Maltese Falcon (with Humphrey Bogart) (1941): An intriguing, incredibly entertaining, and slightly weird mystery/thriller featuring Bogart at maximum cool (as private eye Sam Spade). This is the movie that created the private detective stereotype that still lives large in the public imagination. Peter Lorre’s character is another classic. See it if you haven’t already.
North By Northwest (by Hitchcock) (1959): An absolutely thrilling film about a case of mistaken identity. Proves that good directing is what makes exciting movies. Note: In Emir Kusturica’s movie Arizona Dream (1994) (which stars Johnny Depp), Vincent Gallo’s character makes an awesomely bizarre tribute to N by NW.
Sabotage (by Alfred Hitchcock) (1936): This is a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock film, without the big actors and production values of his later movies. It’s a tight little story about a London saboteur, and has Hitchcock’s great direction and touch for suspense. Also check out The Secret Agent (with Peter Lorre) (1936) and Blackmail (1929), which is Hitchcock’s first “talkie.” I also recently saw the thrilling Rear Window (1954), which is Hollywood-era Hitchcock with Jimmy Stewart as a photographer with a broken leg speculating about suspect activities in his apartment complex.
Diabolique (1955): A true high suspense classic. Two women (a wife and mistress) plot revenge on an abusive man, but events take an unexpected turn. This French film was recently remade starring Sharon Stone (I assume it sucked). A real shocker.
Knife in the Water (by Roman Polanski) (1962): A wealthy couple (in Poland) invite along a hitchhiker on a day of sailing. The trip takes unexpected turns, and the psychological drama between the three on the boat is riveting. This film was Polanski’s film school dissertation.
Touch of Evil (by Orson Welles) (1958): A film-noir classic set at the U.S.-MX border. Starring Welles as a corrupt Texas Sheriff and Charlton Heston as an honest Mexican narcotics officer. Restored to Welles’ written specifications in 1998, so don’t rent an old copy.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (with Bette Davis) (1962): Twisted old movie with Davis as an aging alcoholic ex-vaudeville star going crazy and tormenting her ex-Hollywood star crippled sister, played by Joan Crawford. Davis is terrifying, and the movie is brilliant, if you don’t mind suspending your disbelief and accepting that no one catches onto Davis’ tricks for most of the film. Like Misery, but in black in white and with Davis’ jealous sister psychology as motivation – which I think is scarier than the obsessed fan angle any day.