Warner Bros.' "Thrillers" Set Hits More Than it Misses Review

Thrillers have been around in film since the beginning. They excite the viewer, build suspense, cater to and subvert built-in expectations. They are a ride that, once boarded, you won’t—or shouldn’t—want to stop until after you’ve experienced the edge-of-your-seat climax. They are, simply, thrilling (hence the name). And as Warner Bros. continues to release their “Best of” box sets, we get a stunning collection of 20 Thrillers.

It starts in 1931 with The Public Enemy. This film, starring James Cagney, is one of the original gangster films, a sub-genre of the thriller that is constantly being explored in the film world (and is returned to later in this set). With prohibition drama and men in suits gunning down rivals, Public Enemy is a wholly American film and a great way to kick off the box set.

Public Enemy is followed by two Humphrey Bogart-helmed mystery thrillers—The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). Bogart is a handsome, determined, and wily detective who charms the ladies, whether they be Mary Astor or his real-life wife Lauren Bacall. Both films were adapted from novels by classic American mystery writers and featured iconic directors—John Huston and Howard Hawks. While both are great, it feels almost redundant to include both of them.

Less redundant feeling is the inclusion of two Alfred Hitchcock films. Both Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959) are prime examples of the master of suspense himself. Train has a twisty premise with two strangers testing their ability to get away with murder (what else would you expect from a film by Hitchcock written by Raymond Chandler adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith?). Of course, North by Northwest is quintessential Hitchcock (a seeming American remake of his earlier British thriller The 39 Steps) starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint (as a blonde bombshell, an especially noticeable aspect of the film as this is the first color film in the box set). This film is definitely one of Hitchcock’s best (second only to Psycho?) and one of the best inclusions in this set.

What follows are a couple iconic thrillers from 70s, introducing us to America’s new generation of leading men: Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino. Dirty Harry (1971) gave birth to a decades-long series of films and featured stylistic nuances that are still being replicated today (see: 2012’s Jack Reacher). And the slow-boiling bank-heist-gone-wrong film Dog Day Afternoon gives you a breather from all those car chases, focused instead on minute character development. It is also remarkable as the only film in the set with a primary LGBT character (L.A. Confidential is the only other film to feature any LGBT characters).

Next the box set dedicates nearly half of its content to the 90s. Starting with 1990’s Goodfellas (a return to the gangster sub-genre), we get a slew of big talent producing some of their best work (like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro). Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones star in The Fugitive (1993); Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) stars Woody Harrelson and is one of two films post-Hitchcock to feature a female lead; Morgan Freeman (one of two African American leads in the box set) and Tim Robbins star in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) from thriller (and horror) mastermind Stephen King; David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) stars Freeman, once again, and Brad Pitt; Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) brings together Pacino and De Niro (a surprisingly engaging film that well earns it’s 3-hour runtime); and the James Ellroy adaptation L.A. Confidential (1997) features a stunning cast including Spacey, again, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce (and Kim Basinger manages to be the only actress to appear in multiple films in the set).

And what’s a thriller box set without a superhero? Warner Bros. delivers with not one, but two, Batman films. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) started it all (for films, at least) with a familiarly controversial casting of Michael Keaton as our dark knight. And before Heath Ledger’s own controversial turn as the Joker, there was Jack Nicholson. To see how far superhero films have come, The Dark Knight (2008) is also included, allowing you to compare Jokers (and Batmen and everything else).

Purporting Christopher Nolan as a real thriller director, the set also includes his mind-bending Inception (2010). A twisty film with another stunning cast that showcases how films have risen to new levels of special effects and multi-leveled plot twists. Warner Bros. also presents another new voice in the thriller genre: Ben Affleck. His acclaimed direction (and acting) for The Town (2010) is a precursor to his even greater (and more thrilling) work in Argo (2012).

Of course, even in the world of thrillers, Warner Bros. includes a few missteps—although these are more egregious for their tonal shift than for their quality. Lethal Weapon’s (1987) comedic tone makes this the only low brow film in the collection, but the beauty of Mel Gibson’s ass and Danny Glover’s “I’m too old for this sh**” quotation mostly make up for it. As great as Shawshank is, it lacks the thrill of the chase or driving action that makes a thriller. It comes off more as a morality play than a thriller. And, lastly, American History X (1998) feels like the true black sheep. Although it features violence and tension, this is really just a serious drama addressing serious issues.

Despite these few minor missteps, this box set of Warner Bros. thrillers is a true must-have for any fan of cinema. The classic and iconic films prove their place in history (especially when marathoned all together). And even though the box set feels egregiously catered to the straight, white male perspective (not that anyone is surprised), there is plenty to enjoy for everyone.

DVD Bonus Features

(Due to the inevitably large amount of special features, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the ones that should not be missed.)

The Public Enemy: Leonard Maltin introduces the “Warner Night at the Movies 1931” featurette which includes a newsreel, comedy short, cartoon, and trailers that would have played when The Public Enemy was released in theaters. “Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public” looks at the real-life criminals this and similar films (like Little Caesar) were based on. There is a trailer for the film and a foreword from the 1954 re-release. And there is a feature commentary by film historian Robert Sklar.

The Maltese Falcon: Included with a theatrical trailer is another “Warner Night at the Movies,” this one for 1941 (fans of dance will enjoy the ballet short “The Gay Parisian”). There is also a commentary by biographer Eric Lax.

The Big Sleep: Along with the theatrical trailer is a textual behind the scenes look at the film’s background and a comparisons between the 1945 and 1946 versions as they were released in theaters.

Strangers on a Train: Along with the theatrical trailer is a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph Stefano, Andrew Wilson, and other Hitchcock experts.

North by Northwest: Commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

Dirty Harry: There are two behind-the-scenes featurettes—the original one from the 70s and a more updated one with actor interviews. There are even more interviews included with actors discussing working with Clint Eastwood on other Dirty Harry films (including Patricia Clarkson, Hal Holbrook, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). There is a trailer gallery for the other Dirty Harry Films. And there is a feature commentary by film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Shickel.

Dog Day Afternoon: Along with a trailer is feature commentary by Sidney Lumet.

Lethal Weapon: Along with a theatrical trailer are some textual featurettes about the cast & crew and the production of the film.

Batman: Along with the theatrical trailer is commentary by Tim Burton.

Goodfellas: Commentary by the cast and crew is available for select scenes. You can also watch the film with “cop and crook” commentary by Henry Hill and Ed McDonald (on whom the story is based).

The Fugitive: You can check out the cast & crew and awards for the film along with the theatrical trailer. “On the Run” follows the making of the film. “Derailed: Anatomy of a Train Wreck” details how the cinematic train crash was made. And you can watch the film with commentary by Tommy Lee Jones and Andrew Davis (which you get a taste of in the introduction that automatically plays with the film).

Natural Born Killers: This director’s cut comes with an introduction by Oliver Stone as well commentary by him.

The Shawshank Redemption: You can read about the cast & crew and awards for the film or you can check out a gallery of production stills and the theatrical trailer.

Se7en: This disc has no special features [insert “sad face” here].

Heat: This disc contains only trailers and a commentary track by Michael Mann

L.A. Confidential: Along with the trailers and TV spots are two other ways to enjoy the film: one with an extensive commentary track by the cast and crew and one with a music-only viewing option.

American History X: This disc contains deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and background info on the cast & crew.

The Dark Knight: There are no special features.

Inception: a series of featurettes illuminates the making of the film. “The Inception of Inception” goes into how Nolan developed the concept of the film. “The Japanese Castle: The Dream is Collapsing” goes into the creation of Saito’s dream castle. “Constructing Paradoxical Architecture” looks at the world of architecture that inspired the dream world constructions. “The Freight Train” goes into the behind the scenes of the freight train in the city sequence. (But where is my commentary track?)

The Town: “The Real People of The Town” looks at how Ben Affleck researched the people who inhabit this titular town. And the other featurette looks at both aspects of Ben Affleck—the actor and the director.

"Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Thrillers" is on sale September 3, 2013 and is not rated. Thriller. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Andrew Davis, Ben Affleck, Christopher Nolan, Curtis Hanson, David Fincher, Don Siegel, Frank Darabont, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Richard Donner, Sidney Lumet, Tim Burton, Tony Kaye, William A Wellman. Written by Harvey Thew, John Huston, William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Ernest Lehman, Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Frank Pierson, Shane Black, Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren, Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorcese, Jeb Stuart, David Twohy, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Oliver Stone, Frank Darabont, Andrew Kevin Walker, Michael Mann, Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson, David McKenna, Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard. Starring Al Pacino, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Cary Grant, Christian Bale, Clint Eastwood, Edward Norton, Farley Granger, Harrison Ford, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Kevin Spacey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Michael Keaton, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Woody Harrelson.

John Keith • Staff Writer

Writer. TV Addict. Bibliophile. Reviewer. Pop Culture Consumer. Vampire Enthusiast. LOST fanatic.


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