Sure, we can pretend to understand that not everyone enjoys having their insides twisted like the twistiest of Twizzlers when watching a movie, but really, we don’t get it. The feeling that a superb thriller leaves you with is unlike any other feeling. It’s lingering and pulse-pounding and it makes you feel alive. And feeling alive is good.
So it was nerve-wracking but enjoyable work trying to narrow down the top 25 suspense films of all time. Of course, about halfway through we realized we could’ve just called this list “Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Flicks and a Couple of Other Ones,” but that didn’t seem to have the same ring to it.
In case you’re wondering, you won’t find Psycho, The Birds, Jaws, Alien, and a few others here because they’re on our list of the best horror movies.
But this compilation does feature plenty of spine-tinglers, nail-biters, and sweat-inducers that will leave you jelly-legged and noodle-kneed. Here’s our list of the 25 best suspense movies of all time, in no particular order.
A masterpiece of moviemaking by the master of suspense, Rear Window is almost like an interactive movie, as the viewer joins a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart in keeping tabs on his backyard neighbors. But then, he sees something that he shouldn’t have… and he’s seen seeing that something. The gorgeous Grace Kelly and terrifying Raymond Burr help round out this slow-burning classic.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the remake blows away the original. That’s the case with Martin Scorcese’s nerve-jarring Cape Fear. The 1962 version was a fine film, but Scorcese amps up Max Cady’s (Robert De Niro) psychopath factor while also working in a dysfunctional family element, along with some really memorable camerawork. The story is a simple revenge tale that spins off its axis slightly in the last 15 minutes, but from start to finish, the sense of danger is fantastic.
The Sixth Sense
We’re not sure if The Sixth Sense has a ton of rewatchability to it, thanks to that stunning plot twist, but that hardly takes away from it being a modern day classic. Haley Joel Osment is unforgettably good as Cole Sear, an eight-year-old boy who – say it with us – sees dead people. M. Night Shyamalan’s script and direction is on point, and Bruce Willis almost makes you totally forget he’s John McClane for 107 minutes.
If you’re under the age of say, 45, there’s a good chance all you know about Deliverance is that there’s a weird kid playing a banjo and something unsavory happens in the woods while a guy squeals like a pig; not exactly enticing stuff, right? But make no mistake, this is a seat-gripping thriller set in the wilderness that you’ll never forget. Burt Reynolds, Jon Voigt and Ned Beatty lead the way as the unlucky dudes who get way more adventure than they were looking for.
North by Northwest
Another suspense icon, North by Northwest is a rollicking action thriller that features one of the most famous scenes in cinema history: the plane chase in the open field. Hitch’s famous “wrong man” trope is mined beautifully here, with Cary Grant as the ad executive who gets mistaken for a government agent and kidnapped. It’s Hitchcock at his biggest and most blockbusteriest. Look no further than a climax atop Mount Rushmore for your proof.
A grim, gritty film that flirts with horror movie territory, Seven is a sensational suspense film about two detectives (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) tracking a serial killer (Kevin Spacey). David Fincher put himself on the map as a next-level director with his brilliant handling of this disturbing thrill ride, and thanks to Seven, the question “What’s in the box?” now scares us way more than it should.
The Manchurian Candidate
Director: John Frankenheimer
Purchase: Amazon DVD
The definitive political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate crackles with Cold War-era intensity and a knowing sense of satire that was ahead of its time, with Laurence Harvey is the decorated Korean War vet who gets brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin. The cast is stellar (Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury), and many of the film’s messages still ring true more than 50 years later.
Tense, thrilling, and satisfying in that neo-noir way, L.A. Confidential delves deep into the crossroads between police corruption and Hollywood scandal. James Elroy’s 1990 novel gets an excellent adaptation here by director Curtis Hanson and thanks to a killer cast, featuring Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Danny DeVito, and Russell Crowe.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Purchase: Amazon DVD
The charming duo of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are pitch perfect in this romantic thriller. Hitchcock’s direction is flawless in this black & white gem, with a pair of scenes earning hall of fame status for his camerawork. Factor in the stop-the-Nazis plotline, an all too fresh memory in 1946, and this is easily one of the best films of the 1940s.
On the list of movies to not see before a trip to the dentist, Marathon Man is on the short list. Of course that’s a reference to the film’s famous torture scene, but this political thriller is much more than that. Dustin Hoffman is the grad student who finds himself in a heap of twisted trouble, and if you’ve seen it once, the phrase “Is it safe?” will always send a shiver down your spine.
Vertigo had a strange ride to its now firm standing as one of the greatest movies of all time. Upon its initial release, the film broke even financially, and many critics were less than enamored with it. But as time passed more people began to adore it. The always great Jimmy Stewart is a retired San Francisco detective who has an extreme fear of heights and becomes obsessed with the woman he’s been hired to follow. Vertigo is also noteworthy for being the first film to use the dolly zoom, which pretty much gives one a feeling of vertigo by itself.
Before he breathed new life into Batman and dazzled us with Inception, Christopher Nolan staked his claim as a director to be revered with Memento. Guy Pearce is excellent as a man who must use notes and tattoos to search for the man he thinks killed his wife, but the true takeaway from the film is its daring backwards narrative.
Based on the true story of a daring rescue of American hostages in Iran, Argo keeps you delightfully tense for nearly its entire two hours. Ben Affleck the actor doesn’t do anything special as Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration specialist who hatches a plan to pretend to be filmmakers in Tehran, but Affleck the director deserves a ton of credit for this Best Picture winner.
Dial M for Murder
Plotting to murder your wife: not nice. But, as it turns out, damn interesting when on the big screen. Ray Milland is the former tennis pro who wants to kill his wife, played by Grace Kelly, and it’s no surprise that Frederick Knott’s screenplay takes place in one room, since Dial M for Murder was first a successful stage play. A little talky, sure, but still a classic crime thriller.
No Country for Old Men
The palpable sense of dusty Texas dread that the Coen brothers drum up in No County for Old Men is as vast as the Lone Star state itself. The plot itself is simple: A man (Josh Brolin) finds a massive amount of cash, and is then is chased by the hitman (the chillingly sinister Javier Bardem) who’s hired to get it back. But that simple premise belies the powerfully tense atmosphere and bleak themes that this 2007 Best Picture winner is laced with.
The Third Man
The Third Man is a tight package of great performances, smooth camerawork, and a memorable theme that all adds up to one of the most revered thrillers in cinema history. A writer goes to Vienna to find a childhood friend, only to learn that his friend is dead. But is there more to it? Our hunch is yes. Joseph Cotton and the great Orson Welles lead the way under Reed’s restrained but timeless direction.
Strangers On a Train
Everything is more suspenseful when it’s on a train—it’s just a fact. And that certainly holds true for Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s classic thriller about a tennis player and charming psychopath who look to trade murders with each other. Robert Walker is excellent as the scheming Bruno Anthony, and the master of suspense brings his A game here.
The Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum is all sorts of dastardly and devious as a psychopathic preacher who knows there’s a huge stash of hidden somewhere near a dead man’s home and is more than willing to leech onto the man’s family to get it. The Night of the Hunter is the only film that Charles Laughton ever directed, and it features a shadowy expressionist style that was groundbreaking at the time and a major influence on other filmmakers since then.
Murder on the Orient Express
Director: Sidney Lumet
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Agatha Christie was pretty much the Hitchcock of the written word, churning out dozens of murder mystery novels, throughout her storied career, and many of them were turned into enjoyable films. We’re gonna go with Murder on the Orient Express as the best of the bunch, with Albert Finney as the indomitable detective Hercule Poirot and a wide array of suspects to choose from in this guilty pleasure whodunit.
We imagine the rate of extramarital affairs took a substantial dip after 1987, the year Fatal Attraction scared the living rabbit pellets out of any man who’s ever contemplated some side action. Michael Douglas gets way more than he bargained for when he has an affair with the disturbingly obsessed Glenn Close, and thanks to Adrian Lyne’s tight direction, your heart races faster with each act.
Infusing dark comedy with suspense and graphic violence, Fargo stands out for its Coen brothers-fueled quirkiness. The funny accent-having Frances McDormand plays the pregnant police chief who investigates a series of murders, while Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy are immensely memorable in their roles as well. You may feel weird about the ratio of chuckles to tension, but that just adds to the film’s uniqueness.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca tells the tale of a shy new bride is haunted by the memory of her husband’s dead first wife. It certainly moves at a slower pace, but it’s never without a foreboding aura. For old times sakes, let’s see what Variety magazine said on March 26, 1940: “Alfred Hitchcock, English director, pilots his first American production with capable assurance and exceptional understanding of the motivation and story mood.”
Stir of Echoes
Yep, we see the total $21 million box office take, the 67% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the 7.0 on IMDb, and they’re all wrong—Stir of Echoes is great. Based on a chilling novel by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), the film stars Kevin Bacon as a man who starts getting disturbing visions after being hypnotized. The film’s release after The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project surely hurt it in the fall of ’99, but there’s no denying the fright factor here.
After his standout work with Se7ven, it was no surprise that David Fincher nailed it again with Zodiac. A fascinating look at investigation into the infamous Zodiac serial killer, you’re never quite sure where the film is going as it doesn’t play out like a typical thriller, but it’s nonetheless thoroughly intense. Jake Gyllenhaaal is great as the newspaper reporter who can’t let go of the case, and knowing it’s a true story makes it that much more terrifying.
If you see only one Amish thriller this year… well, then you’ve seen Witness, the taut tale of an Amish boy who sees a murder, then has to be protected Harrison Ford and his blaster gun. There’s a good deal of time spent on the love story between Ford and Kelly McGillis, but this is probably the best straight up suspense film of the 80s.
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