This is a minor milestones for Tipping My Fedora as the blog has now reached its 101st post. So, seeing as it is also my birthday today, what better way to celebrate than with a small indulgence in the company of 101 favourite mysteries from the world of film and TV, right? As anyone who has been checking out my Fedora tips will have realised, when it comes to the crime and mystery genre, it is often the overlap between literature and on-screen representation that I find particularly rewarding and worth celebrating. I have largely excluded espionage and cop dramas as I plan on blogging about them separately in the near future; and there are lots and lots of titles that could have made the cut here, especially from the 1930s, but …
So, strictly in chronological order, here is a list of 101 of my film and TV crime and mystery favourites, most of which, it will come as no great surprise, are derived from literary sources, which are noted where applicable. In a couple of cases I have ‘cheated’ by including a single entry for a series of films, like the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, though I will point out which of the series I particularly think stand out – but hey, it’s my birthday so I cut myself a little slack. I would love to have your opinions on this list, which as is the nature of these things, is very much a work in progress. For ease of use (it’s a very long post admittedly) I have broken down the list by decade …
1. CHARLIE CHAN (Warner Oland / Sidney Toler) (1931-1942)
One of the great detective heroes of 30s and 40 Hollywood cinema, now easily available in beautifully restored editions on DVD (I previously blogged about the Region 2 releases here). Ken Haneke has written a highly amusing guide to the films, Charlie Chan at the Movies, that is well worth seeking out. My favourites include Charlie Chan in Paris, co-written by Philip MacDonald and which also introduced the irreplaceable Keye Luke as number 1 son Lee, and the Toler era story, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, directed by Norman Foster, the guiding force behind the Mr Moto films (see number 4 below). From the novels by Earl Derr Biggers.
2. THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933)
William Powell played Philo Vance for the fourth, final and best time in Michael Curtiz’s beautifully directed locked room mystery – even if you’re not a fan of SS Van Dine (I blogged about his work here) or a dog fancier, you should revel in the charm of the acting and the bravura filmmaking on display here. From the novel by SS Van Dine
3. THE THIN MAN (1934)
William Powell was already well-known for his portrayal of SS Van Dine‘s upper-class sleuth Philo Vance when he became the definitive Nick Charles, an ex cop who gets involved in murder and a mysterious disappearance in New York’s high society through Nora, his wealthy and beautiful wife, played exquisitely by Myrna Loy who partnered with Powell a dozen times in the movies – but this one is the best. From the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
4. MR MOTO (1937-1939)
Peter Lorre stars as John P. Marquand’s cat-loving master of disguise and practitioner of jiu-jitsu. This series of nine adventure thrillers is the cream of the B movie output from Fox in the 1930s, both in terms of their impressive production values and for sheer entertainment value, even better (heretical I know) than the Charlie Chan series (see above). Especially noteworthy are the six entries stylishly directed by Norman Foster and co-written by him with mystery novelist and screenwriter Philip MacDonald, author of The List of Adrian Messenger (filmed in 1963 – see number 34 below). From the novel by John P. Marquand.
5. THE SAINT (1938-41)
The RKO films developed from the Leslie Chartersis character were at their height when George Sanders took over the role, with The Saint Strikes Back (1939), directed by John Farrow and set in San Francisco, being my particular favourite of this short series. From the novels by Leslie Charteris.
6. SHERLOCK HOLMES (1938-1946)
The classic series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce started with two Victorian era films made at Fox, of which Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the most fun if the least sensibly plotted, and then continued after a hiatus with a dozen modern-day adventures made for Universal Studios. The Scarlet Claw is certainly the most atmospheric of the later entries in the series From the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
7. MICHAEL SHAYNE (1940-1942)
Lloyd Nolan played Brett Halliday’s Irish private eye in a short series of light thrillers – amongst the most entertaining was an adaptation of Clayton Rawson’s ‘No Coffin the for the Corpse’ which became The Man who Wouldn’t Die (1942), which is available in a superbly restored edition on DVD. From the novels of Brett Halliday (and others)
8. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
This, the third adaptation from Warner Bros. of Hammett’s classic San Francisco Mystery in just 10 years, is clearly the best – though the first version, now retitled Dangerous Female, and starring Ricardo Cortez as a slightly sleazy incarnation of Sam Spade, is well worth rediscovering as a tougher, less romantic version of the story. This exceptionally close adaptation of the novel features a veritable rogues’ gallery of character actors, all seemingly cast to perfection, from Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman and Peter Lorre (their first on-screen aspiring) as Joel Cairo while Bogart and Nancy Astor were never than playing the dark and twisted romance of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy – wonderful. From the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
9. QUIET PLEASE, MURDER (1942)
Delightfully strange mystery written and directed by John Larkin, a frequent collaborator on the Chan films at the time. Set in a library and involving Nazi spies and art forger George Sanders, it is a genuinely eccentric thriller.
10. MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)
The first Philip Marlowe movie, and perhaps the best of them all. Dick Powell, making the startling transition from hoofer to tough guy in one confident leap, is brilliantly cast against type and in fact began a whole new career on the back of its success. Chandler’s books had already been used to provide plots of the Falcon and Mike Shayne movies (see number 7 above), but this is the first time in which perhaps the quintessential literary private eye is depicted on-screen. He gets a great entrance here, wearing a blindfold in a dark room filled with cigarette smoke, leading to a classic flashback structure and a genuinely spooky introduction to Moose Malloy – all of it original to the film and bringing Chandler’s book wonderfully to Noir life. From ‘Farewell My Lovely’ by Raymond Chandler.
11. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Adapted from the pulp novella by James M. Cain, this was a re-write of his earlier success The Postman Always Rings Twice, a cleverly plotted mixture of crime and sex that was considered fairly shocking in its day. The scrip was written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, a fraught, combustible collaboration that none the less improved on its source in practically every way, not least because it came up with a much more concise finale, even though this was a replacement for the original gas chamber conclusion that was considered too downbeat, even for this film. Fred MacMurray probably gives a career best as the weak (even seedy) insurance agent Walter Neff who falls head over heels for Barbara Stanwyck’s bewitching sexual charm (who wouldn’t). A true classic of its kind. From the novel by James M. Cain
12. LAURA (1944)
This is the film that effectively launched and forever fixed the image of Hollywood beauty Gene Tierney, pretty much in the same way that Rita Hayworth would remain forever identified with her performance in Gilda (see below) – the difference though is that Tierney was more or less starting out here while Hayworth already had a dozen or so decent movies to her credit already after a decade working in the movie capital. It also defined the career of composer David Raksin, who came up with a classic tune despite being asked to come up with a song that was only similar enough to ‘Sophisticated Lady’ as to not get sued when the Duke Ellington standard became too expensive to licence. It was also the Hollywood directing debut of Otto Preminger who would make several fine Noirs in the following few years before becoming Tinseltown’s resident bad boy. From the novel by Vera Caspary.
13. DETOUR (1945)
This poverty row suspense drama by bargain basement studio Monogram, allegedly shot in under 2 weeks on a budget of under $100,000, this succinct and very compact little movie (it runs 67 minutes) is an endlessly surprising and engrossing movie. Ann savage is wonderful as an entrancing and very evil fatal woman and Tom Neal makes for a perfect patsy, although one that as a narrator may not be quite as innocent as he want to make out. But this is also a great director’s movie and Edgar G Ulmer, master of the low-budget movie, is here probably at the top of his form, making the most of exceptionally reduced circumstances to make true cinematic gold.
14. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (Rene Clair, 1945)
This adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel uses a variant title and plot derived partially from the play text which, understandably perhaps, uses a less nihilistic ending. The way the revelation of the murderer is achieved is a wonderful tease, with the camera moving around the set to deliberately obscure the face until the last possible moment. This was copied shot for shot for the 1975 remake by Peter Collinson, but it is the classic 1945 treatment by director Rene Clair and screenwriter Dudley Nichols that we should celebrate – it’s a blackly comic murder mystery by turns stylish and hilarious that just about gets everything right – a model of its kind, endlessly copied but never improved upon. From the novel by Agatha Christie.
15. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)
A TechniColor film noir? Starring two actors who would become closely associated with Noir – Cornel Wilde and Gene Tearney, this story of a murderous woman, while shot in colour and largely set outdoors, has all the psychological menace and darkness one is accustomed to in this type of film and the marvellous cinematography has all the spidery impressionism that one would require. Like Laura (see number 12), Mildred Pierce and Gilda (below) these are also seen as examples of ‘women’s picture’ or melodramas but also seem to fall well within the look and feel of Noir. From the novel by Ben Ames Williams.
16. GILDA (1946)
With its strong sense of aberrant sexuality, sumptuous design and cinematography, celebrated ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ musical number and a frankly cuckoo plot that makes no sense at all, this is more peculiar than Leave Her To Heaven in the Noir stakes. And yet, with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford as its frankly gorgeous leads and the scarred George Macready as their nemesis, this shouldn’t work but it really does. The plot, despite stories of heavy post production tinkering to try to make it more sensible, is frankly all over the place in this home-erotic love triangle but the lush look and willful artificiality manage to keep it all ticking over. Perhaps more of a pervy romantic melodrama than Noir? Unforgettable, either way.
17. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
This is the classic adaptation of the Chandler novel even though the Michael Winner remake from 1978 is more literally faithful. Produced on a big budget, the second classic pairing of husband-and-wife team Bogart and Bacall works like a charm even if the original story and characters have been largely filleted and generally mucked around with. More of a comedy than a thriller, but great fun just the same. From the novel by Raymond Chandler.
18. OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
With Double Indemnity, this is the film that best seems to exemplify what people imagine when they think of Film Noir. It has a doomed hero who by the end seemed to not so much welcome as invite his end, a femme fatale as its protagonist, a complex crime plot, shimmering and moody cinematography, a strong sense of character and places in which people pay for playing outside of societal’s accepted boundaries – and lots of double crosses and dead bodies. Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas make for a great triumvirate in another dark romantic triangle that ends in death and destruction. And its all filmed with the greatest possible taste with exquisite flair by Jacques Tourner, here simultaneously making the transition to the big time and peaking in a career that already included Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for the Val Lewton unit. Subsequently remade as Against All Odds (1984). Classic private eye noir movie. From the novel ‘Build My Gallows High’ by Geoffrey Homes (aka Daniel Mainwaring).
19. GREEN FOR DANGER (1947)
A superb whodunit that expertly mixes chills and chuckles with Alastair Sim wonderful as Inspector Cockrill. A classic of the genre, wonderfully directed and co-written by Sidney Gilliatt, who would later make a decent stab at filming Agatha Christie last major novel, Endless Night.From the novel by Christianna Brand.
20. FORCE OF EVIL (1949)
Superficially about illegal gambling, this dark and obscurely plotted movie (it was largely re-edited by its studio) was adapted from Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People about the numbers racket – but it’s really a mytho poetic examination of the struggle between two brothers, beautifully played by John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. The fact that the plot is really hard to follow at some points weirdly makes it even more powerful. From the novel ‘Tucker’s People’ by Ira Wolfert.
21. LES DIABOLIQUES / THE FIENDS (Henry Georges Clouzot, 1954)
This classic French movie from the novel by the team of Boileau-Narcejac has been enormously influential, taking a seemingly standard domestic romantic triangle and then subverting it with an extended series of dramatic plot reversals and an ironic coda that leaves you as breathless as the leading lady Vera Clouzot (wife of the director). Its impact has been inevitably blunted by all the ripoffs (though some of them, like the Hammer Taste of Fear – see number 32 below – are actually pretty good); the 1996 Hollywood remake starring Sharon Stone is certainly best avoided altogether. From the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
22. REAR WINDOW (1954)
Classic Hitckcock essay on voyeurism and claustrophobia graced with a witty script by John Michael Hayes. From the story by Cornell Woolrich.
23. FATHER BROWN (1954)
Starring Alec Guinness, with Peter Finch as Flambeau – the plot isn’t all that great, but this is an adaptation with charm to spare. From the stories by GK Chesterton.
24. KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
The anti-everything movie for the nuclear age – quite unlike any other film of its type up to that time. In many ways this is an anti-Noir in the sense that it seems to fly in the face of every conceivable convention – even the opening titles scroll in the wrong direction! It takes Mickey Spillaine’s eponymous Mike Hammer potboiler and then undercuts it – Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as a truly sleazy sociopath with a callous disregard for friends and foes alike. This proved to be enormously influential, the climactic sequence with the opening of the ‘Pandora’s Box’ directly referenced at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, even to the extent of re-using the same sound effects, as well as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. A horrible story full of awful people, brilliantly and cynically realised. From the novel by Mickey Spillaine.
25. THE KILLING (1956)
This is the film in which Stanley Kubrick really came into his own. A cool thriller, co-written by Jim Thompson, about a heist that goes wrong, it proved to be a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, not just for Reservoir Dogs but also in Jackie Brown too, especially in it’s still powerful use of discontinuous narrative as the story goes backwards and forwards in time. Sterling Hayden makes for a compelling protagonist, building on the doomed criminal he played in 1950 for John Huston in The Asphalt Jungle, while that Noir perennial Elisha Cook Jr probably gets his best ever role as the worm that turns sharing some great moments with that bodacious B-movie siren, Marie Windsor. From the novel by Lionel White.
26. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Agatha Christie’s best play gets the Billy Wilder treatment with a double whammy of twist endings but also some great humorous exchanges between Charles Laughton’s grouchy barrister and Elsa Lanchester (his off-screen wife) as his nurse, which counterbalance the passionate but shifting relationship of the much more glamorous couple played by Merlena Dietrich and Tyrone Power. This is a story that has a great courtroom climax and a disguise that when I first saw the movie I certainly didn’t penetrate. From the play by Agatha Christie.
27. CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958)
Filmed several times, including a version by Levinson and Link known as Vanishing Act, this is the classic version of the puzzler about a disappearing spouse starring Anne Baxter as the wife whose husband goes missing and who starts being hassled by a variety of mysterious people.
28. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
The classic noir period as most understand it ended with the 1950s with the release of Robert Wise’s brilliantly but incredibly bleak Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and this, Orson Welles last American movie. A fascinating look at literal and metaphorical border crossing, it is a visually stunning, morally troubling and truly Gothic piece of noir. Available now in three versions, none completed by Welles himself, the most preferable is probably the 199 version supervised by Rick Schmidlin and Walter Murch which removed the titles and Henry Mancini’s memorable theme music from the opening credits. It’s a great movie no matter which iteration you get your hands on. From the novel by Whit Masterson (aka Bob Wade and Bill Miller).
29. ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1958)
Something of a scandal in its day, this long, ambiguous and ambitious courtroom drama still holds up thanks to sterling performances by Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara as the unconventional married couple and James Stewart as the even less conventional (if you look deep enough) defence attorney. From the novel by Robert Travers (aka Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker).
30. VERTIGO (1958)
Romantic, misanthropic, operatic (the extraordinary score is by Bernard Herrmann) and genuinely mysterious, this is classic Hitchcock and is a rich and strange experience to be savoured several times over. Hugely influential (everything from Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys to Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto the Hero and several homages by Brian de Palma, most notably Obsession). My favourite San Francisco Mystery. From the novel ‘D’entre les morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
31. PSYCHO (1960)
What is there left to say about this classic Hitchcock movie? That the sequels are probably better than you might think, but that they can’t match the original? 50 years later, and it can still bear repeated viewing, especially once you know who the villain really is. A true classic. From the novel by Robert Bloch.
32. TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR) (1961)
Classic chiller about an heiress in danger, beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe with fine direction by Seth Holt and an ingenious script by the late Jimmy Sangster. I profiled his work here.
33. MURDER, SHE SAID (1961)
Margaret Rutherford’s 4 outings as Miss Marple don’t have a lot to do with the Christie originals; and this is the only one to be adapted from a Marple novel in fact. MURDER AT THE GALLOP may be funnier but this is better plotted and is highly entertaining in its comedic way. Great fun. From ‘The 4.50 from Paddington’ by Agatha Christie.
34. THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1963)
Silly but highly entertaining game in which various stars are said to appear in disguise throughout the film , only to be revealed during a final ‘curtain call’ – Actually, most of the actors were doubled but it’s still highly amusing. Yvette wrote a splendid essay on it over at her blog … in so many words here. From the novel by Philip MacDonald.
35. CHARADE (1963)
Hepburn and Grant are charm personified in this trickily potted thriller, with non one being who they at first appear to be. The less said about the Jonathan Demme remake, The Truth About Charlie, the better.
36. HIGH AND LOW (1963)
Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of an Ed McBain 87th precinct novel (reviewed here), and a particularly fine example or cross-cultural genre pollination as the American thriller become a Japanese psychological suspense drama that makes innovative use of widescreen. Fascinating. From ‘King’s Ransom’ by Ed McBain.
37. PUBLIC EYE (TV series, 1965-1975)
Classic British private eye show with an extraordinary performance from Alfred Burke as the loner hero Frank Marker – quite the best show of its kind ever produced in the UK..
38. MIRAGE (1965)
One of the best amnesia mysteries ever, scripted by Peter Stone (who co-wrote Charade, see number 35) from an early Howard Fast novella and directed with great aplomb by the talented Film Noir pioneer Edward Dmytryk From ‘Fallen Angel’ by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast).
39. HARPER (1966)
The classic PI genre gets a glossy 60s makeover in this hugely entertaining movie with a cast to die for and some fine dialogue by William Goldman from the first of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. Newman would reprise his role in 1975 for the rather less successful THE DROWNING POOL. From ‘The Moving Target’ by Ross Macdonald.
40. IN COLD BLOOD (1967)
Should this be regarded as a mystery? As envisioned on-screen by writer-director Richard Brooks, the motivations behind this real-life murder are revealed compellingly and slowly as we move towards the inevitable, pre-ordained execution. cool, brutal and fascinating. From the book by Truman Capote.
41. POINT BLANK (1967)
A radical re-imagining of the original novel (which I reviewed here), superbly turned into an avant-garde masterpiece in which we are not even sure if the protagonist is a live or dead from the very beginning. From ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark
42. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)
Largely altered from the original novel, yet retaining much that was essential to it, this is a fine example of the mystery and social drama coming together. From the novel by John Ball
43. COLUMBO (TV series, 1971-2003)
Although Falk first played the role in the 1968 TV-movie Prescription: Murder, the series proper began in 1971 – I have profiled this show in detail elsewhere on this blog (see here), but for me this remains the best detective series ever made for American TV.
44. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
This beautifully crafted valentine to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal character was originally intended as a three-hour epic, but the production company lost confidence and so what eventually emerged was much shorter – a long introductory segment, an episode set on a liner and a long flashback to the protagonist’s youth were all edited out to get it down to a more standard running time. This is a real shame, but not critical as the meat of the film, exploring Holmes as both detective and as an individual, remain in place – Colin Blakeley, a fine actor, plays Watson too broadly perhaps but Robert Stephens makes for a wonderfully sensitive Holmes. There is also a wonderful score from Miklos Rozsa (who makes a fleeting cameo conducting ‘Swan Lake’) based on his Violin Concerto.
45. KLUTE (1971)
This tough and adult movie takes a trenchantly realistic approach to its story by Andy and David Lewis of a prostitute being targeted with obscene phone calls. Jane Fonda got an Oscar for her portrayal of troubled call girl Bree Daniels but apart from a slightly conventional finish everything about this movie exudes class, from Michael Small’s genuinely spooky score and Gordon Willis trademark dark cinematography to the fine cast and Alan J. Pakula’s tight directions. A brilliant film
46. HICKEY AND BOGGS (1972)
A film for movie buffs and true connoisseurs of the genre, this is a film that takes the private eye genre and gives us something dark and plausible in its depiction of to detectives working seedy cases for too little money. Culp and Cosby determinedly go against the light and breezy personas they had so successfully defined in their TV show I Spy in the 1960s, re-tuning it for the dishevelled sensibility of the next decade. The plot is probably a bit too opaque but its the characters that stick with you, especially Culp (also the director) and Cosby as truly tragic protagonists. A real cult classic which finally made its official debut on DVD, which I reviewed here.
47. SLEUTH (1972)
The Anthony Shaffer classic play transfers fairly successfully to screen as a two-hander for Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, though the disguise in the second half clearly would work much better on the stage – equally true of the underrated remake by Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter which again stars Michael Caine, this time opposite Jude Law.
48. THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973)
With an incredibly complex script by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, this is a murder mystery game for true connoisseurs.
49. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
Adapted by Leigh Brackett, who also worked on the Hawks version of THE BIG SLEEP (see number 17 above), this is a steadfastly counter-culture revisitation of Chandler’s last major novel. As played by Elliott Gould and directed by Robert Altman this is a shambling, anti-heroic depiction of a man out-of-place and out of time on 1970s Los Angeles – it is far from being the faithless translation of the original as some have claimed but is a mellow and sad film well in keeping with the text with a little more Nixon-era despair thrown in – and is a classic bit of 70s cinema too, beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. From the novel by Raymond Chandler.
50. CHINATOWN (1974)
More than anything, the Oscar-winning success of this brilliant film relaunched the 40s era private eye genre in a darker mode to suit the unstable 1970s. With its rich score by Jerry Goldsmith, a wonderfully quotable script by Robert Towne with scalpel-precise direction to match by Roman Polanski, this is a work where the lead actors are able to do some of their best ever work – the scenes between Jack Nicholson, John Huston and especially Faye Dunaway just take your breath away. A classic and if you want to read a sustained bit of writing on it, you can do no better than finding a copy of Michael Eaton’s fine BFI Classics monograph on the film – for further details click here. Nicholson would go on to play JJ Gittes in the very different sequel, THE TWO JAKES (1990).
51. THE CONVERSATION (1974)
Francis Coppola’s Kafka-esque mystery about surveillance and a domestic murder all makes sense by the end but you still won’t be able to shake off the sense of unease. San Francisco has never seemed more foggy.
52. THE ROCKFORD FILES (TV series, 1974-1980)
James Garner as the classic TV private eye in Stephen J. Cannell’s wryly humorous take on the genre. A true classic even when the stories went overboard in the comedy department.
53. ELLERY QUEEN (TV series, 1975-76)
Levinson, Link and Peter S. Fischer do a great job bringing the tone and style of the Ellery Queen stories, and the radio show, to TV. They would later have much more popular success with Murder, She Wrote but personally I much prefer this one. Based on the stories and characters created by Ellery Queen.
54. NIGHT MOVES (1975)
Quite possibly the most oblique film on this list, and quite possibly the most powerful precisely because it is wants to be impenetrable. Gene Hackman is the detective investigating a missing person in the Hollywood community who gets involved in a deadly smuggling case – this is a highly sophisticated look at the genre which delights in not giving anything away – its closing image, of a boat going round and round in circles perfectly sums up a film full of questions and no easy answers, though everything you need is in fact all in plain sight.
55. PROFONDO ROSSO / DEEP RED (Dario Argento, 1975)
Dario Argento’s movies are not for the faint-hearted, and this goes for his whodunits like Bird with the Crystal Plumage – an uncredited remake of the classic Fredric Brown classic novel The Screaming Mimi (one of my Top 100 Mystery Books) – and the utterly terrifying Suspiria, a tale of witchcraft that is as visually stunning as it is narratively incoherent. Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders) is the greatest and most flamboyant of his Gialli, thrillers that owe as much to Victorian melodrama conventions as they do to Agatha Christie, as I discussed in one of my first posts here. The violent murder scenes will not be to everyone’s taste but the resolution, hinging as it does on a brilliantly clever visual motif, is utterly stunning in its deployment. There would be no Scream or Saw series without the success of Argento’s horror/mystery hybrids, but they’re not for all viewers though this one, even if you close your eyes through the murder scenes, is really worth seeing.
56. RAFFLES (1977)
Anthony Valentine was perfectly cast as the gentleman thief in Philip Mackie’s fine adaptation of the EW Hornung stories. From the stories by EW Hornung.
57. DEATH ON THE NILE (John Guillermin, 1978)
While Ustinov’s version of Poirot is probably not quite hoe Christie depicted him (OK, a lot not like she depicted him) this is still probably the most exciting of the bog screen adaptations featuring the Belgian sleuth, though I have a great fondness for Evil Under the Sun (1982) which re-used the same plot, costume designer and much of the same cast (including Maggie Smith and Jane Birkin) too. From the novel by Agatha Christie.
58. MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (Robert Day, 1979)
Richard Levinson and William Link will always be remembered as the creators of Columbo (see number 43 above), and justly so perhaps, but they also wrote some brilliantly clever murder mystery movies – this was the first and has a seemingly unending series of twists, clearly patterned after Les Diabolique (see number 21 above) but that is just the premise. Sadly this is a title that is very hard to track down and it may be easier to get their other wonderful thrillers, which include Rehearsal for Murder (1982) (see number 67 below), Guilty Conscience (1985) with Anthony Hopkins as a lawyer planning to bump off his wife and Vanishing Act (1986), a variation on Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958) about the mystery of a missing spouse (see number 27 above). They are all delightfully ingenious.
59. SHOESTRING (TV series, 1979-1980)
Trevor was the ‘Private Ear’ in this show about a private eye working for listeners at a radio station.
60. DRESSED TO KILL (1980)
Brian de Palma’s homage to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (yup, starts with a blonde in a shower) is a witty and bloody thriller which probably owes more to Antonioni than the master of suspense and which is told with greater cleverness than it is sometimes given credit for; particularly in the way that it employs the plot of Hitchcock’s original to lead you up the garden path.
61. CUTTER’S WAY (1981)
Ivan Passer’s film of a classic post-Vietnam novel offers some highly disagreeable protagonists who fail to understand themselves any better than they do the case they decide to investigate when a woman’s body is dumped in a dumpster. Jeff Bridges and John Heard have never been better than when playing the eponymous losers in this fascinating and uncompromisingly bleak work. From ‘Cutter and Bone’ by Newton Thorburg.
62. BLOW OUT (1981)
Brian de Palma’s conspiracy thriller is truly heartbreaking but brilliantly made, again owes something to Antonioni and to Coppola’s The Coversation (see number 51 above).
63. WHO KILLED JOY MORGAN (aka KILL JOY) (1981)
This TV-movie stars Kim Basinger and Robert Culp and is very much in the Diaboliques (see number 21 above) mould, but is far better than average. The clever script is by Sam Rolfe and the assured direction by John Llewellyn Moxey – well worth seeking out.
64. BODY HEAT (1981)
Superb and sexy updating by writer-director Lawrence Kasdan of the James M. Cain stories of lovers planning to bump off a spouse (or two) with a satisfying and complex plot with a seemingly endless series of twists (most of them copied for the even darker and more brutal The Last Seduction). Beautifully shot, with a great score by the late John Barry.
65. REMINGTON STEELE (TV series, 1982-1987)
My favourite private eye show of the 80s – many prefer MOONLIGHTING, which is a surprisingly close variant of this, but this is far more polished and sophisticated, while Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan made for a wonderful romantic duo – not to mention the plethora of movie buff references!
66. MISS MARPLE (BBC TV series, 1982-1992)
The BBC version starring Joan Hickson is certainly preferable to the current ITV version and may remain the definitive interpretation. From the novels by Agatha Christie.
67. REHEARSAL FOR MURDER (1982)
Another classic TV movie by the team of Richard Levinson and William Link, this time set in a theatre with a great cast (Robert Preston, Lynne Redgrave, Jeff Goldblum), an expertly hidden villain and a great denouement.
68. ADAM DALGLIESH (TV series, 1983-1998)
Series of adaptations of the PD James novels featuring Roy Marsden – the initial serials, made on video, up to Devices and Desires (1991), are considerably superior to the later ones shot on film that tried to make the show a bit more dynamic – the less said about the recent serials starring Martin Shaw the better.
69. THE ADVENTURES / THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (TV series, 1984-1994)
Jeremy Brett remain for many the definitive TV Sherlock, and he was graced with not one but two equally good if totally different Watsons – David Burke and Edward Harwicke. The first two series are much superior to the remainder which is why I highlight them here. From the novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
70. THE BEIDERBECKE AFFAIR / TAPES / CONNECTION (1985-1988)
Three serial by Alan Plater that combine jazz with come thrillers in the Thin Man mode – sublime.
71. EDGE OF DARKNESS (BBC miniseries, 1985)
This superb conspiracy thriller is the one against which all others have to compare – the movie version, also directed by martin Campbell but adapted from Troy Kennedy Martin’s original script, is a pale shadow of the original.
72. THE SINGING DETECTIVE (BBC miniseries, 1986)
Dennis Potter complex puzzle pays off beautifully as it reaches its conclusion even if not all can be readily explained or comprehended.
73. WITNESS (1986)
The Amish are coming! No, not really – but a wonderful mixing of mystery and romance.
74. A DORTHY L. SAYERS MYSTERY (TV series, 1987)
Two of British theatre’s leading light – Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter – played Lord Peter Wimsey and his love Harriet Vane to perfection in this series that adapted Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night to great effect. From the novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.
75. ANGEL HEART (1987)
A brilliant meshing of the amnesia theme so beloved of 40s noir but with a supernatural twist, in many ways this plays as an homage to the work of Cornell Woolrich. Despite a long and ludicrously self-indulgent section in which the protagonist goes around wearing a silly pair of glasses, Alan Parker’s film improves considerably on the original novel which, without cutting back from its pulpy excesses, makes for a truly powerful and frightening missing person case. It would be a crime to say more about the plot except to say that it is a private investigation into a missing man unlike any other you have ever seen which takes a remarkable left turn in its closing stages but which it seems to me has ben more than adequately prepared for in the lead-up, though not everyone agrees… From ‘Falling Angel’ by William Hjortsberg.
76. NO WAY OUT (1987)
Despite being a remake of the classic film noir (see my top 10 in the genre here) The Big Clock (1947), itself a fairly close adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s fine crime novel, this version smartly updates the story and relocates it from a publishing house to the ultra-paranoid environment of the Pentagon during the Cold War. Kevin Costner is the hero, Gene Hackman the weak-willed politician, Sean Young the woman they both have affairs with and Will Patton is the fixer – when Hackman kills Young, Costner is put in charge of the investigation … The huge twist in the finale to some may seem extraneous but anyone who sits through the film a second time will be able to see how smartly writer-producer Robert Garland has in fact laid the groundwork for the revelation. From ‘The Big Clock’ by Kenneth Fearing.
77. INSPECTOR MORSE (TV series, 1987-2000)
Perhaps the greatest British TV detective series ever produced – I previously blogged about the show here. From the novels by Colin Dexter.
78. INSPECTOR WEXFORD (1987-2000)
George Baker starred in this series of adaptations as part of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries umbrella. The earlier stories shot on tape are by far the best. From the novels by Ruth Rendell.
79. AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT (TV series, 1988- )
David Suchet is wonderful here, as everyone says – the most recent, more mellow films are a lot less fun than the earlier series, but amazingly it looks like they will manage to film every single one of the novels and practically all of the short stories – an extraordinary achievement if they manage it (they have about 6 novels left to go at time of writing). From the novels and short stories by Agatha Christie.
80. CAMPION (TV series, 1988-1989)
Peter Davison was perfectly suited to played to seemingly frivolous but in fact much deeper crime buster Albert Campion. Sadly only lasted 2 series, which included adaptations of eight of the novels from the 1930s. The version of ‘The Case of the Late Pig’ is particularly good. From the novels by Margery Allingham.
81. PRESUMED INNOCENT (1989)
Great courtroom drama with a formidable cast, with an amazing twist at the end. I reviewed Scott Turow’s impressive sequel, Innocent, here. From the novel by Scott Turow.
82. MONSIEUR HIRE (1989)
Patrice Lecompte adaptation of Simenon’s typically astute dissections of middle class morality and sexual hangups makes for a small but perfectly formed move. From the novel by Georges Simenon.
83. DEAD AGAIN (1991)
Kenneth Branagh is the star and director of this whodunit with fantasy elements that plays scrupulously fair.
84. CRACKER (TV series, 1993-1995)
Robbie Coltrane starred in this dark show about a psychological profiler with some very serious problems of his own. The subsequent one-off films are much less interesting.
85. MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)
Woody Allen provides a joyous homage to the 1930s mystery thriller with a proper plot and proper jokes.
86. LE CONFESSIONAL (1995)
Alfred Hitchcock make an appearance in this film set in Montreal during the filming of the director’s 1953 drama I, Confess though writer-director Robert LePage proves to have several aces up his sleeve.
87. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Bryan Singer, 1995)
Great fun and as much about storytelling as it is about crime. Superbly constructed by writer Christopher McQuarrie with a series of stylistic flourishes built-in for its tyro director Bryan Singer, it is doubtless also remembered for the star turns by a cast of great character actors and a soaring musical score, all leading to a fabulous payoff – and which thankfully can withstand multiple viewings given the ferocious complexity of its tale and storytelling technique. Flamboyant storytelling of the highest order.
88. L’APPARTMENT (1996)
Remade as WICKER PARK (2004), the French orignal, an homage to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (see number 30 above), is wonderfully complex and pays repeated viewings – the first of the teamings of European megastars (and since 1999 husband and wife) Vincent Cassell and Monica Bellucci.
89. LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997)
Ellroy’s sprawling novel has been greatly condensed and the film, structurally at least, seems to have been more closely modeled on the author’s The Big Nowhere rather than this, the follow-up book in the ‘LA Quartet’. No matter, it’s a great movie despite a disappointing conclusion which doesn’t end with one of the protagonists dying as it clearly should. From the novel by James Ellroy.
90. JONATHAN CREEK (TV series, 1997- )
David Renwick’s mixture of comedy and impossible crimes is a beguiling combination, with Alan Davies perfect as the magic advisor who solves crimes – the show hasn’t been as good since Caroline Quentin left, but it is still highly entertaining.
91. A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)
Sam Raimi’s film, undertaken after many vicissitudes (including an attempt by director John Boorman) examines the criminal fallout from the discovery of a large bundle of cash and the impact it has on a dysfunctional family. brilliant, and horrible, in equal measure. From the novel by Scott B. Smith.
92. TWILIGHT (1998)
Nothing to do with Stephenie Meyer – more a reference to Wagner by way of the Hollywood predilection for shooting at ‘Magic Hour’ (the film’s original title), when the light can look either like sunset or dawn. A nostalgic PI movie by Robert Benton, who had already done something similar with his The Late Show in 1978, this has a nicely complicated plot served by a cast of great actors who all have great pedigree in the genre: Paul Newman was Lew Archer twice (see HARPER, number 39 above), Gene Hackman starred in NIGHT MOVES (see number 54 above) and James Garner was not only Jim Rockford on TV (see number 52 above) but played Chandler’s great investigator in MARLOWE (1969), an adaptation of The Little Sister. Susan Sarandon makes for a great femme fatale and you have never seen Reese Witherspoon as she is here. A classy, retro delight.
93. ZERO EFFECT (1998)
Clever updating of the Sherlock Holmes mythos for the 1990s, with Bill Pullman as the irritating and reclusive genius detective Daryl Zero (‘the world’s most private detective’) and Ben Stiller as his highly annoyed ‘Watson’. This debut film by Jake Kasdan (his dad Lawrence Kasdan write and directed Body Heat, see number 64 above) is smart and humane and ticks all the right boxes without seeming too clever or tripping over its own conceit.
94. IL COMISSARIO MONTALBANO (1999- )
The Camilleri novels are still being made for Italian TV starring Luca Zingaretti – even most Italians have trouble with some of the local dialect depicted in the books but the TV versions are much easier to follow – wonderfully funny and zesty. From the novels and stories by Andrea Camilleri.
95. MEMENTO (2001)
The ultimate amnesia movie, with the narrative told in reverse chronological order? A brilliant idea, executed to perfection – miss it at your peril.
96. A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY (TV series, 2001-2002)
Eccentric and so short-lived adaptation of the Rex Stout books with Tim Hutton as Archie and the late Maury Chayken as Wolfe – the first season was especially good. From the novels and stories by Rex Stout.
97. OLD BOY (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
This fiendishly complicated Korean thriller piles on the reversals at its conclusion to reveal a magnificently elaborate scheme built upon Oedipal lines. Once again there is some unpalatable violence in it, which tends to catch the headlines, but it is built up from a very carefully worked out premise that should keep virtually anyone guessing until the end.
98. THE LAST DETECTIVE (TV series, 2003-2007)
Peter Davison plays the relentlessly ‘nice’ London policeman in this charming show that removed most of the rough edges from the original novel by Leslie Thomas, which are much more in evidence in the first adaptation of the first book, Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1981) starring Bernard Cribbins. Based on the ‘Dangerous Davies’ novels by Leslie Thomas.
99. BRICK (2005)
It would easy and not entirely inaccurate to simply summarise this indie sleeper hit as a teenage slacker re-telling of The Maltese Falcon but this is also a beautifully made film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt truly impressive as the smart college student who sets out to solve the death of his girlfriend amongst the rich and wealthy California youth. Their tribal world of secret linguistic codes and brutally hierarchical cliques is just as enthralling, and potentially dangerous, as the mean 1930s streets of Hammett and Chandler – a minor classic.
100. MEDIUM (TV series, 2005-2011)
A domestic crime drama with clever stories that alternate with the problems of a psychic and her family – half of each episode seems to take place in bed and is all the better for it – in its own way, this is quite a radical show for network TV, and the crafting of the plots is really, really top drawer.
101. MR BROOKS (2007)
Kevin Costner and William Hurt play alter egos in this subtle thriller about a psychopath with his multiple personalities surprisingly well under control.