Whodunit Mysteries have long been a staple of cinema. Afterall, how do you top the drama of a crime being solved on screen, with all of its twists, turns, and dynamic characters who may or may not be the criminal in question? Throughout the course of cinematic history, the tropes and conventions we’ve come to expect from mystery movies might have changed, but the thrill of a well-told Whodunit remains the same. Here are 12 of the best Whodunut mystery movies throughout cinematic history, starting with the 1940s and going all the way up to present day.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) — The 1941 film The Maltese Falcon is based on the book of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The mystery movie marked the directorial debut of John Huston, and it was a breakthrough role for actor Humphrey Bogart, who stars as private investigator Sam Spade, a man who is investigating the mysterious death of his partner. This whodunit film is recognized as one of the first major film noir movies ever, and as such, it set up a lot of the tropes for the genre, including the femme fatale, a morally ambiguous lead character, and stark light/dark contrasts, which are all now part of the noir tradition.
And Then There Were None (1945) — A list of whodunits would never be complete without at least one Agatha Christie adaptation making the list. And while And Then There Were None has been adapted several times, the 1945 adaptation of this classic novel is significant because of how influential it was on the mystery suspense movies that followed it. If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows ten people who come to a secluded island and are then are mysteriously killed off one by one.
The Big Sleep (1946) — Humphrey Bogart makes his second appearance on this list in 1946’s The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks. Based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, this movie follows detective Philip Marlowe as he investigates a strange string of murders all tied to one family. This film also later served as the inspiration for the popular Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski.
Rear Window (1954) — Another name that’s a necessary addition to any whodunit list? Alfred Hitchcock. Rear Window is a classic of the mystery genre, and it’s often considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best films. When a photographer breaks his legs, he ends up spending his days looking out of a telescope, spying on his neighbors through their windows. But when he convinces himself he has seen a murder take place, he is determined to find the killer himself.
In The Heat of the Night (1967) — In the Heat of the Night is a mystery film starring Sidney Poitier, directed by Norman Jewison, and based on the 1965 novel of the same name by John Ball. Virgil Tibbs is a Black police detective from Philadelphia. After Tibbs is mistakenly arrested for a murder he did not commit in Mississippi, the detectives on the case apologize and request Tibbs’s help in the investigation. This movie is a gripping mystery suspense story that also examines issues of racism in small-town America.
Chinatown (1974) — Chinatown is an Academy Award-winning neo-noir film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. This film was clearly influenced by earlier whodunits, specifically The Maltese Falcon. Most notably, the relationship between Nicholson and Dunaway calls back to Bogart and his femme fatale Mary Astor in the 1941 noir classic. J.J. “Jake” Gittes is a private eye hired by Evelyn Mulway to investigate her husband’s activities. But Gittes soon realizes this job is much more complicated than what he’d bargained for.
Clue (1985) — The more audiences became familiar with the tropes of a traditional whodunit film, the more they craved movies that played with those conventions and expectations. Enter Clue, the 1985 film directed by Jonathan Lynn and starring a talented ensemble cast, including Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. Clue plays with the expected roles in a whodunit film for comedic effect. And the best part? There’s not one but several answers to the question, “Whodunit?”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) — Speaking of mystery movies that play with expectations of the genre, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes some of your favorite film noir roles and has them played by cartoon characters. In this movie, a detective (played by Bob Hoskins) is trying to figure out who framed cartoon rabbit Roger Rabbit for the murder of a fellow cartoon character.
L.A. Confidential (1997) — Sometimes a whodunit is about more than just the mystery the detectives are investigating. In the neo-noir film L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson, a group of detectives, played by Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey, investigate a series of murders. But the deeper they get into their investigation the more they uncover about the corruption of the police force and Hollywood and their connections to the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.
Memento (2000) — If you’re looking for a movie that entirely upends the whodunit plot formula, give Memento a whirl. This 2000 film directed by Christopher Nolan tells its entire mystery backward. The main character (played by Guy Pearce) has lost his short term memory, and so viewers follow the story from his perspective as he tries to uncover the truth about who murdered his wife.
The Nice Guys (2016) — Neo-noir whodunits don’t always have to be so serious. The Nice Guys, directed by Shane Black, follows a pair of unlikely private investigator partners (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) as they investigate a missing girl and her connection to the mysterious death of a porn star. This film makes the list for infusing humor and heart into a genre that is conventionally so dark and serious.
Knives Out (2019) — This Academy Award-nominated movie from director Rian Johnson features an absolutely stacked cast of contemporary actors, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, and Katherine Langford. But what makes this movie especially extraordinary as an entry in whodunit cinema is the way it bucks the traditional plot structure of a mystery movie. In fact, viewers will learn who killed the patriarch of this family at the very beginning of the movie. But does that mean the mystery is solved? Absolutely not.