Whodunit?: The Detective Story on Film

Programmed by Jack Hamm
Essay by Jack Hamm

More than a century after the exploits of Sherlock Holmes thrilled Victorian audiences, the murder mystery remains one of the most fascinating of all genres. Good detective stories have an interactive element which is almost impossible to find anywhere else: just as the killer throws obstacles in the path of the sleuth in order to escape capture, the author baffles the reader with red herrings and mysterious clues. It's a literary "game" which one of the players wants to lose; even as the reader tries to spot the killer, he hopes that the author will surprise him with an unexpected solution. It's not surprising that mystery stories work well on film, especially since the medium introduces some new tricks of the trade (visual clues, flashbacks to the crime during the detective's explanation, and others). In this series, you'll be able to see some of the all-time classics of criminal cinema.

Several of our movies are adapted from novels of the Golden Age of Detection—the mid-twentieth century, when the idea of competition between the author and reader was at its peak. The best-known of all the era's authors was Agatha Christie, who's represented here by Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the first two of several adaptations of her work from the '70s and '80s. Albert Finney plays the great detective Hercule Poirot in the first film, while Peter Ustinov (who would return to the role in two more features and three TV movies) took over in the second. These movies were something new for the onscreen detective tale: instead of being "B" pictures, they were lavishly photographed in color, set in exotic foreign locations, and featured all-star casts of Hollywood legends. However, this is not to impugn the quality of what had gone before. 1946's Green for Danger, adapted from a novel by the forgotten Golden Age great Christianna Brand, is a triumph of plot and atmosphere. Set in a hospital during the air raids of World War II, it combines suspense, baffling puzzlement, and black comedy to great effect. Meanwhile, John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger, from a book by Philip MacDonald has a different kind of "all-star cast." Since the villain (Kirk Douglas) is a master of disguise, four stars—Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Frank Sinatra—play small roles, concealed under heavy makeup, and the viewer is challenged to figure out which is which.

Other movies mix their detective plots with different styles of filmmaking. One of the greatest of all whodunit films is The Thin Man, whose unique blend of mystery and screwball comedy achieved huge success and established William Powell and Myrna Loy as one of the era's greatest onscreen duos. They'd go on to make twelve more movies together, including five Thin Man sequels. Otto Preminger's Laura, made a decade later, takes the opposite route, adding elements of film noir and delving into the psyche of a brooding detective. And one of the all-time great oddities is The Cat and the Canary, taken from an oft-adapted stage play by John Willard. Simultaneously a detective story, a comedy, and an old-dark-house horror movie, it was one of the very first starring movie roles for Bob Hope, who had previously achieved success in vaudeville and radio.

Of course, a number of movies have poked some good-hearted fun at the conventions of the mystery story. Francois Ozon's 8 Women, the only non-English-speaking entry in our series, takes a satirical look at crime films, musicals, and Hollywood movies in general, while also showcasing some of the greatest female stars of the French screen. From a couple of decades earlier, the Neil Simon-penned Murder by Death features five sleuths—each of them suspiciously similar to a famous fictional detective—competing to solve the same crime. Though sometimes in questionable taste (particularly Peter Sellers' yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan type), many of the parodies are spot-on, with Peter Falk's impersonation of a Humphrey Bogart-esque hardboiled sleuth being the highlight. But one of the greatest parodies is 1985's Clue, which is so funny that many people forget just how effective the suspense scenes are. Also, being adapted from an actual board game, it's the perfect example of the mystery story's defining feature: a contest in which the reader/viewer competes to come out on top with the correct solution.


2014-09-30 @ 7:00 PM

The Thin Man

(W.S. Van Dyke, 1934) · The pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy hit Hollywood like a bombshell with this movie, setting a new standard for humor and sophistication in one of the great mystery classics of the Golden Age. When an inventor mysteriously disappears and his secretary is murdered, husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora Charles are on the job, stopping every once in a while to get drunk, throw lavish parties, and shoot the ornaments off the Christmas tree.

runtime: 91 min format: 35mm


2014-10-07 @ 7:00 PM

8 Women

(François Ozon, 2002) · Some of France's finest actresses—including Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, and others—take center stage in this mixture of mystery and farcical comedy, with a few musical numbers and salutes to cinematic history in the bargain. When a rich man is found dead at his snowbound estate, the eight women who were closest to him come under suspicion. Which one did it? A whole lot of secrets will be revealed before we're through.

runtime: 111 min format: 35mm


2014-10-14 @ 7:00 PM

Murder by Death

(Robert Moore, 1976) · When eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (played by Truman Capote in one of the strangest casting choices of all time) challenges five master detectives—thinly-disguised versions of Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, and other luminaries—to solve a murder, they hope to get glory for themselves, but there are a few tricks up the villain's sleeve in this classic parody. Comedic honors go to Peter Falk, who nails the role of the Bogart-style private eye.

runtime: 94 min format: 35mm


2014-10-21 @ 7:00 PM

Green for Danger

(Sidney Gilliat, 1946) · Lady Vanishes screenwriter Gilliat takes the director's chair for this little-known gem, a superb mystery set in a British hospital amidst the air raids of World War II. When a murder occurs shortly after a suspicious death on the operating table, self-confident Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) takes the case and seems to have the situation well under control. But, as events move towards a tragic conclusion, surprises are in store even for him.

runtime: 91 min format: 35mm


2014-10-28 @ 7:00 PM

Death on the Nile

(John Guillermin, 1978) · The immortal Peter Ustinov takes over as Hercule Poirot for the second all-star Agatha Christie adaptation of the '70s. On a lavish Egyptian cruise ship, a beautiful heiress seems to be hated by all the passengers, including her husband's jealous and unstable ex-lover, an embezzling trustee, and a libelous author. But which one killed her? Suspects include Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, and a gloriously over-the-top Angela Lansbury.

runtime: 140 min format: 35mm


2014-11-04 @ 7:00 PM

The List of Adrian Messenger

(John Huston, 1963) · In most mystery movies, all you have to worry about is finding the identity of the killer. This time, you also need to find out who the actors are! While a determined sleuth (George C. Scott) tries to track down a murderous master of disguise (Kirk Douglas), four all-time greats—Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Frank Sinatra—appear in small roles, covered by heavy makeup. Can you sort through the clues and figure out which is which?

runtime: 98 min format: 35mm


2014-11-11 @ 7:00 PM


(Otto Preminger, 1944) · Laura was a beautiful and charismatic woman who effortlessly left an impression on everyone she met. It's a skill which she even seems to exert from beyond the grave: the police detective investigating her murder gradually becomes fixated on the dead woman. But is his love entirely hopeless, or are there more surprises in store? Mixing a traditional mystery plot with a haunting study of obsession, the movie ranks among the masterpieces of film noir.

runtime: 88 min format: 35mm


2014-11-18 @ 7:00 PM

The Cat and the Canary

(Elliott Nugent, 1939) · An old dark house, a group of heirs gathered for the reading of a will, and...Bob Hope? Ol' Ski-Nose takes one of his earliest starring roles in this adaptation of John Willard's play, adding some levity to a potentially grim storyline. The greedy relatives of a dead millionaire gather in the Louisiana bayous to divide up his estate, and things turn deadly. Is a homicidal maniac, escaped from the local asylum, to blame, or is the culprit closer to home?

runtime: 72 min format: 35mm


2014-11-25 @ 7:00 PM

Murder on the Orient Express

(Sidney Lumet, 1974) · This adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel, in which Albert Finney's Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a wealthy American aboard the titular train, was a new kind of mystery movie: an A-list production with a galaxy of stars (Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, and Vanessa Redgrave are just a few of the names in this one) and lavish production design which spares no expense in recreating the '30s atmosphere.

runtime: 128 min format: 35mm


2014-12-02 @ 7:00 PM


(Jonathan Lynn, 1985) · Eat your heart out, Battleship! This is the way to turn a board game into a movie. In McCarthy-era New England, six blackmail victims are called to a lonely house to meet their tormentor. It's no surprise that he doesn't last the night, but—just as in the classic game—it's a little harder to find out who killed him, and in what room, with what weapon. Mixing suspense with comedy, this picture has more sheer fun than almost any movie of its era.

runtime: 94 min format: 35mm


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