The thematic conventions of the contemporary thriller—suspenseful and exciting drama, a narrative which locates criminality as its focus— offer a framework perhaps more readily associated with the genre-based US film industry. The British thriller is not always easy to define, its forms shifting at times between and beyond the crime, melodrama, horror, espionage and action categories.
   Suspense and intrigue as durable characteristics of the thriller are significantly identified in the prewar films of British-born director Alfred Hitchcock. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are tightly paced, if improbable, spy adventures featuring charming, upper-class protagonists. After the war, the seedy realism of John Boulting’s Brighton Rock (1947) introduced an altogether different set of players, and its horrifyingly dark portrayal of vicious criminal ambition amongst small-time gangsters offered a more sustainable model for the contemporary thriller film. However, in the immediate postwar era, crime dramas such as Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp (1949) commanded wide audience appeal and established the conventions of the 1950s crime vehicle. Prosaic crime themes investigated by worthy and uncomplicated police protagonists characterized the typical thriller.
   By the end of the 1950s, the reassuringly formulaic narratives were increasingly challenged by crime dramas with plotlines which sought to confront social issues, dramas which can be considered stylistically and thematically suggestive of the social realist tendency that marked 1960s British cinema. Val Guest’s Hell is a City (1959) offers gritty Manchester locations to reveal the city’s seedy underworld as an embittered detective tracks down a brutal escaped convict. In the problematic thriller Sapphire (1959), the search for the killer of a black woman uncovers disturbing undercurrents of racial and class tension amongst suspects and their investigators. Joseph Losey’s complex story of incarceration and gangsterism, The Criminal (1960), presented the prison environment and underworld with new authenticity; the film, however, encountered a poor critical reception in Britain. While the traditional values of the police drama were maintained in 1960s B movies, main feature crime films diversified. The stylish James Bond action thrillers, which began in 1962 with Dr No, followed by From Russia with Love in 1963, revitalized the British spy genre and opened the way for the similarly US-funded Harry Palmer trilogy: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), adapted from novels by Len Deighton. Of these, the most significant, The Ipcress File, while lacking the glamour, extravagant plot and budget of its Bond counterparts, offers realism and style in a credible spy drama which speaks with a dry and off-beat humour of Cold War cynicism and disillusion. Michael Caine as Palmer supplied a matter-of-fact, civil service secret agent, in deep contrast to the playboy spy Bond. However, the Bond character has proved more sustainable, with Pierce Brosnan introduced in Goldeneye to represent the 1990s version of this long-running series. While Michael Powell’s controversial British film Peeping Tom (1959) —which explicitly addresses themes of voyeurism and violence—had been greeted with outrage by reviewers on release, in the 1960s the emerging sub-genre of the psychological thriller was popularized by the international success of Hitchcock’s US film Psycho (1960). The psychological thriller of the 1960s and 1970s allowed film-makers room to deviate on the cinematic possibilities of the crime film in a variety of ways. In the mainstream, Hammer Films (see Hammer Horror) made a series of taut melodramas, which began promisingly with Taste of Fear (1961). Beyond Hammer, the US-British coproduction The Collector (1965), a haunting study of cruelty and obsession, and Sleuth (1972), an elegantly theatrical mystery, were built on strong and suspenseful plots. Experimental responses to the category include Blow Up (1967), in which Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni bound a mysterious and fragmentary plot within a pastiche of Swinging London images and contexts. Similarly, Nicholas Roeg used his evocative visual style to disclose a violent and decadent underworld in Performance (1969), and to reveal the hidden malevolence of an atmospheric Venetian setting in the supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now (1973). Big-budget thrillers of the 1970s offered an unusual internationalism. Lavish Agatha Christie adaptations Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978) revamped the British whodunit tradition with glamorous settings and all star casts. Tightly-paced conspiracy stories The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The Odessa File (1974) — made with British-European funding—combined journalistic plots (from bestsellers by Frederick Forsyth) with international casting and a distinctive use of European locations. Conversely, lower budgets produced a range of British-based crime films: the hard-edged revenge drama Get Carter and Stephen Frears’s grimly ironic Gumshoe (both 1971) are introspective thrillers which make effective use of their North of England locations. Further significant studies of modern gangsterism, Villain (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1979), are, like Roeg’s Performance, London-centred. For the most part the modern British crime film is not immediately identifiable as a thriller; while preserving themes of violence or the underworld, it tends to deal more with characterization than action. Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), a poignant study of the relationship between a prostitute and her minder, The Krays (1990), the compelling story of 1960s underworld bosses Ronnie and Reggie Kray, and Jordan’s provocative IRA drama The Crying Game (1990) represent new responses to the category. While Shallow Grave (1994), a chilling story of greed and duplicity, proved that the thriller could still be made in Britain, the decline of the British film industry and the identification of a marketable national film type in historical drama are factors which have severely diminished the production of crime films in this country. British stars remain visible, however, due to the Hollywood trend of the late 1980s and 1990s to cast British actors, including Terence Stamp, Charles Dance and Jeremy Irons, as villains in big-budget US crime movies. At home, the fragmentary forms of the contemporary thriller, coupled with the precarious state of the nation’s film industry, have meant that television can be seen to offer a more stable context for the sophisticated crime drama with the making of feature-length and serialized thrillers, such as Prime Suspect, scripted by Lynda La Plante, and Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.
   Further reading
    Merry, B. (1977) Anatomy of the Spy Thriller, Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.
    Murphy, R. (1992) Sixties British Cinema, London: BFI Publishing.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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