Top 25 Thrillers of All-Time

Sure, Hitchcock made the list... but what else?

by IGN FilmForce

- Here at IGN FilmForce, we like to argue; not about who tracked mud through the kitchen, or which of the editors used all of the toilet paper in the men's room. We like to argue about movies… which is better than which and why. Unfortunately, after the umpteenth shouting match, the higher-ups decided it would be a whole lot cooler to put all of this arguing to some kind of positive use. Therefore, we came up with an exhaustive plan: we will rate the Top 25 movies for 13 genres in 13 weeks. We have already done Animation and Drama, and we will roll out a new genre each Friday until we have covered the most important categories of movies.

25. The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola's follow-up to The Godfather (in fact an interim film between the two crime sagas) is a paranoid masterpiece on par with his best work, and stands up today as a remarkable depiction of one man's professional life destroyed by his inescapable personal convictions. Gene Hackman gives one of the movies' great performances as Harry Caul, a sad-sack surveillance expert who finds himself ensconced in a potential assassination plot while trying to recover from his role in the deaths of three people years before. Like Antonioni's similar Blowup, the film takes typically concrete material - that is, recorded sound - and reduces it to a fluid, maddeningly interpretive landscape; as Harry attempts to decipher the footage and divine motives, intentions, and most importantly, outcomes, he only finds himself further from the truth. Coppola, meanwhile, transforms the language of cinema yet again, and offers a vision of the media age that remains unshaken even to this day.-

24. Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven's sexed-up 1992 hit, Basic Instinct, starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, is one of the freakiest thrillers ever made. Douglas stars Nick Curran, a police detective investigating a series of vicious sex murders who becomes involved (very involved) with the prime suspect, uninhibited, manipulative novelist Catherine Trammell. Keep your legs... err... fingers crossed that the forthcoming sequel will be a worthy successor to the original.

23. The 39 Steps
A forerunner to North by Northwest, 1935's The 39 Steps was Alfred Hitchcock's first "wrong man" film, and is arguably the best of Hitchcock's British film work. 39 Steps, like later Hitchcock movies such as Saboteur and The Man Who Knew Too Much, follows an average, innocent man (Robert Donat) who's framed and has to clear his name. The title refers to the film's "MacGuffin" -- "the 39 steps" is a phrase Donat's character must determine the meaning of in the search to prove his innocence.

22. The Conformist
Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 tale of a Fascist sympathizer who becomes complicit in a plot to assassinate his old professor is an unlikely but unforgettable film, one fraught with personal and political tensions that erupt in images so beautiful that the message is conveyed even if the words don't always make sense. Bertolucci, a student of the works of director Pier Paolo Pasolini, creates a deeply personal film about one man's desperate desire to conform, projected against the backdrop of Italian Fascism; Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello, who survives being molested as a child only to succumb to the impact of that experience as an adult when asked to seek out his old teacher, now a political dissident. Like, says, Chinatown, the film is full of political double-crossing, and occasional detours into personal problems that don't always add up, but Bertolucci is firmly in control of this captivating thriller; never has 'fitting in' felt quite so cloying as depicted here. -TG

21. Charade
The masterstroke of director Stanley Donen's career, Charade is a nearly perfect thriller. Rivaling Hitchcock's best, Charade has enough intrigue, suspense and red herrings to keep just about any viewer riveted from beginning to end. At 59, Cary Grant is still pretty damn suave. The fetching 34 year-old Hepburn has an excellent chemistry with the dashing aristocrat, and the two play humor and romance with equal aptitude. As much as Charade seems to be having fun with the audience, it's also having some fun with itself along the way, a layered and perfect thriller in all senses. -JO

20. Rashomon
There have been dozens of movies made telling stories from multiple perspectives, but Rashomon was the first, and likely the best: adopting the adage that there are always three versions of the truth - your version, my version, and what actually happened - director Akira Kurosawa explores the particulars of a crime through the eyes of several different characters - including the deceased victim - and offers a case study in storytelling that has seldom been matched in the 60 years since it was first made. There is a famous story about Kurosawa's assistants, who challenged the director to explain the film after reading its screenplay; his response to them was "if you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it, because it was written with the intention of being incomprehensible." Seldom has a movie that made so little sense felt as satisfying. -TG

19. Strangers on a Train
This 1951 Alfred Hitchcock classic tells the story of a "murder exchange" between two men who meet on a train and decide to "trade" murders... The problem is, only one of them actually carries through on the deal. Stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker turn in excellent performances, the script (co-written by Raymond Chandler) is tightly written, and the scenes are superbly directed, from the smartly choreographed opening sequence to the famously unfaked and truly dangerous runaway merry-go-round scene.


18. Fight Club The first rule of Fight Club is that it kicks ass. Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's amazing and unique novel, Fight Club follows the intertwining lives of two men as they turn the world on its ear. Eschewing society's rules in favor of chaos, the two men (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) begin a national network of "fight clubs" where men go to beat each other senseless in hopes of finding salvation and respite from their boring lives. Not only an indictment of consumer culture, but a wickedly dark and sinister film with constant thrills, Fight Club stands as a modern classic.


17. Notorious
Alfred Hitchcock's ninth American film, Notorious combines a great spy story with a romance. Featuring a stellar cast -- Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains -- and some groundbreaking camerawork for 1946 (including a swooping crane shot down to an extreme close-up of a key in Bergman's hand), Notorious's plot revolves around a very realistic and timely "MacGuffin" (a term Hitchcock coined for whatever all the characters are after): uranium. -BZ

16. The Third Man
The Third Man is classic noir mystery at its finest. From prolific director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, the film stars Joseph Cotten as pulp novel author Holly Martins who travels to Vienna after WWII to work with his friend, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles). But when Lime is killed in a mysterious car accident, Martins begins to look into the events surrounding his friend's death. Welles appearance, an top-shelf musical score and a number of plot surprises are all highlights of this classic picture.

15. Blue Velvet
Prior to Blue Velvet, David Lynch made three ambitious and equally eccentric films - Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune - but with the 1986 mystery, his legacy was permanently assured: this bizarre exploration of suburbia's seedy underbelly became the template for almost every Lynch project which followed. Kyle Machlachlan, who later became the director's squeaky-clean protagonist on Twin Peaks, plays Jeffrey, a nosy kid who discovers a severed ear in an abandoned lot and soon succumbs to a strange, frightening world of masochism and violence. Dennis Hopper, returning to sobriety after decades of drug use, offers a chilling performance as Frank Booth, while Isabella Rossellini lays bare her soul - and her body - as a kidnapped man's wife, who finds herself unexpectedly excited by this dangerous, depraved underworld. Lynch would go on to make other memorable mysteries, but this is the only one that ever quite served his own and his audience's purposes so satisfactorily.

14. Touch of Evil
Signaling a return to the studio system after countless feuds, Touch of Evil is a comeback of sorts for Orson Welles, and one of his finest films. Featuring one of the most impressive opening shots in cinema history, Touch of Evil proved yet again that Welles was a visionary filmmaker; one who could balance the technical with the creative to achieve greatness. Featuring a young Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the cast is terrific, but as usual, Welles steals the show with his portrayal of Hank Quinlan, a corpulent, no-hold barred local cop working the scene in the seedy town of Los Robles, Mexico. Moody and almost too dark for its time, Touch of Evil stands as one of the great thrillers of all-time.

13. Dial M For Murder
Originally shot in 3-D but rarely projected that way (I was lucky enough to see a 3-D print once. Very cool, but doesn't make much difference outside of the scissor scene), Dial M For Murder is Hitchcock in the zone. As great a thriller as Dial M is, it's even more amazing when you realize that number three on our list, Rear Window, was released the same year. One of Hitchock's favorite blondes (and mine too), Grace Kelly, is the star of both films. The shifty-eyed Ray Milland gives an excellent performance as well, backpedaling and backstabbing his way through this terrific thriller. Hitchcock's work takes up more than a third of our thriller list, and argument could easily be made for slots.

12. Double Indemnity
Proof positive that women are the downfall of man, Double Indemnity is also further proof of Billy Wilder's status as one of the most versatile and talented directors in Hollywood's brief history. If you only know Fred MacMurray as the lovable ole' dad on My Three Sons, you'll look at him differently after seeing his performance as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Barbara Stanwyk is stunningly beautiful as black widow Phyllis Dietrichson. Edward G. Robinson delivers a classic line with every breath. Much like most of Wilder's dramatic work that would follow, Indemnity is dark and cynical, with a black sense of humor that is as troubling as it is eternally inviting.-

11. Memento
Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano stand out this inventive, backwards 2001 thriller from writer-director Christoper Nolan. Telling the story of a man (Pearce) who suffers from short-term memory loss, Memento plays like a puzzle, showing how the events we see in the beginning came to be. The plot unfolds in ten-minute sequences, shown in reverse chronological order, a device that actually makes the film an even more intriguing thriller than it would have been had it been presented in a forward-flowing timeline.


10. The Sixth Sense
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough movie was released in 1999, when spoiler-happy movie websites were dishing every detail they could find about upcoming flicks. But somehow, some way The Sixth Sense made its way to the big screen unspoiled and blew audiences away with a surprise twist ending that no one saw coming. The film, starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, was an unexpected blockbuster that benefited from positive word of mouth that spread like wildfire... but the ending largely remained unspoiled.

9. Vertigo
Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo is at its essence about obsession, as much for the director himself as his artistic designs. In the film, James Stewart plays Scotty, a detective who becomes obsessed with a woman named Madeleine (Kim Novak) who dies, and then mysteriously reappears in a subtly different, slightly less polished form. He begins to remake this 'new' version, renamed Judy, in the image of his object of desire, but finds that it only pulls him further from the sad essence of their relationship - namely, that each of them has fallen for a part of the other they cannot have. Hitchcock's efforts here to render Scotty's vertigo, much less his obsession with Madeleine, reach new heights of technical expertise - even for the endlessly inventive filmmaker - but the lasting effect is one that the audience cannot shake: one man sacrifices a real woman for the dream of another, and one filmmaker lays bare his soul for the sake of his art. A masterpiece in any terms.

8. Seven
While movies about serial killers are frequent and usually awful, Seven brought intelligence and genuine thrills to the sagging genre, during a considerable drought. Oozing mood and bleeding intrigue, the movie slowly unwraps a gory tale of a killer punishing his victims by enacting murders based on the seven deadly sins (thus the title). With gritty performances by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, and a star turn from relative unknown (at the time) Gwyneth Paltrow, David Fincher's film ensures that audiences will squirm from the first frame to the final grisly revelation

7. Night of the Hunter
Endlessly imitated but still in many ways an obscure classic, Robert Mitchum is truly terrifying in this masterpiece by actor-turned-director Charles Laughton. This was the one and only feature he directed, amazingly enough. Why try to top perfection, I suppose. Mitchum's frightening presence is most associated with his over-the-top portrayal of Max Cady in the 1962 Cape Fear, but it was his subtly terrifying, ruthless Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter that stands as his greatest acting achievement. Sporting his classic "Love" and "Hate" tattoos across the fingers on his right and left hand, Powell is a deeply evil character driven to murderous excess in pursuit of fortune. He has no compassion, be it mother, the elderly, or the innocent children desperately running from his wrath

6. Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer's 1962 adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate combines drama, suspense, science-fiction and political satire in such an effective way it's hard to put it in any one category. As a thriller, Manchurian Candidate succeeds superbly, featuring an incredibly creepy plot involving brainwashed, unknowing assassins. Feelings of paranoia and foreboding reign throughout the flick, culminating in a very intense, climactic ending. -

5. Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins' pronunciation of the name "Clarice" in indelibly imprinted in my brain for the rest of time. As the maniacal Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector, Hopkins took full ownership of the role originally portrayed by Brian Cox in Manhunter. Jodie Foster also fully affirmed her status as Hollywood's smartest leading lady. Her performance was so solid that the FBI still uses the film as a poster-child for their promotion. Thrilling, scary and just exceptionally solid filmmaking in the hands of Jonathan Demme, Silence was a runway success both commercially and critically, taking home golden naked guys for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.-

4. Psycho
Consistently listed among the best thrillers ever made, Psycho, the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, has changed the way anyone who's ever seen it feels about being the in shower. Believe it or not, when Psycho first came out, audiences weren't completely into it. For Hitchcock, who had previously crafted films like North by Northwest, Vertigo and Rear Window, the film was a significant departure from his established formula. Many fans of the filmmaker were disappointed to get something all together different than they were expecting. Maybe we'll feel that way about the Star Wars prequels in a few years? Nah.

3. Rear Window
Of Alfred Hitchcock's many paeans to voyeurism, Rear Window is not only his most famous, but his best: when a famous photographer is laid up in his apartment after an accident, he spends his days and nights watching his neighbors until he believes he witnesses a murder. Jimmy Stewart, the reliable hero of many of Hitchcock's movies, plays Jeff, the wounded voyeur, while Grace Kelly plays his marriage-minded accomplice. Meanwhile, Hitchcock's fluidity with the camera has seldom been as expressive, and simultaneously as simple; shooting exclusively from Jeff's point of view, the images themselves prove condemning to the audience because they wisely avoid offering any other perspective, and offer a remarkable juxtaposition between the moral conclusions drawn from his observations and the character's unwillingness to engage anything but from a safe and satisfactorily detached distance. Far surpassing the facile and fleeting scares of modern thrillers, Rear Window offers an exercise in suspense that proves as unforgettable - and frightening - today as it did in 1954. -

2. Chinatown
Featuring a strong, Academy Award-winning screenplay by Robert Towne, Roman Polanski's Chinatown follows private detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) as he investigates a murder and stumbles onto a conspiracy involving the future of Los Angeles. A neo-noir thriller that simultaneously pays homage to and redefines the film noir genre, Chinatown tells a complex story brilliantly and showcases one of Nicholson's greatest performances. -

1. North By Northwest
It's only fitting that Alfred Hitchcock would top this list, since his sense of story and knack for suspense made him the greatest mystery/thriller director of all-time. North By Northwest is a masterpiece of intrigue, and features some of the most copied sequences in film. Starring the incomparable Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken to be a spy. The twists and turns that result from Thornhill's flight from relentless pursuit provide a blueprint by which all thrillers can be judged.


THIS POSTER WOULD ADD, “DAY OF THE JACKYLL” directed by Fred ZINNERMAN, a Frederic Forsythe Novel, ODESSA FILE, a Forsythe novel that is better than the film. Really good!