Metalluk's Top-Ten Non-English Language Mystery Films

Dec 19, 2004 (Updated Nov 10, 2005)

The Bottom Line If you're into mystery, thrills, and suspense, here are some great non-English language films that you won't want to miss, with links to full reviews.

What constitutes a mystery film? I've been guided in part by the genre listings for various films in the Internet Movie Database, but not entirely. A few good films that are technically mystery films do not have enough of a mystery component (relative to their general drama or comedy elements) to rate inclusion. Moreover, I've decided that a few films listed as either "Thrillers" or "Crime" films also qualify as "Mysteries." The mystery element does not always relate to a crime, but usually does. So anyway, here's my Top-Ten with four runners-up. All of these films are movies that I've reviewed and rated at either four or five stars. All are excellent! Click on the links for full reviews.

Metalluk's Top-Ten Non-English Language Mystery Films.

#1. The Spider's Stratagem (1970).   Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
This intriguing tale centers on thirty-four year old Athos Magnani, who arrives in a small Italian town where his father is a venerated hero because he was "vilely murdered by Fascist bullets" the same year Athos was born. His father's name was also Athos Magnani and the younger Athos is a dead-ringer for his father. He is the same age now that his father was when he was murdered. Athos has come to town to help unveil a new statue to his father, but his father's former mistress wants him to uncover who killed his father, since the culprits have never been brought to justice. With plenty of twists and atmosphere, this is a mystery for the ages.

#2. Le Samourai (1967).   Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
This stylish film pits the ever-appealing Alain Delon as contract killer Jef Costello against a dogged Police Superintendent played by François Périer. Costello lives a ritualized Spartan life, friendless except for a caged blue finch, enabling him to carry out his work with a professionalism bordering on perfection. When several witnesses catch a glimpse of him during his latest killing, the Superintendent at last has a chief suspect, but will he be able to pin a case on him?

#3. Le Boucher (1969).   Director: Claude Chabrol
This taut thriller is set in the small rural French village of Tremolat, where Helene, the schoolteacher, played by lovely Stéphane Audran, makes the acquaintance of the town’s butcher, Popaul, played by Jean Yanne. She is intelligent, lovely, and sophisticated while he is a simple man with a troubled past, attentive and admiring. She is open to friendship but not romance. When the region is traumatized by a string of murders, Helene and we can't help wondering if Popaul could be the killer.

#4. Last Year at Marienbad (1961).   Director: Alain Resnais
This intellectual puzzle is set in an opulent Baroque-style French luxury resort. The story unfolds amidst labyrinthian hallways, ornate ballrooms with domed ceilings, and a magnificent geometric garden. The three principal characters are nameless and listed in the credits as A, X, and M. A is an attractive woman, played by Delphine Seyrig, who is accompanied by a man named M. While M is busy in the hotel casino, X, another man, engages A in conversation and insists that they have met previously, at Marienbad or elsewhere, and that they had an affair and nearly ran off together. She, on the other hand, claims to have no recollection of him or having been involved with him. Who is telling the truth?

#5. Monsieur Hire (1989).   Director: Patrice Leconte
When the corpse of a 22-year-old woman is discovered by the police, the reclusive Monsieur Hire becomes the police inspector's chief suspect, for no better reason than a taxi driver's report that he had seen a man of about Hire's size running toward the building where Hire lives, around the time of the murder. Hire may or may not be a killer, but he is definitely a voyeur. In the evenings, he sits in his darkened apartment and watches the activities, including the intimate ones, of an attractive young woman, Alice, who lives in an apartment across the street, one story below. One evening, Alice spots Monsieur Hire during a sudden burst of lightening, but instead of reporting him to the police, she sets out to meet him. An interesting relationship evolves, but what is her motivation? Who killed the young woman?

#6. M (1931).   Director: Fritz Lang
This classic mystery and thriller is set in a German city that is being terrorized by a serial killer, who murders little girls and then taunts the city by sending letters to the newspaper. The pressure on Police Inspector Lormann to find the killer is palpable and his team works frantically, trying to identify the killer. The criminals of the city are equally dismayed because the police crackdown is bad for their businesses. The city's top gangster mobilizes both the criminals and the beggars to find this killer and end the reign of terror. Who is the killer and who will find him first?

#7. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).   Director: Fritz Lang
Lang reprised his villain, Dr. Mabuse, from a 1922 silent film and then pitted him against the popular hero, Inspector Lohmann, from M. A former police agent is murdered while trying to relay a hot tip to Lohmann, managing only to scribble the name Mabuse backwards on a pane of glass before his death. Lohmann reviews the decade old file on Dr. Mabuse and locates him in an insane asylum, under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Baum, who has been studying Mabuse's wild scribblings for years. Can a bedridden madman confined to a locked room in an asylum still be a criminal mastermind or is it someone else?

#8. Nine Queens (2000).   Director: Fabian Bielinsky
A young amateurish grifter named Juan gets caught running an age-old bill-switch con but gets bailed out by a more experienced con-artist, Marcos, who takes on the young man as an apprentice. The two men work a few petty cons together until Marcos gets an opportunity for a big score. Juan gets himself cut in on the job but can either of these men trust the other? Are they working together or will one con the other our of his share? One twist leads to another, in this fine film. It'll keep you guessing 'til the end.

#9. Insomnia (1998).   Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
This Norwegian film was remade by Hollywood in 2002, with Al Pacino in the lead role, but many critics prefer the original. Ace-detective Johan Engstrom is flown in from Oslo when a seventeen year-old girl is murdered in a small town in northern Norway. It is summer and this is the so-called land of the midnight sun, where the only thing separating one day from the next is a brief sliver of twilight. Jonas sets a trap for the killer, but, in the ensuing confusion, accidentally shoots his own partner as the killer gets away. Jonas decides to cover-up his mistake and make it look like the killer was also responsible for his partner's death. Jonas must now try to solve his case while also preventing his own crime from being discovered.

#10. Rashômon (1950).   Director: Akiri Kurosawa
A thief (played by famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune) attacks a samurai and his wife while the couple is traveling through a woods. The thief is later placed on trial for murdering the samurai and raping his wife. The court listens to four accounts of the crime – from the wife, the thief, a woodcutter who oversaw the event, and a medium (who claims to be in contact with the murder victim). Each version is illustrated by flashback as the witness recounts it. The four versions differ so materially from one another as seemingly to defy rational explanation. What really happened? Is anyone telling the truth?


#11. The American Friend (1977).   Director: Wim Wenders
Tom Ripley, played by American actor Dennis Hopper, is an art dealer operating a scam with a New York based painter who has faked his own death to jack up the value of his paintings. Jonathan Zimmermann, played by German actor Bruno Ganz, is a frame maker and former restorer who becomes suspicious because the blue pigment in the latest painting differs from that of other known paintings by the same artist. When Ripley has to find a contract killer to do a job for a mobster, he decides to con Zimmermann into believing his blood ailment is terminal, so he'll be desperate enough to become a killer to make quick money for his family. Will Zimmermann take the job? Will Ripley's con come back to haunt him?

#12. This Man Must Die (1969).   Director: Claude Chabrol
When a reckless hit-and-run driver kills a young lad of eight, the boy's independently wealthy father, Charles, becomes disgusted with the ineptness of the police investigation and obsessed with finding the killer on his own. With a bit of luck, he discovers that one of the two people in the car was an actress named Helene Lanson. Charles arranges to meet Helene and seduces her with his charm and good looks, planning to kill her, but discovers that she was only a passenger in the vehicle, not the driver. Through her, he meets the driver, who is her brother-in-law, Paul. He is a beast of a man, hated even by his own wife and son. Will Charles follow through and kill Paul? Will someone in his own family kill him first? Or, will the shrewd Paul foil them all?

#13. L’Avventura (1960).   Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni invented a new visual language for this mystery about upper crust Sicilian society. A rich and idle young woman named Anna wrestles with ennui and ambivalence toward her lover, Sandro. She invites her best friend Claudia (played by Monica Vitti) to join her and Sandro and some wealthy couples for an excursion via yacht to a barren, volcanic island. After Anna quarrels briefly with Sandro, on the island, she wanders off and is soon nowhere to be found. The party scours the island and when that fails, Anna's father and a search team arrive, but there is still no sign of Anna. Rumors begin to pop up, first, about a mysterious boat that may have passed by and, later, supposed sightings of Anna on shore, in various towns. While searching for Anna and pursuing leads, Claudia and Sandro are thrown together and become lovers. What really happened to Anna?

#14. Character (1997).   Director: Mike van Diem
This film opens with a confrontation between a young man and an older man that may or may not have culminated in murder. The young man had yelled at the older one, "Today I have been made a lawyer. You no longer exist for me! You have worked against me all my life." The older man turns his back, then mutters, "Or for you!" The young man, Jacob, is soon under arrest for the murder of the older one, Mr. Dreverhaven. What was the relationship between these two men? Did Jacob, in fact, murder Mr. Dreverhaven?


You may also enjoy my other genre lists for non-English language films:

Ten Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Ten More Excellent Spanish-Language Films
Coming-of-age – Outside the USA!
Top Ten Foreign Language Psychodramas
Top Ten Non-English Language Political Movies
My Top Ten Non-English Language Tragedies
Top Non-English Language Comedies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Film Biographies
Top-Ten Non-English Language Action/Adventure Films
Ten Best Non-English Language War Movies!!
Top-Ten Non-English Language ~Horror~ Films
Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA
Ten Excellent Films Featuring Royalty
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Thrillers
Ten Non-English Language High-Yield Tearjerkers
Ten Excellent Non-English Language Senior Films
Top-Ten Non-English Language Films Featuring Classical Music
The Top Non-English Language Epics
The 10 Best Foreign Language Romance Movies!!
The Ten Best Non-English Language Love Story Movies!!

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