/Answers: Our Favorite Movie Mysteries

Murder on the Orient Express Trailer Song

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. With Murder on the Orient Express hitting theaters, this week’s edition asks “What is your favorite movie mystery?” This didn’t have to be a mystery movie, but rather any kind of mystery within any kind of movie.

Ben Pearson: The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is one of the best noir films ever made – a prototypical example of some of the best the genre has to offer. The movie’s plot is so complex that the filmmakers couldn’t figure out the cause of death of one of the characters, so they famously wrote a letter to Chandler himself and even he couldn’t come up with an answer. That’s exactly why The Big Sleep‘s mystery is my favorite: real mysteries are rarely so neat and tidy that they can be solved in two hours and have every loose end tied up, and this film is such a narrative labyrinth that it feels as if you’re getting sucked into something beyond your control.

The movie begins when private detective Phillip Marlowe takes a case from a retired general to solve the gambling debts of his daughter, but it eventually spirals into a story of murder, pornography, robbery, double-crosses, and all of the classic noir tropes you could want. Normally if I’m confounded by a film’s plot I get frustrated (with either myself or the movie), but every time I watch The Big Sleep I just shake my head and smile when I’m not able to track every thread of the mystery because the magic of seeing Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at their peak is enough to overcome everything else.

Lindsey Romain: Zodiac

My favorite movie mystery is one with no answer. David Fincher’s true crime masterpiece, Zodiac, is a deconstruction of our cultural fascination with solving puzzles. Based on the real-life unsolved Zodiac killings – which tormented the Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s – it’s full of dead ends and dangling threads; like a funhouse, the motive is disorientation. As Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith falls deeper and deeper into the crime’s rabbit hole of misinformation, we see him lose everything: his family, his safety, his sanity. He can’t, despite every possible effort, crack the code, and it immobilizes his very existence. Though he eventually lands on a solid possibility, we learn in a title card at film’s end that the DNA sample of his suspect doesn’t match the evidence. Again, a mystery with no answer – and the lingering, probing question: does it even matter anymore? The bodies are buried, the community moved on. That’s the thing with mysteries. They’re always more interesting than their solution. Fincher knows that, but drives his cast and audience mad with “what ifs” anyway.

Jacob Hall: L.A. Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential features one of my favorite tropes in all of narrative fiction: several people all investigate their own separate mysteries, only to slowly learn that they are actually investigating the same mystery from multiple angles. This leads to a big team-up, where all of the bizarre puzzle pieces that don’t make sense by themselves suddenly form a much bigger, much nastier, much more horrible picture. I love it.

L.A. Confidential is one of the best films of the ’90s, a seedy, compelling, and darkly hilarious noir powered by great performances and a witty, dense screenplay. But the heart of the movie is that big mystery, which somehow involves prostitutes “cut to look like movie stars,” corrupt cops, gangland assassinations, a grotesque tabloid reporter, a brutal homicide at a diner, and so much more. It’s the kind of sprawling mystery that’s so big that it has to end in bloodshed – too many people have learned too much. However, what’s genuinely remarkable is that L.A. Confidential’s screenplay manages to create a complex mystery with a dozen moving parts that also simplifies the labyrinthine mystery of James Ellroy’s original novel. It’s a triumph of adaptation.

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