10 Best Mystery Movies of the 1980s

I’ve been busy after my last post in this series (including writing a novel manuscript) so I’ve just kept up with the movies I’ve seen. I’ll try to finish the final three posts in this series before Christmas. First up, the 1980s. This was not a great decade for mysteries and a couple of the movies listed below wouldn’t have made the cut if they’d been made in a different decade. Each, though, do have their good points and are worth watching.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

For a country that has minimal violence outside of football stadiums, England has produced some great crime movies, and The Long Good Friday is one of the best. In the course of the titular day, London crime boss Harold Shand, who’s about to complete a major deal with an American syndicate, finds his enterprises under attack by an unknown group. The movie made a star out of Bob Hoskins, whose performance as Shand is electric. You can also see a young Pierce Brosnan in a small role.

Witness (1985)

One usually doesn’t think of a mystery as being lyrical and pastoral, but with Peter Weir as the director anything’s possible. John Book (Harrison Ford) must protect a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother (Kelly McGillis) from a trio of bad cops. The movie’s portrayal of the Amish is highly stereotypical, but the chemistry between Ford and McGillis is palpable, and Ford’s final stand against the bad cops (including Danny Glover) is thrilling.

A Soldier’s Story (1985)

Two decades before this movie, Norman Jewison filmed In The Heat Of The Night, which blended racial tensions and mystery. In 1985 he filmed A Soldier’s Story which featured the same blend but in a completely different way. A lawyer officer (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to a Southern military base during WWII to investigate the murder of a black sergeant (Adolph Ceasar). At first local whites are the suspects, but as the lawyer digs deeper he finds the case is much more complex. The cast also included Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend and Patti LaBelle.

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers burst onto the movie scene with this tight and nasty thriller. A club owner (Dan Hedeya) believes his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of his employees (John Getz). He hires a disreputable detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to get evidence of the affair, but instead the detective tries a scam to extort money and then covers up that crime with another. It doesn’t turn out well. This movie may be the only one to have a director’s cut run shorter than the original movie. When they got the chance to tweak the film, the Coens made it even tighter

Body Heat (1981)

The movie that defines steamy love affair. This neo noir story of obsession and murder had twists and turns and, most importantly, Kathleen Turner channeling Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall (without having to worry about the Hays office). Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, it kept you guessing about what was actually happening until the very end. Kudos also to Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Turner’s husband, and a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as the dancing D.A.

The Verdict (1982)

This is the movie for which Paul Newman should have won the Oscar. His portrayal of alcoholic, funeral-crashing lawyer Frank Galvin, seeking redemption by taking on the Boston Catholic diocese in a medical malpractice suit, is riveting. It helped having one of the best directors of crime drama, Sidney Lumet, in the director’s seat, and David Mamet adapting the screenplay. All of the supporting actors (Jack Warden, Milo O’Shea, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, Ed Binns) are at the top of their games, and that strong support helps Paul Newman shine brighter.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

This film slipped through the theaters without making much of a ripple, which is a shame. Based on a book by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, William Friedkin adapted the screenplay and directed. It stars a young William Petersen as a Secret Service agent who will do anything to catch a counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) after the man kills the agent’s partner.

Manhunter (1986)

This was another underperforming movie starring William Petersen, though this time it was adapted and directed by Michael Mann. It’s based on the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” and features the first appearance on film by Hannibal Lecter (called Lecktor in this movie). This time, though, it’s Brian Cox in the role. It also has Joan Allen in her first major role. The book was remade under its original title in 2001 with 5 times the budget of Mann’s movie and an all-star cast including Hopkins as Lector, but director Brett Ratner couldn’t match the original’s style.

F/X (1986)

This movie is fun for cinemaphiles since it shows how special effects were done in the 1980s – rather quaint in comparison to today’s computer-generated magic. It also plays off the conflict between real life and the movies. Bryan Brown plays a New York-based special effects man who’s hired by the Feds to fake the assassination of a mobster (Jerry Orbach). But Brown is double-crossed and finds himself on the run from police detective Brian Dennehy. Brown has to use his skill at manipulating reality to expose the corrupt feds. This movie was a financial success and spawned a sequel as well as a television series.

Sea of Love (1989)

Novelist Richard Price (Freedomland, The Wanderers) wrote the original screenplay for this movie, about two cops (Al Pacino and John Goodman) investigating a string of murders of men who answered personal ads in the paper. They go undercover to meet the women who placed the ads, and Pacino finds himself becoming obsessed with one of them (Ellen Barkin) who may be the killer. While it doesn’t match Body Heat’s steaminess, it is a decent mystery.


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