Best thriller movies: the history of the genre, thrillers to watch

Table of Contents

Among the great movies to watch absolutely never made, the thriller occupies a place of honor. The thriller movies is a genre where often the arthouse cinema and the commercial aspect of production manage to meet. In fact, the public has always adored Thriller and does not give particular importance to the fact that it is an auteur thriller, as for example in the case of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or a thriller with a more commercial style. 

The characteristics of the thriller

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Alfred Hitchcock

The main purpose of the thriller in fact is to create adrenaline, suspense and great uncertainty in the development of the story. The thriller is a whirlwind of strong emotions in which revelations and mysteries, suspense and moments of reflection, danger and reasoning alternate. The whole story is usually filled with an impending sense of death. 

The tension, in a successful thriller, should gradually increase and leave less and less space for moments of pause, until the final climax. In the final climax, as in all successful narratives, there is a point of no return, from which the protagonist can emerge victorious or defeated. 

What the public wants is to be in suspense until the end. If the dose of adrenaline is massive, the result is guaranteed for the majority of the public. The language and quality of the film becomes secondary. The thriller movies was especially successful in the United States and was less popular with European directors. The plot of the thriller is characterized by conspiracies, false clues and sudden twists

In every thriller there is the villain, the antagonist or a group of antagonists, who create a series of obstacles for the protagonist, often putting his life in danger. Conflict, therefore, an essential element of all narratives, reaches its highest levels in the thriller genre. 

The sub-genres of the thriller movie

thriller-david-lynch
David Lynch

The thriller has a huge amount of sub-genres, and new sub-genres are constantly being created by the film industry. Some sub-genres of the thriller are for example the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action or adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the crime thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller.

The common denominator is to keep the viewer poised on the armchair, to create anxiety and suspense until reaching the final Climax. In the most successful Thrillers, the final climax can be a highly stressful experience for the audience and become a scene that is not easily forgotten. 

A typical expedient of the thriller genre is to place the protagonist in front of a mystery. Often the protagonist of the thriller is a detective or an investigator, but even if an ordinary man is forced to become one during the events of the tale. Hitchcock’s films often feature unjustly accused ordinary men who are confronted with a mystery greater than themselves. 

The main subgenres of the thriller are: the psychological thriller, the crime thriller, the mystery movies. Since the years of the Cold War and the assassination of the President of the United States Kennedy, thealso spread rapidly political thriller and the technological thriller have

Often the thriller genre overlaps with the horror and action genres, in films that are a mix of various genres. The seminal films that gave rise to the thriller may be Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie The Boarder and M, the monster of Dusseldorf by Fritz Lang, an expressionist masterpiece from the 1930s not to be missed. Fritz Lang However,has a strong social and anthropological component. 

How a thriller works

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David Fincher

For thriller movies we find two different narrative devices: that of suspense, which at times becomes real fear, and that of the enigma to be solved, of the mystery. The first hooks the viewer to emotional level, stimulating adrenaline. The second hooks it to the mental level, stimulating reasoning to get closer to the solution of the mystery. Depending on the prevalence of the emotional or mental component, we have two very different types of thriller movies. 

Making the viewer witness a crime that the protagonists of the film have not seen is one of the most functional tricks to create tension and involvement. Letting the audience know of an imminent danger that the protagonist ignores is a narrative device used very often in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock

In the thriller the plots merge with the subplots in an ever-increasing complexity that confuses the public’s ideas. There are characters, especially the antagonists, who operate in the shadows and have contradictory attitudes. One of the characteristics of the thriller is therefore to be initially difficult to understand and to untie the threads of the plot as the narration proceeds. 

The thriller can be told without physical and violent confrontations as a psychological and mental battle between the villain and the protagonist. Typical examples of this genre of Thriller, defined as a thriller, are for example the books by Agatha Christie or the episodes of the TV series Lieutenant Colombo. 

In pure thriller, on the other hand, action prevails. They can be government conspiracies, mass murder, physical confrontations between the protagonist and the antagonist. Often thriller blends with the action genre, adventure or spy story on the model 007. 

Crime, mystery and psychological thriller

Henri-Georges-Clouzot
Henri Georges Clouzot

The crime thriller are stories of kidnappings and ransoms, imprisonments. The most common themes of the mystery thriller are investigations and deductive situations. In psychological thrillers there are mental and psychological games, stalking and traps. False accusations and paranoia are common in paranoid thrillers. International threats, spies, dangerous technologies, assassinations and electronic surveillance are common in the spy thriller.

Noir thriller

In classic noir the psychological component prevails and the rhythm is slower and more reflective. In the Noir thriller the typical elements of the Noir cinema blend with action and direct confrontation. The pace is more pressing and shootings, assaults, murders and physical fights of various kinds can occur. 

Action Thriller

In the action thriller the viewer’s attention is drawn more to the spectacular action than to the plot and psychological nuances of the characters. In the classic thriller, however, the events remain covered in mystery and the tension is generated by the mystery and the unknown. It is a genre of high-budget films, often productions of the largest movies studios. 

Drama thriller 

In the drama thriller the pace is slower and the director’s attention is focused more on the psychologies of the characters, on their inner life, and on the dramatic and realistic aspects of their life. The effectiveness of the dramatic thriller lies in the fact that the whole narrative becomes quite plausible. The element of fear and extraordinary threat is lowered into ordinary reality. 

Other sub-genres of the thriller movies

The legal thriller takes place in and out of the courtrooms and the protagonists are often lawyers, prosecutors and men who clash on a legal level. The medical thriller takes place in hospital wards and in medical laboratories where the analysis of the elements found in the crime sites is carried out, and the protagonists are usually the doctors who collaborate in the investigation. 

The political thriller usually tells about characters who are victims of a large-scale conspiracy, in which the political class is also involved and from which there seems to be no way out. Crimes occur at the highest levels of society. As happens in many movies by Alfred Hitchcock in the psychological thriller, the clash between the protagonist and the antagonist takes place almost entirely on a psychological level, without real physical clashes. Many movies of David Lynch fall into the genre of psychological thrillers. 

In the religious thriller the elements of the thriller genre blend with religious settings in convents, monasteries. The tale often presents elements of esoteric and demonic temptation. Or of conspiracies and corruption in religious organizations. 

The constant success, vitality and ability of the thriller genre to constantly renew itself make it one of the movie genres in most important the history of cinema. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a genre that creates strong emotions. If a thriller doesn’t create adrenaline then it’s not a thriller. 

The protagonists of the thriller 

thriller-movies-Roman-Polański
Roman Polański

The protagonists of the thriller genre are often ordinary people who are faced with dangerous situations against their will. Or because of their ineptitude and their greed as often happens in the Noir genre. In the crime subgenre they are often private detectives, policemen, detectives, tough and lonely men. Both the strongest protagonists and the common man, at the beginning of the story, are unable to face the dangerous situation. 

Among the protagonists and antagonists we often find criminals, murderers, innocent victims, women threatened by stalkers, characters with a dark past, psychotics, serial killers, sociopaths, special police agents, terrorists, policemen, escapees, private investigators, people involved in twisted relationships , people tired of life or psychologically unstable. A veritable gallery of thrilling human fauna. 

The directors of thriller movies

Some of the directors mainly influenced by the thriller genre are: Alfred Hitchcock, defined as the thriller master, David Fincher, David Lynch, Henri-Georges Clouzot, William Friedkin, Carol Reed, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Jonathan Demme, Alan Pakula, Roman Polański, Martin Scorsese, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Soderbergh.


Best thriller movies to watch

Great classics and new independent productions: here’s a list of thrillers you can’t miss. 

M, A City Searches for a Murderer

The city is terrified of a killer of little girls, and the police cannot find any trace. The criminal organizations have constant problems with the raids of the police and decide to hunt down the monster on their own, managing to discover a clue: the “monster” whistles a macabre motive in approaching its victims. Masterpiece of Fritz Lang, considered one of the founders of the noir genre that was successful in Hollywood in the 1940s, is inspired by the heinous crimes committed in Germany in the 1920s by Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten.

Watch M, A City Searches for a Murderer

Pickup on South Street

In New York City Skip McCoy steals Candy’s wallet: in the wallet there are microfilms of top secret government information. Candy is unaware of what was in her bag and is stalked by a spy, Zara. Start a thief hunt to find who now has the microfilms. Professional informant Moe Williams questions Zara about the theft. After being promised a reward, Zara identifies the thief, Skip, from his mugshot. Zara tries to convince Skip to give up the film. One of the best thriller movies to watch by Samuel Fuller.

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Confidential report

Guy Van Stratten, an American smuggler working in Europe, looks for a guy named Jakob Zouk to warn him that his life is in danger. Zouk is seriously ill and appears to have no interest in saving himself, but Stratten explains to him why he absolutely has to stay alive. Stratten’s story begins in Naples, where he learns that Gregory Arkadin, a famous businessman, has a secret called “Sophie”. Stratten and his girlfriend Mily travel to Arkadin’s castle in Spain to blackmail him. Wonderful thriller movie by the master Orson Welles not to be missed.

thriller-movies-Confidential-report

The Stranger

In the small town of Harper, lives Charles Rankin, who is about to marry the daughter of an important judge. But Charles Rankin is actually Frank Kindle, a Third Reich criminal who has created a new identity for himself. But Inspector Wilson is on his trail. Another splendid thriller movie by Orson Welles not to be missed. This time the director is confronted with a higher budget by working in a Hollywood studio.

It is a more classic style than the others independent films to which the director has accustomed us. The plot was also strongly influenced by the editorial policies of American mainstream cinema of the time. But the result is equally excellent thanks to the interpretation of Orson Welles himself and Edward G. Robinson.

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Slow Life

Lino Stella takes a period of vacation from his alienating job to devote himself to relaxation and his passion: drawing comics. But he did not foresee certain disturbing elements: the intrusive administrator of the building where he lives, the postman who delivers crazy fines and tax bills, an overbearing security guard, a very enterprising real estate agent, the old lady downstairs who raises the feline colony of the condominium. These characters will make your vacation hell.

An anarchic and ambitious independent film by the director Fabio del Greco. Slow life deals with important issues of every citizen’s daily life: the state and the bureaucracy that become ruthless oppressors, the mechanism of social interaction that turns into a trap, one’s passions and creativity that are suffocated. A thriller movie, with shades of black comedy, drama and grotesque, not to be missed.

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The Scarlet Street

An elderly bank employee, Christopher Cross, has an insufferable wife and only one pastime: painting. One day he meets a woman, Kitty, who begins to exploit him discovering that the paintings the cashier paints can be sold at a good price.

A noir thriller not to be missed. It is one of the German director’s Hollywood films Fritz Lang. The character of the bankplayed by the great actor Edward G. Robinsonemployee, collaborator of Lang in other films, is one of the most pathetic and disturbing portraits of those years. A parable on the capacity for psychological manipulation, with the inevitable femme fatale interpreted by Joan Bennett.

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Dementia 13

First work by Francis Ford Coppola produced at low cost by Roger Corman, who wanted a film on the model of low budget Psycho with gothic atmospheres and heinous crimes. The Haloran family gathers in their Irish castle to commemorate the untimely death of little Kathleen, who drowned seven years earlier. Mysterious events begin to occur, such as the apparitions of the dead child, and a killer armed with an ax roams the place.

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Beyond the Mist

A week before Easter a great actor disappears from the set where a historical film is being made. A private investigator is discreetly charged with the fact. From the beginning he feels the disturbing perception of being somehow involved in the past events of the deceased. The places, including a former chocolate factory, where a little girl had died years earlier under mysterious circumstances, are imbued with esoteric signs.

Beyond the Mist

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New movies every week. Watch on any device, without any ads. Cancel at any time.