What makes a good movie? It’s a question that’s likely asked by every filmmaker when they sit down to craft their next masterpiece. Answers can vary by taste, but few can argue that a film packed with mystery, suspense, as well as a hero and a villain engaged in a battle of wills is sure to satisfy. Thus, a good crime thriller, which often combines all of these elements, has the ability to dazzle like no other genre.
Legendary writers from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to Elmore Leonard and Gillian Flynn have masterfully perfected it on the page, but it was director Alfred Hitchcock who arguably honed such storytelling and defined the genre for the screen. But he wasn’t the only one.
Ever since early classics like “The 39 Steps” and “Double Indemnity,” Hollywood has remained transfixed on the crime thriller’s ability to draw in and captivate audiences. “The French Connection” and “Dirty Harry” dazzled moviegoers in the 1970s, but the 1980s brought the genre to new heights. Filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski, and Michael Mann imbued their films with a grittier tone, perfect for the decade’s obsession with darker, morally conflicted heroes.
Crime thrillers dominated the screen that decade, and they were filled with some of the film’s biggest names, from action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell to award-winners like Harrison Ford and Glenn Close. If you’re looking for a primer of the best of the best, it’s definitely worth looking to the 1980s.
The 1980s were marked with classic crime thrillers that explored government corruption from the street all the way to the highest echelons of government. The 1989 film “An Innocent Man” tackled the former, with “Magnum P.I.” star Tom Selleck going from tough-as-nails lawman to victim of a police conspiracy. In the film, Selleck stars as Jimmie Rainwood, an upstanding citizen who becomes the victim of a scheme orchestrated by a couple of crooked cops.
To cover up their nefarious crimes, the two dirty detectives are forced to frame an innocent man, making Rainwood out to be a drug dealing thug, and with no defense, he is sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Behind bars, Rainwood is subjected to a harsh life, and he doesn’t like the man it forces him to become. But while there, he makes important connections that will prove crucial when he’s finally released and looking to get even with the cops who put him there.
With his wife Kate (Laila Robins) by his side and the help of a dedicated Internal Affairs officer (Badja Djola), Rainwood allies himself with a hardened convict (F. Murray Abraham) to lure the two officers into a trap.
“An Innocent Man” never shies away from the stark realities of prison life as it puts Selleck in the unlikely role of a violent anti-hero. Even in a decade filled with stories about corruption, the film stands out by making the police the target of a wronged man’s revenge scheme.
In the ’80s, the legendary Clint Eastwood returned to his most iconic role of maverick cop Harry Callahan (AKA “Dirty Harry”) for a pair of sequels to his 1970s adventures. As the ’80s were coming to a close, Eastwood starred in the 1988 film “The Dead Pool” (not to be confused with the Marvel Comics hero), the final entry in the big screen series. Though Eastwood himself had directed the previous film, he enlisted his “Any Which Way You Can” director Buddy Van Horne to sit behind the camera for this one.
The film portrays Harry as a celebrity cop now placed on an infamous “Dead Pool,” a betting list of famous faces predicted to die. But a bettor in the game has fixed the odds by bumping off names on his list, and Harry himself is next up on the chopping block. But since Harry has his trusted magnum and a few other big guns at his disposal, the bet-makers may have to rethink their odds.
While Eastwood himself later stepped away from the series because he felt too old to be blowing away the baddies, he’s lost none of his moxie here. The actor looks as good as ever aiming his magnum at dangerous thugs, and he has one last catchphrase up his sleeve, too.
Gene Hackman may be etched in the minds of audiences today as Lex Luthor, the chrome-domed villain who faced down Christopher Reeves’ Superman in three of the four franchise films in the ’80s. But outside of the superhero films, Hackman had a long run of starring in intense crime dramas and stirring thrillers that decade, and one of the best of there was the 1989 film “The Package.”
“The Package” was produced at a time when it had become clear that the Cold War was coming to a close. It was released mere months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it plays off of very real concerns about what peace with the Soviet Union could mean.
The film depicts a reality in which tensions between the two world powers are easing, and the United States president and the Soviet Premier are meeting for peace talks. Both nations are on the verge of an agreement that would see them dismantle their nuclear arsenals, but that causes concern for members of both governments.
Extremist factions from each nation conspire together in a bold and unlikely alliance to undermine peace efforts that would upset the delicate balance of power. But after a high-ranking general is assassinated, Johnny Gallagher (Hackman) (a veteran Green Beret) gets wind of the sinister conspirator’s plot and becomes their next target.
“The Package” is an underrated thriller that has an all-star cast featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Joanna Cassidy, and Pam Grier.
“Black Rain” is an under-the-radar release from 1989 that was swallowed up in some of the biggest blockbuster releases of all time, sandwiched by “Batman,” “Ghostbusters 2” and the third “Indiana Jones” film. But this film, directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien”) and starring Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”), deserved better, and it earns its place among the best crime thrillers of the decade.
It’s a stylish production with a visual flair, and the influence of Scott’s “Blade Runner” is clear, as the film is set in the seedy world of a dank Japanese city that will lead viewers to recall shades of cyberpunk Los Angeles.
But it begins in New York City, where shady detective Nick Conklin and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) chase down a Japanese gangster after a street killing. But Conklin is incensed when the collared killer is ordered to be extradited back to Japan to be prosecuted.
Reluctantly ferrying their prisoner to Osaka, Nick and Charlie mistakenly hand their man over to Yakuza hoods posing as police. The two cops work alongside law enforcement and dive headfirst into the Japanese criminal underworld to get him back into custody.
Full of fast-paced action and tense chase sequences through the streets of Japan, “Black Rain” is a stunning and distinctive thriller that bears all the hallmarks of a Ridley Scott classic. Though it is not as well known as his bigger films, it has aged well, and it may be one of the director’s most underrated efforts.
In the 1970s, Western star Clint Eastwood traded in his Colt .45 for a 44 Magnum Smith & Wesson to star in the gritty crime drama “Dirty Harry.” The film was a big hit, and it led to two sequels in five years, but it would take nearly a decade to see the third. The 1983 film “Sudden Impact” shows off Eastwood’s strengths behind the camera to capture simple, straightforward thrills that all but refuse to let you look away.
The film focuses on Jennifer Spencer (played by Eastwood’s then real-life partner Sondra Locke), who had been the victim of a brutal assault by a gang of thugs a decade earlier. Having left her sister comatose, Jennifer takes it upon herself to hunt down and kill every man who had been involved in the attacks. The string of violent murders brings in grizzled veteran Harry Callahan to piece together the puzzle and catch a killer whose motives prove to align with his own twisted sense of justice.
A classic hard-boiled detective story, it also features gloriously violent ’80s action, including one of the most satisfying, bullet-bursting diner shoot-outs in cinema history. And while the first film in the series is responsible for Harry’s catchphrase, “Do ya feel lucky?” it was “Sudden Impact” that provided what might be his most famous line when he dared a violent hostage taker to “Go ahead… make my day.”
Kurt Russell was one of the ’80s biggest action heroes, appearing in John Carpenter classics like “Escape from New York,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” and “The Thing.” But he was in a few great crime stories too, and one of them was “Tequila Sunrise,” a romantic thriller from 1988 where he starred alongside fellow action icon Mel Gibson (“The Road Warrior”) and white-hot starlet Michelle Pfeiffer (“The Witches of Eastwick”).
Gibson is Mac McKussic, a reformed drug dealer now on the straight-and-narrow, and he owes a lot to his good friend Nick (Russell), a Los Angeles detective. But Nick has vowed to turn his friend in if he ever starts dealing again, and an adjacent DEA agent has suspicions that he must be up to his old tricks.
When Nick’s hunt for drug cartel leader Carlos (Raul Julia) unearths connections to Mac, his old friend becomes his newest target. But the case is quickly muddled by a developing love triangle, as the two former friends both find themselves involved with local restauranteur Jo (Pfeiffer).
“Tequila Sunrise” has plenty of twists and turns and enough suspense to keep you wondering what’s around every corner. It’s an action thriller that throws in a little bit of romance too. But its best appeal is its all-star cast, with Gibson and Russell making a perfect one-two punch in this sensational crime caper.
Sylvester Stallone was famously down to his last penny when he shot to stardom in the 1976 boxing classic “Rocky.” He’d return to the role in 1979 for “Rocky II,” but it struggled to recapture the magic. Perhaps Stallone was looking for a change of pace from doing rounds in the ring, as the actor’s next film was the 1981 crime thriller, “Nighthawks,” an under-the-radar release that’s been sorely overlooked for years.
The film also starred Billy Dee Williams, fresh off his role as Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Stallone and Williams form an NYPD duo that’s out to stop a maniacal international villain.
Sergeants Deke DaSilva and Matthew Fox (no, not that Matthew Fox) are visited by British police officers who need their help. They’ve recently arrived from London, where a series of deadly bombings have left the nation on edge, and the culprit, a dangerous fugitive named Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), has fled for American shores. Now in New York, he threatens to strike the states, and together with the U.K. team, the American officers form a new task force to track him down.
“Nighthawks” is a part detective story, part action movie, and part gripping thriller that sees a pair of budding stars chase down a psychopath through the grit and grime of New York City. This underrated gem remains one of the finest in the genre, and it has recently been the subject of reboot rumors.
At the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union came the crime thriller “Gorky Park,” a thriller full of mystery and murder that is set in Russia. But despite the setting, the story keeps the political intrigue on the periphery, and it revolves around a gruesome crime scene uncovered at a Moscow amusement center, the titular Gorky Park. The film was based on a novel of the same name that was the first in a series of books centered on a Russian detective.
The action in this one begins when three bodies are discovered in Gorky Park with their fingers chopped off and fatal gunshot wounds to the chest and mouth. The investigation into the killings is led by Moscow detective Arkady Renko (William Hurt), who soon learns of an international connection as one of the victims hails from New York City.
As he gathers his evidence, he is joined by outsider William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy), an NYPD cop who is there on his own business and who offers a hand when one of the victims turns out to be an American.
But when the two get too close to the truth, and the KGB warns them off the case, they realize they may have stumbled onto something much more than a simple murder. “Gorky Park” has an intriguing mystery at its center that uses the political tension of the 1980s as the backdrop for an enthralling thriller.
This movie, which is about a brutal murder and the mystery surrounding the killer, puts more of the focus on the legal thrills that result than in the “cop-chasing-crook” stories that dominate most crime thrillers. The 1985 film “Jagged Edge” opens with a grisly killing in action that sees an innocent woman stabbed to death by an unknown masked assailant.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the woman’s husband, Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges), who is blamed for the crime. Forrester steadfastly maintains his innocence, and he turns to renowned lawyer Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) to defend him.
But the case becomes complicated when Teddy begins an affair with Jack, much to the dismay of her friend and colleague, private investigator Ransom (Robert Loggia). Between a strange series of letters she receives from an anonymous source and damning testimony from Forrestor’s previous affair, Teddy is forced to wonder if her client may actually be a killer. If he is, she’s not just helping a murderer go free, she’s allowing him into her bed.
While much of the movie’s action takes place in the courtroom, it all leads up to a climactic revelation and a deadly showdown. A modest success in theaters, the film received strong reviews, with Loggia earning an Academy Award nomination. A sequel was nearly finalized, but the proposed story eventually morphed into an unrelated project which became the 1989 thriller “Physical Evidence” from writer Michael Crichton, which wasn’t nearly as good.
After blowing away everything from a pile of cocaine to rival gangsters in “Scarface,” Pacino became a go-to actor for crime capers. The result was his role in the 1989 thriller “Sea of Love,” which may have confused audiences who might have expected an endearing romantic comedy based on its innocent-sounding title.
Instead, the film is about a violent serial killer who mutilates his victims and leaves the scene with the song “Sea of Love” ominously playing on an old 45 record. The investigation begins with the discovery of a dead man in Manhattan. Homicide investigator Frank Keller (Pacino) teams up with Queens detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman), and after another body is found across the bay, Keller realizes the culprit may be a woman picking out male victims from the newspaper personals.
To catch him, Keller puts out his own lonely-hearts ad and starts making dates in the hopes of finding a suspect. But problems arise when he meets (through the ad) and falls in love with Helen (Ellen Barkin), who very well might be the killer. “Sea of Love” has plenty of film-noir elements, and it is a satisfying thriller, a whodunit that climaxes with a shocking twist.
Harrison Ford’s most famous ’80s roles were in franchises like “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” but he also starred in a few first-rate crime thrillers that decade too. One of them is “Witness,” a movie that some might see in retrospect as a spiritual precursor to his 1993 classic “The Fugitive,” since in both films, he stars as an otherwise ordinary man who is forced to track down a criminal and unravel a conspiracy all on his own. Oddly enough, both characters are surgeons named Richard.
In “Frantic” Ford is Dr. Richard Walker, who is in Paris to attend a medical conference with his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) in tow. But when Sondra goes missing, and the French authorities are disinterested in his pleas for help, he is forced to take up the investigation into her disappearance himself.
After he comes across Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), a local drug smuggler, Walker realizes that his wife had been abducted by foreign agents for the contents of her suitcase, which had been mistakenly switched out with Michelle’s at the airport on their arrival. Walker is unprepared for the high stakes, but he’s unwilling to give up until he finds his wife.
This film was directed by controversial filmmaker Roman Polanski. It’s a Hitchockian thriller that’s every bit as suspenseful as “The Fugitive.” It stars a pitch-perfect performance by Harrison Ford as the intrepid everyman Walker, which further helps elevate this film into a gripping adventure and underdog thriller.
Tim Burton’s groundbreaking 1989 adaptation “Batman” is often thought of as little more than a superhero movie, though it is often overlooked for what it really is. Because when you take away the Dark Knight’s cape and cowl and ditch the Joker’s clown make-up, he and Batman fit the same roles as the violent killer and big city cop that you’d find in any other crime thriller.
But while Burton’s stylized gothic flare and some comic book tropes obscure this film, it still remains one of the best in the genre of its era. Bruce Wayne, played by “Beetlejuice” star Michael Keaton, is a brooding billionaire haunted by the death of his parents as a child. He trains for years to hone his skill and takes up the identity of atman to protect Gotham City from the crime that has permeated its streets while struggling to balance a normal life.
But when criminal underboss Jack Napier is mutilated in a confrontation with him, he becomes the more colorful Joker, taking control of the city’s mob and terrorizing Gotham on a city-wide swath of destruction. To stop him, Wayne may have to sacrifice a life with the woman he loves.
Burton’s “Batman” has a dark, more realistic tone than you’d expect. It is clearly influenced by cinema’s best crime dramas, and it quickly becomes an essential ’80s thriller. It also lays the groundwork for future adaptations that positioned Batman as a dedicated detective on the hunt for a vicious killer.
A year before “The Package,” Gene Hackman starred in another excellent crime thriller titled “Mississippi Burning.” This film also had some political undercurrents, however, it’s inspired by a true story.
It’s based on the 1964 Mississippi Burning Murders which saw three prominent activists brutally killed at the height of the Civil Rights. It stars Hackman and Willem Dafoe as analogs for real-life FBI agents John Proctor and Joseph Sullivan, who broke the case and brought the killers to justice.
The story is sparked during a voting registration drive in nearby Jessup County, where a trio of workers who are organizing African American voter sign-ups promptly disappear. FBI agents Alan Ward (Dafoe) and Rupert Anderson (Hackman) are assigned to the case, but they find that getting help from the locals is next to impossible.
Since local law enforcement is deeply connected to the Klu Klux Klan, the African American community is reluctant to talk to the feds. They may have to bend the rules if they’re going to get answers but the two have different ideas on how to proceed, which causes tension between them.
In addition to Hackman and Dafoe, the film features a star-studded cast that includes Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, Michael Rooker, and Badja Djola. Though some liberties were taken with the story, which led to a fair bit of controversy (as per The Guardian), the film remains an engrossing detective thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Today, director Michael Mann is celebrated for the 1994 crime drama “Heat” which saw the first on-screen pair between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Over the course of his career, Mann has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and earned Academy Award recognition along the way. But it all began with the 1981 crime thriller “Thief” starring James Caan. It was written by Mann, and as his big-screen directorial debut, it didn’t disappoint.
The film is based on the book “The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar” by former jewel thief John Seybold (under the pen name Frank Hohimer). It stars Cann as an eponymous thief and professional safecracker named Frank. He’s a disillusioned ex-con who longs for a blissful life with his girlfriend Jesse and hopes to start a family.
But after losing out on his last big payout, Frank is approached by big-time gangster Leo (Robert Prosky), and he reluctantly agrees to lead a daring diamond heist. But while Frank has dreams of turning over a new leaf after the score, his big boss Leo has other ideas.
The film is a spectacular opening salvo from future Oscar contender Michael Mann. It’s James Caan at his very best, in a role that plays to every one of his considerable strengths. In fact, prior to the actor’s devastating death in 2022, he cited the movie as the best experience of his long and illustrious career.
“48 Hrs” is the lone comedy to make join the ranks of best ’80s crime thrillers. Because unlike fellow ’80s capers like “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” or “Clue,” it embraces its dramatic story with as much fervor as it does its comedy. The film pairs gruff actor Nick Nolte with off-the-wall comedian Eddie Murphy in his first big screen breakout role just a year after turning heads on “SNL.”
Nolte stars as Jack Cates, a by-the-book San Francisco cop who is put on the case when ruthless killer Albert Ganz (James Remar) escapes from prison. Racing against time before he can kill again, Cates needs an edge, and he finds one in Reggie Hammond, Ganz’s former criminal cohort who’s currently sitting behind bars on a three-year stretch.
Hammond is freed for 48 hours. Hammond and Cates have to work together, but the free-wheeling, wisecracking wild card Hammond immediately butts heads with the cantankerous Cates. Eventually, tension boils over when Hammond reveals he has an ulterior motive for helping track Ganz down.
This is an exciting story and plenty of laughs, and it’s all about the two actors and their sparkling on-screen chemistry. “48 Hrs,” with its deft mix of action, suspense, and quick wit, remains one of the best comedies and crime thrillers of the ’80s. But it’s also a trailblazing buddy cop story that sets the standard for the genre as we know it today.
Another Gene Hackman crime thriller with a political twist is the 1987 film “No Way Out,” a loose remake of the 1948 film “The Big Clock.” Hackman appears alongside a pair of young ’80s stars, Kevin Costner and Sean Young, in a story of scandal sparked by a murder. The two lead actors play opposing military officials, with Costner’s younger officer finding himself the prime suspect in a brutal killing.
Costner plays Tom Farrell, a Naval Intelligence officer working on a covert operation to steal secrets from rival government agencies for his boss, David Brice, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. But Farrell is also involved in an affair with a young woman named Susan Atwell (Young), who also happens to be Brice’s mistress.
When Atwell is killed in a violent confrontation with Brice, Farrell is assigned to lead the investigation, but Brice is determined to cover up her killing by implicating whoever Atwell had been seeing on the side. With all evidence now pointing to Farrell, the young officer must unravel a web of lies to clear his name and prove Brice a murderer.
Though elements of the plot lack credulity at times, the suspense is so tantalizing that it’s easy to overlook. The film is a precursor to the likes of “A Few Good Men”: “No Way Out” is a political crime thriller that will keep you guessing, and a strong showing from the young Costner makes this one of the actor’s best.
The 1985 thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.” stars both Willem Dafoe and “CSI” cast member William Petersen. This movie features both future greats before they were stars. The movie casts both in the kind of roles they were born for. Future crime scene investigator Peterson stars as Richard Chance, a Secret Service agent on the hunt for master criminal and counterfeiter Eric Masters, played by Dafoe.
Richard Chance is far from a model agent, though. He’s a loose cannon and a danger to the department who finds himself re-assigned to the Los Angeles field office after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. There he’s paired up with agent Hart (Michael Greene), a veteran nearing retirement, and the partners are tasked with staking out the suspected facility of counterfeiter Eric Masters (Dafoe).
But when things go sideways, Hart is killed, and Masters gets away. Chance, now a beleaguered agent, becomes consumed with revenge, and in his quest for bloody justice, he begins to blur the line between hero and villain.
“To Live and Die in L.A.” is a cat-and-mouse crime thriller that sees Masters luring Chance through a psychological maze of violence that leaves him bordering on a crazed killer himself. Written and directed by William Friedkin, the man behind “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” has all the ingredients to become a classic, and it does just that.
“Manhunter,” starring William Peterson, is directed by Michael Mann. The film is an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon,” and it’s the first on-screen appearance of Hannibal Lecter (changed to Lecktor in “Manhunter”), one of the most famous fictional madmen of all time. Here he’s played by Brian Cox, while Petersen stars as Will Graham, a hard-nosed FBI agent who calls on the killer for help.
Criminal profiler Graham is long retired when the movie begins, having left the service after taking down Lecktor, a cannibalistic monster. When a deadly new killer dubbed the Tooth Fairy emerges, Graham’s old boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), asks him to investigate.
Looking for any edge he can find to crack the case, Graham pays a visit to Lecktor to get further insight into the mind of a murderous psychopath. But when Lecktor begins corresponding with the killer, Graham decides to leverage the interest of an obsessive reporter (Stephen Lang) in a dangerous game to draw the Tooth Fairy out into the open.
While reviews of this film were mixed upon its release, “Manhunter” received renewed attention in the wake of the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs,” which starred Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Today it’s seen as a suspenseful and stylish neo-noir thriller of the highest order, though it would be later remade with Hopkins in 2002’s less effective “Red Dragon,” and again as part of the third season of the hit prequel series “Hannibal.”
If you want a crime thriller with an unlikely setting, you won’t find one better than the 1985 Harrison Ford thriller “Witness.” Just one year after Ford starred as a certain whip-wielding relic hunter in “The Temple of Doom,” Ford would swap out the fedora for a wide-brimmed straw hat and go from adventuring in India to stopping a murder in Amish country.
Ford stars alongside “Top Gun” star Kelly McGillis and plays a Philadelphia cop hunting one of his own in a story that mixes romance, mystery, suspense, and gritty crime drama. “Witness” opens in Philadelphia, where Amish mother Rachel (McGillis) has arrived with her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas) for a visit with her outsider sister. But while there, Samuel bears witness to the murder of an undercover cop, and when he points to a fellow officer named McFee (Danny Glover) as the trigger man, investigating detective John Book (Ford) doesn’t know who he can trust.
After an attempt on his life leaves him badly wounded, Book knows that Rachel and Samuel are in danger and seeks shelter in the Amish community while he plans his next move. But his presence in the community threatens to bring violence to the doorstep of their peaceful, humble home. The film is a nail-biting thriller with an unconventional setting that explores larger themes of morality and justice. The film was nominated for an astonishing eight Academy Awards, and it would win two, including best original screenplay.
Before he helmed the most famous ’80s gangster flick “Scarface,” Brian De Palma directed the often overlooked 1981 thriller “Blow Out,” a murder mystery starring John Travolta. The young actor expands his repertoire from the cocky hotshots he’d been playing in movies like “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Urban Cowboy.” In the film, he plays Jack, an aspiring filmmaker working as a sound engineer in his big city apartment when he stumbles across a sinister murder plot.
It all happens late one night while Jack is capturing audio for an upcoming movie on his state-of-the-art equipment and inadvertently records the sounds of a deadly car crash. As it turns out, this was no accident, and Jack quickly realizes that he has documented the only evidence of the assassination of a high-ranking political figure.
The victim, Governor George McRyan, was supposed to be a leading contender in the next presidential election, and his death has altered the political landscape. Now Jack finds himself at the center of a vast conspiracy orchestrated by McRyan’s political opponent. But when word of his recording gets out, Jack becomes their next target.
Despite its pedigree and the fact that it had a big-name star and a director who’d break out shortly thereafter, “Blow Out” is still thought of as a lesser entry in the filmmaker’s body of work. But the film is a spellbinding mystery and some excellent storytelling inspired by the best Hitchcock masterpieces. “Blow Out” is among the decade’s best.
“House of Games” is another debut directorial effort from an acclaimed filmmaker. This time, it’s writer and director David Mamet, best known for helming the 1992 classic “Glengarry Glen Ross.” He’d written a few thrillers before, like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Verdict,” but here he steps behind the camera to direct too, in a heist thriller full of mind games and double-crosses starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and J.T. Walsh.
Crouse, Mamet’s real-life wife, stars as Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist whose latest patient is in debt to some high-stakes gamblers. To smooth things over and help her client, Margaret goes to meet Mike (Joe Mantegna), a bookie and con artist, who agrees to let things slide if she’ll help him in a poker game. But Margaret is enthralled by Mike’s con artistry and aroused by the thrill herself, suddenly wanting to become part of his dark, deceitful life. Soon, they’re both planning a major score, but when a man winds up dead, Marge is in way over her head.
“House of Games” is more than a thriller, it’s a mind game itself: Both characters trick each other as the filmmakers trick the audience. This film is an unpredictable jaw-dropper with a dash of dark humor, you’ll never know what anyone has up their sleeve. Noted critic Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars and noted the film’s originality and its clever twists.
Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch burst onto the scene with his avant-garde masterpiece “Eraserhead.” The film was snatched by a major studio, and he followed his debut with his biopic “The Elephant Man” before embarking on a detour into the sci-fi blockbuster territory with “Dune.” But for his fourth film, Lynch went back to both writing and directing, producing “Blue Velvet,” his first foray into crime fiction, long before “Twin Peaks” or “Mulholland Drive.”
The film is centered around young student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), who comes across a severed human ear that is somehow connected to an alluring nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). With the help of his friend Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey seeks out the singer, who he learns is involved with gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who is as lascivious as he is dangerous.
But Vallens is no willing lover: She and her husband are actually hostages to Booth’s deviant life, and Beaumont realizes that beneath its innocent veneer, his hometown hides a nightmarish world of sadistic sexual obsession, insidious lies, and bloody murder.
Featuring Lynch’s frequent collaborators Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern, “Blue Velvet” is rife with the director’s favorite filmmaking hallmarks, from his penchant for symbolic imagery to mind-bending mystery and outlandish characters. “Blue Velvet” was controversial for its graphic sex and violence, and it was initially limited to cult status, but following the release of “Twin Peaks,” audiences gave it a second look, and since then, it has earned greater acclaim.
Before “Gorky Park,” William Hurt starred in one of the top crime thrillers of the ’80s opposite sultry new star Kathleen Turner. This film, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who just a year earlier had penned “The Empire Strikes Back,” mixes pulp-inspired romance with a twisted murder story and a startling botched cover-up. Then, it tosses in some sizzling sex appeal, which all adds up to “Body Heat,” an erotic crime thriller that pushes the boundaries of the genre.
The story revolves around seductress Matty Walker (Turner), who is unhappily married to her wealthy husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) and engaged in a steamy affair with small-time lawyer Ned Racine (Hurt). Unfortunately, Matty knows that if she divorces, she’ll likely be left penniless. To start their new life together, Ned and Matty plot to have Edmund murdered and make it look like he’s died in an accident, killing and conning Edmund out of his entire fortune.
But things don’t go entirely to plan, and when a pair of local detectives get suspicious of them, Ned must confront the reality that he may have been the one who’s been conned. “Body Heat” is often compared to the crime noir classic “Double Indemnity,” and it’s an engrossing and unpredictable thriller with a standout debut for new star Kathleen Turner. The actress gave a career-defining performance as the enigmatic, conniving femme fatale, a powerful woman whose sexuality and strength were front and center, and her deadly goals difficult to decipher.
Even the best directors don’t usually come out of the gate with as strong a showing as “Blood Simple.” The first film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who’d go on to fame with classics like “Fargo,” and “The Big Lebowski,” started out with this film in 1984. This stunning neo-noir crime thriller stars Frances McDormand in her feature film debut.
“Blood Simple” is anything but ordinary: It’s a twisted tale of love and murder gone wrong that revolves around an affair between a bar owner’s wife, Abby (McDormand), and his employee Ray (John Getz). When Marty, the bar owner (Dan Hedaya), learns of the affair, he hires the shady private investigator Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to get the facts and ultimately pays him to murder them both. But when Visser learns more about the affair, he makes a new plan for his own ends and puts a bullet in Marty. After Ray discovers the body, though, it sets off a cascading chain of events that leads to escalating amounts of bloodshed.
“Blood Simple” is impeccably shot and brilliantly directed, and it may be be the most inventive and genre-breaking thriller of the decade. While it didn’t tear it up at the box office, it garnered universal critical acclaim for its freshness, originality, and sheer audaciousness. A stylistic mash-up that expertly swirled together hard-boiled pulp fiction, crime noir, dark comedy, and even horror hallmarks, it was a breathtaking start for the Coen Bros that has stood the test of time.
Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” isn’t just one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, it’s the best crime thriller too. Blade Runner” was released in 1982, and it teamed up one of Hollywood’s finest new filmmakers with one of its biggest stars, and the result was a groundbreaking, genre-defying masterpiece.
The film is based on the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and it presents a cyber-punk future that feels like a grimy back alley of New York or Hong Kong, which is the perfect setting for a first-rate crime story.
Rick Deckard (Ford) lives in the dark future world of 2019 Los Angeles. Deckard is a retired blade runner or law enforcement agent who is charged with hunting down and eliminating rogue replicants. These synthetic servants appear human and have been created as slave labor for off-world colonies.
Deckard is called back into service for a new case and tasked with hunting down four renegade replicants who have defied their programming in the hopes of extending their lifespans and finding freedom.
But in his manhunt, Deckard begins to question the nature of replicant life and ponders what it really means to be human. “Blade Runner” is a mesmerizing cinematic experience that goes beyond a simple crime story and examines philosophical matters of identity. Its awe-inspiring visuals capture the mood of the best pulp detective stories in a dystopian future and offer up a puzzle that has still never been solved.