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Murder Mysteries to Study to Sharpen Your Cinematic Sleuthing Skills

By Martin Keady · June 12, 2023

Murder Mysteries to Study to Sharpen Your Cinematic Sleuthing Skills

René Magritte, the great Belgian surrealist artist, said of his often mysterious works: “The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.” Although Magritte was specifically talking about visual art, arguably what he said is also true of narrative art, including screenwriting. Perhaps that is why murder mysteries, or whodunnits, are so enduringly popular. There is the obvious desire to know literally who did it – who the killer is – but beyond that there is possibly a deeper and more complex desire at work.

Confronted by the mystery of our own mortality – namely that however alive or even immortal we ever feel, we also know with absolute certainty that we will die – we are drawn to tales about death to try to understand our own mortality a little more. 

Whatever the reason, though, murder mysteries or whodunnits are a storytelling staple, a fixture in all forms of writing, including screenwriting. Here is a collection of scripts for some of the finest murder mysteries ever filmed, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the present day. And perhaps their greatest mystery is that even though in many instances we know who the killer is (having already seen the film or read the script), we still return to them because they are so compelling. Consequently, even the greatest whodunnits are never just whodunnits but whydunnits, howdunnits and other kinds of dunnits, too.

Scripts from this Article

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The greatest films rarely fit into one strict generic straitjacket; they extend across genres or combine elements of different genres. And so Sunset Boulevard, one of the great screenwriter and director Billy Wilder’s greatest films, is simultaneously a film about film-making, a film noir and a murder mystery. 

Of course, Sunset Boulevard is rarely regarded as a murder mystery now, because even a casual film fan is likely to know who the murderer is. But that is not to diminish the sheer majesty of its storytelling, including its opening voiceover, the greatest voiceover ever written, which distills the whole story down into a single page. 

It literally sets the scene (“Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California”) and indeed the time (“about five o’clock in the morning”); it outlines the film’s themes or obsessions, especially fame (“an old-time star is involved, one of the biggest”); and it concludes with that classic, sardonic story-telling voice of Wilder (“Maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you’ve come to the right party.”) And as the rest of the film will show us, it’s not just the victim but the killer who is revealed right at the start. Ultimately, it was Hollywood that did it. 

Read More: Explore the Golden Age of Hollywood

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Rear Window (1954)

It is essential to include the screenplay for at least one Hitchcock film in any murder mystery script collection because he was a master of the form, and that is evident even in the title of Rear Window, written by John Michael Hayes, based on the Cornell Woodrich short story. The original short story was called It Had To Be Murder, but that title gives the game away immediately. By contrast, Rear Window is not so much a whodunnit as a “didanyonedoanythingatall.” James Stewart’s photographer is trapped in his apartment with a broken leg and from it, he watches his neighbors, in classic Hitchockian/voyeuristic fashion, and ends up wondering whether one of them has committed murder. 

Rear Window is itself a window on another world, now long gone: the world of 1950s America. White, wealthy and with too much time and money on its hands (after a World War that had destroyed Europe and left America as the world’s sole economic and military superpower), Stewart is almost an avatar for the whole society or civilization. But Hitchcock, ever the great outsider as an overweight Englishman in fashionably thin Hollywood, knew that there were darker stories underneath that apparently impeccable veneer. And Rear Window is arguably the darkest and greatest of them all. 

Read More: 5 Plot Points for Rear Window

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The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye was the neo-noir or modern-day murder mystery that Robert Altman directed in the middle of his own golden age as a film-maker in the early 1970s, after MASH (1970) and McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and before Nashville (1975). Compared to those cinematic behemoths, The Long Goodbye might seem slight, but in its own small way, it is a perfectly realized whodunnit, with perhaps the most surprising ending of all the scripts on this list. 

To write The Long Goodbye, which is the loosest imaginable adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel The Big Sleep, Altman hired one of the great screenwriters of the original age of noir (just after WW2), Leigh Brackett. No relation to Billy Wilder’s great co-writer Charles Brackett, she had co-written Howard Hawks’s film of The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner, among others) and so Altman thought she would be perfect to update Chandler’s 1930s-set story to the hippy subculture of the 1970s. And he was right, because together The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye are a pair of brackets (pun intended) around one of the greatest screenwriting careers, especially by a woman, in 20th-century Hollywood.

The Long Goodbye can also be paired or bracketed with a much later film that Altman made during his second great period as a filmmaker, the 1990s and early noughties (after nearly two decades in the relative wilderness of television and theatre). That is Gosford Park (2001), which Altman famously described as a “whocareswhodunnit.” However, that unforgettable phrase is actually better applied to The Long Goodbye, in which even the investigating police initially seem unconcerned with finding the killer of a woman. However, Elliott Gould’s stoner Marlowe does end up caring, or at least becomes curious, and so he sets out on a long and winding journey through beach resorts, drug rehabilitation clinics and late-night supermarkets.   

Read More: The Great Screenwriters: Part 3 – Leigh Brackets

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Evil Under the Sun (1982)

The queen, or rather the empress, of murder mysteries is Agatha Christie, whose name is virtually synonymous with the form of murder mysteries, on screen as well as in books. Several of her most famous novels, as well as the screen adaptations of them, could have made this list, especially Murder On The Orient Express. Ultimately, however, I plumped for Evil Under The Sun, her 1941 novel, which was filmed over forty years later by Guy Hamilton, one of the greatest Bond directors (he directed two of the three best Bonds, Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, with the other being Sam Mendes’s much more recent Skyfall), based on an adaptation by Anthony Shaffer, the playwright and screenwriter of Sleuth (the only whodunnit with no who and no dunnit!).

Evil Under The Sun is a Poirot story in which the great Belgian detective investigates a series of murders that begin on the Yorkshire Moors but end up in an exclusive Mediterranean resort, where the story (and film) is largely set. And it is worth remembering that this is another reason why murder mysteries are so popular, especially in cinema and TV. Often, as in Evil Under The Sun, they are exclusively or largely single-set or single-location stories, which obviously keeps the costs down for any screen adaptation. And as a result, the whole set or location effectively becomes a crime scene, only adding to the suspicion surrounding those who inhabit it. 

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Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

At first glance, it might appear that Manhattan Murder Mystery is only included in this collection because its title contains the magic words “Murder Mystery.” On that basis, the recent Netflix Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston dramedies, simply called Murder Mystery and Murder Mystery 2, would merit inclusion. However, Allen’s 1993 film is far superior, and he and Diane Keaton, in the last film they made together (at least to date), are a far funnier and more charming crime-investigating duo than Sandler and Aniston. 

However, what really makes Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which Allen and Keaton’s married couple investigate the unusual death of one of their neighbors in an upmarket Manhattan apartment block, is that it involves another great cinematic pairing. It was the last film that Allen co-wrote with Marshall Brickman, his finest co-writer.

Allen and Brickman co-wrote Allen’s two greatest films, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Manhattan Murder Mystery is not in that class, but it is an affectionate homage to the murder mysteries that the two men had watched while growing up and their own two greatest screenplays. Indeed, Manhattan Murder Mystery began as an early draft of Annie Hall, before Allen abandoned it and instead turned Annie Hall from a simple crime drama into one of the most dazzlingly inventive films ever made, incorporating almost every film-making technique from direct-to-camera address to animation. And at least some of that Annie Hall magic survives in Manhattan Murder Mystery.  

Read More: The Great Screenwriters: Part 21: Marshall Brickman

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Memories of Murder (2003)

Along with The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), Memories of Murder was one of the Bong Joon-ho films rediscovered by audiences, particularly Western audiences, after his historic Oscar triumph with Parasite (2019), which was the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, Memories of Murder might just be the best of those earlier films, because it is one of the best murder-mystery films of the 21st century so far. It’s directed by Bong Joon-Ho with a screenplay by Joon-ho and Shim Sung-bo, based on Kim Kwang-rim’s play, Come To See Me.

Memories of Murder is almost the exact opposite of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, geographically, thematically and artistically. Whereas Allen’s story is set in Manhattan and focuses on the death of a wealthy inhabitant of that world, Memories of Murder is set in a small South Korean town and centers on the rape and murder of several young women. And whereas Manhattan Murder Mystery is essentially comic, Memories of Murder could not be more serious or dramatic, not least because it was based on, or at least inspired by, a series of real-life rapes and murders in South Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which stunned a country that had never had a “serial killer” before. 

Read More: The Hard Truths and Dismantled Constructs of Bong Joon-ho Movies

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Knives Out (2019)

And so, finally, we come to the murder mystery that has reanimated the genre for the 21st century, while riffing on so many of its traditional tropes and techniques. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is one of the biggest screen successes of recent years; indeed, it may have been the last big cinematic success before the global Covid-19 pandemic closed cinemas (and almost everything else) for nearly a year, from which cinema has arguably never recovered and indeed may never recover. 

The knowing and indeed at times almost parodic nature of Knives Out is probably best summed up by the fact that the murder victim is himself a successful murder mystery writer, who tragicomically finds his own life turning into one of his most far-fetched plots. Daniel Craig, in one of his best non-Bond outings of recent years, plays the private detective who is called in to investigate the novelist’s murder, only to find, in true Agatha Christie fashion, that almost everybody who the victim knew, from family members to supposedly loyal servants, is a suspect. 

However, what is most interesting about Knives Out in the world of murder mysteries is that it is the latest example of the ability of its writer-director, Rian Johnson, to bring new life to seemingly tired or even exhausted genres or series. With his first film, Brick (2005), he brought noir into the classroom – literally, as his juvenile hero investigated a series of murders at his high school; with Star Wars – The Last Jedi (2017), he made arguably the only great Star Wars film since the original 1970s trilogy (with the honorable exception of the stand-alone Rogue One); and with Knives Out, he made a box-office smash out of a genre that was long thought to have expired. 

Knives Out is a reminder that there is no real mystery about the success of the murder mystery genre, including in cinema. We are all detectives investigating our own inevitable death (or at least we should be) and that is why the genre will never die.  

Read More: Rian Johnson on Screenwriting Fundamentals

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Scripts from this Article