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Since this is Criminal Element, after all, let’s confine our list to thrillers: action, crime, psychological, political, and horror.
According to legend, producer Robert Evans bought the rights to the book before Mario Puzo had even finished it and proceeded to shepherd a faithful adaptation that many consider to be the best film ever made. Francis Ford Coppola received the lion’s share of the credit for that, but everything he put on the screen is drawn straight out of the book. From the opening wedding reception to the blood-soaked finale, this cinema classic is chock full of the themes that turned a gangster story into a Shakespearean masterpiece.
Steven Spielberg diverted just enough from Peter Benchley’s huge bestseller to turn a simple monster movie into a blockbuster that changed film forever. The lack of a working mechanical shark taught audiences that less is more—the scenes shot from the shark’s POV (coupled with the steady beat of the John Williams score) are perhaps the most imitated in film. This reinvention of Moby Dick at its heart is an exploration of machismo and the nature of heroism in the hands of a filmmaker discovering his own greatness.
Perhaps the most faithful adaptation ever, this is also rightfully considered the scariest film ever made. William Peter Blatty’s one-sitting, much-imitated horror tale was adapted by William Friedkin into a masterwork of elegantly paced terror. An exploration of faith set against an archetypal battle between good and evil, it features some of the most famous scenes and one of the greatest openings in film history.
The film was every bit the equal of William Goldman’s seminal thriller about Nazis in New York menacing grad student Babe Levy—as played by Dustin Hoffman so well that we forgot he was much too old for the role. We lose Goldman’s iconic portrayal of the deadly assassin Scylla from the book, but the torture scene, played with Mephistophelean menace by the great Lawrence Oliver, is a cinema tour de force that did for going to the dentist what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
The Boys From Brazil
Ira Levin’s cutting edge thriller about Hitler clones running rampant across the globe gave us Lawrence Oliver (again) playing a Nazi hunter who comes to the shattering realization that the Fourth Reich is alive and well under the leadership of Josef Mengele, as envisioned by Gregory Peck. An archetypal prologue opens the door to the unraveling of a monstrous mystery pealed back, in book and film, one magical layer at a time.
Speaking of Ira Levin, he rewrote the rules for the modern horror thriller in this classic that were similarly rewritten by Roman Polanski in the film version. Mia Farrow passed on joining then husband Frank Sinatra in The Detective to play the role that made her a star. She appears in every single scene of this terrifying treatise on urban paranoia where the neighbors next door are witches who want to steal your baby, only to learn it’s even worse than that. And that final scene, when Rosemary meets her baby for the first time, remains one of the most powerful in film history.
The Silence of the Lambs
Essentially a sequel to Red Dragon (made into the equally great Manhunter), this masterpiece of psychological horror features true star turns by both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, faithfully playing Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. A riveting cat-and-mouse game comprised of riveting moments of repartee and, oh man, that scene where Lecter stages his jaw-dropping escape.
Three Days of the Condor
One of the great political thrillers ever made chopped three days from a solid book by James Grady in fashioning the quintessential tale to emerge from the paranoia spurred by Watergate. Like Babe Levy, our hero is an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances he can’t control but ultimately does. How great is the movie? I’ve probably seen it a dozen times and still can’t make sense of everything. Worth watching just for the final encounter between Redford and Max Von Sydow’s deadly assassin Joubert—so memorable for what follows the line, “It will happen like this…”
I’m going on a limb with this one, since so much criticism has been leveled over the diminutive Tom Cruise playing the bruising Jack Reacher in an adaptation of Lee Child’s bestseller One Shot. Size aside, though, Cruise captures Reacher’s stoic sensibility and nomadic, gunfighter mentality that has made him this generation’s James Bond. A throwback to pre-CGI action films.
John Farris’s taut, twisty paranormal thriller as reimagined by Brian DePalma, this might be the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t make. Blessed by a haunting score by John Williams, this perfectly paced shocker contains as many memorable scenes as any movie of its kind. Way ahead of its time and distinguished by a brilliantly villainous turn by the great John Cassavetes that will blow your mind (Pun intended!).
Seven Days in May
A screenplay by the great Rod Serling from the novel by Fletcher Knebel, and star turns by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as antagonists, imagines a coup d’etat in Washington that remains shockingly credible to this day. This one spawned numerous lesser imitations that didn’t even come close to measuring up to an all-too-plausible plot to realize the unthinkable.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Joseph Sargent’s adaptation wondrously captures the furious pace of John Godey’s starkly original tale of high-end thugs who hijack a subway car. A great caper tale turned into quintessential crime noir thanks to virtuoso performances by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw trading barbs amid the ideal blend of humor and thrills. Oh, and by the way, skip the remake. Please.
That’s my take, friends. Now, what titles would you like to add to the list and why?
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Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of more than thirty-five novels, including the bestselling series featuring female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong: Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance, Strong Rain Falling, Strong Darkness, and Strong Light of Day. In addition, he is the author of the nonfiction bestseller Betrayal. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.