Barry Norman’s 101 greatest films: thrillers

From Goodfellas to Chinatown, find out which classics made our film expert's top ten

Goodfellas 1990 18 139min Colour One of several films for which Martin Scorsese should have won the Oscar but didn’t, this is based on the true story of how criminal wannabe Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) fulfilled his dream of becoming a gangster and joined the Mob. Extremely violent, as you’d expect from Scorsese, but totally absorbing and directed with masterly verve and imagination. Powerful performances from Liotta, Robert De Niro and a small but terrifying Joe Pesci in what is Scorsese’s best crime movie.   Did you know? The final shot of Joe Pesci firing at the camera is a homage to 1903 silent classic The Great Train Robbery.   Say it Again! “Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Jimmy Conway   Oscars Joe Pesci supporting actor   Read the full review

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Dirty Harry 1971 18 102min Colour A fascist tract as some have claimed? Yes, in the sense that police inspector Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) makes the end justify the means, tearing up the American constitution to track down a serial killer. But forget that: this is a terrific thriller. Eastwood may not have been the first but he is still the best of those maverick movie cops who will bend all the rules to see justice done. Great lines, too: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question — do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”   Did you know? The title role was offered to Paul Newman, who said no for political reasons. Frank Sinatra then pulled out injured, so the script was sent to Clint Eastwood.   Say it Again! “I know what you’re thinking: did he fire six shots or only five?” Harry Callahan   Read the full review

The Big Sleep 1946 PG 109min BW Naturally I’m talking about the classic version by Howard Hawks, never to be confused with Michael Winner’s remake. I always fancied myself as Raymond Chandler’s archetypal private eye Philip Marlowe, but I was still at school when the film was made so Hawks cast Humphrey Bogart instead. Good choice; he didn’t have the physical heft but he shared Marlowe’s cynical, sceptical, loner’s view of the world. Lauren Bacall is ideal as the slinky femme fatale in a fast, witty, romantic thriller so convoluted that even Chandler himself couldn’t remember who killed the chauffeur.   Did you know? When studio chief Jack Warner found out Bogart and Bacall were meeting in secret, he fired off a memo: “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.”   Say it Again! “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” Philip Marlowe   Read the full review

The Godfather 1972 15 169min Colour This is unquestionably the finest gangster movie ever made. The Godfather, Part II is an even better film but deals more with the corruption of power than the acquiring of it. The first one tells how the Corleone family became the most powerful Mafia mob in New York, American free enterprise run amok. These are reprehensible people, violent, murderous, pitiless, yet so beautifully portrayed that somehow we are on their side. This was Marlon Brando’s last hurrah and also marked Al Pacino’s rise to the top.   Did you Know? The decision to have Marlon Brando stroke a cat in the opening scene was made at the last minute — the actor had spotted a stray padding around the Paramount lot. As the camera started rolling, the cat began purring with such contentment that some of the dialogue in the scene had to be redubbed.   Say it Again! “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Don Corleone
Oscars best picture, Marlon Brando actor, Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo adapted screenplay   Read the full review

The Silence of the Lambs 1991 18 113min Colour I once upset Anthony Hopkins by suggesting he should be nominated for best supporting actor. I was wrong. Comparatively brief though his role is, he deservedly won the best actor award. As the jailed, hugely dangerous shrink-cum-serial killer Hannibal Lecter, he is consulted by young FBI agent Jodie Foster to help catch another homicidal maniac. The quest for the killer is thrilling enough but it’s in the exchanges between Hopkins and Foster that the film comes most vividly to life.   Did you Know? When Hopkins took on the role of Lecter, he described his softly spoken but menacing tones as “a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and HAL from 2001: a Space Odyssey”.   Say it Again! “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Hannibal Lecter
Oscars best picture, Jonathan Demme directing, Anthony Hopkins actor, Jodie Foster actress, Ted Tally adapted screenplay   Read the full review

LA Confidential 1997 18 132min Colour Cruelly denied the Oscar by the astonishing popularity of Titanic, this is one of the best American films of the 1990s. Set in Los Angeles in the 1950s and adapted from James Ellroy’s novel, it’s a heady mixture of police brutality and corruption, sex scandals, racism and gangland violence, involving the relationships between three very different cops — Kevin Spacey and the then little-known Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. The climactic shootout is a bit OTT, but otherwise this is an outstanding thriller. In an excellent cast Kim Basinger is as good as anyone.   Did you Know? A TV pilot (with Kiefer Sutherland) was filmed in 1999 but not shown until 2003. No series followed.   Say it Again! “I admire your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.” Captain Dudley Smith
Oscars Kim Basinger supporting actress, Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland adapted screenplay   Read the full review

North by Northwest 1959 PG 130min Colour Hitchcock’s classic (well, one of them) is a glorious blend of thrills, danger, romance and humour mixed together as only Hitch could do it. Cary Grant is a Madison Avenue executive mistaken for a US agent by smoothly sinister foreign agent James Mason, with potentially lethal results. Eva Marie Saint provides the love interest in a film full of memorable sequences, including the terrifying attack by a crop-dusting plane.   Did you Know? During the Mount Rushmore shoot-out, a boy blocks his ears before the shooting starts.   Say it Again! “The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.” Roger Thornhill   Read the full review

Chinatown 1974 15 125min Colour   A remarkable tour de force by director Roman Polanski and the star, Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays a late 1930s private eye in Los Angeles whose latest case, apparently straightforward, unravels into something far more complex involving murder, incest and (topically nowadays) a shortage of water. This is latter-day film noir at its very best, the period impeccably evoked. Nicholson is outstanding and there’s great support from Faye Dunaway and John Huston.   Did you Know? Polanski didn’t exactly endear himself to his stars. He threw Jack Nicholson’s portable TV set out of his trailer during an argument and then proceeded to pluck a stray hair from Faye Dunaway’s head as it was spoiling a shot.   Say it Again! “You know what happens to nosey fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? OK. They lose their noses.” Man with knife (Roman Polanski)   Oscars Robert Towne screenplay   Read the full review

Psycho 1960 15 108min BW   Hitchcock again and, for me, his best film. Because of its three famous shock moments, many regard it as a horror movie but it’s better than that. Even before Janet Leigh arrives at the creepy Bates Motel (proprietor Anthony Perkins), Hitchcock has already got the audience on the wrong foot and he keeps it second-guessing till the end. You only have to see Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-by-shot remake to see how infinitely superior the original is.   Did you Know? The hand holding the knife in the shower scene is that of the Master of Suspense himself.   Say it Again! “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Norman Bates   Read the full review

The Third Man 1949 PG 101min BW

If there is a better British thriller than this, I have yet to encounter it. Graham Greene’s story of Joseph Cotten’s search for his apparently dead friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in ravaged, post-war Vienna is absolutely timeless. The plot hangs beautifully together, the screenplay is witty and intelligent, the cast is excellent and Anton Karas’s zither music lingers indelibly in the mind.   Did you Know? Four cats were used for the scene in which Orson Welles makes his entrance. One was supposed to toy with his shoelaces but refused, so Welles’s trousers were coated in sardines.   Say it Again! “In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Harry Lime   Read the full review

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time part 2 is available in the new issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale from Tuesday 24 January