Best thriller movies
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.–Phil de Semlyen
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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."
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
The killer moment: A withering Noah Cross makes his sole priority clear to our hero: ‘The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!’
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.–Abbey Bender
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.’
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.–Tom Huddleston
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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).
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.–Tomris Laffly
The killer moment: Using night vision, Buffalo Bill pursues Clarice in the dark. In the seconds that follow, no one dares to breathe.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: ‘What is it?’ a detective asks of the falcon. Spade answers, immortally: ‘The stuff that dreams are made of.’
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.–Tomris Laffly
The killer moment: Unforgettably, the headmaster’s white-eyed corpse rises up above the surface of a bath – but not as the ladies planned.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.’
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
The killer moment: A stairwell pursuit leads to one of Richard Kimble's cleverest escapes.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
A sexy masterpiece of deeply unsettling mystery, David Lynch’s nonlinear neo-noir is endlessly fascinating, and certainly one of his most enduring voyages into dream logic. Two female archetypes – one blonde, one brunette, natch – become inextricably linked, leading us to question the very nature of identity and reality.–Abbey Bender
The killer moment: Who – or what – lurks behind Winkie’s diner? We may not know what this terrifying jump-scare has to do with the larger narrative, but in Lynch’s world, every ominous detail feels crucial.
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.–Abbey Bender
The killer moment: Travis swaggeringly looks in the mirror and delivers one of the most quoted lines in film history: ‘You talkin’ to me?’
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. –Joshua Rothkopf
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?’
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: Suddenly we realise that lovely Angela Lansbury isn’t just playing a domineering mom, but a ruthless monster.
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.–Tomris Laffly
The killer moment: Guy Pearce’s straight-laced sergeant earns his nickname, Shotgun Ed, at a cost while pursuing a murder suspect.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
Killer moment: What’s that tiny dog doing on the tarmac? An accident results in the most expensive baggage-check fee ever levied.
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: It’s the single best heist sequence in movie history – so convincing, it actually inspired a series of copycat crimes.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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…’
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.–Tomris Laffly
The killer moment: Finally, we see the killer (a menacing Raymond Burr)–and in a hair-raising flash of identification, he sees us too.
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.–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Tomris Laffly
The killer moment: Come for the murder, stay for the greatest mime scene in film history: a tennis game with an imaginary ball.
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: In the blink of an eye, half the cast is wiped out. The rest press on regardless.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: Hammer time! The one-take corridor fight has been much-imitated but never bettered.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: A psychopath practices his abduction techniques, even going so far as to chloroform an imaginary victim in his passenger seat.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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’.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.’
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.–Phil de Semlyen
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: In his first unguarded moment (a terrifying camera creep), Uncle Charlie shares his real feelings about elderly widows: ‘fat, wheezing animals’.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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.
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.–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: Eat it, ‘Bullitt’ – this one’s got the best car chase in movies, largely shot from a bumper-level perspective.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: The opening home invasion is still shocking in its offhand brutality.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
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.”
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: The silent robbery sequence is a 30-minute master class in sustained tension.
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.’–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: Benicio del Toro’s avenging cartel man sits down to a very short dinner with a drug lord and his family.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Abbey Bender
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?
‘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.–Phil de Semlyen
The killer moment: The unbearably suspenseful ‘Battleship Potemkin’-homaging Union Station shootout still sends our systolic readings through the roof.
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.–Tom Huddleston
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.
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.–Tomris Laffly
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?
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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?–Joshua Rothkopf
The killer moment: All the murder suspects are gathered at a dinner table, as Nick holds court in a big reveal that goes sideways.
One river. Two canoes. Four manly men (well, three and Ned Beatty) on a rural getaway that goes dark fast. John Boorman’s twisted adventure movie is chiefly remembered for a brutal rape scene, a front-porch jam session and its unforgettable band of hillbillies (‘Yer a city boy, aincher?’). But ‘Deliverance’ is about so much more than that. This is a film that explores the wholesale destruction of natural spaces, the ignorant superiority of city folk, the brutal beauty of the American landscape. Ragged, funny and deeply ambiguous, it’s an unrivaled deconstruction of ’70s machismo.–Tom Huddleston
The killer moment: No one would joke about ‘Dueling Banjos’ without this film. But return to the scene for its uneasy menace, lingering just under the music.
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.–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.’
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.–Tomris Laffly
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.
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.–Abbey Bender
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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.
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.–Joshua Rothkopf
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 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’.–Phil de Semlyen
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.