The murder mystery genre has a unique place in the film lexicon. A suspicious death tracked by a tenacious sleuth; teasing clues and a throwaway comment that could be so important.
A study in misdirection and sleight of hand that makes the audience work to find the solution. I have always been drawn to the genre; a self-indulgent excuse to play detective from the comfort of my armchair. Insulated from the badness and danger of the real world, we can watch hapless characters dispatched by a cruel and calculating assailant. Find the means, motive and opportunity and you've cracked the case.
Arthur Conan-Doyle laid the template with the legendary Sherlock Holmes. The pipe smoking sleuth with a fondness for opium first appeared on film in 1921. Ellie Norwood starred in the Hound of the Baskervilles at the height of the silent era. Since then countless actors have donned the deerstalker; but none finer than Basil Rathbone who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946. With Nigel Bruce playing trusty sidekick Dr Watson he set the gold standard.
The protagonist or person who solves the crime might be a private investigator, amateur sleuth or more logically a police officer. Strangely, the cop doesn’t show up as often as one might expect. They have often been portrayed as bumbling fools trailing in the wake of a superior sleuth. However, there are ultra-cool cops who’ve broken the pattern. Like Sidney Poitier who led the way as Virgil Tibbs, a detective who overcame naked racism in the Deep South. In the Heat of The Night (1967) was a seminal murder mystery that explored much more than just the ‘who, how and why’.
But the classic formula remains the whodunit popularised by the delightfully English Agatha Christie. There have been over 40 film adaptations of her stories with the first, The Passing of Mr Quinn released in 1928. Two of literature’s greatest sleuths came from the pen of Christie; the inscrutable Miss Marple, so memorably portrayed by Margaret Rutherford; and Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with impeccable manners and deportment. Peering over half-moon glasses and a delicate moustache Poirot has been a gift to our finest character actors; Peter Ustinov became the common reference point with three big screen outings as Poirot.
The whodunit is also known as a ‘closed mystery’, where the killer’s identity stays under wraps until very late in the story; thus allowing the protagonist time to gather evidence and make their deductions. In contrast, an ‘open mystery’ reveals the culprit at the beginning, with the hero unravelling the mystery and presenting the solution. This is essentially a howdunit as the logistics of a crime are studied to prove the villain’s guilt. Alfred Hitchcock often used this technique and was exemplified in the 1954 classic Dial M for Murder. Here, smooth and slippery Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) plans the murder of his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) in the opening scenes. But it’s up to the dogged Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) to work out exactly how he did it.
The second limb of an open mystery is the whydunit; a tense and psychological exploration of the killer’s motivation. This treads on Hitchcock territory again as Psycho inevitably looms into view. The fabulously creepy Norman Bates dominates this black and white classic from 1960. More recent examples include The Constant Gardener (2005) directed Fernando Meirelles. Here, a widower played by Ralph Fiennes is determined to expose a potentially explosive secret involving his wife's murder, big business, and corporate corruption.
So if all this thinking hasn’t got you reaching for the Fast & Furious box set, you might need some pointers to the films that best exercise those little grey cells. In no particular order here are ten of the best films in the murder mystery genre:-
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) Agatha Christie was famously dismissive of the actors that played Hercule Poirot. But she enjoyed Albert Finney’s portrayal except for one detail, ‘I wrote that my detective had the finest moustache in England, but he didn’t in the film. I thought that was a pity. Why shouldn’t he have the best moustache?’ Schoolboy errors aside director Sidney Lumet packed this gem with style and glamour. A triple ‘A’ list of stars were recruited including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall as a multi layered plot stretches across a spectacular backdrop
Poirot is on his way to England aboard the Orient Express which is halted by a massive avalanche. When a fellow traveller is murdered he uses the stoppage to question the suspects. With the killer trapped on board he discovers they all have a common link, but will he join the dots in time? Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a highly creditable revival in 2017, and his moustache was so impressive it probably had its own agent. Agatha Christie would certainly have approved.
The Negotiator (1998) A vastly underrated film sees Samuel L. Jackson in the title role as police negotiator Danny Roman. Framed for his partner’s murder he is also accused of defrauding the pension fund. Roman is subject to an internal affairs inquiry and suspended from duty. Facing charges he storms into their office and takes hostages. He demands that Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) be placed in charge of negotiations. Knowing Sabian will talk at length buys him time to work out exactly what has happened.
Chris Sabian is from a different precinct and the only cop with clean hands. Roman uses his skill and experience to investigate the crime from the inside while police snipers nervously watch and listen for his next move. It’s an exciting and unpredictable ride for the audience that manages to incorporate elements of ‘who, how and why’.
Murder by Decree (1979) The fascinating tale of Jack The Ripper and deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes combine perfectly in this excellent Victorian conspiracy. Christopher Plummer portrays the sleuth with cool conviction and a delicious line in sarcastic asides. With James Mason as Dr Watson they investigate the Ripper’s activities in the late 1880s. A pot boiling plot is assured as it builds to a slow and teasing reveal.
Conspiracies fit the genre like a glove as established facts mingle with plausible theory. The film offers the requisite clues and opportunity for solution but never makes it obvious. By exploring the royal connection in more detail it adds credibility to why the killer started and stopped so abruptly.
The Usual Suspects (1995) ‘I am Keyser Sose!’ was the phrase uttered in every school playground during the summer of 1995. It became an obvious response to the film’s tagline and launched the most stylish and compelling of mystery thrillers.
Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) lies wounded on a ship docked in San Pedro Bay. A mysterious figure called Keyser kills him and sets fire to the ship. Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is one of only two survivors from the fire. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) arrives from New York to interrogate Verbal, a cerebral palsy sufferer but con artist of some repute. He gradually recounts the story in flashback. A complex but engrossing tale emerges of career criminals, double dealing and corruption. It is one of the best films of the 90s with a twisting, winding plot that constantly challenges the audience. There is also a sting in the tale that few would predict.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) One of William Friedkin’s greatest creations tells the compelling story of two Secret Service agents tracking counterfeiters in Los Angeles. Agent Richard Chance (William Peterson) swears revenge when his partner is killed. Paired with new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) they set about tracking down master counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Defoe). Chance’s love for base jumping reveals how reckless and driven he can be when chasing the bad guys; a quality cop thriller in every sense of the word.
A Few Good Men (1992) Like so many murder mysteries this cracking film originated on stage. Based on the Aaron Sorkin play its primary focus falls on the courtroom where navy counsel Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) tangles with Col Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson). Poster marines Dawson and Downey stand trial for murder; but the suspicion of a ‘code red’ hangs over the case. Were the defendants following a direct order that led to death of Private Santiago. A professional soldier is drilled with discipline and obedience but is there a limit to the sacred oath?
Few films have better captured the tension of a courtroom and generated unforgettable scenes between Cruise and Nicholson. A magnificent ensemble cast including Demi Moore and Kevin Bacon help fashion a classic of the genre.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Another courtroom drama that was blessed by the film gods. Three icons of the classic Hollywood era joined director Billy Wilder in the dream team. An adapted Agatha Christie stage play bristles with atmosphere as semi-retired barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is drawn back to court. He defends the smooth Leonard Vole (Tyron Power) who is accused of murder. However, their chances of an acquittal suffer a blow when Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) gives evidence against him.
Despite its age, the film doesn’t feel dated and works effectively as a period drama. An engrossing plot bears the motifs so typical of Christie’s work; the payoff kicks like a mule and a literate script easily holds the attention. While Dietrich and Power add considerable star weight, it’s Laughton who delivers a towering performance as the cantankerous barrister.
Sleuth (1972) This one is more of a challenge for the audience; a basic two hander that makes no secret of its origins in West End theatre. Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by the legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz this intricate thriller pitches two film knights against each other. Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) is a crime writer who lives in a manor house filled with elaborate games and machines.
He invites his wife's lover, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) to discuss the situation. Wyke seems to have no problem and suggests Tindle hook up with his wife. But the price of consent is an insurance scam involving the theft of jewels from the manor house. Tindle agrees but what lies behind this arrangement; revenge, blackmail or plain murder? It’s a brilliantly constructed psychological piece that was nominated for four Oscars. It throws all kinds of possibilities at the audience but once hooked it’s difficult to avert the eyes.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) One of the greatest films of all time brings together Humphrey Bogart as private investigator Sam Spade and John Huston in his directorial debut. The story follows Spade and a mysterious train of events following the death of business partner Miles Archer. All roads lead to a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette but will Spade stay ahead of the curve?
JFK (1991) Yes, the ultimate murder mystery that was played out for real and still fascinates almost 60 years after the event. Kevin Costner stars as district attorney Jim Garrison who investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Director Oliver Stone takes the audience on a breathless journey through the conspiracy theories, separating fact from fiction and evidence from circumstance. It’s pretty much straight from the text book of crime writing – happy sleuthing!