Depending on how a director uses it, a tense situation can elevate a standard moment to a powerful scene. When we think of the portrayal of tension in a movie, we have an idea of what it looks like. Stakes are raised as two characters have a confrontation. The scene in Heat (1995) in which the two main characters finally meet each other immediately comes to mind.
However, this list shows that great examples of tension can be seen across various genres. From romantic comedies to Spaghetti westerns to horror films, tension can appear in unique ways. Although it’s mostly likely to be used in a thriller, it isn’t limited to one type of film.
10. My Night at Maud’s (1969)
From its opening scene, we get the sense that something weird is happening in this movie. It starts with a man (played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignant) driving a car, following someone around in complete silence. From there the film changes tone slightly to a romantic comedy, but the tension the film begins with never leaves us.
In the titular sequence, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character ends up in Maud’s bedroom. It’s rife with tension; Eric Rohmer masterfully milks this strange encounter between two opposites to great effect. It’s not “tense” in the way you’d normally think, but Rohmer arguably created his own genre with this film. Andrew Sarris once stated, “There is no greater spectacle in the cinema than a man and a woman talking away their share of eternity together.” In this film, Rohmer takes that idea and runs with it.
9. The Sunset Limited (2011)
Like My Night at Maud’s, a lot of the strength of this film comes from the fact that it feels very claustrophobic. While Rohmer’s film is not limited to the indoors entirely, The Sunset Limited is. It features two amazing actors in a difficult situation: one man wants to kill himself, and the other man refuses to let him due to his morals.
It’s a simple premise, but for its quick 90-minute duration we never get the impression that we know exactly where things are headed (despite the fact that the structure of the film suggests the entire film will take place indoors).
8. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
It’s been over two decades since the world was first introduced to Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs features glimpses of what would become staples in Tarantino’s filmography, but one of the most important aspects is tension. What starts off as easy money quickly gets messy as all the characters learn they can’t trust each other.
As Tarantino would later write in The Hateful Eight, “One of these men is not what he says he is.” Most notably, the infamous “torture” scene caused quite a controversy when the film was first screened. However, audiences later realized: the camera never shows us what happened. Tarantino uses the low budget of the film to his advantage: we’re forced to fill in the blanks, and what we don’t see becomes just as integral to the film as what is onscreen.
7. The Great Silence (1968)
If the casting of a film is done well, it can alter the direction of the final result. In The Great Silence, part of its strength is the titular character is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant (appearing on this list for a second time). He’s a French actor not known for starring in violent spaghetti Westerns; The Great Silence is one of the best cases of an actor toying with his reputation for the sake of a film. His character also cannot speak, and it gives the film another dimension of being unsettling.
This all culminates to one of the most unexpected, explosive endings of a movie ever made. Sergio Corbucci is known for being one of the most nihilistic Western filmmakers, and in The Great Silence before things become tragic they’re measured with tension.
6. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg is a director that liked to experiment with editing, and cinematography. Don’t Look Now is a clear example of this: it doesn’t feel like it’s being depicted linearly.
Roeg has made a thriller that is jarring in the way it is told; it’s never quite terrifying in an over the top manner like a horror movie might be, but somehow this makes it feel even tenser. We always get the feeling something dangerous can happen at any minute.