For generations, murder mysteries have been one of the most popular and entertaining forms of art to the public. Detective stories from noir writers and mystery legends like Agatha Christie became cultural icons. Today, murder mysteries are most commonly manifested in the throng of crime TV shows like Law & Order and CSI.
The murder mystery movies throughout history have similarly taken various approaches to the genre, featuring vastly different settings, crimes and focalizations through which the audience is told the story. This results in a continually interesting genre that keeps fans excited while maintaining a common atmosphere and feeling.
Murder mysteries are sometimes looked down upon by critics for being too simplistic and straightforward in plot, carrying little meaning and relying on excitement. While this is certainly true for lots of the content in the genre, many great directors and writers have approached the genre from original and inspired directions, creating complex and meaningful crime stories.
The list below features murder mystery stories from various eras with different settings ranging from cartoon universes to 14th century monasteries, showing the possibilities and successes of the genre.
20. Manhattan Murder Mystery (Woody Allen, 1993)
Woody Allen’s take on the classic murder mystery combines the traditional format of a detective film with his trademark neurotic humor. Woody Allen and his frequent co-star Diane Keaton lead the film as the central couple Larry and Carol Lipton. When one of their neighbors suddenly dies of a heart attack, Carol starts to suspect the husband, Paul, of committing murder and begins to tail him. As the investigation continues, more characters, doppelgangers and motives surface, complicating the truth.
Also starring Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a well crafted and wild dark comedy. The characters are predictably zany and semi-likable, as is typical of Allen’s films. Although the film does not do many original things with either the murder mystery or comedic aspects of the film, Manhattan Murder Mystery still succeeds as as an entertaining crime comedy, paying tribute to the many mysteries that inspired it.
19. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
Combining live action with animation, this inventive comedy spoofs the classic detective story while telling a thrilling crime mystery. In a world populated by both people and cartoons, Bob Hoskins stars as the private eye Eddie Valiant who despises toons ever since his brother was killed by one. Initially hired to investigate infidelity in the marriage of cartoon star Roger Rabbit and his wife Jessica Rabbit, Valiant’s case becomes more complicated following a murder, leading to the discovery of a malicious conspiracy.
By combining the goofy toons with mature references and themes, the film provides fun entertainment for both kids and adults. Many classic cartoon characters make cameo appearances throughout the film, like Betty Boop, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, and the film also introduces many new memorable characters like the menacing Judge Doom played by Christopher Lloyd. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while slightly bizarre, is a highly original and engrossing crime tale.
18. The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Based on Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel of the same name, this noir-comedy stars William Powell as Nick Charles, a retired detective who now lives comfortably with his wife Nora, played by Myrna Loy. He is pulled out of retirement when his friend Clive Wynant disappears at the same time as Wynant’s old girlfriend turns up dead. As he investigated the murder, he discovers that his friend is actually innocent and reveals the true murderer in a dramatic display in front of all of the suspects.
This entertaining detective story started a very successful franchise of Thin Man films and made Nick Charles an icon of the genre (he is even parodied in the next film on the list). The classic finale featuring the explanation of the crime was also hugely influential, being copied in many crime films that followed. Although not as cinematically significant as other important noir films of the era, The Thin Man is a very fun crime film that helped popularize the genre.
17. Murder By Death (Robert Moore, 1976)
This hilarious murder mystery follows several skilled sleuths, all modeled after famous detectives from literature and film like Hercule Poirot and Charlie Chan, who are invited to dinner by a wealthy stranger, played by Truman Capote. He offers one million dollars to whichever sleuth can solve a murder that will occur that night. At midnight, the butler, played by Alec Guiness, is killed setting off a chain of hilarious events leading to a different conclusion from each sleuth.
Murder by Death pokes fun at the many ludicrous plot twists present in the classic stories it parodies. The actors, including Peter Sellers, David Niven and Maggie Smith, do an equally brilliant job capturing the personalities of the famous characters they are inhabiting. While the mystery is not as original or intriguing as many other on this list, Murder by Death is a witty satire of the murder mystery genre.
16. Memories of Murder (Boong Joon-ho, 2003)
Memories of Murder is a South Korean film about two detectives who try to catch an elusive killer of women. Song Kang-ho stars as the inexperienced local detective park who is unsure how to deal with such an important crime and Kim Sang-kyung plays his partner, a seasoned detective sent from Seoul to help catch the killer. As the case goes on, more murders are committed and the detectives become increasingly frustrated, using questionable practices on their suspects to get information.
The film addresses many interesting themes in addition to the solving of the crime. The dynamic between the two main detectives analyzes the differences between small town and big city life. Their investigative techniques also raise many moral dilemmas, questioning the threshold for what is acceptable when trying to catch a killer. Memories of Murder is an exciting thriller that raises many social and ethical ideas.
15. Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974)
The first of several adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories on this list follows her famed Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, here played by Albert Finney, as he solves a murder aboard in a wealthy train car.
When a wealthy American is stabbed to death, Poirot concludes that the killer must be one of the 13 other passengers on board and questions all of them to figure out the motive. The mystery becomes more complicated when it is discovered that the dead man was actually an Italian gangster responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a child.
Starring a phenomenal cast, including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, Murder on the Orient Express succeeds as an entertaining and well crafted whodunit. Concluding with a classic summation of events by Poirot with a surprising twist, the film keeps the audience guessing until the end. Under Lumet’s careful direction, the film brings to life one of Christie’s most famous and most filmed works, vastly outdoing the other numerous adaptations.
14. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film is a complex and confusing psychological thriller. The film follows Guy Pearce as Leonard, a severe amnesiac who is searching for his wife’s killer. In order to make progress on his investigation, Leonard takes pictures of evidence and tattoos important information onto his body so that he does not forget critical information. Along the way he is aided by a bartender played by Carrie-Anne Moss and a mysterious contact played by Joe Pantoliano.
To mirror Leonard’s memory troubles, Nolan tells the story in a disjointed, non-linear fashion. Two storylines, one in color and one in black and white, intertwine presenting the audience with a bewildering plotline that does not resolve until the end when the stories converge.
This innovative structuring adds to the mystery of the film, making the conclusion of his wife’s murder all the more brilliant and satisfying. Extremely clever and inventive, Memento remains one of Nolan’s best films and one of the most intriguing puzzles of cinema.
13. Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)
This chilling murder film stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two detectives on the case of a killer who uses the seven deadly sins as a basis to choose victims. Freeman’s old experienced characters balances with Pitt’s ambitious young gun, creating an effective balance of crime solving skills. After a few incredibly gruesome crime scenes, the pair try to get one step ahead of the killer and prevent the deaths of the next victims.
Fincher’s film is one of the most disturbing on the list, not only showing the bizarre deaths in detail but also giving the audience insight into the killer’s deranged mind. Although the film differs from many on this list in that the detectives do not have an array of possible suspects, the methods used to identify the killer are similar. Also starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey, Se7en is a highly engaging and memorable investigation film.
12. The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986)
Adapted from Umberto Eco’s acclaimed historical novel, Annaud’s film stars Sean Connery as the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville who, with his apprentice Adso, played by Christian Slater, is sent to investigate the death of a monk at an important Abbey.
When they begin investigating, however, it becomes clear that someone does not want them to uncover the secrets that the Abbey houses and more deaths occur. Before the investigation is taken over by the unjust Holy Inquisition, William and Adso are forced to work quickly and take rash actions in order to figure out who the real culprit is.
Although the film does not carry over all of the social and religious connotations of the setting that the book included, the plot is equally thrilling, matching William against the corruption in the Franciscan Order.
Annaud manages to create from the plot a thrilling and relatable investigative experience despite the film being set over 600 years in a completely foreign setting. Featuring gorgeous visuals and a unique premise, The Name of the Rose is one of the most interesting and thematically powerful mysteries on this list.
11. Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)
This often overlooked southern murder mystery stars Chris Cooper as Sam Deeds, the sheriff of a small Texan town. When an old skeleton is discovered in the desert, Sam is sent to investigate and during the process begins to uncover many buried secrets of his community, such as past relationships of his hero father. The case spins Sam’s life out of control as the complexities of the case continue to spread.
The murder case allows for Sayles to explore much broader aspects of society, such as familial relations, tradition and racism. By digging up the sordid past of his community, Sam brings out the awful truth that many of the town’s inhabitants would rather forget or never know to begin with. This brings up a fascinating moral dilemma that conflicts with what might be best for society. Exploring both the culture of small towns as well as important universal themes, Lone Star is a gripping and insightful crime thriller.