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Best thrillers
Photograph: Time Out

The 100 best thriller films of all time

Dirty cops, femme fatales, grinning killers and bone-deep paranoia: Welcome to our ranked list of classic thrillers

Phil de Semlyen
Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
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Thrillers are hard to define. While film genres like science fiction, horror films and romance are relatively easy to pigeonhole, there are no hard or fast rules with regards to what constitutes a thriller. Suspense and a sense of tension is key, of course. And there are generally some recurrent themes such as murder, political intruige, espionge, conspiracy, criminal activity or psychological manipulation (and sometimes they include all of the above, give or take an Ashley Judd).

Of course, Alfred Hitchcock is the master of the thriller, unmatched even today. But the master left fertile ground for his sucessors to turn the screws. David Fincher has an excellent grip on the genre, films like Seven, Zodiac and Gone Girl all imbued with an almost tangible sense of uneasiness. From Taxi Driver to Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese also knows his way around a thriller, and there have been numerous James Bond movies that have left pulses racing. Indeed, every decade gets the thrillers it deserves, from post-World War II film noir and Nixon-era conspiracies to the tawdry (but loveable) ’80s erotic thrillers. All that makes choosing the 100 best thrillers of all time a difficult task. But after much interrogation under a naked light bulb, we did it.

Written by Abbey Bender, Joshua Rothkopf, Phil de Semlyen, Tom Huddleston, Andy Kryza & Tomris Laffly

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Best thriller movies

North by Northwest (1959)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

If there’s a thriller out there more exhilarating, sexier or packed with iconic moments than this one, we’ve yet to see it. The greatest joy in Alfred Hitchcock’s spy caper is how effortless it all feels: a gliding magic-carpet ride from New York to Mount Rushmore, via Chicago and a Midwestern bus stop, as Cary Grant’s ad man suffers a potentially fatal outbreak of Wrong Man-itis. Of course, making a movie this effortless is hard work. It’s all a tribute to Hitch and his ensemble of behind-the-camera talents, including screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Saul Bass (designer of the iconic title sequence) and Bernard Herrmann, whose score lends menace and levity in equal measure. And the cast? Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Jessie Royce Landis – heroes, villains and worried mothers, they’re all having a ball. But it’s Grant’s movie: a Hollywood A-lister happy to be the punchline when the scene calls for it.

The killer moment: It has to be the crop-duster sequence, which begins like a Western standoff and ends with the suavest man in cinema face down in the dirt.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
M (1931)
  • Film
  • Drama

Several real-life child murderers, cannibals and serial killers – their nicknames are grisly enough: the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Düsseldorf – terrorised Germany in the 1920s. Berlin's most moneyed and celebrated director, Fritz Lang, was drawn to the subject, which would become the spine of his first sound film, in many ways the commercial birth of the modern psychothriller. M is cinema's darkest landmark: a portrait of awful appetites that was revolutionary for also being an oblique mirror on society at large. (Filmed under the working title Murderer Among Us, Nazi party members refused Lang studio space.) The movie is immortal for Peter Lorre's career-defining performance as Hans Beckert, trapped by sweaty urges and a dragnet of cops and mobsters. Lang also turned Edvard Grieg's ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – whistled by Beckert, but not Lorre, who couldn't whistle – into an instant signature of aural menace.

The killer moment: In front of a wanted poster, a dark silhouette appears. Leaning down, Beckert lures a child into conversation: ‘What a pretty ball you have there.’

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Chinatown (1974)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

The absolute zenith of New Hollywood's 1970s-era adventurousness (it was all downhill from here), Roman Polanski's majestic conspiracy thriller is the ultimate L.A. movie, locating seediness under the sun – even in the water. Robert Towne's well-researched screenplay about land grabs, murder and one ‘nosy fellow’ remains the gold standard for aspiring writers hoping to grab a whiff of sociocultural currency; watching Chinatown is, for some Angelenos, like learning that you live in a stolen paradise, or hell itself. But for all the movie's substance, it took a rascally Jack Nicholson, an absorbingly skittish Faye Dunaway, a fearsome John Huston and Polanski himself (working at the peak of his powers) to sock it over on audiences. The movie shimmers like a '30s period romance but its veins pump black bile: a toxic masterpiece.

The killer moment: A withering Noah Cross makes his sole priority clear to our hero: ‘The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!’

The Third Man (1949)
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  • Thrillers

Set in a post-World War II Vienna filled with canted angles and stark shadows, The Third Man is expressionist perfection. Orson Welles’ performance as Harry Lime – thought to be dead by his childhood friend, Holly (Joseph Cotten), a down-and-out novelist, only to make a dramatic return – is one of cinema’s best. Welles swaggers through the film with cool self-assurance and delivers many an iconic line in his famous baritone. Faking one’s death is, of course, a risky proposition, and it’s challenging to present it believably. Director Carol Reed invests us totally in Lime’s fate, thrilling us with every plot twist. After watching this utterly engaging film, you’ll never look at tunnels or Ferris wheels (or hear zither music) the same way again.

The killer moment: After riding the wheel, Welles makes his famous quip (ad-libbed on the day), comparing violent Italy under the Borgias with peace-loving Switzerland. ‘And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

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Reservoir Dogs (1992)
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  • Thrillers

Nothing about Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough was exactly new: the suits were pure Rat Pack, the dialogue was Scorsese intensified and even the plot was lifted from a Hong Kong crime flick called City on Fire. But like household ingredients blended to make a bomb, the result was incendiary. Reservoir Dogs changed cinema, and we’re still dealing with the aftershocks (see the smooth criminals of Baby Driver or the entire career of Three Billboards director Martin McDonagh for evidence). But even if none of that were true, it’s still such a joyful film to experience and re-experience: every line crackles like electricity, every performance is punchy perfection and every shot feels like a bracing bucket of water in the face. Tarantino hasn’t come close to it since – but neither has anyone else.

The killer moment: Too many to mention, but the off-camera ear-slicing scene set to the peppy ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ will go down in history.

Touch of Evil (1958)
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  • Thrillers

Famously, Orson Welles’s involvement in this magnificently sleazy borderlands crime flick was meant to be strictly in front of the camera: he was hired to play Hank Quinlan, the grotesque corrupt sheriff, and nothing more. It was star Charlton Heston who lobbied for Welles to be handed the directorial reins, and who backed him – at least initially – against interference by the studio, Universal. The result was an impossibly rich Welles movie that could be held up to Citizen Kane: a brutal, explicitly sexual crime story; a satire on race and prejudice; a sad-eyed lament for wild pre-conformist America; and one of the most gorgeously directed films of all time – even the dialogue scenes play like ballet. Not that Universal noticed. They eventually recut the film against Welles’s wishes. It’s only in the past two decades that we’ve been able to appreciate this masterpiece nearly as its creator intended.

The killer moment: The legendary opening tracking shot – an uninterrupted three-and-a-half-minutes following a bomb’s delivery in a car trunk – is the obvious choice (and the correct one).

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Set in a troubled America that hides an undercurrent of violence under its skin, Jonathan Demme’s taut serial-killer procedural borders on Grand Guignol horror. Unconventionally finding its saviour in the shoes of a female law enforcer – FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, blending strength and vulnerability) – The Silence of the Lambs divides its terrors between grotesque moths, a blood-curdling butcher of women and the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a nightmarishly manipulative collaborator with a taste for liver and fava beans. Featuring exceptional cross-cutting leading up to its grand finale (a twisty reveal sends shivers down your spine), Lambs is one of the greatest movies of the ’90s, and the rare thriller to be recognised at the Oscars in a major way.

The killer moment: Using night vision, Buffalo Bill pursues Clarice in the dark. In the seconds that follow, no one dares to breathe.

The 39 Steps (1935)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Alfred Hitchcock’s early thriller – the best of his British-made films – places a hapless innocent in the center of a spy plot, cementing many of the hallmarks of the genre. The ‘wrong man’ plot is a Hitchcock staple, automatically investing us in the onscreen thrills: will our hero will find a way out of a perilous world? There are moments of droll humor here, as when a hymnal in a coat pocket conveniently stops a bullet, mixed in with nail-biting suspense, and of course there’s a magnetic blonde (Madeleine Carroll) who becomes entangled in the action. All of these elements add up for a wild ride that represents one of the most complete flourishings of the master’s style.

The killer moment: The opening scene, set at a performance by the mentalist ‘Mr. Memory’, is quickly interrupted by gunshots, immediately kicking off the plot with a flawless set piece.

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The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

John Huston’s magnificent adaption of Dashiell Hammett’s noir has so much going for it, it’s hard to know which parts to praise first: The plotting is drum-tight; the villains are indelibly slippery (especially Sydney Greenstreet’s ‘Fat Man’ and Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo); Mary Astor’s femme fatale is a sexy, amoral joy; and the titular MacGuffin, a black statuette, is so iconic, the prop itself fetched $4 million at auction. (That’s a lot for a 12-inch bird that was once dropped on Humphrey Bogart’s foot during shooting.) How about the hero, then? Sam Spade is everything you want from a noir gumshoe: whip-smart, hard-bitten, cocky and unfazed by that pea-shooter you’ve got pointed at him. It’s not even that he’s a particularly good guy, it’s that everyone else around him is so much worse. Bogie’s Spade was the embodiment of a new kind of Hollywood protagonist to emerge during the war years: a man who can slip from heroism to obnoxiousness and back again, all during the same slug of whisky.

The killer moment: ‘What is it?’ a detective asks of the falcon. Spade answers, immortally: ‘The stuff that dreams are made of.’

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
  • Film
  • Drama

A creepy boarding school, a monstrous headmaster, his quietly fed-up wife, another disgruntled lover – thrillers rarely come better stocked for suspense. France’s own Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, subversively teams up the timid spouse (Véra Clouzot, the director's wife, playing a plain Jane in braids) with the hedonistic mistress (Simone Signoret, sporting a contrastingly provocative look) for a vengeful murder scheme against their common enemy. Clouzot uses every device at his disposal: eerie corridors, grimy swimming pools, ear-splitting kids. The result is a truly scary thriller that influenced Psycho. Clouzot’s fiendish nail-biter climaxes with such a domino chain of reversals, it even had a title card at the end asking the audience to not spoil the film for others. Don’t expect to know who’s deceiving whom until the last frame.

The killer moment: Unforgettably, the headmaster’s white-eyed corpse rises up above the surface of a bath – but not as the ladies planned.

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Double Indemnity (1944)
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  • Thrillers

Film noir doesn’t get more iconic than Billy Wilder’s tale of an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) roped into a devious scheme by a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) intent on murdering her husband. To watch the film, with its shadows and Stanwyck’s swaggering seduction, is to lose oneself in a gritty and mysterious world that has influenced countless movies since.

The killer moment: In a brightly lit Los Angeles supermarket aisle that’s suddenly ominous, Stanwyck purrs, ‘It’s straight down the line for both of us,’ setting the template for women up to no good.

Zodiac (2007)
  • Film
  • Drama

Scraping up against the limits of knowability, David Fincher's mind-blowing crime thriller targets the truth itself as a serial killer's final victim. Zodiac is the definitive movie of its troubled decade, showing us good men thwarted by the elusive spirit of a murderous ghost. The real-life exploits of California’s Zodiac Killer haunted Fincher as a child; his film is an expression of obsession, onscreen and off.

The killer moment: We're seated in a break room with a creep who's full of unsettling excuses (the ominous John Carroll Lynch). His watch has the killer's target symbol on it, but that's not enough for these cops to pounce. ‘I am not the Zodiac,’ he says. ‘And if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.’

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Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
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  • Thrillers

Film noir's most unsettling nightmare ends in a flaming nuclear disaster – and if that anxiety weren't enough, there's also off-screen torture, ferocious desk-clerk slapping and the casual destruction of a beloved opera record. Robert Aldrich's perverse masterpiece brings Mickey Spillane's vicious Mike Hammer (a grinning Ralph Meeker) to life: a vain bottom feeder prone to using his fists. He's the sourest of antiheroes. Los Angeles has made him that way.

The killer moment: ‘I want half,’ Lily Carver demands, wielding a gun. Soon enough, she's hovering over the most influential suitcase in movies (see also Pulp Fiction and Repo Man), one she can't help but open.

The Fugitive (1993)
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  • Thrillers

Hollywood wishes it could make thrillers this perfect every summer, movies that have Harrison Ford leaping off a dam, and that also get Oscar-nominated in major categories. For all its acclaim, The Fugitive is still underrated: it's as definitive a Chicago picture as they come (and we're talking a bruising Windy City winter); it contains a brilliantly cranky depiction of dogged investigation in Tommy Lee Jones's Gerard; and it turns the whole of moviemaking into an expertly calibrated double chase.

The killer moment: A stairwell pursuit leads to one of Richard Kimble's cleverest escapes.

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Vertigo (1958)
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  • Thrillers

Often regarded as cinema’s greatest achievement, Vertigo presents the peak of Hitchcock’s psychosexual fixations in gloriously shot Technicolor. Playing Judy Barton – or is it Madeleine Elster? – Kim Novak personifies twisty femininity. Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, an ex-detective increasingly consumed by her, is a perfect subversion of the actor’s wholesome image.

The killer moment: Writhing in his sheets, Scottie plunges into a wordless, psychedelic nightmare: an unforgettable jolt of creepy graveyard shots, wild colours, Bernard Herrmann’s seesawing score and Stewart’s disembodied head.

Mulholland Drive (2001)
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  • Drama

David Lynch’s uncrackable masterpiece meets at the intersection of Hollywood dreams and dream logic. In Lynch’s crazy-quilt Tinsel Town, anything can be lurking around the corner, be it a grime-caked urban ghoul, mysterious puppetmasters in cowboy hats, splintered realities, hapless gangsters or a cuckolding Billy Ray Cyrus. Mulholland Drive’s legacy will always be its lucidity, but in all the conversations about what the hell it means, people tend to lose track of the fact that it thrills from beginning to end: it’s a puzzle box with no answers that still functions as a masterful noir, a compelling mystery and an ethereal horror yarn.

The killer moment: Winkie’s Diner hides the film’s most jarring moment, but the Club Silencio sequence is an uncut bump of pure Lynch so deliriously callibrated you can practically feel the director yanking at the rug beneath your feet.

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Taxi Driver (1976)
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  • Drama

One of the most iconic films of the ’70s is also one of the most thrilling: Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran turned cabbie who battles inner demons, is one of the defining portrayals of fractured masculinity. Scorsese brilliantly showcases a troubled mind in a way that makes the audience hold its breath.

The killer moment: Travis swaggeringly looks in the mirror and delivers one of the most quoted lines in film history: ‘You talkin’ to me?’

Seven (1995)
  • Film
  • Drama

Here's the pivot point for David Fincher – the inflection at which he transitioned from being a maker of super-stylish Madonna videos into something more substantial. Seven certainly delivers a signature gloom, from those powerhouse opening credits to its rainy urban hellscape. But beyond the gloss, the movie feels as subversive as a Fritz Lang thriller, indicting the police as thoroughly as it does its moralising serial killer. Andrew Kevin Walker's script contrasts theoretical bookishness with impulsive action, but Fincher's genius is to show those modes for what they really are: survival strategies that only get you so far. 

The killer moment: The sloth victim traumatised us, but the movie's small piece of immortality happens in the desert, where the tables are turned: ‘What's in the box?’

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
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  • Thrillers

Fear of Soviet domination may have engulfed America in the early 1950s but in Hollywood, things weren’t so simple. In the wake of the Joseph McCarthy hearings, filmmakers knew they had just as much to fear from their own government as they did from some shady foreign power. The Manchurian Candidate is the clearest expression of that anxiety, a razor-sharp study in manipulation filmed in stark monochrome, a paradox for a movie in which nothing is black and white.

The killer moment: Suddenly we realise that lovely Angela Lansbury isn’t just playing a domineering mom, but a ruthless monster.

LA Confidential (1997)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Staple anxieties of classic ’50s noir often get rebooted for contemporary audiences. But Curtis Hanson’s genre homage dared something even grander by going back to the source and recreating the bloody era itself, in an immaculately shot saga of knee-deep Tinseltown corruption. It’s a deceptive labyrinth of self-serving cops, movie-star wannabes and one priceless Lana Turner cameo; Hanson does the films that came before him proud.

The killer moment: Guy Pearce’s straight-laced sergeant earns his nickname, Shotgun Ed, at a cost while pursuing a murder suspect.

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The Conversation (1974)
  • Film

Francis Ford Coppola makes art out of paranoia in this tense mystery starring Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who becomes obsessed with a recording that ultimately wreaks havoc. The thrills come from the puzzle of figuring out what we’re listening to – and who might be listening to us. It’s a perfect tale for the Nixon era, and all too relevant today.

The killer moment: Rewinding audiotape has never been as compelling as it is here, when Harry listens to his recording again and again until a pivotal line becomes clear.

The Killing (1956)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Stanley Kubrick’s racetrack heist movie helped inspire a swathe of crime flicks – not least Reservoir Dogs – and it still stands up as a sharp-edged morality tale elevated by unorthodox structure, amoral characters and a third act that twists like a drunk blackjack player. Sterling Hayden, ever the embodiment of the stand-up guy gone to seed, is the meticulous robber who has thought of everything, except for the one variable that’s going to bring the whole scheme crashing down.

Killer moment: What’s that tiny dog doing on the tarmac? An accident results in the most expensive baggage-check fee ever levied.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Rififi (1955)
  • Film

Film noir comes to France (the country that first invented the term for a specific kind of Hollywood thriller), as blacklisted American director Jules Dassin turns out a flawless Paris-shot thriller on a budget of about ten centimes. Rififi laid out the ground rules for the heist movie: a mismatched gang, an intricate plan, a grindingly tense break-in and, of course, a disastrous final act in which it all falls apart.

The killer moment: It’s the single best heist sequence in movie history – so convincing, it actually inspired a series of copycat crimes.

The Big Sleep (1946)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

This Raymond Chandler adaptation may be best known for being almost impossible to follow, but that doesn’t make it any less potent. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall bring their legendary charisma to a convoluted tale of criminality filled with noir intrigue. Co-written by William Faulkner and featuring much pervy evasion of contemporary production codes, Howard Hawks’s classic is truly the kind of thriller they don’t make anymore.

The killer moment: A sexually charged bookstore encounter between Bogart and a bespectacled clerk (the unforgettable Dorothy Malone) is just as invigorating as any of the wider mysteries presented elsewhere.

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Blue Velvet (1986)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Calling Blue Velvet a thriller is like calling the Mona Lisa a portrait: It’s 100 percent true but hardly the whole story. Fueled by coffee, hamburgers and transcendental meditation, David Lynch crafted one of the 1980’s true masterpieces, a haunted cruise into a netherworld of desperate damsels, corrupt cops, underworld crooners and well-dressed fuckin’ men. Impossible to describe, harder still to fully comprehend, it’s more nightmare than film.

The killer moment: Dean Stockwell leans into the light and brings the Roy Orbison-scored menace: ‘A candy-colored clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night…’

Rear Window (1954)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

A quintessential New York film (we all pry into our neighbours’ affairs around here), Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant murder mystery is both a Greenwich Village courtyard crime puzzle and an adoring snapshot of an opposites-attract couple. The classic contains multitudes: Grace Kelly at her most heart-stirring, a rascally and irritable James Stewart, Edith Head’s lavish costumes and the ultimate statement on voyeurism.

The killer moment: Finally, we see the killer (a menacing Raymond Burr) – and in a hair-raising flash of identification, he sees us too.

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Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sidney Lumet’s NYC crime thriller was revolutionary in its day for its matter-of-fact representation of marriage equality and a supportive stance on trans rights. It follows the true account of an attempted bank robbery on a red-hot summer day. With uncompromising tension and flashes of humour, it also examines the ever-exploitative American media that loves a good circus.

The killer moment: ‘Attica! Attica!’ In the infamous scene, Al Pacino leads a riot outside of the bank, delivering one of his fiercest onscreen outbursts.

Dr No (1962)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Many thrillers are beloved; some have become classics. But only one can claim to have kicked off a five-decade-and-counting spy franchise grossing billions of dollars worldwide. Ground Zero for the James Bond phenomenon, Dr No explodes out of the chamber with casual Rat Pack insouciance, brutal action and Ursula Andress in a bikini. Sean Connery holds it all together with scowling attitude; his future installments would perfect the formula but there’s simply no devaluing the first outing, a culture-changing effort.

The killer moment: So hard to pick. Is it our first sight of those gun-barrel opening credits? The first use of the twangy guitar theme? We like Connery’s lazy line delivery at the baccarat table: ‘Bond, James Bond.’

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Blow-Up (1966)
  • Film

The premise itself is a thrill: A jaded photographer (David Hemmings) may have captured a murder in the background. Michelangelo Antonioni’s reality-altering ‘Swinging London’ yarn is a scrupulously composed slow-burn of eye-popping mod fashions, mischievous nudity and a smashing Yardbirds cameo. Bonus: The art-house sensation helped instigate an era of serious stateside moviemaking with European sensibilities, prompting today’s ratings system.

The killer moment: Come for the murder, stay for the greatest mime scene in film history: a tennis game with an imaginary ball.

The Wages of Fear (1953)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

It’s one of the most perfect plot concepts in action cinema: Four desperate men are hired to drive a pair trucks of highly explosive nitroglycerin across the Amazon rainforest to the site of a raging oil fire. If they make it, they get big money. If they don’t, they’re dust. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s bruising masterpiece takes its time – there’s an awful lot of grim, sweaty negotiation before the trucks start rolling. But as the jungle closes in around them, the clammy hand of fear exerts its grip.

The killer moment: In the blink of an eye, half the cast is wiped out. The rest press on regardless.

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

A revenge thriller in which you’re never quite sure who’s doing the avenging, Park Chan-wook’s super-stylised tale is a violent, claustrophobic and wildly influential Korean thriller. It begins with a mystery – drunk salaryman Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is abducted and imprisoned for 15 years, seemingly without cause, before emerging both deadened and deadly – and spirals into a labyrinth of seriously bleak secrets.

The killer moment: Hammer time! The one-take corridor fight has been much-imitated but never bettered.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
The Usual Suspects (1995)
  • Film
  • Drama

Yes, it’s harder to watch in the wake of recent news regarding both director Bryan Singer and leading man Kevin Spacey, but let’s focus on the film itself. Taking its title from a Casablanca quote, The Usual Suspects blends old-school Hollywood style with a modern playfulness and unpredictability, weaving a web of crime, coincidence and flat-out lies. The cast is phenomenal, from mumbling Benicio del Toro to smooth Gabriel Byrne, spiky Kevin Pollak to ominous Pete Postlethwaite.

The killer moment: ‘Man, you’re a slob,’ one detective tells another, looking over the detritus of a junky office. The shoe is just about to drop.

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The Vanishing (1988)
  • Film

On top of a list of brilliantly twisted European thrillers that got really bad Hollywood remakes (Diabolique, Open Your Eyes, etc.), you’d find George Sluizer’s tar-black study of obsession and evil most ordinary. It follows Dutchman Rex (Gene Bervoets) as he tries to uncover the fate of his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), who disappeared from a rest-stop service station years earlier. The ending is a jaw-dropper.

The killer moment: A psychopath practices his abduction techniques, even going so far as to chloroform an imaginary victim in his passenger seat.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Notorious (1946)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Alfred Hitchcock plays twisted games with the very concept of decency, as Ingrid Bergman’s desperate daughter of a Nazi scientist is prostituted to the enemy by Cary Grant’s smooth, unflappable government agent – and ends up falling for him anyway. Set in Rio right after the war, ‘Notorious’ is all glamour on the surface, as Bergman and Grant swan through a selection of spectacular aristocratic mansions. But the undertones are grotesque and still challenging: a story of sexual exploitation, murder, manipulation and state-sanctioned cruelty.

The killer moment: People don’t think of ol’ Hitch as a purveyor of erotic work, but this could be the single greatest screen kiss of all time: lusty, lingering, loaded with the unspoken.

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)
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  • Drama

British acting legend Charles Laughton’s sole film as a director is part grim fairy tale, part adventure and part serial-killer thriller, long before that last term was even invented. Working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who shot The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles, Laughton crafted a story of fear and flight steeped in Southern Gothic and Bible allegory, as Robert Mitchum’s murderous preacher – a killer of women (‘Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair’)–attempts to hunt down two children who hold the secret to a hidden treasure.

The killer moment: Mitchum’s reverend tells us about the story of ‘right hand, left hand, good and evil.’ The monologue was so good, Spike Lee used it for Do the Right Thing.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

A genius orchestrator of meandering conversations, Robert Altman left behind a string of classics, from Nashville and 3 Women to The Player and Gosford Park. But can this shaggy-dog private-eye movie – a delicious perversion of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel – be Altman’s most lasting achievement? You can see its influence in everything from The Big Lebowski to Inherent Vice, and any L.A. thriller that wends its way into a haze of pot-scented trouble. Elliott Gould’s scuzzy Philip Marlowe, buying cat food in the middle of the night in between solving crimes, is an iconic ’70s creation.

The killer moment: Neurotic gangster Marty Augustine (played by future On Golden Pond director Mark Rydell) brings his beautiful mistress into the room to make a savage point to Marlowe with the help of a Coke bottle: ‘Now that's someone I love! You, I don't even like.’

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Heat (1995)
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  • Thrillers

Yes, Michael Mann’s loose remake of his own 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown is a little bombastic and some of the performances are bigger than the Hollywood sign. But as it skitters toward that epic denouement, you can only marvel at the elemental power Mann conjures from his simple story of cop (Al Pacino) and robber (Robert De Niro). Pacino has recently revealed that his character, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, is a secret coke fiend – which certainly explains the whole ‘great ass’ rant.

The killer moment: Two titans of crime movies, Pacino and De Niro, meet for the first time onscreen: an elegantly simple diner chat loaded with subtext.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Point Blank (1967)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Director John Boorman, had only made one feature – a breezy vehicle for the Dave Clark Five. Actor Lee Marvin, meanwhile, had just won an Oscar for Cat Ballou. The latter believed in the former’s talent, using his star power to support Boorman’s vision: a radical departure for the double-cross thriller in both form and content. Along with Bonnie and Clyde (released only two weeks earlier), Point Blank signals the moment at which Hollywood boldly leapt into sex, violence and a new kind of radically disjointed storytelling.

The killer moment: The granddaddy of hallway scenes has Marvin striding through a nondescript office. His heels echo hypnotically and Boorman takes off, cutting away from the action but never losing that forward momentum.

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Deep Red (1975)
  • Film

Italy’s tradition of the giallo thriller – so-called for deriving from yellow-covered pulp novels – is as significant as film noir was to Hollywood: a major evolution of onscreen style linked to a cultural malaise of ennui and free-floating amorality. Inspired director Dario Argento perfected the form with Deep Red, a diabolical killing machine marked by leather-gloved hands (often Argento’s), shiny objects, lavish spurts of blood and the prog-rock tinklings of Goblin.

The killer moment: Oh, so the puppet in Saw scared you? Poor thing. Wait until you see this guy, wheeling out of a dark corner with a canned laugh.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
  • Film
  • Drama

Louis Malle’s narrative-feature debut is a gorgeously atmospheric crime tale, featuring a score by Miles Davis. Taking place over the course of a single night, this grim story of a murder plan gone awry holds us rapt, thanks in large part to the glamorous yet weary visage of screen legend Jeanne Moreau.

The killer moment: Moreau makes wandering aimlessly thrilling, as she walks the Paris streets at night, calling her lover’s name in a moody, doomed funk.

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Hitchcock rated this blackly comic suburban thriller as one of his very best, and who are we to argue? He embroiders it with little details: blink-and-you’ll-miss-it evidence that builds up to a portrait of breathtaking sociopathy in the lady-killing Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). To his teenage niece – the young, bored, yearning-to-be-elsewhere Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton (Teresa Wright) – his visit is a welcome diversion. At least until she realises that he’s actually a cold-blooded murderer.

The killer moment: In his first unguarded moment (a terrifying camera creep), Uncle Charlie shares his real feelings about elderly widows: ‘fat, wheezing animals’.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Blood Simple (1984)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

The sweat-soaked feature debut of the Coen brothers hints at much of what would come: the half-smart schemers of Fargo, the explosive violence of No Country for Old Men and – making her first screen appearance – Frances McDormand, a force of nature. Blood Simple is still scrappy and surprising: a Texas-shot thriller of limited means but maximum punch, and an indie that still plays beautifully decades later.

The killer moment: In a sweltering office filled with the sound of crickets, the gun goes off. Excruciatingly we watch dark red trickle down a white shirt. ‘Who looks stupid now?’ the shooter asks a corpse.

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The Grifters (1990)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Novelist Jim Thompson was a genius of hardboiled crime fiction: his books are lean and gripping, generally following a rugged, amoral, none-too-bright hero as he’s messed with by a sharp-witted woman with a lust for cash. This Martin Scorsese-produced, Stephen Frears-directed black comedy is one of the strongest adaptations of his work. John Cusack plays the lunk in question, a con-man who thinks he can get one over on his own mother, played with delicious savagery by Anjelica Huston. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite pan out.

The killer moment: A dagger-eyed hospital showdown between Huston and Annette Bening (as Cusack’s outrageously oversexed partner in crime) supplies enough fireworks for a shelf of thrillers.

Knife in the Water (1962)
  • Film

Roman Polanski’s subtle thriller takes a sail through the waterlogged cracks of a marriage rocked by a handsome vagabond (Zygmunt Malanowicz). An allegory for upper-crust privilege and masculine arrogance – intensified by a hypnotizing score by Krzysztof Komeda –‘Knife in the Water landed on the cover of Time magazine (‘Cinema as an International Art’) and scored an Oscar nomination, launching Polanski’s career in earnest.

The killer moment: The film’s title clues us into the fate of the drifter’s precious pocket knife, but there’s even more that goes overboard.

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The French Connection (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Taking cues from Italian neorealism and the French new wave, director William Friedkin’s punchy police procedural follows ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider), two NYC detectives attempting to bust up a heroin-smuggling ring. Based loosely on actual events, the film brought a bracing verisimilitude to the cop flick, as Popeye bellows and brutalises his way through a criminal fraternity. The sequel is every bit as good.

The killer moment: Eat it, Bullitt – this one’s got the best car chase in movies, largely shot from a bumper-level perspective.

Blow Out (1981)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Brian De Palma’s reworking of the ’60s thinker Blow-Up is a superbly stylised tale of paranoia, featuring John Travolta as a movie sound-effects technician who believes he’s captured a political assassination in his recordings. The film is bolstered by a number of high-strung set pieces; its combination of slasher-flick imagery, political intrigue and tragedy is intoxicating.

The killer moment: De Palma’s camera lurks through a tawdry B-movie women’s dorm, until a showering co-ed screams unconvincingly: cut to the men mixing the movie.

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Le Samouraï (1967)
  • Film
  • Drama

Pure panache and an admitted inspiration on such nobodies as Jim Jarmusch, Walter Hill and John Woo, Jean-Pierre Melville's cryptic thriller channels an almost abstract sense of fate and beauty. (If you liked Drive, you've got homework.) At its core is actor Alain Delon's hitman: trenchcoat-clad, chiseled, a dude of few words. He glides through the film as if doomed; there's not an inch of fat on this plot, which never get sentimental, only colder and more aggressively on target.

The killer moment: Delon's assassin cruises on and off several Metro lines, even jumping a moving walkway to shake several different pursuers. The guy is smooth.

One False Move (1992)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

If there’s one film here that deserves wider exposure, it’s this. In his most honest and heartfelt performance, the late Bill Paxton plays Dale Dixon, a small-town sheriff who dreams of escaping to the city. When word comes that a gang of notorious killers are headed his way, Dale tools up for battle, High Noon-style. But playing the hero isn’t the same as actually being one. Balancing clear-eyed observations on race and class with nerve-shredding tension and a bottomless sense of empathy, ‘One False Move’ is a small, sharp masterpiece.

The killer moment: The opening home invasion is still shocking in its offhand brutality.

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Mother (2009)
  • Film

A decade before his class-warfare masterpiece Parasite struck a global nerve, South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho tapped his inner Hitchcock with this small-scale whodunit. A coldly calculating procedural punctuated with devastating tenderness, Bong’s film follows a fiercely protective back-alley herbalist (South Korean national treasure Hye-ja Kim) playing detective in an attempt to absolve her mentally vulnerable son of a heinous murder. Like its protagonist, the film is unafraid to explore the dark recesses of society, following Mother through a labyrinth of desperation, dead ends and, eventually, moral decay. It’s a heartbreaking, clenched-jaw mystery from front to back. But the greatest trick Bong pulls is forging an unquestioning empathy for the family at its center, even as things take an impossibly dark turn in the third act. 

The killer moment: Mom takes a well-earned bus tour to the countryside and samples her own medicine as the credits roll.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

The average presidential tweet packs more controversy these days than anything in Kathryn Bigelow’s geopolitical thriller, so it’s strange to think that when it came out, it spawned a litany of think pieces and even threats of a congressional inquiry. The main accusation leveled at Bigelow – that she condoned the use of torture in her depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden – is hardly borne out in a deeply unmisty-eyed look at U.S. foreign policy. A smart thriller that doesn’t skimp on the pyrotechnics when the time comes, it’s basically The Bourne Ultimatum for people who read The Atlantic.

The killer moment: Overlooking a table model of Obama’s hideout, CIA agents believe their years of searching are about to pay off. ‘Who are you?’ asks the director of an operative (Jessica Chastain). ‘I’m the motherfucker that found this place,’ she replies, ‘sir.’

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • Film
  • Drama

Orson Welles’s tale of betrayal, lust and murder, in which he stars as a naive Irish sailor alongside Rita Hayworth as a captivating femme fatale, is filled with visual flourishes and hard-boiled twists. As one of cinema’s great masters, it’s no surprise that Welles made crime films that became so enduring.

The killer moment: The shootout in the hall of mirrors is a breathless achievement of cinematic illusion and mise-en-scène. Only Welles could pull off this literal fracturing of the image so confidently.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

The allegedly Buddhist opening epigraph is fake (writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville simply made it up), but the sense of Zen purity that runs through this flawless French heist movie is wonderfully convincing. Melville’s stylish, crumpled leading man, Alain Delon (also of Le Samouraï), plays Corey, a career crook who is released from prison, drives back to Paris and immediately starts setting up his next job. As lean and meticulous as Japanese calligraphy, this is precision-tooled filmmaking.

The killer moment: The silent robbery sequence is a 30-minute master class in sustained tension.

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The Big Heat (1953)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

An upright but rash cop (Glenn Ford) declares war on organised crime in Fritz Lang’s unrelenting noir of ‘vice, dice and corruption’. This brutal, rug-pulling revenge classic ushered the way for the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, and still stings like a cigarette burn, with its string of victimised femmes and menacing final line, ‘Keep the coffee hot.’

The killer moment: Gloria Grahame’s angelic face becomes the target of a sinister attacker with a boiling pot of joe. Mercifully, it happens off-screen.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

An oblique allegory for England’s precariousness on the brink of World War II, Alfred Hitchcock’s breezy, chatty train thriller has its roaring locomotive echoing in almost every train movie since, from Silver Streak to The Girl on the Train. Plus, it introduced the world to the cricket-obsessed comedic characters Charters and Caldicott, who went on to many more films and even a TV series.

The killer moment: Is Michael Redgrave the original Ethan Hunt or what? He fearlessly hangs out of his carriage’s window and faces a fast-approaching train.

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Sicario (2015)
  • Film
  • Drama

Denis Villeneuve’s devastating Incendies warned us what to expect from this chilly drug-war thriller: no moral certainties and no happy endings. Like Alice in a narco wonderland, Emily Blunt’s greenhorn FBI agent disappears down the rabbit hole and into a violent world of realpolitik on the Mexican border. Villeneuve mounts spectacular set pieces (the convoy sequence, shot by the great Roger Deakins, is a pulse-pounding standout), while also painting a bleaker picture of the lawless badlands than even Trump can muster.

The killer moment: Benicio del Toro’s avenging cartel man sits down to a very short dinner with a drug lord and his family.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Dressed to Kill (1980)
  • Film

Brian De Palma burnishes his Hitchcock fixation to a high sheen in this supremely confident New York City-set thriller, which features something of a surrogate character for the director himself: a teenage tech whiz (Keith Gordon) obsessed with cameras and spying devices who's bent on avenging the unsolved murder of his glamorous mother (Angie Dickinson). Trans movies have come a long way since this one.

The killer moment: It's one of De Palma's purest sequences of total craft: a wordless flirtation between two strangers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (actually shot in Philly) that becomes a missed connection, a painful rejection, then a chase.

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Black Swan (2010)
  • Film

The dramatic world of ballet is fertile ground for an exploration of professional jealousy and obsession. Darren Aronofsky’s lurid psychological horror film delves into the compellingly creepy idea of doppelgangers, via committed performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who push the backstage maneuvering to dizzying extremes.

The killer moment: Warring prima donnas grapple in an intense, shape-shifting fight scene. With such over-the-top delirium, who could ever think of ballet as prissy?

  • Film
  • Drama

The Godfather and Goodfellas play more like studies in power than straight-up thrillers. No such quibbles, though, with Brian De Palma’s stylised, semi-fictional slice of Chicago crime-fighting lore, which ticks every box on the thriller checklist. With its brilliant, bloody set pieces, tons of quotable dialogue (‘You’re nothing but a lot of talk and a badge’) and a jittery Ennio Morricone score that amps up the tension, it’s De Palma knocking it out of the park.

The killer moment: The unbearably suspenseful Battleship Potemkin-homaging Union Station shootout still sends our systolic readings through the roof.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Memento (2000)
  • Film
  • Drama

A treatise on the act of remembering, a study in loss and grief, and a story told both backward and forward, Memento ought to be impenetrable: a movie for the art house, not the multiplex. So it’s a testament to the craftsmanship of writer-director Christopher Nolan that the film wasn’t just a solid hit, but launched one of the most successful filmmaking careers in contemporary Hollywood. Huge respect is also due to leading man Guy Pearce, who at times seems to be holding the whole project together through sheer force of will.

The killer moment: Vicious Carrie-Anne Moss circles our hero, taunting him for his amnesia, knowing he’ll forget everything in a matter of minutes.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Where is Linda Fiorentino these days? Her Lauren Bacall-level cool in John Dahl’s erotic neo-noir (the Gone Girl of its year) is sorely missed. Watching her sleek seductress Bridget double-cross an abusive husband and manipulate her naive small-town boy toy with a playful shrug is a turn-on in itself. Her effortless villainy is just as steamy as the film’s sex.

The killer moment: A nosy private eye falls for Bridget’s cunning ways and voluntarily unzips his pants during a drive – but guess who lives to tell the tale?

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Klute (1971)
  • Film
  • Drama

Jane Fonda gives an iconic performance as Bree, a prostitute who finds herself involved in a missing-person case being investigated by the titular detective (Donald Sutherland). Bree is a fascinating mix of liberated yet vulnerable ’70s womanhood and the film is filled with paranoia and corruption. New York City’s streets make for a perfect moody backdrop.

The killer moment: Late at night, Bree lies in bed as her phone rings and rings, and the camera zooms out slowly. It’s an eloquent, ominous depiction of the threat she faces.

The Thin Man (1934)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Never discount our need to laugh, especially when thrillers are involved. Nick and Nora Charles – crime-busting couple, doting dog owners and constant drinkers – are two of the wittiest creations to ever grace the genre. William Powell and Myrna Loy were never better than they were in this film and its sequels. One might erroneously call The Thin Man a light entertainment but can you find a more romantic depiction of a working partnership, sass and all?

The killer moment: All the murder suspects are gathered at a dinner table, as Nick holds court in a big reveal that goes sideways.

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Deliverance (1972)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Yes, the base thrills of John Boorman’s wilderness survival film are primal as two alphas (Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds) and a pair of betas (Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) experience the canoe trip from hell. Want conflict? Take your pick between man vs nature, man vs hillbilly and man vs self. But for all the hicksploitation trappings and Bear Grylls set pieces, it’s the constant battle between man and his own masculinity that weighs the heroes down throughout the tragic, meditative survivalist yarn.

The killer moment: Following the infamous ‘squeal like a pig’ sequence, a post-traumatic canoe accident renders Reynolds’ grown boy scout incapacitated… completely shifting the group dynamic as things turn deadly.

Cape Fear (1962)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Whenever Robert Mitchum’s revenge-thirsty ex-con Max Cady occupies the screen with his fedora, cigar and signature sleazy grin (accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s alarming orchestra score), we’re seeing a baddie for the ages. J. Lee Thompson’s incendiary adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners avoids the word rape entirely, but Cady’s spine-chilling sexual offences can be detected in Mitchum’s terrifyingly dim stare.

The killer moment: In the film’s operatic conclusion by the river, Cady cracks an egg and suggestively smears it on his next potential victim.

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In a Lonely Place (1950)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Humphrey Bogart is a Dixon Steele, a tempestuous screenwriter who may have committed a murder in this Hollywood-set slice of noirish excellence. Dixon and his neighbour turned lover, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), make for a compelling and tricky pair, and the fog of moral ambiguity that surrounds them keeps us on our toes until a dramatic final twist.

The killer moment: Bogart recites a fatalistically romantic line he’s written for a script, and then has Grahame repeat it: ‘I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

  • Film
  • Thrillers

As Hitchcockian as ultra-chic blondes come, the rough-edged murder suspect Catherine Tramell made Sharon Stone an ageless star overnight. It might not be the finest erotic thriller of the ’90s, but Paul Verhoeven’s sweltering, controversial whodunit is among the most legendary with its no-holds-barred sex scenes between Stone’s bisexual novelist and Michael Douglas’s understandably powerless detective.

The killer moment: No ice picks necessary: Stone’s tyrannical (and much-parodied) leg-cross in the iconic white dress shows her interrogators who’s on top.

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Dead Calm (1989)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Blending the beautiful expansiveness of the sea with the claustrophobia of a ship’s cabin overtaken by a madman, Dead Calm creates a tense setting for a twisty two-hander between Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane. With her husband (Sam Neill) stranded on a distant sinking boat, our flame-haired heroine gets resourceful, with plenty of shocks along the way. 

The killer moment: Husband and wife, each in an unstable vessel, attempt to communicate by radio and every word, barely heard, could be their last.

Funny Games (1997)
  • Film
  • Drama

Ultimately a breaker of one of the most central tenets of the home-invasion thriller (no telling), Michael Haneke's sickening landmark of pure nihilism remains the hardest of his films to squirm through – and this is the guy who made The Piano Teacher. Advice: If a pair of preppy strangers appears at your door asking to borrow some eggs, turn them away. Haneke truly believes in indicting our bloodlust; he remade this film, shot for shot, with Naomi Watts in 2007.

The killer moment: Already a winking Ferris Bueller who talks directly to the lens, ruthless Paul (Arno Frisch) reveals himself to be nothing less than an evil god when his plan goes awry and he grabs the TV's remote control, ‘rewinding’ the scene we just watched and starting over.

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Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

A cultural depth charge of vigilante-cop brutality, neo-High Noon cynicism and an extra long .44 Magnum (‘You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?’), Don Siegel's crime thriller didn't play by the rules of police procedurals, infusing them instead with the dead-end desperation of the unsolved Zodiac murders. It also made a huge star out of Clint Eastwood, hardened into iconic fury.

The killer moment: Chased down in an empty football stadium, the perp squeals like a pig – ‘I have the right to a lawyer!’ – as Harry steps on his leg wound and the camera helicopters up to a foggy, nightmarish stalemate.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

The third Dr Mabuse film came nearly 30 years after The Testament of Dr Mabuse and more than four decades after the malevolent medic unleashed his first foul scheme in Dr Mabuse: The Gambler. Director Fritz Lang dispenses with his anti-Nazi allegories to craft a byzantine story in which the not-so-good doctor (Wolfgang Preiss) has every room in a hotel under surveillance. With gadgets aplenty and paranoia rife, it feels like a forebear to a whole generation of techno-thrillers: Enemy of the State and even, dare we say it, Sliver.

The killer moment: A sniper takes out a TV reporter who’s behind the wheel of his car. A high-angle shot isolates the suddenly motionless car.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Z (1969)
  • Film
  • Drama

With its Rashomon-esque structure of shifting perspectives, Costa-Gavras’s Z (based on the true story of a liberal Greek official’s assassination) revolutionised political thrillers with its maximalist punch: both entertaining and incessantly suspenseful. Its essential theme – the need to seek the truth – exemplifies the chaotic, activism-defined moment in which it was released, and rings urgently true in our era of fake news and government corruption.

The killer moment: Right-wing thugs in a truck speed toward a circle of protestors and beat a peaceful politician with a club.

The Handmaiden (2016)
  • Film
  • Drama

Just when we thought of erotic thrillers as forbidden fruit of a bygone era, along came Park Chan-wook’s gothic stunner set in 1930s Korea. The luxuriant visual pleasures of The Handmaiden aren’t exactly male-gaze-proof, but the film’s juicy payoff is a devious slap in the face of any self-appointed abusers.

The killer moment: Bodily fluids flow freely during an ‘educational’ multi-position sexual rendezvous between female bedfellows.

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  • Film
  • Drama

This classic boy’s-own thriller features the cool-as-fuck double act of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood – the dialogue mostly involves growling – giving Hitler a headache by rescuing a captured general held in a Bavarian mountaintop schloss. At least, that’s the plan: even the twists have twists here. It’s one of those rare war films that keeps getting better with age (even if we still don’t know who’s ‘Broadsword’ and who’s ‘Danny Boy’).

The killer moment: A cable-car fight is an exercise in white-knuckle excitement, despite looking like it was rear-projected in the MGM parking lot.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
  • Film
  • Thrillers

A central piece of Watergate-era thrill-mongering, The Parallax View joins director Alan Pakula's earlier Klute and later All the President's Men in a trilogy with no equal for state-of-the-nation gloominess. Warren Beatty plays a crusading reporter who takes a deep dive into a secret organisation of political assassins; unwittingly, he has no idea how much they'd like to welcome him among their ranks.

The killer moment: Beatty's Joe Frady goes for an interview: He's led to a screening room where, Ludovico-style, he's subjected to one of the most radical silent montages ever presented by a Hollywood film.

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Strangers on a Train (1951)
  • Film
  • Drama

Two men meet, entirely by chance. Both have someone they want to get rid of, but they’re terrified of getting caught. Why don’t they swap murders? Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s most celebrated novel may play fast and loose with the book but it does retain one of her key themes, offering a subtextual portrait of closeted homosexuality in an era of McCarthyite conformity. The result is witty, strange and endlessly fascinating.

The killer moment: After a movie’s worth of circling, the climactic struggle on an out-of-control carousel is dizzying.

Coup de Torchon (1981)
  • Film

Set in French West Africa in the 1930, Bertrand Tavernier’s story of a bumbling, humiliated police chief (Philippe Noiret) who turns murderous offers a caustic look at colonialism and masculinity. The thrills here leave a high body count, but are tempered by a sizable dose of existentialism, and the reliably great Isabelle Huppert brings welcome mischief to the role of a young mistress.

The killer moment: Huppert practices shooting a gun while saying, ‘I’ll never use it.’ We know she will – it’s only a matter of when.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

This Gotham-set ’70s thriller is salted with cynicism and a contempt for authority – and that’s just the good guys. Walter Matthau is jowly Transit Authority cop Zachary Garber, whose bad day suddenly gets worse when Robert Shaw’s posse hijacks one of his trains. Quentin Tarantino tipped his hat to these villains – Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown – in Reservoir Dogs. Unforgivably, the 2009 Tony Scott remake ditched the brilliant final twist.

The killer moment: Cinema’s greatest sneeze: ‘Gesundheit!’

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Purple Noon (1960)
  • Film
  • Drama

Patricia Highsmith’s work has resulted in more movie masterpieces than any other crime writer, from Strangers on a Train to The American Friend to Carol. This French-language adaptation of her signature novel The Talented Mr. Ripley may not be as respectful as Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version, but it’s a tighter, more gripping film overall, having fun with the book’s themes of identity, sexuality and psychopathy. Leading man Alain Delon is stunning in his first major role, perhaps the epitome of male beauty on screen.

The killer moment: The shocking first murder: sun, sex and premeditated stabbing.

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Stray Dog (1949)
  • Film

Tokyo, 1949. A heat wave rips through the city, and a rookie policeman has his gun stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded trolley. Shamed into action, he pursues the weapon across the city, uncovering a major gun-running ring. Just four years after the end of World War II, Akira Kurosawa’s second major film (following 1948’s yakuza picture Drunken Angel) focuses as much on place and social context as plot and character, utilising documentary footage of the bombed-out city and exploring how ordinary Japanese citizens were coming to terms with their shock defeat.

The killer moment: In a grungy, mud-caked showdown in the woods, who’s more desperate, cop or crook?

The American Friend (1977)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Wim Wenders isn’t exactly synonymous with the genre, but he spins out Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game into an winningly off-kilter thriller. It has Dennis Hopper in the Ripley role as a rich American drifter who latches onto Bruno Ganz’s dying German picture framer and persuades him to start doing hits for a criminal gang. The plotting is not what you’d call Hitchcockian but Wenders is more interested in the existential fog that envelops his characters – and their conspiratorial bond – than the motives behind their crimes. It’s film noir as murky buddy movie.

The killer moment: Ganz’s unlikely assassin carries out his first hit on the Parisian Métro.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

A brutal outlier within director Shane Meadows’ warm, humanist filmography, this revenge thriller is a British exploitation flick with real emotional weight. Paddy Considine plays ex-soldier Richard, bringing a touch of Travis Bickle to the Peak District; Toby Kebbell is his abused, vulnerable brother, Anthony, preyed upon by drug dealers who don’t know what’s coming. Watch this one with Kill List for a rural England double-bill that’ll have you sticking close to the city.

The killer moment: A spooky raid in which Richard wears a nightmare-inducing gas mask is straight out of an Otto Dix painting.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Caché (2005)
  • Film
  • Drama

Funny Games director Michael Haneke understands the hidden guilt of the blissful bourgeois, tormented by outside forces – in this case, an unknown stalker with a camera. Among the auteur’s masterpieces, this Juliette Binoche-starrer agitates through its meticulously concealed anxiety, culminating in a political statement on the contemporary residues of historical violence and racism.

The killer moment: Husband Daniel Auteuil doesn’t see it coming (neither do we) when a gruesome splash of blood slits open a heretofore sterile film.

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Kill List (2011)
  • Film
  • Drama

Ben Wheatley’s DIY debut Down Terrace was a blast, but nothing could have prepared us for his second feature. Like a DVD-bin thriller given a massive jolt of quality, Kill List takes the basic elements of low-rent Britcrime-bickering hit men, a shady aristo crime boss, dreary suburban locations – and transforms them into art. With its improvised dialogue, pin-drop sound design and shocking violence, the result is terrifying, occasionally frustrating and utterly compelling.

The killer moment: If you can watch the hammer scene without wincing, you’re made of stone.

Night and the City (1950)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Hounded out of the U.S. by the ‘reds-under-the-bed’ brigade, filmmaker Jules Dassin plied his trade on the other side of the Atlantic in the ’50s. Hollywood’s loss was Europe’s gain as he made his two greatest movies there: the seminal heist flick Rififi and this London noir featuring a career-best turn from the perennially underrated Richard Widmark. Sheened in sweaty desperation, Widmark’s hustler Harry Fabian is an antihero for the ages as he weaves a web in the criminal underworld so tangled, he eventually becomes caught in it.

The killer moment: A climactic foot chase along the Thames shows off Hammersmith in way that’s never looked cooler.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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In the Cut (2003)
  • Film

Meg Ryan is cast intriguingly against type in director Jane Campion’s dark spin on the erotic thriller. As Frannie, a teacher who becomes entangled with a detective investigating a series of murders, Ryan is basically the opposite of a cute rom-com heroine, and Campion creates a world of sexual menace, thick with violence yet never played for exploitation.

The killer moment: Early on, Frannie witnesses a woman going down on a man in the back room of a bar. This startling, surprisingly graphic moment sets the voyeuristic plot in motion.

Misery (1990)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Outside of fairy tales and erotic thrillers, truly maniacal female villains like Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) – Misery’s unhinged fangirl turned torturer – are sadly in short supply. We need more of them. Unorthodox, hilarious and increasingly frightening, Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation is a plunge into the lonely, melancholic corners of celebrity obsession, set against the ticking clock of the deadliest deadline.

The killer moment: Annie’s shockingly violent ‘hobbling’ of her bed-bound houseguest remains a tough watch.

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King of New York (1990)
  • Film
  • Drama

In some key way the crux of Christopher Walken's spooky, stilted persona, Abel Ferrara's louche gangster picture has come to occupy a central piece of NYC iconography. Walken plays Frank White, a vacant-eyed coke lord who, immediately upon release from prison, resumes his high-flying lifestyle – and idle mayoral aspirations – from a headquarters at the swank Plaza Hotel.

The killer moment: We all know Walken can dance, but you haven't seen how weirdly electric and menacing he can be until you've seen his flapping bird.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Over five decades, the James Bond franchise has morphed from Cold War thrills to globe-trotting action, via whatever the heck Moonraker was. This instalment, the best of the Roger Moore days, is a fantastically entertaining breakwater between those two phases: escapist fun before the gadget-drenched silliness to come. Special props go to Ken Adam, the production designer charged with creating an oceanic evil lair on a Pinewood backlot.

The killer moment: 007 and man-mountain Jaws (Richard Kiel) face off in Egypt’s ancient Temple of Karnak.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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Animal Kingdom (2010)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

This Melbourne-set crime thriller packs all the energy of an early Scorsese picture, while bringing something fresh and distinctively Aussie to the genre. David Michôd’s feature debut has its roots in the real-life slaying of two cops in the late ’80s, and those incidents’ recreation is just one of the bursts of violence in a movie that carefully picks its moments for maximum shock. Caught in the middle is wide-eyed innocent Joshua (James Frecheville), wondering who he can trust in the clan of criminals he’s been adopted into. The answer? No one, least of all Jacki Weaver’s Smurf, a matriarch of real menace.

The killer moment: The odious but oddly charismatic Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, before he became Hollywood’s go-to villain) seethes in his living-room chair plotting evil, while Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love’ makes an ironic counterpoint.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Play Misty for Me (1971)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a potent portrait of obsession. Characteristically cool, he plays Dave, a California DJ dealing with an increasingly unhinged fan-turned-hookup-turned-stalker (Jessica Walter). The dark impulses on display make for an intriguing contrast with the sun-dappled, ultra-’70s aesthetic; the device of the single-minded madwomen, pushing the thrills close to horror, would prove highly influential.

The killer moment: Hell-bent on getting closer to her lust object, Evelyn (Walter) breaks into Dave’s bachelor pad and vandalises his possessions – the aftermath is as bad as you’d expect.

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The Ipcress File (1965)
  • Film

Swinging London must be partying elsewhere than in this paranoid spy film, transplanted from the pages of Len Deighton’s novel with the help of a jazzy John Barry score. Behind it all was James Bond producer Harry Saltzman, who gave us Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, the antithesis of 007. He’s an insubordinate trickster and womaniser (okay, so not completely different), but he wears glasses and – shocker of shockers – cooks. He’s also the deeply cool central cog in this magnificently calibrated espionage thriller.

The killer moment: The brainwashing sequence is a trippy foreshadow to a similar scene in The Parallax View.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Gaslight (1944)
  • Film

There’s a reason why the concept of gaslighting is forever potent: The image of emotional abuse presented in this film is viscerally uncomfortable. Charles Boyer is the viciously manipulative husband; Ingrid Bergman plays his victimised wife; and the audience is left desperately hoping for the cycle of mind games to finally end.

The killer moment: ‘Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?’ Bergman asks Boyer, crawling out of her skin and lunging for a real answer. It’s the film’s dark psychological predicament in a single line.

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Run Lola Run (1998)
  • Film

Berlin makes an unforgiving industrial backdrop in Tom Tykwer’s techno-scored time twister. Lola (Franka Potente) needs to find a fortune in 20 minutes or her petty criminal boyfriend gets the chop. Cue three wildly different scenarios that play out like a cross between a video game, an infinitely more gonzo Sliding Doors and a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. There’s even a Simpsons homage to it, which you can’t say about many low-budget Euro-thrillers.

The killer moment: Lola’s first attempt at boyfriend-rescuing ends very badly.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
Gone Girl (2014)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Deliriously nuts and a treat for fans of the double cross, Gillian Flynn's 2012 bestseller found the ideal adapting filmmaker in David Fincher, whose doomy way with a thriller proved a ruse in itself. The noose tightens around Nick (Ben Affleck, impressively shifty), a bar owner and former hot-shot journalist whose wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike, revelatory), a minor celebrity, has disappeared from their Missouri home.

The killer moment: Fed up and vicious, Amy coos from the afterlife – or maybe it's much closer – about the ‘cool girl’ she was required to be.

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Thief (1981)
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Michael Mann’s signature style arrived fully formed in this ice-cool debut feature, released years before ‘Miami Vice’ made him a household name. James Caan exudes masculine angst as the archetypal reluctant crook, a safecracker who agrees to one last job before settling into a life of domestic bliss. With its stark visuals, a sleek Tangerine Dream score and a growing sense of impending catastrophe, the movie has become iconic. L.A.’s glittering boulevards have never felt more claustrophobic or doom-laden.

The killer moment: Lovable, grandpa-faced character actor Robert Prosky gives a snarling speech as a brutal mob boss.

The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
  • Film
  • Drama

Literature’s Tom Ripley, a con artist, gets captured in René Clément’s Purple Noon, but he murders his way to a grimmer finale in Anthony Minghella’s handsome spin on Patricia Highsmith’s novel. This sun-dappled thriller glimmers with a first-rate cast led by Matt Damon, enviable real estate and a complex gay protagonist (still a mainstream rarity) whose reflection on a polished piano splits apart in a mind-blowing shot. All hail cinematographer John Seale.

The killer moment: Suspicious of the title character, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman, superbly obnoxious) repeatedly pounds on a high-pitched piano key, shredding away at Tom’s patience.

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Infernal Affairs (2002)
  • Film
  • Drama

You know the plot, because Martin Scorsese used it for his Oscar-winning remake, The Departed. As entertaining as that movie is, the Hong Kong original is even better. Tony Leung and Andy Lau play moles: the former, a cop infiltrating a vicious triad; the latter, a criminal rising through the police ranks. Blazing its way through gunplay and excruciating scenes of hazardous undercover work, Infernal Affairs is the thriller fan’s John Woo.

The killer moment: Inevitably, both men stand on a rooftop, sizing each other up, profile to profile. Leo and Matt were never this subtle.

The Long Good Friday (1980)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

John Mackenzie’s Cockney crime-athon is packed with chances to unleash your best Bob ’oskins impression (‘The Mafia? I’ve shit ’em!’). But thanks to gutsy performances by Hoskins as ambitious gangland fixer Harold Shand and Helen Mirren as his icy moll, it never lapses into cliché, slowly cranking up from blood-splashed character study to strangely affecting tragedy. If Shakespeare grew up in post-war Stepney, Shand could have been his Macbeth.

The killer moment: A lingering tight shot on Hoskins, complex emotions playing across his face as he’s driven to a date with destiny, is some of the best wordless acting in movies.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
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The Stranger (1946)
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  • Thrillers

Not perhaps as polished or as enduring as The Lady From Shanghai, the thriller Orson Welles would make a year later, this potboiler is nonetheless a rollicking good time in a Blue Velvet-y dark-side-of-smalltown-America kind of way. Welles plays a high-ranking Nazi (and amateur horologist) masquerading as a history professor in New England with the perfect cover of a devoted wife (Loretta Young). Edward G Robinson is the war crimes hunter who has his number. It’s a winning blend of clammy tension-building and Welles’s innovative filmcraft. If you’re a fan of clocks, you’ll love it.

The killer moment: Edward G Robinson’s shows Loretta Young’s haunted newlywed footage from the Nazi death camps – the first time Holocaust footage has been used in a Hollywood movie.

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Phil de Semlyen
Global film editor
  • Film

The erotic thriller at its sweatiest, most stylised best, John McNaughton’s Wild Things presents the story of an elaborate, sex-filled long con with lurid abandon. The thrills here are exaggerated and while they may be trashy, they’re also shrewdly executed. Which is all by way of saying: don’t even think about missing the end credits.

The killer moment: Neve Campbell and Denise Richards make out in a swimming pool, in what must be one of cinema’s most rewound scenes. But which one of these high-school girls has the upper hand?

Our latest thriller reviews

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Thrillers

There have been plenty of so-called neo-noirs – dark-hued thrillers whose shadowy cityscapes, compromised antiheroes and brooding femme fatales are given a resolutely modern edge. Think Blade Runner, Seven or Mulholland Drive. But what happens when you haul all the trappings of a genre rooted in post-war cynicism and lay them out raw for modern-day moviegoers?You end up with something like Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a heady, fleeting pleasure that prioritises craft over moral complexity, with themes of class friction and fraudulent spirituality that would once have landed like haymakers packing much less punch today.  A re-adaptation of a novel that has already graced the screen in a 1947 noir starring Tyrone Power, del Toro’s version is an immaculately designed morality tale that flatters to deceive. It follows scheming loner Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) into a gig at a travelling fair that offers midwesterners distractions from the worries of war and poverty.  The fast-thinking drifter soon finds plenty of opportunities to advance amid the miscellany of tricksy acts and sleights-of-hand. Booze is ever-present, though he never touches a drop, conscious that resisting its destructive power lends him an immediate advantage over his rivals.  Bradley Cooper’s huckster is a ratbag with chutzpah from the outset Into the role Power made his own comes Cooper, a different kind of actor with a very different performance. There’s more technique in Cooper’s turn, and hi

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Thrillers

There is snobby idea that US remakes of European movies invariably represent a step down in quality, but The Guilty captures the absolute thrill ride of the 2018 Swedish film of the same name, lit up by a bang-on-form Jake Gyllenhaal. With its one-room set up and a supporting cast that’s heard but not seen, it leans hard on the actor’s screen presence and he doesn’t disappoint. Gyllenhaal plays Joe, a cop who has been removed from active duty for reasons we are not immediately privy to. None too happy about the situation, he’s passive (and not so passive) aggression personified in a 911 call centre during the California wildfires. A social distancing film for our times, there are few other on-screen roles to pull focus from Joe. Instead, we are drawn into a kind of filmed radio drama as a whispering caller (Zola star Riley Keough) gets through in a state of panic and distress. Her plight somehow manages to pull Joe out of his worst tendencies. He goes above and beyond the call of duty – obsessively so – to piece together what appears to be a horrifying unfolding case of domestic violence. To say too much more would be to spoil the film’s savage twists and turns. So, is it the superior spin? Let’s put it this way, if you come to this Netflix remake first, you are going to be blown away by a hurricane-force performance from Gyllenhaal. He’s great as this not entirely likeable man who may even have ulterior motives for riding to the rescue. It’s a role reminiscent of other class

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Anyone who has moved to a big city from the boondocks knows that whirligig of emotions that thumps home in those first few days: wonder, nervous excitement, the occasional flood of cortisol as you navigate crowds that seem to consist solely of sharp elbows and grumpy faces. You’re a 33rpm record in a 1,000bpm world – especially if that city is London. Seriously fertile turf, in other words, for Edgar Wright’s rabbit-hole of a psychological thriller that slowly swallows up Thomasin McKenzie’s new-to-town fashion student Eloise. There’s no refuge for her when the shit hits the fan. Her fellow students are a nightmare. Her mum passed away years ago and her kindly aunt (Rita Tushingham) is back in Cornwall. When she moves into the top floor of a creaky old Bloomsbury house run by a cranky landlady (Diana Rigg), those daytime travails are joined by some increasingly frightening nocturnal ones. Hitting the pillow at night, she’s suddenly ushered into the shoes of an aspiring cabaret singer, Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s 1965: Thunderball is playing in West End cinemas and Cilla Black is dazzling nightclub crowds. London is swinging and Matt Smith’s smooth-talking agent is soon hooking her up with a gig. The world is her oyster bar. Of course, things quickly turn sour in the way things in a world full of rapacious, baying men tend to. Time travelling with ever-more-sinister consequences, Last Night in Soho slowly and cleverly morphs its West End playground from impossibly glamorous

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Thrillers

We’re so used to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch making cunning deductions (Sherlock, The Imitation Game), inventing stuff (The Current War), or just casually altering the very fabric of time (Doctor Strange), it’s instantly refreshing to see him playing someone wildly out of their depth for once. In this sweat-beaded real-life spy thriller, he is not the smartest person in the room – even in his own home. That man is accidental Cold warrior Greville Wynne, an entrepreneur-turned-MI6 courier who smuggled top-secret Soviet intel out of Moscow in the early ‘60s. The real Wynne served as conduit between the CIA and MI6 and their top mole inside the KGB, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) – codenamed ‘Ironbark – and brought key information about Soviet plans to put nukes in Cuba.Cumberbatch plays him as a guileless type with a taste for adventure, a strong sense of duty and just a bit of the moustachoed Terry-Thomas about him. He’s an ingenue with business connections in Moscow, and a wife (Jessie Buckley) and child back home. Who better, explains his American handler (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan), to make contact with Penkovsky? No one will suspect him.The palm-moistening thrills come in watching this classic Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ frantically trying to learn enough spycraft to save his own bacon. Cumberbatch believably charts Wynne’s inexpert fumblings in dark alleys, dead drops and nerve-shredding checkpoints, while the excellent Ninidze brings edge and a sense of th

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