Mystery-suspense movies are as popular now as they were in the 40s when private detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe ruled the silver screens. The movies on this list are a particular type that opens with an enticing conflict, often a crime, but the film maker is careful to hide critical information that exposes the mysterious dilemma or guilty party. It is then up to the astute viewer to discern the clues and solve the mystery before the denouement in the final scene. It is the challenge of the writer, director and actors to keep the audience off balance and guessing until the grand finale. The good mystery-suspense film is not a simple crime tale, but rather a puzzle or guessing game for the entertainment of the viewers. These films were selected to capture a broad range of mystery-suspense movies, and include a few genre mixes with Sci-Fi and horror. The main characters vary from amateur sleuths to private investigators and British detectives. Some are based on famous books by noted authors: Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christi and Dan Brown, to mention a few. The movies also feature some career best performances by top actors and actresses; Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith and Humphrey Bogart. There are some movie directors who specialize in the mystery-suspense genre, but to get the best diversity, only one movie per director is the rule of the Essential list.
To get the best sampling, the list includes at least one film per decade, going all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood Mystery Movies in the 1940s. The following 14 highly recommended films are listed by release date, beginning in 1941.
1. The Maltese Falcon 1941 mystery suspense crime
Ok, men, it’s time to strap that revolver on your hip, don the trench coat, pocket the retainer fee and go work for that alluring damsel-in-distress sitting in your shabby office. In one of the legendary big screen performances, Bogart plays private detective Sam Spade; a tough, enigmatic, solitary man. In the opening scene, Spade meets a new client, Miss Wonderly. She is mysterious, well dressed, beautiful, and a born liar (we soon learn her real name is Brigid). Spade is tantalized by Brigid, but correctly senses trouble. In the next 24 hours he becomes the prime suspect in two murders due to his entanglement with Brigid. Spade plunges into the dark, seedy underground to dodge the lawmen and track the real killer, or killers, to clear his name and restore his reputation. Battling through a thick haze of lies, deceit and danger, he seeks the truth. Released with little fanfare, this unimportant B-movie became a surprising success, and today is considered Pure Gold by old-school mystery lovers.
2. The Third Man 1949 mystery suspense
Harry Lime dies unexpectedly in Vienna, Austria and his best friend decides to investigate what happened to Mr. Lime, and most importantly, the why. The movie captures Post war Vienna, Austria, circa 1947, with precise detail. The city is under martial law and divided into four sections run by the major Allied powers; same as Berlin. The Allies had barely recovered from the WWII victory party hangover when they began to eye each other with suspicion and malice. The film has interesting history: we are seeing the birth of the Cold War as flash points started to appear here and there, with Berlin being the vortex. Vienna was another one. The lights and shadows in each scene are as carefully crafted as a painting. This is old school B&W film-noir, yet it still packs a power punch.
3. Kiss Me Deadly 1955 mystery crime
In the opening scene a damsel-in-distress, naked beneath her raincoat, is running barefoot down a dark highway. The damsel is young Cloris Leachman in her excellent although too brief motion picture debut. She is rescued by private detective, Mike Hammer, but not for long. With a pitch dark Film noir mood and a crime plot, this movie plays to the fear and paranoia of nuclear war that gripped America during the Cold War of the 1950s. Mr. Hammer follows a twisty trail all over Los Angeles to enter the underworld of nasty international criminals plotting evil against America.
4. Carnival of Souls 1962 mystery suspense horror
This obscure, black and white, independent film takes horror where it truly belongs; to mystery suspense. The film is low tech by today’s standards - but this is one effective film. And if you relish psychological horror movies, you know that sometimes, less is more. The star, Candace Hilligoss, is a pretty blonde with a vulnerable quality about her. Candace is not a major actress, but it's difficult to imagine another lady in the role of Mary Henry. When she plays the pipe organ, the moody, dramatic music sets the perfect tone for this low key mystery horror film. Nothing seems quite right about Mary Henry, but what is her problem? This quirky, strangely memorable movie comes to us from writer-actor-director Herk Harvey. Herk was a maverick director who clashed with the Hollywood big shots, so this was Herk’s only feature film. The world is mad, I tell you, mad!
5. Three Days of the Condor 1975 mystery thriller
A cold, rainy day in New York City...in a small, unimportant CIA research office, mild mannered Joe Turner (Robert Redford), makes the lunch run to the local deli. Fate has dealt him a lucky break; while he goes out the rear door and takes short cuts through back alleys ...death arrives at the front door – a van full of killers enter and murder every person in the building; then vanish. Turner returns with a bag of sandwiches to witness his worst nightmare... With this powerful opening scene, the stage is set for an entertaining suspense film – 1970s vintage. The tension never lets up as Turner discovers he can trust no one, and barely survives assassination attempts, again and again. This flick gets credit for the original Rogue Agent theme – I’m looking at you, Jason Bourne.
6. Family Plot 1976 mystery suspense
Let’s not omit Hitchcock from the list. This movie is Alfred’s swan song; a lighthearted crime caper with an occult twist. The cast of B actors do a workmanship job, and I thoroughly enjoyed the comical scenes of the small time crooks clashing with the tough professionals. This movie is not Alfred’s most famous work, but for some reason is my favorite (don’t shoot me).
7. Death on the Nile 1978 mystery crime
For fans of Agatha Christie stories featuring Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, this movie is right up your alley. Hop aboard the luxury steamer Karnak for a cozy, British-style mystery with suspense and murder most foul. Lois Childes is an underrated actress, and she is positively gorgeous looking in this flick as heiress, Linnet Ridgeway, on her honeymoon cruise up the Nile River. A troupe of suspicious characters also sails on the Karnak, and almost every passenger aboard the riverboat has reason to hate Linnet. Enough plot – no spoilers. This movie is also notable for Angela Lansbury being inducted into the Bad Acting Hall of Shame for her portrayal of Salome Otterbourne; a daffy passengers with a taste for gin, fuzzy turbans and gaudy muumuus. Wearing strings of cheap glass bead necklaces hanging down to her waist, she bats huge false eyelashes, and rolls her bulging eyes. Salome staggers half-drunk into way, way too many scenes. Everyone else seems human by comparison.
8. Blue Velvet 1986 mystery thriller
The discovery of a severed human ear found in an open field leads a young man on some amateur sleuthing. He discovers the dark side of small-town America, and the evil that lurks in the shadows. People either love or hate this film. There is no in-between. So if you are up for the challenge, this movie is a clean break from the cookie cutter Hollywood fluff.
9. The Morning After 1986 mystery suspense romance
A hard drinking actress (Jane Fonda) wakes up with a dead man in her bed, and she remembers nothing that happened the night before. With this engaging premise to kick off the movie, the tension builds steadily. Jane Fonda delivers a knock-out performance as she conveys the desperation and natural charm of her complex character. This is one of her career best roles, and she carries the entire movie. The chemistry between Jane and Jeff Bridges is believable and fun to watch. I ended up cheering for the two of them. This underrated, low budget film set in the nearby planet of Hollywood, California, is worth searching out.
10. Twelve Monkeys 1995 mystery thriller Sci-Fi
Not your standard Hollywood fare – it is complex and requires an adult attention span, so this isn't a film that has broad appeal. The imagery is very gritty and bleak, its story unclear, and there are plenty of bizarre scenes and characters. The central character is a time traveler from a dystopian future, and he seems mostly lost in time or somewhat confused as he stumbles toward solving a near impossible puzzle. It takes a few trips in the old time machine for the movie to begin to make sense. This film is for the patient mystery movie fan.
11. The Sixth Sense 1999 mystery suspense
When I first saw this film back in 1999, I knew nothing about it. I walked in cold and that is the way you should do it. This movie is very susceptible to spoilers. If you haven't seen this movie, don't read reviews and trust me that you should watch it. It is suffice to say that the ending is delightfully weird. It is also one of those movies you may want to re-watch from time to time. It is a tight story and the acting is outstanding. Bruce Willis plays a troubled psychologist (sure, OK), and surprisingly he delivers a career best performance. This movie also has one of the best child performances you will ever see. Willis and the kid are perfect together. This film is the best mystery movie of the 90s decade which sells it short.
12. Gosford Park 2001 mystery crime
This film is a classy, well done, period-piece depicting the bygone era of the 1930’s, and is one of the best British upstairs-downstairs movies ever made. The DNA for the widely popular Downton Abbey is from this movie. While Downton Abbey is chiefly concerned with romance and the battle of the sexes, Gosford Park is an ideal place for a carefully planned murder. The storyline is firmly in the English school of detection: a set-piece murder case, a royal victim and upper class suspects in gentile settings. Who will be first to solve this elegant Chinese puzzle box?
13. The Da Vinci Code 2006 mystery suspense thriller
In the middle of the night, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned to a crime scene in The Louvre Museum, Paris, France. He discovers an old colleague has been killed, and the police need his help to decipher the bizarre clues at the crime scene. The Professor soon learns that he is also on the suspect list. This is a breathless movie: from the opening scene you are thrown into a non-stop story. Everything happens in fast motion. The visuals are stunning, and the acting by Tom Hanks and Tautou was brilliant. The movie is based on a fictional book by the same title and spins an intriguing, yet outrageous yarn, about the Holy Grail, the family tree of Jesus, the Knights Templar, insane monks, Opus Dei and Mary Magdalene. I do not believe any of it, and I understand how the film offended many Roman Catholic believers. But hey, it's only a movie, and I was entertained from beginning to end. When you see storytelling this creative, forgive the plot flaws, and acknowledge it for pure entertainment value. There is no shame in that.
14. Ex Machina 2014 mystery sci-fi
In what appears to be an opportunity of a lifetime, a young computer programmer is selected to test the latest and greatest robot being built. He arrives at the remote compound of a high-tech wizard (Nathan) and meets the AI subject. But who is testing who, and what does Nathan really want? This movie has interesting enough plot and characters, but is flawed by a slow pace (hint – keep finger on fast forward). Stick with it for the surprise ending.
Honorable mentions – The Mask of Dimitrios, North by Northwest, Evil Under the Sun, Gorky Park, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Minority Report, Where the Truth Lies, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Super 8, The Raven.
Previous House Clark posts - Chinatown, Klute, Zero Effect, L.A. Confidential, and Mulholland Drive