A good mystery can be the equivalent of comfort food — throughout the pandemic, it’s been surprisingly satisfying to revisit old shows like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, with their episode-long, fully contained mysteries anchored by unforgettable TV sleuths. But the mystery subgenre of cinema has even more to offer than just comfort food. Some mysteries are anchored in dark explorations of the human soul, while others are excuses for comedic riffs on familiar tropes. Let’s look at the 13 best mystery movies, from old-fashioned detective stories to modern satires, and everything in between.
13. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
That year is important to keep in mind, because while we got a remake of the classic Agatha Christie novel a couple years ago, the truly successful adaptation arrived in the mid-1970s. This iteration of Murder on the Orient Express tells the same story -- of a strange murder occurring on a lengthy train ride, with famed detective Hercule Poirot (a mostly unrecognizable Albert Finney) on the case before the train reaches its final destination — but with an ensemble cast of far higher caliber than that of the remake, diving into their roles with brio. From Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery to Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Perkins, the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express is a classic whodunit in every meaning of the word, dressing up an in-motion drawing-room mystery with style and class.
12. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Is it a hot take to say that the best cinematic Sherlock Holmes is a) not named Sherlock Holmes and b) is a mouse? Then let this be that hot take. Though there have been many adaptations in both film and TV, when it comes to movies, the best Sherlock Holmes is The Great Mouse Detective. This 1986 animated film from Walt Disney Pictures helped kickstart the studio’s animation prospects after fallow years and box-office misfires. The Great Mouse Detective focuses on a lot of mice, not humans. There's Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham), his loyal companion Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), and a little Scottish girl named Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek), as they try to locate her missing toymaker father and stop the nefarious Professor Ratigan (voiced marvelously by Vincent Price) from replacing the Mouse Queen of England with a robotic duplicate. The mystery is absolutely ridiculous, yet quite charming and — in the case of Price’s Ratigan — deliciously flamboyant.
11. Mystery Team (2009)
Before Donald Glover was as well known for his rapping alias Childish Gambino as for starring in Community, he was a member of the Derrick Comedy troupe of performers. Though the group has since split apart, their 2009 film Mystery Team is an incredibly funny riff on one of the great 20th-century detective tropes — the child detective. As a clever sendup of characters like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown, Mystery Team is successful enough. But the film rightly takes its characters — overgrown college students desperate for approval — to the edge with plenty of outrageous darker humor. Even just as a glimpse at a pre-Troy Barnes Glover, Mystery Team must be seen to be believed.
10. Clue (1985)
How could a list of the best mystery movies leave off a film that’s all about sniffing out the clues to a murder mystery that's resonated with generations? Yes, the 1985 adaptation of the board game Clue has to be part of the list because it’s still one of the silliest and goofiest mysteries of all time. The mystery itself — when the infamous six suspects are left standing and a suspicious man named Boddy (Lee Ving) has been murdered after inviting them all and revealing his blackmail against them — is less valuable than it is to watch the suspects (Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull, Michael McKean, and Madeline Kahn) and the trusty butler (Tim Curry) dash back and forth through the mansion on a dark and stormy night, trying to figure things out while not driving each other crazy. Clue ends with a handful of different conclusions, all as loopy as the others. Clue leans hard on comedy, and it pays off.
9. The Long Goodbye (1973)
After the original era of film noir ended, one of the most famous screen detectives of all time got a second life with the much different neo-noir The Long Goodbye. From idiosyncratic auteur Robert Altman, this 1973 film is an adaptation in the loosest sense of the word. The Long Goodbye is as much about creating a mellow vibe as having its dogged detective, Philip Marlowe (a wonderfully aloof Elliott Gould) actually solve a mystery. It’s that vibe that makes the film stand out, along with the distinctive touches that Altman brought to many of his films, from overlapping dialogue to long takes to a generally relaxed hang-out sensibility you rarely find in mystery movies. The Long Goodbye may not be the most shocking mystery here, but it’s still a lot of fun.
8. The Fugitive (1993)
The Fugitive is one of the great action films of all time, top-to-bottom with suspense and expertly crafted setpieces. But at its core, this adaptation of the 1960s TV series is also a mystery. Yes, as the old line goes, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) says he didn’t kill his wife, but that a one-armed man did, just as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) tells him he doesn’t care. But Kimble’s not just trying to escape re-capture; he’s trying to figure out who the one-armed man was, and why his innocent wife was killed for seemingly no reason. There is, of course, a conspiracy that goes far beyond anything either Kimble or Gerard could’ve imagined. When Kimble realizes how his medical work ties into this tragic murder, it leads to an emotionally, viscerally cathartic finale. The Fugitive is a mystery wrapped in an action film, and an excellent one at that.
7. The Third Man (1949)
The core mystery of the 1949 noir The Third Man comes down to its title: who is the eponymous third man in Vienna seen carrying the body of an American? The dead man's old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has traveled to Vienna in the ruins of World War II to learn what happened, only to find out that his dead pal, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), is very much alive and up to no good. Welles only appears in the latter half of the film -- the buildup to revealing that Harry is still alive is one of the great setpieces, expertly crafted by director Carol Reed — but he’s the perfectly sly counterbalance to Cotten’s hapless leading man. The two of them were longtime collaborators (Cotten’s a major player in Citizen Kane, itself an excellent mystery of a sort), and their chemistry is evident throughout. The Third Man is as well-known now for its zither score as for its black-and-white atmosphere, its bleak story, and its core mystery. It remains one of the great noirs.
6. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock made many incredible films full of suspense, terror, and mystery. But his very best film will always be the twisted 1958 noir/Gothic romance Vertigo. James Stewart plays Scottie, an ex-cop in San Francisco plagued by vertigo induced after failing to save a fellow office from leaping to his death from a tall building. One day, Scottie’s brought back to life in a way by being told to tail an old friend’s wife (Kim Novak), only to fall in love with her. But that’s just the beginning of a twisty mystery that goes much deeper into the human psyche and how much the needs of the heart can destroy a person. Vertigo’s as much a character study as it is a mystery, and its final revelations are truly heart-wrenching.
5. Chinatown (1974)
The 1970s were a good era for neo-noirs, throwing back to the age when tough men wore fedoras and sniffed out impossible mysteries. Arguably the best of the era would be Chinatown, an expertly written script by Robert Towne brought to life by controversial director Roman Polanski. Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a private investigator looped into a mystery that gets part of his nose lopped off (by a tough hood portrayed by Polanski, no less) and reveals a massive state-wide conspiracy. Towne’s script established him as one of the best screenwriters of his generation, and though Polanski has continued directing for decades, he’s never been in better control of his style than here. And for anyone who thinks of Nicholson from his most outsized roles, watch him slow-burn as Jake Gittes and remind yourself of his second-to-none performance style. From the start to the iconic closing line, Chinatown is the stuff of legend.
4. Brick (2005)
Rian Johnson’s breakout film was a mystery with (as you would hope) a twist or two. Leave aside the dark death that sets off our hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on a grim journey of the soul to figure out why she would’ve been killed. Brick is a mystery noir, owing a heavy debt to the stories of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe...but it’s also about high-school students. Though it’s set in the present day, and there are only a few adults present (including Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, as the school principal), Brick’s characters talk like they’re back in the 1940s, steeped in old-time slang and mannerisms. What could seem obnoxious and affected is actually an effective way of world-building, and makes Brick a standout mystery. Johnson’s style began here, and he’s been paying it off ever since.
3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Speaking of Sam Spade, when you think of great cinematic mysteries, and the noir genre as a whole, it’s hard not to think of Humphrey Bogart as the iconic detective in this 1941 classic. Bogart had been working for years before stepping into the lead role in the debut film from director John Huston, but he so smoothly slipped into the tough-as-nails role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon that he deservedly became a legend. Other on-screen collaborators in future projects, like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (both of whom appear in Casablanca with Bogart), appear here in the kinds of roles — sniveling toady and physically imposing wheeler-dealer, respectively — that identified them to generations to come too. But it’s Bogart’s sly take on Spade that makes this mystery, in which a group of characters try to get their hands on the eponymous figurine, as entertaining as it remains influential.
2. Knives Out (2019)
Few movies in recent memory have been as enormously satisfying and intelligent as Knives Out. Rian Johnson makes his second appearance on this list with this tightly crafted modern take on the drawing-room mystery perfected by Agatha Christie. A beloved author (Christopher Plummer) is dead in his own study, but what looks like suicide may be something more sinister, and it’s up to the Southern-fried “gentleman sleuth” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to figure out what’s what. He’s aided by the author’s nurse (Ana de Armas), who pukes if she has to lie, in ferreting out the murderer among the author’s selfish family. Knives Out throws in more than a few twists, as Johnson’s take on the murder mystery is as indebted to the stories of the 70s TV series Columbo, in which the whodunit is solved early but the whydunit takes more time to reveal itself. Knives Out is now a franchise, with the next two entries going straight to Netflix. The sequel’s got a high bar to clear.
1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
You can’t do much better than Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Robert Zemeckis’ best film is a brilliant live-action/animated hybrid that’s also a delicious spin on the LA conspiracies of earlier entry Chinatown. As memorable as animated characters like Roger Rabbit are, though, it’s the core mystery of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that makes it stand out for mention on this list. The heart of the film is the hard-bitten ex-cop-turned-private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), whose antipathy towards Toons ends up taking second place when he and Roger realize that what seems like a simple case of adultery is the tip of the iceberg of a nefarious plot to build something called “a freeway” all through California. (Whatever came of such a fanciful notion? Hmm.) Who Framed Roger Rabbit is technologically groundbreaking, hilarious, and unforgettable — its mystery is a big part of what makes it stand out even now.
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