How to tell if it’s a great thriller – that certain sense of unease!


I recently re-watched (for the nth time) that great Vijay Anand thriller Jewel Thief. Clearly there is no mystery left in the film for me, and yet it never fails to entertain me, more so if I happen to watch it with someone untutored in the way this film keeps us guessing until the last 15 minutes. The reactions it evokes always manage to refresh the film for me. They also remind me of reactions I have had to other great thrillers. After much thinking, I can only sum these up as a sense of unease that stays with you until the mystery is revealed.

A poor thriller is one where you have no clue what is going on, and the script is not designed to give you any hints at all! Then at the last minute a surprise is thrown at you and you go – WTF! Some films I can think of that fall into this category are the recent Abbas Mustaan thriller RACE, Nagesh Kukunoor’s 8X10 Tasveer (though the latter tried somewhat to bring in a psychological angle but it was an epic fail). The worst ones do not even throw the viewer a red herring, let alone any real clue.

A great thriller is one where the filmmaker plays with the viewer, throwing enough subtle hints around to create a sense of unease in our minds. Of course the goal is to keep the viewer guessing, but with a buy-in into the mystery. So the hints are there but camouflaged, now revealed and then cleverly cloaked again. And it is this hide and seek game that creates a sense of unease in the viewer, making him subconsciously aware that all is not as it seems, yet overtly engaged in the way the story progresses. This sort of structure is what makes a thriller successful for me. And it forces me to revisit the film, and then the second (or nth) time around to take immense pleasure in seeking out the various hints and enjoying them and marveling at how they managed to stay there yet hidden on first view.

I want to describe a few such moments from my favorite thrillers and also to discuss where that sense of discomfort came from (is a spoiler warning necessary? – then be warned please, SPOILERS COMING UP!!). Let me start with Jewel Thief and the almost doppelganger in the film. Vinay (Dev Anand) is being deliciously set up to take the fall for the Jewel Thief, and in a most persistent manner. The presence of Amar is so real, that you expect him to appear at any minute, yet he has no corporeal form! He has henchmen, girlfriends, wives, enemies; he writes notes, steals jewelry, disappears moments before Vinay can see him and the only thing that distinguishes him from Vinay is an extra toe on his left foot. The sense of unease is in HOW CLOSE we are to seeing him so many times, and how we are thwarted at every turn. By the time we find out the truth the film is almost over and we still cannot tell if Vinay knows or not! This is masterful story telling and makes Jewel Thief a classic for the ages.

One sees an almost similar graph in the “remake” of the 1978 film Don. The new avatar is Don – The Chase Begins again, and now we are dealing with true doppelgangers, with no extra toe to distinguish them. Part of the unease starts with how familiar most film-goers are with the old classic. We know what to expect, and we want it to happen the same tested and tried way in this new slicked and souped-up version. And it almost seems to do the perfect remake job, helped along with the reuse of some iconic song numbers. Yet we have a sense of unease because there is entirely too much focus on Don and too little on Vijay. And then, when we do see Vijay, he seems too perfectly fit and trained for the the masquerade, giving us little hints all along (the Looney Tunes viewing, the hesitation in recognizing Deepu, the almost gleeful announcement about having regained his memory of all the bad deeds he did as Don) that we keep missing, but that keep increasing our sense of unease. The biggest whammy is almost at the end, and leaves us and Roma gasping at the audacity of the entire scheme thought up by Don. The film turns out to be a thriller and we were expecting a straight actioner, just like its predecessor! In the first one, we are completely in on the masquerade, comfortably carried along. In the successor, we think we know, yet we do not quite like this Vijay, he is too menacing, almost too predatory with the ladies, thus we feel something is amiss all along! And it is only at the very end that we realize what a con was played on us, and on poor Roma. The twists and turns in the tale propel the otherwise somewhat laid-back film along to a thrilling climax.

In the recent Shutter Island we start out with something that should have made us so uneasy – why did the cabin on the boat have handcuffs and manacles dangling from the roof? But it is almost like a shadow seen from the corner of the eye, registered and yet not fully recorded by the mind. The Escher like mind-bending staircases, the surreal WWII recollections – all these increase the sense of unease and tell us all is not as we see it. Yet the film is moved forward as a thrilling quest for a murderer among the criminally insane. It is only at the end that we discover the truth behind Marshall Teddy Daniels and only at the very end to we know what the Marshall has discovered about himself!

In the Sixth Sense, another excellent mystery/thriller, we should register, but do not, though not for lack of telling, that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), for some strange reason can or does only communicate with the child Cole (Haley Joel-Osmont). That he can help Cole heal and re-establish a relationship with his mother is not because of Dr. Crowe, but because of the special aptitude Cole has, that of being able to see dead people!!!

I think the unease caused at the outset by such films alienates some of the more “linearity” loving audience, but there is much that is revealed on a second viewing. Reviewing such films is akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle where we can see the picture, and then are able to go on a delightful hunt for the pieces that the filmmaker had deliberately hidden away to keep the whole from revealing itself to us at first viewing.

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