100 thrillers to see before you die: 1960s

From The Manchurian Candidate to Wait until Dark: the best in suspense from the 1960s.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Director Otto Preminger

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Atmospherically set in 1960s London (watch out for a cameo from The Zombies), this unsettling missing-toddler case sees thriller master Otto Preminger experiment with lacing psychological thrills and social realism. The result is a tense, twisting tale, full of sinister suspects, unreliable witnesses and superb performances by an estimable supporting cast led by Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward. DP

See also: The Collector (1965); Gone Girl (2014)

Cape Fear (1962)

Director J. Lee Thompson

Cape Fear (1961)

Robert Mitchum plays a force of brute evil in this disturbing family-in-peril chiller. His lecherous ex-con Max Cady begins a campaign of terror on the household of the lawyer (Gregory Peck) whose testimony sent him down. With a threatening score by Bernard Herrmann and a sustained finale of onslaught in the Georgian backwaters, it out-thrills even Martin Scorsese’s superb remake. SW

See also: The Night of the Hunter (1955); Cape Fear (1991)

Cash on Demand (1961)

Director Quentin Lawrence

Cash on Demand (1961)

A Christmas Carol reworked as a heist thriller. Peter Cushing stars as Harry Fordyce, the uptight manager of the Haversham branch of the City and Colonial Bank. Having humbugged the office Christmas party, Fordyce has his Marley moment when a suave conman (André Morell), posing as the bank’s security consultant, uses the threat of violence against Fordyce’s wife and child as leverage to rob the bank. The irony, of course, is that the sinner – charming to the staff, brutally honest with Fordyce – offers salvation. A stylish two-hander, simmering with tension. HB

See also: Hell Is a City (1960); The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Fail-Safe (1964)

Director Sidney Lumet

Fail-Safe (1964)

Escalating tensions over North Korea have given Sidney Lumet’s damning Cold War indictment of diplomatic sabre-rattling a chilling new relevance. Somewhat overshadowed on its release by Dr Strangelove’s darkly satirical depiction of our self-inflicted apocalypse, Fail-Safe remains a terrifyingly tense and authentic speculation on how the White House might react to a nuclear crisis. DP

See also: Seven Days in May (1964); Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

High and Low (1963)

Director Akira Kurosawa

High and Low (1963)

Honour is all in Kurosawa’s samurai stories, where morality was codified by the times. High and Low, set in 1960s Yokohama, offers a true test of nobility. Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy executive at a shoe company, is forced to take on a series of moral challenges, from the day-to-day (whether to cheapen his product for greater returns) to the life-threatening (whether to pay the ransom for his chauffeur’s kidnapped son). The adventure lies in seeing which way a good man will turn, and whether he can retain his goodness, despite its absence around him. HB

See also: Stray Dog (1949); Ransom (1996)

Ittefaq (1969)

Director Yash Chopra

Ittefaq (1969)

Due for an imminent remake, Ittefaq – shot by Yash Chopra in 28 days as a distraction from a postponed project – was not typical Bollywood. Adapted from 1964’s Signpost from Murder, it was one of the first song-less Indian films and came in at an unusually tight 105 minutes. It opts for sleuthy fun over noirish brooding every time, fired up by a feverish Rajesh Khanna performance that kickstarted his career. PHo

See also: Joshila (1973); Kaun (1999)

Knife in the Water (1962)

Director Roman Polanski

Knife in the Water (1962)

Roman Polanski’s sole Polish feature is a simmering study of social and generational antagonism. Set during a weekend sailing trip, it claustrophobically exploits its setting to expose the paranoia, cruelty and folly of a middle-aged sportswriter seeking to impress his wife by humiliating a teenage student. Moodily photographed and scored, this disconcerting psychological thriller remains one of the director’s best. DP

See also: Chinatown (1974); Frantic (1988)

Plein Soleil (1960)

Director René Clément

Plein Soleil (1960)

Loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and directed by René Clement, Plein Soleil is a sadistic, slow-burn psychological thriller. In his breakthrough role, Alain Delon is Tom Ripley, an American in Italy, sponging off his wealthy friend Philippe. Philippe bullies Tom, and in return Tom plots to kill him and steal his identity. PHu

See also: La Piscine (1969); The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Director John Frankenheimer

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

For a film with themes drilled into its times, The Manchurian Candidate flopped surprisingly hard on release. John Frankenheimer’s film, about a platoon of US veterans brainwashed by communists and embroiled in a plot to kill the president, only hit home on its rerelease towards the end of the Cold War. Frank Sinatra plays Captain Bennett Marco, on the trail of a platoon-mate, who, when triggered by the queen of diamonds playing card, becomes a mindless killing machine. The idea was insidious. Mind control has commandeered the plots of everything from the Bourne franchise to Zoolander since. HB

See also: The Ipcress File (1965); Seconds (1966)

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

Director Martin Ritt

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

John Le Carré’s book revealed the realities of espionage. Ritt’s film adds layers of what the trailer called “dirt and dazzle”. Richard Burton played Alec Leamas, a British spy looking to devastate the East German intelligence services while pretending to defect. Screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper catch Le Carré’s tone perfectly. People are assets, running through a game-plan drawn up by anonymous men in high places. “We have to live without sympathy. You can’t do that forever,” Leamas is told. Human beings weren’t made for this work. HB

See also: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Wait until Dark (1967)

Director Terence Young

Wait until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn was Oscar-nominated for her role as Susy Hendrix, a blind woman terrorised by a trio of robbers (including a psychopathic Alan Arkin). As the men pretend to be various characters, including a cop and an old college pal, Susy’s slow realisation of the danger she’s in makes for a compelling, increasingly tense watch. NB

See also: Dial M for Murder (1954); See No Evil (1971)

Z (1969)

Director Costa-Gavras

Z (1969)

A unique fictionalisation of real events, Z combines true Greek political intrigue (the assassination of politician Grigoris Lambrakis) with the talents of Greek-French director Costa-Gavras. Fast-paced and stylish, the film enters the divisive political terrain of a country embroiled by right-wing conspiracy. Z won best foreign language film at the Oscars in 1970. Watched today, it’s as rage-inducing as ever. CN

See also: Days of ‘36 (1972); Missing (1982)

Zero Focus (1961)

Director Yoshitaro Nomura

Zero Focus (Zero no shoten, 1961)

This compelling and beautifully shot mystery thriller centres around a missing person’s case, as a young newlywed sets out on the trail of her husband after he vanishes on a business trip barely a week into their marriage. Sadly, director Yoshitaro Nomura has been woefully overlooked in the west. Zero Focus is one of his best, and was remade by Isshin Inudo in 2009. JS

See also: Stakeout (1958); The Demon (1978)

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

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