7. Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
This classic noir film stars Dana Andrews as Detective Mark McPherson who is investigating the death of socialite Laura Hunt, played by Gene Tierney, who was shot in face in her apartment. After interviewing her close friends and her fiance Shelby Carpenter, played against-type by Vincent Price, McPherson comes to know the dead woman and begins to fall in love with her. His investigation, however, is interrupted by a startling discovery that changes the entire of the case.
A classic detective story with a big twist, Laura is innovative in plot and masterful in production, creating a masterpiece of the noir genre. Preminger brings the exciting script to life with gripping visuals, calculated tension and gets moving performances out of the talented cast. The film also acts as a commentary of the upper class of which the suspects of the murder are members. This Academy Award nominated thriller combines many classic ideas with new twists and keeps the audience guessing until the end.
6. The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973)
This underrated murder mystery gem is a clever, entertaining thriller written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, based off of games they would play with their socialite friends. James Coburn stars as Clinton Green, a movie producer who invites several of his friends onto his yacht for a week of games while cruising the Mediterranean.
The game assigns each person a secret and every night the group goes ashore and follows hints to discover each other’s secrets. The game takes a turn when Clinton is murdered and the “fake” secrets he assigned are actually true and about his guests.
Starring alongside Coburn is a wonderful ensemble cast including James Mason, Raquel Welch and Ian McShane, together comprising an unstable group of Hollywood personalities with dark enough pasts to give them enough motive to be considered suspects. The film is cleverly constructed and paints very colorful characters, providing an exciting and unpredictable viewing experience. Stylish and fun with dark undertones, The Last of Sheila is a unique and gripping murder mystery.
5. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
Based on Raymond Chandler’s legendary gumshoe detective novel, this film is one of the most iconic noir mysteries. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart as hard-boiled investigator Philip Marlowe who is hired by an old, rich general to help rescue his youngest daughter from her gambling debts.
After a short time investigating, a dead body shows up complicating the case. Marlowe dives in deeply to the investigation which continually grows more complex and he soon falls in love with the general’s oldest daughter Vivian, played by Lauren Bacall, who is beautiful but untrustworthy.
Famously ending without resolving all of the twists, Chandler’s story is a film more about the process and relationships around a case instead of actually solving the crime. Featuring terrific performances from the leads as well as a script co-written by William Faulkner and an evocative score from Max Steiner, the film is both incredibly crafted and emotionally powerful. Although the satisfying closure of many other films on this list is missing, its absence allows for added intrigue and philosophical questions.
4. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
French master Henri-Georges Clouzot blended elements of the horror, mystery and thriller genres to create this landmark film that drove Hitchcock to create Psycho in an effort to out-scare audiences. The story follows the wife of a boarding school headmaster who teams up with his mistress to kill him. This film differs from the other murder mystery films on this list, however, due to the mystery residing, not in who did the killing, but in what happened after the crime took place.
Clouzot explored various tension building techniques in the making of this film that have since become common methods for filmmakers. Even in scenes where nothing remarkable occurs, his camerawork keeps the audience on edge, and building the mystery of the events. Despite knowing who committed the crime, the film carries as much intrigue as the other films on this list and maintains excitement.
3. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Faithfully adapted from the real life investigation of the Zodiac murders, Fincher’s film is the only true story on this list, although its realism does not take away from the mystery of the film.
It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who tries to decode the killer’s messages with the help of a crime reporter played by Robert Downey Jr.The film follows their twisting investigations as the ongoing murders continually switch their attention to new suspects, without getting much closer to the truth.
The crime labyrinth that the two go through to try and catch the killer is only part of the story, with the other focus being on the effect of the mystery on the investigators. Like in real life, the case was never solved and while the film poses its idea of the killer, the unresolved conflict keeps the mystery alive and the atmosphere tense all the way through.
Because it is based on real events, the film also provides the audience with a more in-depth understanding of the actual process of solving a murder. A masterpiece of mood and human emotion, Zodiac portrays one of the greatest murder mysteries in history while also analyzing the effect of the incident on those involved.
2. And Then There Were None (Rene Clair, 1945)
Agatha Christie’s masterpiece and one of the all time greatest murder mystery novels, this classic story set the stage for scores of mystery writers that followed. The story, also sometimes called Ten Little Indians, features eight strangers who are invited to an island owned by a mysterious stranger whom none of them know.
The two staff working there are brand new hires and have not met the host either but have orders to serve the guests dinner on a table featuring a centerpiece with ten Indian figurines. Each time one of the guests die, as they naturally do in this setting, one of the Indian figurines disappears.
The film’s production of the mystery is first rate, with talented actors such as Barry Fitzgerald and Judith Anderson, as well as effective telling of the story. The film also captures a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, reflecting the characters’ feeling of being trapped in a house with an unknown murderer.
Things only become more chaotic as the number of survivors decreases, causing some to team up on others and point fingers, making the job of the killer even easier. Thrilling all the way up to its climactic ending, And Then There Were None is one of the most effective and influential murder mysteries ever.
1. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Chinatown is one of the greatest mystery films ever created and Polanski’s masterpiece. The film stars Jack Nicholson, in an Academy Award nominated role, as private detective Jake Gittes who is hired to follow a water engineer around during the Water Wars in California during the early 20th century.
Although Jake was following the man to investigate a possible affair, the man ends up drowned in a reservoir and Jake suspects foul play. As he dives deeper into the man’s murder he becomes tangled in a web of corruption, murder and dark secrets whose influence reaches to Los Angeles’s most powerful.
Extremely dark in plot and featuring psychologically bleak content, this murder mystery quickly unfolds to encompass crime and corruption on a much larger level. The connections that Jake uncovers make him distrustful of everyone, creating an unsettling atmosphere that Polanski brilliantly contrasts with the regal estates of Los Angeles.
The dark environment engulfs Jake’s character with the complex crime because he doesn’t discover the futility of his actions until it is too late. Chinatown is one of the most engrossing thrillers of all time, not only telling a dark, twisted story, but examining the societal and psychological costs of the events.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.