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10 Mystery Movies That Will Blow Your Mind

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?

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown"

Chinatown

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 and Emma Thompson in "Dead Again"

Dead Again

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.

Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in "Sleuth"

Sleuth

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.)

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in "The Prestige"

The Prestige

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.

Gene Hackman, Sean Young, and Kevin Costner in "No Way Out"

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.

Richard Gere and Edward Norton in "Primal Fear"

Primal Fear

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…

Still image from "Les Diaboliques"

Les Diaboliques

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.

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in "Mulholland Drive"

Mulholland Drive

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.

Mickey Rourke and LIsa Bonet in "Angel Heart"

Angel Heart

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.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep"

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.

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8 comments
Joel-StevenVoicedude
Joel-StevenVoicedude

Forgetting the obvious 'reboot' of "Sleuth" that Michael Caine did LONG before (1982's "Deathtrap" with Christopher Reeve) is one thing, but including "Angel Heart" amongst this list of masterpieces seriously damages the article's credibility...

Jef Sof
Jef Sof

Mulholland Drive is pretty easy once you juggle the time-line:

Jilted lesbian contracts the murder of her estranged lover and receipt for completion of the job is a blue key. She can't live with what she's done and commits suicide. Pandora's Box was opened with the contract and exchange of money (the bum behind the wall at the diner) ... the old couple are gateway demons, ushering her into hell to relive her life over and over and over but hope was released with all the evils and thus her hellish dream which recreates her life is done in a stylized way with an upbeat tone.

llopez
llopez

The Usual Suspects! C'mon!

Kevin Archibald
Kevin Archibald

Also... The Big Lebowski is loosely based on The Big Sleep.  


But in and of itself - a wonderful and wacky mystery.

rgjbb
rgjbb

While No Way Out is an excellent mystery, it is in fact a remake of a much superior film, The Big Clock, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton.  Both films are based on the novel The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing.


Also, The Big Sleep exists in two very different versions.  The original was set for release just as WWII was ending, and was shelved so the studio could release time-limited war films.  While it was sitting on the shelf, Bacall became a bigger star (and Bogart-Becall became a thing), so new scenes were shot beefing up her part.

jeanvigo
jeanvigo

Good list.  10 more (leaving out horror genres):

The Vanishing (Sluizer)

Cache (Haneke)

Twentynine Palms (Dumont) - whoa!

Oldboy (Chan-Wook)

Blood Simple (Coen Bros.)

Suture (McGhee/Siegel)

The Game (Fincher)

The Conversation/Blow-Up (Coppola/Antonioni) - companion pieces

The Usual Suspects (Singer)

Double Indemnity (Wilder)

…and...simply….Hitchcock, the whole darn filmography.




aegor
aegor

The omission of L.A. Confidential saddened me.

radcliffemk
radcliffemk

I'm not sure if Chinatown blows the mind or devastates it.

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