What is it about murder mysteries that captures our imaginations, not just in cinema, but books, television – even the evening news? Is it the abominable act of killing another person that seizes our attention or is it the challenge of unraveling multiple details in search of the perpetrator. It’s a hot soup of motivation, emotion, ambition, desperation and even vanity of the part of both the hunted and the hunter. An environment where there’s nothing left to lose and everything to gain — including the all-important act of retribution — infuses both sides of the game board to the point of obsession.
What drives someone to commit such an act? What sort of person would make an occupation of chasing down these types? And why do each of us watch, scouring clues, trying to be the first to solve the puzzle?
Let it be said that Hitchcock could easily fill all five slots here without much argument from me or anyone else. Instead, I’m allowing him one position only, and filling the remainder with four very different styles. All they have in common is a victim, a murderer on a mission, and an enthusiastic gumshoe determined to expose the mystery in the name of justice, no matter how convoluted or dangerous the situation.
My five personal favorites follow:
Strangers on a Train – Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
Two guys meet on a train. Both have unbearable individuals in their lives and, through the course of their conversation, agree to a pact where each kills the other’s nemesis. I’s the perfect crime – no motive, total strangers and impossible to track. Of course, with Hitchcock at the helm nothing is as simple as it would seem. That Patricia Highsmith, the brilliant and slightly twisted writer, is the author of the source material makes the development all the more interesting. There’s a bit of under the table footsie that suggests something more than a meeting of minds, a monogrammed cigarette lighter that keeps turning up at the worst time, and a climactic confrontation on a merry-go-round gone berserk. Rear Window, Notorious and Vertigo represent Hitch at his best. I only managed to see Strangers on a Train for the first time a couple of years ago and it is equal to all of them. Of all of Hitchcock’s great films, this is the one that needs to be seen more often.
The Usual Suspects – Bryan Singer (1995)
Keyser Söze: a name that injects panic into the hearts of those familiar with him and his bloody reputation. He’s a brutal killer on a track for vengeance and, as an added uncomfortable wrinkle, nobody know what he looks like. Director Singer showed great promise with this thrilling story of a bunch of seemingly clueless thugs on a mission of self-destruction and the befuddled investigators chasing a seemingly non-existent ghost. Shining brightest is Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, fresh from Seven, and en route to Oscar #2 for American Beauty, as the crippled and harmless “Verbal” Kint. Keep your eyes on the sets and all the props – that’s where the clues are hiding – and enjoy the ride all the way to the jaw-dropping final act.
Murder on the Orient Express – Sidney Lumet (1974)
All-star Agatha Christie adaptations were once the fashion and none are better-made or more fun than Sidney Lumet’s film. Superbly lush visually, a magnificent waltz-based score and high-camp performances elevate what could (should?) have been an extremely heavy story involving a murdered child, strikingly similar to the Charles Lindberg kidnapping case in the 1930s. Thespian legends Finney, Bergman, Gielgud, Roberts, Connery, Redgrave, Bisset, Cassel, Balsam, Perkins, Widmark, Hiller, and a very snappy Bacall are all a joy to watch. One can only hope that the 2017 remake will be as entertaining. Can it possibly match that cast?
Chinatown – Roman Polanski (1974)
“We’re in the middle of a drought and the Water Commissioner drowns,” sneers the corpulent coroner to private dick Jake Gittes. Robert Towne’s diamond hard script, Polanski’s direction and top shelf production values down the line make Chinatown the penultimate mystery of the 70s Golden Era. Power, ambition, entitlement, and incest rivet our attention as Nicholson and Dunaway deliver milestone performances, with considerable support from John Huston. “Bad for glass,” says the groundskeeper in a heavy Chinese accent. “Yeh, bad for glass,” sighs Gittes, half-listening. “Salt water. Bad for glass.” Repeats the worker. “Grass! Salt water is bad for the grass!” exclaims Jake as the pieces begin to tumble into place. Simply brilliant filmmaking.
Blow up – Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)
A fashion photographer (David Hemmings) snaps some shots in a park one blustery day that, as he develops and enlarges them, appear to reveal a murder taking place. When the femme fatale (Vanessa Redgrave) from the episode he witnessed tries to retrieve the photos from him to the point of seduction, he’s sure that his suspicions are correct. Highly stylized and sexually charged in a way only Antonioni can pull of, the film questions the source of the suspicion more than the act of murder itself. Is this lothario simply projecting his expectations or was there an actual murder? It’s a complete inversion of the murder mystery experience. How 60s can you get? Censors had a field day, by the way.
So those are five murder mysteries that are worth a revisit on a regular basis, even though the outcome is no longer a surprise. That’s the key to being a classic. What are your faves?