[Editor’s note: this list was originally published September 2023, and has since been updated.]
There was a time not too long ago when whodunnits seemed to be a dusty relic of cinema’s past. Mysteries about a cast of colorful characters at the center of a murder case, and the intrepid detective investigating them, were far and few between in movie theaters for what felt like decades, and the rare films to feature those plots seldom attracted much attention. But nowadays, the genre is back, baby.
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In 2017, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred as the iconic detective Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express,” based on one of mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. It was the first high-profile Christie adaptation to hit theaters in ages, after 1988’s “Appointment with Death.” The movie was highly successful, and Branagh has returned to that Poirot mustache with “Death on the Nile” and “A Haunting in Venice,” the latter of which opened in theaters this month. The movies have had mixed success critically, but “Haunting” has been received as the best yet, and it’s a thrill to see the satisfying formula of filling out a suspect list with a cast of movie stars back on the big screen again.
And for a more critically successful whodunnit franchise, look for Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” a modern, often subversive take on the Christie formula. A rare original film to massively triumph at the box office during the 2010s, “Knives Out” took home $311.9 million worldwide and inspired great reviews from critics and audiences alike. Johnson and his detective, Daniel Craig with a cartoonish Southern accent, returned for 2022’s “Glass Onion,” which received a short theatrical release from Netflix that nonetheless did gangbuster business. Craig and Johnson are almost guaranteed to return for a third installment, and it’s guaranteed to be buzzy whenever it happens
Even on TV, good old-fashioned murder mysteries, often confined to the world of network procedurals, are hip again thanks to Johnson’s Peacock series “Poker Face” (not precisely a whodunnit, but close enough). In November, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the team behind beloved weirdo sci-fi series “The OA,” will return with a full-blown Agatha Christie riff “A Murder at the End of the World.” The Hulu limited series stars Emma Corrin, Marlin, Clive Owen, and Harris Dickinson as a cast of strangers that gather at a remote retreat that, in classic “And Then There Were None” fashion, evolves into a series of one-by-one kills.
As iconic as the whodunnit genre is, its defining aspects and qualifications are a bit difficult to determine. Is every mystery or crime film also a whodunnit? Absolutely not, but whodunnits also shouldn’t be limited to just the films adapted by or obviously inspired by Agatha Christie novels. As such, while constructing the list, we gave ourselves a few guidelines in selections but otherwise kept our choices broad.
For starters, for a film to qualify as a whodunnit, its central question needs to be…well, who’s done it. A “Columbo” style plot, where the audience knows who the guilty party is from the jump and the tension comes from whether or not they can get away with it, doesn’t qualify. In addition, to be a whodunnit, a movie needs to actually reveal the guilty party to the audience by the time it reaches its closing credits, so films about unsolved cases like “Zodiac” or “Memories of Murder” also don’t qualify. Finally, while there’s no specific threshold for how big the suspect list is, a whodunnit needs to have enough potential criminals that part of the fun is trying to determine the murderer before the big reveal. Something like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” where there’s only one real potential killer, is excluded because the mystery isn’t so much who did it as much as if it actually happened.
With those guidelines in mind, we rounded up a wide swath of mystery films, detective dramas, and even some lighthearted comedies or straight-up slashers that all fundamentally have a whodunnit storyline in their DNA. The best whodunnits in film history go all the way back to the 1930s with the popular “Thin Man” film series and include noirs like “The Big Sleep,” thrillers like “Charade,” good old-fashioned Christie adaptations like “Murder on the Orient Express,” and modern-day genre throwbacks like “Gosford Park” and “Knives Out.” Entries are listed in order of release year. Read on for our guide to the 12 best whodunit films of all time.
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