Forty years ago this week, Jack Nicholson redefined cool, Faye Dunaway redefined icy, and director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne redefined film noir with the masterful detective thriller Chinatown. It isn’t just that the period drama boasts terrific performances, crackerjack cinematography, and all the period bells and whistles; it’s also a mighty good mystery, offering twists and turns that blindside the first-time viewer. And isn’t that what really great mystery movies are all about?
Nothing is ever quite as it seems (or so goes the cliché) in classic noir detective movies: the client is lying, their motives are sketchy, and the initially simple mystery gradually reveals itself to be something much bigger and more sinister. Robert Towne’s justifiably celebrated screenplay follows the playbook, but takes advantage of the freedoms of New Hollywood and the R rating to throw his mystery a twist that couldn’t have flown in the Bogart era. It’s a movie that somehow maintains its power to shock — and to thrill.
Kenneth Branagh surprised just about everyone by following up his Oscar-nominated, critically acclaimed 1989 Henry V with this twisty, Hitchcockian, noir-tinged mystery (with a healthy dose of comedy and the supernatural thrown in for good measure). Branagh plays a hard-boiled private eye who takes on the seemingly straightforward case of a woman with amnesia (his then-wife, Emma Thompson), but things get, erm, complicated when it becomes clear that the detective and the woman were lovers in a previous life. Branagh juggles multiple timelines, multi-character performances, color and black and white, and a couple of humdinger twists to craft a picture that’s both wildly ridiculous and wickedly entertaining.
Branagh’s idol Laurence Olivier had one of the biggest hits of his wildly spotty late period with this cracklingly good adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play. Olivier plays an eccentric crime novelist whose marriage is crumbling; Michael Caine co-stars as his wife’s young lover, who pays the old man a visit to ask for his blessing. The ostensibly genteel encounter soon devolves into a series of threats, put-ons, games, and possible murders, with Caine in particular executing one stunningly effective deception. (Caine would later take on the Olivier role in Branagh’s 2007 Sleuth opposite Jude Law, which is sort of a remake, sort of a re-think, and sort of interesting, if nowhere near as riveting as the original.)
In between his first two Batman movies, Christopher Nolan directed and co-wrote (with his brother Jonathan) one of his most oddly underrated films, the vigorously entertaining tale of two rival 19th-century British magicians whose fierce competition spins wildly out of control. Along the way, Nolan calls upon his subjects’ tools of the trade, using clever patter and flashy misdirection (hey there, Scarlett Johansson) while executing his tricks in plain sight.
No Way Out
The best twist endings aren’t the M. Night Shymalan-style tricks that you spend the whole movie waiting for; they’re the ones that come unexpectedly, suddenly shifting the entire movie beneath your feet. Such is the case with Roger Donaldson’s bravura 1987 thriller, where Kevin Costner plays a US naval officer investigating the murder of his lover (Sean Young) by her previous paramour, the Secretary of the Defense (Gene Hackman) — though all fingers seem to point to our hero. And thus the film progresses as a tightly constructed, breathlessly executed thriller… but then they give you one more piece of game-changing information.
It’s tough to explain how gripping and surprising Gregory Hoblit’s courtroom thriller was when it hit back in 1996, because it dealt with an unknown who became a known: Edward Norton. The 26-year-old actor made his film debut in the showcase role of Aaron Stampler, a mentally challenged altar boy with a split personality who murders an archbishop, and we had no reason to believe he could possibly lie to us…
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 thriller concerns a French school headmaster’s wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret), who conspire to murder the big louse and make it look like an accident. But the plot thickens when his body disappears, and its return remains one of the single finest “jump out of your seat” moments in all of cinema. Clouzot’s classic is a heady brew of scares, double-crosses, and mood; no wonder Hitchcock tried so hard to get his hands on it before Clouzot nabbed the rights.
At the center of Les Diaboliques are its two female protagonists, kindred spirits wrapped up in the bizarre mystery; David Lynch’s 2001 mindfuck pairs up stars Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in a similar fashion, though it takes their relationship one giant, hubba-hubba step further. Drive remains one of Lynch’s twistiest pictures — and that’s saying something — its wild turns and off-the-cuff reinvention presumably influenced by its peculiar pedigree (it began as an unaired ABC pilot, which Lynch then amended and reworked into its final form). It’s an uncertain journey for the first-time viewer, but who’re we kidding; even if you’ve seen this one a dozen times, good luck explaining it.
Director Alan Parker mashes up the tropes of rainy, atmospheric detective noir with psychological thriller and supernatural horror in this underrated 1987 sleeper. Grizzled private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, very good) is initially dispatched on an innocent missing person investigation, but as the case leads him into New Orleans’ voodoo underworld, he begins to suspect that his case — and his employer, the spookily monikered Louis Cyphre — is a bit more devilish than the norm.
The Big Sleep
If you’ve seen Howard Hawks’s moody, Bogie-and-Bacall-tastic 1948 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novel and found it a touch hard to follow, you’re not alone. The story — and if it isn’t true, it should be — goes that neither director Hawks nor screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, or Jules Furthman could figure out who committed one of the key murders. When Hawks wired Chandler for an explanation, the reply didn’t make sense (Chandler’s murderer couldn’t have done the deed). When Hawks told Chandler so, the author replied, “Then I don’t know either.” Of the film, Hawks would later say, “I never figured out what was going on, but I thought that the basic thing had great scenes in it, and it was good entertainment. After that got by, I said, ‘I’m never going to worry about being logical again.’” Good advice, that.