The whodunnit is an especially addictive genre, especially at this time of year, when nothing sounds better than a curling up with a murder mystery, a warm cider, and a cozy blanket. New mysteries abound: Glass Onion, the first of two Knives Out sequels from director Rian Johnson hits Netflix on Dec. 23, following a short run in theaters. In this one, Daniel Craig returns for a whole new mystery set at a tech billionaire’s party on a remote Greek island.
Watch one mystery and you may find yourself down a rabbit hole of Agatha Christie adaptations and Only Murders in the Building episodes. Luckily, it’s a long tradition that spans from Old Hollywood to the Netflix era. Masters like Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, and Bong Joon-Ho have tried their hand at all kinds of thrillers.
And we’re here to help sort through the many choices. Below are some of our favorite detective movies—and where you can watch them.
The Lady Vanishes
A criminally underrated Alfred Hitchcock flick, The Lady Vanishes is at once a thriller, a romance, and a comedy of manners. In a very Agatha Christie-esque setup, a rich young playgirl (Margaret Lockwood) begrudgingly boards a train in a fictional European country to travel to England where she’ll meet up with a fiancée she’s none-too-enthused to marry. When a kindly old lady she’s befriended disappears—though everyone else on the train ominously insists the woman never existed—she enlists the help of poor but charming musician (Michael Redgrave) to investigate the eclectic group of passengers and unravel a gripping mystery.
If you were a fan of the mystery-in-a-mansion vibes of the first Knives Out mystery, you’re going to love Gosford Park. The film, set in a 1930s British manse, effectively deploys a murder to expose upstairs-downstairs dynamics, similar to the way Rian Johnson critiques class in his films. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Clive Owen, Krisin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Stephen Fry, and Richard E. Grant.
Memories of Murder
Though darker than other selections on this list, Bong-Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder is essential viewing for anyone who loves a mystery. Based on the real-life investigation of a serial-killer in the Gyunggi Province of Korea in 1986, Memories of Murder centers on an ill-equipped detective squad trying to puzzle through the clues. The three detectives heading up the case take radically different approaches to fact-finding and interrogation, highlighting divides in morality, class, and conceptions of masculinity. Arguably the Parasite director’s greatest masterpiece, the movie exudes Zodiac vibes—though Bong-Joon Ho would be quick to point out that he made his movie before Fincher ever filmed Zodiac.
If you’re a fan of Rian Johnson’s movies, you ought to check out the director’s urtext, a 2005 neo-noir murder mystery set in a high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars a a loner teen who has to infiltrate various cliques in order to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Johnson meshes the fast-paced dialogue of classic noir films with the deadpan vernacular of contemporary high schoolers to create something entirely new and undeniably slick.
If you have never seen this classic entry in the murder-comedy genre, please treat yourself to this 1980s cult classic that brought a bunch of boardgame characters to life. Better yet, go to an interactive screening. Tim Curry turns in a satisfyingly gonzo performance as the butler in a house where the guests are falling like flies. Its chaotic ending has cemented itself in movie history, in part thanks to its perfect final line.
This one is admittedly nearly impossible to find to stream online—though it’s worth an Internet dive to find a DVD of this movie if you truly love detective stories. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (of All About Eve, Cleopatra, and Guys and Dolls fame) the movie a two-hander between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Olivier plays an eccentric mystery novelist, and Caine the man having an affair with his wife. The two meet at the writer’s sprawling home outside London and cat-and-mouse games ensue.
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Hollywood doesn’t seem particularly interested in producing screwball comedies anymore, which is too bad because stars like Rachel McAdams excel in that setting. Take Game Night, a movie in which an overly competitive set of friends fall down the rabbit hole of a “fake” murder mystery party that devolves into real violence and chaos. McAdams, Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, and a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons make the most of this clever throwback.
The Thin Man
This murder mystery based on a Dashiell Hammett novel is all about the chemistry between its married sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), who share a mutual love for their adorable dog, a well-made martini, and cracking a case (probably in that order). When Nick is dragged into a missing persons investigation by an old client, Nora jumps at the chance to help him. They delight in the rat-a-tat-tat of old Hollywood banter. After a burglar breaks into their home, they read about the incident in the paper the next morning: “I was shot twice in the tribute,” says Nick. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” Nora replies. “It’s not true,” says Nick. “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Arguably the start of the Downey-assaince: Robert Downey Jr. plays a thief posing as an actor who falls into the middle of a murder investigation. Val Kilmer, playing a private eye, verbally incinerates Downey over and over again and Michelle Monaghan rounds out the cast in the Shane Black movie that delivers the snark and violence its title promises.
Murder on the Orient Express
We had to include an Agatha Christie story here, and the original 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express is arguably the best film adaptation of her work. For the uninitiated, famous detective Hercule Poirot must investigate murder suspects on a marooned train. As with all Christie’s work, there’s a twist. If you must watch the newer Kenneth Branagh-directed version instead, at least watch the older film afterwards as a reference point. It’s somewhat hilarious how over-the-top several of Branagh’s choices are—from detective Hercule Poirot’s mustache to an unnecessarily explosive avalanche scene—by comparison.
We published a separate story this year extolling the virtues of this dry mystery-comedy starring Jon Hamm that didn’t get enough promotion when it debuted in theaters in the fall. Hamm has finally found himself the perfect comedic role, deploying his Mad Men-era smarm and 30 Rock-era jests in equal measure. He plays an investigative journalist who finds a dead body in the luxury townhouse his girlfriend is renting for him in Boston. The thorny plot involves a stolen Picasso painting, an EDM-obsessed appraiser played by Kyle MacLachlan, and tons of kooky character to fill out the suspect list. We’re sincerely hoping the rapturous critical praise means this too-little-scene movie will become the first in a series.
Much of Hitchcock’s canon could be categorized in the whodunnit subgenre, but Rear Window stands out because of its bold methodology: Jimmy Stewart plays a famous photographer confined to a wheelchair who studies the goings on in his neighbors’ apartments with the aid of his binoculars. What he sees, we see. What he theorizes, we theorize. When he feels like a voyeurist, so do we. Like the audience, Stewart’s character watches helplessly as he deploys his love interest, played by the iconic Grace Kelly, to investigate a crime he claims to have seen, unable to come to her aid when danger is afoot. It’s all a clever commentary on the very experience of watching a film, but you won’t even notice because the film is so tense.
Your mileage may vary on movies that involve the protagonist speaking directly to camera. But if you can get past that quirk, this Millie Bobby Brown starrer on Sherlock Holmes’ equally inquisitive little sister is a fun ride for the whole family. Bright and punchy, the film revolves around Enola’s hunt for her missing mother (played by a delightfully rebellious Helena Bonham Carter). Henry Cavill is a welcome supporting player as Enola’s brother who, along with her mother, schooled her in the ways of fact-finding and fisticuffs before she grew into a young sleuth in her own right.
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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
There are many Fincher films to choose from for this list—Zodiac, Gone Girl, and Se7en, among them—but we had to go with the one starring Benoit Blanc himself, Daniel Craig. Though Craig again plays an investigator, the films could not be more different tonally or in terms of setting: Dragon Tattoo takes play in frigid Sweden. Craig plays a disgraced journalist who teams with a whizz hacker (Rooney Mara) to solve a long cold missing person’s case. The slow-burn mystery of corruption is at turns chilling, disturbing, and sadistic.
The Maltese Falcon
Arguably the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon made Humphrey Bogart into a movie star and director John Huston into a Hollywood legend. Bogart is exceedingly comfortable inhabiting a hard-boiled detective who tangles with dangerous criminals and beautiful liars. The style stands out more than the plot, since it establishes a genre that has proven irresistible to Hollywood, which has found new ways to resurrect the whodunnit over and over again.
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