Whodunit...A Compilation of the Best Mystery Films

Aug 24, 2003

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The Bottom Line Each and every one of these films completely exemplifies what makes a great mystery.

While thrillers are a favorite genre of mine, I consider the mystery to be a smaller selection. Therefore, some of my favorite thrillers, like Psycho, Rebecca, and Sunset Boulevard, are not really mysteries and are not on this list. The roster that follows is comprised of films that have an unknown aspect to them: who killed someone, who has been killing people, or who is planning to kill someone.

Top Ten Mysteries

1. Laura�- The ultimate ‘whodunit,’ a 1944 masterpiece directed by Otto Preminger. Gene Tierney is Laura, a successful businesswoman who winds up murdered. Dana Andrews is the detective who becomes enthralled by her luminous portrait while investigating the case. When it turns out it wasn’t Laura that was murdered, he must find out who really was and why! Taut and with more twists then a spiral staircase.

2. The Thin Man Series�-1947- The greatest mystery/comedy series in film history. William Powell and Myrna Loy have unbelievable chemistry together. There six Thin Man movies manage to be marvelously funny, sophisticated, and thrilling. Although the first two films (The Thin Man and After the Thin Man) are easily the best in the group, the four last pictures do not succumb to the usual mistreatment of sequels. They are all well-written and directed, and they have the grand advantage of Powell and Loy!

3. And Then There Were None�- French director René Claire (Le Million, A Nous la Liberté, Sous les Toits de Paris) brilliantly directs this American classic about a weekend trip with ten guests on an island oh whom none of which knows the host. When this mysterious “inviter” has them killed off one by one, they come to the realization that one of them is the killer. But which one? Based on Agatha Christie’s famous novel (a.k.a. Ten Little Indians) C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, June Duprez, Mischa Auer, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayword, Roland Young, Richard Haydn, and Queenie Leonard are the unlucky guests, and Harry Thurston has a small role as a fisherman. Gripping.

4. Murder, My Sweet�- One of the most captivating and influential film noirs, Murder, My Sweet is based upon Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely. Dark and moody, director Edward Dmytryk guides Dick Powell to perfection as Philip Marlowe. This change of pace for the musical star lead to a new page in his career. The standout is Claire Trevor, as the voluptuous Mrs. Grayle, perhaps the best femme fatale of American film. Anne Shirley is great as her step-daughter, and Miles Mander, Mike Mazurki, and Otto Kruger contribute dark and disturbing performances to the atmospheric classic.

5. Murder on the Orient Express�- Agatha Christie’s colorful novel is brought to majestic life in this star-studded adaptation. When tycoon Richard Widmark is murdered on a train full of rich passengers, everybody becomes a suspect. Through his questionings, debonair Hercule Poirot deduces that the murder is… The first of the star studded Christie films, and also the best, with a cast to die for. Albert Finney plays Poirot and Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York are the possible murderers!

6. The Maltese Falcon�- The stuff that dreams are made of…a valuable and missing heirloom is somewhere in the city. It’s up to private eye Sam Spade to find out where and retrieve it for his clients. John Huston’s first cinematic masterpiece and the mystery to end all mysteries. Dark and cynical, with a sardonic wit makes with a must. Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet star.

7. Death on the Nile�- Following the success of Murder on the Orient Express, Paramount decided to make another Christie novel into an all-star film. This time, a wealthy and cruel heiress is murdered on a boat full of passengers. Everyone wanted her to die for their own reasons, but who could have actually made everyone’s wish come true? Could it be Bette Davis? Maggie Smith? Angela Lansbury? Mia Farrow? George Kennedy? Jack Warden? Jon Finch? It’s up to Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) and Colonel Race (David Niven) to discover the killer’s identity. Followed by Evil Under the Sun, which missed this list by only a bit.

8. Gosford Park�- The first film masterpiece of the new millennium, Robert Altman’s brilliant Gosford Park, which was nominated for (and should have won) the Oscar for Best Picture, ingeniously combines humor, a scathing critique of the British class system, and murder in this delightful satire. The acting is perhaps the finest of the last ten years, and the cast includes Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren (who were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars). Visually sumptuous, with love in every frame! Not just one great murder---two! And the same person! It sound confusing, and it is, but it’s worth it! A second visit to the mansion is even more enjoyable, and since Altman encouraged every actor in the background to be doing something at all times, each additional viewing warrants the discovery of some fantastic little detail.

9. The Spiral Staircase�- Dorothy McGuire is a deaf mute who is scared beyond words because a serial killer has been targeting disabled women. One rainy night, she is planning to run off with her lover, a doctor who thinks her verbal senses can be restored. Just before she leaves, however, she’s in for the shock of her life, when she realizes that until her lover returns, she is victim to any murderer who wants her. Only McGuire could hold an audiences attention with only one short line of dialog, but she succeeds enormously. With Ethel Barrymore as a bedridden old woman, George Brent as her son, and Una O’Connor as a boozing servant. Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers), and featuring truly unforgettable performances.

10. Sorry, Wrong Number�- Barbara Stanwyck is trying to call her husband’s office one night. Some wires get crossed by the operator and she overhears two men plotting the murder of an old woman. When she calls the police to report it, they cannot do anything about such a vague clue. So she has a series of telephone conversations with all sorts of people before she begins to unravel the mystery. She reminisces flashbacks, then talks to people on the phone who flashback, and have flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s a complicated masterpiece, absolutely flawless. The most gripping, tense, and amazing shocker produced under the studio system. It tore down all presidents by violating the conventions at the time and it still manages to show today!

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