Friday Favourites: Ten Classic Thrillers

Jaws posterThe start of an occasional series: a list of my favourite films, scenes, actors or whatever else might take my fancy. To kick off, here’s a list of ten of my favourite thrillers, in no particular order. I originally published this a few years ago and was surprised to find that it still works for me today. The only tweak I made is the choice of Bond film (the one listed below replaces You Only Live Twice, my original selection). The Thriller as a genre is wide open to interpretation of course: there are plenty of others I could add, but hey – you have to start somewhere, right?


1. The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles is unforgettable in this truly excellent noir thriller set in a murky post-war Vienna. Harry Lime (Welles) has died in a car crash; old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in the city to investigate and uncovers more than he bargained for. Superb photography, script and score; probably the greatest British film ever made.

2. Die Hard (1988)

An ingenious premise: Bruce Willis stranded in a skyscraper taken over by terrorists. By keeping the story confined to a single location, director John McTiernan lets the tension (and action) build as cop John McClane (Willis) and his German nemesis Hans Gruber (the brilliant Alan Rickman) try to outwit each other.

3. The 39 Steps (1935)

Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s finest British film, this is a glorious chase movie. The innocent Richard Hannay (dapper Robert Donat) is forced to go on the run after being framed for the murder of a secret agent. The corkscrew plot, atmospheric Scottish locations and delicious chemistry between the two leads once Hannay gets handcuffed to a reluctant accomplice (Madeleine Carroll) make this a solid-gold classic.

4. North By Northwest (1959)

Another Hitchcock classic, and every bit as good as The 39 Steps. Cary Grant is the innocent man on the run this time, mistaken for an assassin at the United Nations. The epic chase that follows, as he flees across the Unites States trying to keep one step ahead of the mysterious criminal organisation led by James Mason, is memorable set-piece after memorable set-piece.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Steven Spielberg’s recreation of vintage 1930s Saturday morning adventure serials is a fantastic ripping yarn in its own right. This old-fashioned escapism has been imitated many times over the years but has still to be bettered. After starring as the adventuring archaeologist Indiana Jones here, it became Harrison Ford’s signature role.

6. From Russia With Love (1963)

Everyone has their favourite James Bond film, and this list wouldn’t be complete without one. My personal fave is the second of Sean Connery’s outings, when the heady mixture of action, intrigue, fiendish plots, and exotic locales and ladies was still fresh – before the series moved in to more outlandish pastures.

7. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

This fantastic WW2 men-on-a-mission tale (written by Alistair Maclean) has all the ingredients for a classic wartime thriller. A team of paratroopers, led by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, is sent into Austria to recover a captured General. Double and triple crosses galore, plus Clint wiping out half the German army with his machine gun – what’s not to like? Brilliant soundtrack from Ron Goodwin too.

8. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Thoroughly engrossing noir tale set in the seedy underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, complete with femmes fatales and corrupt cops. The dense plot winds up with a thrilling shootout between bad guys and unlikely allies Bud (Russell Crowe) and Ed (Guy Pearce). One of the best films from the 1990s.

9. Jaws (1975)

Before Indy, Spielberg had already redefined popular cinema with this blockbuster yarn about a rogue white shark menacing the small town of Amity Island. The chair-gripping opening sequence is unforgettable, but it really kicks into gear once we’re shark-hunting on the high seas with the 3 Rs (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss).

10. The Terminator (1984)

Straying slightly into sci-fi territory here, but James Cameron’s tale of the relentless cyborg from the future tracking down the woman who will give birth to the future saviour of mankind is one of the great action thrillers. Schwarzenegger’s powerful presence and minimal acting ability is put to fantastic use, while director Cameron piles on the suspense.

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.

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