When we stand in front of a screen, whether large or small, to face a feature film, there are few things more satisfying than feeling how all the muscles in our body tense and how we force ourselves to hold our breath in front of an intense and compelling story . full of mysteries and impossible twists ; sensations that only the best suspense movies can provoke .
The ranking with the best thrillers in history
To celebrate the existence of this genre, which has given us so much joy, I bring you this list in which I collect what, from my point of view, are the 23 best suspense films —or intrigue, or thrillers, as you prefer to call them. — of history. A compendium in which you will find names of legendary filmmakers such as Otto Preminger, John Huston, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock .
And if you still want more essential titles, you can always go to our lists where we compile the best films of all time belonging to genres as diverse as action, horror, science fiction or war movies.
‘Vertigo (from the dead)’ (‘Vertigo’, 1958)
Directed by : Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Henry Jones, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore.
As it couldn’t be any other way, we start this list at the hands of the master of suspense, and we do it with what is probably his most revered feature film. It’s no wonder, because ‘Vertigo’ is a master class not only in directing and acting —superb Stewart and Novak—; It is also a guide on how to apply psychology to the genre, shaping two hours that are as disturbing as they are exciting.
‘Seven’ (Se7en)’ (1995)
Directed by: David Fincher. Cast: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, John C. McGinley.
From the master of classic suspense we move on to the one who probably occupies the same position on the contemporary scene. Among David Fincher’s extensive filmography, which includes jewels such as ‘Zodiac’ or ‘Lost’, I have been forced to choose a ‘Seven’ that, in addition to having one of the most iconic villains of the late 20th century, He caps off his fantastic narrative with a terrifying third act.
‘One of ours’ (‘Goodfellas’, 1990′)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino.
Another teacher who might as well have four or five entries on this list is Martin Scorsese. ‘Casino’, ‘Shutter Island’, ‘The Departed’, ‘Taxi Driver’… Any of them could have been in the compendium, but my choice has been a ‘Goodfellas’ that tells the archetypal criminal story of rise and fall with an impossible tone and pulse, propelled by a brilliant cast and characters.
‘The silence of the lambs’ (‘The Silence of the Lambs’, 1991)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme. Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald.
This magnificent feature film directed by Jonathan Demme may be one of the best literary adaptations of recent times. His approach to the original material by Thomas Harris is as faithful to its content as it is to its atmosphere, and he gave us, in addition to a couple of suffocating and cinematically impeccable hours, a Hannibal Lecter who transcended the film to become an indisputable pop icon.
‘LA Confidential’ (1997)
Directed by: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell.
In 1997, Curtis Hanson revived the purest essence of classic film noir with an adaptation of James Elroy’s novel that dazzled, returning to Hollywood an aura of grandeur that seemed lost. His splendid cast, his narrative as sharp as a knife and Hanson’s remarkable direction, sadly, were ignored —except for a couple of statuettes— by some Oscars that decided to cover ‘Titanic’ with awards.
Direction: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior.
Two years after his surprising debut ‘Following’, Christopher Nolan reaffirmed his style and his obsession with fragmented narratives and temporary games with a ‘Memento’ that peppered the most classic noir with a snip in the editing room. A hypnotic and tremendously lucid experience that shows that you can still innovate in the most entrenched terrain.
Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki.
Of course, Christopher Nolan didn’t make anything up with his ‘Memento.’ Five decades earlier, the master Akira Kurosawa signed this masterpiece in which, through a highly intelligent editing, he explored the figure of the narrator and the reliability of his testimony in a thriller set in feudal Japan that continues to this day. being worthy of a good in-depth study.
‘The lives of others’ (‘Das Leben der Anderen’, 2006)
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Cast: Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme.
In 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck fell in love with half the world —and the Hollywood Academy— with this magnificent look at Germany in the middle of the Cold War and the lonely figure of the spy, raised to a new level by the interpretation of Ulrich Muhe. A couple of hours in which the most surprising intrigue coexists with a devastating dramatic residue.
‘The messenger of fear’ (‘The Manchurian Candidate’, 1962)
Directed by: John Frankenheimer. Cast: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory.
We continue with another legend of both suspense and the seventh art in general as John Frankenheimer. Among his jewels within the genre I could not help but stay with ‘The messenger of fear’; an adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel that leaves the viewer on edge for two hours of political thriller to be framed with an Oscar-winning Angela Lansbury.
‘The conversation’ (‘The Conversation’, 1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest.
Did you want more middle heavyweights? Well, here you have none other than Francis Ford Coppola, whose ‘The Conversation’ fascinates through a convoluted script, a staging that is as precise as it is contained, and a stratospheric lead performance by Gene Hackman that helped this marvel to win over. the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
‘Perdition’ (‘Double Indemnity’, 1944)
Directed by: Billy Wilder. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers.
The master Billy Wilder made us laugh out loud, cry our eyes out, and made us tense with this classic noir essential enriched by the unique look of its author. With a structure that continues in force on the big and on the small screen, a captivating main duet —Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s thing has no name— and an incisive use of trademark dialogue, ‘Perdicion’ is an essential exercise for understand the subgenre.
Directed by: Roman Polanski. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, Burt Young.
As we have been able to verify up to this point, this thriller —and, more specifically, film noir— has always been a matter of embracing pre-existing codes to renew or simply replicate them. In the mid-70s, Roman Polanski did the same with his glorious ‘Chinatown’, in which he immersed us in the archetypal detective story set in the 30s, impregnating the screen with astonishing modernity.
‘The Third Man’ (‘The Third Man’, 1949)
Directed by: Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Orson Welles, Bernard Lee.
‘The Third Man’ has everything to justify the label that ranks it as one of the most iconic films of all time. An impeccable direction by Carol Reed, a memorable soundtrack, some incredible performances —special mention for Orson Welles in his sauce— and one of the most mythical character reveal scenes we can imagine. Another essential piece to understand film noir.
‘Thirst for evil’ (‘Touch of Evil’, 1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Calleia.
If a moment ago we were alluding to the actor Welles, now it is necessary to do the same with his role as director in this gem entitled ‘Thirst for evil’. A cinematographic time bomb that is much more than its amazing opening sequence shot and that falls in love, in part, thanks to a cast brimming with stars such as Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and an imposing Marlene Dietrich. Russell Metty’s photography is to drool over.
‘Perfect robbery’ (‘The Killing’, 1956)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Ted de Corsia.
Perhaps, among all of Stanley Kubrick’s excellent filmography, his exceptional heist thriller ‘Perfect Heist’ is my favorite film. Beyond its fabulous treatment of the camera, the monochrome photography of Lucien Ballard and its devoted cast, what ends up falling in love with this classic noir is a narrative that finds its best weapon in editing to keep us on the edge of our seats for 83 minutes to frame.
‘The French Connection. Against the drug empire’ (‘The French Connection’, 1971)
Directed by: William Friedkin. Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frederic de Pasquale.
This gem by William Friedkin, whose ‘To Live and Die in Los Angeles’ also wouldn’t be out of place on this list, may be remembered for its memorable car sequence shot in real traffic, but as Edgar Wright puts it, ‘The French Connection’ is ” A great movie with a great chase.” A police summit with some Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in a state of grace.
‘M, the vampire from Dusseldorf’ (‘M’, 1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang. Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Theo Lingen, Theodor Loos.
Not only is legendary German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s leap into sound an enduring classic that continues to rock thanks, in part, to a haunting lead performance by Peter Lorre. This wonder established a chair in its way of approaching the figure of the psychopath, being considered a seminal work for serial killer movies. A superb exercise in each and every one of its aspects.
‘The Night of the Hunter’ (‘The Night of the Hunter’, 1955)
Directed by: Charles Laughton . Cast: Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Sally Ann Bruce, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.
You know that a feature film is effective when, regardless of how much time has passed since its premiere and how much the language and sensibilities of the public may have evolved, it continues to make your hair stand on end. This is precisely what happens with this masterpiece by Charles Laughton, halfway between thriller and purest terror and with a simply unmatched Robert Mitchum.
‘The eternal dream’ (‘The Big Sleep’, 1946)
Directed by: Howard Hawks. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone.
Be careful, we still have a few names of film titans to mention, and one of them is the one and only Howard Hawks. In addition to wonders as varied as ‘Scarface’, ‘Only angels have wings’ or the eternal ‘Rio’, the filmmaker reached the pinnacle of film noir at the hands of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall —as if not to do so with this couple— in this crime scene masterfully photographed by Sidney Hickox.
‘The Maltese Falcon’ (‘The Maltese Flacon’, 1941)
Directed by: John Huston. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane.
Another giant of the stature of John Huston allied himself with the iconic Humphrey Bogart in this no less unforgettable classic noir brimming with impossible intrigues, relentless detectives and talent in each and every one of its departments; from the direction to the editing, going through a script that showed that Huston was just as good at the camera as the typewriter.
Directed by: Otto Preminger. Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price.
The last purely noir entry on the list is also signed by a heavyweight. This is none other than Otto Preminger, whose fantastic ‘Laura’ once again reflects the magnetism of the subgenre in an hour and a half in which crime, mystery, technical and formal brilliance, and accurate dialogues shape an indisputable classic.
‘The salary of fear’ (‘La Salaire de la peur’, 1953)
Directed by: HG Clouzot. Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Vera Clouzot, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli.
Clouzot’s great masterpiece, together with the essential ‘Las diabolicas’, could not have a simpler premise: Four workers from a company must transport nitroglycerin during a journey in which any unexpected maneuver could result in certain death. 140 minutes of impeccably managed suspense that prevents you from blinking once in the face of the accumulated tension.
‘Old Boy’ (2003)
Address: Park Chan Wook. Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung, Ji Dae-han, Oh Dal-su.
I could not close this selection without mentioning my beloved South Korea. We could make a list with only the great thrillers from the Asian country —’I found the devil’, ‘Mother’, ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘The man without a past’…— but my choice has been ‘Oldboy’; one of the three wonders that make up Park Chan-wook’s Revenge Trilogy and whose unhealthy footage continues to be as fascinating as the first day.