Monday, February 4, 2008

Screening room

I was recently asked what my favorite mystery movies were. Anyone who knows me knows my tastes are eclectic and somewhat offbeat. And did favorite mean a list of best mystery movies or merely the ones I liked? Anyway, I decided to make a list; one never knows when someone else will ask and at least I've done the groundwork. First, I figured, I'd have to define mystery, although the very word has vagary about it. I eliminated the Bourne trilogy -- more thrillers than mystery -- but then what was I suppose to do with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train? There's little mystery there, just some solid filmmaking in the thriller mode.

The only way to make a true mystery movie list was to have a crime in the beginning, a detective (amateur or professional) to go about detecting and a solution, preferrably a surprise. Anything else would make it pure thriller. So, was Psycho a mystery and, since we all knew Kim Novak played both characters, did Vertigo enter into it? In fact, would all of Hitchcock need to be eliminated? And by default, the films of Edgar G. Ulmer(Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, Detour)?Anyway, after much grappling and mind changing, I came up with this list (which, of course, could change when a new movie comes along). And as you'll see also, the criteria went out the window.

Laura (1941) -- Vera Casprey's novel gets a stylish Otto Preminger treatment with Gene Tierney as the titular victim, Dana Andrews as the obsessed 'tec and Clifton Webb as the smarmy newspaperman. Mood, mystery, romantic torture all set to David Raksin's haunting and haunted music.
L.A. Confidential (1997) -- A big bruiser of a movie based on a James Ellroy novel. A brilliant cast (Kim Basinger got a well-deserved supporting Oscar) exposes the criminal underbelly of '50s Hollywood. There's corruption, blackmail, shootouts and torture in Curtis Hanson's literate thriller.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) -- The John Huston classic about a hard-drinking P.I. trying to find the murderer of his partner and an elusive statuette of a black bird. A class act from start to finish with some great characters, writing (Huston from Hammett) and a stylish look.
Memento (2001) -- Leonard Shelby's (Guy Pearce) life is seen in reverse as his quest for revenge is hampered by a debilitating memory loss. A gimmicky wonder kept vital by Pearce and Christopher Nolan's tight script and direction. Don't think about it; just follow Leonard down the rabbit hole.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) -- A leisurely trip into classic Christie country as Hercule Poirot (an unrecognizable Albert Finney) unravels the death of an American millionaire. An all-star cast (Ingrid Bergman won a supporting Oscar) and a witty script prove a winning combination under Sidney Lumet's direction.
Out of the Past (1947) -- One of my favorite films of all-time. Classic Robert Mitchum anti-hero stuff: A retired P.I. who's changed his identity is rediscovered by a merchant of menace (Kirk Douglas) in search of the double-crossing moll who stole his money. Directed by Jocquest Tourneur and enhanced by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) -- Charlie (Teresa Wright) has a soulmate in her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) who is not all he seems. Wonderful tension, great performances and Hitchcock at the top of his game.
The Stuntman (1980) -- No one I know agrees with me, but I love this tale of a convict on the run and the Svengali-like director who takes him under his wing. Great performances and off-the-wall wit. A sinister comedy where reality and fantasy meet.
The 39 Steps (1935) -- A handcuffed Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll cross the heath pursued by spies and police in this crackling Hitchcock concoction via John Buchan. This 1935 film set the standard that later Hitchcock films followed.
The Woman in the Window (1944) -- A mild man (Edward G. Robinson) kills a man in self-defense and is caught in a web of blackmail and more murder. Fritz Lang's masterful direction and Nunnally Johnson's thrilling screenplay get a bolster from Arthur Lange's music. A claustrophic suspense yarn.

Wait. Did I leave out The Thin Man, Anatomy of a Murder, Chinatown, The Big Sleep, Bad Day at Black Rock, Shallow Grave, Heat, The Usual Suspects, Detour, Frantic, The Player, A Double Life?

I guess I'll have to make another list.

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