The formula for a romantic thriller is simple. You have to have a femme fatale, a man willing enough to be duped, and the ever-constant threat of danger. Throw in an overarching conspiracy and you’re in for a rollicking good time. Combining both a fear and fascination with sex, and the worldview that romance (or lust and death) are always close handmaidens, romantic thrillers can titillate and frighten in equal measure.
The genre relies on upending traditional gender roles – man as strong and powerful and woman as weak and submissive. If the movie is good enough, a smart subversive narrative – despite inevitable indulging in stereotypes – can make it something of a feminist genre.
Spanning from the film noir era to the spy genre to the sex-crazed Michael Douglas era (whose yuppie satires became a genre onto themselves), romantic thrillers double up as an interesting way to view the current state of gender relations.
While a lot of it is rooted in the distinctly American tradition of the noir, it is a universal concern, with our picks also including films from France, Korea and Britain. Keep on reading to see what we picked as the ten best romantic thrillers of all time. Don’t like what you see, or you think you missed something out, please feel free to sound off in the comments below. Spoilers may follow…
10. A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998)
By the end of the 90s, Michael Douglas was having a field day playing an entitled yuppie who eventually gets his comeuppance. A Perfect Murder depicts a deadly love triangle between his financial trader character, his wife (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and her lover (played by Viggo Mortensen). The premise is intoxicating; having found out that his wife is sleeping with another man, he hires the man himself as an aide to murder her.
Ostensibly a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, A Perfect Murder expands on that movie’s central themes, resulting in an obsessively detailed tapestry of betrayal and double-meanings. Additionally, it rewrites half of the plot, creating a new ending that goes straight into pure pulp thriller territory.
While not as good as the other Michael Douglas films on this list, his performance here is brilliant – playing a man who knows exactly how to look and play the part. Additionally, Paltrow uses her innocent persona to great effect here, while Mortensen does a great job as the morally conflicted anti-hero.
9. Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
You cannot mention the history of the romantic thriller without mentioning Michael Douglas at least once. He has made an entire career of playing an entitled yuppie who gets a deadly comeuppance. Basic Instinct is perhaps his most archetypal film. He plays a cop investigating a murder who meets his maker in a writer who claims to have written the formula for the perfect kill. While frankly ridiculous in parts, Basic Instinct uses that as a cover in order to both rewrite and satirise the noir formula.
Criticised upon release for its negative depiction of homosexuality and the controversy around the scene where Sharon Stone famously flashes her vagina (something she claimed was filmed against her knowledge), Basic Instinct is now seen as a groundbreaking depiction of psycho-sexual themes.
Director Paul Verhoeven still has the ability to shock even today; his recent Isabelle Huppert-starring Elle, which centres around a shocking rape, was regarded as a return to form.
8. Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)
Shocking upon the time of its release, Fatal Attraction, released in the same year as Wall Street, established Michael Douglas as the go-to guy when it comes to romantic thrillers. A huge box office success upon its release, it stars Douglas as a successful Manhattan lawyer who has a brief weekend affair with a career-minded woman, played by Glenn Close in an Oscar-nominated role, only to find that she believes that they will end up together. When he spurns her, she descends into a deadly spiral, making for a highly compelling watch.
While still disappointing for its horror-like ending, prioritising shock value over genuine thrills, it’s a fascinating and queasy historical document regarding men’s fears towards career-driven women. This lack of smart resolution is a shame because it pointed towards a new type of Hollywood film; one that is honest about sexual relationships and sees how they can often point to our downfall. The film is so embedded within popular culture that “bunny boiler” – referring to a shocking act near the end – has now become a shorthand term for obsessive women in general.
7. Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)
One of the seminal films of the Cinéma du look movement on the 80s, Diva put Jean-Jacques Beineix on the map. A true cult classic, its storyline combines opera singing, prostitution, drug trafficking and sexual intrigue to delightful effect. Telling the story of a young man obsessed with an opera singer who accidentally uncovers a police corruption conspiracy, Diva, along with perhaps Body Double, is one of the best-looking sexual thrillers of the 80s.
It’s a film more about how it looks than what’s it about, an impossibly sexy mingling of camerawork, music and montage, that made French cinema cool again. Perhaps its most iconic sequence is the chase scene. Taking place on the Paris metro, it established French cinema as impossibly cool and sleek once again, paving the way for action directors such as Luc Besson, especially Subway.
6. From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963)
Made with twice the budget of the first Bond outing, Dr.No, From Russia With Love is a great example of how the spy genre and romantic thriller can intersect. To be honest, we could’ve picked any Bond film for this list, as they all feature sex and thrills in often equal measure, but From Russia With Love seems like the right choice for the way it centres sexual desire right at the heart of its thrilling plot.
As the plot suggests, Sean Connery plays Bond, a suave gentlemen sent to Turkey to try and extract information from a defective Russian spy. Although he senses a trap, he is still duped by her, leading to the spy scrambling to rewrite his wrongs.
Perhaps the greatest of all the Bond movies, From Russia With Love is characterised by its adult approach to sex and taut action scenes, including a brawl in a gypsy camp, a tightly-shot fight on a train, and a heart-stopping helicopter chase. This would prove a winning formula to the Bond series, leading it to become the longest running franchise in cinematic history.