Metalluk’s Top-Ten British Thrillers

Nov 19, 2005 (Updated Dec 21, 2005)

The Bottom Line Use this list to help find your way to the greatest British thrillers.

Here are my selections for the top British thrillers. I've also included a bonus list of seven films for a second helping. To qualify for this list, the film must have been produced in Britain and its genre listing at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) must include "thriller." I am arbitrarily excluding films listed as both horror films and thrillers that were included on my previously posted list Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA. The order of the films in the following list is based on overall quality rather than the thrill factor alone.

Top Ten British Thrillers:

#1. The Third Man (1949)
This great film directed by Carol Reed features Joseph Cotton as an American writer who travels to Vienna at the invitation of old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime's funeral is underway. The accounts of Lime's death don't add up, however, and Cotton's character soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery and falling for Lime's former girlfriend, played by Alida Valli. Welles's first appearance in the film is often cited as one of cinema's great entrances.

#2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
This film is less well known in Britain than it should be because it was withdrawn from distribution there, at the request of director Stanley Kubrick, after its initial release triggered copy-cat crimes. Malcolm McDowell gives a brilliant lead performance in this incisive analysis of antisocial and institutional violence in human society. The film includes some very disturbing scenes.

#3. The 39 Steps (1935)
Before moving to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock made a couple of impressive thrillers in Britain, including this one starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. An ordinary man, played by Donat, finds himself in the midst of a spy thriller when a female spy seeks safety in his apartment but is murdered during the night. Using clues obtained from the woman before her death, the man sets out to expose the spy ring but, in the process, finds himself inadvertently handcuffed to a beautiful but uncooperative young woman, played by Carroll.

#4. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
This spy thriller has none of the glitter or gimmicks of the Bond series, but features a gritty performance by Richard Burton as agent Alec Leemas. Twists abound in director Martin Ritt's excellent adaptation of a novel by John Le Carré.

#5. Goldfinger (1964)
Many people consider this film directed by Guy Hamilton, the third in the 007 franchise, to be the best one. Sean Connery is at his finest and the villains, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) and henchman (Harold Sakata), are both highly memorable. The plot, involving Goldfinger's effort to invade Fort Knox, draws Bond into a splendid caper.

#6. Blow-Up (1966)
Antonioni's excursion into the thriller genre finds a hip fashion photographer (David Hemmings) accidentally photographing an apparent murder, but it's only after he enlarges the prints that the "evidence" becomes apparent. Using the disguise of a mystery thriller, Antonioni's true business is examining the inherent subjectivity of artistic representations, such as photographs, films, and paintings.

#7. Odd Man Out (1947)
This haunting and lyrical triumph helped to elevate the career of director Carol Reed from mediocrity to the realm of elite directors. James Mason plays an IRA operative wounded and on the lam after a botched hold-up in which a guard is killed. Kathleen Ryan plays the woman devoted to him. The back streets of Belfast are shot with the baroque eeriness of German expressionism. Kafkaesque shadows lurk everywhere and surrealistic sequences abound as Johnny drifts in and out of delirium.

#8. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock's second best pre-Hollywood thriller finds Margaret Lockwood's character doubting her recollections in relation to the disappearance of an elderly woman after being challenged by other witnesses. Only the man (Michael Redgrave) with whom she had an earlier run-in seems prepared to believe her version of events. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne provide comic relief as a couple of cricket-obsessed Englishmen.

#9. Brighton Rock (1947)
The young Richard Attenborough is chilling as Pinkie Brown, a vicious teenage gang leader, in this atmospheric thriller directed by John Boulting. Carol Marsh plays the ingénue and Hermione Baddeley the saucy singer whose curiosity creates the film's driving tension. A 1938 novel by Graham Greene provided the source for the film's screenplay.

#10. The Long Good Friday (1980)
Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren each provide spectacular performances in this gangland film that finds a London mob boss coming up against IRA operatives. John Mackenzie directed this film and Barr Keefe provided the screenplay. The dialog has an elevated poetic quality.


Seven More for a Second Helping: (listed alphabetically)

The Day of the Jackal (1973)
Dr. No (1962)
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Gaslight (1940)
Get Carter (1971)
The Ipcress File (1965)
Mona Lisa (1986)

You may also enjoy my other lists relating to British films:

All One-hundred and Six BAFTA Award-Winning Films
London Critics' Circle Awards for Best Foreign Film
British Films Selected by the London Critics' Circle as Best Film or Best British Film
The British Film Institute's Top-100 British Films All-Time
Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA
Top Ten British Comedies
Top Ten British War Films
Top Bond Films and Other British Spy Movies
Top-Ten British Costume Dramas

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