5. Seven (1995)
Before David Fincher took on the factual Zodiac killer, he had his attention on another bleak tale of murder, regardless this film is fictitious, it will leave you pondering after the final credits roll. This breakthrough film, a cold, grim tale of two detectives looking for a killer basing his murders on the seven deadly sins.
This films sticks out for a number of reasons of the tentpole of crime thrillers: we have detectives in an unnamed city, looking for a serial killer, doused in a heavy mood of psychological horror of the mind. We become so involved as the killings progress and it isn’t until the finale, truly one of the great cinematic scenes, does everything come together. The scene alone could be the reason this film is on this list due the craft of the filmmaking involved.
This film is disturbing, brutal, sickening yet engrossing, fascinating and brilliant. One must applaud Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay and David Fincher beginning to master his form. It is important to see how ‘Seven’ developed the crime thriller elements that he would explore during his filmography. Regardless of what came after, ‘Seven’ is a dark crime thriller for all involved, especially those characters involved in doomed story.
4. Dial M for Murder (1954)
Yes, a majority of Alfred Hitchcock films could be on this list, from 1954 alone even, but here, he created another masterpiece in minimalist, stage like form. It is important to note Hitchcock filmed the picture in 3D but this has been rarely seen, only at retrospectives and such. Despite this fact, Hitchcock drops you in a room where you feel like you literally glued to the sofa.
As you sit and watch this film, it has an unbearable tension in a tight time and space, in one apartment. Hitchcock always said about audiences watching his films “Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare”. And he achieves that with this film. What makes it unique to other crime thrillers is the setting, premise, and three lead actors of Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings.
The characters talk about a perfect murder right up front, similar to way Hitchcock used in ‘Rope’. As the premise begins, Hitchcock takes over in his precise framing, visual storytelling, sound, and score to invoke a dreadful element of horror, shock, and suspense.
Just watch the scene where Grace Kelly is on the phone and Anthony Dawson is about the strangle her while Ray Milland is on the other line. No crime thriller could ever achieve this simplicity yet be so daring and horrifying in just one scene; yet alone for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
3. Double Indemnity (1944)
This is film classic, a film noir classic, and overall classic picture. But while Billy Wilder was crafting the shape of the film noir, he was also building the elements of a crime thriller but just didn’t know it. ‘Double Indemnity’ might not have serial killers or a typical police procedural, but it has the characters embody these elements in the first film of its kind.
Adapted from a James M. Cain novel and co-written with Raymond Chandler, you know you are getting a brilliant screenplay. The screenplay is note perfect that includes the blackmail, murder, femme fatale, voice over, etc etc. But Wilder explores how characters will do whatever necessary to complete their goals and get away with those goals. It’s the mood and atmosphere created in that crisp black and white smoky film noir but the suspense that blends into the criminality of the characters makes this crime thriller shine.
Mix Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson into a film, you don’t need detectives or serial killers because the suave, subtext of psychological and in this case, sexual, intrigue and disguise is all over the place. They exchange words like chess pieces across the board to advance what they want, they know no restrictions to achieve that insurance policy or sniff out is a false. Despite being a film noir, the film introduces a high level of mood and atmosphere that can be a precursor or even disguised as the first true crime thriller.
2. Chinatown (1974)
Going back to the time frame of the film noir movement but infused with neo-noir and mystery elements, you get Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’. The film explores an advanced approach to the previous listing because he see the trajectory of a crime thriller meshed with the mystery elements to cover those elements that the writer Robert Towne was discovering in the first place.
When watching the film, you need to be involved in the story as much as Jake Gittes, played by the one and only Jack Nicholson. This is not only due to the craft of the filmmaking here but due because the investigation slowly unfolds in front of our eyes that involves a cover up, murder, adultery, and incest.
It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of the film without major spoilers that everything of a great crime thriller comes together. You see how the characters of Faye Dunaway and scene stealing John Huston unravel in their deep layers of characters to the audience.
Almost everything that was hidden in this ‘mystery’ such as the elements of a typical ‘crime thriller’ unfold in the last section of the film. So while it’s not clear, cut and dry as one would expect, just as the characters and story, all the elements are there in Polanski’s direction, Towne’s screenplay, Alonzo’s cinematography, and of course, performances.
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen created a film that is still being discussed as heavily as it was amongst cinephiles over a decade ago. When a filmmaker makes a film like that, you know you created a classic. Here, the Coen brothers infused the trademarks of the cat and mouse thriller featuring a psychopathic killer, existential sheriff and determined cowboy.
One can discuss many themes about this film, the existential crises of the characters, violent consequences of choices and fate, and justice of the high country but how it’s relates to the crime thriller is just the tip of the iceberg. Joel and Ethan explore the aspects of an investigation by Tommy Lee Jones and the hunt by Javier Bardem on Josh Brolin.
The film literally begins with a hunt of animals to a hunt of money to a hunt of a human being in 1980s West Texas. Out of this scenario, deep psychological emotions are explored through the brutal and beautiful landscapes these characters droll over and search for what they want.
The themes that the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy explore are all based on the elements of a traditional crime thriller. Yet it’s the highest level of intelligent filmmaking that makes this crime thriller stick out amongst others.