Open Air Cinema's Classic Thrillers Everyone Should See

Everyone loves a good thriller - a story full of mystery and intrigue which sucks us in and keeps us on the edge of our seat. Something not too horrifying, but plenty suspenseful. Something with desperate men and women, doing whatever they can to get whatever it is they want. We often turn to what's new in the theaters for a good thrill. But there are plenty of classic thrillers out there which you need to watch if you haven't seen them already.

We took a poll at the Open Air Cinema offices and came up with our Top 5 Classic Thrillers that Everyone Should See. Any of these pictures would make a fine selection for an outdoor movie night. Have everyone come dressed as their favorite noir-type character. Serve only black-and-white foods. Make an event out of it! A good classic thriller is always fun - but it's even better if you break out the inflatable screen for a little bit of cinema under the stars!

Touch of Evil

(Orson Welles, 1958)

Director Orson Welles is best known for his early successes. But Touch of Evil, filmed at the tail end of a tumultuous film career, is just as much a triumph of filmmaking as even Citizen Kane. Legend has it in fact that Touch of Evil came out of a strange request from Welles for the worst script in the pile to prove that he was still a great director - and prove it he did. Not only is Touch of Evil widely considered to be the last great noir film, but it highlights all of the things which made Welles a truly great director - unflinchingly flawed characters, dramatic shadow work, and one of the greatest tracking shots in cinema history. And, in case you were wondering, Welles' chops as an actor in Touch of Evil are as pronounced as his chops at the helm.

Night of the Hunter

(Charles Laughton, 1955)

There are not a lot of people who make a more intimidating villain than Robert Mitchum. The man's doorframe build and booming baritone lend themselves well to the role of murderous and mysteriously-tattooed Reverend Harry Powell. When the plot takes a turn for the suspenseful, there really is nothing more terrifying than Mitchum calling after his prey - Chiiiiiiiiiildreeeeeeen! Featuring incredible framing, and dramatic dreamlike sequences, this film is a noir classic and a still thrills even after 60 years.

The Manchurian Candidate

(John Frankenheimer, 1962)

Ol' Blue Eyes as an assassin secretly programmed by Communist China to kill the President? That's the kind of plot that grips the nation - especially since the real-life assassination of President John F. Kennedy by madman Lee Harvey Oswald occurred a little more than a year afterward. Still, even without the natural hype that followed this film, The Manchurian Candidate would still be remembered as a classic thriller for its blistering lead performances, its biting satire of American political life, and it's fast-paced camerawork which finds its root in director John Frankenheimer's days as a live TV wunderkind.

Rear Window

(Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

There are a good many Hitchcock films that qualify as a classic thriller. But in Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock proves that a good thriller is not necessarily founded on intense action or bloodshed, but tight camerawork and a thorough dedication to a suspenseful, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Confining your lead actor to a wheelchair with a broken leg - and confining the majority of the film's action through the aperture of a telephoto lens - is definitely a challenge. But Hitchcock only uses these apparent disadvantages to disorient the audience, gripping it tight in a vise between a merciless killer and the inability to run away. Jimmy Stewart's powerlessness in the face of violent death becomes our powerlessness by extension, and Hitchcock turns that trauma all the way to 11, leaving us gasping for air by the end.


(Roman Polanksi, 1974)

Jack Nicholson is often typecast - or even mythologized - as a cold, brooding man who would step on your neck with a big smile in order to get what he wants. These qualities can work in the portrayal of a private dick ala Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. But where Chinatown really works is how Nicholson defies his stereotyping and gives us a glimpse of a lonely man just trying to survive in a world that is increasingly crooked. His J.J. Gittes is a man who almost seems desperate to establish some kind of real human connection in the hurlyburly of post-war Los Angeles - think of the scene where he awkwardly tries to tell a dirty joke to a crowd of stone faces. This sensitivity and almost passive demeanor make for a savage juxtaposition when Nicholson has to break out the brutal tools of the investigative trade. Of course, Nicholson's performance is only half of it. The other half of this film's acclaim belong to Roman Polanksi's measured direction style, which nods to the tenants of noir, but never shamelessly imitates. Do these thrillers still pack a wallop after all these years? Absolutely. But the viewing environment is just as important as the film itself sometimes. Only a hot summer night - out in the backyard or down in the park - these are the kinds of thrillers that go over well. They were the kind that were made for the big inflatable screen. Break out some old jazz music for good prelude, get the popcorn popped, and prepare for a thrilling night of cinema under the stars.

Join our mailing list

Get the latest outdoor cinema updates and benefits straight to your inbox

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Join our community of 4,000+ Open Air Cinema enthusiasts and professionals. Get exclusive tutorials, guidance and discounts in our weekly email newsletter.

Subscribe now 👇