Thrillers that have remained thrilling after 50+ years
Just as there are timeless horror movies that are still scary and classic comedies that are still funny, so too are there great old-school thrillers that can still get your heart racing. It's one thing to have an audience invested in a suspenseful thriller at the time of a film's release, but it's another thing altogether when a film can do the same for audiences decades in the future.
It's a hard genre to make timeless, as the things that make us uneasy, on edge, and tense vary from generation to generation. Yet the following 10 movies all stand as great examples of thrillers that are over half a century old, yet still manage to keep viewers young and old glued to their seats.
The only film ever directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is a movie that had its reputation grow in the years after its release. Perhaps this dark film noir about a sinister, mysterious individual infiltrating a family to get information about a hidden stash of money was too stomach-churning for general audiences in 1955.
Modern audiences, on the other hand, are more receptive to The Night of the Hunter. It's rightly considered one of the best films of the 1950s, and even by today's standards, it's still quite dark and shocking in parts. It's far from hokey or cheesy, like you might expect a 1950s thriller to be. Instead, it's lean, well-paced, brooding, and intense. In other words, it's exactly what you'd want out of a thriller.
Akira Kurosawa is among the best directors of all time overlooked by the Oscars (when it comes to the Best Director award at least). While he's perhaps best-known for a series of excellent historical dramas and samurai films, that's far from the only genre he mastered during his career, as a film like High and Low clearly demonstrates.
It's a police procedural about kidnapping and blackmail, with a large cast of characters appearing throughout a lengthy film that runs close to two and a half hours. Despite its length, the pacing never sags, and it's a gripping mystery/thriller from its first frame to its last. It deservedly earns its place among the very best films directed by Kurosawa during his 50+ year-long career.
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock's very best movies, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as masterpieces like Psycho and Vertigo. It's presented to look like one shot, and takes place in real-time, meaning its premise about a dead body barely hidden at a (very awkward) dinner party never drags or lets up.
The suspense in Rope isn't so much if the body will be discovered, but how, when, and by whom. Hitchcock squeezes every drop of tension he can get out of the brilliantly tense premise, and the result is a film that's still exciting and nervewracking to watch almost three-quarters of a century on from its release.
Starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier at their very best, Sleuth is an interesting film that still feels unique and unparalleled 50 years on from its release. It's more or less an extended battle of wits between the two main characters, playing out with an extremely small cast and a series of snappy, consistently engaging one-on-one conversations.
There are plenty of plot twists within Sleuth, and even if modern viewers may see some of them coming, the movie never stops being fun and twisty, which is ultimately the main thing. It's a masterclass in writing, acting, and directing, given that this movie is almost 140 minutes long and never becomes boring, even with such a small cast and a very confined setting for the majority of its runtime.
The Incident is an extremely underrated, gritty, low-budget thriller released in the late 1960s, right around the time American cinema was starting to become a little darker and edgier. Most of the plot takes place inside a train carriage late one night, and features a tense story about two rowdy young men who tease and torment the other passengers on the train in ways that get more uncomfortable and sadistic as the film goes on.
It works wonders with its claustrophobic setting, which becomes one of the main reasons The Incident is still so nail-biting. It's also notable for starring a very young Martin Sheen as one of the two young thugs, well before he starred in either Badlands or Apocalypse Now. Anyone who knows him best for playing President Bartlett on The West Wing should be ready to see him play a very, very different character in The Incident.
Few movies are more than 50 years out yet still retain the power to shock, but Straw Dogs is among them. It was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who was well-known for pushing boundaries with many of his films (notably The Wild Bunch), yet Straw Dogs might well be his most confronting.
It's a revenge thriller about a man being pushed to the edge and beyond, with him and his wife dealing with terrible things that he eventually seeks to resolve through acts of extreme violence. It features Dustin Hoffman playing a very different character than what you'd usually see him play, and there are several scenes here that retain their shock value all these years later, with it having aged frighteningly well since 1971.
Really, if you want to talk about timeless Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, you could nominate most of them. There are probably more Hitchcock thrillers that still hold up and entertain despite their age than those that don't, so picking out his best thrillers ends up being surprisingly difficult.
Perhaps it's best then to recommend a slightly lesser-known one, like Notorious. This classic features a stellar cast that includes Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains, and features an espionage story about hunting a Nazi officer hiding in Brazil. It was a daring film to make immediately following the end of World War 2, but it's that sense of boldness that helps it retain its edge and exciting qualities to this day, making it stand as one of Hitchcock's best films released in the 1940s.
The second Fritz Lang film to feature "Dr. Mabuse" in its title, 1933's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a sequel of sorts to the 1922 film, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. That one is also a good thriller, but it's a silent film that runs for more than four hours, meaning that while it's a fascinating movie to watch for its historical value, it doesn't consistently hold up as a white-knuckle thrill ride.
The shorter, faster, non-silent The Testament of Dr. Mabuse naturally holds up a little better. Fans of old films should check out both, but if you had to pick one, this 1933 Dr. Mabuse film is a great psychological thriller that retains an air of mystery and a visceral feeling of suspense to this day, making it one thriller that's undoubtedly worth checking out.
If you asked a film buff what the best film noir of all time is, there's a decent chance they'd pick Double Indemnity. It ticks all the boxes for what best defines film noir, with its stark black-and-white visuals, murky morality, crime-related storyline, a classic femme fatale, and a hard-nosed, stoic main character who gets wrapped up in a plot that ends up spiraling out of control.
Billy Wilder became well-known for his comedies throughout the 1950s and 1960s (like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment), but he could do a great, grim, serious thriller, too. Double Indemnity has a story that still packs a punch, and has some great setpiece moments, surprising plot twists, and a fantastic ending. It's an essential classic thriller, without a doubt.
An early thriller from Fritz Lang, who before 1931 had largely specialized in silent films, M has a premise that's almost as simple and direct as its title. There's a serial killer who targets children and commits crimes so disturbing that both the police and other criminals are after him. As such, most of the film is a large-scale manhunt to find him before he does further harm.
It's an extremely disturbing film for 1931, and will likely still rattle 21st-century viewers to some extent. It also has a great performance from Peter Lorre, and its influence on the crime/detective genre is undeniable.
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Jeremy is an omnivore when it comes to movies. He’ll gladly watch and write about almost anything, from old Godzilla films to gangster flicks to samurai movies to classic musicals to the French New Wave to the MCU. When he’s not writing lists for Collider, he also likes to upload film reviews to his Letterboxd profile and Instagram account.
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10 Classic Thrillers That Have Aged Like Fine Wine – Collider
Thrillers that have remained thrilling after 50+ years