Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Top Five Tuesday! We’re extremely happy to start showing Rian Johnson’s marvelously entertaining whodunnit Knives Out tomorrow (with a special preview screening this evening!), and in celebration of this fact, we’re digging into the best murder yarns of years past, counting down…
THE TOP FIVE WHODUNNITS!
1. Maigret Sets a Trap - The Gift of Gabin
(Dir. Jean Delannoy | France/Italy | 1958)
Real ones know Maigret as a luminary of the detective genre over a series of unforgettable novels crafted by Georges Simenon, semi-real ones know Maigret from the 2016 TV movie wherein he’s played by Rowan Atkinson (that’s right, Mr. Bean trackin’ down a serial killer), but the realest of the real? The Mega-Maigrets? They know about Grand Illusion’s Jean Gabin inhabiting the part and providing no-frills, no-fuss satisfaction to the genre’s die-hards. If you’re a fan of whodunnits, you owe it to yourself to get’r’whodunn courtesy of this French classics!
2. Murder on the Orient Express - Come on, ride the train/and ride it
(Dir. Sidney Lumet | UK | 1974)
Of the titles contained here, this is the most analogous to what Knives Out has on offer (though Johnson makes his whodunnit modern instead of a period piece to remove our ability to plausibly deny its corollaries to the current moment) - a massive all-star cast (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and legitimately many more) confined largely to a single locale while a master detective solves a seemingly unsolvable murder with style to spare. I have no animus towards the 2017 edition (Kenneth Branagh goes big, and therefore needn’t go home!), but this is the defining version for my money (spoiler: I have very little!).
3. Identity - A slice of fried Mangold
(Dir. James Mangold | USA | 2003)
I'm loathe to give away much of the goings-on of Identity, other than to note that it has a formidable cast (Ray Liotta, John Cusack, Alfred Molina, John Hawkes, Rebecca De Mornay, Clea Duvall!), an eminently capable director (James Mangold of Cop Land, Walk the Line, and current release Ford v. Ferrari fame), and an utterly ludicrous method of recalibrating Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None into a horror milieu. For those who like their plots preposterous, this is for you - in fact, it goes so far you might even consider it postposterous.
4. Green For Danger - Sim City
(Dir. Sidney Gilliant | UK | 1946)
The novel setting for this medical mystery is reason enough to suggest it - the action is largely confined to a rural English hospital during the Blitz in World War II - but it’s also devilishly entertaining, with Alastair Sim’s Detective Cockrill turning the screws on the medical staff that oversaw a death via foul play on their operating table. Cockrill goes so far as to recreate the events of the inciting action to draw the killer out, with Sim’s portrayal making him feel like an antecedent to Joanne the Scammer, a real messy bitch who lives for drama.
5. The Thin Man - Lose (Blood) Weight Fast!
(Dir. W.S. Van Dyke | USA | 1934)
You can’t go wrong with a single entry in the Thin Man series, but I’m starting with the initial entry for our purposes here because:
This is a NEXT LEVEL movie trailer, and
Julie Andrews imparted on me that the beginning is a very good place to start
Myrna Loy and William Powell have the kind of chemistry filmmakers spend lifetimes trying to capture, Skippy the dog is one of the all-time good boys of cinema (Asta should be presented with a posthumous Oscar as far as I’m concerned), and Dashiel Hammett’s source material provides ample ground for the boozy duo at its center to play around in. Treat yourself to one of the great cinematic series and give yourself a nice weekend to dig into the entire Thin oeuvre!
BONUS: Remember Last Night? - The Hangover Part Negative One
(Dir. James Whale | USA | 1935)
As a bonus (and equally booze-soaked) option, I want to point out James Whale’s screwball murder mystery Remember Last Night? It has one of the best hooks of any film (a group of drunken socialites party so hard that they literally can’t remember the previous evening where one of their own was murdered - it’s like a highbrow and more delightful version of The Hangover). However, I can’t rightfully include this in the list proper given from approximately 8:25-11:15 in the film there is a truly nauseating blackface sequence that lasts forever and ever. If you can make it past that (and there’s no reason why you should or need to!), there’s a very witty and solid whodunnit crafted by the incredible James Whale that has been relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history!