Thriller is a genre of literature, film, and television programming that uses suspense, tension, and excitement as its main elements. Thrillers heavily stimulate the viewer's moods, giving them a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, surprise, anxiety and terror. Films of this genre tend to be adrenaline-rushing, gritty, rousing and fast-paced.
A thriller provides the sudden rush of emotions, excitement, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace. It keeps the audience on the "edge of their seats", akin to a sensation of hanging from a cliff, as the plot builds towards a climax. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.
Common subgenres are psychological thrillers, crime thrillers, erotic thrillers and mystery thrillers. Another common subgenre of thriller is the spy genre which deals with fictional espionage. Successful examples of thrillers are the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The horror and action genres often overlap with the thriller. Thrillers tend to be psychological, threatening, mysterious and at times involve larger-scale villainy such as espionage, terrorism and conspiracy.
In 2001, the American Film Institute in Los Angeles made its definitive selection of the top 100 greatest American "heart-pounding" and "adrenaline-inducing" films of all time. To make the list, the 400 nominated films had to be US-made films, whose thrills have "enlivened and enriched America's film heritage". AFI also asked jurors to consider "the total adrenaline-inducing impact of a film's artistry and craft".
Homer's Odyssey is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and is regarded as an early prototype of the thriller. One of the earliest thriller films was Harold Lloyd's comic Safety Last! (1923), with a character performing a daredevil stunt on the side of a skyscraper. Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang helped to shape the modern-day thriller genre beginning with the films The Lodger (1926) and M (1931), respectively.
- 1 Characteristics
- 2 History
- 3 Subgenres in film
- 4 Notable contributors to the thriller genre
- 5 Television
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Suspense is a crucial characteristic of the thriller genre. It gives the viewer a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, uncertainty, anticipation, tension, and anxiety. These develop from unpredictable, mysterious and rousing events during the narrative, which make the viewer or reader think about the outcome of certain actions. It also gives the person the so-called "on-edge" feeling. Suspense builds in order to make those final moments, no matter how short, the most memorable. They are the defining features in a thriller. The suspense in a story keeps the person hooked to reading or watching more until the climax is reached, and the thrill and amusement of being suspended, so to speak, finally come to a close. Suspense is about conflict and the obstacles between the protagonist and his goal.
In terms of narrative expectations, it may be contrasted with mystery or curiosity and surprise. The objective is to deliver a story with sustained tension, surprise, and a constant sense of impending doom. A thriller aims to keep its audience alert. As described by film director Alfred Hitchcock, an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and have (or believe they have) a superior perspective on events in the drama's hierarchy of knowledge, yet they are powerless to intervene to prevent it from happening.
Suspense in thrillers is often intertwined with hope and fear, which are treated as two emotions aroused in anticipation of the conclusion - the hope that things will turn out all right for the appropriate characters in the story, and the fear that they may not. The second type of suspense is the "...anticipation wherein we either know or else are fairly certain about what is going to happen but are still aroused in anticipation of its actual occurrence."
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book Poetics, suspense is an important building block of literature, and this is an important convention in the thriller genre. Ari Hiltunen affirms that "Aristotle's concept of fear can best be understood by the word suspense. The audience are aware of threatening danger and would like to warn the character but of course cannot do so."
Themes and characters
Common methods and themes in crime thrillers are mainly ransoms, captivities, heists, revenge, kidnappings. More common in mystery thrillers are investigations and the whodunit technique. Common elements in psychological thrillers are mind games, psychological themes, stalking, confinement/deathtraps, horror-of-personality, and obsession. Elements such as fringe theories, false accusations and paranoia are common in paranoid thrillers. Threats to entire countries, spies, espionage, conspiracies, assassins and electronic surveillance are common in spy thrillers.
The primary elements of the thriller genre:
- The protagonist(s) faces death, either his and/or her or somebody else's.
- The force(s) of the antagonist's must initially be cleverer and/or stronger than the protagonist's.
- The main storyline for the protagonist is either a quest or a character that cannot be put down.
- The main plotline focuses on a mystery that must be solved.
- The film's narrative construction is dominated by the protagonist's point of view.
- There may be a suspenseful and atmospheric soundtrack for the scenes of suspense.
- All action and characters must be credibly realistic or natural in their representation on screen.
- The two major themes that underpin the thriller genre are the desire for justice and the morality of individuals.
- One small, but significant, aspect of a thriller is the presence of innocence in what is seen as an essentially corrupt world.
- The protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) may battle, themselves and each other, not just on a physical level, but on a mental one as well.
- Either by accident or their own curiousness, each character is dragged into a dangerous conflict or situation that they are not prepared to resolve.
Characters usually include criminals, stalkers, assassins, innocent victims (often on the run), menaced women, characters with deep dark pasts, psychotic individuals, spree killers, sociopaths, agents, terrorists, cops and escaped cons, private eyes, people involved in twisted relationships, world-weary men and women, psycho-fiends, and more. The themes frequently include terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, or romantic triangles leading to murder.
The protagonists are frequently ordinary citizens unaccustomed to danger, although commonly in crime thrillers, they may also be "hard men" accustomed to danger such as police officers and detectives. While protagonists of thrillers have traditionally been men, women lead characters are increasingly common. In psychological thrillers, the protagonists are reliant on their mental resources, whether it be by battling wits with the antagonist or by battling for equilibrium in the character's own mind. The suspense often comes from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by merely trying to demolish the other's mental state.
Story and setting
The protagonist of these films is set against a problem – an escape, a mission, or a mystery. No matter what subgenre a thriller film falls into, it will emphasize the danger that the protagonist faces. The cover-up of important information from the viewer, and fight and chase scenes are common methods in all of the thriller subgenres, although each subgenre has its own unique characteristics and methods.
Plots of thrillers involve characters which come into conflict with each other or with outside forces – the threat is sometimes abstract or unseen. An atmosphere of creepy menace and sudden violence, such as crime and murder, characterize thrillers. Thrillers often present the world and society as dark, corrupt, and dangerous, but in Hollywood, they usually feature upbeat endings in which evil is overcome. The tension usually arises when the character(s) is placed in a menacing situation, a mystery, or a trap from which escaping seems impossible. Life is threatened, usually because the principal character is unsuspectingly or unknowingly involved in a dangerous or potentially deadly situation.
Thrillers emphasize the puzzle aspect of the plot. There are clues, and the viewer/reader should be able to determine the solution at about the same times as the protagonist. In thrillers, the compelling questions isn’t necessarily who did it, but whether the villain will be caught before committing another crime. Hitchcock's films often placed an innocent victim (an average, responsible person) into a strange, life-threatening or terrorizing situation, in a case of mistaken identity, misidentification or wrongful accusation.
Thrillers take place mostly in ordinary suburbs and cities, although sometimes they may take place wholly or partly in exotic settings such as foreign cities, deserts, polar regions, or the high seas. These usually tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world. Often in a thriller movie, the protagonist is faced with what seem to be insurmountable problems in his mission, carried out against a ticking clock, the stakes are high and although resourceful, they face personal dilemmas along the way forcing them to make sacrifices for others.
Writer Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures at Cornell University, said: "In an Anglo-Saxon thriller, the villain is generally punished, and the strong silent man generally wins the weak babbling girl, but there is no governmental law in Western countries to ban a story that does not comply with a fond tradition, so that we always hope that the wicked but romantic fellow will escape scot-free and the good but dull chap will be finally snubbed by the moody heroine."
Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they elicit: fearful excitement. In short, if it "thrills", it is a thriller. As the introduction to a major anthology explains:
|“||...Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre's most enduring characteristics. But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job.||”|
Thriller and mystery
Thrillers often overlap with mystery stories but are distinguished by the structure of their plots. In a thriller, the hero must stop the plans of an enemy rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. Mystery thrillers also occur on a much grander scale: the crimes that must be prevented are serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments. Jeopardy and violent confrontations are standard plot elements in the mystery-thriller genre (e.g. Triangle), unlike in the mystery genre where the story is more downbeat and dramatic (e.g. Changeling).
While a mystery climaxes when the mystery is solved (e.g. Gosford Park), a mystery thriller climaxes when the hero finally defeats the villain (after reveal), saves his own life and often the lives of others (e.g. Oldboy). There is very little violence, menace and threat in mystery/detective films (especially between the villain and other innocent people), whilst the violence is quite intense in thrillers and the villain is more ruthless. In thrillers influenced by film noir and tragedy, the compromised hero is often killed in the process.
While most will associate death with the genre and as being part of the story, a thriller isn't just about someone being murdered. There is always something bigger and more important at stake behind the murder that may endanger more lives. Where in a mystery the motive for a crime such as insurance fraud can be greed, in a thriller mere money doesn't come across as believable for all the terrible things the antagonist will do.
Thriller and crime
Often the two overlap. However, pure crime films/novels focus on a specific crime or set of crimes, and solving the mystery or tracking down the criminal(s), with no or little violence but more drama throughout. Thrillers are usually fiction-based and fast in pace, while crime fiction tend to be more leisurely paced, dramatic and realistic. Generally, violence is also lacking in crime fiction, but this depends on whether the work is based on the mafia, where violence is intense.
Some crime films showcase more on the gangster life, personal drama of the criminals and even their biographical film (e.g. The Godfather). Crime-thrillers, on the other hand, have more threat and suspense in them and may involve espionage (spying), frequent killings and other non-criminal conflicts (e.g. Heat). Unlike crime thrillers, crime films usually offer a more serious, grim and realistic portrayal of the criminal environment, emphasizing character development and complex narratives over suspense sequences, chase scenes and violence.
In crime fiction, the hero might be a police officer, or a private eye, who is usually tough and resourceful. He or she is pitted against villains determined to destroy him or her, although, unlike in thrillers, not necessarily other people, the country or the stability of the free world. Unlike in crime fiction, thrillers keep the emphasis away from the gangster, melodrama or the detective in the crime-related plot, and rather focus more on the suspense and danger that is generated.
History in literature
Ancient epic poems such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Odyssey and the Mahābhārata use similar narrative techniques as modern thrillers. In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus makes a perilous voyage home after the Trojan War, battling extraordinary hardships in order to be reunited with his wife Penelope. He has to contend with villains such as the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, and the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. In most cases, Odysseus uses cunning instead of brute force to overcome his adversaries.
Little Red Riding Hood (1697), an early example of a psycho-stalker story, is a fairy tale about a girl who walks through the woods to deliver food to her sick grandmother. A wolf wants to eat the girl but is afraid to do so in public. He approaches Little Red Riding Hood and she naively tells him where she is going. He suggests the girl pick some flowers, which she does. In the meantime, he goes to the grandmother's house and gains entry by pretending to be the girl. He swallows the grandmother whole (in some stories, he locks her in the closet) and waits for the girl, disguised as the grandma.
The Three Apples, a tale in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), is the earliest known murder mystery and suspense thriller with multiple plot twists and detective fiction elements. In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days. This whodunit mystery may be considered an archetype for detective fiction.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) is a swashbuckling revenge thriller about a man named Edmond Dantès who is betrayed by his friends and sent to languish in the notorious Château d'If. His only companion is an old man who teaches him everything from philosophy to mathematics to swordplay. Just before the old man dies, he reveals to Dantès the secret location of a great treasure. Shortly after, Dantès engineers a daring escape and uses the treasure to reinvent himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. Thirsting for vengeance, he sets out to punish those who destroyed his life.
The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is "the first modern thriller", according to Ken Follett, who described it as "an open-air adventure thriller about two young men who stumble upon a German armada preparing to invade England".
Heart of Darkness (1903) is a first-person within a first-person account about a man named Marlow who travels up the Congo River in search of an enigmatic Belgian trader named Kurtz. Layer by layer, the atrocities of the human soul and man's inhumanity to man are peeled away. Marlow finds it increasingly difficult to tell where civilization ends and where barbarism begins. Today this might be described as a psychological thriller.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is an early thriller by John Buchan, in which an innocent man becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and finds himself on the run from both the police and enemy spies.
The Manchurian Candidate (1959) is a classic of Cold War paranoia. A squad of American soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists. False memories are implanted, along with a subconscious trigger that turns them into assassins at a moment's notice. They are soon reintegrated into American society as sleeper agents. One of them, Major Bennett Marco, senses that not all is right, setting him on a collision course with his former comrade Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who is close to being activated as an assassin.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré is set in the world of Cold War espionage and helped to usher in an era of more realistic thriller fiction, based around professional spies and the battle of wits between rival spymasters.
The Bourne Identity (1980) is one of the first thrillers to be written in the modern style that we know today. A man with gunshot wounds is found floating unconscious in the Mediterranean Sea. Brought ashore and nursed back to health, he wakes up with amnesia. Fiercely determined to uncover the secrets of his past, he embarks on a quest that sends him spiraling into a web of violence and deceit. He is astounded to learn that knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and trade craft seem to come naturally to him.
History in film
Early thrillers, 1920s–1930s
Alfred Hitchcock's first thriller was his third silent film The Lodger (1926), a suspenseful Jack the Ripper story. His next thriller was Blackmail (1929), his and Britain's first sound film. Of Hitchcock's fifteen major features made between 1925 and 1935, only six were suspense films, the two mentioned above plus Murder!, Number Seventeen, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps. From 1935 on, however, most of his output was thrillers.
One of the earliest spy films was Fritz Lang's Spies (1928), the director's first independent production, with an anarchist international conspirator and criminal spy character named Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who was pursued by good-guy Agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) (aka Det. Donald Tremaine, English version) – this film anticipated the James Bond films of the future. Another was Greta Garbo's portrayal of the real-life, notorious, seductive German double agent code-named Mata Hari (Gertrud Zelle) in World War I in Mata Hari (1932), who performed a pearl-draped dance to entice French officers to divulge their secrets.
The chilling German film M (1931) directed by Fritz Lang, starred Peter Lorre (in his first film role) as a criminal deviant who preys on children. The film's story was based on the life of serial killer Peter Kurten (known as the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf'). Edward Sutherland's crime thriller Murders in the Zoo (1933) from Paramount starred Lionel Atwill as a murderous and jealous zoologist.
Other British directors, such as Walter Forde, Victor Saville, George A. Cooper, and even the young Michael Powell made more thrillers in the same period; Forde made nine, Vorhaus seven between 1932 and 1935, Cooper six in the same period, and Powell the same. Hitchcock was following a strong British trend in his choice of genre.
Notable examples of Hitchcock's early British suspense-thriller films include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), his first spy-chase/romantic thriller, The 39 Steps (1935) with Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll and The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Hitchcock continued to perfect his recognizable brand of suspense-thriller, directing Foreign Correspondent (1940), the haunting Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), which is about the unusual romance between a young woman (Joan Fontaine) and an emotionally distant rich widower (Laurence Olivier) – overshadowed by a vindictive housekeeper (Judith Anderson), Suspicion (1941) about a woman in peril from her own husband (Cary Grant), Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which was Hitchcock's own personal favorite and based upon the actual case of a 1920s serial killer known as The Merry Widow Murderer.
Director George Cukor's psychological thriller Gaslight (1944) featured a scheming husband (Charles Boyer) plotting to make his innocent young wife (Ingrid Bergman) go insane, in order to acquire her inheritance. The film noir, Laura (1944) was about a thrilling murder investigation made by a police detective (Dana Andrews), with suspects including a columnist (Clifton Webb) and a fiancée (Vincent Price).
In The Spiral Staircase (1946), a mute domestic servant (Dorothy McGuire) in a house was terrorized by a serial murderer, thinking she was the next victim. In a thriller starring Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth titled The Lady From Shanghai (1948), a woman, her crippled lawyer/husband and his partner, and an Irish sailor ended up involved in a murder scheme. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), an invalid woman (Barbara Stanwyck) overheard a murder plot on the phone – against herself. The Third Man (1949), told the story of a writer (Joseph Cotten) in post-World War II Vienna who found out that his old friend (Orson Welles), a black marketeer, was not dead after all.
Spy films of the 1940s included Fritz Lang's atmospheric post-war spy melodrama Cloak and Dagger (1946), with Gary Cooper starring as atomic scientist and physics professor Alvah Jasper (a character based upon A-bomb co-developer J. Robert Oppenheimer), on a mission to discover Germany's secret plans to build an A bomb. Henry Hathaway's 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), a documentary-style wartime espionage tale with James Cagney (as Bob Sharkey), an O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) agent sent into occupied France to uncover the site of a German missile silo before the Allied landing at Normandy on D-Day.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock added technicolor to his thrillers, now with exotic locales and glamorous stars. He reached the zenith of his career with a succession of classic films such as, Strangers on a Train (1951) which is about two train passengers: tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) who staged a battle of wits and traded murders with each other, Dial M For Murder (1954) with Ray Milland as a villainous husband who attempts to murder his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly), Rear Window (1954) which is about man (James Stewart) being convinced that his neighbour is a killer, To Catch a Thief (1955), a lightweight thriller set in South of France, Vertigo (1958), with James Stewart as a retired police detective who becomes obsessed with the disturbed enigmatic 'wife' (Kim Novak) of an old friend, and North by Northwest in which an advertising executive (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a non-existent spy and chased across the country while aided by a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint).
Non-Hitchcock thriller of the 1950s include the film-noirish Niagara (1953) by Henry Hathaway, with Marilyn Monroe as the trashy femme fatale who schemes to kill her unstable husband (Joseph Cotten), director Robert Aldrich's violent and fast-paced film Kiss Me Deadly (1955) featured Ralph Meeker as fictional detective Mike Hammer encountering nuclear apocalypse, The Night of the Hunter (1955), director Charles Laughton's only film, with Robert Mitchum playing a Bible-thumping, homicidal preacher victimizing two young children with a secret about the location of stolen money. Orson Welles' unique crime thriller, Touch of Evil (1958) with a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh as a terrorized wife, Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics agent, and the director himself as an evil border-town cop.
The spy films in the 1950s included Henry Hathaway's Diplomatic Courier (1952), with Tyrone Power as an undercover secret agent in search of documents with details of the Russian invasion of Yugoslavia and Joseph Mankiewicz's 5 Fingers (1952) with James Mason as undercover agent Ulysses Diello (code-named Cicero), working in the British embassy in Turkey during WWII, selling secrets to the Nazis. The film was based upon the novel Operation Cicero by real-life "Cicero" L.C. Moyzisch.
Director Michael Powell's tense Peeping Tom (1960), with Carl Boehm as a psychopathic cameraman – the film was released prior to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). After Hitchcock's classic films of the 1950s, he produced the shocking and engrossing thriller Psycho (1960) about a loner mother-fixated motel owner and taxidermist.
J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear (1962) with Robert Mitchum had a menacing ex-con seeking revenge at an attorney (Gregory Peck) and his family, director Stanley Donen's stylish, romantic thriller Charade (1963), which had numerous plot twists, Identity changes, and a search for hidden loot that stars the pair of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on location in Paris. Roman Polanski's first film in English, the frightening and surrealistic Repulsion (1965) – with Catherine Deneuve as a young woman who goes increasingly mad. A famous thriller of its release date was Wait Until Dark (1967) by director Terence Young with Audrey Hepburn as a victimized blind woman in her Manhattan apartment and Alan Arkin as the evil and sadistic con man searching for drugs (hidden in a doll).
The 007 films inspired other spy films like the 'Harry Palmer' spy mystery trilogy featured a reluctant, bespectacled, unglamorous British secret serviceman (Michael Caine) (from the best-selling novel by Len Deighton) in The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1967) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). More spy films spawned; Richard Burton was British undercover agent Alec Leamas (code-named Expendable) in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair (1967), Terence Young's The Triple Cross (1967), based on a true story, starred Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman, a safe-cracker who joined with the Germans during the war, and then became a British double-agent.
1970s and 1980s
The decade saw a violent start in the thriller genre, with Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock's first British film in almost two decades, being given an R rating for its vicious and explicit strangulation scene. Steven Spielberg's low-budget early TV movie Duel (1971), which got a cult following, was about road rage between a hapless traveling salesman (Dennis Weaver) and the unseen, relentless driver of a truck. One of the first films about a fan being disturbingly obsessed with their idol was Clint Eastwood's directorial debut film, Play Misty for Me (1971), about a California disc jockey pursued by a disturbed female listener (Jessica Walter). John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) followed the perilous fate of four Southern businessmen during a weekend's trip. Director Nicolas Roeg's edgy, puzzling and macabre Don't Look Now (1973), a tale of despair in Venice, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple grieving the drowning death of their daughter.
In Francis Ford Coppola's tense character study/spy thriller, The Conversation (1974), a bugging-device expert (Gene Hackman) systematically uncovered a covert murder while he himself was being spied upon. Directed by Irvin Kershner, The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) was yet another stalker themed thriller, starring Faye Dunaway as the title character – a stalked photographer.
Brian De Palma usually had themes of guilt, voyeurism, paranoia and obsession in his films. Similar plot elements include killing off a main character early on, switching points of view, and dream-like sequences. His films include, the psycho-thriller Sisters (1973), a film about dual personalities and with music from Hitchcock's frequent and favorite collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Obsession (1976) which was somewhat inspired by Vertigo, Dressed to Kill (1980), the assassination thriller Blow Out (1981) told about a sound-effects man who witnessed the 'accidental' killing of the governor and the erotic Body Double (1984) which was about a struggling B-movie actor who became involved in a tale of intrigue and mystery involving his erotic next-door 'body double' neighbor.
Spy and conspiracy films were scattered throughout the two decades. Don Siegel's The Black Windmill (1974), derived from the Clive Egleton novel Seven Days to a Killing, with Michael Caine as MI-5 operative John Tarrant, an espionage agent whose son has been kidnapped. Alan Pakula's The Parallax View (1974) told of a conspiracy, led by the Parallax Corporation, surrounding the assassination of a US Senator running for president that was witnessed by investigative reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty). Peter Hyam's science-fiction thriller Capricorn One (1978) proposed the government conspiracy-theory idea that the first mission to Mars landing was a complete fake.
Sam Peckinpah's final film, the plot twisting spy film The Osterman Weekend (1983), was based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling novel and starred John Hurt as creepy CIA agent-spy Lawrence Fassett. UK's political conspiracy thriller Defence of the Realm (1985), featured Gabriel Byrne as a reporter investigating a covert operation. John Mackenzie's spy thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), derived from a script by the original novelist Frederick Forsyth, featured Michael Caine as British intelligence agent John Preston and Pierce Brosnan as bad-guy Russian agent Maj. Valeri Petrofsky.
The decade ended with Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989), a psychological thriller with Nicole Kidman, who must fight for her life on a yacht against a crazed castaway (Billy Zane). This thriller had elements of obsession and trapped protagonists who must find a way to escape the clutches of the villain – these devices influenced a number of thrillers in the following years, the early 90's.
1990s to present
The decade started with Rob Reiner's Misery (1990), based on the book by Stephen King, with Kathy Bates as an unbalanced fan named Annie who terrorizes, in her care, an incapacitated author named Paul (James Caan); a battered wife who left her sadistic husband to find a better life was vengefully pursued in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991); Curtis Hanson's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), with Rebecca De Mornay as a nanny intent on seeking revenge against her dead obstetrician husband's patient (Annabella Sciorra); Unlawful Entry (1992), starring Ray Liotta as a cop who becomes obsessed with a woman he saved; Barbet Schroeder's suspenseful Single White Female (1992), with Bridget Fonda and her obsessed roommate-from-hell Jennifer Jason Leigh; Harold Becker's Malice (1993), featuring Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman; and, finally, Anthony Minghella's psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), with Matt Damon being obsessed with, and then assuming the identity of, Jude Law.
However, despite how common the obsession theme was in this decade, there was another popular theme of the thriller genre – detectives/FBI agents hunting down a serial killer. The famous was Jonathan Demme's highly acclaimed Best Picture-winning crime thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991) where a young FBI agent Jodie Foster in a psychological war against a cannibalistic psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), while tracking down transgender serial killer Buffalo Bill and David Fincher's crime thriller Seven (1995), which was about the search for a serial killer who re-enacts the seven deadly sins.
Until today, thrillers do borrow themes and elements from those in the past decades. However, to cut the repetitiveness, there are a number of recent thrillers that maintain the aspects of the horror genre; having more gore/sadistic violence, brutality, terror and body counts. The recent thrillers which took this approach include Eden Lake (2008), The Last House on the Left (2009), P2 (2007), Captivity (2007), Vacancy (2007) and Funny Games (2008). Even action scenes have gotten more elaborate in thriller films within the past 10 years, especially in spy thrillers. Thrillers such as Joy Ride (2001), Unknown (2011), Hostage (2005), Cellular (2006), A History of Violence (2005) and Firewall (2006) were borderline-action.
Subgenres in film
The thriller genre can include the following subgenres, which may include elements of other genres:
- Comedy thriller: A genre that combines elements of comedy and thrillers, a combination of humor and suspense or action. Films such as Silver Streak, Charade, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, In Bruges, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Grosse Point Blank, The Thin Man, The Big Fix, and The Lady Vanishes.
- Conspiracy thriller: In which the hero/heroine confronts a large, powerful group of enemies whose true extent only s/he recognizes. The Chancellor Manuscript and The Aquitaine Progression by Robert Ludlum fall into this category, as do films such as Awake, Snake Eyes, The Da Vinci Code, Edge of Darkness, Absolute Power, Marathon Man, In the Line of Fire, Capricorn One, and JFK.
- Crime thriller: This particular genre is a hybrid type of both crime films and thrillers that offers a suspenseful account of a successful or failed crime or crimes. These films often focus on the criminal(s) rather than a policeman. Central topics of these films include serial killers/murders, robberies, chases, shootouts, heists and double-crosses. Some examples of crime thrillers involving murderers include, Seven, No Country for Old Men, Silence of the Lambs, Untraceable, Mindhunters, Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider, Collateral and Copycat. Examples of crime thrillers involving heists or robberies includes The Asphalt Jungle, The Score, Rififi, Entrapment, and The Killing.
- Erotic thriller: A type of thriller that has an emphasis on eroticism and where a sexual relationship plays an important role in the plot. It has become popular since the 1980s and the rise of VCR market penetration. The genre includes such films as Sea of Love, Basic Instinct, Chloe, Color of Night, Dressed to Kill, Eyes Wide Shut, In the Cut, Lust, Caution, and Single White Female.
- Legal thriller: A suspense film in which the major characters are lawyers and their employees. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. Examples include, The Pelican Brief, Presumed Innocent, The Jury, The Client, The Lincoln Lawyer, Hostile Witness, Mounam Sammadham and Silent Witness.
- Political thriller: In which the hero/heroine must ensure the stability of the government that employs him. The success of Seven Days in May (1962) by Fletcher Knebel, The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth, and The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon established this subgenre. Examples include, Topaz, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Interpreter, Proof of Life, State of Play, and The Ghost Writer.
- Psychological thriller: In which (until the often violent resolution) the conflict between the main characters is mental and emotional, rather than physical. Characters, either by accident or their own curiousness, are dragged into a dangerous conflict or situation that they are not prepared to resolve. Characters are not reliant on physical strength to overcome their brutish enemies, but rather are reliant on their mental resources, whether it be by battling wits with a formidable opponent or by battling for equilibrium in the character's own mind. At times, the characters attempt solving, or are involved in, a mystery. The suspense created by psychological thrillers often comes from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by merely trying to demolish the other's mental state. The Alfred Hitchcock films Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train and David Lynch's bizarre and influential Blue Velvet are notable examples of the type, as are The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Machinist, Don't Say A Word, House of 9, Trapped, Flightplan, Shutter Island, Secret Window, Identity, Red Eye, Phone Booth, Psycho, The River Wild, Nick of Time, P2, Breakdown, Panic Room, Misery, Straw Dogs and its remake, Cape Fear, The Collector, Frailty, The Good Son, and Funny Games.
- Spy thriller: In which the protagonist is generally a government agent who must take violent action against agents of a rival government or (in recent years) terrorists. The subgenre usually deals with the subject of fictional espionage in a realistic way (such as the adaptations of John Le Carré). It is a significant aspect of British cinema, with leading British directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service. The spy film usually fuses the action and science fiction genres, however, some spy films fall safely in the action genre rather than thriller (e.g. James Bond), especially those having frequent shootouts, car chases and such (see the spy entry in the subgenres of action film). Thrillers within this subgenre include Spy Game, Hanna, Traitor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tourist, The Parallax View, The Tailor of Panama, Taken, Unknown, The Recruit, The Debt, The Good Shepherd, and Three Days of the Condor.
- Supernatural thriller: In which the film brings in an otherworldly element (such as fantasy and/or the supernatural) mixed with tension, suspense and plot twists. Sometimes the protagonist and/or villain has some psychic ability and superpowers. Examples include, Marianne, Lady in the Water, Fallen, Frequency, Next, Knowing, In Dreams, Flatliners, Jacob's Ladder, Chronicle, The Skeleton Key, What Lies Beneath, Unbreakable, The Gift, The Dead Zone and Horns.
- Techno thriller: A suspense film in which the manipulation of sophisticated technology plays a prominent part. There is a bit of action and science fiction. Examples include The Thirteenth Floor, Jurassic Park, I, Robot, Source Code, Eagle Eye, Hackers, The Net, Futureworld, eXistenZ, and Virtuosity.
Notable contributors to the thriller genre
Fiction and literature
Novelists closely associated with the genre include John Grisham, Eric Ambler, Ted Bell, Dan Brown, Lincoln Child, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Nelson DeMille, Richard Ferguson, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene, Paul Levine, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, Andy McNab, David Morrell, James Phelan, Douglas Preston, and Matthew Reilly.
There have been at least two television series called simply Thriller, one made in the U.S. in the 1960s and one made in the UK in the 1970s. Although in no way linked, both series consisted of one-off dramas, each utilising the familiar motifs of the genre.
24 is a fast-paced television series with a premise inspired by the War on Terror. Each season takes place over the course of twenty-four hours, with each episode happening in "real time". Featuring a split-screen technique and a ticking onscreen clock, 24 follows the exploits of federal agent Jack Bauer as he races to foil terrorist threats.
Lost, which deals with the survivors of a plane crash, sees the castaways on the island forced to deal with a monstrous being that appears as a cloud of black smoke, a conspiracy of "Others" who have kidnapped or killed their fellow castaways at various points, a shadowy past of the island itself that they are trying to understand, polar bears, and the fight against these and other elements as they struggle simply to stay alive and get off of the island.
Prison Break follows Michael Scofield, an engineer who has himself incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in order to break out his brother, who is on death row for a crime he did not commit. In the first season Michael must deal with the hazards of prison life, the other inmates and prison staff, and executing his elaborate escape plan, while outside the prison Michael's allies investigate the conspiracy that led to Lincoln being framed. In the second season, Michael, his brother and several other inmates escape the prison and must evade the nationwide manhunt for their re-capture, as well as those who want them dead.
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