The Best Thriller Films Ever Made
Thrillers never, ever, ever go out of fashion. No matter what else is happening in cinema, audiences always want films that get their hearts racing.
To be fair, we're never likely to get bored of chases, suspense and drama. But what's often forgotten is that thrillers are where a lot of the most innovative and distinctive writers and directors do their best stuff – after all, thrillers live or die by keeping audiences intrigued, so filmmakers are always exploring new ways to ratchet up the stress.
The best thrillers all about that build-up and release of tension, which is, ultimately, the fundamental joy of cinema. With more than a century of thrillers to choose from, stretching back to pioneers like Harold Lloyd, you need a guide to the genre. You're very welcome.
Uncut Gems (2020)
Right. Admittedly, it might be a bit premature to proclaim a film that's not even properly out yet as worthy of mixing it with Hitchcock, Fincher, Nolan and the rest, but we've just seen it and – hoo, buddy – it is an absolute diamond. The Safdie Brothers – Josh and Benny – showed that they had the vision and unique tone to make an all-time great crime thriller with 2017's brilliant Good Time. Its follow-up, Uncut Gems, might very well prove to be that movie.
Adam Sandler – yes, that Adam Sandler – is staggeringly good as Howard Ratner, a high-rolling, motormouth, diamond-dealing New Yorker who's deep in debt with all the wrong people and just about keeps the wolves from his door by making bigger and bigger bets. Until he gets his hands on an extraordinarily rare black opal, at which point the powder keg ignites. You're best off going in with no idea what's going to happen, but we'll just give you some key phrases: NBA star Kevin Garnett; mystical powers; naked kidnap; bum tattoo; diamond-encrusted Furby. Enjoy.
Rear Window (1954)
Yes, we've got a fair few Hitchcocks on here, but he's pretty indisputably the master. Get hold of Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps and The Lodger, but watch Rear Window first. It follows LB '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, and seeing their lives play out as a series of cute vignettes – until he witnesses a murder, and takes justice into his own hands. But is his mind playing tricks on him? Grace Kelly is magnetic as Jeff's girlfriend Lisa, as is the Fifties soundtrack of Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.
North by Northwest (1959)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Suspicion and paranoia are quite big these days, as you might have noticed, so it's perhaps a good time to revisit The Manchurian Candidate. It's about the son of a prominent right-wing political family who becomes an unknowing assassin in a communist conspiracy, with Frank Sinatra playing a tortured platoon commander.
Blood Simple (1984)
Blood Simple is a noir thriller about a bartender who starts an affair with his boss's 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 Nineties cinema obsession with psychopathic killers (Se7en, Scream, 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's 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 stands up just as well today.
David Fincher's dark, seedy worlds are unrivalled in cinema and Se7en is up there with the best. 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 that 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 six-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.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Martin Scorsese once said that the only two films anyone needed to see to understand directing were Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and Peeping Tom. When Michael Powell's tale of an obsessive photographer came out, though, it was savaged, and pretty much stopped Powell's career dead. It was too perverse, too sadistic, too strange. Critics hated it: Tribune magazine said that "the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer".
But Scorsese's advocacy led to a reappraisal of it as a dark masterpiece. Mark Lewis, damaged by being experimented on by his psychologist dad, starts killing women and documenting everything he does on film. As he continues killing, the net starts to close around him. It's not your usual slasher, though there's a kinship between Peeping Tom and Psycho, which came out the same year. It's about how cinema is inherently voyeuristic, and digs into post-war Britain's sexually repressed psyche. If you like your thrillers cerebral and ambiguous, start here.
Way before Alfie Solomons wished his first mazel tov to Birmingham's underworld in Peaky Blinders, Tom Hardy and writer Steven Knight had already worked together on this rock-solid thriller with a difference. It all takes place over the course of a car ride from Birmingham to London, with only Hardy's Ivan Locke ever on screen and other characters heard through the speakerphone.
He's trying to do right by a woman he had a one-night stand with and who's now having his child, by trying to be with her at the birth. But he's also trying to supervise a gigantic pour of concrete in Birmingham at the same time. No, it doesn't sound like a high stakes game of life and death. It is utterly gripping though, with Hardy on extraordinary form and every one of its 85 minutes made to count.
The Exorcist director William Friedkin's South American odyssey tanked on release – partially thanks to Star Wars coming out at the same time – but it's since enjoyed a renaissance. Four men escape to a tiny village after various separate nefarious deeds, and live in absolute destitution. But then they get a chance to escape: a driving job, taking some dynamite to an oil well to stop a fire. The only catch is that the nitroglycerine is old, and is 'sweating'. Any knock, nudge or jostle could set it off. And they've got 200 miles to go. Gulp. If you can get through the scene where a truck has to inch its way across a splintering rope bridge without gnawing on something, you're stronger than most. The soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is a belter too.
The Night of the Hunter (1954)
Robert Mitchum's besuited sinister minister Harry Powell is one of cinema's most unsettling villains, a black widower who drifts around West Virginia marrying for money and then killing his wives. He gets wind of a $10,000 bank robbery haul, but the man who stole it won't tell him where it is. When he dies, the only people who know are the dead man's children. So, he sets about wooing their mum and earning the good opinion of the town while winding up to strike again and find that money.
Director Charles Laughton once described Powell as "a diabolical shit," and Mitchum's ability to flip between the placid, godly, charming preacher and the hell-bent, brimstone-spewing misogynist who would happily murder some kids for a few quid is mesmerising. The Night of the Hunter is about all the good stuff – sin, redemption, desire and greed – and beautifully shot by Laughton to nod at German Expressionism and the silent film era. It doesn't look or feel much like many other films from the era, and it's ended up feeling timelessness.
Steven Spielberg's first feature-length film would be the peak of most other directors' careers. David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving out into the desert on a business trip, when a huge, dirty truck starts tailgating him. What starts as an irritation turns into a terrifying cat-and-mouse game, as it becomes clear that this truck driver – whoever he is – wants Mann dead. Out in the wilderness, Mann tries to outrun him. It's completely gripping, and Spielberg didn't forget the impact that the film had on his career: at the climax of his next film, Jaws, Spielberg mixed the truck's scream into that of the dying shark as it plummets to the ocean floor. Spielberg went on to bigger things, but he never made anything this lean, focused and claustrophobic again.
The French Connection (1971)
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 maximise 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.