Introduction to the Thriller Face-Off:
Growing up in the 1980’s, watching one 70’s classic after another has given me a fondness for the thriller to say the least. From the paranoid political thrillers of the early 70’s to the more action orientated crime thrillers of the later 70’s, that decade had the genre nailed down tight. The classic thrillers were about real but gritty characters who uttered real but gritty dialogue. The plots were usually rooted in credible situations (even the more far fetched sinister political thrillers like The Parallax View were touching on a nation’s darkest suspicions about the world they were then living in) and the tension played on that fact. There was an implicit trust in screen-writing and time was given for the plot and characters to work their magic. The thrills were an organic result of watching real characters find a way through (or not) believable circumstances. There were no unreal heroics, no countries or even planets to save, no impossibly good looking women falling unrealistically for the hero as he (let’s face it, it was usually a guy) went about his business. This was good enough for the action genre which was about to emerge in the next decade because the action genre was build around different conventions to the thriller. It tapped different things in the mind of the audience.
Unfortunately, modern film-makers (more likely producers) have forgotten all this and have completely conflated the modern notion of the thriller with the action genre of the 80’s. So gone are the real and gritty characters and their believable dilemmas. Gone is the tension and suspense that comes when everyday people use limited means to achieve their goals. In short, gone are the pure thrills of the classic thriller. Nowadays, it’s the concept that sells the film to the studio (“What country is s/he saving?”). Modern studios have lost their faith in writing. No longer can they trust that the thrills will emerge from the characters and plot, they need to see them straight away painted obviously and coarsely all over the mocked-up publicity poster.
Needless to say, all this is to explain why the Top 25 thrillers which I have selected below are largely from the 70’s and earlier. There are a few recent triumphs that smaller production companies got made (admittedly with the help of bigger studios along the way) like Michael Clayton and Argo but it’s no coincidence that these films are defined by an overt nod to 70’s cinema (very overt in the latter’s case).
The thriller is in many ways, the most difficult genre to define. The best thrillers do exactly what it says on the tin, they thrill. But the introduction of a measure of tension and manipulating the anxiety of the audience is a key concern for most film-makers who aim to engage the audience regardless of what genre their film is classed in. So what separates an out and out thriller from say a mystery or a crime feature both of which would have to generate substantial levels of tension too? This is the issue I have wrestled with when it comes to choosing the best ever 20-30 thrillers to face off against each other.
In the end I have chosen a Top 25 films which I believe are as pure to the ideals of a thriller as you can get. Films like Breakdown, Duel, North by Northwest, No Way Out, and The Taking of Pelham 123 which are non-stop roller-coaster rides of tension and suspense. Films like All the President’s Men, The Conversation, The Lives of Others, Michael Clayton, The Parallax View, Rear Window, Rope, The Night of the Hunter, and Straw Dogs where the tension and suspense burn slowly but surely from beginning to end, peaking just once, usually at the end. And then there are the films which strike a powerful balance between those two modes. Films like Argo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Cape fear, The China Syndrome, The Lady Vanishes, The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, Strangers on a Train, and Three Days of the Condor which seem to be able to present us with extended moments of quickly building suspense that are book-ended by scenes in which the underlying tension is tended to in a broader more drawn out manner.
Whatever the mode, these are films where the delivery of thrills to the audience is paramount and where no other genre convention becomes as or more important. So for example, there is an element of mystery to Breakdown but it’s relatively early resolution means it takes second place to the thriller conventions. There is an even stronger element of mystery to North by Northwest but the story is moved forward so quickly and peppered with so many action set-pieces that there is less time to appreciate the mystery than there is the thrills. There is also a substantial action dimension to films like Breakdown, No Way Out, and The Taking of Pelham 123 but these are usually contained within two or three focal set-pieces whereas each scene from the end of the first act to the close of the final act is permeated with a continuous and unbreaking tension.
Conversely, a reversal of this action-thriller/mystery-thriller weighting allowed me to preclude certain films from my list of Top 25 thrillers. For example, in films like Seven, The Third Man, The Usual Suspects, and Vertigo the mystery seems to permeate every sequence whereas the thriller element only prevails at key moments. It does so quite potently but not enough to outweigh the overall value of these films’ central mystery. If it did, then there’s no doubt these films would feature on my list. But I have concluded that they do not and so they will be held back for the Mystery Face-Off.
Naturally, despite its tendency to explore darker psychological themes, the Film-Noir genre can almost be considered a sub-genre of the thriller. However, because there are so many classic noir films, I am treating it as a separate genre and so it will have its own face-off. Lastly, I excluded films like Bullitt, Heat, and LA Confidential because I felt the crime narratives were more relevant to the film than their ability to thrill. Thus, they will be included in the Crime Face-Off’s. Therefore, the narrowly construed parameters of this Top 25 list ensures that many of the obvious contenders in a broader list of thrillers will not feature in this face-off. But they will feature in one of the other genre face-offs.
Thriller Genre Set – Provisionally Ranked After 2 Rounds of Face-Offs
(note: these provisional rankings merely show the trend in voting after the first 2 rounds. As these rankings are the result of only a partial cross-comparison (2 rounds), they are not indicative of what the final rankings will be. For instance, some films will have had 2 difficult face-offs & some will have had 2 easy face-offs. Furthermore, all the face-offs opened in the first 2 rounds will remain open until every film has been faced-off with every other film, so even these provisional scores will continue to change. So keep voting!)
The Night of the Hunter – 100
Cape Fear – 98
The Conversation – 92
Rear Window – 84
North by Northwest – 69
The Lady Vanishes – 57
Marathon Man – 56
Strangers on a Train – 54
Duel – 50
No Way Out – 41
Rope – 35
Argo – 33
Breakdown – 32
The Lives of Others – 32
The China Syndrome – 22
The Parallax View – 20
Michael Clayton – 19
Straw Dogs – 13
Genre Set (Thriller)