THRILLER - SUSPENSE
FILMS



Part 1


Thriller - Suspense Films
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Examples


Thriller and Suspense Films: These are types of films known to promote intense excitement, suspense, a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, and nerve-wracking tension. Thriller and suspense films are virtually synonymous and interchangeable categorizations, with similar characteristics and features.

If the genre is to be defined strictly, a genuine thriller is a film that rentlessly pursues a single-minded goal - to provide thrills and keep the audience cliff-hanging at the 'edge of their seats' as the plot builds towards a climax. The tension usually arises when the main character(s) is placed in a menacing situation or mystery, or an escape or dangerous mission from which escape seems impossible. Life itself is threatened, usually because the principal character is unsuspecting or unknowingly involved in a dangerous or potentially deadly situation. Plots of thrillers involve characters which come into conflict with each other or with outside forces - the menace is sometimes abstract or shadowy.

Thrillers are often hybrids - there are lots of varieties of suspense-thrillers:

Another closely-related genre is the horror film genre (e.g., Halloween (1978)), also designed to elicit tension and suspense, taking the viewer through agony and fear. Suspense-thrillers come in all shapes and forms: there are murder mysteries, private eye tales, chase thrillers, women-in-danger films, courtroom and legal thrillers, erotic thrillers, surreal cult-film soap operas, and atmospheric, plot-twisting psychodramas. Thrillers keep the emphasis away from the gangster, crime, or the detective in the crime-related plot, focusing more on the suspense and danger that is generated. See also this site's listing of AFI's 100 Most Thrilling Films.

Characters in thrillers include convicts, criminals, stalkers, assassins, down-on-their-luck losers, innocent victims (often on the run), prison inmates, menaced women, characters with dark pasts, psychotic individuals, terrorists, cops and escaped cons, fugitives, private eyes, drifters, duplicitious individuals, people involved in twisted relationships, world-weary men and women, psycho-fiends, and more. The themes of thrillers frequently include terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, or romantic triangles leading to murder.

In mid-June, 2001, the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California made its definitive selection of the 100 greatest American "heart-pounding" and "adrenaline-inducing" films of all time, as determined by more than 1,800 actors, directors, screenwriters, historians, studio executives, critics, and others from the American film community. To be eligible, the 400 nominated films had to be U.S.-made, feature-length fiction films, whose thrills have "enlivened and enriched America's film heritage," according to the rules. AFI also asked jurors to consider "the total adrenaline-inducing impact of a film's artistry and craft," regardless of the genre.

Early Thrillers:

M - 1931One of the earliest 'thrillers' was Harold Lloyd's comic Safety Last (1923), with the all-American boy performing a daredevil stunt on the side of a skyscraper. The haunting and chilling German film M (1931) directed by the great Fritz Lang, starred Peter Lorre (in his first film role) as a criminal deviant - a child killer. The film's story was based on the life of serial killer Peter Kurten (known as the 'Vampire of Dusseldorf'). Edward Sutherland's crime/horror thriller Murders in the Zoo (1933) from Paramount starred Lionel Atwill as a murderous and jealous zoologist. And various horror films of the period, The Cat and the Canary (1927), director Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) with Fredric March, and The Bat Whispers (1930), provided some thrills.

Director George Cukor's classic psychological thriller Gaslight (1944) (first made in Britain in 1939 with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynward) featured a scheming husband (Charles Boyer) plotting to make his innocent young wife (Ingrid Bergman) go insane, in order to acquire her inheritance. The film noir Laura (1944) told about a thrilling murder investigation (for a beautiful missing advertising executive named Laura) conducted by a police detective (Dana Andrews), with suspects including an acid-tongued columnist (Clifton Webb) and a gigolo fiancee (Vincent Price). And the eerie The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), from Oscar Wilde's masterful tale, refashioned the Faustian story of a man (Hurd Hatfield) who made a deal with Mephistopheles (George Sanders)Sorry, Wrong Number - 1948 to forever remain young.

A mute domestic servant (Dorothy McGuire) in a haunted house was terrorized by a serial murderer, thinking she was the next victim in The Spiral Staircase (1945). In a taut thriller starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth titled The Lady From Shanghai (1948), a beautiful woman, her crippled lawyer/husband and his partner, and an Irish sailor ended up involved in a murder scheme. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), an invalid woman (Barbara Stanwyck) overheard a murder plot on the phone - against herself. The Third Man (1949), one of the best suspense films of all time, told the story of a writer (Joseph Cotten) in post-WW II Vienna who found out that his old friend (Orson Welles), a black marketeer, was not dead after all.

Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense Thrillers

Hitchcock's ProfileNo list of suspense or thriller films can be complete without mention of English film-maker/director Alfred Hitchcock. He helped to shape the modern-day thriller genre, beginning with his early silent film The Lodger (1927), a suspenseful Jack-the-Ripper story, followed by his next thriller Blackmail (1929), his first sound film (but also released in a silent version). Hitchcock would make a signature cameo appearance in his feature films, beginning with his third film The Lodger (1927), although his record was spotty at first. After 1940, he appeared in every one, except for The Wrong Man (1956). [See all of Hitchcock's cameos here.] Although nominated five times as Best Director (from 1940-1960), Hitchcock never won an Academy Award.

Alfred Hitchcock has been considered the acknowledged auteur master of the thriller or suspense genre, manipulating his audience's fears and desires, and taking viewers into a state of association with the representation of reality facing the character. He would often interweave a taboo or sexually-related theme into his films, such as the repressed memories of Marnie (Tippi Hedren) in Marnie (1964), the latent homosexuality in Strangers on a Train (1951), voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), obsession in Vertigo (1958), or the twisted Oedipus complex in Psycho (1960).

Hitchcock's films often placed an innocent victim (an average, responsible person) into a strange, life-threatening or terrorizing situation, in a case of mistaken identity, misidentification or wrongful accusation (i.e., in The 39 Steps (1935), The Wrong Man (1956), and in North by Northwest (1959)).

He also utilized various cinematic techniques (i.e., the first British 'talking picture' - Blackmail (1929), the extreme zoom shot of the key in Notorious (1946), the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), the prolonged cross-cutting between a tennis match and sewer-grating in Strangers on a Train (1951), the virtuoso set-piece of the crop duster in North by Northwest (1959), the montage in the shower sequence accentuated with composer Bernard Herrmann's screeching violin score in Psycho (1960), the dolly-zoom shots in Vertigo (1958), or the heightening of anticipation with the long pull-back shot from inside a building to the outside and across the street in Frenzy (1972)).

Visually-expressive motifs were also his specialty (i.e., the surrealistic dream sequences in Spellbound (1945), the key in Notorious (1946), the staircase or the use of profiles and silhouettes in Vertigo (1958), the strangulation-murder reflected in the victim's fallen glasses in Strangers on a Train (1951), the concept of "pairs" and guilt transference in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)), or the making of technically-challenging films (such as Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948)).

[Note: Rope was a film of many 'firsts': it was Hitchcock's first color film and his first film as an independent producer; it was his first film released by Warner Bros.; it was his first and only attempt to make a film appear as a single shot, with a series of ten-minute takes cleverly spliced together; and it was his first film with James Stewart. The basis of the film was the famed Leopold-Loeb case.]

In many of his films, there was the inevitable life and death chase concluding with a showdown at a familiar landmark (for example, London's Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the British Museum in Blackmail (1929), the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942), the UN and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), the assassination attempt atop Westminster Cathedral's Tower in Foreign Correspondent (1940), and the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo (1958)). He also reveled in tight and confined spaces, to heighten emotion (i.e., Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), or Rear Window (1954), etc.) or restrictive train journeys (i.e., The Lady Vanishes (1938), and North by Northwest (1959), etc).

Hitchcock's MacGuffins (or McGuffins)

The famed director often capitalized on a 'red herring' or gimmicky plot element to catch the viewer's attention - dubbed a McGuffin (or MacGuffin), that would propel the plot along its course. Usually, the McGuffin initially appeared to be of utmost importance, but functioned to intentionally misdirect the audience - it then quickly faded into the background and ended up being trivial, irrevelant, or incidental to the film's story. The McGuffin normally referred to the mystery to be solved (or the fugitive's innocence to be proven), or an object, or some other kind of motivator.

Hitchcock's MacGuffins
Hitchcock Films
(chronological)
Hitchcock's MacGuffin(s)
Blackmail (1929) women's gloves found at the crime scene
Number Seventeen (1932) a jeweled necklace stolen by a gang of thieves
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/1956) the message about a planned assassination attempt of a foreign dignitary to take place in London
The 39 Steps (1935)
  • the nature of the '39 Steps' (What does '39 Steps' refer to?)
  • the secret airplane engine plans (vital to the country's air defense) that spies were attempting to smuggle out of the country in the mind of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson)
Young and Innocent (1937) the belt (used for strangulation) from a missing (stolen?) raincoat
The Lady Vanishes (1938) the message encoded in a piece of music sung by a folk singer
Foreign Correspondent (1940) the secret Clause 27 in a peace treaty, memorized by Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) who was one of the signatories of the treaty; Van Meer was kidnapped after a faked assassination attempt by a secret spy organization; the film revolved around trying to locate and save the diplomat (and prevent his torture) - because he was the key to maintaining peace in Europe in 1939
Rebecca (1940)
  • the character of the first Mrs. De Winter - Rebecca (never seen on screen)
  • the death of Rebecca (how she died)
Suspicion (1941)
  • was Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) a killer or not?
  • the character of Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce) - the catalyst that caused Lina (Joan Fontaine) to suspect that husband Johnnie was a murderer
Saboteur (1942) the whereabouts of Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a suspected saboteur and fugitive
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  • the newspaper with the article about the 'Merry Widow' murderer
  • homicidal Uncle Charlie's (Joseph Cotten) gift of a stolen emerald ring to Young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) with incriminating initials engraved inside
Spellbound (1945) the psychoanalytical analysis of the phobia (or "guilt complex") about parallel lines (and their real meaning) - why do they haunt on-the-run Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck)?
Notorious (1946)
  • the radioactive material (uranium ore or "vintage sand") found in a cellar's wine bottles
  • the poison in the coffee used to slowly kill Alicia Hubeman (Ingrid Bergman)
Rope (1948)
  • the whereabouts of David Kentley's (Dick Hogan) body (in an old wooden chest in the middle of the room!)
  • the rope used for the strangulation murder of Kentley
  • the wrong hat (the victim's monogrammed hat) picked up by Rupert (James Stewart)
Stage Fright (1950) the blood-stained dress - the one allegedly worn during the murder of stage actress/singer Charlotte Inwood's (Marlene Dietrich) husband
Strangers on a Train (1951) Guy Haines' (Farley Granger) incriminating cigarette lighter, monogrammed with "A to G"
I Confess (1953) the confession of murder made by sexton Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) to Catholic priest Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) -- the information wanted by the police
Dial M for Murder (1954) the duplicate latch-key to the Wendice apartment
Rear Window (1954)
  • the suspected 'murder' committed by apartment tenant Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr)
  • Mrs. Thorwald herself
  • the object buried in the courtyard's garden
To Catch a Thief (1955)

the identity of the cat-burglar

The Wrong Man (1956) would musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) ever be cleared of the crime he allegedly committed?
The Trouble With Harry (1956)
  • Harry Worp's corpse
  • the cause of Harry's death
Vertigo (1958)
  • the spirit of a dead woman known as Carlotta Valdes, motivating obsessed Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) to find out what possessed his beloved Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak)
  • Scottie's crippling fear of heights and vertigo
North by Northwest (1959)
  • the character of "George Kaplan" (mistakenly thought to be Cary Grant) who was being chased by spies
  • the statue holding microfilm that contained government secrets
Psycho (1960)
  • the stolen money from the realtors' office, the $40,000 wrapped up in a newspaper in the motel bedroom
  • the whereabouts of the missing Marion Crane
The Birds (1963)
  • the unexplained cause or reason for the strange bird attacks in the town of Bodega Bay
  • Melanie Daniels herself
Marnie (1964) the color red that was causing deep-rooted psychological problems for Marnie, but why? (childhood trauma)
Torn Curtain (1966) the secret formula of equations (known by Professor Gustav Lindt) for an anti-nuclear device or anti-missle defense rocket that the East Germans have been developing, known as Gamma 5
Topaz (1969)
  • What is Topaz? (the code-name for a Soviet spy ring); (Who is in Topaz? What is its function?)
  • the red leather briefcase holding diplomatic documents - secret Russian plans for Cuba
Frenzy (1972) necktie-killer Bob Rusk's (Barry Foster) tie pin
Family Plot (1976)
  • the missing heir (and the search for the heir)
  • the ransomed diamonds

Hitchcock usually cast leading actors against type (Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Cary Grant) opposite cool blondes (Madeleine Carroll, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren) who were often subject to misogynistic abuse, threatening humiliation, or murder. Hitchcock would then explore the darker sides of human nature through the situation, including sexuality and voyeurism, guilt and punishment, or paranoia and obsession. He usually let the viewer know that some horrible event would happen - creating unbearable suspense while viewers waited for the inevitable.

The 39 Steps - 1935Notable examples of Hitchcock's early British suspense-thriller films include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1933), his first great spy-chase/romantic thriller The 39 Steps (1935) with Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, and the best film of his British period - the mystery The Lady Vanishes (1938). Extending his work into the 1940s in a number of brilliant black-and-white films, Hitchcock continued to perfect his recognizable brand of suspense-thriller, producing Foreign Correspondent (1940), the haunting Oscar-nominated Rebecca (1940) about the strange romance between a young woman (Joan Fontaine) and an emotionally-distant rich widower (Laurence Olivier) - overshadowed by a vindictive housekeeper (Judith Anderson), Suspicion (1941) about a woman in peril from her own husband (cast against type Cary Grant), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Hitchcock's own personal favorite and based upon the actual case of a 1920s serial killer known as 'The Merry Widow Murderer', Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).

Dial M For Murder - 1954In the 1950s, Hitchcock added technicolor to his still-brilliant dark and moody films, now with exotic locales and glamorous stars. He reached the zenith of his career with a succession of classic films:

  • the suspenseful black and white Strangers on a Train (1951) about two train passengers: tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) and psychopath Bruno (Robert Walker), who staged a battle of wits over a proposed exchange of murders
  • Dial M For Murder (1954), with Ray Milland as a villainous husband who attempted to murder his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) - also shot in 3-D
  • Rear Window (1954) - a masterful study of voyeurism confined to a Greenwich Village apartment complex and courtyard, with Grace Kelly as a seductive girlfriend to beau James Stewart
  • To Catch a Thief (1955), a lightweight thriller about cat burglars set in S. France
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - a remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 spy thriller
  • Vertigo (1958), one of Hitchcock's greatest films, with James Stewart as a retired police detective who became obsessed with the disturbed enigmatic 'wife' (Kim Novak) of an old friend
  • and the entertaining, romantic comedy/spy thriller North By Northwest (1959) about an advertising executive (Cary Grant) mistakenly acquiring the identity of a fictional governmental agent, and his encounter with icy blonde (Eva Marie Saint)

After Hitchcock's classic films of the 1950s, his films were wildly uneven, although he produced the shocking and engrossing thriller Psycho (1960) about a loner mother-fixated motel owner and taxidermist - with the classic set piece (the 'shower scene'), and the suspenseful and strangely terrifying The Birds (1963) about a invasion of birds in a N. California coastal town and its effect upon archetypal cool blonde Tippi Hedren. His film Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock's first British film in almost two decades, was given an R rating for its vicious and explicit strangulation scene.




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