With yet another overhyped and underwhelming summer blockbuster season drawing to a close, it’s heartening to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s exciting new thriller, Drive, edging ever closer to release.
A perfect antidote to the bloat of Hollywood big-budget inertia, Drive is the latest in a long line of smaller-budgeted thrillers, from either side of the Atlantic, which show the big boys of Hollywood how to make exciting and engaging cinema on a relative shoestring budget.
So, for all discerning readers, here’s my top ten list of lower-budget thrillers that are anything but B-list in their ambition and execution.
Back before they were the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen decided to make a movie. That movie was 1984’s Blood Simple, and from it came a body of work to rival anything in post-war American cinema.
A bone dry and truly classic film noir, Blood Simple wore its influences on its sleeve (the title is a Dashiell Hammett reference), and bathed in the same waters as the classic noirs of writers such as Hammett and James M Cain.
Telling the story of Texas barman Ray (John Getz) and his affair with Abbey (Frances McDormand), the wife of his boss, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), the movie rather leisurely and moodily follows the gradual interweaving of its characters’ fates.
When Marty becomes suspicious of the couple, he hires private eye Visser (M Emmet Walsh) to first spy on the couple and then kill them. But this being film noir, Visser has his own agenda, and his betrayal of Marty is just the beginning of a whole chain of events that leads to a bloody denouement in Abbey’s apartment.
Made for just $1.5m, the film not only launched the Coen Brothers onto the movie-going public, but also helped launch the careers of both cinematographer (and future director) Barry Sonnenfeld and leading lady McDormand. Not bad for a couple of lads from Minnesota.
Director Neil Jordan’s 1986 London-set thriller, Mona Lisa is probably the finest film that Jordan, and its star, Bob Hoskins, ever made.
A far more intimate and contained film than the similarly London-set Hoskins starrer, The Long Good Friday, or Jordan’s more obviously shocking and internationally successful, The Crying Game, Mona Lisa is a woozy, bluesy movie that perfectly captures the seedy, run-down feel of mid-80s London.
Following the story of recently released ex-con George (Hoskins) and his new job as driver for high-class prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson), Mona Lisa is a classy thriller which takes its time to develop a world of rich characters rather than rely on cheap shocks and twists.
Featuring excellent supporting turns by both Michael Caine, as the ice-cold gangster Mortwell, and Robbie Coltrane, Mona Lisa is a thriller that keeps you both guessing at the plot and enthralled by the characters right from the start.Reservoir Dogs
When it comes to the more recent independent wave of thrillers, Reservoir Dogs (1991) is the undisputed daddy of them all. Made for a paltry $1.2m by writer and director Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs was an exocet missile across the bows of a complacent and overly formulaic Hollywood.
A talky, bloody, pithy and pop culture-savvy piece of work, Dogs gave Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth breakout roles, revitalised the careers of both Harvey Keitel and Chris Penn, and launched the love-him-or-loathe-him figure of Tarantino onto the world stage.
Pulp Fiction may ultimately be a more influential film, but along with Sex, Lies And Videotape, Reservoir Dogs is where 90s indie film begins.
The story of the making of Robert Rodriguez’s Mexican action movie, El Mariachi (1992), with its less-than-shoestring $7,000 budget, is an amazing story in itself, and one better read in Rodriguez’s own self-mythologising book, Rebel Without A Crew.
However, that self-mythologising shouldn’t detract from what Rodriguez managed to achieve on a budget that probably wouldn’t cover the catering on a major American movie for more than a couple of days.
Not the most sophisticated piece of storytelling, what El Mariachi lacks in depth it more than makes up for in inventive camera angles, irreverent humour and memorable set pieces. Picked up by Sony Pictures for release and then essentially remade for the studio by Rodriguez as Desperado, El Mariachi proved that sometimes all it takes to make a visually inventive and entertaining movie is a brass neck and a monster sized pair of cojones.
The Usual Suspects
Famously described by director Bryan Singer as “Double Indemnity-meets-Rashomon”, The Usual Suspects firmly established director Singer, writer Chris McQuarrie and star Kevin Spacey as part of the Hollywood A-list after its Oscar winning success in 1995.
Growing out of Singer and McQuarrie’s success with their first film Public Access at the 1993 Sundance festival, and their subsequent friendship with the then-unknown Spacey, The Usual Suspects was very much a case of ‘right place, right time’ for so many elements of its production.
Budgeted at a mere $6m dollars, Singer managed to expertly manage his resources to deliver a picture that looked a darn sight more expensive.
Helped in no small part by an excellent ensemble cast, including Spacey, Gabriel Byrne and the up-and-coming Benicio Del Toro, Singer’s film was smart, reverent to its sources, but featured one of the greatest twists in cinema history.
A worthy winner of two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for McQuarrie and Best Supporting Actor for Spacey, 15 years later, The Usual Suspects still stands as a highpoint on every contributor’s CV.
Beforethe Matrix trilogy made them synonymous with wire-fu, bullet-time and gnomic utterances that’d make George Lucas blush, the Wachowski Brothers were simply the two guys who made that rather cool lesbian crime film, Bound.
Burned by the gutting of their script for the movie Assassins, the Wachowskis took matters into their own hands for their maiden directorial bow.
Made on a budget of $6m dollars and imaginatively shot by cinematographer Bill Pope, Bound riffed heavily on the comic book stylings of Frank Miller’s Sin City series, and in many ways paved the way for its eventual adaptation some years later.The Limey
While it may not be his most well-known thriller – the Ocean’s films and Out Of Sight win there – Stephen Soderbergh’s The Limey is arguably his most efficient, lean and effective stab at the genre.
With its hypnotic Nicolas Roeg-style editing, its casting of 60s icons Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda as the two leads, and its classic hardboiled revenge story (with strong echoes of John Boorman’s Point Blank), The Limey sees Soderbergh on top form.
The biggest masterstroke is Soderbergh’s use of footage from Ken Loach’s late 60s Stamp starrer Poor Cow, which lends the film an added sense of loss and nostalgia that lingers long after the final credits roll.
Opening the new millennium with a bang, the Costa Del Crime-set Sexy Beast was a welcome and stylish change from the depressingly misogynistic rut that British crime films had fallen into after the success of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
Brought to the screen by British production legend Jeremy Thomas, andvividly marshalled by first-time feature director, Jonathan Glazer, Sexy Beast gave Ray Winstone his best role since Nil By Mouth, Amanda Redman a chance to smoulder on the big screen, and set Ian McShane on the road to American stardom.
However, the film’s most memorable character was psychopath Don Logan. Brilliantly brought to life by Sir Ben Kingsley, Logan gave the film an unpredictable energy and made the Academy Award-winning actor hot property once again.
After his impressive, no-budget debut, Following, bowed in 1998, director Christopher Nolan graduated to the big leagues with the stunning Memento (2000).
Based around the brilliant central conceit of a man who’s unable to form new memories, Memento is at once a classic memory loss film noir spliced with a revenge thriller, while at the same time serving as a deconstruction of both character and narrative, with its backwards structure and haunting depiction of a man literally cut loose from cause and effect.
Gorgeously shot by Wally Pfister, and superbly acted by Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, Nolan’s film is that rare beast, that not only makes you want to watch it again and again, but actively rewards you for doing so.
In many ways a trial run for Nolan’s later, multi-levelled action thriller Inception, Memento remains, for many people, the definitive Nolan movie.
Featuring Hollywood icon George Clooney in an unusually ruthless leading role, director Anton Corbijn’s taut euro thriller is a bleak yet hugely impressive film, which takes Clooney out of his usual comfort zone and teases out one of his most affecting and impressive performances.
With more than a slight echo of both Jean Pierre Melville’s classic French gangster film, Le Samurai, and the aforementioned Point Blank (a default influence for so many post-60s thrillers), Corbijn manages to concoct a dark yet compelling film.
Using both minimal dialogue, stunning yet haunting locations, and a very deliberate and controlled camera style, Corbijn evocatively conjures a mood of dark secrets, hidden agendas and fatal betrayal that are forever lurking just out of frame.
With an impressive script by Rowan Joffe, sublime cinematography from Martin Ruhe, and excellent support from its European cast, The American is both a throwback to a type of thriller rarely attempted these days, and a tantalising glimpse of what a superb filmmaker Corbijn is in the process of becoming.