Classics dominate the Netflix thriller section, probably because suspense is still such a dominant gold mine for modern Hollywood. Still, some serious gold has slipped through the cracks and is available for your streaming pleasure. One of them is among my favorite films of all time.
This little political thriller had big ideas about global economics, foreign policy, cultural globalization and suicide bombings. It probably slipped under your radar when it was released in 2006. It’s sometimes too quick for its own good but the performances by its ensemble cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson) are solid and its political thesis is compelling. Clooney won a best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a CIA agent (he even put on a good chunk of pounds for the role, sorry ladies). It’s not the easiest film to follow, it never holds the audience’s hand but it’s a surprising amount of fun working it all out. I think we watched this film 8 times or so in college decoding the plot, character motivations and their implications.
4. The Name of the Rose
This moody adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel was apparently disdained by the author for its inattention to the philosophical intent of his work. But man, does it make for a great mystery thriller. The Name of the Rose is a detective story set in a medieval monastery. Sean Connery plays one of his greatest characters ever, a monk detective investigating several grisly murders that have occurred within the abbey walls. A young Christian Slater accompanies him as his page. Add Ron Perlman as a cretinous hunchback and you’re guaranteed a great film. In the end, though it’s the gothic, medieval period setting that makes this film so fun, so mystifying and so frightening.
Remember when murder used to be fun? Audrey Hepburn and Carey Grant star in this twisty conspiracy thriller. The main thing I remember about Charade (besides Audrey Hepburn) was just how many plot twists were packed into this movie’s labyrinthine plot. I guess people were really paranoid in the ’60s, ’cause this movie just won’t let you get comfortable without changing up on you. Henry Mancini’s music contributes in no small part to this film’s constant tension, but also its feeling of rollicking fun.
2. The Sting
Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s only collaboration outside of the legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has them playing a very different pair. Here, Newman is the cool, collected master and Redford the charismatic young gun. Newman handles the change-up like the pro he was, Redford comes off a bit less convincing. The Sting is the best ‘con’ movie ever made. Its plot is fun, fast and elaborate. Even today, you’ll never have more fun watching Newman and Redford pull the wool over the eyes of some poor schmuck. Plus it has a twist ending that’s one for the books.
1. The Conversation
This film consistently hits my top 5 favorite films of all time. Francis Ford Coppola’s little tale of a wiretapper who develops a conscience landed inconspicuously between The Godfather 1 & 2. It’s a shame the film didn’t receive more attention because it’s as good as they come. Coppola invites you to rethink your definition of ‘thriller’. Making the absolute most of its mere 113 minutes, the film never oversteps its bounds, feels overlong or under-produced. It’s a careful, steady build to a chilling catharsis that scared me out of my skin. Serious props go to Gene Hackman who gives an absolutely iconic performance as the lonely, paranoid Harry Caul. Unlike most thrillers, the main character is not just a chess piece around which to play a suspenseful games, he actually develops realistically as the story progresses. Hackman’s character, his dreams, hopes and fears, are central to the film’s progression and impact. He’s one of the most fascinating characters ever played and an almost complete departure from what most of us have come to expect from Gene Hackman. The small supporting cast, John Cazale, Teri Garr, a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford and even an appearance by Robert Duvall seal this film’s unbreakable status as an airtight classic deserving of a spot with the brightest moments in all film history. It’s a mystery, a rich character drama, a psychological thriller and a careful meditation on humanity all wrapped up in an unrelenting air of suspense that sometimes even dips into outright horror. I can count on one hand the number of movies that have entranced me anywhere near the level of The Conversation. It’s absolutely essential viewing. Be sure to dim the lights and prepare yourself for an epic chill.