuve (the mastermind behind Incendies, Sicario and Arrival) creates a gritty and guilt-ridden world in Prisoners, the story of a father whose 6-year-old daughter and friends go missing only for the police to release the primary suspect. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano are a formidable trio in their portrayal of desperation and revenge.
Many of Hitchcock’s films pit a man against forces beyond his control, and Vertigo is no different. It’s just that in this case, it’s his own mind which entraps him. James Stewart’s traumatised detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson must track a friend’s wife who is in danger – but then she vanishes, leaving him chasing shadows and questioning his sanity. The action winds and loops back on itself, each twist shifting the ground beneath the audience just as the disorientating camerawork shows Scottie’s terror and psychosis. In 2012 it was named the greatest film of all time in Sight and Sound’s critics’ poll–it’s The Master’s masterpiece.
The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s bruising tale of drug smuggling and murky morality in 1970s New York packs a knuckleduster-punch and swept up at the 1972 Oscars. The uncompromising ‘Popeye’ Doyle (a thunderous, perpetually enraged Gene Hackman) and his partner ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are on the tail of a huge heroin deal and are happy to take liberties with the rules if it keeps the streets clean. The chase sequence, in which Popeye nicks a car and hares through New York’s traffic on the tail of a hitman on the L-train above him, is the film in a nutshell: taut, stripped down, and all the more gripping for completely avoiding OTT spectacle. Finally, a word on Popeye’s pork pie hat and navy wool overcoat combo. Magnifique.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s preternaturally greasy camera op, Lou Bloom, is a creep for the ages. He slithers around the grim underbelly of Los Angeles in search of crime and tragedy, selling his shocking footage on to unethical TV news stations. As a take-down of modern-media and its endless appetite for fear-mongering carnage, director Dan Gilroy’s movie is salient. As an exploration of how far one crazy-eyed man is willing to go to maximinise his profit margins in the murder business, it’s downright unnerving.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.