Suspense movies can generally be separated into those by Alfred Hitchcock and those by other people. Hitchcock was more than a master of suspense; he was a master of cinema, an artist for all time. Twelve of the films included here are by Hitchcock.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), about a family trying to track down the kidnappers of their daughter, and "The 39 Steps" (1935), an espionage yarn played out with elements of screwball comedy, are the first two classics of Hitchcock's career.
"Saboteur" (1942) has Robert Cummings, falsely accused of being an Axis agent, in a cat and mouse game. Oft-exerpted fight scene atop the Statue of Liberty is from this film.
Hitchcock's other great World War II-era film is "Lifeboat" (1944) with Tallulah Bankhead and Walter Slezak the standouts in a tense standoff between British and American shipwreck survivors and a Nazi U-boat captain adrift on a single lifeboat.
"Notorious" (1946) has Ingrid Bergman as a double agent in South America teamed with Cary Grant. Most of the movie sets up a single, highly charged ending sequence.
In 1948 Hitchcock tried a bold experiment--making a movie on a single set using extremely long takes by highly mobile cameras. The result, "Rope," based loosely on the Leopold-Loeb murder case, is remarkable to watch.
"Strangers on a Train" (1951) is one of the few perfect movies. This tale of a "criss-cross" murder scheme, with its famous merry-go-round climax, is Hitchcock's artistic triumph.
"Rear Window" (1954) has James Stewart uncovering a murder plot while watching his apartment building neighbors with binoculars. The tension that builds at the end is almost unbearable.
"Vertigo" (1958) succeeds despite a couple of implausible plot elements because of Hitchcock's willingness to take risks with subliminal and Freudian trickery.
"North by Northwest" (1959) found the master at his artistic pinnacle and this is his commercial smash. This tale of regular guy Cary Grant caught up in espionage hugger mugger is simultaneously wildly flamboyant and tightly controlled.
Hitchcock pulled out the rug from his audiences in 1960, who by now expected a light touch and a bit of glamour in his films, by giving them a terrifying shocker. "Psycho," which changed the rules for suspense movies, is also a very black comedy.
His final masterpiece, "The Birds" (1963), was another turnaround, this time into science fiction as a California town is suddenly under siege by killer birds. Hitchcock's deft touch is visible in almost every frame.
Turning to the non-Hitchcock realm, Carol Reed is a good place to start with his "The Third Man" (1949) set in post-war Europe where a much-sought scoundrel, played by Orson Welles, may or may not be alive.
That same year Hollywood turned out an often-overlooked little gem called "The Window" about a smart-mouthed brat, played by Bobby Driscoll, who witnesses a murder but cannot convince anyone of what he has seen.
"Suddenly" (1954) is a tough-minded thriller about a team of gangster-assassins, headed by Frank Sinatra, who take over a house and the people in it because a window in the house will offer a perfect shot at the president when he alights from a train.
"Diabolique" (1955), by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, has two women who are brutalized by the same man scheming to kill him. This plot has been used many times, but never better.
The only directorial effort by actor Charles Laughton was "Night of the Hunter" (1955), with Robert Mitchum as the psycho- preacher trying to capture two fleeing children. This film contains a one-of-a-kind atmosphere of magical dread.
"Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) is the finest screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery. Charles Laughton is the barrister in search of a witness who could save or doom his client, who faces the gallows.
"Touch of Evil" (1958) is a bit too stuffed with arch posturing to attain the greatness with which some regard it, but it's still an unsettling thriller directed with flair by Orson Welles.
An engrossing performance by child actress Hayley Mills, playing a murder witness who is kidnapped by the murderer, puts "Tiger Bay" (1959) over the top.
"Peeping Tom" (1960) is a British film by Michael Powell about a lunatic who rigs up a device to photograph his victims at the moment he kills them. Perverse, but fascinating.
"The Last Voyage" (1960) is a straightforward movie about a sinking ocean liner and the frantic efforts by passengers and crew to free a woman trapped below decks. A real French liner, the Ile de France, was sunk to make this utterly convincing movie.
Bette Davis cackles with insane glee while tormenting her wheelchair-bound sister Joan Crawford in the campy thriller "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962).
Astonishingly modern, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) is a paranoid masterpiece (yanked from circulation for years) from director John Frankenheimer about brainwashing, assassination, and McCarthyism. Check out Angela Lansbury back when she was wicked.
What kind of list would this be without an axe murder movie? The best is "Strait-Jacket" (1964) with Joan Crawford as the murderess who is no sooner released from prison than people around her begin to turn up chopped into pieces. A classic William Castle shocker.
"Seconds" (1966), directed by John Frankenheimer, could be Rock Hudson's greatest movie. He's a bored businessman who discovers an organization that provides you with a new life--for a fee.
"Wait Until Dark" (1967), based on the hit stage play, has Audrey Hepburn as the blind woman trying to survive when gangsters lay siege to her apartment. By my reckoning this is the first movie to use the not-yet-dead killer gimmick.
"Duel" (1971), about a man driving across the desert being menaced by a madman in a tractor-trailer, is the greatest made- for-TV movie ever shot. It is the first Steven Spielberg film that is clearly in his canon.
It's a duel of wits when Laurence Olivier takes on Michael Caine, his romantic rival, in a deadly game of oneupmanship. "Sleuth" is directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
"Day of the Jackal" (1973) owes its success to the ingenious plotting taken from Frederick Forsyth's novel about an assassination attempt on French president Charles De Gaulle. Fred Zinneman directs.
Director Richard Lester took an unimpressive bomb-on-an- ocean liner script and turned it into the stylish and nerve- wracking "Juggernaut" (1974). Richard Harris, as the demolition expert, is a model of grace under pressure.
"The Parallax View" (1974), directed by Alan J. Pakula, taps into conspiracy theory weirdness as a reporter, Warren Beatty, digs into what's really going on when a U.S. senator is assassinated.
Finally in 1974, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" is an expertly crafted crime thriller about a gang that hijacks a subway train in New York City and holds it for $1 million in ransom.
"Witness" (1985), filmed where I live in Lancaster, Pa., has Harrison Ford as honest cop in Philadelphia forced to hide from crooked cohorts by disguising himself as Amish. Peter Weir directs this fish-out-of-water thriller. The local color is about 90 percent authentic.
"Vanishing Act," a 1986 made-for-TV movie, is the best of three adaptations of the play "Trap for a Lonely Man" in which a man claims his wife is missing, but when she is found insists the woman is not his wife. Puzzler is expertly pulled off.
"House of Games" (1987) is David Mamet at his best. He wrote and directed it and cast his wife and his favorite actor, Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna, in the key roles. Crouse is psychiatrist who joins a team of con men to find out what makes their psyches tick and gets more than she bargained for.
"The Stepfather" (1987) has the underappreciated Terry O'Quinn as the title character, a serial killer who marries widows to achieve goal of a perfect family, then goes murderously off his rocker when all is not perfect. Interesting commentary on the derangement lurking beneath the "family values" ideal.
In "Sea of Love" (1989), Al Pacino is cop hunting for a serial killer who selects victims from personals ads in New York and Ellen Barkin is the lonelyhearts woman who may hold the key. Credit Richard Price for a clever script.
"Dead Calm" (1989) makes terrific use of close quarters on a sailboat and the expanse of ocean around it as a killer ends up aboard yacht with a married couple. Let the games begin. Hokey ending almost spoils things.
"One False Move" (1991) is loaded with promising talent, including director Carl Franklin, actors Bill Paxton, Cynda Willams, and Michael Beach and actor-screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton. A dangerous trio is headed from Los Angeles to Star City, Ark., killing people on the way, and the sheriff of Star City (Paxton) is excitedly waiting for them.
Just hearing the plot premise for "Speed" (1994), in which a transit bus is wired to explode if it goes UNDER 55 miles per hour, is enough to make the movie play in your head. But seeing it is even more fun. Whoa!
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