Rian Johnson’s riotously enjoyable movie Knives Out has all the ingredients of a classic whodunnit: a dead body in a country house, a variety of plausible suspects, an eccentric investigator and a plot with more twists than a coiled rattlesnake.
Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, a southern-fried sleuth called in to solve the murder of novelist and patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Naturally, suspicion falls on every member of his family, and Blanc must eliminate them one by one.
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From the procedural cop shows on TV to big-screen thrillers, the murder mystery is perennially popular, but the classic whodunnit makes more sporadic appearances. Part intellectual puzzle, part comedy, the whodunnit is at its most enjoyable when it is witty and light on its feet. It’s not about doling out justice, but tickling the audience with the pleasures of plot and character. That’s partly why Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap remains the longest-running show in the West End – although she famously asked the audience not to reveal the ending to their friends.
In a perfect whodunnit the identity of the murderer should not be easily guessed at the outset, although looking back there will have been unmistakable clues. The plot should be garlanded with so many red herrings and dead ends that the audience’s heads are spinning by the end anyway. The detective may be an amateur, but he or she must be brilliantly clever, utterly idiosyncratic and dogged in their pursuit of the one person who had the means, the motive and the opportunity to commit the murder. For the most satisfying possible finale, the culprit’s true identity should be unveiled with a flourish, in front of all the suspects who have been gathered for the coup de théâtre.
While Knives Out is self-consciously a throwback to the classic form, packed with allusions to its predecessors, this is a sub-genre that has taken a few enjoyable detours of its own. So let the games begin…
The Last Warning (1928)
Director: Paul Leni
A spectacular early example of the whodunnit film, Paul Leni’s comedy thriller The Last Warning exemplifies the spirit of fun and the thrill of the jump-scare that enlivens the murder mystery genre. This Universal film was made as a part-talkie and shot on the sets used by the same studio’s famous silent horror The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The Last Warning is set in a Broadway theatre that closed five years previously when an actor was murdered on stage – a case that was never solved. Producer Mike Brody (Bert Roach) gathers the remnants of cast and crew together to restage that same play in the hope of finally identifying the killer, but the theatre appears to be both haunted and riddled with traps. While the rehearsals are interrupted by falling scenery, fire, theft and ghostly apparition, the murderer and his method are finally revealed live on stage at the play’s opening night.
The Thin Man (1934)
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
William Powell and Myrna Loy take the lead roles as the playful and often pie-eyed Nick and Nora Charles in this pre-Code adaptation of a novel by Dashiell Hammett. At Christmas time, between rounds of martinis, Nick dashes around Manhattan in an attempt to solve the mysterious disappearance of one Clyde Wynant, the ‘thin man’ of the film’s title – before revealing the truth at a dinner party, naturally.
Hammett based the story on his own stint as a Pinkerton detective, and the snappy dialogue (“I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.” “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids”) on his repartee with his sometime lover Lillian Hellmann. That said, for many the charismatic antics of Hollywood legend Skippy, the terrier playing Nick and Nora’s dog Asta, outshine the leading couple. While Hammett wrote just the one Nick and Nora book, the success of the film prompted MGM to continue their adventures with five film sequels.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Sherlock Holmes had to make an appearance on this list. By 1939, there had already been at least four film adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but this Hollywood production was the first to feature Holmes in his proper Victorian setting. Directed by Sidney Lanfield, this atmospheric and gripping rendition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s country house mystery was such a hit that it led to a series in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would team up as Holmes and Watson on 13 more occasions.
The setting is Dartmoor, and the house of Baskerville is apparently cursed by a demonic dog, which appears to have just claimed its most recent victim. Holmes must use his powers of deduction and disguise to reveal the true culprit, and save the new Lord Baskerville from a similar fate. An impressive cast commit to the shenanigans with gusto, and Rathbone makes for a captivatingly capricious Sherlock, right down to his exit line, “Oh, Watson … the needle.”
And Then There Were None (1945)
Director: René Clair
One of René Clair’s Hollywood films, this macabre Agatha Christie adaptation is based on a racially offensive nursery rhyme, but nevertheless deserves a place in the cinema whodunnit pantheon. It’s a spooky premise: eight strangers are invited to a house on an island off the coast of Devon, which is empty save for two servants. On the first night of their stay, the assembled guests listen to a gramophone record on which a voice accuses each person present of murder. As the members of the weekend party are bumped off one by one, and the statues on the dining table topple, the remaining guests must scramble to work out who is the executioner in disguise.
Green for Danger (1946)
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Alastair Sim plays a police detective, Inspector Cockrill, in this elegant adaptation of a novel by crime writer Christianna Brand. Directed by Sidney Gilliat, Green for Danger is set in a British hospital during wartime, where the staff must contend with nerve-jangling air raids while going about their life-saving work. One night at a dance, a nurse publicly accuses anaesthetist Barney Barnes (an ambiguously sinister Trevor Howard) of murder: a patient has died on the operating table – just as happened on his watch some time before.
Cockrill is brought in to investigate the death, while negotiating the rivalries and romantic entanglements between the hospital employees. In a nail-biting climax, Cockrill restages the lethal operation in order to unmask the true killer. It’s a witty comedy-thriller, with a touch of 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, which Gilliat co-wrote with Frank Launder for Alfred Hitchcock – but it often plunges into a far darker tone, helped along by William Alwyn’s menacing score and some very tense camerawork.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Director: Dario Argento
The film that popularised the giallo genre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is more of a whodunnit than a horror, based on the 1949 detective novel The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown. Tony Musante plays Sam, an American writer on holiday in Rome who witnesses a woman violently attacked by a black-gloved figure in an art gallery. Obsessed with the crime, Sam takes it upon himself to discover the truth, while the mysterious serial killer strikes again and even attacks his girlfriend Julia.
The killer’s identity is hidden in plain sight, but Sam must follow a trail of clues, including a strange sound heard in the background of menacing phone calls and a painting of another murder, before he can hit on the solution. The denouement is as theatrical in its own terrifying way as anything staged by a traditional sleuth, while the motive for the murder is unresolved trauma rather than revenge or greed. This is the whodunnit at its most bloody and sinister, cynical rather than comic, cold-blooded rather than eccentric.
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
“This, as we say, is where the plot thickens.” Anthony Schaffer’s Tony-award-winning two-hander play Sleuth was first brought to the big screen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1972, with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine playing the leads. It’s not so much a whodunnit as an exercise in remixing and reverse-engineering a murder mystery. The two men, ageing crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Olivier) and young hairdresser Milo Tindle (Caine), meet at the former’s country home to discuss a romantic problem: that is, Milo is sleeping with Andrew’s wife. Almost immediately they start playing games and charades, staging a burglary as a ruse to rustle up some cash.
The games turn violent and get nastier, more devious and harder to win. Wyke’s criminal creativity is challenged by the younger man’s ingenuity until it all ends right where we might expect a whodunnit to begin. Knives Out recalls Sleuth in several different ways, not least in its sparklingly spiteful dialogue and elaborate set design.
Murder by Death (1976)
Director: Robert Moore
The whodunnit genre, being essentially comic yet morbid, lends itself all too easily to spoof, reaching its loopy apotheosis in 1985’s Clue, a farce based on the board game Cluedo and memorably offering a choice of endings. A little more satisfying though is this star-studded adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, which brings together shadows of famous sleuths (complete with atrociously overdone, often offensive accents) and whodunnit tropes in one (naturally) isolated country house.
Truman Capote plays the petulant and enigmatic Lionel Twain, who has invited five detectives eager for “a hot dinner or a cold corpse” to his creepy manor house, where he challenges them to solve an impossible murder case. Their prize for cracking the puzzle? One million dollars, plus the paperback rights and film sales. If you can stand Peter Sellers’ excruciating Charlie Chan takeoff Sidney Wang, there’s plenty of wry amusement here, and knowing gags at the sub-genre’s expense.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director: Bryan Singer
It’s not a traditional whodunnit, but this neo-noir mystery ropes the audience into its biggest guessing game: who is Keyser Söze? And woe betide anyone who spoiled the fun for their friends before first viewing. Named for a memorable phrase from Casablanca, The Usual Suspects unveils mostly in flashback as con artist Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, played by Kevin Spacey, recounts his involvement in a raid on a ship to a pair of cops in a police station. He explains how he met the gang when they were pulled in for a police lineup and they teamed up on a heist to spite the cops who hauled them in. Then they were hired to pull off an even bigger raid, which only Verbal survived. Running through his tale is the shadowy presence of the legendary crime lord Söze, “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night”.
The Usual Suspects thrives on deception and deflection and yet, as with the best whodunnits, the clues were almost there from the beginning, and once you learn the secret, nothing you’ve seen will look the same again.
Gosford Park (2001)
Director: Robert Altman
Back in the days before his hit TV series Downton Abbey, screenwriter Julian Fellowes knew that the true purpose of a cinematic country estate was to play host to a murder. Robert Altman, always at home with an ensemble cast, directed this deft, 1930s-set drama. Patriarch Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) is found dead in his study just as his house is filled with a weekend shooting party, and the fallout of his murder causes ripples both upstairs among his family and celebrated guests and downstairs, where he is little mourned by the servants he mistreated. Stephen Fry plays the hapless police inspector who has little chance of solving the case as the household closes ranks.
Class snobbery and Anglo-American mistranslation fuel much of the humour in Fellowes’ witty script (“I am the perfect servant,” observes Helen Mirren as Mrs Wilson the housekeeper. “I have no life”), but the big reveal, when it comes, is both more private and more moving than devotees of the whodunnit have come to expect.
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