You can never go wrong with a good thriller from a director who knows his business. On this list, we’ve selected ten such films from some of the best directors of all time.
From early masterpieces from the Master of Suspense to late-career underrated gems from iconic cineasts of the 1970s, we’ve tried to make the selection of films on this list as diverse as possible and, while most of the films you’ll find below are well-known and highly regarded, we’ve also slipped in a couple of rather underrated thrillers which some of you might have missed.
1. The American Friend (1977, dir. Wim Wenders)
Wim Wenders, best known for his Cannes favorites “Wings of Desire” (1987) and “Paris, Texas” (1984), directed this German neo-noir thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel “Ripley’s Game”. Starring Dennis Hopper as the infamous criminal Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as a man who falls victim to one of Ripley’s schemes, “The American Friend” is one of the most impressive thrillers of the 1970s, while at the same time one of the most underrated ones.
With gorgeous cinematography and perpetual suspense, Wenders’s film is absorbing from start to finish. Perfectly paced and impeccably directed, “The American Friend” features some of the tensest moments ever put on screen (the metro station scene is something ought to be studied in films schools) , memorable performances from Hopper and Ganz and is arguably the best adaptation of Highsmith’s Ripley novels to this day.
2. Blow Out (1981, dir. Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma’s 1981 political thriller stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a sound technician whose job is to record sound effects for low-budget films. While recording wind sounds for a horror movie in an empty local park, Jack witnesses a car having a tire blowout and plunging into the nearby creek. He immediately jumps into the water, trying to save the car’s passengers, but he only manages to save a young woman. The car’s driver, Governor McRyan, a politician who was running for president, is dead.
Soon after the incident, Jack starts to analyze the audio recordings he made on the night of the accident and discovers a detail that makes him question the things he saw. On the recording, just before the tire blowout, Jack hears what sounds like a gun being shot. However, when he is about to make the discovery public, his tapes are stolen and he comes to the conclusion that there is an entire conspiracy behind McRyan’s death.
With Hitchcockian suspense, a distinctive visual style, and a career-high performance from Travolta, “Blow Out” qualifies itself not only as Brian De Palma’s best film to date but also as one of the best thrillers of the 1980s.
3. Strange Days (1995, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, “Strange Days” is an apocalyptic thriller that blends cyberpunk, neo-noir, and mystery while at the same time acts as a vehicle for political and social commentary on police brutality, racial inequality, and drug addiction.
Taking place in the (then) futuristic 1999 Los Angeles, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero, a former LAPD officer who now deals with memories recorded on virtual reality data discs. When he receives a disc that contains the memories of a murderer killing a prostitute, Lenny gets plunged into a conspiracy of blackmail, murder and lies.
Poorly received at the time of its release (the film was a box-office bomb and nearly ruined Bigelow’s career until 2008’s “Hurt Locker”), “Strange Days” feels more relevant now than it did 25 years ago. Genuinely thrilling and thought-provoking, with masterful direction, impressive sets, and outstanding performances from Ralph Fiennes and co-star Angela Bassett, this is one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the 1990s and it unquestionably deserves a reexamination.
4. The Ghost Writer (2010, dir. Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s best work after “The Pianist” (2002), “The Ghost Writer” is based on Robert Harris’ popular novel “The Ghost” and stars Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer who gets hired to finish the autobiography of former British prime minister Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan and based on real-life former British PM Tony Blair) after the initial ghost writer is mysteriously found dead in what seems like a drowning accident. Soon after McGregor’s character begins working at the book, he starts to discover some dark secrets about Lang, who is suspected of having had links with the CIA and allowing the torturing of some prisoners suspected of terrorism.
Suspenseful and intelligent, “The Ghost Writer” is not only a great political thriller, but also a top-notch adaptation of its original source material, and (once again) showcases Polanski’s outstanding talent as a film director.
5. Notorious (1946, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
While not as famous as some of the other films from the Master of Suspense, there are many who consider “Notorious” a classic on the same level with Hitchcock’s finest works and we think it deserves a spot on this list.
The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, a notorious woman whose father is a convicted Nazi spy and who gets recruited by an American government agent (played by Cary Grant) to infiltrate and spy a Nazi organization from Brazil sometime after the ending of WWII. Alicia falls in love with Grant’s character, but he is using her love in his own interests and requires her to marry one of her father’s Nazi friends from Rio de Janeiro who is a leading member of the Nazi organization.
While the suspense here is subtler than that found in his later works, “Notorious” still showcases Hitchcock’s mastery of the genre and perfectly blends elements of romance with the gripping thrills of espionage film.