Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Greatest Mystery And Suspense Films Of The Last 1000 Years

The typical Greatest Fill-In-The-Blanks Of The Fill-In-The-Blank List is entirely subjective. The intention is to encourage debate, discourse and discussion. Not so with and our Greatest Fill-In-The-Genre Films Of The Last 1000 Years. There will be no argument. This is definitive.

In selecting our ten greatest mystery and suspense films, we could have just dipped into the Hitchcock library and been done with it. But to make it fair to the handful of other suspense directors and their films, we only selected the absolute cream of Hitchcock’s crop.

Here they are. The unequivocal best of a genre that includes political and psychological thrillers, detective stories, capers, whodunnits, and espionage.

North By Northwest (1959)
“My wives divorced me… They said I led a dull life.”

Hitchcock’s magnum opus stars Cary Grant as the mild-mannered ad exec, Roger O. Thornhill who is mistaken for one George Kaplan, apparently a man with a sordid life. The unwitting Thornhill is abducted by superspy, Phillip VanDamm (James Mason), grilled, drugged, shoved into a car and unceremoniously dispatched down a mountain road. He is rescued by two cops, but the authorities don’t believe his story, nor does his mother. The only person who does is beautiful stranger-on-a-train Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who abets him after he is implicated in murder. His ordeal not even halfway through, Thornhill is kidnapped, framed, crop-dusted and, ultimately, Rushmored in one of the most harrowing finales in film.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”

Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s quintessential Sam Spade classic, John Huston’s study in greed, deception and a life-size gilded statue of a bird-of-prey defines “film noir.” Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, the uber-gumshoe, cynical, jaded, tired. Investigating the murder of his private eye firm partner, Spade discovers that the mysterious girl (Mary Astor) who had hired his partner, is not who she claims to be. Her trail leads him into the seedy underbelly world of creeps like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Perfect.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush...”

A tightly woven neo-noir thriller adapted by Brian Helgeland from James Ellroy’s novel, this intricate tale of police corruption, racism and Hollywood greed embroils three detectives in a seemingly by-the-numbers murder investigation that uncovers decades of cover-ups, chicanery and cozenage. Department goody-two-shoes, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), tough-as-nails detective, Bud White (Russell Crowe) and money hungry, celebrity-seeking cop, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) find themselves joining forces to find the truth. The truth leads them in unexpected directions, like into the bed of Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a moll in a prostitution ring where the girls are cut to look like movie stars.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
“His brain has not only been washed, as they say… it has been dry cleaned.”

Rife with assassinations, global conspiracies, mind control and political opportunism, John Frankenheimer’s paranoid Cold War thriller stings with intensity. Waylaid by Korean troops, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) and his men are taken prisoner. Returning home sometime later, Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) uses her son’s hero status to capture the vice-presidential nomination for her husband, Congressman Iselin (James Gregory). In the meantime, Shaw’s comrades are plagued by nightmares and erratic behavior. One of the soldiers, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) discovers that they were subjected to brainwashing by Russian and Chinese shadow operatives who transformed Shaw into a killer-on-command. This is Frank Sinatra’s finest film role and the apotheosis of Frankenheimer’s career.

Rear Window (1952)
“Why does a man leave his house three times on a rainy night and comes back three times?”
“Maybe he likes the way his wife welcomes him home.”

Rear Window, however, represents Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, at his most sexually deviant, thematically. Jimmy Stewart portrays Jeff Jeffries, a wheelchair bound photographer whose confinement brings out the voyeuristic in him. Jeff starts peeping tom on his neighbors and, his imagination running wild (or is it?), he finds “clues” that indicate a neighbor man may have murdered his wife. Enlisting his girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) and nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) as junior investigators, Jeffries is consumed with his fancy of suspicion and murder.

Touch Of Evil (1958)
“This could be very bad for us.”

Orson Welles was one of those rare directors who, like Stanley Kubrick, could attempt different genres the first time out with phenomenal results. Welles’ foray into crime thrillers, Touch Of Evil is about as noir as noir gets. Russell Metty’s cinematography bathes the entire movie in shadows, but even more shadowy are the characters. Mike and Susan Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) are newlyweds vacationing in Mexico. Vargas, a cop, investigates a bombing, prompting the ire of local police chief, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). A vengeful Quinlan plots with the local crime boss, Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) to frame Susan on bogus drug charges. The crosses and doublecrosses and double-doublecrosses compound and confound, while Marlene Deitrich puts in the creepiest performance of her career, uttering one of the most ominous predictions in film.

Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
“Believe me, you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”

Certainly the oddest buddy cop pairing of all time, Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, a rookie FBI profiler partnered with brilliant serial killer, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to track down Buffalo Bill, a homicidal maniac who tortures young girls, kills them and peels off their skin. Clarice’s ordeal with the merciless mind games of Dr. Lecter makes this frightening enough thriller even more terrifying. Jonathan Demme’s stylish, tightly-woven creepshow jumps the fence between genres as much a horror film as a psychological thriller, but the detective story at the heart of it--Clarice’s investigation of the case as well as her own repressed memories--is a doozy. Cannibalism, serial killers, Jodie Foster’s weirdly affected accent, what more can you ask?

The Conversation (1974)
“I'm not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.”

An homage to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s magnum opus Blow Up, Francis Ford Coppola explores paranoia, industrial espionage and issues of privacy in this overlooked masterpiece of American maverick filmmaking. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an audio surveillance specialist, is hired to record the conversation of Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams), a seemingly innocuous young couple. Harry ethically resides in Rationalization Village, able to justify his work until he begins to suspect that snippets of conversation suggest the man who hired him, the enigmatic Director (Robert Duvall), is plotting to kill the couple. A brilliantly composed story framed around the dynamic qualities of recorded conversations, this may very well be Coppolla’s masterwork.

The Big Sleep (1946)
“My, my, my. Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!”

William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman adapted the Raymond Chandler novel as best they could to come up with this conundrum. The plot is so convoluted, it’s nearly unfollowable, and the characters are so twisted and unlikable, “anti-hero” doesn’t begin to describe Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe. The story of murder, blackmail and love is so complicated any attempt to synopsize would be foolish and an injustice, yet it all this chaos adds up to an enthralling, edge of your seat thriller. Needless to say, Howard Hawkes’ film noir paved a path for the like of David Lynch, seething with sex and violence. The true mystery in this film, however, is how many beautiful women can be crammed into one little movie. Lauren Bacall smolders as Vivien Sternwood Rutledge; Martha Vickers is absolutely Lolita naughty as Vivien’s thumb-sucking functionally retarded sister, Carmen; even the bookseller played by Dorothy Malone is a hot, hot hottie.

Chinatown (1974)
“Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.”

In Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne’s ‘70s noir thriller, hack private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) ekes out a living tailing wayward husbands and wives, photographing them in flagrante delecti. Hired by one Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, Jake snaps off a few shots of Mr. Hollis Mulwray, an engineer with the Water Department, in the arms of a young woman. Case closed. Until the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up at Jake’s door and Hollis Mulwray winds up murdered. Doublecrossed, Jake begins to nose around, uncovering an increasingly dangerous world of corruption, land swindles and murder, loses a slice of his nose to a knife-wielding thug in the process. Unlike noir gumshoes of the past, Jake Gittes is fairly ineffectual. He is one cynical man powerless against corrupt forces much greater than he.

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