We all love a whodunit, don’t we? We love the process of following a story through to the end thinking we know the who, why and how of it all – until the rug is pulled from beneath us and all hell breaks loose with the actual 'Who Did It'.
Strangely, though, we haven’t seen too many of these in recent years – but the upcoming Knives Out is set to change all of that. This is a wonderfully orchestrated black comedy-thriller from writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper; Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and features a stellar cast led by Daniel Craig as detective Benoit Blanc.
He's called in when wealthy crime writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead inside his vast mansion – so which of Harlan's family members is responsible? The all-star cast of suspects is delicious and varied – the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans are among those under suspicion.
With the film set for release later this month, we thought it right to dust off those old classics and familiarise you with some of the best whodunit twists in cinema history. Get your magnifying glass at the ready...
1. Chinatown (1974)
A classic noir mystery, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a masterpiece on every level. Met with critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for writer Robert Towne, the film follows detective Jake 'J.J.' Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired to track a husband’s activities by his wife, Evelyn Mulwray.
As Jake gets deeper into the case, he realises that the person who hired him was merely posing as real Evelyn, who he eventually meets (Faye Dunaway). And, after Mr. Mulwray’s suspicious death, Jake realises he is into something much deeper than a simple “affair” case, especially when Evelyn’s father (Jack Huston) becomes embroiled. It all leads Jake to an astonishing and shocking discovery at the film’s climax that could only happen in Chinatown.
2. Clue (1985)
We couldn't celebrate the release of Knives Out without talking about this gem. You’ve played the game of Cluedo – now it's time to watch, or rewatch, the movie (named Clue for the American market).
Released in the mid-80’s, Clue had something of a revolutionary conceit: not only would it bring the board game and its characters (Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard et al) to life, but it ingeniously weaved three alternate endings that would play at different screenings during its theatrical run.
Directed by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) and co-written by John Landis (The Blues Brothers), Clue (which is name-checked in Knives Out) was considered a disappointment on its initial release. However, with the advent of VHS and DVD it swiftly became something of a cult phenomenon, not least because its interactive elements allowed viewers to pick and choose their endings. Also, it stars Tim Curry – what’s not to love?
3. Seven (1995)
David Fincher’s seminal crime thriller Seven features one of the greatest shock endings of all time. And the build up and twists leading to the climax are some of the tensest moments ever depicted in a procedural police thriller.
The film follows two detectives – the young, brazen Mills (Brad Pitt) and the seasoned, soon-to-retire Somerset (Freeman) – who are paired to investigate a series of gruesome murders that are linked to the Seven Deadly Sins. Soon, the perpetrator, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), turns himself in willingly and with two more sins needed to complete his sadistic game, he pushes Mills and Somerset to their breaking point in memorable and deplorable fashion, with a final revelation that leaves you breathless.
Pitt was such an advocate of the bleak, horrifying ending that he had it written in his contract that it wouldn't be changed. We can all be thankful that it didn't – those final moments of Seven are among the most memorable of any 1990s thriller.
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4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
This is perhaps the most outrageous, brilliant and awe-inspiring twist ending of modern cinema, and it's preceded by these words: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist.''
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, the film tells of an interrogation by Detective Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) of Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), one of the survivors of a massacre at a shipping dock involving small time cons and mysterious crime lord Keyser Soze.
Through the interrogation, we deduce that Gabriel Byrne’s Keaton is the crime lord in question, but moments after Kint is freed on bail, Kujan realises that everything he has been told has been a huge misdirect, and the final few moments unveil just who is really behind it all. As we pick our jaws up off the floor, we then grin with delight at the devilish cleverness of Bryan Singer's direction and McQuarrie's labyrinthine trail of deception.
5. Memento (2000)
Before he resurrected Batman and took us into space with the likes of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan gained notoriety with this crime thriller noir, Memento. It stunned critics and audiences with its brilliantly original concept: how does Leonard (Guy Pearce), a man who suffers from short-term amnesia, piece together who killed his wife?
The film plays out in a split time structure: it has a black-and-white sequence moving chronologically, and a colour one that moves in reverse until the film meets in the middle at the 'end' of the film, where Leonard discovers the startling truth about everything and whether his condition is linked to his wife’s fate.
Nolan's cerebral yet emotionally satisfying drama (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) meant he was recognised with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
6. Minority Report (2002)
This may seem like a left-field choice, but Minority Report retains much of the themes and narrative decisions familiar from classic whodunit mysteries. However, it places these conventions in a big-budget sci-fi actioner, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future where, thanks to three psychic 'pre-cogs', police can apprehend murderous criminals before they have even committed said crime. Soon, however, the system is tested when PreCrime captain John Anderton (Cruise) is said to be destined to kill, so turns detective to prove his innocence.
Eventually, after a long struggle to stay alive, John uncovers some shocking and irrevocably damaging evidence on what is actually about to transpire, and that the system is ultimately doomed to fail. The final revelation plays out in classic mystery style while asking troubling questions about morality, free will and redemption.
Scott J. Davis is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.