YOUR FAVORITE WHODUNIT FILM: A Teacher’s Plea for Assistance!

People of the blogosphere, I need your help. For the latter third of each fall semester, I discuss film genres with my “Cinema and Society” class. Their final project is to create a 5 – 10 minute film in which they choose a fairy tale and give it the genre treatment. Some great examples from the past have been:

  • Horror Cinderella – where the stepmother and stepsisters learn too late how far Cinderella will let herself get pushed;
  • Action Red Riding Hood – where a young secret agent in a red coat has to get the “goodies” to G.R.A.N.D.M.A. by navigating through a series of obstacles set up by the enemy organization W.O.L.F.
  • Sports Movie Jack and the Beanstalk – I remember this had something to do with Jack, a baseball player, taking too many “magic beans” – anyway, it was great!

You get the idea. Anyway, to prepare for this, the groups spend time pondering the plot and thematic motifs and iconic images found in their specific genre, and I show films to illustrate what they’re talking about . . . and to set the bar for what I expect from their own films. (No, I don’t expect them to BE Spielberg, just be inspired by him.)

This year, we have five groups, representing Action, Buddy Comedies, Horror, Science Fiction . . . and, of course, Mysteries. This week we focused on Action. I showed Tony Scott’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. It has all the elements I love in the genre: a vast conspiracy that seems unstoppable, and an ordinary shlub (if Smith can ever be described that way) who gets in their way, nearly gets destroyed, and then finds the strength within himself to stop them cold (with some help from Hackman’s near-sociopathic technical expert.)

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Next week being Halloween, we’re focused on horror. I prefer creepy to gross out, so I’m showing Rosemary’s Baby. Frankly, the students get seriously pissed that they don’t get to see a deformed demon baby, but I’ve watched It’s Alive, about the mutant infant who stalks milkmen, and I can tell them from experience that they’re better off imagining what little Adrian looks like.

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For buddy comedies, I’m going classic, with Billy Wilder at his best: Some Like It Hot. Modern students often tend to wilt when they see that a movie is in black and white, so I’m always grateful when they laugh out loud at the final exchange between Jack Lemon and Joe E. Brown!

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For science fiction, I tend to prefer sci-fi that creeps up on you rather than a Jerry Bruckheimer “crash over your head” sort of epic. I was going to go with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I’m tempted to show Arrival instead, since I think it was one of the most underrated films of last year and still haunts me. That was not the subject of this post, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on the two films.

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And that brings me to mysteries. Being my favorite genre in just about any medium, you’d think that I’d have this one down. But I find myself at loose ends this year, so I’m throwing the topic open to the people I trust the most.

Here’s the thing: I plan on showing two films, one a traditional whodunit and the other more of a noir P.I. sort of film. Some years find me doing a whole unit on noir, but last year that series of films crashed and burned and left me, you should pardon the expression, gun-shy. So I’m going relatively safe and showing a neo-noir – Christopher Nolan’s Memento. The kids always love this one . . . once they figure it out.

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For the past, I don’t know, five years, my traditional whodunit has been Green for Danger. I love that film, but hard as I try to ignore it, I can always feel a chill in the air when I show it. Kids don’t cotton to this movie, so I was thinking of picking something else from my home library. The question is, what should I show that best represents the traditional whodunit?

I’ve got all the Christies, so any of them is a possibility. But which would work best with high school students? And Then There Were None? (I know it’s one of Scott Ratner’s favorite films, but its tone is odd – more comedic than mysterious.) Death on the Nile? (It’s fun but long!) Orient Express? (I love it, but it suffers from being long and static. And the new one, with Branagh playing Poirot as an action hero, is just around the corner.)

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There’s The Kennel Murder Case. It’s the best of the Philo Vance adaptations and a crackling good film. But is it better for older audiences? And while we’re on the subject of William Powell (if you didn’t know, we are!), does all the romantic/cocktail rigmarole overpower the mystery elements in The Thin Man?

I own a lot of old mysteries. But should I go with something newer? Should I go with something deeper, a la Gosford Park, which brilliantly uses the tropes of the country house murder to say things about class differences in England that Julian Fellowes could never say as well in Downton Abbey. Or is that just too much?????

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The reality of the situation is, I think I just want to talk about good mystery films. I’ll probably sort it out just fine over here if nobody responds. But I would love to hear your opinions. Just naming a film you think would work in the comments section would be nice, but even better would be your reasoning as to why this film represents the traditional mystery genre so well! You might make me think of something I hadn’t thought of before. Even better, you might be contributing to a list comprising the best film festival to which we all could ever go.

I’ll host. You bring the snacks!

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44 thoughts on “YOUR FAVORITE WHODUNIT FILM: A Teacher’s Plea for Assistance!

  1. I absolutely love that idea of having your students put their own touches on stories, Brad. What a creative choice! Hmm……..when you mentioned both whodunit and noir PI, I had a few thoughts. For noir PI, it depends how far back in time you want to go. Not to toot my own horn, but I did a post on noir films; if that helps, I’m happy! As to whodunit films, The Usual Suspects is great. So is Shutter Island. I’ve always loved Murder on the Orient Express (but NOT – please NOT – the new version!), and Rear Window. Those are just my first ideas. I don’t don’t want to clutter up your comments section…

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    1. I don’t see how you could ever clutter a person’s page, Margot!!! 🙂 Thank you for your suggestions. Last year, I showed The Usual Suspects, and the kids went nuts for it! And they’re all going to see Rear Window next semester; it’s my favorite film of all time!

      I can’t wait to read your post for more ideas!! Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Classic whodunit possibly: ‘Witness For The Prosecution’

    re: ‘Body Snatchers’, the 1978 version is really good too, is in color, and has some actors your class might recognize — Nimoy, Sutherland.

    re: Noir – ‘Memento’ is great, and you might also keep in mind ‘Brick’ with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s in a high school setting which might add to the appeal to students.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll admit that the ’78 “Body Snatchers” REALLY creeps me out, as it’s set in my home town, and the transformations seemed to me really repulsive! It conveys a very good sense of paranoia.

      I saw Brick a long time ago and appreciated what it was going for more than I enjoyed myself. Gordon-Levitt is wonderful, as he is in everything!

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  3. In my opinion Vertigo is Hitchcock at his best, if you are looking for a classic film noir. As you go towards the more modern era, I really enjoy Chinatown, not only as a mystery, but as an expose of Southern California politics in the 1900s. I am reviewing the Kenneth Branagh Orient Express, when it comes out, but I do not have high hopes for it. You might want to have your class watch the new film, The Snowman with Michael Fassbender, and see what went wrong with the film noir formula there.

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    1. I heard pretty much everything went wrong with The Snowman, Alexandra! I always show Rear Window and Vertigo in the spring to my class. Pure gold! I have shown Chinatown before as well. I’ll be right there with you, reviewing Branagh’s Orient Express with a sneer on my face!

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  4. David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner — full of so many clever reversals, and a (film) textbook on how to mislead your viewer by allowing them to do a lot of the work (hmm, sounds like some author you mentioned on here recently…)

    Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn — one of the funniest, craziest, most insanely complex plots yet put on screen; it should be a dull, lazy retread of a lot of old ideas that gets a pass purely on account of the leads, but it’s actually so wonderful that you forget these two are superstars.

    I second Brick, an early film from soon-to-always-be The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson — Joseph Gordon Levitt as a high school noir detective trying to find out who killed…someone…and why. Archly over-stylised in a manner a lot of people don’t love, but easily one of the most inventive uses of what should by now be boring Noir tropes. Contains one of the most beautifully oddball performances ever put on the screen, courtesy of Lukas Haas.

    Probably more, but it’s early,,,

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    1. Charade is lovely, like a Hitchcock film with more heart and humor! In fact, it makes you understand why Hitchcock loved working with Cary Grant so much and why he wanted to work with Audrey Hepburn so badly. I know I’ve seen The Spanish Prisoner, but I can’t remember a thing about it except that it is supposed to be clever. Mamet wrote another one with Lindsay Crouse that’s also nice and twisted.

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  5. Hi Brad! May I suggest three movies? Laura,
    Sorry, wrong number!
    and
    Rebecca … they’re fantastic. It’s a real pleasure to read your blogs! Thank you.

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  6. I think it’d definitely be worth checking out the animated theatrical feature Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target (released in the US as Case Closed: The Fourteenth Target). It’s based on the Detective Conan/Case Closed anime series, but works perfectly as a standalone murder mystery film (in fact, this was how I was introduced to the series. The movie also starts off with a short introduction of the series’ premise and all the important characters, so it’s really accessible. The US release features both the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles, and an English dubbed soundtrack.

    While the movie is relatively new compared to the other movies mentioned (1997, and it’s animated too), the plot is as traditional as you can get (a series of murders that follow a certain, curious pattern; extended denouement scene). But it also has lots of action scenes that prevent the story from slowing down. I also think it’s a good example of how broad the genre can be, as one wouldn’t immediately think of a feature-length animation when talking about a murder mystery film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wait, I see now that the fourth theatrical feature has also been released in the US as Case Closed: Captured In Her Eyes. That one is even better as a fair-clewed murder mystery, though the overall plot is arguably a bit slower than The Fourteenth Target, and it features a bit more of the series characters to juggle with for the viewer (it deals with a serial cop killer, and one of the main characters suffering of amnesia because of the shock of witnessing one of the attacks, and her being targeted by the murderer in fear she’ll remember their face), so perhaps The Fourteenth Target is better as a standalone feature.

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      1. I was on an early roll reading the Case Closed series, and then I got distracted by many things. I have watched some of the short features on YouTube, but the format there has not made it the most pleasant experience. (I might be too cheap to buy these things!) However, I had no idea that there were full-length features. I’ll have to check it out! Thanks, Ho-Ling.

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  7. GREEN FOR DANGR was the first one I thought of! Not checked the other suggestions yet but how about WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (the 1957 version of course)? Or maybe IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT? Or maybe THE MALTESE FALCON? Or maybe LAURA? Can’t wait to hear which one you go with Brad – wish I was there with your students, sounds marvellous 🙂

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  8. Plenty of good suggestions here. I would add “The last of Sheila” as an excellent mystery and L.A. confidential and D.O.A. as good modern Noir films. Gosford Park is a good idea too and maybe some Gialli might work as well? Maybe tenebre, Deep Red or Bird with the Crystal Plumage from Argento or someearly Fulci?

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      1. Obviously not a fan of the giallo form but they are great Brad! I love LAST OF SHEILA but I suspect that most viewers would find its endless complications a bit exhausting.

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  9. PS I was suggesting older traditional whodunits of course for that particular slot – for a more contemporary title in the PI mould I would definitely go with BRICK as already suggested as well as the thoroughly underrated ZERO EFFECT. If you really want to blow their minds, you could show them Dario Argento’s sensational mystery DEEP RED which definitely has one of the best villain reveals in the history of the movies!

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    1. Argento makes me unbearably uncomfortable. Yes, he’s gory (which I tend to avoid), but it’s more than that! He really does tap into my nightmares. I can only take him in very small doses.

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  10. Great idea Brad! I’ve been trying to think of great traditional whodunits but my problem is, is that I keep thinking of films which although mystery are not traditional whodunits such as Arsenic and Old Lace, Spiral Staircase, Dial M for Murder, 23 Paces to Baker Street, The Green Man etc. Thankfully though you have everyone else’s suggestions.

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    1. I absolutely love The Spiral Staircase, Kate! The depiction of the stalking through the killer’s eyes is genuinely creepy! Not sure if I can get my hands on it!

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  11. There are so many interesting ways you can go with this. My favorite film is The Third Man which is atmospheric and features some really striking cinematography and an interesting setting that drives the story. It perhaps fits in more with the PI style of story.

    In terms of Whodunit-style stories, I am rather fond of Douglas Sirk’s Lured which features some entertaining performances from Lucille Ball and George Sanders as well as an out-of-makeup Boris Karloff. I would back up the suggestion of Charade in that it has a really clever solution though I’m not sure if the lack of a murder might make it too atypical of the genre.

    A more recent film that may be of interest would be The Name of the Rose which has some interesting visual imagery, especially in the final sequence in the library.

    If subtitles aren’t an issue, I love Kurosawa’s High and Low which is an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. That film fits the police procedural story type and it has two distinct phases – the initial response to the ransom demand and then the attempt to track down the perpetrator. I also think that the character of Gondo and the choices he makes are really quite interesting and worthy of discussion.

    A final suggestion – though it’s really something of an anti-whodunnit – would be Blowup. It goes through all of the steps of a murder mystery story but ends up not providing a conclusion at all (and there may not even have been a murder at all).

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    1. Thank you so much for such interesting choices. I haven’t watched Lured in a long time, but I remember liking it. High and Low is a genius of a film!I saw The Name of the Rose a long time ago and recall finding it more interesting visually than as a story.

      Have you ever seen Anthony Asquith’s 1950 The Woman in Question (aka Five Angles on Murder)? It’s really good! Each suspect tells his or her story, and the victim is a completely different personality in each.

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      1. You’re welcome. Thanks for the excuse to write about some of my favorite movies.
        I’m happy to hear I’m not alone in my love of High and Low. It is a little overshadowed by some of Kurosawa’s other work but it is one of my very favorites.
        I haven’t seen The Woman in Question but it’s now on my film watchlist. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  12. There are very, very few “pure” murder mystery films where the viewer is actually in possession of all necessary information to produce a one-and-only-one solution. The Last of Sheila is one, but I might suggest something older; the little-known Lady of Burlesque (1943, based on the G-String Murders). I hope to not debate Scott Ratner on this 😉 but I’d call it “fair play”. Not VERY fair, but fair.
    If you’re interested in teaching them about how a movie can try to mislead you and you have to work to figure out the solution from which you’re being enticed away before the surprise ending — *like* a murder mystery but not really — I’d recommend 2003’s Identity, with John Cusack. A very, very clever twist on And Then There Were None, which is actually mentioned by one of the characters.

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      1. I forgot to add Evil Under the Sun (1982), which is very nearly perfect. Well, except for two things; one inexplicable three-second shot of a dead rabbit, and the entire hammy performance of Peter Ustinov. (ducks to avoid flying objects from Scott Ratner’s direction LOL). It is a fair-play mystery, although you have to be fairly well educated to understand a few of the clues (Joe Green) and one is merely sketched (the breath of the sea).

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  13. One of the very best illustrations of a classic Whodunnit is from the 1976 Ellery Queen TV series The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne. Brilliant illustration of a cluetrail.

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  14. All this time and no one thinks to mention Clue? For shame.

    ….Although its really not much of a mystery, more of a comedy, and might be a tad too mature depending on the class (can’t recall if you teach high school or college). Although considering you showed off Rosemary’s Baby that might not be your first concern. 😛

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