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Part 1 - Six Films That Will Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat

All you have to do is peruse any list of "Top Ten Thrillers" to realize that people today do not know what a thriller is. They think movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Dark Knight, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Jaws are thrillers. (All of these appear in the top three of some very prominent lists.) I don't believe they are, because technically and traditionally a thriller is a very specialized animal: its plot has been carefully devised to create maximum suspense, often through sensational circumstances (like a murder), but without resorting to things that are scary in and of themselves (like monsters). All stories contain a certain amount of suspense, but thrillers specialize in it.

Alfred Hitchcock is the undeniable "Master of Suspense", which should give you a good idea of what a thriller is. Every other thriller is measured against his work. As a matter of fact, I could fill my list with nothing but Hitchcock films and have a pretty good list. But I won't, because there are some other very good directors of suspense out there - they just didn't specialize in it like Hitchcock.

So, here's my list. It contains all the expected types - courtroom dramas, detective stories, crime dramas, murder mysteries, political thrillers, psychological thrillers, chase movies - but there are also some unexpected candidates. I had to break it up into four parts, there were so many (24). I hope you find something to enjoy on a dark and stormy night. Make sure you have someone to cuddle up with before you hit the "play" button.

The Killers (1946)
Undforgetable opening scene of The Killers
Unforgetable opening scene of The Killers
The Swede (Burt Lancaster) meets the deadly Kitty (Ava Gardner)
The Swede (Burt Lancaster) meets the deadly Kitty (Ava Gardner).
For his first screen role, Lancaster is phenomenal.
For his first screen role, Lancaster is phenomenal.

This ground-breaking film by director Robert Siodmak is significant for many reasons. First, it is one of the best examples of Film Noir there is, and was copied extensively in Steve Martin's homage to Film Noir, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. You probably remember the Swede (Burt Lancaster) and Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Second, this is Lancaster's film debut, and he's dynamite. Called the greatest of all screen actors, he certainly lives up to that reputation right out of the shoot. Gardner makes a good foil for him to play off of as the beautiful but deadly Kitty. Third, the screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, is... well, killer. Fourth, the cinematography by Woody Bredell is striking, especially the opening scene, which you will never forget. Fifth, the music by Miklos Rozsa, which includes the famous "dum-da-dum-dum" theme, helps to build the suspense. The Killers was nominated at the Oscars for Best Director, Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton), Best Music and Best Screenplay.

The plot is pretty straightforward: the main character, the Swede, is killed off by hit men in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and an insurance detective, played by Edmond O'Brien, spends the remaining eighty-eight trying to find out why. Naturally, it is full of flashbacks. This is one of the greats; and, if you're like me, you won't leave the edge of your seat until the last frame. The only version of this film that I am aware of is the one by Criterion Collection, which is rather pricey. But to offset the cost, it comes with a TV remake of the story (1964), starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, that is interesting, has a different twist, but is in no way comparable to the original. This is one you will not want to miss. B&W. Not rated. 5 Stars.

The Killing (1956)
Sterling Hayden in The Killing
Sterling Hayden in The Killing

As long as I'm on the subject of killing, this is a Stanley Kubrick film that is extremely gritty. It stars Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove, Johnny Guitar, The Asphalt Jungle) as Johnny Clay and a slew of interesting character actors, mostly known for their television work: Vince Edwards (Ben Casey), Coleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook, Jr., et al. They pull off the perfect racetrack caper: while a high-stakes race is going on, they shoot one of the horses (thus the name) and steal the till. All the ins and outs of the crime are fascinating, and you'll get a real taste of racetrack culture. But the robbery goes awry and ends very badly for the gang. The violence is pretty graphic for the fifties, though nothing compared with today.

I like this film because Kubrick (2001, Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus) is a genius, and Hayden is perfect as tough guy Johnny Clay. There is one shot, relatively famous, where the camera follows Hayden through the robbers' hideout - apparently even through walls - without a cut, which was highly unusual back then. Other work by cinematographer Lucien Ballard is equally memorable. Kubrick is known for his wedding of image and music, so note the score by Gerald Fried. The Killing, which is British, was nominated in the British Academy Awards (BAFTA) for Best Film from Any Source. By the way: wearing clowns' masks to pull a heist was not new in The Dark Knight - it was used here first. B&W. Not rated. 5 Stars.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
Terrific plot, acting, production and directing make this a killer thriller.
Terrific plot, acting, production and directing make this a killer thriller.

Now for something in color. I've been criticized for not offering more movie recommendations from the 21st century. The truth is, like westerns, the pickings become progressively leaner as we get further from the 70s, when sci-fi took over much of the function of both westerns and thrillers. (Note my first paragraph.) Directors today just don't seem to understand how to create dramatic tension, let alone suspense, without blowing something up or having someone take off their clothes. But there are exceptions, and A Beautiful Mind is one of them. Director Ron Howard did a smash-up job dramatizing Sylvia Nasar's book about mathematics genius and schizophrenic John Nash, who is literally saved from obscurity and self-destruction by the love of his wife, Alicia. If it weren't for Nash's illness, this would be a straight drama. But as the film progresses, we realize he is working for the CIA on important decoding projects. But is he really? That is something we don't find out until near the end of the film, which makes this a top-notch thriller.

The way in which Howard handles Nash's genius (his ability to see patterns, etc.) and the way he handles his schizophrenia (blurring the edges between reality and delusion) are masterful. Russell Crowe is at his best as John Nash. Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer, House Of Sand And Fog, Blood Diamond) is terrific as Alicia Nash. Ed Harris (Apollo 13, The Truman Show, The Right Stuff) as Parcher and Christopher Plummer (The Sound Of Music) as Dr. Rosen are also memorable. I really think this is Ron Howard's best work, and that his recent forays into the writings of Dan Brown are less than stellar. Howard's other work that I really admire is Apollo 13. For my full review of A Beautiful Mind, go to Color. PG-13. 5 Stars.

The Fugitive (1993)
Harrison Ford in The Fugitive
Harrison Ford in The Fugitive
Dr. Richard David Kimble as he makes his escape.
Dr. Richard David Kimble as he makes his escape
Tommy Lee Jones as his pursuer, US Marshal Samuel Gerard
Tommy Lee Jones as his pursuer, US Marshal Samuel Gerard
David Jansen starred in the television series on which the movie is based
David Janssen starred in the television series on which the movie is based

The role of Dr. Richard David Kimble, who is wrongly convicted of brutally killing his own wife, is one of Harrison Ford's strongest. On the way to prison, where he is to be executed, Kimble and another prisoner escape when their bus wrecks - which, by the way, creates one of the most exciting scenes in cinema, and includes the most spectacular train crash ever filmed. US Marshal Samuel Gerard - played perfectly by Tommy Lee Jones, and for which he won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor - quickly takes up the pursuit. Kimble is desperate to discover who the real killer of his wife was, and does some remarkable detective work while staying one step ahead of Gerard. Some of the predicaments he gets out of are truly amazing, yet still believable, which speaks to the excellent script by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy. This is a real nail-biter and ultimately very satisfying.

Chase films don't get any better than The Fugitive, which is based on an award-winning 1960s television show written by Roy Huggins and starring David Janssen. Besides Jones' win, The Fugitive was nominated for six other Oscars, including Best Picture. It won ten awards total, including the Golden Globe for Tommy Lee Jones. Unfortunately, cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Davis had little to precede it (Under Siege, also starring Tommy Lee Jones), and little to follow (A Perfect Murder, Collateral Damage, Holes, The Guardian - all mediocre). Jones' career, on the other hand, while not stellar, has been full. Of course, Ford went on to make some pretty good thrillers, including another Jack Ryan story, Clear And Present Danger (his first being Patriot Games) and Air Force One. But his best, besides this one, was his earlier film, Witness. Color. PG-13. 5 Stars.

Witness (1985)
Harrison Ford as John Book in Witness
Harrison Ford as John Book in Witness
chemistry between Ford and co-star Kelly McGillis
There is a lot of chemistry between Ford and co-star Kelly McGillis.
Witness - Not the barn-raising from the film, but a similar one
Not the barn-raising from the film, but a similar one

This time Harrison Ford is Captain John Book, a police detective investigating a murder that had only one witness: a little Amish boy named Samuel, played by Lukas Haas. He was in Penn Station with his widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis - Top Gun), at the time, was hiding in one of the stalls in the men's room when he saw the crime being perpetrated, and went undiscovered by the killers only because of his own resourcefulness. When Samuel secretly identifies Detective Lt. James McFee (Danny Glover - The Color Purple, Lethal Weapon), one of Book's subordinates in narcotics, as one of the killers, Book realizes that Samuel - and he - aren't safe, so he takes the boy and his mother and disappears back into Amish country.

It isn't easy for this "English" to fit in among the "Germans." But he tries, and for a brief time, Book experiences a peace and love he has never known before. He even falls in love with Rachel, who reciprocates his feelings. But Rachel's father-in-law, Eli (Jan Rubes, who's terrific) tells her she could be shunned by the community for such attractions towards an English. Besides, Rachel has another suitor in Daniel Hochleitner, portrayed perfectly by Alexander Godunov (The Money Pit, Die Hard). Daniel's brother Moses is played by Viggo Mortensen (The Lord Of The Rings, Hidalgo), who, although his part is small, is still fun to watch. Soon this idyllic yet imperfect dream is broken when the killers show up.

This is the best film featuring Amish that I know of. It is a wonderful depiction of the people and their culture. My favorite scene is the barn-raising, which is a profound example of how the Amish have preserved something of supreme value in their simple culture that we in our complicated one have lost: community. At the Oscars, Witness was nominated for Best Actor (Harrison Ford), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Director (Peter Weir - Master And Commander, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, The Year Of Living Dangerously) and Best Picture. It won Best Editing and Best Screenplay. Color. Rated R. 5 Stars.

Wait Until Dark (1967)
Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark
Superb film based on superior play, with riveting performances

Audrey Hepburn was one of the most glamorous stars of the fifties and sixties; but, in this particular film, she plays a blind lady, Susy Hendrix, of rather modest circumstances living in a Manhattan basement apartment with her photographer husband, Sam, played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (voice of Alfred in Batman animated series, The FBI, 77 Sunset Strip, other TV series). Her handicap is the result of a recent accident, and so is a doll she is in possession of that is loaded with heroin. Sam travels a lot in his work, and on a recent trip unwittingly received this doll from a drug smuggler. Now the intended recipients want it; and when Sam goes out of town again, they try to get it from Susy by posing as various characters; but when that doesn't work, they resort to terrorizing her. Luckily, they underestimate this particular blind woman's resourcefulness.

Alan Arkin (Marley & Me, Little Miss Sunshine, The Rocketeer) plays the most ruthless of the three robbers. He will literally do anything to get what he wants, and will end up sending chills down your spine. Richard Crenna (Sabrina, Rambo, The Real McCoys), on the other hand, actually turns out to be a pretty nice guy, for a thug, and tries to help Susy. There are a handful of other actors, but this is a relatively small cast. The movie is an adaptation of the long-running Broadway hit by playwright Frederick Knott, so it does have a certain staginess to it, as most of the action takes place in the Hendrix apartment. But that is part of the fascination of this story: how Susy is able to outsmart her predators in such a small space!

Here's how the poster reads: "The blinds moving up and down... the squeaking shoes... and then the knife whistling past her ear.." The climax to this film is classic. Whenever I've seen it in theaters, the entire audience literally jumps out of their seats at the same time. If you want to do the same, keep your lights turned down low, if not off. It will definitely add to the effect. (This is not a horror flick, so you don't need to have reservations about watching it. And it is in color.) This film is by Terence Young, who directed some of the early James Bond films before it, and got involved in mostly French films after. This was Hepburn's last major role, for which she was nominated for the Oscar. Wait Until Dark is one of the great thrillers. Technicolor. Not rated. 5 Stars.


Waitsel Smith, May 8, 2009

Text © 2009 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the respective movie studios. All Rights Reserved.

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