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.

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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

Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) protecting Elsa Opel (Martha Keller) with a gun and a screen door in Marathon Man
Paramount Pictures

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.

Marathon Man

Release Date
October 8, 1976

Director
John Schlesinger

Runtime
125 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

29 ‘The Chaser’ (2008)

Director: Na Hong-jin

Kim Yeon-sook in 'The Chaser'

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.

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28 ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

alain delon in le samourai
Image via S.N. Prodis

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.

Le Samourai

Release Date
October 25, 1967

Director
Jean-Pierre Melville

Runtime
1h 35m

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27 ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)

Director: Billy Wilder

Barbara Stanwyck standing behind a door as Fred MacMurray stands in the door way in Double Indemnity
Paramount Pictures

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.

Double Indemnity

Release Date
July 6, 1944

Director
Billy Wilder

Cast
Fred MacMurray , Barbara Stanwyck , Edward G. Robinson , Byron Barr

Runtime
107 minutes

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26 ‘Rear Window’ (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

A photographer peers over his camera, intrigued yet concerned, as he aims his large lens out the window.
Image via Paramount Pictures

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.

Rear Window

Release Date
September 1, 1954

Cast
James Stewart , Grace Kelly , Wendell Corey , Thelma Ritter , Raymond Burr

Runtime
112 minutes

Watch on Criterion

25 ‘Black Swan’ (2010)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Nina performing Swan Lake on stage in 'Black Swan'
Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures

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.

Black Swan

Release Date
December 3, 2010

Runtime
110

Rent on Apple TV

24 ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987)

Director: Adrian Lyne

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987)
Image via Paramount Pictures

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).

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23 ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner holding a gun in Straw Dogs
Image via 20th Century Studios

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.

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22 ‘Blood Simple’ (1984)

Director: The Coen Brothers

Frances McDormand as Abby holding a gun and looking scared in the film Blood Simple
Image via Circle Films

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.

Blood Simple

Release Date
January 18, 1985

Director
Joel Coen , Ethan Coen

Runtime
99 minutes

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21 ‘The Conversation’ (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Gene Hackman as Harry Caul working on surveillance equipment in 'The Conversation'
Image via Paramount Pictures

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).

The Conversation

Release Date
April 7, 1974

Director
Francis Ford Coppola

Cast
Gene Hackman , John Cazale , Allen Garfield , Frederic Forrest , Cindy Williams , Michael Higgins

Runtime
113

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20 ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963)

Director: Terence Young

Sean Connery (James Bond) pointing a gun in From Russia with Love
Image via United Artists

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

Director
Terence Young

Cast
Sean Connery , Daniela Bianchi , Pedro Armendáriz , Lotte Lenya , Robert Shaw , Bernard Lee

Runtime
115

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19 ‘The Fugitive’ (1993)

Director: Andrew Davis

Richard Kimble standing alone in a subway car looking forward in The Fugitive
Image via Warner Bros

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.

The Fugitive

Release Date
August 6, 1993

Director
Andrew Davis

Runtime
130 minutes

Rent on Apple TV

18 ‘Memento’ (2000)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Guy Pearce holding out a polaroid photograph in 'Memento'
Image via Newmarket

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.

Memento

Release Date
May 25, 2001

Runtime
113 minutes

Watch on Peacock

17 ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962)

Director: John Frankenheimer

The Manchurian Candidate - 1962
Image via United Artists

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

Director
John Frankenheimer

Runtime
126 minutes

Watch on Tubi

16 ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Wages of Fear

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.

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15 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

A man holding a hammer in Oldboy
Image via Show East

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.

Oldboy (2003)

Release Date
November 21, 2003

Director
Park Chan-wook

Cast
Choi Min-sik , Yoo Ji-tae , Kang Hye-jung

Runtime
120 minutes

Watch on Netflix

14 ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986)

Director: David Lynch

Dennis Hopper - Blue Velvet

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.

Blue Velvet

Release Date
October 3, 1986

Director
David Lynch

Runtime
120 minutes

Watch on Hoopla

13 ‘Se7en’ (1995)

Director: David Fincher

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Se7en (1995)
Image via New Line Cinema

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.

Se7en

Release Date
September 22, 1995

Cast
Brad Pitt , Morgan Freeman , gwyneth paltrow , R. Lee Ermey , Daniel Zacapa

Runtime
127 minutes

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12 ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton

night of the hunter sitting with gun black and white
Image via United Artists

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.

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11 ‘The Third Man’ (1949)

Director: Carol Reed

A desperate man in an empty tunnel in the film The Third Man
Image via British Lion Film

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.

The Third Man

Release Date
February 1, 1950

Director
Carol Reed

Cast
Joseph Cotten , Alida Valli , Orson Welles , Trevor Howard

Runtime
93 minutes

Watch on Criterion

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