Get us in your inbox

Knives Out
Photograph: Lionsgate FilmsKnives Out

40 murder-mystery movies to test your sleuthing skills to the max

Prepare for ‘Knives Out 2’ with this caseload of corpse-laden classics

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Matthew Singer
Advertising

Making a great murder-mystery movie is an art form. The raw materials are so wildly familiar to anyone who’s ever hosted a game night – someone’s been slain, one (or more) of a cast of characters did it, and someone will be along to solve it – that the art really comes in mining surprises from the template. Ensuring it doesn’t all feel like a big-screen version of Clue, even when it actually is a big-screen version of Clue.

But many filmmakers have been doing it pretty darn well. With the odd lull, this bloody corner of cinema has been thriving expansively since the 1930s, accommodating everything from moody film noirs, to cries for social or racial justice, to comedy capers, to the sheer overblown fun of those star-studded Agatha Christie flicks. Who knew it would be such a ride to watch a phalanx of A-listers jostle for screentime while a man with outlandish facial hair works out who has offed one of their number?

Predictably, for the land of Christie, Graham Greene, Sherlock Holmes and Alfred Hitchcock, the Brits have often pointed the way in this field. But Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and co have helped Hollywood has come to the murder party in a big way too, leaving a litany of suspiciously positioned bodies in its wake. And now, with the release of movies like Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, and Knives Out 2 on its way, the murder-mystery is back in a big way. But which are the classics of their kind and which should be released without questioning? We’ve rounded up 40 of the most unusual suspects.

Contributors: Phil de Semlyen, Matthew Singer, Annette Richardson, Ashanti Omkar

Recommended:

🕵️ The 100 best thriller films of all time
🔪 The best true crime documentaries on Netflix in the US
🔥 The 100 greatest films ever made

40 great murder-mysteries

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing)

Sleuthing style: Bristling and brilliant.

Hammer Films director Terence Fisher teamed up with his Dracula stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on the moors of Devon (okay, Chobham Common) for the daddy of all Sherlock Holmes yarns. If you’re not familiar, a savage canine is roaming Dartmoor and Holmes and Watson (André Morell) are charged with finding out who it will kill next and why it’s probably the heir to a huge country pile (Lee). It’s basically Scooby-Doo, only the Great Dane is the bad guy. Cushing’s Holmes is a feisty, sophisticated version of Conan-Doyle’s creation and Morell’s Watson is at the less fuddy-duddyish end of the sidekick spectrum, as the pair sift through the red herrings galore. The results are deeply moor-ish. 

  • Film
  • Drama

Sleuths: Detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) 

Sleuthing style: Highly sackable.

For many, Bong Joon-ho’s greatest film – superior even to Parasite – this masterful, jack-knifing crime procedural operates in a fog of almost Proustian melancholy as it revisits the story of Korean’s first ever recorded serial killer. Bumbling rural cops Park and Cho are joined by a slicker Seoul detective, Seo Tae-yoon, who soon finds himself dragged down to their level as the bodycount of murdered women grows and the rule book goes out the window. Suspects are beaten, red herrings swallowed whole and the price of blundering is paid in corpses. It’s bleakly funny, in Bong’s hallmark style, but deadly serious too – a cinematic autopsy performed on a desensitised society. 

Advertising
Rear Window (1954)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: LB Jefferies (James Stewart) 

Sleuthing style: Voyeuristic.

Alfred Hitchcock’s stationary thriller hits a bit different after two years stuck at home. Who among us didn’t get a little too invested in the lives of our neighbours once all the jigsaw puzzles got put together and the Office reruns ran out? Certainly, the experience of quarantine has made the idle paranoia of Stewart’s injured, shut-in photographer easier to empathise with. Laid up with a broken leg, Jefferies fills the time peering into nearby apartments, and soon convinces himself that one resident has committed a horrible crime. If only he had Tiger King to distract him, he would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble. 

Cure (1997)
Photograph: Daiei Films

4. Cure (1997)

Sleuth: Detective Takabe (Kōji Yakusho)

Sleuthing style: Psychologically spiralling. 

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s influential chiller sees a spate of bloody murders committed by otherwise oblivious people experiencing a form of mind control (think Tom Riddle’s diary, only way, way gorier). Bong Joon-ho has admitted his debt to it, and you can feel the connective tissue between his films and this ice-veined, almost supernaturally charged procedural in its exploration of murder’s capacity to claim victims even of the still-living. Here, it’s detective Kenichi Takabe (Kōji Yakusho), who finds a likely suspect, the seriously creepy Mamiya, and tries to find out if he’s behind all the corpses left with a ‘X’ carved into their necks. 

Advertising
Laura (1944) 
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews)

Sleuthing style: Obsessive. 

More than a decade before Hitchcock’s love struck vertiginous detective, Otto Preminger’s iconic film noir Laura also pursues necrophiliac themes. Unruffled police lieutenant McPherson is surrounded by the pseuds and hangers-on who inhabited the life of a eponymous woman whose murder he’s investigating. Gene Tierney’s Laura shines in a world of witty fakery and the movie is pervaded with a stately wistful melancholy that the detective can never meet the woman he falls for, only solve her crime. Like Vertigo, the motifs of portraits and musical refrains remind us that as audience, we are also subject to the sliding doors and manipulations of noir obsessions. Just that it’s the films that haunt us.

Zodiac (2007)
  • Film
  • Drama

Sleuth: Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Sleuthing style: All-consuming.

Of the atrocities committed by the Zodiac Killer, the worst is the string of random murders that paralysed the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. Second, though, is the way they turned their identity into a game that ensnared many more victims. It’s the latter that David Fincher is most interested in. Sure, Zodiac contains several brutal recreations of those acts of violence, including the ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ opener and the daylight attack on a couple in a park. But the movie’s real focus is on the rabbit hole the killer opened up with the maddening puzzles and clues they left behind.

Advertising
The Fallen Idol (1948)
  • Film

Sleuths: Inspector Crowe (Denis O’Dea) and Detective Ames (Jack Hawkins)

Sleuthing style: Suspicious.

Murder through the eyes of a child is a truly frightening thing in this masterful Graham Greene adaptation from Carol Reed: a disorientating, traumatising deed with far-reaching consequences – even when it isn’t even really murder. What Philippe, the lonely nine-year-old son of the French ambassador to London, thinks he’s seen when his father’s butler (Ralph Richardson), who he dotes on, and his jilted wife (Sonia Dresdel) tussle at the top of the stairs ends in a police investigation. But what has he really seen and will the police figure out the truth? The procedural element comes late in the day, but The Fallen Idol finally delivers a unique perspective on the genre.

  • Film
  • Comedy

Sleuths: Nick (William Powel) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy)

Style of sleuthing: Boozy and fast-talking.

The original, and best, of the Thin Man movies introduces Dashiell Hammett’s liquor-loving married couple Nick and Nora Charles, easily the most progressive on-screen couple 1930s moviegoers would have laid eyes upon. She’s every bit his equal but they’re at their best together, exchanging screwball patter, solving murders and slugging back martinis. Here, it’s Nick who comes up with the wheeze of inviting all the suspects round for a dinner party and seeing who snaps. 

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig)

Sleuthing style: Kentucky fried.

The classic murder mystery was well out of style by the time Rian Johnson decided to take a crack at the genre. Knives Out seemed like a minor palate cleanser for the director after emerging from the cesspool of Star Wars fandom, and the boilerplate plot certainly didn’t suggest anything more ambitious: A wealthy novelist (Christopher Plummer) is found dead under suspicious circumstances… and everyone’s a suspect! Turns out, audiences had been clamouring for an old-fashioned whodunnit and the movie was a big enough hit to inspire a forthcoming sequel. Once you see the thing, it’s really no wonder: the giant cast is obviously having a blast, and no one more than Craig, whose interpretation of a ‘Southern gentleman’ is straight-up Foghorn Leghorn. Hopefully no one thought to get him a dialect coach before shooting part two.

Murder, She Said (1961)
Photograph: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

10. Murder, She Said (1961)

Sleuth: Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford)

Sleuthing style: Bastard-mad aunty.

Rutherford played Agatha Christie’s septuagenarian supersleuth on four occasions, beginning with this unalloyed gem that’s located in the early ‘60s by its groovy Ron Goodwin score, if not its line-up of starchy rural suspects who might have stepped out of the war years. Based on Christie’s ‘4.50 from Paddington’, it’s all sparked into action when Marple spots a murder on another train and follows the corpse to a nearby country pile, where she promptly takes a job and gets to work solving it all. Easily the jolliest film in which several people are brutally murdered. 

Advertising
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
Photograph: ITC Entertainment

11. Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Sleuth: Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum)

Sleuthing style: Frank Drebin with more end product. 

Robert Mitchum plays Philip Marlowe in this wonderfully laconic showcase of Raymond Chandler’s legendary private dick that takes in murdered nightclub owners, missing dames and a few surprise drive-by shootings. The 1944 noir version, Murder My Sweet, has many champions but for us, Mitchum just nails Marlowe’s sardonic line in juicy epithets (‘My bank account just crawled under a duck’) and cop-baiting putdowns (‘I had a feeling you’d be round, so I had the office sprayed’). The plot thickens – and keeps on thickening.

Fargo (1996)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand)

Sleuthing style: Folksy.

Not many movies that include a scene of a body getting fed through a wood chipper take place in a world most of us would be keen to live in, but that’s sort of the point of Joel and Ethan Coen’s only slightly exaggerated version of the American midwest: not even the encroachment of big-city violence can rattle the region’s preternatural niceness. It’s that collision of brutality and unflappable good nature that makes Fargo so absurdly funny. But make no mistake, it’s a great crime film as well, and McDormand’s Gunderson is one of cinema’s all-time great sleuths. A pregnant small-town cop as cheery as her neighbours but much more clever, she allows herself just enough cynicism to believe a dweeby local car salesman (William H Macy) might have something to do with all the random murders happening lately.

Advertising
Memento (2000)
Photograph: Summit Entertainment

13. Memento (2000)

Sleuth: Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce)

Sleuthing style: Polaroids and body art.

Would Christopher Nolan’s breakout have broken out to the degree it did without its reverse-chronology structure? That was the initial contrarian knock on Memento, whose main selling point is that the story, about an amnesiac searching for his wife’s murderer, is told backward. But that’s like asking if KISS would seem as cool without the make-up or if kids would find dinosaurs fascinating if they weren’t so big. It’s an intrinsic part of the story itself, a conceit that challenges the viewer’s own memory and demands close attention – a quality that stands out even more now in the streaming era, when everyone half-watches movies while scrolling their phone, and when many movies allow them to.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer)

Sleuthing style: Anti-establishment. 

Christopher Plummer and James Mason only made one film together as Holmes and Watson but, boy, is it a humdinger – one of the finest of the 250-odd Holmes movies so far committed to screen. The fire in Holmes’s heart is well and truly kindled by the Ripper murders of East End prostitutes, a series of brutal crimes that lead him into a far-reaching conspiracy and bring out the avenging feminist in this violin-playing, pipe-puffing super brain. Watch it then delve into the source material, Stephen Knight’s famous book ‘Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution’.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Wadsworth (Tim Curry)

Sleuthing style: Cheeky. 

A movie based on a board game? Wow, Hollywood has really run out of ideas, haven’t they? Three decades before Battleship, British director Jonathan Lynn took on the challenge of adapting a different Hasbro property, and against all logic, it actually worked out – in the long run, anyway. Met with derision from critics and middling box office, the film’s stature is now at least equal to the game itself. Taking the game’s basic set-up – six strangers are called to a mysterious mansion, a seventh ends up dead and everyone’s a suspect – and adding winking humour, Cold War paranoia and a delightful Tim Curry as the suspicious butler trying to sort it all out, it leads to a conclusion that’s either brilliant or totally daft. At any rate, the movie has proven more influential than anyone would’ve predicted: when critics say Rian Johnson revived the murder mystery with Knives Out, what they really mean is he just remade Clue for the 21st century.

Death on the Nile (1978)
Photograph: EMI Films

16. Death on the Nile (1978)

Sleuth: Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov)

Sleuthing style: Conducted either aside of an evening sundowner.

Here’s a question: if someone gets murdered on Poirot’s holiday, does it still count as annual leave? The Belgian super-sleuth is just after a serene cruise down the Nile in this an all-star take on Agatha Christie’s potboiler, when wouldn’t you know it? The rich woman everyone else on board hates is mysteriously shot in the face. Zuts, and indeed, alors. With his customary methodical elan and bushy moustache glinting in the Egyptian sun, Poirot gets to work solving the case. All he knows is that it’s not David Niven. But it could be a batty Bette Davis, a testy Maggie Smith or a brittle Mia Farrow. It almost doesn’t matter, so much cheesy fun is it watching them all duke it out.

Advertising
Seven (1995)
  • Film
  • Drama

Sleuths: William Somerset and David Mills (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt)

Sleuthing style: Murtaugh and Riggs on a really bad day.

Climaxing with history’s most disturbing unboxing video, David Fincher’s first movie about a serial killer taunting police officers is still the grimmest, grimiest thing he’s ever done. Where most of his films derive chills from alienating sleekness, Seven – so named for its villain’s high-concept murders based on the seven deadly sins – is downright filthy, with dessicated corpses found in blood-smeared apartments and death coming via burst stomachs and spiked sexual apparatuses. Despite all the gore, the scariest scene remains that last one, rendered through mere suggestion and Brad Pitt’s freaked-out reading of the line, ‘What’s in the boooooxxxxxx?!

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

18. Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Sleuth: Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe)

Sleuthing style: Know-it-all.

In his own Goonies-style way, the teenage Sherlock offers a sparkling addition to the crime-solving canon in this boisterous origin caper from Barry ‘Rain Man’ Levinson and Amblin. You can tell Young Sherlock’s adventures are penned by Harry Potter’s Christopher Columbus, such is the Hogwartsy vibe of its public school setting and imaginative detours into the realm of magic. But there’s lots of fun to be had as the schoolboy Sherlock and his sidekick Watson go on a roundabout hunt for a fairly obvious set of villains and demonstrate that murder-mysteries can be playful as well as nerve-fraying. The game, as they say, is afoot! 

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke)

Sleuthing style: Avuncular.

German auteur Fritz Lang invented, like, a half-dozen genres with his first talkie, 1931’s M, including the psychological thriller, the police procedural and the film noir. By his next film he was already mixing them together to make something entirely different. Lang had introduced the titular criminal mastermind – the creation of novelist Norbert Jacques – a decade earlier in the four-hour Dr Mabuse the Gambler. In the sequel, he’s locked in a mental asylum, but that doesn’t stop him from using mind control to get others to do his bidding, of which murder is only one element. It’s up to another member of the Fritz Lang Cinematic Universe to figure out his ultimate plan: the crafty Inspector Lohmann, who also tracked down Peter Lorre’s disturbed child killer in M

  • Film
  • Drama

Sleuth: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Sleuthing style: Bruised and battered.

Loner student Brendan Fyre gets an disturbing phone call from his ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), that suggests her danger. Sure enough, she’s soon found dead in an LA drain tunnel and Brendan is off on a dark odyssey to find out who did it – and why. A young Gordon-Levitt dials down his boyish charm to give an amateur gumshoe who learns to swim in the murkiest of water as he deciphers clues, crosses paths with some bad hombres and navigates the dusty car parks and strip malls of Orange County in pursuit of the truth. The fingerprints of Dashiell Hammett and ‘40s noirs are all over Rian Johnson’s clever and seriously watchable mystery. You can’t take your eyes off it for a second – and you won’t want to.

Advertising
The Nice Guys (2016)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Sleuths: Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling)

Sleuthing style: Bickering.

Murder-mystery meets buddy-cop comedy with wildly enjoyable effect in Shane Black’s shaggy dog yarn set in ’70s LA. The initial victim is a porn star, whose death brings Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s private investigators together (by way of the odd broken arm). But as is often the way with this subsection of the thriller genre, the deaths only clock up as the ever-bitching duo set to work getting to the bottom of it all. There’s missing girls, shady movie types, a 12-year-old sidekick (Angourie Rice) and a tonne of needle-drop tunes on the soundtrack. It’s as much wackadoodle fun as a crime flick can muster.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone)

Sleuthing style: Wordle-in-two clever. 

This Hollywoodised take on Sherlock Holmes starts where others would end: with the dastardly Moriarity in the dock at the Old Bailey. Only, wait! He’s released and regroups to plan his most heinous scheme yet. Fortunately, the equally cunning Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and the very much less cunning Watson (Nigel Bruce) stand in his path, complete with clever disguises. Rathbone and Bruce are a wonderful double-act – the former an impatient but rather gentle Holmes; the latter a guileless but bulldog-brave Watson – while George Zucco’s Moriarty has a weird thing for house plants. The McGuffin here is the Crown Jewels, but there’s a murder too: even if it took place ten years earlier. The verdict? An endlessly enjoyable hybrid of American flair and British substance that you can
find online for free.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Film director Philip Dexter (James Mason)

Sleuthing style: Bohemian.

Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins’ famously elaborate Manhattan cluefests, put on for showbiz pals, helped spawn this ingeniously plotted but still under-appreciated caper. It was a big influence on Knives Out and its easy to see why in the sheer delight it in the art of breadcrumbing clues throughout and giving each of its ensemble (James Mason, Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, et al) their moment. James Coburn’s widowed movie producer invites some Hollywood friends onto his yacht in the Med and then gives them a series of clues to solve, promising to unmask his wife’s killer at the end of week. You can watch it as a straight-up mystery or a biting satire on Hollywood morality and egos. Either way, it’s a tonne of fun.

  • Film
  • Comedy

Sleuth: John Watson (Ben Kingsley)

Sleuthing styleSecretive.

There’s a Homer Simpson/Frank Grimes dynamic to this underrated comedy’s Holmes-and-Watson double act. The twist is that Michael Caine’s Holmes is the front man, an actor with a taste for ladies and liquor, while Ben Kingsley’s Watson is the real brains of the operation, giving up the glory to avoid drawing focus from his medical career but jealous of it too. Predictably, pisshead thesp and pompous brainaic bicker like an old married couple, falling out and splitting up, before teaming up to take on Moriarty and his plot to flood the economy with counterfeit notes. Critics hated it when it came out but do not underestimate the leftfield charm of this anti-bromance – and especially Caine’s line in bullshitting. ‘It is my opinion,’ he notes after some deliberation of one washed-up corpse, ‘...that he is dead.’ No shit, Sherlock.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Drama

Sleuth: Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry)

Sleuthing style: A bit, er, um, bumbling.

It’s not until the 80-minute mark that Sir William McCordle’s (Michael Gambon) corpse is discovered with a whopping great knife in it, and a blood-curdling scream shatters the back-biting and gossip of Gosford Park. It’s not, perhaps, the traditional murder-mystery structure whether the killing comes early and spurs the plot, but Robert Altman’s skewering of the English class system isn’t your standard crime thriller. Trying to figure which of the egregious posh people assembled for a shooting weekend might have killed another of their number is Stephen Fry’s hapless inspector. But honestly, one of the dead pheasants present has a better chance of cracking the case.

Mystic River (2003)
Photograph: Warner Bros.

26. Mystic River (2003)

Sleuths: Detectives Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) and Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne)

Style of sleuthing: Glum.

Elegantly shot, superbly acted and relentlessly, suffocatingly grim, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a ‘murder mystery’ in the least fun sense of the term. Decades after being splintered by an unspeakable childhood trauma, three friends from a working-class Boston neighbourhood (Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn) are forced to reckon with the past when one of their daughters turns up dead. Like we said: not fun. But Eastwood handles the heavy material with grace, creating a tone that’s sombre but not exploitive, and while it’s a hard film to get through, it’s not an experience you regret.

Advertising
Crossfire (1947)
Photograph: RKO Radio Pictures

27. Crossfire (1947)

Sleuth: Capt. Finlay (Robert Young)

Sleuthing styleMeticulous.

This Oscar-nominated B-movie brought the stain of antisemitism to the noir genre. The idea of murder motivated by race hate drives a procedural where a group of GIs, including Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, are the obvious suspects. On the case is a detective, Capt. Finlay, who neatly articulates why race hate is such a tricky crime to solve in the film’s impassioned closing moments: ‘You usually have to know something about a man to have a reason to kill him. You have to know him well enough to be in love with his wife, or know he has some money.’ Not here. Bad Day at Black Rock, Mississippi Burning and other thrillers would expand on the theme.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Photograph: Walt Disney Pictures

28. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Sleuth: Basil of Baker Street 

Sleuthing style: Squeaky.

This is no murder in this loveable animated caper but there
is a kidnapping, a dastardly plot to repace the Queen of England with a mechanical version, a tiny airship and a psychotic bat…so we’re counting it. In truth, it plays out almost identically to a murder-mystery in the way its titular crime-solver, Basil of Baker Street, sets about identifying a likely villain (Vincent Price-voiced super-rodent Ratigan) and someone does eventually get fed to a cat. In the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories it homages, Basil even gets a doughty sidekick in the bewhiskered shape of war veteran Major Dawson (presumably some kind of mouse war). If you need a break from all the bloodshed, give this one another spin.

Advertising
  • Film
  • Comedy

Sleuth: Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers)

Sleuthing style: Wildly over-confident. 

‘I gather ze facts, examine ze clues and before you know it, ze case is solved!’ If Peter Sellers’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau, a one-man stroke risk for his exasperated superior, Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), is half as good as he thinks he is, A Shot in the Dark’s perpetrator would have been apprehended in minutes. As it is, justice isn’t served until Clouseau has set fire to himself, fallen out of a window, knocked a tonne of stuff over and driven Dreyfus into a murderous psychosis of his own. As a detective, he’s hopeless; as a showcase for Sellers’ deadpan physical comedy, he’s sheer genius. 

 

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne)

Sleuthing style: Heavily disguised.

You can’t have a murder-mystery list without including the act of theatrical sleight-of-hand that is Sleuth. Adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own play and directed by All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewicz, an expert in the field of catty rivalries, it transitions nicely from stage to screen: male ego is main victim here, as Laurence Olivier’s crime novelist tries to avenge himself on the cocksure hair stylist (Michael Caine) who is sleeping with his wife. It was remade (badly) in 2007 with Caine swapping roles and Jude Law playing the lothario, but this twisty chamber piece is camp fun and a nice reminder that a well-crafted crime can take on a momentum all of its own.

Advertising
DOA (1950)
Photograph: United Artists

31. DOA (1950)

Sleuth: Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien)

Sleuthing style: Dying.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a man walks into a police station to report a murder – his own. That set-up probably does sound familiar, even if you haven’t seen Rudolph Mate’s foundational noir about a rapidly dying notary public racing to figure out who poisoned him and why. The film has been remade multiple times, and its then-novel flashback structure is now a common narrative device. The original is still the best, though, twisty and pulpy and ridiculous in the way of most great noirs. (Track it down free on YouTube.) But if you don’t have the patience, at least watch Crank with Jason Statham, which takes the basic premise and pumps it full of crystal meth… like, literally. 

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)
Photograph: Yash Raj Films

32. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

Sleuth: Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput)

Sleuthing style: Observational.

The satyanweshi, or ‘truth seeker’, is a sleuth made famous by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s crime novels. In this 1940s-set Hindi thriller that plays out amid the air raids and subterfuge of wartime Calcutta, he’s played by Sushant Singh Rajput – a detective who is hired by the son of a missing scientist to find out what happened to his dad. And he sorts the clues from the red herrings with all the savvy of a Sherlock Holmes-inspired character to keep the bodycount down to reasonable levels. 

Advertising
Blow Out (1981)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Jack Terri (John Travolta)

Sleuthing style: Paranoid.

If the title sounds familiar, that’s intentional: Brian De Palma’s pitch-black neo-noir is an undisguised homage to Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘60s arthouse classic about a photographer who captures a murder on film. Only here, it’s a movie sound tech who believes he’s recorded audio of a presidential candidate’s assassination. But Blow-Out isn’t just a remake with updated tech: De Palma folds in plenty of early ‘80s-specific anxiety about the post-Watergate political landscape. It also has a great, paranoid performance from John Travolta, proving for the first time that he could do more than look cool doing the Brooklyn Shuffle in satin pants. 

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick)

Sleuthing style: Quietly professional. 

A young light-skinned woman called Sapphire is found stabbed to death on Hampstead Heath. But is it a random killing or racially motivated? Director Basil Dearden regularly took a scalpel to London’s prejudice-strewn underbelly with films like Pool of London and Victim, and this hard-hitting drama – a kind of British answer to John Cassavetes’ Shadows from the same year – takes no prisoners in ripping into white Britain’s racist id. The often debonair Nigel Patrick gets serious as a methodical cop who keeps prodding away until the poison eventually spills out. 

Advertising
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Detective Blore (Roland Young)

Sleuthing style: Severely comprised.

There’s a few things characters in a murder-mystery should never do: take a boat trip to a remote country house, take the first sip of wine and try the curry (it’ll be an arsenic jalfrezi, guaranteed). Most of these elementary errors are made in a joyfully hammy take on Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians’, but mainly because that many people are murdered. It’s basically Saw in evening wear, with a mysterious figure overseeing the well-mannered slaughter. Some of the acting is a touch stiff, though the presence of the great Walter Huston as a shady doctor elevates things, and René Clair’s brisk direction keeps the bodies flowing. 

  • Film

Sleuths: Ed (Jack Lemmon) and Beth Horman (Sissy Spacek)

Sleuthing style: Fearless.

Okay, it’s not really a murder mystery – at least, not in the conventional sense. In fact, if you were looking to find a pigeonhole to slot Costa-Gavras’s angry post mortem of Chile’s 1973 right-wing coup, political thriller would be the obvious one. But all the ingredients of the genre are here: two amateur investigators (ageing American Ed Horman and his daughter-in-law Beth), a disappearance that surely signifies murder (Ed’s son and Beth’s husband, journalist Charlie) and a crime scene (Santiago, in the aftermath of violent military repression). What’s different here is the wild power imbalance: these two brave souls just want closure; they have no leverage and no way of bringing the culprits to book. The culprits, after all, run the show. 

Advertising
The Long Goodbye (1973)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould)

Sleuthing style: Cool, man. 

Critics absolutely hated Robert Altman’s ‘70s remix of Raymond Chandler, calling his version of one of the writer’s most-loved novels a ‘lazy, haphazard putdown’ and Gould’s take on film noir’s coolest detective as ‘an untidy, unshaven, semiliterate, dimwit slob’. Altman couldn’t have been too surprised by the reception: by making Marlowe a man out of time – an old-school gumshoe who no longer understands the world around him – he was effectively interrogating the relevancy of the noir genre itself. Over time, however, The Long Goodbye has come to be seen among the best and smartest Chandler adaptations, and its story – of Marlowe looking into the suspicious alleged suicide of a good friend – still holds up.

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim)

Sleuthing style: Jovial but intense. 

Inspector Cockrill of Kent County Police, played with comic gusto by the inimitable Alastair Sim, is a refreshingly maverick entry to the crime-busting canon. He’s not above getting things horribly wrong but somehow stumbles on his man (or woman) in the end. The only shame is that this is the only one of crime writer Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill tales to get the movie treatment, so much fun is Sim’s hammy sleuthing. The crime he’s charged with solving is a possible murder during an operation at a wartime hospital. Trevor Howard is one of the suspicious medical types who may have switched the anaesthetic canisters.

Advertising
The Canary Murder Case (1929)
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

39. The Canary Murder Case (1929)

Sleuth: Philo Vance (William Powell)

Sleuthing style: Suave and in charge.

The Thin Man star William Powell’s other sleuthing franchise doesn’t have the snappy patter, cute pooch or lightness of touch of his Myrna Loy team-ups. But the first of these Philo Vance films still boasts the satisfying crime-solving rigour you’d expect from a Dashiell Hammett adaptation. The titular Canary is Louise Brooks’s ruthless showgirl, who blackmails one lover too many and ends up strangled. Vance cunningly lures the suspects into a game of poker to see which of them boasts the coolness and daring to have pulled off a murder. Another crime here is the dubbing that turned this silent film into a clunkly dubbed talkie (Brooks refused to record her lines and was replaced by another actress).

  • Film
  • Thrillers

Sleuth: John Wintergreen (Robert Blake)

Sleuthing style: Easy Rider.

Like a countercultural CHiPs, this ’70s actioner shot by the great Conrad Hall follows quirky, pint-sized motorcycle cop John Wintergreen and his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide in pursuit of a killer around Monument Valley. He’s a straight arrow who believes in justice, not a hippie-basher like some of his peers in blue, but he’s still an unusual figure to root for in a Vietnam-era movie. But Robert Blake inhabits him with a strange nobility as figures out that a suicide is not what it seems, and neither is the authoritarian system he’s supposed to be enforcing.

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising