The Ten Best Mystery and Suspense Films of All Time (According to One Critic, Anyway)

Mystery Month 2017Everybody loves a good top ten list—just ask David Letterman. But selecting only 10 of the best mystery and suspense films ever produced is quite a challenge. After all, I could easily have put at least five movies—if not more—by Alfred Hitchcock on the list, not to mention all those superb BBC and PBS mystery made-for-television adaptations. (No one has ever captured the true spirit of Agatha Christie’s Poirot or her Miss Marple like David Suchet and Joan Dickson.) But since these productions were made for and shown on television (or the telly, as they say in the U. K.), I opted not include them as possible suspects on this list.

With these factors in mind, I bring you my choices for the top 10 must-see, best-ever mystery and suspense films.

1. Rear Window (1954)

While he is stuck at home in his apartment recuperating from a broken leg, photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries spends his days watching his neighbors across the street. When Jeff spots one man making several trips late at night with a suitcase, then later discovers the man’s wife is missing, Jeff believes he may be living across the street from a murderer. But is he really? Based on noir master Cornell Woolrich’s short story and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this superbly paced film about the danger of spying on your neighbors received four Academy Award nominations. Hitchcock also drew inspiration for Rear Window from two different true crime cases including that of Patrick Mohan, who didn’t know what to do with his girlfriend’s head after he disposed of the rest of her body parts via a train window (I am guessing that all the overhead baggage compartments were full).


2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Dashiell Hammett’s classic 1929 crime novel had already been filmed twice before, but in this case the third time proved to be the charm. Humphrey Bogart plays San Francisco P. I. Sam Spade, who finds himself seduced into searching for the titular bird by duplicitous femme fatale Mary Astor. Legendary John Huston made his directorial debut with this film, and the stellar supporting cast included Peter Lorre, Walter Huston, and Sydney Greenstreet. Critics often credit this version of Maltese Falcon as being the first true noir film, but even if that isn’t the case, no movie before or since has truly captured the spirit of noir like lucky number three.


3. L. A. Confidential (1997)

This neo-noir film is broadly based on James Ellroy’s novel about a rookie good cop, who finds himself surrounded by sleaze and corruption in early 1950s Los Angeles while investigating a murder at a coffee shop with two other more ethically elastic cops. The stellar cast includes Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kim Bassinger who picked up an Oscar win (one of the nine Academy Awards for which the film was nominated) by brilliantly channeling her own inner Veronica Lake.





4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

On the surface this might seem to be simply a live action / animated film that got lucky at the box office, but dig deeper and you will quickly recognize just how brilliantly this movie spins the quintessential elements of the private eye genre into cinematic gold. L. A. private detective Eddie Valiant (played by Bob Hoskins) is hired by Maroon Cartoon Studios to investigate whether the rumors that the studio’s leading star Toon Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica is playing “patty cake” with wealthy businessman Marvin Acme. Along the way, Eddie meets a variety of denizens of Toon Town, including femme fatale Jessica Rabbit, who is given one of the best lines in movies, ever: “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way.”


5. Double Indemnity (1944)

Based on the novel by James Cain, who was inspired to write it by a real-life murder plot hatched by a woman in 1927, this quintessential noir suspense film was directed by Billy Wilder, who wrote the script, and mystery author Raymond Chandler. In the film, insurance salesman Fred MacMurray (who was not the studio’s first choice but then proved everybody wrong with his stellar performance) is slowly seduced by Barbara Stanwyck (who had to be talked into playing a murderous dame because she was concerned it would ruin her good girl image) into killing her husband for the insurance money. Despite singer Kate “God Bless America” Smith’s personal campaign to keep viewers from seeing the movie based on moral grounds, the film was an immediate hit with movie-goers and racked up seven Academy Award nominations.


6. Gosford Park (2001)

Now Julian Fellowes is best known as the creator and producer of Downton Abbey. But long before he was dreaming up scenes for Lady Mary and Mrs. Patmore, he wrote the script for Gosford Park, which director Robert Altman then turned into the perfect 1930s British country house murder mystery. The stellar cast included Dame Maggie Smith (you really can spend hours playing six degrees of Downton Abbey with this movie), Helen Mirren, and Stephen Fry. It went on to earn seven Academy Award nominations, as well as winning a permanent place in the hearts of Golden Age mystery fans everywhere.


7. North by Northwest (1959)

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill gets caught up in a deadly espionage plot when he is mistaken for a man named George Kaplan in this knockout film directed by the master of psychological thrills himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Cary Grant and name are Eva Marie Saint provide plenty of simmering romance, while scenes such as the iconic crop duster chase and the scramble down Mt. Rushmore offer more than enough nail-biting suspense. Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest, called it “the Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies,” and he couldn’t be more right.




8. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Billy Wilder not only put his directorial stamp on this perfect crafted cinematic puzzler, but he also contributed to the screenplay, which was adapted from the popular play by Agatha Christie. In the film, barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts takes on the case of defending Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering a wealthy older widow, but finds he must reluctantly rely on the testimony of Vole’s wife Christine, who, it turns out, has a surprise of two in store for everyone. The twist at the end of the film is pure Christie and so gobsmackingly ingenious that when the movie originally played in theaters, a voiceover during the final credits asked those seeing the movie to not reveal the ending. Of all the cinematic adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works, this is not only the absolute best, but is also the most faithful to the spirit of the original work.


9. Memento (2000)

In this brilliantly conceived, mind-and- time bending film, Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby an insurance investigator trying to track down the man who sexually assaulted and murdered his wife. However, because Shelby suffers from autograde amnesia, an untreatable condition in which the victim can’t retain his or her short-term memories, Shelby must find ways to continually refresh his memory least he forget his mission of dispensing justice to his wife’s killer. With its twisted plot and fractured timeline, Memento is the kind of film that requires viewers to pay close attention as they watch it, but the end result is well worth it.




10. The Thin Man (1934)

Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, this equal parts screwball comedy / mystery film did not invent the concept of the husband and wife sleuthing team, but it helped create an unprecedented demand for married detectives. Nick and Nora Charles (played to perfection by William Powell and Myrna Loy) knock back martinis and trade barbs while searching for a missing inventor. The original film proved to be so popular that it inspired five more films with Powell and Loy recreating their roles of Nick and Nora Charles, as well as creating a sudden fad for people naming their small dogs Asta.



About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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