10 great French thrillers

With nail-biting trucker noir The Wages of Fear now on 4K UHD, we celebrate the best in French suspense.

29 February 2024

By David Parkinson

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Despite producing dozens each year, French cinema has a complicated relationship with the thriller. Dating back to such ambitiously atmospheric Louis Feuillade serials as Les Vampires (1915 to 1916) and rooted in the national ambivalence towards authority, the genre not only salutes heroes on the margins but also critiques contemporary society.

Yet, as the career of Henri-Georges Clouzot demonstrates, it’s difficult to define precisely what a French thriller is. Often co-writing his screenplays, Clouzot would make a comic whodunit (The Murderer Lives at Number 21, 1942), a prototype film noir (Le Corbeau, 1943), a police procedural (Quai des orfèvres, 1947), a masterpiece of Grand Guignol suspense (Les Diaboliques, 1955), a spy caper (Les Espions, 1957), a courtroom drama (La Vérité, 1960) and an unfinished psychological thriller (L’Enfer).

Meanwhile, his most nerve-rattling creation, 1953’s The Wages of Fear – in which truck drivers must transport highly volatile nitroglycerine through the jungle in order to help put out an oil-refinery fire – is more of an action thriller. Yet, for the first hour of its 153-minute running time, it’s a neorealist tract on poverty, exploitation, greed, folly and despair, which centres the woes of the postwar world on the remote Latin American village of Las Piedras.

As Clouzot’s reputation declined, his ‘French Hitchcock’ mantle would pass to Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave director responsible for countless sophisticated studies in psychology and suspense, from Le Boucher (1970) to Merci pour le chocolat (2000), in which he dissected the foibles of the bourgeoisie. Fittingly, he brought Clouzot’s languishing L’Enfer screenplay to the screen in 1994.

Since Chabrol’s death in 2010, the tradition has been maintained by the likes of Jacques Audiard, Dominik Moll and Fred Cavayé, who continue to take the French thriller in unexpected directions.

Le Corbeau (1943)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Le Corbeau (1943)

Eight decades after its first appearance, Clouzot’s account of a small-town poison-pen scandal remains among the most provocative films in French screen history, continuing to confront audiences with the far-right legacy of the Occupation. Although inspired by a notorious case in Tulle in 1917, the picture was supposed to be typical of the lighthearted whodunits produced by Continental-Films, the company detailed with providing harmless entertainment for Vichy France. But Clouzot and co-scenarist Louis Chavance used the paranoia pervading St Robin to explore the corrupting nature of subjugation. 

Resistance groups accused Clouzot of peddling malicious collaborationist propaganda, while the forces of tyranny declared it immoral. After the liberation, Clouzot was (temporarily) banned from filming for life. But supporters insisted this was a work of philosophical subversion whose dour class satire and insights into human nature and provincial insularity were as innovative as the visual motifs that would become familiar in Hollywood film noir.

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Director: Louis Malle

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

The Florence Carala character is largely peripheral to Noël Calef’s source novel, in which lover Julien Tavernier (a veteran of colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria) bungles the meticulously planned killing of her arms-dealing husband. But the casting of Jeanne Moreau convinced 24 year-old director Louis Malle (here making his solo feature debut) to foreground Florence’s shifting emotions after Tavernier fails to keep their rendezvous after she sees another woman in the passenger seat of his speeding car.

Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain influenced the book, while lovers-on-the-lam pictures like You Only Live Once (1937) and Gun Crazy (1950) impinged upon the juvenile fugitive subplot. But for all the debts the enthralling murder sequence owed to Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson, it was Malle’s own inspired idea to use street lighting and shop windows to capture Moreau wandering the Champs Elysées at night. Set to an improvised jazz score by Miles Davis, the results saw film noir and the incoming French New Wave edge together with a magnificently moody sense of inevitability.

Purple Noon (1960)

Director: René Clément

Purple Noon (1960)

Who could not be enticed by the sight of a young Alain Delon revelling in his murderous ingenuity as the cunningly resourceful anti-hero of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley? Yet part of the fascination with René Clément’s ravishing Eastmancolor noir lies in the fact that cinematographer Henri Decaë had just realised the inky imagery in Lift to the Scaffold, while composer Nino Rota had recently scored Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), which also centred on a decadent elite. 

Moreover, co-scenarist Paul Gégauff was in the middle of a run of collaborations with Claude Chabrol so gave a nouvelle vague cachet to a director like Clément who, six years earlier, had been ignominiously branded part of the ‘Tradition of Quality’ by the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s tempting, therefore, to see Clément as a kind of cinematic Tom Ripley: a man who adopted the modish mannerisms of the bright young things in an effort to inveigle himself into their charmed circle.

La Piscine (1969)

Director: Jacques Deray

La Piscine (1969)

Such is Jacques Deray’s reputation for thrillers that an annual prize for the best in the genre bears his name. He made nine films with Alain Delon, with this one mirroring Purple Noon in seeing Delon dispatch Maurice Ronet to a watery grave. For a ‘crime passionnel’, it’s curiously nonchalant and it seems capricious that Inspector Paul Crauchet should fail to secure a conviction after such an insouciant effort to rig the crime scene. But logic matters less than loucheness in this sweltering psychological thriller, in which writer Delon and girlfriend Romy Schneider’s tense sojourn at a Saint-Tropez villa is interrupted by her ex (Ronet) and the teenage daughter no one knew he had (Jane Birkin).

The visuals make unsettling contrasts between dazzling sunlight and sinister darkness, as the trendily beautiful quartet delight in tormenting each other. Unusually made in French and English versions, the film gained notoriety because the murder of Delon’s ex-bodyguard, Stevan Marković, during production sparked a political scandal.

Z (1969)

Director: Costa-Gavras

Z (1969)

Following a whodunit (The Sleeping Car Murders, 1965) and a Maquis infiltration thriller (Shock Troops, 1967), exiled Greek director Costa-Gavras sought to show how political cinema could be made accessible through the use of generic action tropes in Z — an adaptation of a Vassilis Vassilikos novel, which had been inspired by the 1963 assassination of liberal pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis. 

He employed shock tactics in staging the brutal murder of a popular deputy (Yves Montand) in order to alert audiences to the ruthless right-wing immorality that he would methodically expose through the investigations of a photojournalist (Jacques Perrin) and an examining magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant). In depicting the bludgeoning and subsequent chase and fight sequences, the nouvelle vaguish visuals, Oscar-winning editing and propulsive score gave proceedings an immediacy and potency. As a result, it became the first title to be nominated for both best picture and best foreign film at the Academy Awards.

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

About a fifth of Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate picture is taken up with a jewellery heist. Perhaps this was to make up for missing out at the 11th hour on directing the caper classic Rififi (1955), but Melville also wanted to demonstrate the skills of the crooks whose codes of honour and loyalty were much stronger than those of the pursuing cops. There’s something Hawksian about the way the trio go about their work, whether they’re escaping from a sleeping car, offing thugs in a billiard hall, or sobering up for target practice.

Melville reunited with Alain Delon after Le Samouraï (1967), but settled for Yves Montand and Gian Maria Volonté as his confederates over first choices Paul Meurisse and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and comedian André Bourvil as the dogged flic over Lino Ventura. The casting, the photography of Henri Decaë (yes, him again), and the deft use of sound, score and silence is impeccable. Yet, for all the gnawing suspense, this is primarily a character study.

La Cérémonie (1995)

Director: Claude Chabrol

La Cérémonie (1995)

However good Rita Tushingham is in its first filmic adaptation, The Housekeeper (1986), there’s no doubting the superiority of Claude Chabrol’s version of Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone. Folding in details from the 1933 Papin murder case, he created a masterclass in domestic suspense –  no one knew more instinctively than Chabrol where to make the incisions when dissecting middle-class mores.

Maybe the complacent Lelièvre family might have been spared their gruesome fate had they paid more attention when they’re seen watching Chabrol’s earlier thriller Wedding in Blood (1973) on television. He claimed that the clash between the bourgeois Bretons and their illiterate maid Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her vindictive postmistress friend, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), was “the last Marxist film”. But it revived his critical fortunes and he revisited Rendell in The Bridesmaid (2004) during the gleefully venomous Indian summer of his career.

Read My Lips (2001)

Director: Jacques Audiard

Read My Lips (2001)

An air of ambiguity pervades proceedings as Jacques Audiard re-invents the femme fatale in this drolly devious neo-noir romance. For all the encompassing audiovisual intimacy, we know little about Carla (the César-winning Emmanuelle Devos) other than the fact that she has a hearing impairment and is scorned by colleagues at the office where she’s a put-upon secretary. But she proves to be anything but dowdily demure after she hires ex-jailbird Paul (Vincent Cassel) and conspires with him to avenge both her mistreatment at work and his beating by Marchand (Olivier Gourmet), the small-time hood to whom he’s in hock.

The tonal shift requires a certain suspension of disbelief, as Carla puts her lip-reading skills to nefarious use. But Audiard employs Bressonian attention to the details of her daily routines to blindside us as to her desires and motivations, as she exploits her burgeoning bond with the palookaish Paul to escape her isolation and drudgery.

Tell No One (2006)

Director: Guillaume Canet

Tell No One (2006)

The French fascination with American pulp fiction not only prompted a postwar change of literary style, but also informed countless screen thrillers. Harlan Coben approved the tweaks to his 2001 bestseller as adapted here by Guillaume Canet, whose fiendishly intricate wrong man saga earned four Césars, including best director and best actor. But, while the twisting plotline remains central, Canet relies on visual means to draw the viewer into the predicament in which unassuming paediatrician Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) finds himself after discovering that he hasn’t been widowed for eight years after all.

Shifts of focal depth, perspective and modes of camera movement are used to convey his sense of perplexity and encirclement, while flashbacks and inserts involving the all-star cast are teasingly employed to clarify and confuse. The editing is razor sharp, notably during a frantic chase sequence. Indeed, Canet made such a definitive job in relocating events to Paris that the much-touted Hollywood remake has yet to materialise.

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

Director: Justine Triet

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)
Anatomy of a Fall (2023)
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023

Since completing the Palme d’Or/Palm Dog double at Cannes, Justine Triet’s “Hitchcockian procedural thriller” has been amassing prestigious award nominations. Written during lockdown with husband Arthur Harari, it follows her films In Bed with Victoria (2016) and Sybil (2019) in exploring the concept of fictionalising reality and the way society perceives strong women.

Sparked by the suspicious death at a remote chalet of the husband of novelist Sandra Voyer (Sandra Hüller), the action combines investigation and courtroom sequences before the verdict is swayed by a near-blind boy and his pet. Intrigued by the Amanda Knox case, Triet exploited the fact her German star was more fluent in English than French to explore how language, sound and physical evidence can be interpreted in a system in which credibility has come to count for more than hard fact. Moreover, she refused to tell Hüller whether her character was guilty or not. No wonder repeat viewings bring one no closer to the truth.


The Wages of Fear is out now on BFI 4k UHD.