I’ve always loved mysteries as well as movies, so the mystery movie – at least, a well-done one – is heaven for me. “Mystery” is a very broad genre, with the only unifying thread being that it features a crime, most often murder. In tone, the mystery can veer from dramatic to comedic to romantic to horrific. The classic era of mystery movies ended in the 1950s, but in the decades since there have been some wonderful examples of the genre. I’ve decided to do a five-part survey of the best modern mysteries. These are listed in no particular order. Some of these movies you may know, while others may have slipped under the radar. (I’m also dealing with English-language films so my apologies to those from other countries.) If you have favorites that weren’t mentioned, please feel free to note them in the comments; I had others on my original list that didn’t make the cut.
The movie that launched a thousand car chases. Steve McQueen brought his cool demeanor and his driving skills to the role of Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco detective who’s in charge of protecting a witness. When the witness is assassinated by two killers, Bullitt hides the corpse under a John Doe identity to draw the killers out. They go after Bullitt himself, leading to the famous car chase that is still one of the best ever filmed. In the end Bullitt discovers who’s really behind the hit, leading to a foot chase through San Francisco International Airport before the final, deadly climax to the movie. (A personal note: Bullitt was based on the novel “Silent Witness.” The author, Robert L. Fish, provided an endowment in his will to fund a cash prize award, presented at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards Banquet, for the best first-published mystery short story. I won that award in 2012, so in a way a small slice of the profits from Bullitt ended up in my pocket.)
Stanley Donen, known as a musical comedy director (On The Town, Singing in the Rain, Damn Yankees), made a major shift in his career when he directed Charade. While it featured romance and comedy, it was also an effective mystery thriller with false identities, murderous conspirators, and a hidden treasure from World War II. It featured the only pairing on film of screen legends Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, leading a strong supporting cast that included Walter Matthau, James Colburn, and George Kennedy.
Cape Fear (1962)
Based on a novel by a Grand Master of the mystery genre, John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear had small-town lawyer Gregory Peck and his family terrorized by Robert Mitchum, a rapist that Peck was responsible for sending to jail years earlier. Mitchum turns the tables on Peck, using the law to protect him while making life hell for the family. Both Peck and Mitchum did supporting roles in Martin Scorsese’s remake 29 years later.
A full book has been published about the making of this Alfred Hitchcock classic, which was in turn based on a novel written by Robert Bloch that was inspired by a real murderer, Ed Gein. Norman Bates’ hobby of taxidermy in the film is a G-rated nod at Gein, who was closer to Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs; he would wear the skin of women he killed and turned their skull caps into soup bowls, among other endearing traits. The theft which moves the plot during the first act of the film lulls the audience into thinking it’s a normal mystery, right up until Janet Leigh gets in the shower. While the shocks in the film are like nothing ever seen in a major movie before Psycho, their effect is magnified by Bernard Herrmann’s iconic theme music.
In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
Unlikely partners thrust together to solve a crime is now a standard high-concept plot device for movies (Turner and Hooch, The Hard Way, Red Heat, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.). The first and best example is this Oscar-winning film directed by Norman Jewison, with Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia police detective working with a racist Mississippi sheriff (Best Actor winner Rod Steiger) to solve a murder.
Experiment In Terror (1962)
Never did breathing sound so creepy. A killer threatens Lee Remick and her sister (played by Stephanie Powers) to force Remick to rob the bank where she works as a teller. FBI agent Glenn Ford tries to find the almost invisible man. We don’t see the killer until far into the movie, but his asthmatic breathing identifies him in the dark and when he’s disguised. Ross Martin, who played the killer, doesn’t receive a credit until the end of the film. This was an early film by Blake Edwards, before he changed his focus to comedy.
Peeping Tom (1960)
The same year that Alfred Hitchcock was shocking audiences with Psycho, British director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) invited his audience inside the mind of a serial killer. Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) works as a focus puller (assistant cameraman) at a film studio and augments his income by taking naughty pictures for private sales. But Mark is a damaged soul, the victim of systematic abusive by his behaviorist father that was recorded on film. Now Mark has his own voyeuristic obsession with film – recording the fear on the faces of women as he kills them. His downstairs neighbor, Helen (Anna Massey), reaches out to the odd young man. But will she be his salvation, or his next victim? Twelve years later, Massey worked with Hitchcock, playing the girlfriend of the suspected killer in Frenzy.
One interesting aspect of the 1960s is the dearth of movies featuring that staple of mysteries, the private eye. Of those few, Harper was the best. It was based on “The Moving Target” by Ross MacDonald, part of the Lew Archer series, though the title character’s name was changed because star Paul Newman was on a winning streak with movies starting with the letter H (Hud, Hombre, The Hustler). What begins as a missing person case ends up involving fake religion, human trafficking, kidnapping and murder. The film also stars Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, and Janet Leigh (who doesn’t go near a shower).
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Three men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston, and Alan Arkin) do a psychological role-play with a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) to get her to divulge the location of a doll filled with heroin that’s somewhere in her apartment. It’s a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse, though Hepburn slowly turns from mouse to cat. The film includes one moment that literally made audiences jump out of their seats. After this movie, Hepburn retired from acting, though she was coaxed back for a couple of films before her untimely death at age 63 in 1993.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
After making In The Heat Of The Night and before making Bullitt, Norman Jewison and Steve McQueen joined forces to make this movie. Thomas Crown (McQueen) is incredibly successful and very bored. For the thrill of it as much as the money, he engineers a robbery that nets over two and a half million dollars. Enter Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), an investigator for the company that insured the money. She stands to make ten percent of whatever she recovers, but as she investigates Crown she finds herself falling in love with him. Dunaway did a small role as Crown’s therapist in the 1999 remake, staring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.