100 thrillers to see before you die: 1950s

From Vertigo to The Wages of Fear: the best in suspense from the 1950s.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Director John Sturges

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

The train hasn’t stopped in Black Rock for four years, but it does this time. A one-armed stranger gets off. He’s looking for a Japanese-American man named Komoko, but the residents of this lonesome desert town don’t want to know. They clam up, or else things get violent – you can usually depend on Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine for that. Spencer Tracy plays the stranger in this key ’50s thriller about festering racism in America’s lonely outposts. SW

See also: Violent Saturday (1955); In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The Big Heat (1953)

Director Fritz Lang

The Big Heat (1953)

As brutal as a Michael Mann thriller, without a drop of blood spilt. Written by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s revenge tale follows a cop (Glenn Ford) uncovering a plot between the police, politicians and crime boss Vince Stone, played with relish by Lee Marvin. Gloria Grahame is Debby Marsh, the mobster’s girl and his victim — most famously in a scene in which Stone throws hot coffee in her face. Lang holds the shot on the hob as the boiling pot is removed. It’s thrown, off-screen, over Debby. Explicit, no. Disturbing? Terribly. HB

See also: Kiss of Death (1947); The Big Combo (1955)

Cairo Station (1958)

Director Youssef Chahine

Cairo Station (1958)

Two years before Psycho ripped open film grammar, this layered masterpiece pored over similar psychosexual fissures – shockingly for an Egyptian film in 1958. But where Hitchcock crept into interior recesses, Youssef Chahine – who also plays a lame, tormented newspaper seller – made his film a communal trauma echoing with the tumult of newly republican Egypt. PHo

See also: Psycho (1960); Land of Fear (1999)

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot

Les Diaboliques (1955)

A compelling, grisly thriller, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is capped by an unforgettable twist ending. The wife and mistress of a repulsive man team up to remove their mutual problem, but disposing of the corpse is more difficult than they anticipate. A crime movie that encourages the audience to side with the murderers. PHu

See also: The Murderer Who Lives at Number 21 (1942); Le Corbeau (1943)

Hell Drivers (1957)

Director Cy Endfield

Hell Drivers (1957)

Echoes of They Drive by Night (1940) and The Wages of Fear (1953) reverberate around this testosterone-fuelled study of the risks taken by pittance-paid truckers. Seething with macho resentment, Stanley Baker leads an exceptional cast of British acting stalwarts (including Sean Connery and Patrick McGoohan) who ably square up to the reckless action sequences and no-nonsense realism. DP

See also: Thieves’ Highway (1949); The Long Haul (1957)

High Noon (1952)

Director Fred Zinnemann

High Noon (1952)

A race against the clock. Shot almost in real-time, Fred Zinnemann’s extraordinary western follows Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in a futile attempt to rally a posse to defend his town from a gang of outlaws arriving on the midday train. Written by Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the film’s production, it’s often seen as an allegory for McCarthyism, which was why John Wayne, a supporter of the blacklist, turned down the lead role. The final shootout romps through the town, leaving a trail of burned out barns and panicked horses in its wake. But it’s the spectacle of one man against the crowd that sticks. HB

See also: Rawhide (1951); 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

The Hitch-hiker (1953)

Director Ida Lupino

The Hitch-hiker (1953)

A psychopath takes two friends captive after they offer him a ride, tormenting them mentally and turning them against each other, on a trip across the Mexican border. Inspired by the story of spree killer Billy Cook, The Hitch-hiker is a brutally chilling movie, and the first film noir to be directed by a woman, former actor Ida Lupino. PHu

See also: The Bigamist (1953); The Hitcher (1986)

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Director Louis Malle

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Louis Malle’s tightly constructed fiction debut features a star-making turn for its female lead, Jeanne Moreau. The set-up is that of classic film noir: a wealthy husband, a conniving wife and a criminal lover willing to do her spouse in. But Malle’s approach is distinctively French and modern. He counters the jumpy suspense of the situation with percussive cuts and a celebrated, sensual jazz score by Miles Davis. CN

See also: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); La Femme infidèle (1969)

Night Train (1959)

Director Jerzy Kawalerowicz

Night Train (1959)

On a crowded sleeper train to Hel (the Baltic resort, not the hot place), two strangers – one of whom may be a murderer – are forced to share a compartment. It’s a Hitchcockian set-up, but suspense takes the lower bunk in this Polish classic, which plays like an atmospheric, cool jazz riff on the train thriller. SW

See also: Strangers on a Train (1951); Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

North by Northwest (1959)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Cary Grant stars in Hitchcock’s outlandish chase thriller, which hinges on a case of deliberately mistaken identity. Grant’s innocent ad man is pursued across country by a sinister, criminal outfit. Beaten, arrested and targeted by a low-flying crop-duster plane, he finds comfort only in the arms of Eva-Marie Saint, a characteristically cool Hitchcock blonde. PHu

See also: Charade (1963); Family Plot (1976)

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Director Nicholas Ray

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Nicholas Ray’s frigid noir doubles as a fable of moral redemption, as roughhouse NYC cop Robert Ryan is sent upstate to cool off on a wintry manhunt for the killer of a local schoolgirl. Shot through with Ray’s trademark feeling for life’s loners, the results are moving and exciting in equal measure, with footsteps in this snow leading to later white-out thrillers Fargo (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998). SW

See also: In a Lonely Place (1950); Nightfall (1957)

Rear Window (1954)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window (1954)

Hitchcock’s seductive classic is a thriller about the pleasure of watching thrillers, and the excitement of decoding meaning and motive from a drama playing out in front of your eyes. James Stewart plays the convalescent with a broken leg who, in his boredom, takes to spying on his neighbours across the way. Before long he uncovers a murder – the ultimate gift for any curtain twitcher. SW

See also: The Window (1949); Monsieur Hire (1989)

Rififi (1955)

Director Jules Dassin

Rififi (1955)

This impeccable heist movie, directed by American Jules Dassin on a tiny budget, is an enjoyably gritty French film noir in which four audacious criminals break into a high-end Paris jewellery store. Rififi’s undoubted highlight is a nail-biting, near-silent sequence, half an hour long, which details the intricate manoeuvres of the heist itself. PHu

See also: The Asphalt Jungle (1950); The Red Circle (1970)

The Tall Target (1951)

Director Anthony Mann

The Tall Target (1951)

In Anthony Mann’s 1951 historical thriller, a New York police sergeant (Dick Powell) gets wind of a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln and takes a tension-filled train trip to Baltimore to foil the conspirators. Lady Vanishes-worthy intrigue ensues, amid a thrifty depiction of a nation on the verge of civil war. Oh, and the sergeant’s name? John Kennedy. SW

See also: The Narrow Margin (1952); In the Line of Fire (1993)

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Ditching the genre’s rulebook, Vertigo reveals its twist halfway through – and a mind-bogglingly convoluted one it is too. Yet Hitchcock’s masterpiece remains the most dizzyingly rich thriller ever made, its story of a heights-fearing detective (James Stewart) trailing an apparently possessed blonde (Kim Novak) inducing the same compulsive trance every time you watch it. SW

See also: Obsession (1976); Mulholland Dr. (2001)

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot

For one of the most legendary suspense films of all time, The Wages of Fear takes its sweet time getting going. But having stretched the beginning to paint a trudgingly grim picture of expat existence in a dead-end Latin American village, this white-knuckle adventure then mercilessly turns the screws. As four desperate truckers take treacherous work delivering a highly volatile cargo of nitroglycerine to a blazing oil-field, Clouzot makes us feel every damned bump in the mountain road. SW

See also: Ice Cold in Alex (1958); Sorcerer (1977)

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  • North by Northwest

    North by Northwest

    Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic thriller, which features many of the director’s most memorably virtuoso set-pieces.

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