We all do it. When a mystery movie comes on, we sit enraptured, looking for clues, trying our damnedest to become the finest real-life Sherlock Holmes whose butt our couch has ever had the honor of hosting. “Oh, I think it’s the boyfriend,” we might say, or “Well of course the killer is really the plate of sentient avocados” we insist, probably while watching a David Lynch film.
But some of these mysteries – better known as “whodunits” – manage to fool even us, the part-time gumshoes who totally knew the killer was Nic Cage the whole time because just look at him. These are some of the best whodunits that’ve been put on film. And no, if you haven’t seen these movies, we’re not going to tell you who, in fact, done it. We’ll leave that for you to figure out yourselves.
10. The Big Sleep
We can’t talk about whodunits and gumshoes without kicking things off with Philip Marlowe, right? Raymond Chandler’s literary detective has been played by a few different actors over the years (including, soon enough, Liam Neeson), but never has he been better than when he’s played by Humphrey Bogart in the classic murder mystery The Big Sleep. The movie, and the novel it’s based on, tells the story of Marlowe, a private detective hired by a wealthy and influential general to resolve some gambling debts of the general’s youngest daughter.
Naturally, things go awry over the course of Marlowe’s investigation. The hard-boiled detective follows the young daughter to the home of the man she owes money, only to discover that man’s recently corpse-ified body waiting inside. And that’s when the story takes off, with Marlowe trying to determine whether the general’s daughter was the murderer, or if it was someone else for unknown motives. Not only that, but the general’s driver is found murdered shortly after – a second victim of a mysterious sequence of events. We’re actually going to dance around our “no spoilers” rule here, because this one takes an interesting real-life twist: during the course of adapting the novel to a screenplay, the writers wired Chandler with questions about who the killer actually was. See, the plot was so twisty and confusing that even they couldn’t figure out who done it.
Chandler’s response? “Dammit, I didn’t know either!”
9. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
And now we move from one of the most famous fictional detectives in history, to a character that was clearly an homage to not only Philip Marlowe, but also Jake Gittes of Chinatown fame: Eddie Valiant, a down-on-his-luck boozehound who gets hired to take incriminating pictures of cartoon vixen Jessica Rabbit and the man she may be cheating on her husband with, Marvin Acme. Shortly thereafter, upon revealing the pictures of Jessica and Acme playing patty-cake (no, that’s not a euphemism – they’re actually playing the children’s game) to her husband, the titular cartoon rabbit, Acme winds up dead.
Naturally, Roger Rabbit is the prime suspect. He was the one with the clear motive, and he was known to be in a drunken rage the night of the murder – which was also the night he found out about the patty-cake sessions. From that point on, it’s up to Valiant to find out who killed Acme, and just as importantly, who… well, you know. Who framed Roger Rabbit? It’s right there in the title, guys.
While the revelation may not be as shocking as some of the other films on our list, the movie still does a stellar job of recreating the classic noir atmosphere, which blend surprisingly well with the cartoon mayhem.
8. A Perfect Getaway
Let’s switch things up from the world of noir to a more modern take on the whodunit with the 2009 film A Perfect Getaway. This is a more under the radar movie than a lot of the other films on our list, to the point where, when reviewing it, Roger Ebert admitted knowing nothing about it and initially thinking it was a romantic comedy in the film’s opening minutes. And why wouldn’t he? It starts out pleasant enough, with the goofy and lovable Steve Zahn starring as one half of a couple (with Milla Jovovich as his better half) on their honeymoon in Hawaii.
Things take a dark twist early, though, when a grisly double murder is discovered in Honolulu, with a man and a woman suspected of committing the crime. Naturally, the film introduces us to three such couples: Zahn and Jovovich, as well as hitchhiking drifters Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton, and Timothy Olyphant – a former special forces badass – and his girlfriend, played by former MTV Wanna Be a VJ finalist Kiele Sanchez. The film has fun with some of the genre tropes, with Zahn’s character Cliff an aspiring screenwriter, leading to the dialogue literally bringing up the notion of red herrings in movies exactly like this one.
One way that you know a mystery has succeeded even after revealing the murderer is that, when you look back over the course of the film, nothing feels like a cheat. That’s part of what makes A Perfect Getaway such a successful whodunit. As Ebert said in his review, “All’s fair in love and war, and the plots of thrillers.”
You can’t talk about whodunits without including the movie based on the game that is literally about solving a whodunit… right? It’d be foolish of us to leave out Clue, a project that was years ahead of its time in terms of adapting a board game into a film. Only in this case, it completely worked. That’s thanks in no small part to the impeccable cast, which included Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, and Michael McKean, among others. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the movie managed to deliver uproarious madcap comedy while also delivering a genuinely intriguing murder mystery.
Of course, the movie bombed hard at the box office, only to become a cult classic over the years. One of the things that threw off audiences initially was a risky move even by today’s standards: they filmed three different endings, and showed them randomly depending on where you saw the film, and when. So your friend in Boston might see one ending, while you got a completely different ending, no doubt leading to confusing conversations when discussing the movie. Ultimately, the movie had all three movies back-to-back-to-back on eventual video releases and whenever it airs on TV, with one deemed the true ending. Whichever ending you prefer, it doesn’t really matter; they’re all fun, they’re all well earned, and they all offer a nice twist on the whodunit genre.
6. And Then There Were None
As we’ve mentioned before, Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (which originally boasted an incredibly unfortunate title that we’d rather not repeat) is among the best-selling books in history. It should be no surprise, then, that it was adapted into one of the most celebrated whodunit films in history, as well.
The story focuses on 10 strangers brought to an island for various (and false) reasons. The plot twist that’s ultimately revealed, which binds the strangers together, is that they’ve all been involved in someone else’s murder but managed to avoid being brought to justice. So, you know… they’re not exactly model citizens. Once the “guests” discover they don’t know their host – and he may not actually exist at all – they try to flee the island, but are informed the boat won’t return until Monday. They’re stuck, and slowly but surely, they begin getting killed off one by one. Who will survive until the boat returns? Who’s killing off each of the guests? Well, if you’re really curious, you can watch the entire film for free, since 20th Century Fox let its copyright lapse and the movie is now public domain.
Do you want a mind-bending whodunit? Well, then Memento is the movie for you. One of the most confusing mystery movies of the last few decades – and maybe ever – that confusion is only heightened by the fact that the movie unfolds in reverse order. Adding even more confusion is the inclusion of flashbacks, which unfold in chronological order and are interspersed with the scenes that are telling the story backward. Got it? Good. Now, imagine trying to figure out what the hell was going on with this film by Christopher Nolan when it was originally released in 2000.
But anyway, the plot: in short, Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, who developed short-term amnesia after being hurt in an attack that left his wife murdered. Now, he’s out to find the person responsible… only he can’t remember anything for longer than about 15 minutes. So, he begins tattooing clues on his body and leaving himself notes, trying to solve the murder and get his revenge. As convoluted and mind-bending as the plot seems, it’s well worth it simply to admire the artistry on hand by Nolan, the stellar performances, and an ending that completely delivers and puts an entirely new spin on the whodunit genre.
4. The Nice Guys
While it received plenty of critical acclaim, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was generally overlooked by the general masses when it came out in 2016. It’s a classic neo-noir throwback that not only draws out an intriguing murder mystery, but is genuinely one of the funniest movies to have come out that year. The movie stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two extremely bottom of the barrel private detectives who grudgingly agree to work together after a porn star is found dead (having crashed her car through some unfortunate family’s house), and another girl has gone missing.
As is generally the case in movies like this, things are more bigger and more dangerous than they seem, with a web of lies, crime, and deceit leading to unexpected places. Gosling plays the drunken buffoon of a detective who, occasionally, flashes some genuine aptitude for his profession… but is better off just letting his brilliant daughter do most of the thinking. Crowe, on the other hand, is adept at punching people extremely hard, but is a lot smarter and more perceptive than he initially seems. If that sounds like a familiar character for Russell Crowe… well, we’ll get back to that later on the list. Suffice it to say that The Nice Guys weaves one hell of an intriguing whodunit, while also delivering some enormous laughs along the way.
3. A Shot in the Dark
Let’s stick with comedic whodunits and talk about the 1964 classic A Shot in the Dark. These days, we think of the character Inspector Clouseau as the prototype for a bumbling detective. Anyway, despite being comically inept in most incarnations, the character of Jacques Clouseau was the focus of one of the all-time great whodunits – even if we find out who done it through a series of farcical misadventures.
The mystery begins when a millionaire’s chauffeur is murdered, with Clouseau finding himself part of the investigation until – and we’re serious here – the higher ups learn about his involvement and remove him from the case because he’s so, so bad at his job. Nevertheless, Clouseau winds up back on the case, stalwartly defending the lead suspect pretty much entirely because he thinks she’s one fine looking lady. Look, it’s a goofy movie, and it’s full of equally goofy twists, turns, and motivations. But the actual mystery at the heart of the plot is so good at making you guess what’s about to come next, who is involved, and how Clouseau can possibly solve the case that you could easily remove the comedy and still find yourself watching an all-time classic whodunit.
Unfortunately, some of the other attempts to recapture the magic of this particular mystery were… less successful.
2. The Usual Suspects
As much as we’ve talked about not spoiling these movies, we think it’s safe to assume that everyone reading this list – even if you’ve never even seen The Usual Suspects – knows exactly who done it. But the joy of watching the movie, which takes its name from a line from the movie Casablanca, is watching the clues reveal themselves as Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, tells the story of what happened on a shipping pier that resulted in dozens of grisly deaths.
What makes The Usual Suspects different from your typical whodunit is that it isn’t so much a murder mystery, as it’s a wide-ranging mystery involving the machinations of an entire mysterious criminal empire. Five felons find themselves in a criminal lineup, and wind up working – against their will – for the notorious Keyser Soze, a man so mysterious most people don’t believe he even exists. The story is told entirely via flashback, with Spacey relaying what transpired in a performance that earned him an Academy Award.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid finding out who is responsible for the movie’s climactic carnage for all these years, we’re advising you to drop everything and watch this movie. The ending is rightfully considered one of the most incredible, jaw-dropping climaxes in movie history.
1. LA Confidential
We’ve talked about whodunits starring Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey. Heck, The Nice Guys also features Kim Basinger. Now, we’re going to talk about the movie that brought them all together: 1997 noir masterpiece LA Confidential. It’s the film for which Basinger won her Oscar, and the one we alluded to in talking about how Russell Crowe’s character in The Nice Guys seemed awfully familiar. Here, too, he plays a guy who’s good at punching people but is more than just a battering ram, only this time, he’s playing a cop.
He, Pearce, and Spacey are the focus of the film, playing three detectives at various stages and places in their careers. Pearce is the golden boy, the son of an LAPD legend. Crowe is the brute used generally as muscle to intimidate would-be criminals, who no one takes particularly seriously when it comes to actual police work. Spacey is the celebrity cop who gained fame for advising on a Dragnet-like show, and sets up flashy drug busts of actors for a gossip rag that was basically the TMZ of its day. But when a brutal mini-massacre takes place in a coffee shop, with links not only to a powerful man who runs a high class prostitution ring, but also the world of organized crime and drugs, all three detectives find themselves working their own angles, trying to solve the case.
Based on the novel by James Ellroy, the movie was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but found itself in a crowded field that included Titanic and Good Will Hunting. If you’ve never seen it, but love whodunits, go watch it this instant. While it’s a neo-noir, it delivers the goods just as well as those classics in the genre from the 1940s and 1950s.
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