One of the earliest thriller films was
Harold Lloyd's comedy
Safety Last! (1923), with a character performing a daredevil
stunt on the side of a skyscraper.
Alfred Hitchcock's first thriller was his third
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), a suspenseful
Jack the Ripper story. His next thriller was
Blackmail (1929), his and Britain's first sound film.
 His notable 1930s thrillers include
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934),
The 39 Steps (1935) and
The Lady Vanishes (1938), the latter two ranked among the
greatest British films of the 20th century.
One of the earliest spy films was
Spies (1928), the director's first independent production, with an anarchist international conspirator and criminal spy character named Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is pursued by good-guy Agent No. 326 (Willy Fritsch)—this film would be an inspiration for the future
James Bond films. The
M (1931), directed by
Fritz Lang, starred
Peter Lorre (in his first film role) as a criminal deviant who
preys on children.
Hitchcock continued his suspense-thrillers, directing
Foreign Correspondent (1940), the Oscar-winning
Saboteur (1942) and
Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which was Hitchcock's own personal favorite. Notable non-Hitchcock films of the 1940s include
The Spiral Staircase (1946) and
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
In the 1950s, Hitchcock added
technicolor to his thrillers, now with exotic locales. He reached the zenith of his career with a succession of classic films such as,
Strangers on a Train (1951),
Dial M For Murder (1954) with
Rear Window (1954) and
Vertigo (1958). Non-Hitchcock thrillers of the 1950s include
The Night of the Hunter (1955)—
Charles Laughton's only film as director—and
Orson Welles's crime thriller
Touch of Evil (1958).
Peeping Tom (1960) featured
Carl Boehm as a psychopathic cameraman. After Hitchcock's classic films of the 1950s, he produced
Psycho (1960) about a lonely, mother-fixated
motel owner and taxidermist.
J. Lee Thompson's
Cape Fear (1962), with
Robert Mitchum, had a menacing ex-con seeking
revenge. A famous thriller at the time of its release was
Wait Until Dark (1967) by director
Terence Young, with Audrey Hepburn as a victimized blind woman in her Manhattan apartment.
The 1970s saw an increase of violence in the thriller genre, beginning with Canadian director
Wake in Fright (1971), which almost completely overlapped with the horror genre, and
Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock's first British film in almost two decades, which was given an R rating for its vicious and explicit strangulation scene.
One of the first films about a fan's being disturbingly obsessed with their idol was
Clint Eastwood's directorial debut,
Play Misty for Me (1971), about a California disc jockey pursued by a disturbed female listener (
Deliverance (1972) followed the perilous fate of four Southern businessmen during a weekend's trip. In
Francis Ford Coppola's
The Conversation (1974), a bugging-device expert (
Gene Hackman) systematically uncovered a covert murder while he himself was being spied upon.
The Parallax View (1974) told of a conspiracy, led by the Parallax Corporation, surrounding the assassination of a presidential-candidate
US Senator that was witnessed by investigative reporter Joseph Frady (
Warren Beatty). Peter Hyam's science fiction thriller
Capricorn One (1978) proposed a government conspiracy to fake the first mission to
Brian De Palma usually had themes of
paranoia, and obsession in his films, as well as such plot elements as killing off a main character early on, switching points of view, and dream-like sequences. His notable films include
Obsession (1976), which was slightly inspired by Vertigo;
Dressed to Kill (1980); and the assassination thriller
Blow Out (1981).
In the early 1990s, thrillers had recurring elements of obsession and trapped protagonists who must find a way to escape the clutches of the villain—these devices influenced a number of thrillers in the following years.
Misery (1990), based on a book by
Stephen King, featured
Kathy Bates as an unbalanced fan who terrorizes an incapacitated author (
James Caan) who is in her care. Other films include
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and
Unlawful Entry (1992), starring
Detectives/FBI agents hunting down a serial killer was another popular motif in the 1990s. A famous example is
Jonathan Demme's Best Picture–winning crime thriller
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—in which young
Clarice Starling (
Jodie Foster) engages in a psychological conflict with a
Hannibal Lecter (
Anthony Hopkins) while tracking down
serial killer Buffalo Bill—and
David Fincher's crime thriller
Seven (1995), about the search for a serial killer who re-enacts the
seven deadly sins.
Another notable example is
Martin Scorsese's neo-noir psychological thriller
Shutter Island (2010), in which a U.S. Marshal must investigate a psychiatric facility after one of the patients inexplicably disappears.
In recent years, thrillers have often overlapped with the horror genre, having more gore/sadistic violence, brutality, terror and frightening scenes. The recent films in which this has occurred include
Eden Lake (2008),
The Last House on the Left (2009),
Captivity (2007), and
Vacancy (2007). Action scenes have also gotten more elaborate in the thriller genre. Films such as
Hostage (2005), and
Cellular (2004) have crossed over into the action genre.