If Rian Johnson’s 2019 film Knives Out proved anything, it was that the murder mystery is a genre that isn’t going away anytime soon. The film drew a stacked cast, large audiences, and critically acclaim. To the surprise of mystery fans, Knives Out was more successful than Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express from 2017. Its cast was similarly impressive and its viewership was high, yet it wasn’t as well received. Die–hard fans of Christie’s work and its many adaptations found it unimpressive in comparison to the 1974 film starring Albert Finney, and it generally wasn’t considered the dramatic success that many had expected.
Although I personally thought the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express was excellent, I understand that murder mysteries flourish when allowed to be funny. While it’s easy to draw upon the dark themes of death and aberrant behavior, many films that take these narratives in a lighthearted direction are more successful and enjoyable. In Christie’s novels, wit and tongue–in–cheek humor flourish on every other page. Knives Out is actually quite on par with the balance of drama and comedy found in many of the best murder mysteries—especially those written in the cozy style. It had significant political undertones, allowing it to send a message and create a dramatic overarching plotline. All of this was tempered by running jokes, such as a character vomiting upon telling a lie.
I, forever a comedy nut and crazed mystery fan, would argue this, however: Knives Out and similarly–toned films don’t take it far enough. Mystery movies should be goofy beyond the realm of reality, reference and poke fun at the campy genre itself, and draw upon the naturally farcical elements within the structure of a murder mystery. Two movies provide all of this and more.
Murder by Death (1976)
Murder by Death, written by Neil Simon, is perhaps the most “meta” a film can get in parodying its own genre. The premise is this: a group of renowned detectives—all of which are caricatures or mockeries of famous literary detectives—are invited to a dinner party and promised a mystery to solve there. With hilariously incompetent sleuths, a deaf–mute cook, a blind butler, and a host played by none other than Truman Capote, antics are bound to ensue.
It would be somewhat easy to write off Murder by Death as a politically incorrect relic of the ‘70s. The film features Peter Sellers, who is white, as Asian detective Sidney Wang, and presents female characters as either completely incompetent, less competent than a man, or solely competent through their proximity to manhood. However, many of its “riskier” jokes translate as satirical criticisms of the often antiquated literary genre itself, as well as some more offensive film adaptations. For one, Wang is directly mirroring Charlie Chan, as played by Warner Olund, a Swedish–American actor. Additionally, he is paired with Richard Narita, who is Asian–American, as his son Willie, which ultimately makes the contrast greater and drives home the point. Furthermore, the portrayal of women in the film can serve as a fairly accurate critique of the role of women in mystery novels, where they were typically presented as weak, unstable, or homely and bitter.
Ultimately, Murder by Death doesn’t stick to the typical murder mystery structure and is all the better for it. It’s often nonsensical, but it leaves you impressed with the cleverness of writing that existed 45 years ago.
I have watched Clue more times than I can imagine, and the truth is that it just doesn’t get old. Somehow, my favorite childhood board game was more successfully adapted into a movie than my favorite childhood novel. Once again, a strong ensemble cast takes an already phenomenal script over the top. The film brings together stars such as Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, and Christopher Lloyd, amongst others—including Eileen Brennan from Murder by Death.
The premise begins similarly: a group of, shall we say, colorful characters are invited to a dinner party. But from there on, things grow more chaotic, as blackmail, characters’ histories, and, of course, murder are all added into the mix. While Murder by Death parodies fictitious detectives, Clue aims, less seriously, at the strangely intertwined nature of the suspects in a murder mystery, and at the idiosyncrasies of the “murder mystery world” that drive the plot ahead. The result is a lot of running back and forth, doors slamming, secret passages, and strangely opportune weapons.
If Murder by Death is a smartly written concerto, then Clue is that catchy tune you can’t get out of your head. The film starts out at a fast pace, whipping joke after joke at the viewer, and races at breakneck speed to not one, but three possible endings (depending on how you’re viewing it, you can choose to “go random” or watch them all in a row). Watching Clue, there are a multitude of quotable moments that seem strangely geared towards Gen–Z’s comedic sensibilities, such as “and it was Mrs. White, looking pale and tragic”. At the end of the day, you’ll want to watch it as many times as I have in order to pick up details you’ve missed or to fully appreciate sharp dialogue from the beginning of the film that foreshadows further occurrences.
Honorable Mention: Gosford Park (2001)
The darker, more satirical comedic elements of this film mean that it’s not the campy, wacky free–for–all that the other two are—but it uses comedy to perturb the norms of a traditional murder mystery, which is certainly impressive. This period film by Julian Fellowes provided inspiration for his eventual masterpiece, Downton Abbey. Included in its brilliant ensemble cast is Maggie Smith—a murder mystery staple tracing back to earlier appearances in the aforementioned Murder by Death, as well as Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982)—in a similar role to her eventual character on the show.
If you have a free evening, grab a bowl of popcorn and check one of these films out—you won’t be disappointed.