Mystery and Detective Films Analysis

The Silent Film Era

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Evaluating the mysteries of the silent era is problematic because most films from that period have disappeared, leaving behind few traces beyond their titles. The most famous early mystery is the German director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), in which a detective (played by Bernhard Goetzke) is out to stop an archcriminal (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Other notable titles include Before Midnight (1925), in which a detective (William Russell) goes undercover to expose a crooked operative within his agency; The Handsome Brute (1925), in which a disgraced cop (William Fairbanks) discovers a famous detective (Lee Shumway) is actually a master criminal; The Mystery Club (1926), in which millionaires wager that perfect crimes can be committed; The Thirteenth Hour (1927), in which a detective (Charles Delaney), with the help of his dog, reveals that a noted criminologist (Lionel Barrymore) is a murderer; and London After Midnight (1927), in which Lon Chaney plays a detective looking into a suspicious suicide.

Many other silent mysteries were adapted from well-known literary sources, including The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1914), The Moonstone (1915), Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), starring John Barrymore, and Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917), with George M. Cohan, who had previously adapted Earl Derr Biggers’s 1913 novel for the stage.

Early Sherlock Holmes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is almost certainly the most famous detective in literature, so it is not surprising that he has had a long career on the screen. The earliest known depiction of Holmes on the screen was a thirty-second film made in 1900 titled Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900). Made to be seen in amusement arcades, the brief film shows a cigar-smoking Holmes foiling a burglar. Holmes’s international appeal can be seen in a series of films made in Denmark several years later, directed by Viggo Larsen, who also played Holmes in the series. During the following decade, Georges Tréville played Holmes in twelve films made in France. Doyle’s 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was filmed in Germany in 1914. Two years later, the American actor William Gillette, who had won fame playing Holmes in his own stage play, took his play to the screen in Sherlock Holmes (1916). That film is not believed to be forever lost, as are most of the earliest Holmes films.

When Stoll Picture Productions made forty-six films based on Sherlock Holmes stories between 1920 and 1923, Doyle himself assisted with the productions. He approved the casting of Eille Norwood, who had played Holmes on stage, even though the actor was about sixty years old. Doyle’s only objections were to the films’ use of such post-Victorian inventions as telephones and automobiles.

In 1922, another version of Sherlock Holmes...

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Rathbone and Bruce

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The earliest sound films about Sherlock Holmes were of generally poor quality, both as mysteries and as representations of Doyle’s original stories. An era of higher quality films began in 1939, with the release of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which introduced Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. From that film until Dressed to Kill (1946), the Rathbone and Bruce pair would make thirteen Holmes films together. They also played the same characters on radio. Like Brook, Rathbone had a physical resemblance to Paget’s illustrations of Holmes, and he is widely considered to have been the definitive screen Holmes. However, his close identification with Holmes had drawbacks; like many actors associated primarily with one role, Rathbone eventually felt that playing Holmes had ruined his career.

The first two Sherlock Holmes films starring Rathbone were made by the Twentieth Century-Fox studio. Both those films were shot with Victorian settings. The series then moved to Universal, which spent less money on the productions and set their stories in what was then the present time. The contemporary settings resulted in such anachronisms as having Holmes go up against Nazi agents during World War II. Although the Universal productions lifted Holmes out of his original setting, many of the films have a certain charm. One of the best films in the series is Terror by Night (1946). Set entirely on a train, that film evokes some of the Victorian-era flavor of Doyle’s original stories.

Later Sherlock Holmes Films

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Following the Rathbone era, film interest in Holmes declined until 1959, when a new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles was released. Horror film veteran Peter Cushing played Holmes and André Morell played Watson. Notable principally because it was the first color film about Holmes, this production was almost an afterthought by Hammer Films. That studio had been much more successful with its string of horror films featuring Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would later play Holmes in the German film Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962). Another English production, A Study in Terror (1965), cast John Neville as Holmes and Donald Houston as Watson and pitted the detective against Jack the Ripper.

Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes hints at Holmes’s having a homosexual orientation and involves the Loch Ness Monster. Robert Stephens played Holmes and Colin Blakely was Watson. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), adapted from Nicholas Meyer’s best-selling original novel about Sherlock Holmes, Watson (Robert Duvall) helps Holmes (Nicol Williamson) overcome his addiction to cocaine by tricking him into visiting Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin), who uncovers a surprising revelation about Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). This amusingly self-conscious extravaganza featured what were probably the most uniformly strong performances of any Holmes film.

A new...

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Early Agatha Christie Films

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Agatha Christie is arguably the most popular mystery writer of all time, but film adaptations of her work have generally not treated her creations well. Of the numerous screen adaptations that have been made, only a handful demand close attention. Her eccentric Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, made his first film appearance in Alibi (1931), which was adapted from her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). Austin Trevor, the actor who played Poirot, lacked not only the detective’s famous moustache but also his accent. Trevor played Poirot two more times, and then the character disappeared from the screen for more than three decades. Indeed, there were few other Christie films until the 1960’s. In Love from a Stranger (1937), based on Christie’s 1934 story “Philomel Cottage,” a young woman (Ann Harding) slowly discovers her new husband (Basil Rathbone) may be disturbed. Among that film’s supporting actors was Joan Hickson, who would play Miss Jane Marple on television a half-century later. In 1947, Love from a Stranger was remade with Sylvia Sidney and John Hodiak.

The strongest of the early Christie adaptations is And Then There Were None (1945), based on the novel first published as Ten Little Niggers (1939). In that story, ten unrelated characters who have escaped punishment for past wrongdoing are invited to an island off the Cornish coast, where they are mysteriously killed off, one by one. Director Ren Clair was known for his light comic touch, so the results are more playful than gruesome. Christie’s novel reached the screen again, rather ineptly, as Ten Little Indians in 1965, 1975, and 1989. The 1975 version was set in the Iranian desert because its financing came from that country. The basic premise in Christie’s story has become an archetype occasionally used in other films. For example, The Last of Sheila (1973), a film written by composer Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins, is an entertaining variation on Christie’s plot. Another film adapted from Christie’s work is Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), based on Christie’s 1953 play of the same title. Wilder keeps the comedic and dramatic elements balanced as Charles Laughton defends Tyrone Power against murder charges, with Marlene Dietrich providing surprising testimony.

Later Agatha Christie Films

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1960’s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) began a popular series of Miss Marple adaptations starring Margaret Rutherford. These included Murder She Said (1961), based on Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (1957); Murder at the Gallop (1963), drawn from the Poirot novel After the Funeral (1953); and Murder Most Foul (1964), from another Poirot novel, Mrs. McGinty Dead (1952). Another Miss Marple film, Murder Ahoy (1964), was based on an original screenplay by David Pursall and Jack Seddon. These films’ emphasis on humor was fitting for Rutherford, a splendid comic performer, but the films’ stories have little to do with their sources. Rutherford’s husband, Stringer Davis, was cast as Marple’s elderly sidekick—a character who does not appear in the novels. Christie herself regarded the films as predictable and lacking in suspense.

MGM bought the rights to Christie’s The A. B. C. Murders (1936) when the Poirot novel was published but did not bring the story to the screen until 1965. Released as The Alphabet Murders, the film starred a heavily made-up Tony Randall as Poirot. As was the case with the early Miss Marple films, the result was campy, with a brief appearance by Miss Marple herself. Austin Trevor, the first film Poirot, played a butler.

Christie herself was pleased with Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In addition to a much-padded Albert Finney as Poirot, the all-star cast included Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Widmark. Ingrid Bergman won her third Academy Award for the supporting role of a nanny-turned-missionary. That film’s success sparked a new series of Poirot features with Peter Ustinov as the detective, beginning with Death on the Nile in 1978. These new adaptations tended to emphasize all-star casts, high production values, and exotic settings at the expense of mystery elements, and Ustinov played Poirot as an arch caricature. After the second entry, Evil Under the Sun (1982), the series migrated to television.

This same period saw Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). As in the recent Poirot films, this film assembled an all-star cast, but Lansbury’s portrayal of Marple is closer to Christie’s character than that of Rutherford. Television would later serve Christie’s characters much better.

Philo Vance

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The first American detective to have an impact in films was Philo Vance, the creation of S. S. Van Dine. Paramount cast William Powell as Vance because of his distinctive voice. The Canary Murder Case (1929) was adapted from Van Dine’s 1927 novel of the same title. Louise Brooks played a blackmailing singer, and Eugene Pallette was Sergeant Heath, a role he would play four more times. Director Malcolm St. Clair created a memorable expressionist sequence, in which Brooks swings on a trapeze over her wealthy victims in a theater audience. Van Dine proclaimed the film an improvement over his novel and the best filmed mystery he had seen.

By the 1930’s, Van Dine was the most popular living American mystery writer, and his dandified New York detective, Philo Vance, appeared in at least twelve more films through the late 1940’s. Powell played Vance three additional times; Warren William played him twice; and Basil Rathbone, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, Grant Richards, James Stephenson, William Wright, and Wilfrid Hyde-White each played him once. Director Michael Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933), generally considered the best of these films, has Powell as Vance and exploits Van Dine’s interest in show dogs. When tropical fish were featured prominently in The Dragon Murder Case (1934), a national craze was launched.

After Powell left the series, the Vance titles went into a decline in quality, production values, and faithfulness to their sources. In The Grace Allen Murder Case (1939), Warren William’s detective is secondary to the wacky radio comedian, who calls him Fido. The popularity of Van Vine’s novels and the films adapted from them made an important contribution to the genre by demonstrating to Hollywood studios there was a significant market for film detective stories.

Dashiell Hammett on Screen

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) represented something of a departure for the hard-boiled detective novelist. In contrast to such works as Red Harvest (1927) and The Glass Key (1931), Hammett’s story about retired detective Nick Charles and his wife, Nora, is essentially lighthearted, with the wisecracking Nora inspired by Hammett’s own relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. The 1930’s saw the heyday of American wisecracking, and filmgoers adored the repartee between William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1934 film adaptation. The film proved so popular that MGM made five more Thin Man films, concluding the series with Song of the Thin Man (1947). In creating the sequels, MGM...

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Raymond Chandler on Screen

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the greatest American detectives is Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe. The first film to use Marlowe as its central protagonist is Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on Farewell, My Lovely. In that film, director Edward Dmytryk sends Marlowe (Dick Powell) into a dangerous, dark whirlpool of greed and corruption. It includes a memorable drug-induced nightmare sequence. Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), based on Chandler’s 1939 novel, is even better. As Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) investigates a complex blackmailing scheme, he falls for the wealthy Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall). Many viewers complained that the film’s plot was difficult to follow, and Chandler himself...

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Asian Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After Sherlock Holmes, the most popular detective series films of the 1930’s and 1940’s were those featuring Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers’s Honolulu-based police inspector, who never seems to spend much time in Hawaii. Chan first appeared as a secondary character, played by the Japanese-born actor George Kuwa, in The House Without a Key in 1926. Another Japanese actor, Sojin, played Chan in The Chinese Parrot in 1927, and the Korean actor E. L. Park played him in Behind That Curtain in 1929. Kuwa, Sojin, and Park were the only Asian actors ever to play Chan.

Chan was only a minor character in his first screen appearances. When the Chan series began officially with Charlie Chan...

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Other Classic Detectives on Screen

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The French reporter Maurice Leblanc created master thief Arsène Lupin as a response to Sherlock Holmes, who appeared as one of Lupin’s antagonists in Leblanc’s early stories. A morally ambiguous character, much like E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles and Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, Lupin is actually on the right side of the law. Lupin made his sound-film debut in MGM’s Arsène Lupin (1932), in which the thief (John Barrymore) is pursued by a detective (Lionel Barrymore) who thinks he knows Lupin’s true identity. Arsène Lupin Returns (1938) finds the thief (Melvyn Douglas) pursued by an American detective (Warren William). Enter Arsène Lupin (1944), starring Charles Korvin, is a more modest...

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Lone Wolf, Bulldog Drummond, and Boston Blackie

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Louis Joseph Vance introduced his reformed jewel thief Michael Lanyard, alias the Lone Wolf, in his 1914 novel The Lone Wolf. The story was adapted for the screen in 1917, with Bert Lytell, and again in 1924, with Jack Holt. Lytell played the character four more times at Columbia between 1926 and 1930. Columbia reintroduced the character with The Lone Wolf Returns (1936), starring Melvyn Douglas. The sophisticated comedy mystery was patterned after MGM’s Thin Man series and costarred Gail Patrick, later producer of the Perry Mason television series.

Columbia resumed the series in 1939 with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, starring Warren William, who played the character eight more times...

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The Saint and the Falcon

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Leslie Charteris created his debonair sleuth Simon Templar, known as the Saint, in his 1928 novel Meet the Tiger. The character first reached the screen in 1938 in The Saint in New York, starring Louis Hayward. George Sanders then assumed the role for four films. In the best, The Saint in London (1939), Templar returns to England to investigate the murder of a nobleman. After one film with Hugh Sinclair, Hayward returned for the last film in the series, The Saint’s Girl Friday (1953). Future James Bond actor Roger Moore played the Saint on television from 1962 to 1969. In 1997, the Saint returned to the big screen in The Saint, in which Val Kilmer’s portrayal of the character...

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Other Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Brett Halliday’s sleuth Mike Shayne reached the big screen in Michael Shayne, Private Detective in 1940. Lloyd Nolan played Shayne in that film and six others, only the first of which was based on a Halliday novel. The last, Time to Kill (1942), was adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window (1942).

Chester Gould’s comic-strip police detective Dick Tracy was the subject of several serials and B-films between 1937 and 1947. Most starred Ralph Byrd, who proved superior to his meager material. The radio program Crime Doctor provided a character for a short-lived series (1943-1945) in which Warner Baxter played the gangster-turned-psychiatrist. Another popular radio...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Britton, Wesley A. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Valuable and readable history of fictional spies in film and other popular media that pays close attention to interrelationships among the different media. Britton has also written a similarly comprehensive study of spies in television.

Britton, Wesley A. Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Detailed examination of the history of spies in films by the author of two other studies of spies in popular media. In this volume, Britton pays special attention to the stories presented in spy...

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Comedy Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The success of the Thin Man series prompted the production a large number of romantic-comedy mysteries between the mid-1930’s and mid-1940’s. Robert Young and Constance Cummings played socialites solving a murder case in James Whale’s stylish Remember Last Night? in 1935. William Powell starred in two of the best comic mysteries of that era. In Star of Midnight (1935), he played attorney and amateur sleuth Clay Dalzell, who, with the help of a socialite (Ginger Rogers), looks for a friend’s missing girlfriend only to stumble into a murder case. In The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Powell plays a physician who reluctantly joins his former wife (Jean Arthur), a mystery writer, in investigating the...

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Alfred Hitchcock

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although famous as the greatest director of romantic thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock also included a strong mystery element in many of his films. In Blackmail (1929), for example, a policeman (John Longden) investigates a murder case in which his fiancé (Anny Ondra) is the main suspect. Murder (1930) is a straightforward whodunit, as a juror (Herbert Marshall) votes to convict a young woman (Norah Baring) of murder while setting a trap to catch the true killer. In Number Seventeen (1932), a detective (John Stuart) pursues a gang of jewel thieves. Distraught parents solve the kidnapping of their child in both of Hitchcock’s versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956). Robert Donat played...

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More Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a detective (Dana Andrews) falls in love with an apparent murder victim (Gene Tierney). This adaptation of Vera Caspary’s novel is a perfect blend of mystery, film noir, and romance, with Clifton Webb giving a star-making performance as an acerbic columnist. Green for Danger (1946) is an outstanding British mystery in which a police investigator (Alastair Sim) tries to solve murders in a hospital. In Dark Passage (1947), Humphrey Bogart plays a man who escapes from prison to clear his name in his wife’s murder. Director Delmer Daves used a subjective camera until the prison escapee has had plastic surgery that makes him look like Bogart.

Alec Guinness...

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