ThrillersORIGINS OF THE MOVIE THRILLER
LANG, HITCHCOCK, SPIES, ANDMONSTERS
HEYDAY OF THE AMERICAN CRIME THRILLER
MODERNIZATION, REVISION, AND REVIVAL
The thriller goes the grain of mundane modern life while at the same time remaining immersed in it. This concept indicates that the thriller is an essentially modern form, whose rise coincides with the arrival of urban industrialism, mass society, middle-class lifestyle, and the twentieth century. Although it is often classified as a genre, in practice the thriller spreads itself across several recognized genres. One may speak of detective thrillers, horror thrillers, spy thrillers, and police thrillers, to name just a few. On the other hand, within a single genre—say, science fiction—there may be some films that are clearly thrillers (e.g., the 1956 alien-invasion drama Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and others that do not fit the label so well (such as the 1971 satiric fable A Clockwork Orange). The thriller can be thought of as a metagenre that gathers several other genres under its umbrella, and also as a band in the spectrum that colors certain thriller-receptive genres.
The slippery concept of the thriller is best grasped by comparing it to a closely related and sometimes overlapping form: the adventure tale. Both involve a sense of departure from humdrum existence into a realm that is more dangerous and exciting. In adventure tales like Treasure Island (1934), The African Queen (1951) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that sense of departure is obtained by a movement out of the everyday world and into another world that is clearly removed from the sphere of mundane, modern-day life: the South Seas, the Amazon jungle, the Arabian desert. The thriller, on the other hand, remains rooted within the ordinary world, into which are brought those transforming elements (a murder, a monster, a vital secret) that charge it with a spirit of danger and adventure. Rather than transporting us to an exotic other world, the thriller creates a double world, one that is both exotic and everyday, primitive and modern, marvelous and mundane.
Other, secondary characteristics of the thriller include: vulnerable protagonists; a corresponding sense of vulnerability created in the audience through suspense and ambivalent feelings (e.g., anxiety/pleasure, sympathy for the villain); labyrinthine settings and narrative structures, the better to entangle both hero and audience; and, mainly in earlier eras, exotic elements evoking the Mysterious East.
The thriller goes against the grain of mundane modern life while at the same time remaining immersed in it. This concept indicates that the thriller is an essentially modern form, whose rise coincides with the arrival of urban industrialism, mass society, middle-class lifestyle, and the twentieth century. In other words, the thriller is a response to a modern world that is perceived under normal circumstances to be fundamentally not thrilling. As Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) observed in a 1936 magazine article ("Why 'Thrillers' Thrive," in Gottlieb, p. 109), "Our civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn't practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand." The thriller seeks to redeem the unadventurous modern world with a spirit of old-fashioned adventure.
Although the thriller did not fully emerge until the early part of the twentieth century, it has relevant roots reaching back to the eighteenth century. Three literary antecedents are especially important: the Gothic novel, beginning with Horace Walpole's (1717–1797) The Castle of Otranto (1765), whose horrific, hyperatmospheric tales involved the reader in a new way, with an increased emphasis on suspense and sensation; the Victorian sensation novel, inaugurated by Wilkie Collins's (1824–1889) The Woman in White (1860), which adapted the sensational and atmospheric effects of Gothic fiction to a more contemporary, familiar context; and the early detective story, pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) (creator of C. Auguste Dupin, 1841) and Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) (creator of Sherlock Holmes, 1887), whose adventures breathed an air of momentous mystery into the modern, urban, domestic world.
The roots of the thriller can be more generally related to the rise of urban-industrial society in the nineteenth century, which created a new mass audience, along with new popular entertainment forms to serve that audience. One of the most important was the melodramatic theater, which placed a premium on action and visual spectacle, including suspenseful, last-minute rescues of heroes and heroines tied to railroad tracks, menaced by buzz saws, and dangled from precipices.
Another relevant area of nineteenth-century popular entertainment encompasses amusement parks, fairgrounds, and their thrilling rides and attractions (e.g., the roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and fun house). Like these attractions, the thriller works primarily to evoke visceral, gut-level feelings, such as suspense, fright, excitement, speed, and motion, rather than subtle or weighty emotions, such as tragedy, pathos, pity, love, and nostalgia. The thriller stresses sensations more than sensitivity; it is a sensational form.
Amusement parks and fairgrounds were among the main venues for early motion picture exhibition, which was dominated by novelty-oriented short films. A large group of these films highlighted the sensation of motion by placing the camera on moving vehicles such as trolleys, trains, boats, and elevators. Such sensations were eventually incorporated into an early film genre known as the chase film (of which the Edison Company's 1903 hit The Great Train Robbery is an unusually ambitious example), using a minimal story set-up as the springboard for an extended pursuit.
The period from 1907 to 1913 saw the movie industry's growing domination by narrative filmmaking, a development most closely identified with the American director D. W. Griffith (1875–1948). Among the techniques of film storytelling that Griffith refined, the one most pertinent to the thriller is cross-cutting (i.e., cutting back and forth between related actions occurring in different places). He applied this suspense-enhancing device to melodramatic last-minute rescue situations in a number of short films made for the Biograph Company, such as The Lonedale Operator (1911), in which a locomotive engineer races to save his besieged sweetheart, and Death's Marathon (1913), whose climax intermixes a distraught wife, her suicide-bent husband, a telephone connection, and a speeding automobile.
An eccentric contributor to the evolution of the movie thriller was the serial, whose episodic structure enabled action and suspense sequences to dominate a lengthy narrative with a nearly constant succession of thrills. Evolving in the mid-1910s, early American serials frequently featured female protagonists in recurring situations of jeopardy, as indicated by such titles as The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), The Perils of Pauline (1914), and The Mysteries of Myra (1916). In Europe, the serial achieved greater artistic stature, particularly in the work of France's Louis Feuillade (1873–1925). In his celebrated serials Fantômas (1914), Les Vampires (1915–1916), and Judex (1916), supercriminals and secret societies transform sturdy bourgeois Paris into a surreptitious, almost surreal battleground, riddled with trap doors and hidden panels, infiltrated by hooded blackclad figures who scurry over rooftops and shimmy down drainpipes, and undermined by a constant succession of reversals and disguises.
Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who rivals Alfred Hitchcock as the most important director in the evolution of the movie thriller, served his apprenticeship on German adventure series featuring exotic locales, Asian motifs, and Feuillade-influenced supercriminals. He transposed these exotic and adventurous concepts into the here and now of postwar German society in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, 1922), an epic crime thriller that paints a broad canvas of the chaos and decadence of Weimar Germany, manipulated from behind the scenes by the mastermind Mabuse.
In his later German classics—the thrillers Spione (Spies, 1928), M (1931), and Das Testament der Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), and the science fiction film Metropolis (1927)—Lang elaborated his concept of the modern city as a duplicitous labyrinth honeycombed with subterranean passages, infused with a mood of pervasive conspiracy, and stratified into a flashy over world and a shadowy under world that disconcertingly mirror one another. Similar visions of the thriller metropolis shape later thriller movies, including The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), which explores the confusion of postwar Vienna from the top of a Ferris wheel to the depths of the city sewers; Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), which traverses the heights and depths of San Francisco in roller-coaster contours; and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which imagines future Los Angeles as a high-tech, low-rent dystopia.
Lang's Spies, in which professional German agents battle a Mabuse-like supervillain, was the most distinguished spy movie of the silent era. In the 1930s, in response to the growing international tensions of the time, the spy genre rose to a new level of prominence in both literature and film. This trend centered in Great Britain, where the leading filmmaker involved was Alfred Hitchcock. Like his literary contemporaries Eric Ambler (1909–1998) and Graham Greene (1904–1991), Hitchcock usually focused his spy stories not on professional agents but on ordinary citizens caught up in the dirty business of espionage: In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a British couple on a Swiss holiday accidentally learn of a planned political assassination; in The 39 Steps (1935), a London man stumbles upon a plot to steal vital British military secrets. The "amateur-spy" story enhances such thrilleresque qualities as the vulnerability of its inexperienced protagonists and the undermining of ordinary existence by alien forces.
Lang was one of the major directors associated with the German expressionist cinema, whose moody style, well suited for expressing such feelings as tension and fear, exerted a strong influence on thriller directors (including Hitchcock, who worked in Germany during the expressionist cinema's heyday of the 1920s) and thriller-related genres, such as film noir and the horror film. The latter enjoyed its first sustained cycle in the American cinema of the early 1930s, which produced such legendary horror movies as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Much like the Gothic novel, these films take place primarily in exotic, antiquated settings. The more thrilleresque ploy of transposing traditional horror elements, such as monsters and witches, into commonplace, contemporary contexts was pioneered by the series of subtle, suggestive low-budget horror films including Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943) produced by Val Lewton (1904–1951) in the early 1940s.
b. London, England, 13 August 1899, d. 29 April 1980
The most famous of all film directors, and the one most closely identified with the thriller, Alfred Hitchcock completed his first film in 1925. However, he did not cement his association with the thriller until the mid-1930s, when he directed five major spy films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934; The 39 Steps, 1935; Secret Agent, 1936; Sabotage, 1936; and The Lady Vanishes, 1938). In this period, he developed such Hitchcockian trademarks as the double chase (in which a falsely suspected hero—such as Richard Hannay of The 39 Steps—must elude the authorities while he seeks the real culprit), the placement of sinister activities in unexpected and innocuous surroundings (the cozy pet shop where anarchist bombs are manufactured in Sabotage), and the shifting among different viewpoints to intensify and complexify suspense (the agonizing scene in Secret Agent wherein the approaching doom of a suspected traitor is intercut with the mounting anxiety of his worried wife, his whining dog, and a guilt-ridden collaborator in his assassination).
Hitchcock's interest in the spy thriller persisted after his 1939 move from Britain to Hollywood with Saboteur (1942) and Notorious (1946). However, he more frequently explored other areas, especially the psychological crime thriller, which stays closer to home as it concentrates on ordinary people caught up in crime rather than on professional criminals, detectives, or policemen. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which a teenager suspects that her beloved uncle is a notorious murderer, and Strangers on a Train (1951), in which a clean-cut tennis star finds himself embroiled in a madman's scheme to swap murders, are two of Hitchcock's most celebrated ventures in this vein.
In the mid-1950s, Hitchcock embarked on a series of mature masterpieces that represent the most impressive sustained achievement in the history of the movie thriller: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). This period saw an enrichment of Hitchcock's already formidable tactics of identification and point of view, more boldly undermining the spectator's stability and evoking conflicting responses to the action, while still maintaining the basic drive of suspense. In Rear Window, our over determined identification with the wheelchair-bound, voyeuristic protagonist encourages a self-conscious questioning not only of his motives but also of our own motives as spectators. In Psycho, our strong attachment to an embezzling secretary is abruptly severed and then replaced by a split allegiance among a disturbingly sympathetic psychopath and two more normal but less compelling characters.
Hitchcock's identification with the thriller impeded his prestige, especially in eras when socially conscious, realist, and art films monopolized critical respect. The rise of critical attitudes more receptive to genre films and directorial authorship led to a major reevaluation of his artistic stature in the 1950s and 1960s. Hitchcock's thrillers—endlessly revived, written about, taught to film students, and referenced by filmmakers—are now enshrined as cultural monuments.
The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Frenzy (1972)
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Gottlieb, Sidney, ed. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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After 1940, major developments in the movie thriller centered around various phases of the crime thriller, especially in the American cinema. This cycle began in the detective genre, particularly the hard-boiled detective story associated with such writers as Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) and adapted by such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). In contrast to the refined, detached sleuths of whod unit authors like Agatha Christie (1890–1976) and S. S. Van Dine (1887–1939), the hard-boiled style developed a more vulnerable detective hero, susceptible to physical violence and emotional entanglements.
The hard-boiled detective film fed directly into the film noir movement that blossomed in America in the mid-1940s. First identified by French film enthusiasts, film noir (literally, "black film") earns its dark name by virtue of both its shadowy visual style and its pessimistic themes. In the spectrum of thriller protagonists, the film noir hero is one of the most profoundly vulnerable, with a passive or susceptible personality that combines with hostile outside forces to sweep him away: the milquetoast husband (Edward G. Robinson) caught in a quagmire of sexual temptation and murder in Scarlet Street (1945); the weak-willed hitchhiker (Tom Neal) taken for a fate-filled ride in Detour (1945); the nonchalant gumshoe (Robert Mitchum) enmeshed by a femme fatale in Out of the Past (1947); the gullible sailor (Orson Welles) gobbled by a sharkish couple in The Lady from Shanghai (1948).
Closely following film noir and providing a rational, affirmative alternative to its nightmare world was the semi-documentary crime film, featuring well-adjusted organizational heroes such as James Stewart's crusading Chicago reporter in Call Northside 777 (1948) and Barry Fitzgerald's veteran Manhattan cop in The Naked City (1948). The most celebrated aspect of these films was their use of factual story material and nonstudio locations, which supplied additional opportunities for articulating the frisson—the tension between the ordinary world and its adventure-heightened state—that stirs the feverish pulse of the thriller. For example, the climax of He Walked by Night (1948) transforms Los Angeles's utilitarian storm drains into a Phantom of the Opera netherworld of concrete caverns and rippling shadows.
By the early 1950s, film noir and semidocumentary elements had both been absorbed into the prevailing style of the era's crime films. An impressive series of 1950s police thrillers combined the organizational heroes of the semidocumentary with the social and spiritual malaise of film noir. "Flawed-cop" films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Touch of Evil (1958)—with anguished, deeply compromised policemen moving through expressively charged locations—represent a peak of character depth and moral complexity in the history of the movie thriller.
Flourishing around the same time as the flawed-cop cycle was the syndicate-gangster film. Whereas earlier gangster films (e.g., Little Caesar, 1930; Scarface, 1932) had drawn a sharp distinction between the criminal and straight worlds, syndicate-gangster films (e.g., The Big Heat, 1953; The Brothers Rico, 1957; Underworld U.S.A., 1961) portray vast criminal organizations that reach into every corner of ordinary American life and become virtually indistinguishable from it, moving the genre closer to the thriller's characteristic creation of a double world.
Whereas the classical period of the movie thriller (ca. 1930–1960) was characterized by the entrenchment of most of the central thriller-related genres (such as spy, horror, detective, film noir), the period beginning around 1960 was marked primarily by reconceptions of those genres. Key thriller categories underwent major overhauls, ranging from subversive debunking (the detective film) to neoclassical revival (neo-noir) to revitalization, both short-term (the spy film) and long-term (the police film, the horror film).
Among the factors contributing to these new directions were the decline of the old Hollywood studio system (exemplified by its self-enforced censorship system, the Production Code) and the vogue of imported foreign films, which achieved unprecedented influence in the 1950s and 1960s. Internationally successful foreign (especially French) thrillers such as Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1952) and Les Diaboliques (Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), Du Rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, Jules Dassin, 1955), À bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), and Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut, 1960) flaunted a more ambivalent morality, cynical tone, overt stylization, digressive structure, and explicit presentation of sex and violence than did their American counterparts. These European models left their mark on the increasingly permissive and experimental Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, including a series of revisionist detective films (The Long Goodbye, 1973; Chinatown, 1974; Night Moves, 1975) that questioned the effectiveness and relevance of the traditional private eye hero so devastatingly that the detective movie has never fully recovered.
An influential foreign phenomenon of a different sort was the British-based James Bond series (inaugurated by Dr. No in 1962), whose colorful escapades revitalized a spy movie genre that had been constrained by the political pressures of the early Cold War. However, the Bond movies' diminished sense of the familiar and the flippant invincibility of Bond himself moved the series closer to the sphere of the adventure tale. More relevant to the central concerns of the thriller was a countermovement of pessimistic "anti-Bond" spy films, such as The Ipcress File (1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and The Deadly Affair (1967), which featured compromised, vulnerable heroes (much like the flawed-cop films of 1950s) and questioned the ethics and effectiveness of the conventional genre hero (much like the revisionist detective films of the 1970s).
Rising on the heels of the 1960s spy boom was another genre cycle featuring loose-cannon organizational heroes: the modern police thriller, ignited by such hits as Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), and The French Connection (1971). These films built up the justice-obsessed lawman into a virtual superhero fighting to protect society where official institutions have failed. Bullitt and The French Connection popularized a prime demonstration of the supercop's power: the extended, spectacular car chase.
Although the supercop had much in common with James Bond and other superspies of the 1960s, he operated in a harsher, more conflict-ridden world, closer to that of the anti-Bond spy films. One of the most significant aspects of modern police thrillers is their hellish vision of the modern metropolis, presented in lurid and violent terms made possible by the demise of the Production Code. The modern police thriller has been a remarkably durable movement, encompassing the popular Lethal Weapon (1987–1998) and Die Hard (1988–1995) series; major 1990s variants such as Speed (1994), Seven (1995), and L.A. Confidential (1997); and a significant portion of the influential Hong Kong action cinema, whose police thrillers (especially John Woo's Ying hung boon sik [A Better Tomorrow, 1986]; Die xue shuang xiong [The Killer, 1989]; and Lashou shentan [Hard-Boiled, 1992]) counterpoint the characteristic grittiness of the genre with extravagant, operatic doses of violence and melodrama.
A thriller genre even more dramatically affected by the liberalization of censorship was the horror movie. Led by both mainstream (Rosemary's Baby, 1968; The Exorcist, 1973) and low-budget (Night of the Living Dead, 1968; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) hits, the horror movie experienced a period of unprecedented richness and innovation that lasted into the 1980s. Two factors were especially crucial to the horror renaissance: the explicitness of the films' visceral and violent content, which earned them the label "splatter" films, and the familiarity both of their settings (most resonantly, the zombie-infested shopping mall in George A. Romero's [b. 1940] Dawn of the Dead, 1978) and of their monsters, who tended to be less grotesque and more unsettlingly human than those in previous and subsequent manifestations of the horror film.
The horror movie boom was extended by the stalker film. Epitomized by the long-running Halloween (beginning in 1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) series, the stalker film typically depicts a group of young people being systematically slaughtered by a prowling psychopath. The stalker-film cycle retained the explicit gore and familiar, non-Gothic settings of 1970s splatter films but stripped away much of their ambivalence and subversiveness, depicting a more clear-cut, externalized conflict against monsters who are distanced, superhuman, and faceless. After a period of decline, the stalker film was rejuvenated by Wes Craven's Scream series (1996–2000), which added an extra layer of hip postmodern self-referentiality to an already highly self-aware subgenre.
Another recent thriller movement marked by historical consciousness is neo-noir. Recycling and reconceiving film noir's dark themes, flamboyant stylization, and convoluted structures, the neo-noir revival was spurred in the 1980s by such films as Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986), and it continued (with an extra dollop of self-consciousness akin to that of the Scream -led stalker revival) in Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), Femme Fatale (2002), and Sin City (2005). As Hollywood films of the post-Star Wars era became increasingly ruled by superheroism, the neo-noir movement helped to keep alive a more vulnerable, morally ambiguous concept of the thriller hero. The highly adaptable neo-noir movement has also flourished abroad, in such far-flung locales as Scotland (Shallow Grave, 1994), Norway (Insomnia, 1997), China (Suzhou ha [Suzhou River, 2000]), Argentina (Plata quemada [Burnt Money, 2001]), Iran (Talaye sorkh [Crimson Gold, 2003]), and Latvia (Krisana [Fallen, 2005]).
Related to both horror and neo-noir is a group of 1980s and 1990s films that could be called "intimate-enemy" thrillers and are often described by the phrase "the ______ from hell"—for example, the one-night stand from hell (Fatal Attraction, 1987), the nanny from hell (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992), the roommate from hell (Single White Female, 1992). Anticipated by Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and Clint Eastwood's Play Misty for Me (1971), these films center on the clinging, insinuating emotional bond forged by the nemesis character who bedevils the hero.
After thriving in the 1990s with a number of groundbreaking classics and commercial blockbusters (including a throwback to the suggestive, nonviolent horror thriller in 1999's The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense), the movie thriller of the new millennium has fallen on leaner times. The box office has been increasingly dominated by fantasy and adventure in the vein of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, while the more mundane realm of the thriller has produced fewer big hits and trend-defining innovators. The most consistent commercial success has been achieved by a series of mid-decade horror movies (such as Cabin Fever, 2003; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003; Saw, 2004; Dawn of the Dead, 2004; and When a Stranger Calls, 2006), many of them remakes or derivatives of earlier hits, retailoring such venerable horror themes as epidemic disease, sudden disaster, and vulnerable isolation to address the anxieties of the post-9/11 era. It remains to be seen what new directions will revitalize this aging modern form that trades on our ambivalent desires both to escape from and to remain within the uneasy security of our increasingly downsized world.
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