100 thrillers to see before you die: 1940s

From Double Indemnity to The Third Man: the best in suspense from the 1940s.

D.O.A. (1949)

Director Rudolph Maté

D.O.A. (1950)

“I want to report a murder.” “Who was murdered?” “I was.” A killer opener and a concise introduction to a smart conceit. Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) has been poisoned. He’s had only days to find out who by, and now has mere hours to tell the police about it. Told in flashback, Rudolph Maté’s race-against-time thriller incorporates LA gangsters, stolen iridium and, during the scene in a jazz club where Frank is poisoned, one of the first on-screen depictions of Beat culture. HB

See also: White Heat (1949); Union Station (1950)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity (1944)

Famed for its audacious, rapid dialogue, dripping with sexual innuendo, Double Indemnity places insurance salesman Fred MacMurray in the path of ice-blonde aspiring widow Barbara Stanwyck. Directed by Billy Wilder as a series of confessional flashbacks, from a script co-written by Raymond Chandler and adapted from a James M. Cain story, this is film noir at its finest. PHu

See also: Body Heat (1981); The Last Seduction (1994)

Gaslight (1940)

Director Thorold Dickinson

Gaslight (1940)

“Gaslight: to manipulate someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.” The term has been ushered back into popular usage during the Trump era, but its origins lie in the 1938 play Gas Light, on which Thorold Dickinson’s fine, creepy film was based. Paul (Anton Walbrook) is putting his wife, Bella (Diana Wynyard), through hell. He’s convinced her that she’s mad, that the noises she hears, the dimming of the lights, are in her head. Startling in its raw portrayal of abuse (“When I married you I thought you were a normal woman”), Gaslight lit the way for Darren Aronofsky’s tales of women pushed to the brink by men. HB

See also: Suspicion (1941); Gaslight (1944)

Laura (1944)

Director Otto Preminger

Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger’s film noir stars Gene Tierney as a superlative femme fatale. Tierney is Laura, a beautiful Madison Avenue advertising executive. When she is found dead, the detective investigating her murder (Dana Andrews) becomes the latest man to fall in love with her, and to be betrayed by her. A paranoid New York murder mystery with a twist… in the middle. PHu

See also: Fallen Angel (1945); Whirlpool (1950)

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Director Fritz Lang

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ray Milland steps out of an asylum and into a whole heap of trouble in this delirious espionage thriller. In the topsy-turvy setting of London during the Blitz (completely imagined on Hollywood soundstages), cakes conceal microfilm, suitcases conceal bombs, and doorframes and windows constrain the characters in a dread world where nothing is as it seems. Peak Lang, with a spring in its step and little regard for sticking to Graham Greene’s original novel. SW

See also: Man Hunt (1941); Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Obsession (1949)

Director Edward Dmytryk

Obsession (1949)

Screenwriter Alec Coppel (Vertigo) adapts his play A Man about a Dog into this effective postwar thriller, directed by Edward Dmytryk. Robert Newton stars as Dr Clive Riordan, whose discovery that his wife is cheating on him pushes him to extreme action. Though tame by modern standards, excellent performances and a chilling atmosphere ensure this still packs a punch. NB

See also: Murder, My Sweet (1944); Dear Murderer (1947)

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Director Max Ophüls

The Reckless Moment (1949)

In this peerless, female-led film noir, a California housewife (Joan Bennett) is forced to hide a dead body for her troubled teen daughter – and then defend her family from the blackmail threats of a sinister stranger (James Mason). One of the handful of American releases by the German-born Max Ophüls, it’s a film that continues his fascination with quietly fearsome women protagonists. CN

See also: Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Mildred Pierce (1945)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

In only his second US-set thriller, Hitchcock took evident glee in bringing a sociopath into the heart of a sweet-as-pie family home. Fleeing police out east, ‘Merry Widow’ killer Joseph Cotten comes to California to stay with his unsuspecting sister and her family, including his doting niece and namesake, Charlie (Teresa Wright). The ensuing clash between light and darkness foreshadows David Lynch’s later intrusions into small-town life. SW

See also: The Stranger (1946); The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Director Robert Siodmak

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Stepping in for Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak casts a noirish pall over Ethel Lina White’s tale of a bedridden widow and her mute companion being stalked by a serial killer who preys on the disabled. Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire excel, while Siodmak uses shadows, canted angles and thunder-cracks to send gothic chills through the deep-focus visuals. DP

See also: The Leopard Man (1943); Secret beyond the Door (1948)

The Third Man (1949)

Director Carol Reed

The Third Man (1949)

Everything in The Third ManOrson Welles’ performance, Robert Krasker’s cinematography, the zither soundtrack – wobbles between the playful and the sinister. Welles plays Harry Lime, a crook who’s running a black market in dodgy penicillin amid the wreckage of postwar Vienna. Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli play the friend and former lover who believe he’s dead, moving through a world that’s had its order pulled away. The film twists and turns, yo-yos from the top of a ferris wheel to the sewers below. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay and a golden rule of the genre: the thriller thrives in a moral hinterland. HB

See also: Odd Man Out (1947); Touch of Evil (1958)

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.