Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who rivals Alfred Hitchcock as the most important director in the evolution of the movie thriller, served his apprenticeship on German adventure series featuring exotic locales, Asian motifs, and Feuillade-influenced supercriminals. He transposed these exotic and adventurous concepts into the here and now of postwar German society in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ( Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler , 1922), an epic crime thriller that paints a broad canvas of the chaos and decadence of Weimar Germany, manipulated from behind the scenes by the mastermind Mabuse.
In his later German classics—the thrillers Spione ( Spies , 1928), M (1931), and Das Testament der Dr. Mabuse ( The Testament of Dr. Mabuse , 1933), and the science fiction film Metropolis (1927)—Lang elaborated his concept of the modern city as a duplicitous labyrinth honeycombed with subterranean passages, infused with a mood of pervasive conspiracy, and stratified into a flashy over world and a shadowy under world that disconcertingly mirror one another. Similar visions of the thriller metropolis shape later thriller movies, including The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), which explores the confusion of postwar Vienna from the top of a Ferris wheel to the depths of the city sewers; Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), which traverses the heights and depths of San Francisco in roller-coaster contours; and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which imagines future Los Angeles as a high-tech, low-rent dystopia.
Lang's Spies , in which professional German agents battle a Mabuse-like supervillain, was the most distinguished spy movie of the silent era. In the 1930s, in response to the growing international tensions of the time, the spy genre rose to a new level of prominence in both literature and film. This trend centered in Great Britain, where the leading filmmaker involved was Alfred Hitchcock. Like his literary contemporaries Eric Ambler (1909–1998) and Graham Greene (1904–1991), Hitchcock usually focused his spy stories not on professional agents but on ordinary citizens caught up in the dirty business of espionage: In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a British couple on a Swiss holiday accidentally learn of a planned political assassination; in The 39 Steps (1935), a London man stumbles upon a plot to steal vital British military secrets. The "amateur-spy" story enhances such thrilleresque qualities as the vulnerability of its inexperienced protagonists and the undermining of ordinary existence by alien forces.
Lang was one of the major directors associated with the German expressionist cinema, whose moody style, well suited for expressing such feelings as tension and fear, exerted a strong influence on thriller directors (including Hitchcock, who worked in Germany during the expressionist cinema's heyday of the 1920s) and thriller-related genres, such as film noir and the horror film. The latter enjoyed its first sustained cycle in the American cinema of the early 1930s, which produced such legendary horror movies as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Much like the Gothic novel, these films take place primarily in exotic, antiquated settings. The more thrilleresque ploy of transposing traditional horror elements, such as monsters and witches, into commonplace, contemporary contexts was pioneered by the series of subtle, suggestive low-budget horror films including Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943) produced by Val Lewton (1904–1951) in the early 1940s.
The most famous of all film directors, and the one most closely identified with the thriller, Alfred Hitchcock completed his first film in 1925. However, he did not cement his association with the thriller until the mid-1930s, when he directed five major spy films ( The Man Who Knew Too Much , 1934; The 39 Steps , 1935; Secret Agent , 1936; Sabotage , 1936; and The Lady Vanishes , 1938). In this period, he developed such Hitchcockian trademarks as the double chase (in which a falsely suspected hero—such as Richard Hannay of The 39 Steps —must elude the authorities while he seeks the real culprit), the placement of sinister activities in unexpected and innocuous surroundings (the cozy pet shop where anarchist bombs are manufactured in Sabotage ), and the shifting among different viewpoints to intensify and complexify suspense (the agonizing scene in Secret Agent wherein the approaching doom of a suspected traitor is intercut with the mounting anxiety of his worried wife, his whining dog, and a guilt-ridden collaborator in his assassination).
Hitchcock's interest in the spy thriller persisted after his 1939 move from Britain to Hollywood with Saboteur (1942) and Notorious (1946). However, he more frequently explored other areas, especially the psychological crime thriller, which stays closer to home as it concentrates on ordinary people caught up in crime rather than on professional criminals, detectives, or policemen. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which a teenager suspects that her beloved uncle is a notorious murderer, and Strangers on a Train (1951), in which a clean-cut tennis star finds himself embroiled in a madman's scheme to swap murders, are two of Hitchcock's most celebrated ventures in this vein.
In the mid-1950s, Hitchcock embarked on a series of mature masterpieces that represent the most impressive sustained achievement in the history of the movie thriller: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). This period saw an enrichment of Hitchcock's already formidable tactics of identification and point of view, more boldly undermining the spectator's stability and evoking conflicting responses to the action, while still maintaining the basic drive of suspense. In Rear Window , our over determined identification with the wheelchair-bound, voyeuristic protagonist encourages a self-conscious questioning not only of his motives but also of our own motives as spectators. In Psycho , our strong attachment to an embezzling secretary is abruptly severed and then replaced by a split allegiance among a disturbingly sympathetic psychopath and two more normal but less compelling characters.
Hitchcock's identification with the thriller impeded his prestige, especially in eras when socially conscious, realist, and art films monopolized critical respect. The rise of critical attitudes more receptive to genre films and directorial authorship led to a major reevaluation of his artistic stature in the 1950s and 1960s. Hitchcock's thrillers—endlessly revived, written about, taught to film students, and referenced by filmmakers—are now enshrined as cultural monuments.
The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Frenzy (1972)
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Gottlieb, Sidney, ed. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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