My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 1)

I suggested that I’d make this list in a recent post: it seems like a good time to get started.  These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.

Green_For_DangerGreen For Danger (1946)

Starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill; based on the novel of the same name by Christianna Brand.  This is a story about a WWII hospital and some violence and fatal ill-feeling among a group of doctors and nurses who are staffing it.  Patients keep dying on the operating table for no reason that anyone can find … then a crabby senior nurse is stabbed in a deserted operating theatre.  A tight and intelligent puzzle based on who/what/why/when/where/how as much as personality and sociology, although both are important.  The background is fascinating and well observed, and Alistair Sim is absolutely wonderful as a somewhat nitwitted Scotland Yard inspector who looks around to see if anyone saw him dive for shelter when he hears a flying bomb.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

You can read my entire opinion here. Stars Robert Young and Florence Rice in a rocketship-fast puzzle about spiritual mediums, escape artists, and stage magicians.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

the-last-of-sheila-3With James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane and Raquel Welch in a great ensemble cast. The most important part is that this was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; Sondheim’s a puzzle fanatic and a linguistic genius (as well as every other kind).   A year after Sheila dies at a Hollywood party, her widower (Coburn) invites a group of six party guests to spend a week on the Mediterranean on his luxury yacht, playing a complicated parlour game that soon turns to murder.  A brilliant script and a subtle and intelligent mystery with devilishly tiny clues, including the photo you see here. The small cast and restricted locations put the focus on the actors, who all rise to the occasion; this is the first time I ever knew that Raquel Welch could actually act. And apparently Dyan Cannon provides a not-very-loving portrait of Hollywood agent Sue Mengers.

I understand that Hollywood is talking about remaking this, as of about 2012; nothing has apparently come to fruition.  I’m not holding my breath; the original is nearly perfect. Perhaps someone needs to see Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds in this, but I don’t think I need to.

333701.1020.ALady of Burlesque (1943)

Based on The G-String Murders as by Gypsy Rose Lee; actually ghosted by the great Craig Rice. [edited August 22, 2014] I have been convinced by the research and writing of Jeffrey Marks, whose comprehensive analysis in his book, Who was that Lady? (2010) that Lee did most or all of the writing herself. I have to say although Mr. Marks has changed my mind, I do think there’s plenty of evidence in the other direction and I don’t mind having been fooled. [end of edited portion] Rice was an experienced ghost writer who took credit for the novel, the writing style and humour are very like her other books, and the second book in the series, Mother Finds A Body, written without Ms. Rice and published a year later, is simply awful.

Since the novel was the best selling mystery since The Thin Man, the movie version garnered Barbara Stanwyck (playing Dixie Daisy, the headliner in a bump-and-grind burlesque show) and a host of supporting players. I have to be honest and say this is not a truly strict-form puzzle mystery — you’ll find it impossible to solve, I expect — but once Barbara Stanwyck gets through singing “Take it off the A String, Play it on the G String” and the bumps and grinds begin, you’ll be hooked anyway. The burlesque background is fascinating, the supporting players are delightful, and the musical score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s cheerful, funny, bawdy and occasionally acidulous. Best of all, the film is apparently in the public domain and you can get a copy via archive.org, here.

After the Thin Man (1936) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

My full reviews are here and here of these great mysteries starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. I would also add the great original masterpiece, The Thin Man itself; it certainly qualifies as a strict-form puzzle. All I can say is that I tend to cherish, cultivate and curate the lesser-known gems that might escape people’s notice, and The Thin Man will endure for a long, long time without any curation by me.  The two I’ve mentioned here are difficult mysteries but not impossible; Goes Home is particularly devilish because the central clue is negative in nature.  A character does something in front of your eyes, but if he had not already known that another character was dead, he wouldn’t have done it in quite that way. You’ll slap your forehead when you get the answer.

6043069589_af92b2bbcf_zEvil Under the Sun (1982)

This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Agatha Christie title; I have two for this list, but this is my favourite. After the success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express with its ensemble cast of stars, producers found it easy to finance such productions and festoon them with famous names. 1982 brought a very nearly perfect production of Christie’s novel about Hercule Poirot (here represented by Peter Ustinov) relaxing sur la plage at an isolated quasi-Yugoslavian island resort (actually working on the case of a missing diamond). He finds himself surrounded by a glamourous stage star, Arlena Stewart (Diana Rigg), and her family, and a group of guests who all seem to have some connection to Arlena. These include Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely and Denis Quilley. Almost every single detail of this film has been lovingly assembled: brilliant costumes, detailed sets, polished dialogue — oh, especially the dialogue, which is jam-packed with quotable lines delivered with relish by actors who seem to be enjoying themselves. (Maggie Smith: “Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us <beat> and wider.”)

My only problem with this film is Peter Ustinov making a fool of himself playing Hercule Poirot. Or, rather, playing “beloved character actor Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot” and doing everything but bite his own arm to get a laugh. There are many reasons to laugh at Hercule Poirot, but none of them should be that he is a buffoon.

At any rate, the plot is extremely complex and recomplicated, with every character having a sensible motive. It requires a considerable parsing of a large amount of evidence to correctly assign guilt, and the traditional “gather them all in a big room and explain the crime” scene at the end goes on and ON; to the great satisfaction of those of us who want every I dotted and every T crossed, but even so … And it all ends happily and beautifully.

This will do for part 1: I need to do a little research and thinking before I proceed with part 2; it will, however, contain the other Agatha Christie piece I mentioned, 1945’s And Then There Were None.

Availability:

To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.

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