Thriller isn’t just a word used as the title for one of pop music’s biggest albums of all time. It’s also a word used to describe an incredibly popular and long-lasting genre of movies: something that lies somewhere between horror, drama, and action, with a story that aims to excite, unnerve, or thrill its audience. The thriller genre has been popular ever since the silent era, and has continued to thrive as a reliable type of movie well into the 21st century.
It’s also a fairly broad genre, with countless movies that can be described as thrillers, or perhaps have elements of a thriller combined with other genres. The following selection of movies aims to look at the greatest thriller films of all time, predominantly focusing on movies where “thriller” is the primary genre. Above all, they’re very likely to get one’s heart racing, and are all easy to recommend to viewers who crave more adrenaline rushes in their movie diet.
30 ‘Marathon Man’ (1976)
Director: John Schlesinger
With a dynamite screenplay coupled with excellent performances by Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, Marathon Man is a movie that never lets up. It stands in contrast to other films from the 1970s that sometimes had slower pacing, with this movie about a man getting wrapped up in a bizarre and convoluted conspiracy likely to make you as breathless as running a real marathon. Some would argue that the genre is at its best when it’s at its most stressful, and Marathon Man is indeed a nail-biting stressful movie.
There are also times when Marathon Man verges dangerously close to becoming a grisly horror film, and will likely make viewers fear a trip to the dentist even more than they might’ve before. Any way you cut it, it’s good stuff, and sufficiently thrilling for those who are after something pulse-quickening in nature.
- Release Date
- October 8, 1976
- John Schlesinger
- 125 minutes
29 ‘The Chaser’ (2008)
Director: Na Hong-jin
There have been plenty of great South Korean crime thrillers released in the 21st century so far, and The Chaser‘s would have to rank among the best of the lot. It follows a corrupt cop who discovers there may be a serial killer targeting prostitutes, and he sets out to try and find this murderer by any means necessary.
The results aren’t pretty, with The Chaser being an exceedingly dark, gritty, and oftentimes unpleasant movie that’s nonetheless difficult to look away from, compelling as it needs to be for a film of this kind. Its particularly dark take on the thriller genre might well ensure it’s not to everyone’s liking, but those who feel like they can handle something that gets very down and dirty might well find themselves sufficiently thrilled.
28 ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Being an assassin has never looked as cool as it’s looked in Le Samouraï, it has to be said. While the film doesn’t glamorize the life of its main character, or suggest his line of work is easy by any means, Le Samouraï is ridiculously stylish and just effortlessly suave, thanks to its deliberate pacing, visual aesthetic, and lead performance by Alain Delon.
It was also one of the best films released in 1967, which itself was very much a cool and radical year for cinema, in many ways. It tells a simple story about an assassin fighting for his life after a hit gone wrong, and does so in a timeless and very efficient way that makes Le Samouraï a singular crime/thriller movie, and an enduring classic of French cinema, and a shining example of how good arthouse crime movies can be.
- Release Date
- October 25, 1967
- Jean-Pierre Melville
- 1h 35m
27 ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
It might be most classifiable as a movie within the film noir genre, but Double Indemnity is also excellent when judged as a thriller. It’s about an insurance agent being targeted by a cunning femme fatale type of character, and seduced into helping her murder her husband for insurance money.
Things go about as well as you’d expect them to (essentially, things end in disaster; it’s a film noir tradition, after all). The thrill comes from watching things fall apart in an inevitable yet still somehow surprising way, with Double Indemnity holding up almost 80 years on from release as one of the most exciting movies from the film noir genre. Everything adds up to make Double Indemnity easily up there with the very best releases of the 1940s, regardless of genre.
- Release Date
- July 6, 1944
- Billy Wilder
- Fred MacMurray , Barbara Stanwyck , Edward G. Robinson , Byron Barr
- 107 minutes
26 ‘Rear Window’ (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
A classic Alfred Hitchcock movie that ranks as one of the best films released in 1954, Rear Window is a highly inventive and ambitious mystery/thriller movie with a remarkably confined setting. It follows a man unable to leave his apartment, due to an injured leg, and as a strange hobby of sorts, he begins passing the time by spying on his various neighbors through their windows.
It touches on voyeurism and, in turn, paranoia, given the main character begins to suspect that one of his neighbors may have committed a murder. Rear Window stays surprisingly engaging, working wonders with a small cast and limited scope, showing that few directors could make thrillers quite as well as Hitchcock could in his prime. And no one can deny that Hitchcock was undoubtedly on fire throughout the 1950s.
- Release Date
- September 1, 1954
- James Stewart , Grace Kelly , Wendell Corey , Thelma Ritter , Raymond Burr
- 112 minutes
25 ‘Black Swan’ (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky specializes in making intensely psychological movies, and while most of them could probably be classified more as dramas than thrillers, Black Swan certainly feels like a psychological thriller. It arguably feels like a horror movie in parts, too (as various intense movies from Aronofsky tend to be), telling a fiercely intense story about a young ballerina getting very immersed in her role during a production of Swan Lake, with violent and alarming results.
Black Swan is a stomach-churning movie, with a dizzying style, a continuing sense of escalating tension and dread, and an amazing lead performance from Natalie Portman. It’s one of Darren Aronofsky’s best films, and though its 2010 release makes it more recent than other classic thrillers, it deserves to be recognized among the best of the best.
- Release Date
- December 3, 2010
24 ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Fatal Attraction is a movie that has a reputation that precedes it. It’s a quintessential 1980s thriller, telling the now familiar-sounding story about one man having an affair with a woman who turns out to be more than he bargained for, and the way his family life is affected when she decides to stalk/terrorize him after he moves on.
Some elements date the movie, without a doubt, which can make it a little uncomfortable to watch today. It doesn’t handle a delicate topic like mental health with much care, even by the standards of a movie that came out more than three decades ago. However, Fatal Attraction is undeniably iconic as a thriller, earning six Oscar nominations and becoming a huge success at the box office (the highest grosser worldwide in 1987).
23 ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Anyone familiar with the filmography of Sam Peckinpah probably won’t be surprised by the direction Straw Dogs ends up going, though it does stick out for being one of the director’s few well-known non-Westerns (it’s no less violent, though). The plot follows a couple who go to live in a small rural town; one that at first seems to offer a peaceful alternative to life in a busy city.
However, things don’t go to plan. Certain townspeople harass the new couple, with things escalating from verbal to physical abuse. At that point, the slow-burn nature of the thriller’s plot explodes into violence, with the third act being an unsettling and still shocking rampage of revenge. Straw Dogs is a difficult film that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s amazingly well-made and acted overall.
22 ‘Blood Simple’ (1984)
Director: The Coen Brothers
Blood Simple is an early Coen Brothers movie, and shows that even when the duo were young, they were already capable of greatness. It’s a neo-noir/thriller that’s straightforward (befitting the title) but quite remarkable, depicting a chaotic series of events that unfold when a man finds out his wife is having an affair. While the Coen Brothers would come to be fairly well-known for their comedies, Blood Simple keeps things mostly grim and serious, though with some dark humor present.
It might not sound like anything particularly amazing on paper, but it works well in execution, and is overall an efficiently made and engrossing watch. It might not quite be the very best film the Coens ever made, but it might be their best “pure” thriller, given many of their later thrilling movies tend to engage in a little more genre-blending.
- Release Date
- January 18, 1985
- Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
- 99 minutes
21 ‘The Conversation’ (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
It’s remarkable to think that Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather: Part II (which won Best Picture at the Oscars) and The Conversation (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) in the same year. The former is ultimately more well-known, but the latter certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, and can count itself as one of many compelling films that the legendary director made throughout his lengthy filmmaking career.
The Conversation is a quiet and low-key thriller, but it works wonders, centering on a surveillance expert who gets hired to follow/record a young couple, but ends up getting unusually obsessed with the case. It’s excellently directed and features a strong Gene Hackman performance at its center, and was a film that likely influenced the Oscar-winning movie The Lives of Others (2006).
- Release Date
- April 7, 1974
- Francis Ford Coppola
- Gene Hackman , John Cazale , Allen Garfield , Frederic Forrest , Cindy Williams , Michael Higgins
20 ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963)
Director: Terence Young
Admittedly, the James Bond series tends to blend the thriller genre with action and adventure elements, but it’s probably the later movies that tend to feel a little more action-packed. As such, the earlier films feel a little more at home in the thriller genre, with that especially being the case for the second movie in the long-running series, From Russia with Love.
As the title implies, it leans into Cold War era conflict quite heavily, and also features Bond going up against SPECTRE, who’s out for revenge after the events of Dr. No. Like many older James Bond films, there’s some iffy content to be endured, but in large part, this holds up as a very entertaining action/thriller movie. You can’t go wrong with most James Bond movies that starred the great Sean Connery, but From Russia with Love is certainly one of the best.
From Russia With Love
- Release Date
- October 10, 1963
- Terence Young
- Sean Connery , Daniela Bianchi , Pedro Armendáriz , Lotte Lenya , Robert Shaw , Bernard Lee
19 ‘The Fugitive’ (1993)
Director: Andrew Davis
Few actors have been in as many big, successful, action-packed blockbusters as Harrison Ford. His popularity skyrocketed after the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, and the 1990s saw him starring in a huge number of large-scale thrillers and action movies, with 1993’s The Fugitive probably being the best of the lot.
It takes the whole “man falsely accused of a crime goes on the run” premise that you’d think has been done to death, but basically perfects the formula. In the process, it becomes an incredibly gripping thriller, and is a super entertaining blend of old-school, Hitchcock-esque thrills with more modern, slick 1990s filmmaking. And sure, it’s hard to top someone as good as Hitchcock when it comes to making a film of this sort, but The Fugitive comes quite close.
- Release Date
- August 6, 1993
- Andrew Davis
- 130 minutes
18 ‘Memento’ (2000)
Director: Christopher Nolan
In the years before his career turned towards Batman and large-scale science-fiction movies like Inception and Interstellar, Christopher Nolan made a name for himself as a director who specialized in psychological dramas/thrillers. These included compelling films like Insomnia and Following, but the best of these early Nolan films was probably Memento, and it certainly feels like one of his most mind-bending and dizzying (in good ways, of course).
It has an interesting structure where events play out backwards and forwards at the same time, with the timelines intersecting by the film’s conclusion. Memento makes for a mind-bending and extremely compelling movie, and utilizes various stylistic techniques well to give visual indications of what’s going on, letting the audience keep up just enough to never fall behind completely.
- Release Date
- May 25, 2001
- 113 minutes
17 ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962)
Director: John Frankenheimer
An old-school thriller that still holds up well, The Manchurian Candidate is as tense as it is dense, even 60+ years on from release. It follows a soldier who experiences strange thoughts and nightmares after arriving home in the US after fighting in the Korean War, and begins to suspect they’ve been caused by something sinister.
Inevitably, he sets out to uncover the truth, and it leads to a deep conspiracy where he becomes endangered further, considering some very powerful people may believe he knows too much. The Manchurian Candidate deals with many familiar themes and ideas, as far as the thriller genre is concerned, but did so a surprisingly long time ago, and as such, likely proved influential for numerous psychological and/or political thrillers that followed in its wake.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
- Release Date
- October 24, 1962
- John Frankenheimer
- 126 minutes
16 ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Simplicity can sometimes be the key to a great thriller, and The Wages of Fear demonstrates this well, with the style and effortless nature of this film making it an intriguing mix of adventure, thriller, and arthouse genres. The premise couldn’t get much more straightforward: several men are all desperate for cash, and so they take on a well-paying but high-risk job that involves them transporting highly explosive material a great distance by truck.
The story might be straightforward, but the course they’re forced to take certainly isn’t, which leads to white-knuckle tension throughout, as a single bump or collision could lead to instant death. It’s a French film that had an acclaimed American remake in 1977 (Sorcerer), but it’s one instance where you can’t quite beat what the amazing original has to offer.
15 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)
Director: Park Chan-wook
2003’s Oldboy understandably has a reputation as one of the greatest movies to ever come out of South Korea. It’s a thriller that’s heavy on mystery – and features a little action – and has a plot focusing on a man trying to discover why he was inexplicably imprisoned in a small room for 15 years, and then once he has answers, attempting to seek revenge on whoever did such a thing.
It’s a movie with an instantly engaging premise, and somehow it maintains its momentum throughout, delivering a shocking – yet fitting – final act. Oldboy is a movie that’s unafraid to go to some dark, disturbing, and uncomfortable places, but it remains a blast to watch for how stylish it is and how well it tells its story, rightly standing as one of the best movies of the early 2000s, and one of the very best Park Chan-wook ever directed, too.
- Release Date
- November 21, 2003
- Park Chan-wook
- Choi Min-sik , Yoo Ji-tae , Kang Hye-jung
- 120 minutes
14 ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986)
Director: David Lynch
There are plenty of David Lynch movies that are hard to pin down into one genre, and the case could be made that 1986’s Blue Velvet bleeds into a few. Still, there are plenty of high-stakes, nail-biting moments in the film, and it has an overall atmosphere that, when combined with a brisk pace, makes it stand out as a thriller… albeit a Lynch-flavored one.
Like many thrillers, it follows a protagonist who gets out of his depths, as he explores something he probably shouldn’t have, and uncovers a series of disturbing secrets as a result. It’s very intense, and genuinely scary in places, but remains one of Lynch’s most accessible movies, and – even with its handful of infamous scenes – one of Lynch’s most straightforward and accessible.
- Release Date
- October 3, 1986
- David Lynch
- 120 minutes
13 ‘Se7en’ (1995)
Director: David Fincher
Film noir movies already tend to be pretty bleak, and the genre’s next iteration – the neo-noir – often gets even bleaker. So it’s saying something that David Fincher’s Se7en is up there as one of the absolute bleakest, telling an increasingly dark and disturbing story about two detectives trying to track down a serial killer who’s basing his grisly murders on the seven deadly sins.
It’s a movie where it seems to be raining all the time, adding to the overall downbeat and hopeless feelings. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, it stops raining near the end… just in time for the plot to get to its darkest and most distressing parts yet. It’s a heavy and alarming movie, but it’s a fantastic achievement from a filmmaking perspective, and absolutely does the job when it comes to delivering some particularly full-on thrills.
12 ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
Few movies from the 1950s still prove to be truly exciting from the perspective of a modern-day viewer. It’s fair to assume that viewers back then were a little less desensitized, and it checks out, because if you go back even further than the 1950s, there’s a commonly told story/urban legend that a short film showing a train arriving at a station once shocked and scared audiences.
So it’s no small feat for a 1955 movie to still be genuinely tense and nerve-wracking, but that is the case for the classic The Night of the Hunter. A story about a menacing preacher targeting a small family for their money, it’s fantastically paced, constantly atmospheric, and surprisingly unpredictable for a movie made during a decade as (generally) safe as the 1950s.
11 ‘The Third Man’ (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Orson Welles plays a small but memorable role in The Third Man, a classic mystery/suspense film that memorably takes place in Vienna. It follows one man visiting the city to learn the circumstances behind a friend’s death, only to find (you guessed it) a conspiracy that complicates matters more than he could’ve ever imagined. Things start off very simply and perhaps even somewhat slow in The Third Man, but it builds steadily and ultimately feels worth sticking with for the places it goes.
It uses the geography of Vienna to great effect, and really makes the city come alive as one of the film’s characters, in a way. It’s definitely a movie that requires viewers to be a little patient, but it all builds expertly to a big finale that certainly makes the wait more than worthwhile.