Mysteries, Anyone?

I’ve been underwater here for awhile (mentally, not the river), letting down everybody I know, and I’m trying to claw my way out, so tonight I sat with Lani and Alastair and talked at one point about how PopD has, sort of, lost its way. When we started, it was a project for Lani and me to learn about and clarify our ideas about writing romantic comedy. We did that for nine months, after which we really needed a break from The Big Misunderstanding and The Romcom Run, so we started doing short series that were interesting but not really helpful. So tonight we realized that we both really want to understand writing mystery plots better. Or at all, for that matter. Back in the 80s, I did my master’s thesis on mystery fiction, so I’ve been a fan for a long, long time, but writing those suckers is completely different. And so we are thinking about putting PopD on hiatus after the TV pilot series and coming back in September with a shorter (four months maybe?) survey of mystery films, doing the same thing we did with romcom: trying to discover what works and what doesn’t, but concentrating on plot this time. So I drew up a list of movies based on my faves, internet faves, and Alastair and Lani’s picks (Brick and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) that we would eventually cut to twenty-four or five. It has some losers and some flaws (somebody else besides Hitchcock must have made mysteries in the fifties) but it’s a starting place. Check over the list below and see if we missed anything crucial. Remember, we’re talking about mysteries and plotting, so straight suspense really isn’t applicable. We want Whodunnits (although the thing they dun doesn’t have to be murder).

Here’s the first draft of the list. It’s divided into decades for no particular reason except that we would like to have a span of time periods. Have at it:

1934 The Thin Man
1935 The 39 Steps (Hitchcock)
1938 The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock)

1941 The Maltese Falcon
1944 Laura
1944 Arsenic and Old Lace
1949 The Third Man
1950 Rashomen

1951 Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
1954 Rear Window (Hitchcock)
1954 Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock)
1955 To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock)
1955 The Trouble with Harry (Hitchcock)
1959 North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
1960 Psycho (Hitchcock)

1963 Charade
1967 In the Heat of the Night

1971 Klute
1972 Sleuth
1974 Chinatown
1974 Murder on the Orient Express
1976 Silver Streak
1978 Foul Play
1978 The Big Sleep

1981 Blowout
1983 Eddie and the Cruisers
1987 The Big Easy
1988 Alien Nation
1988 The Presidio
1989 Sea of Love

1991 Dead Again
1994 The Client
1995 The Usual Suspects
1997 LA Confidential
1997 Jonathan Creek
1998 The Big Lewbowski
1998 Wild Things

2000 Memento
2003 Mystic River
2005 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2006 Brick
2007 Hot Fuzz
2010 Sherlock

Edited to Add:
Or would it be smarter to do mysteries as subgenres instead of chronologically:

Classic Mysteries (as in classic mystery plots)
1974 Murder on the Orient Express
1981 Blowout
1997 Jonathan Creek
2010 Sherlock

Hitchcock Mysteries
1935 The 39 Steps (Hitchcock)
1938 The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock)
1951 Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
1954 Rear Window (Hitchcock)
1954 Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock)
1955 To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock)
1955 The Trouble with Harry (Hitchcock)
1959 North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
1960 Psycho (Hitchcock)

Romantic Mysteries
1934 The Thin Man
1944 Laura
1963 Charade
1991 Dead Again

Noir Mysteries
1941 The Maltese Falcon
1949 The Third Man
1978 The Big Sleep
1974 Chinatown
1997 LA Confidential
2005 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2006 Brick

Comedy Mysteries
1944 Arsenic and Old Lace
1976 Silver Streak
1978 Foul Play
1998 The Big Lewbowski
2007 Hot Fuzz

And wherever these would go:
1950 Rashomen
1967 In the Heat of the Night
1971 Klute
1972 Sleuth
1983 Eddie and the Cruisers
1987 The Big Easy
1988 Alien Nation
1988 The Presidio
1989 Sea of Love
1994 The Client
1995 The Usual Suspects
1998 Wild Things
2000 Memento
2003 Mystic River

17 thoughts on “Mysteries, Anyone?

  1. The 39 Steps isn’t really a whodunnit. You find out who the bad guy is pretty early in the movie. It’s more a prototype for the classic suspenseful Hitchcock chase film like NXNW. That said, it is an excellent film, and I did my senior seminar project on it and NXNW at Berkeley so I would have lots to say about it! 🙂

    I would kind of argue that none of the Hitchcocks, although I adore him, are really whodunnits. There’s a great quote from him about surprise vs. suspense and I feel like his attitude about suspense kind of precludes him creating whodunnit movies. His movies are never really mysteries in the typical sense because usually the audience knows who the bad guy it’s just matter or why or how they’ll be caught. That said, dissecting a masterwork like Hitchcock’s canon can never be a bad thing.

    Whatever else you have to cut PLEASE keep The Big Easy. Me and my sis love that movie, and I would love to hear you guys discuss it.

    You could put some Murder She Wrotes on there. That show eventually did practically every murder plot you could ever think of. At least twice. (says the JB Fletcher fangirl…)

  2. Here’s the Hitchcock quote I was talking about. It’s kind of long, but interesting, it’s from the set of interviews he did with Truffaut:

    “There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

    We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

    The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

    In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

  3. Have to agree that I don’t consider most of the Hitchcock movies mysteries. I think you could safely say that Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief would probably qualify, but I’ve always thought of the others as thrillers. Love The Lady Vanishes, and I guess you could call it a mystery, although I’ve always labelled it “spy movie.” Second The Big Easy, it’s one of my favorites, and I’d really like to hear your take on that one (definitely think of it as a romantic mystery). I remember Suspect, with Dennis Quaid and Cher (also from the ’80s) being a decent mystery, but I saw that on commercial TV some time ago, so I could be wrong.

    I’m inclined to argue for the original Big Sleep rather than the remake, although to be fair to Robert Mitchum, I haven’t seen the 1978 version. In the noir category, there’s always Murder My Sweet (would two Philip Marlowe stories be overkill?). For comic mysteries, maybe Fletch. I’m not a fan of Chevy Chase but I think they stuck fairly close to the novel, and that was a great book. Saw the tail end of Fracture the other day and was very impressed, so there’s that too. And now I’m just rambling so I’ll stop and think it about it some more later.

  4. Spellbound would probably be a Hitchcock mystery, but it’s not his best movie per se, and the screenwriter was enamored with Freud and psychoanalysis. The Dali dream sequence is a point of interest. Though not much help for dissecting what makes mystery plots work…

  5. Moth, that Hitchcock suspense theory is the one I always use to back up the argument that it’s dumb to keep secrets from the reader, but only if the POV character knows the secret. In fiction, if nobody knows the bomb is there, the only way you can tell the reader is if you’re writing omniscient POV.

  6. @Moth – I’ve been working my way through the “Murder, She Wrote” series on Netflix. Sometimes I’m very clever:)

    First, I think the sub-genre list is the way to go. I think we’ll get pissed off if we do it chronologically. Mysteries are too different and can be too badly done sometimes.

    Secondly, wow. I. LOVE. MYSTERIES. In fact, they were my first love when I was allowed to pick my own books in the library. The ‘big kid books’ were biographies and mysteries. I read the 10 biographies the school library had and then devoured the mysteries and didn’t stop reading them until 2001 when I started reading romances. World events caught up with me and I found I was more interested in happy endings.

    I did my women’s studies capstone project on women in detective fiction. Both fascinating and depressing but I read a LOT that year. I’ll admit I’ve not seen all of these but I read the list as a lot of ‘guy mysteries’. It’s just a first blush look as I scroll through and maybe the ones that less overtly masculine are the ones I don’t know. On the other hand this is what Hollywood makes so, this is what we’ll be watching.

    Also, I just tried to watch Charade last month and I almost plucked my eyeballs out due to boredom. Sorry. But The Thin Man is just so good. Besides, there’s a dog:)

  7. @ Moth. Ditto. I want to argue in favor of Rear Window just because I want to watch it again, but I really think the suspense movies should be judged on their own. I think as far as Hitchcock goes, the closest of the group would be “To Catch a Thief.”

    And, I love (and own) the Bob Mitchum version of “The Big Sleep.” I haven’t seen the new one.

  8. Oh wait. I’m confusing The Big Sleep with Out of the Past. Huh. I’m juggling too many Life Issues this morning.

  9. I like the comparison of mystery types, but I wonder if there’s enough to compare with all the Hitchcock movies. I wonder if it would be interesting to compare a Hitchcock to a similar but non Hitchcock movie. Assuming Hitchcock is the master.

  10. I did my master’s thesis on women in mysteries. “A Spirit More Capable of Looking Up To Him: Women’s Roles in Mystery Fiction from 1840 to 1920.” I had intended to keep going into the 80s (which is when I was writing it) but I decided I wanted to graduate.

  11. I would think most of the Agatha Christie (sp?) novels/movies would be good. There was a series on PBS years ago for her as well. Any of the Sherlock Holmes movies, including the newest one would probably be good as well. Just my two cents.

  12. I believe the only 2 movies I’ve seen on this list are Foul Play – loved it – and the Thin Man – also good.

  13. Agree with Stephanie about Charade. I found it painful– so much so that maybe I didn’t give a fair viewing, but definite negative reaction.

Comments are closed.