Whodunits are generally considered to be tales of murder where it is left to a sleuth, professional or amateur, to figure out who “done” the dirty deed. Webster’s Dictionary expands the meaning of the word “whodunit” to include any “mystery story.” TCM’s Spotlight, with movies ranging from 1932 to 1993, considers both classic and more offbeat examples of the genre over the decades.
Our first category, covering Whodunit Revivals, looks at a period in the latter half of the 20th century when Hollywood renewed its fascination with whodunits and released a series of archetypal mysteries. Outstanding among them were two all-star films based on Agatha Christie novels and starring Peter Ustinov as Christie’s fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
Death on the Nile (1978), directed by John Guillermin, stars Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, David Niven and Maggie Smith, among others; and Evil Under the Sun (1982), directed by Guy Hamilton, stars James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith and more.
Ira Levin’s delightful stage comedy-mystery Deathtrap (1982) focused less on whodunit than how and why. Sidney Lumet directs Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in a story about an older playwright who pulls a young writer into a web of deceit and mayhem.
Among celebrity filmmakers who fed the public’s appetite for whodunits during this period were writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Honey Pot, 1967), writers Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (The Last of Sheila, 1973) and writer-director Woody Allen (Manhattan Murder Mystery, 1993).
Old Dark Houses have been a setting for thrillers since the early days of the movies; numbered among this group is another Agatha Christie classic, Ten Little Indians (1965). This one has a cast that includes Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton and Fabian.
Films in this category from the 1930s and ’40s include The Phantom of Crestwood (1932, and starring Ricardo Cortez); Before Midnight (1933, with Ralph Bellamy starring); Mystery House (1938, and starring Ann Sheridan); and The Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943, with Dick Purcell starring).
Two amusing spoofs of the shadowy-old-mansion genre appeared in later decades. Murder By Death (1976), with a witty screenplay by Neil Simon, features send-ups of such literary sleuths as Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Nick and Nora Charles. Starring as these characters are Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, and David Niven and Maggie Smith. Thrown in for good measure is author Truman Capote as the mansion owner who invites everyone for “dinner and murder.”
Clue (1985) is a send-up of the popular board game with stars including Tim Curry as the butler Wadsworth, Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum, Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren as Miss Scarlet, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White, Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Peacock and Michael McKean as Mr. Green.
The category Super Sleuths looks at some of the celebrated fictional detectives who have appeared in films, starting with Margaret Rutherford’s fabulous portrayal of Agatha Christie’s deliciously droll Miss Jane Marple. TCM is screening all four of Rutherford’s major Miss Marple movie appearances: Murder, She Said (1961), Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964) and Murder Ahoy (1964).
Below are the other sleuths appearing in this Spotlight, along with the actors who played them and the film titles.
Miss Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Inspector Piper (James Gleason) in The Penguin Pool Murder (1932) and Murder on the Blackboard (1934); Philo Vance (William Powell) in The Kennel Murder Case (1933); Perry Mason (Warren William) in The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935); Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in After the Thin Man (1936); Captain Hugh C. “Bulldog” Drummond (Ray Milland) in Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937); Mei Lei Ming (Anna May Wong), an astrologer who helps solve a murder in When Were You Born (1938); Iris Matilda Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a train passenger turned investigator in The Lady Vanishes (1938); Simon Templar, aka “The Saint” (George Sanders) in The Saint Strikes Back (1939); Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) in The Woman in Green (1945); and Inspector Cockrill of Scotland Yard (Alastair Sim) in Green for Danger (1946).
By Roger Fristoe