Murder mysteries are so commonplace on TV that each week offers seemingly dozens of them on police procedural series and detective shows. But in the movies, whodunits are surprisingly rare, and really good ones rarer still. There’s really only a handful of movies that excel in offering the viewer the pleasure of solving the crime along with a charismatic sleuth, often with an all-star cast of suspects hamming it up as they try not to appear guilty.
One of the best was “Murder on the Orient Express,” released 40 years ago this week, on November 24, 1974. Like many films adapted from Agatha Christie novels, this one featured an eccentric but meticulous investigator (in this case, Albert Finney as Belgian epicure Hercule Poirot), a glamorous and claustrophobic setting (here, the famous luxury train from Istanbul to Paris), and a tricky murder plot with an outrageous solution. The film won an Oscar for passenger Ingrid Bergman (her third) and launched a 14-year vogue for all-star Christie adaptations, most of them featuring Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
Of course, the Christie drawing-room-style whodunit is such a well-established formula that it’s invited numerous parodies, some of which are oddly effective whodunits themselves. And then there are the darker, grittier, film noir-type whodunits, featuring cynical loner detectives pursuing murder suspects through bleak urban landscapes. And then there are the Hitchcockian whodunits, where ordinary Joes and Janes often find themselves fighting to solve murders, lest they themselves be incriminated, movies where the emphasis is not on atmosphere or character but simply the ticking clock of suspense.
All of these have their charms, and all have led to memorable whodunits on the big screen. Gathered here, like suspects at the end of a Christie novel, are some of the best.
‘And Then There Were None‘ (1945)
Here’s the first and most well-regarded film version of Agatha Christie’s most popular tale, “Ten Little Indians,” with guests at a mansion on a remote island knocked off one by one by their unknown host for their alleged crimes. Among them are Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Roland Young, and Judith Anderson.
‘Basic Instinct‘ (1992)
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who went on to pull the same trick in “Jade“) came up with a so-stupid-it’s-brilliant notion: the killer who’s so blatantly obvious that it can’t possibly be that person – could it? Sharon Stone does the honors this time, in the performance that made her a star. Poor Michael Douglas, as the hapless cop, never stands a chance.
‘The Big Sleep‘ (1946)
The plot of this Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) mystery is so convoluted that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t figure out who killed one of the victims – and he wrote the story. What’s important is that the movie features Bogart as the cynical Marlowe, his wife Lauren Bacall as his heiress client, and chemistry and atmosphere to burn.
Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne invented the modern film noir with this unusually sun-drenched drama of a 1930s Los Angeles private eye (Jack Nicholson) whose investigation of a murder mystery leads him to a haunted femme fatale (Faye Dunaway), a vast conspiracy, and a confrontation with evil (in the form of John Huston) almost beyond his imagination. The movie’s stylish gloom and bleak ending make this film a trendsetting landmark.
This drawing-room mystery, based on the beloved board game, brings together the six colorful suspects (played by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, and Michael McKean), along with a sneaky butler played by Tim Curry. The film was famous for having three alternate endings, a gimmick that was supposed to triple the box office but backfired. Still, cultists swear that Jonathan Lynn‘s whodunit parody is an underrated gem.
‘Death on the Nile‘ (1978)
Peter Ustinov’s first go as Hercule Poirot takes place aboard an Egyptian river cruise. Those trapped on the steamer while Poirot solves an onboard murder include Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, Jane Birkin, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Jack Warden, and David Niven. Boatloads of fun. Anthony Powell won an Oscar for the film’s ornate costumes.
In this clever twist on the genre, poor Edmond O’Brien has to solve his own murder. He’s dying from a slow acting poison, and he has about two days left to figure out who slipped him the lethal Mickey and why. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan starred in a not-bad remake, but stick with the bleak original.
‘Evil Under the Sun‘ (1982)
Peter Ustinov is back as Hercule Poirot in a whodunit set at a remote Mediterranean resort. Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, and TK are among the suspects, but the chief pleasure, of course, is Ustinov as the finicky sleuth. It’s worth the price of admission just to see him squeeze his hefty frame into a period swimsuit and dip a toe into the water, more out of obligation than leisure. After all, there is a murder to solve.
‘From Hell‘ (2001)
The Hughes brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel about the Jack the Ripper case is suitably bloody and apocalyptic. Johnny Depp is the opium- and absinthe-addled Scotland Yard man assigned to the case, with Robbie Coltrane his stalwart partner and Ian Holm the creepy royal surgeon who offers his advice. When the search leads Depp to the royal family, paranoia sets in, vast conspiracies are hinted at, and a “Chinatown”-like despair sets in. Underrated and not for everyone, but thoroughly chilling.
Andrew Niccol’s elegant, austere sci-fi tale of a future where DNA determinism runs rampant is also, at heart, a murder mystery. Ethan Hawke borrows DNA traces from genetically superior Jude Law in order to join an astronaut training program, but when a killer strikes, Hawke knows his impostor status will make him the prime suspect. (Worse, the lead detective is his own genetically-engineered brother.) The unraveling mystery, along with Hawke’s own perseverance, is meant to put the lie to the notion that we can only be as good as our genes.
‘The Gift‘ (2000)
It’s more like a curse to Cate Blanchett, playing a Southern widow who’s haunted by clairvoyant visions. In this swampy gothic drama (written by Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Sam Raimi), she tries to use her powers to solve the disappearance (and, not a big spoiler, the murder) of local rich girl Katie Holmes, only to open herself up to a host of violent horrors at the hands of various disturbed locals. There’s able support from Greg Kinnear (as Holmes’ distraught fiancé) Hilary Swank (as an abused wife), Keanu Reeves (a surprisingly scary good ol’ boy with a violent temper), and especially Giovanni Ribisi (a haunted young man), but the movie belongs to the versatile Blanchett.
‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘ (2009)
David Fincher did a fine job with the English language version of Steig Larsson’s novel, the first of the author’s celebrated Millennium trilogy, and Rooney Mara was a revelation as hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander. Nonetheless, the original Swedish version, starring Noomi Rapace, is superior. She’s on fire as the vengeful sleuth who, along with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), investigates the apparent murder of a missing heiress. The two sequels are similarly gripping and horrific.
‘Gosford Park‘ (2001)
Julian Fellowes, future creator of “Downton Abbey,” is more interested in the intrigues of upstairs/downstairs life than in the murder mystery set at a typical hunting weekend at an English country manor. In Robert Altman’s hands, the mystery is the jumping-off point for a perceptive social satire, and the joke is that no one on screen is all that interested in the murder mystery either. No one seems to mourn the dead man, and the fatuous detective (a hilarious Stephen Fry) sent to solve the case seems resigned to the notion that the murder will go unsolved. The only one who figures out what happened is wide-eyed maid Kelly Macdonald, and when she confronts the killers, they freely confess, knowing that she’s in no position to blab to anyone. The movie owes a debt to Jean Renoir’s classic “The Rules of the Game,” whose stated theme was “Everyone has his reasons,” but here, the theme seems to be that everyone has his dirty secrets.
‘In the Heat of the Night‘ (1967)
This Best Picture Oscar-winner was seen as a pioneering civil rights parable at the time, but it’s also a crackling murder mystery. When a factory owner is killed in a sweltering Mississippi town, the local sheriff (Rod Steiger) immediately suspects black visitor Sidney Poitier, but he turns out to be a visiting big-city detective who helps Steiger track down the real killer. It’s no buddy movie, though each cop develops a grudging admiration for the other.
‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘ (2005)
The title of Shane Black’s shaggy-dog crime tale is taken from an anthology of Pauline Kael’s film reviews, a description of the visceral thrills she treasured in movies. Not sure what she would have thought of Black’s film, which offers a little kiss kiss, a lot of bang bang, and a heaping helping of WTF? Robert Downey Jr. plays a thief turned sleuth who gets caught up with an eccentric private eye (Val Kilmer) and a dizzy dame (Michelle Monaghan) in a bizarre Hollywood murder mystery. The film wasn’t a hit, but it remains a cult favorite for a devoted few.
‘L.A. Confidential‘ (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s majestic adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel owes a debt to “Chinatown,” a movie it equals in sheer paranoid dread. When the denizens of a late-night diner are massacred, three mid-century Los Angeles detectives (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey) follow different leads but all stumble upon the same vast conspiracy. The best film of 1997 (sorry, “Titanic” fans), it won an Oscar only for Kim Basinger‘s performance as a reformed femme fatale.
‘The Last of Sheila‘ (1973)
Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, who used to host elaborate scavenger-hunt parties for their famous friends, turned the idea into a whodunit set on a yacht during a Mediterranean cruise. Movie producer James Coburn is the host; his guests include industry folk played by the likes of Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch. The parlor game on board involves the revelation of embarrassing secrets, finger-pointing over the mysterious death of Coburn’s wife (the Sheila of the title) the year before, and fresh murders. Perkins and Sondheim won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for their script.
Everything about Laura is haunting, from her bewitching beauty (she’s played by Gene Tierney) to her theme music on the soundtrack (composed by David Raksin). In Otto Preminger’s thriller, when news breaks of Laura’s murder, she continues to haunt her fiancé (Vincent Price), her persnickety mentor (Clifton Webb), and even the hard-boiled detective who’s never met her (Dana Andrews). The movie’s swoony style smooths over an improbable plot; indeed, Joseph LaShelle won an Oscar for his lush black-and-white cinematography.
In Fritz Lang’s haunting, German-language crime drama, the Berlin police are hunting a whistling killer of children; so is the underworld, since the police manhunt has put a damper on criminal activity. Peter Lorre became an international star as the creepy killer, making him surprisingly human and almost sympathetic in the famous confession speech where he describes with anguish his horrible compulsion.
‘The Maltese Falcon‘ (1941)
Dashiell Hammett’s mystery had been filmed before, but John Huston’s version was the one that stuck. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, a hard-boiled private eye investigating the murder of his partner. At the same time, his life is complicated by the arrival of a group of backstabbing fortune hunters (including femme fatale Mary Astor, weaselly Peter Lorre, and menacing Sydney Greenstreet), all of them in pursuit of the title artifact. The mystery turns out to be secondary to the colorful assortment of low-lifes (Bogart seems to find them more amusing than threatening, but that could be a tough-guy pose) and the fatalistic atmosphere, a blueprint for the entire film noir genre that would soon come to fruition.
Christopher Nolan’s innovative whodunit unspools in reverse chronological order, since protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce, never better) has no short-term memory and forgets things that happened just a few minutes ago. He remembers, though, that he’s hunting the man who raped and killed his wife, thanks to clues he’s tattooed all over his body. He can’t trust anyone – not seemingly sympathetic gal pal Carrie-Anne Moss, not shifty friend Joe Pantoliano, and certainly not himself.
‘Minority Report‘ (2002)
In Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, Tom Cruise is a cop in a future where psychics predict murders and Cruise routinely arrests the would-be killers before they strike. But when he is fingered himself as a future killer, he goes on the lam from his colleagues and tries to solve the mystery of a crime that hasn’t happened yet. As usual with Dick, there are lots of ethical and existential questions to ponder, as well as an atmosphere of paranoia over the slippery nature of identity.
‘The Mirror Crack’d‘ (1980)
In what now looks like a dress rehearsal for the entire run of “Murder, She Wrote,” Angela Lansbury plays Christie’s Miss Marple, sent to investigate a poisoning on a movie set involving two squabbling Hollywood divas (Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak). Along for the ride are Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Edward Fox, and a young, then-unknown Pierce Brosnan. Along with the typically unflappable Lansbury, the fun here comes from watching Taylor, in one of her last film roles, parodying her own legend.
‘Murder By Death‘ (1976)
Neil Simon’s spoof of drawing-room whodunits brings together a variety of characters loosely parodying famous fictional sleuths, including Nick and Nora Charles (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers), Sam Spade (Peter Falk), Hercule Poirot (James Coco), and Miss Marple (Elsa Lanchester). Everything in the movie is politically incorrect and bizarre (like Alec Guinness‘ performance as a blind butler), but nothing moreso than Truman Capote’s turn as the manipulative host of the lethal dinner party. The film’s not for everyone, clearly, but for some, it’s a hilarious cult favorite.
‘Murder on the Orient Express‘ (1974)
A glossy period travelogue set in Europe is not the sort of movie you’d expect from Sidney Lumet, known for his gritty, contemporary, New York City crime thrillers (“Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” et al). But he does a splendid job with an all-star cast (besides Albert Finney’s Poirot and Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning Swedish missionary, there’s also Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, and Sean Connery) and a typically twisty Christie plot with a jaw-dropping solution.
‘Mystic River‘ (2003)
In Clint Eastwood‘s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, neighborhood big-shot Sean Penn finds his grown daughter murdered, and when suspicion falls upon his haunted childhood pal Tim Robbins, he takes matters into his own hands. The result is a whodunit steeped in tragedy, from the scars of crimes long past to the violent tribalism of present-day Boston. Penn and Robbins both earned Oscars as age-old friends torn apart by childhood trauma and lifelong guilt.
‘The Name of the Rose‘ (1986)
Umberto Eco’s novel, a medieval murder mystery set in a monastery, gets a decent adaptation here. Sean Connery is an English monk who is also a Sherlock-like sleuth (his name is William of Baskerville), while Christian Slater is a wide-eyed puppy as his Watson-like novice. F. Murray Abraham overplays it a bit as a ruthless inquisitor, and the movie isn’t as lofty-minded as Eco’s book, but for a thought-provoking mystery in an unusual setting, you could do worse.
‘Presumed Innocent‘ (1990)
In Alan J. Pakula’s somber adaptation of Scott Turow’s legal thriller, prosecutor Harrison Ford finds himself on the other side of the courtroom when he’s tried for the murder of a colleague with whom he had an adulterous affair. It’s up to him to find out who’s framing him before he’s convicted himself. There are red herrings here the size of Moby-Dick, but Ford does finally bring the mystery to a shocking and satisfying resolution.
David Fincher’s first serial killer thriller is an odd whodunit, since the serial killer behind a series of gruesome tableaux inspired by the seven deadly sins confesses his crimes halfway through the film (though he still has more horrific stunts in the works). The movie gets its gravitas from world-weary, haunted-eyed sleuth Morgan Freeman, but its grimy, squirmy, gritty style – an influence on thrillers ever since – is pure Fincher.
‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ (1991)
The innovation of Thomas Harris’ novel was to have an FBI agent find a serial killer by calling upon the aid of an even more ruthless killer. Translated to film, that meant Anthony Hopkins‘ unforgettable Hannibal Lector, whose antics upstage stalwart Jodie Foster‘s search for the already plenty horrific killer known only as Buffalo Bill. Jonathan Demme’s exercise in terror won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress, and forced all other crime dramas to up their game.
Back when Cher set out to prove she was a real dramatic actress by playing a series of unglamorous parts, one of them was a weary public defender who sets out to prove that her client, a disturbed and mute homeless Vietnam vet (Liam Neeson) didn’t kill a Washington, D.C. secretary. In an illicit collusion, lobbyist Dennis Quaid, who’s a juror on the case, does his own investigation to help Cher. Nothing special or unusual here, just an effective, taut thriller, whose down-to-earth performance by Cher is indeed a highlight.
‘The Thin Man‘ (1934)
This version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel introduces beloved screen sleuths Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), a high society couple who would sip cocktails and drip wisecracks while solving crimes throughout a series of six films. Naturally, the initial installment, which ends with all the suspects gathered at a dinner party, is the best, but all of them are frothy exercises in style and light comedy.
‘The Woman in Green‘ (1945)
One of the best of the series of 14 Sherlock Holmes movies that starred Basil Rathbone as the prickly detective and Nigel Bruce as a buffoonish Dr. Watson. Here, they search for a serial killer who murders women and severs their forefingers, and hypnotizes their boyfriends into believing they are responsible for the killings.
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ (1988)
Lest we forget, this clever live-action/cartoon hybrid is also a textbook film noir murder mystery, one that owes a large debt to “Chinatown.” Here, grouchy gumshoe Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) harbors a prejudice against Hollywood’s animated actors, since a toon killed his brother, but he’s forced to defend one of them, hyperactive Roger (Charles Fleischer), who’s been set up for the murder of novelty mogul Marvin Acme. Director Robert Zemeckis, who excels in films about puzzle-solving (from “Romancing the Stone” to “Cast Away“), manages to blend a manic comic tone with a serious crime drama.
The best of David Fincher’s serial killer movies, this one tackles the real-life case of the Zodiac killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. play the real-life reporters who doggedly followed the story, while Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards are the police detectives who spent years on the case. Fincher’s docudrama is jam-packed with raw data, enough to explain the obsessiveness of these four men as they chased leads, often fruitlessly, for so long.