/Answers: Our Favorite Movie Mysteries

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.

Matt Donato: Brick

Maybe I'm a tough customer, but it takes a lot for movie mysteries to pull the proverbial wool over these eyes (not a profession of intellect, just lucky guessing mostly). That's why my choice for greatest movie mystery is easy given how it dumbfounded with ease – Rian Johnson's Brick. A mature, heady film noir that exists in a high schooler's mind and his school's subsequent underbelly. You've seen this kind of story told with adults, but Johnson introduces an element of unexpected captivation given the age range of subjects. Deaths, double-crossings, drugs – and all before the afternoon bell rings.

Johnson's mystery starts with an ex-girlfriend and a phone call, then leads to a discovered corpse. Brendan, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, makes it his mission to solve the young girl's murder. Each clue ends up dragging him deeper into an underground drug dealing ring run by "The Pin" and the cronies around him. This is the simplistic version of what happens, but Johnson continues to leak reveals like drips in an IV bag. Carefully calculated to introduce pregnancies, outbursts and slip-ups at the exact climatic cue. No bull-rushing or final-act reliance. Brendan's investigation is masterfully paced, far better than any debut filmmaker should achieve.

Brick is, in every sense, a hardboiled detective story that Johnson never backs down from creating. Despite their age, characters are beaten to bloody messes (Brendan, continually), exposed as thugs and killed on camera. Yet, there's also an intelligent manipulation at the hands of Brendan. Be it using muscle-bro Tug (Noah Fleiss) to get what he wants or the albeit ridiculous permission to carry out his case on school grounds (one hell of a Vice Principal). It's all directly drawn from classics of the genre –  Dashiell Hammett is noted as one major influence – which rings true through Johnson's vision.

And yes, it always works.

In the end, Brick ends up being a twisty, blink-and-you'll-miss-it whodunit that's as "simple" as a game of who's playing who. The answer? It keeps changing as the film proceeds, be it Brendan, The Pin, a dame, a stoner – the finger always points somewhere. That's what keeps our synapses firing. That's what hypnotises viewers in this familiar-yet-fresh murder mystery. That's what makes Brick a masterful noir caper worth every invested second – a rare film where the chase is equally, or even more rewarding than the kill.

Chris Evangelista: Angel Heart

It's impossible to fully discuss the mystery at the heart of Alan Parker's creepy 1987 horror-noir Angel Heart without giving away its ultimate twist. Here's what you need to know: down on his luck private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, constantly smoking and sweaty) is tasked by a mysterious man (played by Robert De Niro) with tracking down a missing singer.

What follows is a journey through 1950s New York and New Orleans, all while the occult looms large. It's one hell of a film, in more ways than one. What makes Angel Heart's mystery so enticing is that it approaches its supernatural-tinged tale as if it were just another detective story. It even adheres to the detective fiction rules that master of the genre Raymond Chandler established during his career. It also doesn't cheat. While there's a whopper of a twist at the end, it doesn't arrive cheaply, and anyone watching the film with the attention to detail of a private eye will likely pick up on the clues along the way.

The end result is a highly satisfying mystery yarn that just happens to be wrapped inside a horror movie. It's hard to blend genres so effectively, yet Parker's film does it through and through, and makes such a task look easy.

Ethan Anderton: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I've always loved the classic film noir mystery at the center of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The usual darkness that comes with a mystery like this is made lighter by the presence of cartoon characters being involved, but it still retains those signature film noir traits.

What works so well about the mystery is how it seamlessly incorporates cartoon elements into it. The fact that Marvin Acme had a safe dropped on his head to kill him is simultaneously twisted and hilarious because of the goofy violence that classic cartoons inflicted upon each other is suddenly very real.Furthermore, the fact that the mystery at the center of the movie ends up tying into the tragic backstory of our detective is a classic mystery trope that works incredibly well here. On top of that, Judge Doom being a toon in disguise is a genius use of the universe the film establishes.

The mystery also ties into the signature corruption of infrastructure and capitalism narrative that was at the center of countless film noir titles back in the 1940s and 1950s. The mystery in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one that is both amusing and dark, a balance that can be hard to strike so well, but director Robert Zemeckis crafted a compelling one within a unique world.

Vanessa Bogart: The Prestige

I am a sucker for a good mystery. I have almost an entire bookcase devoted to the genre. I like a good whodunit, but when running through the catalog of mysteries in my head for this week's question, I kept passing up my typical murder mysteries and landing on The Prestige. At first I thought that it wouldn't work, because when it came down to it I couldn't really think of what the big mystery was. I knew there were clues and I knew that there was a big reveal, but I was sitting there scratching my head trying to pinpoint what the actual mystery was. And then I realized the whole film is a mystery. It is an illusion. A magic trick.

When I think about The Prestige two things come to mind: David Bowie playing Tesla (which I could honestly write sonnets about) and the feeling of being absolutely fooled. Like I said, I love mystery, but once you get used to a certain genre you start to learn its rules and its tells. I pride myself in being a couch-bound Sherlock Holmes of sorts, figuring out the reveal before I am supposed to. However, The Prestige has so much misdirection, so much what-the-fuckery, and so many little mysteries, that you don't even know which way is up, who is who, and what the hell is going on. Between figuring out how The Transported Man works, how they keep misleading each other with fake diaries, whether or not Borden murdered Angier, and figuring out how The Real Transported Man works, I was so wrapped up that I really did not see the end coming at all. When Borden and Angier's highly coveted magician's secrets were revealed my head exploded in a way that would have made Cronenberg proud.

The Prestige is a favorite go-to film for my husband and I, but it wasn't until recently that I felt like all of its cards were on the table. For years I would watch The Prestige and pick up on a new clue, a new hint, that I had missed before, and like any spoiled magic trick, once you know exactly how it works some of it becomes almost painfully obvious. Regardless of knowing the outcome, I still get wrapped up in the mystery of The Prestige every time I watch it.

Murder on the Orient Express Trailer

Previous Editions of /Answers