The thriller is a super-genre that can conceivably encompass most anything. In other words, if it thrills, it’s a thriller. The most likely culprits, however, are the suspense, horror, and action movies that have us holding our breaths, wondering how our hero will make it this time. And though many of the genre’s best have been remade, it’s the originals that have stood the test of time.
10. Wait Until Dark (1967)
One strategy of a successful thriller is having the pursuer possess a distinct advantage over the pursued. Wait Until Dark heightens such a scenario by making Audrey Hepburn’s besieged heroine blind, unable to see the three men trying to wrestle a valuable drug package from her apartment. The plot is not as smart as Hitchcock’s claustrophobic masterpieces, but during the movie’s 1967 theatrical run, lights were turned down to their legal limit to mirror the on-screen plunge into darkness when Hepburn turns the tables.
9. Fatal Attraction (1987)
She just won’t stay dead! Glenn Close taunts and then torments Michael Douglas, who uses her for a one-off extra-marital affair and believes he can return to domestic life without paying for the indiscretion. Big mistake: Close slowly unravels Douglas and family’s security in the creepiest of ways; her bathtub drowning is a mere hiccup in her unstoppable, obsessive stalking. Fatal Attraction does to its audience what Close does to Douglas — never lets up.
8. Marathon Man (1976)
“Is it safe?” Dustin Hoffman’s marathon runner turned war crimes avenger doesn’t know at first what this cryptic phrase means, but after having it menacingly repeated by evil Nazi Dr. Szell (Laurence Olivier) while enduring dental torture, he realizes, along with us, that it can only stand for pure terror. While too rooted in real life horrors to be unabashed fun — at least when compared to whimsical adventure of North by Northwest — Marathon Man still thrills with squirm-inducing intensity.
7. Duel (1971)
Duel‘s premise is simple but effective: An ordinary man passes a battered truck on the highway, and from there on, is relentlessly pursued by the angered motorist who won’t stop until he’s human road kill. A little known director named Steven Spielberg exploited every possible trap and trick in the suspense book for his first feature, elevating this pulpy exercise in paranoia to the level of art.
6. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is Hitchcock at his most inventive, keeping audiences guessing as to who was the greater threat — the old woman sitting by the window, or the strange young man running the motel? The surprises (one out of nowhere knife attack and two very close to the same) and the twists don’t stop until the very end of Psycho‘s journey to the heart of Anthony Perkins’ disturbing mind, and our voyeuristic fascination with his deeds.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence proved doubly thrilling for providing not just one but two of the creepiest and strangest villains in movie history — Buffalo Bill, a psychopathic serial killer creating a suit out of human beings, and, of course, Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic psychiatrist who can see into your deepest fears. With an unflinching focus on the most macabre and grotesque of crimes, Lambs distracted us with the hunt for Bill from the inhuman gaze of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter.
4. Cape Fear (1962)
Like Fatal Attraction in that the villain will stop at nothing for vengeance, but far more frightening because of Robert Mitchum’s performance as a convicted rapist who believes his legal counselor, Gregory Peck, sold him out. Despite Peck’s more imposing physical frame, Mitchum provides the thrills with a perhaps too-inspired interpretation of a violent thug with a god complex. The movie’s film’s candid depiction of sexual menace and increasingly brutal home invasion still chills audiences to this day.
3. In the Line of Fire (1993)
The cat and mouse game between John Malkovich’s ex-CIA assassin and Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service officer isn’t just for sport — it’s a life and death battle with the President of the United States of America as the prize. What would otherwise be another psychopath becomes a tour-de-force villain thanks to Malkovich’s ferocious performance containing a core of cunning resolve at the center. The action sequences are phenomenal, but Malkovich and Eastwood’s duel of wits puts In the Line of Fire over the dramatic top.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
There’s nothing like a conspiracy film to provide thrills during a tense, on-edge political crisis like the Cold War, which is exactly what The Manchurian Candidate did upon release at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Satirizing political expediency (the kind that accuses opponents of Communist sympathies while fronting for a Communist-backed coup of the White House) with mind-controlled assassins and a martial arts-wielding Frank Sinatra, Candidate was so potent in action and relevance, many thought it actually predicted the Kennedy assassination a year later.
1. North by Northwest (1959)
Alfred Hitchcock made “wrong man” movies a signature plot device throughout his career, but North by Northwest was the ne plus ultra of this thriller subgenre. With Cary Grant as the patsy, the movie giddily gallivants across the country, from the UN to Mount Rushmore, as our hero tries to clear his name and stop the responsible spy ring. Loaded with some of Hitch’s finest moments — including the famous crop dusting scene — North by Northwest exhibits the best of a formula even as it rewrites its rules.
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