Updated: May 17, 2020
Starting things off, one of the best vehicles for non-stop tension is peril nipping at your heels. The terror of being haunted, of running from men or monster, or the frightening unknown. The classic here is The Fugitive. But some of the other great thrillers that make us feel like the pray in waiting include, Catch Me If You Can, Cape Fear, Night of the Hunter, and The Most Dangerous Game.
As we continue working our way through the genres, this list we're focusing is on thrillers, the smartest, tensest, twistiest suspense rides that cinema has ever conjured up. This is our list of Hollywood Thriller movies one must watch!
10.No Country for Old Men
If there's a force of unstoppable nature that's kept our pulses pounding in one of our favorite ever pursuits, it's gotta be Anton Chigurh's in No Country for Old Men.
No Country for Old Men built relative unknown Javier Bardem into one of the most terrifying forces of nature thriller cinema has ever seen. Intelligent, cold, relentless, and deeply fatalistic, the film casts Chigurh as an embodiment of the uncaring cruelty of the universe. The result is a thriller built on existential angst, structured around nearly a dozen sequences of quiet tension and pin drop hair triggers. Each one playing with a new form of silence or shadow or sub text or motive or cruelty or fate punctuated by either brief moments of violent intensity or even quieter implication.
9.The Wages of Fear
One of the more straightforward ways to engineer suspense is with physical danger, where our heroes are a slip and fall away from doom, and the word precarious is to be taken literally. And in this form of thriller, we get films that crossover towards action as with Die Hard and The French Connection and The Bourne Trilogy, as well as high octane, knifes, edge, danger contraptions like Speed, The Sorcerer and Its original but our number 9 pick Wages of Fear. If you liked No Country for Old Men, Wages of Fear will likely also be right up your alley. It is another cynical tale about dead end men playing an unpredictable game with fate. But instead of sociopath with a bowl cut, this time it's two trucks full of nitroglycerin they've been hired to drive along a road colloquially referred to as the washboard. And if driving trucks sounds like small potatoes in practice, it is anything but. Its escalating obstacles are so fantastically conceived, shot, and edited for maximum tension, that you're pretty much guaranteed to bite your nails down to the quick.
Sometimes suspense comes in service of other emotions beyond just the flop sweat inducing anxiety. Consider the comedy thriller. A genre that trades on swinging audiences back and forth from the seat-edged breathlessness of tension to the uproarious laughter of the quite literal comic relief. It's handled marvelously in Charade and The Player, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, Safety Last and The Thin Man, but our favorite comedy thriller and third pick is actually In Bruges. Before In Bruges, Martin McDonagh was a massively award winning film maker pushing the boundaries of polite sensibility. He was a massively award winning playwright doing the same, where he cut his teeth on the hilariously transgressive filled with whip smart dialogue that unravels in ways guaranteed to surprise you. Mostly because you weren't willing to even let yourself consider how twisted its turns might go, but twist it does. Exemplified by In Bruges manic, comedy, suspense, whiplash that has you laughing at murder and suicide in the same half breath, with a handful of spectacular set pieces that tie the thrill to the comedy to fantastic effect, in a tale about two hit-men who hide out in a silly little Belgian town after a hit gone wrong
On just about the opposite end of the spectrum from the comedy thriller, we have the erotic thriller. A staple sub genre of the 80s and 90s, that is, in my humble opinion desperately overdue for a comeback. The erotic thriller traffics on the push-pull tension of where desire for someone comes up against the danger they represent, creating a space of the taboo that is nonetheless overcome by animalistic passion and a sexual payoff. Some of the best in the business include Femme Fatale, Eyes Wide Shut, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, and The Handmaiden. But, we really think the best and original erotic thriller goes all the way back to Billy Wilder's unsurpassed Double Indemnity. Predicting and inspiring the erotic thrillers for decades to come, Double Indemnity is an absolute gem. It is the story of an insurance man seduced into an affair and a murder. The erotic half of the equation is palpable and hangs in the air like a thick odor of perfume, but it's never explicit. This is the Hayes Code era, after all. Instead, it's smeared all over the crackling banter that is as sharp as it is seductive. And as for the thriller half, it's simply one of the best. There's hardly a moment where our hero is not visibly inches from some form of destruction. Billy Wilder's brilliant hybrid of a film finds such a fascinating connection between the excitement of sex and the thrill of crime. It is about thrill, about how these conflicting forces are actually two sides of the same coin, and in that way it is a work of genius.
6.The Third Man
Of course if you wanted to be pedantic, you might protest that Double Indemnity is actually film Noir, the grandfather of the erotic thriller, but not the same thing. And we would have to agree that film Noirs and erotic thrillers are surely different animals, but we would then counter that Double Indemnity is actually both. But let's look now at the film Noir. The moody, Chiaroscuro definitively Hollywood 40s and 50s genre that combines an anti-hero cynicism and crime-centered plot with demure romance. They're not all heavy on the tension, but a tour through those that would include highlight stops at the Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, Sunset Boulevard and especially our number six pick and perennial favorite, The Third Man. There's no doubt that we're big fans of The Third Man over here at our desk, but despite our favoritism, it's hard to deny it as peak Noir. The lighting and camera work are pushed to their logical expressionistic conclusion, each character is a bigger bastard than the last. The plot zigs right when you think it's going to zag. The dames are duplicitous, the dialogue is razor sharp and the tension mounts in the game of deception and cover-up that contains one of our favorite twists in the genre. In the words of Steven Soderbergh, The Third Man, really is a great film in spite of all the people who say it's a great film and we couldn't agree more.
5.High and Low
Opposite romance on the filmore portion of the thriller spectrum, we end up with a pure crime thriller. And here, we're back to the thrill of the pursuit, but not so much the physical pursuit of No Country as an informational pursuit. Will they be exposed? Will the perpetrators reveal themselves? Will they get away? Who will find out what and when? The ambiguity of these questions drive the thrill on our crime short list that include Rififi, M, LA Confidential, Memories of a Murder, and Se7en. However, topping the tautness, we find none other than Akira Kurosawa, who started strong in Stray Dog, but really
takes the cake with High and Low. Toshiro Mifune is the president of a shoe company that has maxed himself to the ears in debt in order to wrest control back from a greedy board, when he receives a call. His son has been kidnapped and all of that money will be necessary to pay his ransom, but his son isn't missing. His chauffeur's son however, is. He has to decide whether to bankrupt his family, or save the boy as police race to find him first. The decision isn't an easy one, nor is the investigation. But the result is cop caper of the highest possible caliber, an important thriller for any best of list.
Of course, where there's cops trying to solve crimes and criminals trying to evade them, there's also governments trying to swindle and cheat, and good citizens caught up in the middle of it. This is the conspiracy thriller. Trading on that same informational faucet drip as the crime thriller, but with some added duplicity and the outrage that goes with it. Our participation trophies this round goes to films like JFK, All The President's Men, North by Northwest, The Conversation, and The Insider, while the gold for our number 4 slot goes to the inimitable Blow Out.
Blow Out's Brian De Palma is a thriller heavyweight and Blow Out is easily his best work. Remixing Antonioni's Blow Up, where a photographer discovers evidence of a murder in the background of his photographs, Blow out finds a sound technician who accidentally discovers an evidence of a murder in the background of his audio recordings. But where Antonioni takes these scenic route to nowhere with this discovery, De Palma opens up the can of a massive conspiracy and one that is uniquely cinematic by virtue of its mode of discovery. And conspiracy leads to cover up, leads to disbelief, and potentially more murder in sequence after sequence of the best clenched jaws you'll ever have.
3.The Day of the Jackal
Now after conspiracies, we couldn't forget the spy thriller. Less of a curtain slowly pulled back to reveal the treachery behind than a landscape not so surprisingly filled with it. This style of thriller puts on the edges of our seats, precisely because we know there's danger behind every door. Our favorites here include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, The Manchurian Candidate, and The 39 Steps. But our bronze metal pick of this list goes to The Day of the Jackal. The Day of the Jackal is
a thrilling game of cat and mouse about an attempted assassination of French President General Charles de Gaulle. And the film excels in it's spy film essentials, skillfully attending to the most basic of logistics in the riskiest in the most cleverest of ways. Building towards the implausible achievement of a monumentally difficult murder. And then it takes the reverse view on the equally difficult counter spy efforts these two made in secret. And finally when the one end meets the other and the assassin must outwit the secret police who are trying to outwit him themselves, the ride has really just begun.
2.A Man Escaped
Closing in at number two, we're looking at a favorite sub-genre of a different sort, the contained thriller. It's an exercise in claustrophobia, an entrapment, and a need to escape. And it lends itself to a simple, minimalistic plot that makes maximum use of its environment and its characters. And our favorite containers? They come in the form of a warehouse house, of a boat, of a coffin, of a cabin, of a Manhattan apartment, and of a Canadian radio station. But the very best, that's probably gotta be a prison from Robert Bresson's one and only, A Man Escaped. (Sound) >> This film does so much with so very little. Bresson finds such fascination in uncertainty and importance in the littlest of details, the passing of a note, the slight shaving of wood, the pitch of the footsteps down the hall. The entire film is made up of quiet inanimate details such as this, with little dialogue, or characterization, or classical drama, and yet, there's hardly a film more scintillating or more human behind it.
And here we are at the end of the line with hopefully just one very glaring omission, the psychological thriller. Where we're not just uncertain about what might happen or what we know, but about the reality testing ability of the characters or even ourselves. Here we contend not only with deception on the part of the people in our film, but of the film itself, withholding and misrepresenting and outright manufacturing our filmic world. You know it from Fight Club, and Memento, and Mulholland Drive, and Cache, and The Game, and Oldboy, and Blue Velvet, and Dead Ringers, but come on, there is a classic clear master here, the master of suspense and his name is Hitchcock. He knocked us dead in Psycho, made us lock our windows in The Birds, destabilized us in Spellbound, but best of all, as far as we're concerned, he sent us into a dizzying world of deception in Vertigo.
Vertigo, a superlative film at the peak of a superlative career. It's so brilliantly weaved, a gripping tale about a man obsessed and in love with a woman who is, in so very many ways, a construction of his, of a criminal mastermind, of Hitchcock's. And the film's brilliance is in how it ties the story of obsession, and love, and disorientation, and yes, vertigo, to the viewers experience of it. This is a thriller that plays with murder and deception and danger, but most of all, with states of mind. It is thrilling and fascinating and visually masterful in equal measure. And a damn good film at that, which is why we think it's one of the best thrillers of all time.
So, what do you think? Disagree with any of our picks? Did we leave out any of your favorite thrillers? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to fill up our email subscribe form for more such interesting topics.