Directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron are known for their science fiction films, while others such as Wes Craven and John Carpenter are nearly synonymous with the genre of horror. Those are famous instances of filmmakers honing in on a specific category of film, with just as many popular names consistently directing thrillers. Certain incredible directors have become fittingly associated with the thriller genre, and this list compiles the greatest of the bunch.
You should without a doubt recognize most of the names on this list, while others will appear more unfamiliar. But their respective movies will without a doubt ring some bells, along with the members of their star-studded stables of actors. Either way, these are among cinema’s all-time best legends, with fan-favorite filmographies to boot.
These are the 20 greatest thriller directors of all time, ranked.
20 Antoine Fuqua
Kicking things off with a more modern director, it’s worth noting off the bat that Antoine Fuqua is one of a few famous directors who frequently cast Denzel Washington in their projects. Of course, the most acclaimed of their collaborations was their very first: Training Day (2001). A crime-thriller, Washington co-starred with Ethan Hawke as narcotics officers, of course with a twist. Both performers were nominated at the Academy Awards, with Denzel even walking away with a golden statuette for Best Actor.
Fuqua and Washington continued their rip-roaring partnership a decade later with The Equalizer (2014), with The Equalizer 2 (2018) and The Equalizer 3 (2023) serving as the sequels. They’re all entertaining, and they solidify Fuqua as a master of thrillers. What helps his case is that The Guilty (2021), with Jake Gyllenhaal, proved that he’s capable of making a high-octane thriller even without the help of Denzel.
19 Christopher Nolan
A famous filmmaker, Christoper Nolan began his career deeply invested in thrillers before moving to sci-fi and historical films. Nolan’s first three films create a kind of trilogy of paranoia, three films that follow the disintegrating minds of obsessed men. There’s his first film, the abstract black and white film Following (1998), followed by the classic backwards-thriller Memento (2000) and the remake of a better film, Insomnia.
But luckily for the sake of this list, nearly every film under the directorial belt of Christopher Nolan has elements of a thriller. Even The Prestige (2006), Tenet (2020), and The Dark Knight (2008) fits the mold, albeit to lesser extents. Whether you’ve watched those films ad nauseam or you’ve just heard about them today, Nolan always hits home with his movies, and that’s especially true with his thrillers.
18 Jean-Pierre Melville
Director Jean-Pierre Melville wore many hats, from French New Wave godfather to master of the French Resistance and chronicler of spiritual ennui. Among his many different types of films were a handful of absolutely perfect and very French thrillers.
From the delightful heist film Bob le Flambeur (1956) and stylish, super cool masterpiece Le Samouraï (1967), to the more complicated noir thrillers Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Le Doulos (1962), whenever Melville tackled a thriller, he perfected it.
17 Michael Haneke
Two of the greatest thrillers of their respective regions are Funny Games (1997) from Austria and Caché (2005) from France, and they were both directed by Michael Haneke. The former follows a family staying in their vacation home when an unexpected pair of visitors arrive: two young men who initiate the titular games of sadistic and horrific nature. They torture the family mentally and physically, with the intrigue of the plot being rivaled by the mastery of behind-the-scenes elements.
The same can be said for Caché with Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. It’s just as renowned as Funny Games, though it pales slightly in comparison in hindsight. Nonetheless, both films are absolute masterclasses of the thriller genre, and they render Haneke an essential director regardless of decade or region. Inflections of the genre can also be seen in his tense films The White Ribbon, Benny’s Game, The Seventh Continent, and Code Unknown.
16 Denis Villeneuve
One of the more recent directors on the list is Denis Villeneuve, who released two masterful thrillers in the same year: Enemy (2013) and Prisoners (2013). The former is highly underrated, while Prisoners is one of the best thrillers you’re ever likely to see. And what’s more, both films feature Jake Gyllenhaal in back-to-back show-stealing performances.
Villeneuve’s next thriller will likely ring a few more bells, as Sicario (2015) has gained great traction in recent years with sequels and home-video releases. It follows FBI Special Agent Kate Marcer, who’s played by Emily Blunt as she attempts to stop the happenings of a Mexican drug cartel. It’s a fantastic film, and what helps land Villeneuve at number twelve is that projects such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) may not be thrillers, but they surely feature elements thereof.
15 John Frankenheimer
More modern film fans may not recognize the name John Frankenheimer. However, he’s directed many masterpieces and a couple of the biggest films to ever hit the silver screen, and one falls in the category of this list. Of course, that’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury. It follows Harvey’s character, a Vietnam War veteran who is brainwashed by communists and sent back to the United States as a sleeper agent.
You’re probably familiar with that project, but he then released the incredibly tense 1964 film The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and an amazing Jeanne Moreau. A few years down the line, Frankenheimer released Seconds (1966), a disturbing classic that was very underrated, despite its spot in the National Film Registry. Frankenheimer’s next two thrillers made up for its paucity of popularity: French Connection II (1975), followed by Ronin (1998). Those are two more solid outings that on any given day could land this director within the top ten.
14 Bong Joon-ho
American audiences will mostly be familiar with the name Bong Joon-ho thanks to his Academy Award-winning film Parasite (2019) from a few years back. That’s one of the greatest recent films, easily among the best of its decade, and it will without a doubt stand the test of time. But this director is gloriously unhinged, writing and directing some of the most mind-bending journeys you’re ever likely to experience even from his feature-length debut.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) isn’t a thriller in the classic sense, but it without a doubt features elements thereof. However, his sophomore film, Memories of Murder (2003), is a brilliant crime thriller, a police procedural about detectives tracking down a serial killer. It should frankly go down as Joon-ho’s magnum opus, and perhaps the greatest thriller film of that decade.
But Joon-ho hardly let up from there. The Host (2006) is similar to Barking Dogs Never Bite in that it isn’t quite a thriller, but it sure comes close. Mother (2009) and Snowpiercer (2013) undoubtedly fit the bill, with each film in tandem landing Joon-ho in the list.
13 William Friedkin
To be frank, The French Connection (1971) is one of the greatest films ever made. With Gene Hackman in the lead role and Roy Scheider as his co-star, those two juggernauts of the industry truly hit international acclaim as NYPD detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, respectively. And the film as a whole is as legendary as they come, with several golden statuettes from the Oscars to its name, and even a rank among the National Film Registry thanks to the preservation by the Library of Congress.
That entry by itself is enough to land anyone on the list of greatest thriller directors. But luckily for William Friedkin, his spot is bolstered by several other nerve-racking adventures such as Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and even more recent films such as the brilliant Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011). He has a few duds in the mix, but most of his thrillers meet their marks. What helps Friedkin in the long run is The French Connection — if it weren’t for The Exorcist (1973), that would easily be his masterpiece.
12 The Coen Brothers
There’s a very specific type of thrill to the Coen brothers‘ films. It’s offbeat, surprisingly violent, often arbitrary, and realistic despite the eccentric characters involved. Blood SImple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men (2007) — these are all excellent films with a very specific kind of thriller aesthetic, which can also be found lurking beneath the surface of their comedies like Burn After Reading (2008) and Raising Arizona (1987).
11 Park Chan-wook
If you’ve at any point hopped aboard the hype train of South Korean cinema, you’ve without a doubt seen a title or two among the filmography of Park Chan-wook. Since the turn of the 21st century, he’s been pumping out some of his region’s most renowned titles, from Joint Security Area (2000) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) to Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016). Those are perhaps is four best and most recognizable movies, and they all fall neatly within the film category at hand.
Joint Security Area is an action hybrid that stars Song Kang-ho, one of the greatest actors in South Korea’s history, while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance marks the beginning of his revered revenge trilogy. It was followed by Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, without a doubt among the top two or three most heard-of films from its region, regardless of decade or director, with Lady Vengeance (2005) perfectly culminating the three projects. And thanks to other films such as Stoker (2013), there’s no denying Chan-wook’s films rank among the best ever thriller directors.
10 Orson Welles
Although The Third Man (1949) was directed by someone who appears much later in the list, it’s commonly thought of as an Orson Welles movie, with the legitimate director not getting credit in that regard from less hardcore fans. But more on him in a bit. As for Welles: his first ever thriller, The Stranger (1946) was a masterpiece, following a high-ranking fugitive of the Nazi regime. It’s a well-made thriller noir from its first frame, and began a dozen years of brilliant thrillers. Depending on your taste, he could understandably be number one or two on this list, but he stacks up here for us.
Aside from the groundbreaking Citizen Kane (1941) and Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles became largely associated with noir thrillers, such as the masterful The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Confidential Report (also known as Mr. Arkardin, from 1955), and Touch of Evil (1958).
The Touch of Evil is cited by pundits of the industry as one of the greatest movies ever made. Its thrilling nature is on full display from the very first scene, with Welles solidifying himself as an undisputed master of suspense. While he’d completely abandon the thriller in favor of more experimental subjects, the 12 years he spent making thrillers were enough to ensure his place as one of the best.
9 Roman Polanski
Like Haneke, this director also made two of the most revered thrillers their regions had to offer, starting with Knife in the Water (1962). A Polish-language film, it chronicles a young male hitchhiker who accompanies a married couple on a boating trip, only for the former party to initiate a series of strange head-to-heads. The sequences build in tension, with Knife in the Water frequently being cited as perhaps the best Polish thriller ever made. It remains the only Roman Polanski film that features dialogue in his native language, and the project holds up wonderfully several decades later.
The other legendary thriller directed by Polanski is Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson as Jake Gettys, a private detective. That’s among the greatest and most well-known movies ever made, and like Knife in the Water, it remains among the best thrillers its region has ever seen.
But those are far from the only thrillers that Polanski has to offer. Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966) are great early outings, while Death and the Maiden (1994) and The Ninth Gate (1999) continued his reputation in the genre. The Ghost Writer (2010) puts the perfect capstone on his career as a legendary thriller director.
8 Carol Reed
The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949) are two of the greatest British films of all time, and fans might have expected Reed to place even higher on the list because of it. But arguably the most famous entry throughout his career is Oliver! (1968), a period musical. No disrespect there, but it’s far from a thriller, and the rest of the directors essentially made careers with the latter ilk of cinema.
The Third Man is among the greatest film noirs ever made, and it garnered Reed a nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Director, as did The Fallen Idol in the year prior. And although he came up short at both ceremonies, the projects did receive back-to-back wins for Best British Film at the BAFTAs. Reed’s noir thriller Odd Man Out actually won the very first BAFTA for Best British Film, so he continued to justify the precedent he set. Along with the wonderful Night Train to Munich, Reed’s position here is utterly warranted.
7 Henri-Georges Clouzot
While hardcore film fans are likely caught off guard by Henri-Georges Clouzot not being within the list’s top five, it’s once again worth noting that, like Carol Reed, he branched out to other genres a bit more frequently than the directors that are to follow. He’s made straight-up dramas, a couple comedies, and even a documentary (about Pablo Picasso!) along the way. But like the rest of the filmmakers on this list, Clouzot’s thrillers are among the greatest in cinematic history.
Clouzot’s second film, Le Corbeau (1942), is a wonderfully efficient little thriller, but it was The Wages of Fear (1953) that put him on the international map, while Les Diaboliques (1955) only saw further success in this regard. The former is an incredible suspense film, while the latter is perhaps his best project regardless of genre.
Specifically, Les Diaboliques is a psychological thriller that mixes in elements of horror. It was highly influential, even inspiring the number one director on the list when he made one of his most important films. Clouzot is undeniably among the all-time greats of thriller directors, and on any given fan’s list, he could place even higher than number seven.
6 Martin Scorsese
Sure, you may not speak about Martin Scorsese and the thriller genre in the same breath. But it depends on how you define a thriller. Obviously, in Cape Fear (1991), his greatest collaborator, Robert De Niro, sends chills down the audience’s spines with every line uttered as Max Cady. And Scorsese’s other famous collaborator, Leonardo DiCaprio, starred in the director’s follow-up crime thriller, The Departed (2006).
Both films are remakes, and they’re arguably better than their original versions, and The Departed cleaned up at the 79th Academy Awards. Then, there’s Shutter Island (2010). A true fan-favorite among Scorsese’s already-famous filmography, Shutter Island with Leo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo features thrilling twists unlike few films you’ll read about today. And none of that is to even broach the subject of Taxi Driver (1976), one of the greatest thrillers ever made, if you consider it as such.
5 David Lynch
Whatever you say about David Lynch, it’s clear that he’s been primarily working within the thriller genre his whole career, even if that means primarily deconstructing it in disturbing postmodern ways. Eraserhead (1977) is more horror than anything, while Blue Velvet (1986) falls perfectly into the thriller category. Specifically, it’s a neo-noir mystery thriller, and it’s one of Lynch’s greatest films all these years down the line.
Lost Highway (1997) is another intriguing film of Lynchian proportions, while Mulholland Drive (2001) is commonly cited among the greatest films ever made, especially of the 21st century. And Lynch was by no means done from there. He followed that up in valiant fashion with Inland Empire (2006), which boasts one of the most star-studded casts you’re likely to read about today. Whether you resonate with his idiosyncratic style of filmmaking or not, there’s no denying the legacy built by Lynch and his thrillers.
4 David Fincher
Two of the greatest thriller directors from America are both named David. Coincidence? Absolutely. But just edging out Lynch on the list is David Fincher, who first saw critical acclaim in Hollywood by directing the crime-thriller Se7en (1995). That was his second outing following the mediocre Alien 3 (1992), with Se7en being the far superior film. In fact, it’s commonly cited among the greatest films not just of its genre, but also of its decade. He followed up in underrated fashion thanks to The Game (1997) with Michael Douglas.
Then, he made arguably the most important film of his career: Fight Club (1999), starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. It’s far from the best film under Fincher’s belt, though, and it’s not even the best thriller. That title goes either to the aforementioned Se7en, or to a film called Zodiac (2007) with Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the best thrillers of this century.
And none of this touches upon other seminal Fincher films such as Panic Room (2002) with Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, or Gone Girl (2014) with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. To top things off, the upcoming film The Killer (2023) will see a return to thrilling form for Fincher after a series of prestige dramas. It stars Michael Fassbender in the titular role, and it’s bound to meet expectations. Whenever he directs a thriller, David Fincher always hits home.
3 Brian De Palma
Though perhaps best known for his gangster flicks with Al Pacino such as Scarface (1983) and Carlito’s Way (1993), American filmmaker Brian De Palma is also recognized as one of cinema’s greatest directors of thrillers; it’s been his bread and butter.
His first ever feature, Murder a la Mod (1968), is a murder-mystery, while he truly delved into the genre in the next decade with Hitchcock-inspired masterpieces like Sisters (1972) and the great Obsession (1976). The latter film follows Cliff Robertson’s character who falls in love with an exact look-alike of his deceased wife, who’s played by Geneviève Bujold. It’s a great film, as were his horror-thrillers of the decade, Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978).
But in the 1980s, De Palma solidified himself as an all-time great in this regard by making Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Body Double (1984). Those are three of the most underrated films of their decade, with Blow Out in particular going down perhaps as De Palma’s magnum opus.
After his foray into gangster films, he continued to make excellent thrillers like the very first Mission: Impossible film and some incredibly divisive films that some consider brilliant and others consider exploitive trash (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale, and Passion). We lean toward their brilliance, though none were on par with his earlier works.
2 Fritz Lang
Everyone should be familiar with the name Fritz Lang, if not just for his influence on the science fiction genre with the release of Metropolis (1927). But his seminal noir precursor, M (1931), is perhaps the single most important thriller ever made, and would be one of the earliest thriller masterpieces if not for Spies (1928) — also directed by Lang.
After M, he released another prominent thriller called The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a phenomenal film that followed Lang’s iconic Mabuse character. It’d take several more years, but he went on a thriller spree in the 1940s after fleeing Nazi Germany for Hollywood and making projects like Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946).
In the decade thereafter, he released another famous film, the noir masterpiece The Big Heat (1953), only to round out his career with a sequel: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). The number one spot on this list was set in stone from the beginning, but frankly, so was this penultimate pick in Lang.
1 Alfred Hitchcock
Was there ever any doubt? Whether you want to call Psycho (1960) a horror film or a thriller, it hardly matters. Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed king of thrills, and he will likely never be topped. He essentially created half of the storytelling techniques and cinematic tropes featured in Hollywood thrillers today, and the majority of filmmakers on this very list cite Hitchcock as a direct influence.
Most directors to ever be born after Alfred Hitchcock would call him inspirational, to be frank, with his name’s value transcending this list entirely. From Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) to North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963), some of the greatest thrillers ever made were directed by the filmmaker at hand.
And he made even more classics like Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), or The Man Who Knew Too Much (both 1934 and 1956). And frankly, that’s still only scratching the surface of his vast, critically acclaimed filmography. Without any doubt, Hitchcock deserves this spot at number one, and retains the moniker of “master of suspense” to this day.