The Best Paranoid Thrillers of All Time
The following is a compilation of the best paranoid thrillers of all time.
In my opinion, what defines a paranoid thriller (as opposed to a thriller in general) is the manner in which tension and drama is built. Paranoid thrillers rely upon a foreboding sense of danger around the corner. This is usually developed through the interplay between the main character and the audience members themselves. Eventually, if executed as well as the films below are, the main character experiences a heightened sense of tension which bleeds into the audience in a truly real-life physiological manner. At the end of the day, tension (the ultimate goal of a paranoid thriller) is often more powerful than tension release (for example, a bomb going off—the ultimate goal of an action movie). This is also why many paranoid thrillers don’t conclude in a conventionally satisfying way. One of the points of a paranoid thriller is to maintain the audience’s sense of tension even as they exit the theatre or turn off the movie.
If you are a fan of just one of the paranoid thrillers on this list, you will definitely enjoy the rest of them!
Honorable Mention: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Based on John Le Carre’s novel, this movie is about a mole hunt inside of England’s elite M16 intelligence agency. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a true slow burn. Sometimes it’s actually so slow that one forgets he or she ought to be feeling tense. But something about the nature of the dialogue and the byzantine plot will draw you in by the end. Tinker, Tailor is one of those rare movies that is truly better the second time around—and even more perfect on the third viewing. It takes multiple watches for the viewer to actually see the pieces of the puzzle in front of them as they are unfolding, instead of attempting to decode after the fact.
Sicario makes you believe that you’re right there on the job with the United States’ top counter-narcotics operatives. But what you’ll eventually learn is that the world they occupy is not necessarily one you want to live in. That’s what makes the veiwer’s nerves tingle throughout every scene. That, and the fact that the movie begins with a one-two-three punch in the opening scene that will rip your face off. You’re going to be on edge, because anything can happen, and it will to FBI agent “Kate,” played by Emily Blunt. Finally, the third act focuses on Benicio Del Toro’s character (“Alejandro”) in a rip-roaringly tense sequence where he single-handedly accomplishes what the CIA and Feds have been unable to do for years.
9. Enemy of the State
One of the best paranoid thrillers of the 90’s, Enemy of the State helped define a new style of action filmmaking. Starring Will Smith, and despite intense Hollywood production and kinetic editing from the late & great Tony Scott, the movie worked well because it obeyed many of the same structural rules that had helped define the paranoid thriller genre from the past thirty years.
A great paranoid thriller always involves a great conspiracy and often, an everyman. The man doesn’t know that he is a problem, that he’s trespassed across an invisible line, and that deep and heavy powers are now aligned against him. But the irony is that those powers are ultimately more afraid of the man than he is of them. This forces the man into the position of being prey, until the final turn in which the man is actually the gum in the works that will take the entire conspiracy down. Enemy of the State fulfills all of these moments perfectly—one after the other.
The general setup of Michael Mann’s “Heat” is simple: A cop tries to stop a robber. The two men have been proverbial foes for a long time when the movie opens. The audience isn’t provided with a sense of arriving “at the beginning.” This is no origin story. In fact, we are really arriving at the end of both man’s careers. Their relationship becomes the engine for tension in the film.
When Al Pacino and DeNiro’s character’s meet in the famous diner scene, both admit that they would kill the other one if they had to. It’s fraught with tension. How can they just sit next to each other like that? Is something going to happen that we don’t realize? It’s a truly great scene, bringing together two characters (both of whom have been built independently throughout the first two-thirds of the film) and paying their emotional arcs off together.
Finally, no mention of a Michael Mann movie would be complete without mention of his set pieces. Mann is an absolute master of the gunfight. It’s not any one thing—it’s the whole. The nature of the editing (generally lots of handcam, tons of sound editing, and very minimal soundtrack) lends to some of the most tense heist sequences in cinema.
7. The Parallax View
Now we’re really getting into the meat of this list. The Parallax View (directed by paranoid thriller master Alan Pakula) is one of the stalwart torchbearers of the paranoid thriller genre. A journalist, played by Warren Beatty, gets a bead on a mysterious organization called The Parallax Corporation that trains assassins and is using them to murder political figures. There are a number of notable facts about The Parallax View.
The first is its use of the film frame, architecture and space to create tension. It is a beautiful movie with less dialogue or plotty moments than some. Instead, there is a rhythm to the shots that continually ups the tension and generates a sense of modern loneliness and dread inside both the main character and the audience. Secondly, The Parallax View ends with a futile message. Although I will not spoil it, ending in this way perpetuates the ultimate goal of film such as these: to leave you worried even as you turn off the television.
6. All the President’s Men
Understanding paranoid thrillers from the 1970’s requires a comprehension of the sociopolitical developments of the time. In the current day, in 2017, almost everyone is aware that countries have their own foreign and domestic intelligence services. Everyone knows that spies are operating with their gadgets, and their disguises, and their subterfuge. It is clear that the world is not exactly as it seems on the surface nor does reality actually look the way that a politician might try to spin it.
However, it was in the 1970’s that this realization dawned upon the population at large. This was also the result of technology, globalization and the media. The world had finally become small enough to start to see the forest through the trees. What happened in the 1970’s is that both A. conspiracies were happening, and more importantly, B. they were being uncovered.
All the President’s Men (also directed by Alan Pakula) is the true story of the Watergate robbery and the subsequent investigations into President Nixon as told from the perspective of the two journalists who ultimately broke the scandal wide open. It’s impressive as a paranoid thriller (two “everyman” journalists against a vast government conspiracy), but doubly impressive because it all really happened.
5. Marathon Man
The film sets up an anonymous U.S. intelligence service against a Nazi war criminal hell-bent on moving hot diamonds across the world. Into the middle of the quagmire is dropped an innocent-but-paranoid graduate student and compulsive runner played by Dustin Hoffman.
One of the aspects that makes Marathon Man a great paranoid thriller is the attitude and tone of Hoffman’s character, “Babe” Levy. In the beginning of the film, Babe is completely unaware of the grand machinations that are already happening around him and about to affect him directly. However, what’s fascinating is that even before Babe knows why he should be, he’s still paranoid. In that way, he represented the zeitgeist of the time (which is none too different from the zeitgeist of now, but perhaps with different evils).
4. The Conversation
Starring Gene Hackman and directed by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation is an utterly classic paranoid thriller. Hackman plays a surveillance expert who is hired to conduct surveillance on a couple. He becomes more and more unsettled by what he is listening to—especially when it becomes clear that his own client may be planning on murdering said couple. Now he finds himself in an ethical quagmire. The reason he is in such high demand within his chosen profession is in no small part due to his high level of discretion. But what should he do when he is privy to a murder? And not only that, what should he do if he is, in fact, responsible for providing information that would lead to that murder taking place?
One of the lessons from The Conversation that still holds water today is, in fact, the difficulty of surveillance—as opposed to the prevailing belief that it must be easy for any and everyone to spy on us. It is still hard, and it is definitely still filled with much psychological complexity for the operators and agents involved. When one watches a movie such as The Conversation, one realizes how much of a cop-out it is for a modern movie to simply show a briefing with “surveillance footage” in the background—acquiring that footage could make up an entire film in and of itself.
3. The Battle of Algiers
If you didn’t guess that the third highest movie on this list would be a black and white, Italian-Algerian thriller from 1966—well—maybe you have more movie watching to do!
The Battle of Algiers is an excellent movie for many reasons. Focusing on the Algerian War of Independence and the Algerian insurgency’s use of terrorism against their French “oppressors,” the movie is both an interesting historical document and a chilling premonition of issues that present themselves in the world today. Battle of Algiers is also quite notable due to its cinema-verite shooting style. It is a relatively big budget movie (big action scenes, big crowd scenes, etc.) that is shot almost entirely on a shaky handcam. This would have been a revelation at the time, but it also serves to up the tension and paranoia significantly by making every scene seem all the more “real.” Finally, the editing style also provokes a deep sense of paranoia. The sound editing is heightened but the soundtrack remains muted or non-existent, creating an eerie and foreboding sense of danger throughout the entire film. This is one of those films that will leave you slightly shaken even as you turn of the TV—exactly why it’s so high on this list.
2. Wages of Fear / Sorcerer
Wages of Fear is also in black and white, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, and was released in 1953. It’s not a modern action thriller, and you may find yourself wondering what you’re watching in the first thirty minutes of the film as we layabout in a small village waiting for the action to arrive. But nonetheless, the movie is a pre-eminent action thriller. It is one of the movies that has informed every single action movie, thriller, and paranoid thriller that followed it. That’s because of the incredible interplay between the setup, the action, and most of all, the tension.
What Wages of Fear does so well is allow almost every single moment to be its own, tense, set piece. The setup is simple and it establishes the rules and the action. The rule is: The only way to solve an out-of-control oil well fire is to get some explosives over a mountain and blow up the well. So now we have two trucks, loaded with nitro, heading down rickety roads, around hairpin turns, and over rotting bridges. Due to the chemical nature of the explosives, any motion, any sudden shudder, any bump in the road is susceptible to disaster. This means that both small and large moments alike are filled with brimming suspense. The audience knows it. The characters know it. No one is ahead of the other. We are all in it together, waiting for it to happen, jumping at every surprise. The recipe for a perfect paranoid thriller: It’s not about what’s happening. It’s about what might happen.
Wages of Fear is well known in film circles but less so to the general public. Also of note is Sorcerer. Directed by William Friedkin, Sorcerer is based on Wages of Fear and updates it into a slightly more modern form.
1. Three Days of the Condor
Three Days of the Condor is my favorite paranoid thriller of all time. Starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel, and directed by Sydney Pollack, the movie was released in 1975.
The movie starts with a very clean setup. Redford is “Joe Turner,” a bookish CIA researcher (codename: Condor) who comes back from lunch (in a wonderful New York deli scene) to discover all of his CIA colleagues at his station have been murdered. He’s the only one alive, having survived by fluke chance. And now he has to figure out why they were all killed and what’s going on, without being taken out himself.
Condor has the distinction of providing paranoia without confusion. The main “paranoia” of the film is very humanistic and character-based; Every person and every situation is a possible trap. He’s one man against a giant machine dedicated to erasing him from the collective memory.
I have also written some even deeper dives into a few of the 70’s paranoid thrillers referenced in this list. For the longer articles, please click below: