Thrillers Essay, Research Paper

The thriller is one of the most enduringly popular of movie genres and one that has changed surprisingly little since its heyday of the 1930s. Only the subjects have varied significantly. The thriller got its start in the roots of motion pictures. Once audiences evolved past the point of enjoying disjointed scenes of motion and action, directors and producers were forced to reach out for stories to tell. Without the availability of dialogue, dramatic material didn't work well on screen during the early years of cinema, and the notion of stringing action scenes together seemed attractive to filmmakers who were more comfortable with visual than dramatic material. Edwin S. Porter is generally — though erroneously — credited with making the first thriller to tell a coherent story, with The Great Train Robbery (1903). The movie made use of the best stunt riders available, surprisingly sophisticated editing techniques, and a plot that was — within the limits of 1903 popular sensibilities — engrossing. As the medium evolved and the first generation of film actors developed their own technique before the camera, characterization came into play, and by the teens the rudiments of the thriller were in place. In those days, before they were fully defined, the different genres borrowed freely and unselfconsciously from each other, and comedies utilized elements of the thriller — especially risky physical stunts — just as the thriller crossed over into melodrama. The modern thriller coalesced during the 1930s, not coincidentally at a time when the world itself seemed to become a somewhat more dangerous — or potentially more dangerous — place. The genre as we know it was shaped most definitively by Alfred Hitchcock, the celebrated English filmmaker who learned from watching the best work of the German Expressionists and coupled it with an American-style sense of action pacing. Beginning with The Lodger (1926), a story about the hunt for a serial murderer in London (loosely based on the turn-of-the-century hunt for Jack the Ripper), Hitchcock defined the rudiments of successful thriller storytelling, mixing it with effective action sequences. The British film industry wasn't entirely comfortable with the genre, however, and relatively few good screenplays were available, with the result that it was three years before Hitchcock did his next thriller, Blackmail (1929). Based on a play by Charles Bennett, Blackmail refined the technique that Hitchcock had pioneered, adding the element of reality in his use of an outsized setting for his climax (the reading room of the British museum). Equally important, Blackmail was the first British talking picture (started as a silent, it was adapted for sound midway through production and released in both versions) and while it was hampered by long silent stretches and a somewhat archaic silent technique, the movie allowed the director to use sound as a source of tension for the first time. The most important scene takes place at the dinner table, where the heroine — who has stabbed a would-be rapist — hears a dining companion talking about the killing, and the word "knife" grows ever louder on the soundtrack. It was during the 1930s that Hitchcock began using politics, especially international intrigue, as a motivation — or a "McGuffin," as he used to call it — around which to hook his plots, and his films got even better in the process. Hitchcock's work of the 1930s eclipsed every other filmmaker working in thrillers, as he steadily advanced his approach to storytelling. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1933) expanded the level of violence and the richness of images and symbols available to filmmakers, while The 39 Steps (1935) added elements of sexuality that were to turn up in most of Hitchcock's (and most other successful filmmakers in the genre) subsequent movies, and The Lady Vanishes (1938) was a veritable symphony of suspense, laced with romance and comedy. Although those two movies are considered Hitchcock's greatest successes of his British period, and could be the best films of his career, the director himself regarded the slightly more low-keyed Young And Innocent (1937) as his personal favorite among his English pictures. American thrillers of this era lacked much of Hitchcock's sophistication and smoothness, largely because the scripts and directors working in America still hadn't figured out — as Hitchcock had — how to find a suitable tone for the screen. Thrillers such as The Bat Whispers, The Cat And the Canary or even the celebrated Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1931) all have a clunky staginess that detracts from their effectiveness, at least for modern audiences — although the Jekyll and Hyde film is well-worth seeing for its central performance and as a vital historical artifact (until Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Fredric March was the only actor ever to win an Oscar for playing a serial murderer). Hollywood had a preference for upscale dramas and comedies, and not a great deal of attention was paid to thrillers, except for the occasional mystery. What did emerge seemed, at times, very much over the top, even by the standards of the era — one of the thrillers celebrated for its grotesque nature was Edward Sutherland's Murders In the Zoo (1932), a bizarre tale of a jealous zoologist (Lionel Atwill) who mutilates and kills the men whom he believes have been interested in his wife. Atwill was also the villain of one of the more interesting attempts at a topical thriller from Hollywood, The Sun Never Sets (1939), about a pair of British foreign service officers (Basil Rathbone, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in Africa who uncover a plot to foment revolution using a secret radio installation. But the British had it all over the Americans during those years, and not just because of Hitchcock. Director Thorold Dickinson turned in two very tidy and vastly different thrillers, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, starring Leslie Banks — about a murder committed in front of a soccer audience of 100,000 — and Gaslight, starring Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook, a psychological thriller that was so successful that MGM bought up the rights and remade it with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Alexander Korda's London Films, known for its handsome biographical films and historical epics, also turned in a handful of brilliant thrillers of world-class quality: Tim Whelan's Q-Planes (1939), starring Laurence Olivier, Valerie Hobson, and Ralph Richardson, about saboteurs hijacking experimental aircraft (which later became the basis for The Avengers television series and the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice), Michael Powell's The Spy In Black (1939), starring Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, about a World War I German plot to sink the British fleet, and Zoltan Korda's Drums (1938), starring Sabu, about intrigue and assassination on the Indian frontier. From the early 1930s onward, partly thanks to Hitchcock's influence and that of his British rivals, most thrillers reflected the prevailing politics — and the popularly perceived threats — of the era in which they were made. The outbreak of war in 1939 and the American entry during World War II helped spur the Americans to make better thrillers — the battle against the Nazis inspired such spirited and exciting works as Billy Wilder's Five Graves To Cairo (1941) starring Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter; Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), with Robert Cummings; Raoul Walsh's Desperate Journey (1942), starring Errol Flynn; Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1943), with Humphrey Bogart; Lloyd Bacon's Action in the North Atlantic (1943), with Bogart; and Zoltan Korda's Sahara (1943), also starring Bogart — all among the finest thrillers ever made in Hollywood. As the war ended, there also appeared for the first time the fact-based thriller, as filmmakers sought to tell stories that were kept secret during the war: The House On 92nd Street (1945), recounting the uncovering of a Nazi spy ring on Manhattan's East Side, was the first in a body of films that tried to inject realism and factuality into the suspense genre. During the postwar era, the studios simply replaced the Nazis with communists and wartime strategies with atomic secrets, and the thriller continued into the 1950s. William Cameron Menzies' The Whip Hand (1951) from RKO was one of the best and the strangest, a film started as an anti-Nazi drama and rewritten so that the scientists experimenting with germ warfare were communists. The Red Scare also resulted in such period dramas as The Red Menace (1950) from Republic, and The Woman On Pier 13 (aka I Married A Communist ) (1950), from RKO. After a few years of populating the screen with malevolent communist spies, however, even this cycle had run its course. Additionally, by the middle of the decade, it had become obvious to most members of the Hollywood community, and most of the rest of the country as well, that there were very few communists hiding under beds. The transitional film was Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, adapted from one of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels, with Ralph Meeker cast as the hard-boiled detective. The film unfolds at a furious and violent pace, with bodies turning up throughout as Mike Hammer tries to unravel the reason behind the murders. At the end, the woman working for the villains finally tries to open the mysterious parcel that has been responsible for the murders, and it proves to be fissionable material — she screams as this nuclear Pandora's Box cracks open, flames shooting up all around her in the room and incinerating her as a stricken but ambulatory Hammer escapes the miniature nuclear inferno. Suddenly, the communists were no longer the enemy, or even the most dangerous components of the thriller — it was the weapons themselves. Although later Hammer adaptations such as The Girl Hunters (1963) — starring Spillane as his own detective creation Mike Hammer — would feature the communists as villains, these works were clearly throwbacks. By the beginning of the 1960s, while the James Bond movies handled the comic-book heroics, more serious pictures such as Edward Dmytryk's Mirage (1964) starring Gregory Peck and Diane Baker, presented ideas that five years before would have been impossible to sell to producers, much less mass audiences — Mirage was a brilliant thriller and political allegory about the military-industrial complex, which was every bit as murderous as the communist menace, but made up of Americans. During the same period, Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) aimed its sights squarely at the military and political leaders of both East and West. And John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days In May (1965) both showed up nuclear saber-rattling for just what it was, dangerous posturing that often masked baser impulses. During the later 1960s and early 1970s, the movies once again advanced past the headlines — Joseph Sargent's Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) was one of the great thrillers of its period, using technology and man's inability to deal with his own creations as the basis for a terrifying vision of the future. Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) was handsome enough, and a smooth adaptation of Michael Crichton's bestseller, but it lacked the pacing needed to sustain it for over two hours of screen time. A far superior espionage thriller, The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), directed by Lamont Johnson, had much more to say in far more complex and involving fashion about the same period in history and the culture of fear and secrecy that had grown up around government and technology. Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1972) went even further, tying up government secrecy and assassination together in a terrifying speculation about politics in the United States. The mid-1970's saw a decline in the fortunes of the movie thriller, mostly because the reality of the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon made most efforts in this vein superfluous. A few films, such as Sidney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975), starring Robert Redford, managed to distinguish themselves — and the latter title did establish in the public mind a link between business, espionage, and murder — but real-life always seemed too close behind to make them major hits. Ironically, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977), starring Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw, was a failure in its time because it seemed both too topical and too incredible — the bombing of the New York World Trade Center 15 years later proved audiences wrong, at least about the credibility side of the movie. Only in recent years, with the distance afforded by time from real-life dramas such as Watergate, has the thriller really recovered its box office credibility. Movies such as The Firm (1993), The Fugitive (1993), Seven (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997) have all proved extremely popular.

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