Director: Howard Hawks
Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Runtime: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.
Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.
Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.
Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!
My rating is 5 outta 10.
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Genre(s): Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Runtime: 80 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
M. Night Shyamalan, known for his twisty thrillers, didn’t direct Devil, but he did come up with the story and also co-produced it. The movie’s story is about five strangers who find themselves trapped together on an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper…and somebody’s killing them off one-by-one. This flick gets figurative points for its interesting premise, but its execution is only so-so.
Devil largely revolves around the five distinct characters in the broken elevator, which makes the film feel appropriately claustrophobic. That being said, a significant part of the runtime takes place outside of the lift, with security guards and first responders trying to unjam the elevator and figure out just who the murderer is. This gives the feature a light whodunnit quality, even if the focus is primarily on the scares.
The resolution of the mystery at the heart of Devil is perhaps the weakest part of the picture. I wouldn’t really describe it as “unsatisfying,” but it does come across as a bit hokey. The movie veers a little out of control at times, and you may need to stifle a laugh or two at something that wasn’t intended to be comical. However, I do enjoy unintentional humor, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.
Devil wraps up in less than an hour-and-a-half, so, even if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out too many minutes of your time. I’ll give the flick credit for its creative ideas and fine pacing, but it does feel borderline-tacky at times. In the end, I don’t really say “watch it” or “avoid it;” just know that it can be a little silly.
My rating is 6 outta 10.
Director: Tom Gries
Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western
Runtime: 95 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.
Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?
Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.
I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).
My rating is 7 outta 10.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Genre(s): Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Runtime: 138 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
With 2010’s Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese waded into the world of the psychological horror-thriller film…and he did so quite effectively, in my opinion. Set in the 1950s, this movie is about two American federal agents – Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) – who’re sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an offshore asylum for the criminally insane. Despite a somewhat mixed reception from critics, many moviegoers have latched onto this menacing mind-bender.
Professional film reviewers are generally quick to compare this picture to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, but there are also notable elements of noir and pulp here, too. I can’t help but feel that the aforementioned pulpy aspects threw some critics, who may have expected something a bit more grounded, for a loop. Anyway, this flick’s paranoid thriller style is supremely foreboding and sinister.
With its high-impact imagery and tense musical choices (collected by Robbie Robertson of The Band fame), Shutter Island is gripping from the start and never lets up. It starts off mysterious and uneasy before building up to fever dream-like ferocity. Some audience members have found some of the production’s plot points to be predictable, but I think that it’s just as much about the journey as it is about the destination in this case.
This feature got a divisive reaction, and I happen to fall on the side believing that it’s a superb piece of suspense and psychological terror. Its plot is alluring and the pacing is swift enough to keep the viewer from questioning some of its potential excesses. For fans of trippy cinema that messes with your head while remaining somewhat mainstream (we’re not talking Un Chien Andalou  levels of nuttiness here), this is an easy one to recommend.
My rating is 8 outta 10.
Director: Rian Johnson
Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Runtime: 130 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Now this is the kind of film that director Rian Johnson should be making, instead of “subverting [the] expectations” of Star Wars fans with Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) (which is still a movie I enjoy on some level). After famous murder mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) brings in the writer’s family to see if foul play was involved. This is an excellent whodunit murder mystery picture that made me want to see more adventures of Daniel Craig’s character.
The plot of Knives Out is intricate, but, by mystery movie standards, it doesn’t feel convoluted. I’m no good at following flicks that are like the latter, so if I could understand what was going on, you, almost certainly, will be able to as well. Fortunately for the audience, the various characters in this feature are mostly well-defined and played by an all-star cast. Despite all of the twists and turns, the film doesn’t really try to confuse the viewer or make following the details difficult.
Knives Out, in addition to being a mystery/thriller movie, is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s definitely the murder-related elements that keep it afloat. It’s certainly self-aware, but that doesn’t become a hindrance to enjoyment (Knives Out isn’t as cheeky as critics of The Last Jedi may have feared). It’s interesting to note that Christopher Plummer’s character’s home is filled with knick-knacks that seem to stare back at the audience and the people within the film. This may be a reference to Sleuth (1972), which did something similar.
This work left me wanting more…in a good sort of way. It doesn’t really matter if it would be other murder mysteries or another picture or two featuring Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc. I suppose that’s a sign that something went right. Knives Out is an admirable flick, largely thanks to a well-told plot and a cast of characters that the viewer can keep track of. Oh, yeah, it’s pretty funny as well.
My rating is 8 outta 10.