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Edge-of-seat excitement

Main image of Thriller

"The suspense is terrible," says Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), before adding, "I hope it will last." This witticism contains an intriguing paradox. Why is it that we both fear and enjoy being frightened? Alfred Hitchcock always thought it started in a mother's arms, when she says 'Boo!' to her child, who is first startled and then delighted. In the cinema, this sensation might have originated in the first public screenings of films by the Lumière brothers in 1895. "A train appears on the screen," wrote Maxim Gorky in a memorable newspaper review. "It speeds straight at you - watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit..." Some audiences did indeed flee the theatres in terror, but they must have returned, because the cinema had soon established itself as the most popular mass medium of the early twentieth century.

Audiences went to the cinema not simply to see but also to feel something which they would not ordinarily experience in real life. At one extreme, they were enthralled by the ingenuity of the dog in Rescued by Rover (1905) as it discovers the whereabouts of a kidnapped child. At another, they shuddered as the title character of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (Germany, 1922) makes his sinister progress to the heroine's bedchamber. Something of that film's eerie atmosphere seeped into the first thriller masterpiece of the British cinema, The Lodger (1926); and the first major British talkie, Blackmail (1929) was also a thriller, using sound particularly imaginatively in the scene when the recurrence of the word 'knife' in the mouth of a gossipy neighbour presses on the heroine's guilty conscience like an exposed nerve.

The director of both films was the young Alfred Hitchcock, who declared his intention "to give the public good healthy mental shake-ups". So he supplied a string of films during the 1930s - including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) - which set the standard by which future English thrillers were to be judged. They also set some important ground rules. In the thriller, whodunit is not that important, and unlike the gangster or the crime film, the leading protagonist can be an innocent bystander who gets caught up in the adventure, like Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in The 39 Steps. In this way, an audience is gripped because the hero is an Everyman figure grappling with unexpected danger not too far removed from possibility. Needless to say, not all thrillers of the decade were of that quality, least of all - with a few exceptions - the so-called 'quota quickies', supporting features designed to fulfil as cheaply as possible quota requirements for British films. Nevertheless, films like Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1938) and Thorold Dickinson's The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) had something of Hitchcock's verve.

During the war, the thriller was pressed into service to guard people against complacency. Dickinson's Next of Kin (1942) warned that 'careless talk costs lives', while Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) was a disturbing fantasy about a possible German invasion of England. The latter was based on a story by Graham Greene, who scripted three of the best British thrillers of the late 1940s, the Boulting Brothers' Brighton Rock (1947), based on his own novel, and two films directed by Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), the former a study of innocence and experience, the latter an extraordinary evocation of the amorality of post-war Europe. Prior to these films, Reed had also directed the outstanding Odd Man Out (1947), which, alongside two films of the same year, Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive and Robert Hamer's It Always Rains on Sunday, cast a noirish gloom across post-war tales of betrayal and disillusionment.

The most significant thrillers of the next decade or so often combined suspense with a social conscience. Particularly adept at this were the producer-director team of Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, examining the policeman's lot in The Blue Lamp (1950), racial prejudice in Sapphire (1959) and homosexuality in the groundbreaking Victim (1961). Similarly, the Boulting Brothers' Seven Days to Noon (1950) combined an exciting race-against-time structure with a thoughtful sub-text about the dangers of atomic research. Forced into exile during the McCarthyist era in America, Joseph Losey brought a stylistic flamboyance to Time Without Pity (1957) and Blind Date (1959) but also brought his socialist sympathies to bear in attacking capital punishment in the former film and exposing class hypocrisy and police malpractice in the latter. Another blacklisted American, Cy Endfield also enlivened the English scene with the exciting Hell Drivers (1957) and with a B-feature, Impulse (1955), made for Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman's Tempean films, which produced some competent low-budget thrillers during this period. The most controversial thriller of the time, however, was undoubtedly Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), which, brilliantly but disturbingly, analysed the tortured psychology of its hero and implicated the audience in his anguished voyeurism.

It would be fair to say that the antics of James Bond rather overshadowed most British attempts to revitalise the thriller in the 1960s. Indeed, refreshment came from abroad, with two remarkable films from European auteurs working in London. Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) clinically observed the mental breakdown of a lonely young woman (Catherine Deneuve) whose alienation will lead her to murder. Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) told an ambiguous tale of a fashionable London photographer who films an incident in a park that looks like a harmless love scene but, on closer photographic inspection, could be a murder. The artistic ambition of that film was to be matched at the end of the decade by Donald Cammell's and Nicolas Roeg's Performance (1970), in which a reclusive pop star begins to play deadly mind games with a gangster on the run who has stumbled into his lair. Roeg was later to top this with the cinematically adventurous Don't Look Now (1973), which added sensuality and the supernatural to breathtaking suspense.

In subsequent years, some of the most interesting thrillers stiffened their suspense with political undertones. If Richard Lester's Juggernaut (1974) seemed in part to use its situation of an ocean liner in peril as an audacious metaphor for the last days of Edward Heath's Conservative Government, later films like John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1979), David Drury's The Defence of the Realm (1985) and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) spun tense tales of entrepreneurial greed, political conspiracy and materialist rapacity to communicate what they saw as the ruthless values of Thatcherism.

Recent examples have tended to lack that political and social edge and have been slick but relatively conventional in their dramatic strategies, such as Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave (1994) and two popular gangster-thrillers, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast (2000). Nowadays it is more common to find a good British thriller on television than in the cinema, but it remains a fascinatingly flexible form that, at its best, can undermine complacency through a dramatic rendering of psychological, social, familial and political tensions; and can encourage sheltered but sensation-hungry audiences, in Hitchcock's phrase, "to put their toe in the cold water of fear to see what it's like."

Neil Sinyard

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 39 Steps, The (1935)39 Steps, The (1935)

Classic Hitchcock thriller about spies, secrets and Scotland

Thumbnail image of Blackmail (1929)Blackmail (1929)

Hitchcock thriller that was the first feature-length British sound film

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Defence of the Realm (1985)Defence of the Realm (1985)

Tense 80s conspiracy thriller about a nuclear near-accident

Thumbnail image of Don't Look Now (1973)Don't Look Now (1973)

Dazzling psychological thriller about grief and loss set in wintry Venice

Thumbnail image of Fallen Idol, The (1948)Fallen Idol, The (1948)

Classic child's eye story from Carol Reed and Graham Greene

Thumbnail image of Hell Drivers (1957)Hell Drivers (1957)

Uncompromising B movie set in the macho world of ballast truck drivers

Thumbnail image of It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

Robert Hamer's bleak portrait of life in London's East End

Thumbnail image of Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

Hitchcock's first thriller: a lodger is suspected of murder

Thumbnail image of Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)

The original version of Hitchcock's classic man-on-the-run thriller

Thumbnail image of Next of Kin, The (1942)Next of Kin, The (1942)

Brutally effective WWII propaganda film on the dangers of careless talk.

Thumbnail image of Noose (1948)Noose (1948)

Stylish 'B' thriller in which a fashion journalist takes on a Soho gangster

Thumbnail image of Odd Man Out (1947)Odd Man Out (1947)

A wounded Republican gunman dodges police on Belfast's streets

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Performance (1970)Performance (1970)

Dazzling psychological drama about a gangster and a rock star

Thumbnail image of Rescued by Rover (1905)Rescued by Rover (1905)

Animal rescue drama that was a major British cinema breakthrough

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Sexy Beast (2000)Sexy Beast (2000)

Unusually inventive addition to the late 1990s gangster cycle

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Went the Day Well? (1942)Went the Day Well? (1942)

Chilling classic imagining a brutal Nazi invasion of a small English village

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