Robert De Niro has been an iconic figure in cinema for over four decades. He is renowned for portraying characters with a unique combination of strength, ferocity and vulnerability. His name has become synonymous with significant roles in some of the greatest thriller movies of all time. From the poignant Taxi Driver to the gritty Goodfellas and the twisted Cape Fear, De Niro is part of a cinematic landscape that often goes beyond the limitations of narrative cinema.
The appeal of De Niro’s thriller movies lies in his dialogue, his performance and above all, his versatility. His ability to move between roles and storylines that are both menacing and sympathetic reveals a range of emotional depths. In The Deer Hunter, De Niro portrays a nomadic ex-soldier whose desperate attempts to escape the bounds of a confining world leads him to a journey of self-discovery. In Angel Heart, De Niro’s character is a mysterious private investigator whose investigations lead him to the murky underworld of the occult. In this, his intensity is utilised to great effect as he leads a complicated and frequently emotive narrative.
Depictions of the Human Condition
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of De Niro’s thrillers is the way in which he explores the complexities of the human condition. The theme of power, redemption and struggle are evident in his performances, whilst his onscreen presence conveys a profound understanding of the drama and tragedy of life.
The gangster flick Mean Streets is a prime example of De Niro’s knack for depicting everyday motivation, emotion and turmoil in an effective manner. His role as Johnny Boy, a reckless, drug-addicted street hood, is arguably one of the finest performances of De Niro’s career. In The Untouchables, De Niro again excels, in this case as a devious mobster attempting to take down a law enforcement squad with a mixture of savvy manipulation and physical intimidation. All the while, De Niro are able to add insight into how economic deprivation and power structure shape human behaviour.
Realism and Evocative Settings
De Niro has also crafted some of the most evocative thriller movies of all time. From the mid-‘90s A Bronx Tale to 1990’s Awakenings, De Niro evokes a powerful sense of place. Through a combination of scene setting and character development, De Niro make use of the best of the city’s urban backdrops to bring about a palpable atmosphere to the films.
His penchant for realism is also evident in the masterpiece, Goodfellas. Directed by Martin Scorsese, this tale of New York’s criminal underworld is made all the more authentic due to De Niro’s skill in making the audience feel part of the action. Utilizing gritty visual elements, in-depth character arcs, harrowing violence and razor sharp dialogue, he’s able to bring the world of the mob to life.
De Niro is also wonderfully adept at films of intense suspense like The Fan, Brazil and Heat. The calculated stalking of an obsessed fan in The Fan, the terrifying boot-camp-within-a-state-facility in Brazil and the cat-and-mouse game between police and criminals in Heat are all films that allow the kind of intense performance that De Niro garners best. His attention to detail and the nuances of his characters allows De Niro to create masks and moments of navigating danger that keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Creating Multifaceted Characters
De Niro also excels when playing villains and anti-heroes. He is able to create multifaceted characters that are unpredictable and captivating. His performance as Al Capone in The Untouchables beautifully reconciles his physical menace with a tender paternal side in his caring relationship with an adopted son. In The Fan, De Niro brings the sinister yet pitiable character of Roberta Leighton alive with a compelling depth of feeling and psychological insight.
Inspiring Future Thriller Movies
De Niro’s thriller movies have left an indelible mark on the movie industry and continue to inspire future generations of filmmakers. His performances demonstrate a formidable grasp and understanding of the thriller genre and his direction of films like The Good Shepherd and the Boston-set thriller Stone demonstrate the thoughtfulness and subtlety with which he approaches storytelling.
His distinctive style of visual and aural cunning continues to influence the way thrillers are made today and is still emulated and referenced in numerous films and television shows. His influence is a major influence to the way movies are produced, promoting the kind of thematic intensity and psychological complexity that is within the remit of great thrillers.
Infusing Dark Humor Into Classic Thrillers
One of the most impressive facets of De Niro’s work as a director of thrillers is the way in which he infuses dark humor into the films. None stand out more than Analyze This and its sequel Analyze That, where De Niro plays a mob boss who reluctantly seeks the advice of a nervous analyst named Ben Sobel, played brilliantly by Billy Crystal.
The chemistry between De Niro and Billy crystal got the force of making these comedies highly watchable and memorable. De Niro’s ability to lampoon his image as a desperate mobster in need of therapy, whilst at the same time making the audience sympathize with his plight, was an unexpected and innovative twist.
Multi-dimensional Characters and the Genre-Bending Cinematographer
De Niro has also been involved with some of the most innovative thrillers of recent times. In Ronin, he takes on a role that goes beyond convention as a smooth-talking and professionally hired mercenary. Again, without sacrificing any of his physical assuredness, he is able to bring vulnerability, sadness and a longing for redemption to the character. And all the while, a remarkable performance is supported by the genre-bending work of cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall.
Hall’s camerawork offers a fluid and uninterrupted flow which lends the thriller an atmosphere of continuity and tension. It is a combination of De Niro’s talent for creating multi-dimensional characters and Hall’s aptitude for visually compelling images that brings about a unique sensation of movement, fear and unpredictability.
On- Screen Cohorts
De Niro’s tough and often complex roles have been supported on-screen by some of the greatest actors of the silver screen. For example, Nicolas Cage, Marlon Brando and Harvey Keitel have all featured alongside De Niro in memorable thrillers.
Keitel’s evocation of violence and extortion in The Untouchables can be seen as the precursor to the nuanced and compelling villains portrayed so adeptly by De Niro in the following decade. Brando’s portrayal of an ambiguous crime kingpin in The Godfather: Part II was strikingly complex and pitted against De Niro’s own interpretation of the drug-dealing mafia leader; they established a cinematic benchmark seldom repeated.
A Reputation As a Director of Eclectic Thriller Movies
De Niro also has an impressive body of work as a director of thrillers. The first major thriller he directed in 2004’s acclaimed The Good Shepherd set up a moniker for him as a director of diverse, multi-layered thrillers. The film tells the story of one man’s perilous journey through the 40-year-long Cold War.
From this initial foray, De Niro has gone on to success with an array of genre-bending thrillers. The Least of These is an intense drama of a woman’s assassination attempt on a former president. The Killer Elite is a classically stylish ‘70s revenge story. Stone is a taut and atmospheric thriller that moves through the grime of Boston’s suburbs.
By piecing together each element with remarkable skill and attention to detail, De Niro is able to create a riveting mosaic with shards of conspiracies, secrets, and leaps of faith as the characters grapple with their fates within a world laden with traps and menaces. His portfolio is a series of sophisticated, complex and unpredictable thrillers that elevate the art of cinema to new heights.