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Detective-Mystery Films are usually considered a sub-type of crime/gangster films (or film noir), or suspense or thriller films that focus on the unsolved crime (usually the murder or disappearance of one or more of the characters, or a theft), and on the central character - the hard-boiled detective-hero, as he/she meets various adventures and challenges in the cold and methodical pursuit of the criminal or the solution to the crime. The plot often centers on the deductive ability, prowess, confidence, or diligence of the detective as he/she attempts to unravel the crime or situation by piecing together clues and circumstances, seeking evidence, interrogating witnesses, and tracking down a criminal.
Filmsite's related Greatest Plot Twists, Spoilers, and Surprise Endings.
Detective-mystery films emphasize the detective or person(s) (an amateur, a plain-clothes policeman, or a PI - Private Investigator) solving the crime through clues and exceptional rational powers. The detective studies the intriguing reasons and events leading to the crime, and eventually determines the identity of the villain (a murderer, a master spy, an arch fiend, an unseen evil, or a malignant psychological force). The central character usually explores the unsolved crime, unmasks the perpetrator, and puts an end to the effects of the villainy.
Suspense is added as the protagonist struggles within the puzzle-like narrative to gather evidence and testimony, to investigate all motives, and to discover the one essential clue or fatal flaw/alibi that betrays the identity of the culprit. The detective (or main protagonist) often succeeds in cleverly trapping the killer or criminal where law-and-order officers and local police officials do not. Intensity, anxiety, and suspense build to an exciting climax, often with the detective (or protagonist) using his fists or gun to solve the crime.
This genre has ranged from early mystery tales, fictional or literary detective stories, to classic Hitchcockian suspense-thrillers to classic private detective films. A related film sub-genre is that of spy films. If detection and the solution to a crime are not central to a 'mystery' film, then it blends into other genre film types, such as horror or suspense-thrillers.
The Earliest Mysteries:
Mysteries had their start in the early days of silent film. The most primitive serials, such as the well-known The Perils of Pauline (1914), possessed a degree of mystery. This film type blossomed as a full film category in the talking films of the 1930s, often borrowing from characters in popular literature. Detective films were widely popular during the 1930s and 1940s in B-series films.
Sherlock Holmes Films:
Sherlock Holmes, the world's first private detective, was derived from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works (his first SH novel was 1887's A Study in Scarlet (1887), followed by three other novels and 56 short stories). The Baker Street sleuth became the fictional character most frequently recurring on the screen. He has appeared in over 200 films since 1900 and been played by well over 70 actors.
Holmes solved mysteries in hundreds of films with "elementary deductions" and with assistance from 221-B Baker Street sidekick assistant Dr. Watson. Their setting in 19th century England was updated in 1942 to the World War II era, with Holmes battling the Nazis. The only actor to have played both Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson was Reginald Owen (see below).
The immortal, prototypical detective first appeared on the film screen in a 30-second, 1900 one-reeler (registered in 1903) from American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, titled Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900). It was the first recorded detective film on record, made specifically for one-person mutoscope viewing machines in amusement arcades.
Between 1921 and 1923, UK actor Eille Norwood played the Sherlock Holmes character almost 50 times in short two-reelers, and in two feature films (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1921, UK), and The Sign of Four (1923, UK)). He was the most prolific actor ever to portray Sherlock Holmes. Another of the earliest Holmes films was Albert Parker's silent 9-reeler Sherlock Holmes (1922) with John Barrymore.
The first talkie Sherlock Holmes film was The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) with Clive Brook in the sleuthing lead role. The character was also popularly portrayed by many actors in the 1930s, including:
Arthur Wontner portrayed Holmes in 5 films from 1931-1937:
Basil Rathbone's 14 Sherlock Holmes Films (1939-1946):
Its most familiar, popular figure was the British actor Basil Rathbone with an Inverness cape, deerslayer hat and curved-stem calabash pipe (accompanied by dull-witted, pipe-smoking Nigel Bruce as Watson - who wasn't so clumsy and buffoonish in the original writings), who appeared during the war years in 14 pictures from 1939 to 1946:
Other Sherlock Holmes Variations Through the 1970s:
Curious Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes:
Most recently, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes have been portrayed in a pair of director Guy Ritchie action films, starring Robert Downey, Jr (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Dr. Watson); unique in that Holmes was a martial-arts specialist in Wing-Chun Kung Fu:
Also, there were these versions, on TV and the big screen:
Charlie Chan -
Short who-dun-its in the 1930s and 40s featured the B-movie, Canton-born, Honolulu-based Oriental sleuth Charlie Chan, derived from Earl Derr Biggers' works, and based on real-life Hawaiian cop Chang Apana (very unlike the movie version). The round-faced, meticulous sleuth was one of the screen's most prolific detectives, with 46 Chan films and one serial from 1926 to 1949. [Charlie Chan was never played on the screen by a Chinese actor.]
Detective Charlie Chan was introduced in Pathe's 10-part serial The House Without a Key (1926) - portrayed by Japanese actor George Kuwa. The second screen appearance was in Universal's and German director Paul Leni's The Chinese Parrot (1927), with Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin in the lead role (the film was remade as Charlie Chan's Courage (1934)). The first sound Charlie Chan film was Fox's Behind That Curtain (1929), with Korean actor E.L. Park as the sleuth.
The character was best played by Swedish actor Warner Oland (from 1931-1938 in 16 films), who portrayed Chan as a dapper fellow who was always polite and unassertive but nevertheless was solving the crime using physical evidence and logical deduction. The sly, composed Charlie Chan would eloquently spout Confucius-type proverbs, aphorisms, and wisdom in pidgin English, achieved by dropping definite articles and verbs: ("difficult to catch fly with one finger," "bad alibi like dead fish - can't stand test of time," "Joy in heart more desirable than bullet," "must not too soon come to conclusion," "Perfect case like perfect doughnut - has hole" and "silence is golden, except in police station," for example), always with a courteous, paternalistic, and inquisitive manner.
The series continued, with less noteworthy quality, with American actor Sidney Toler (1938-1947 in 22 appearances), and American film and TV character actor Roland Winters (1947-1949 in 6 films) as the sixth and last screen Chan. Fox was responsible for the Chan films from 1929-1942, followed by Monogram (from 1944-1949). Charlie Chan also appeared on TV in 39 half-hour episodes, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, during 1957-58:
Mr. Moto -
To compete with Charlie Chan, another Far-Eastern sleuth - of Japanese descent, derived from the I.A. Moto character in Pulitzer Prize-winning John P. Marquand's novels (which first appeared as Saturday Evening Post serials), was developed by 20th Century Fox, and named Mr. Moto. Hungarian-born German actor Peter Lorre (in his 7th American film role) starred in the title role as the enigmatic, quiet, self-effacing, unobtrusive, spectacle-wearing and brilliant detective in the eight-film series (produced in less than three years from 1937-1939):
Mr. Moto was resurrected 26 years later, to compete with the popular James Bond action series, with Caucasian actor Henry Silva as the quizzical Moto, in The Return of Mr. Moto (1965).
Mr. Wong -
A fictional Chinese-American detective, named James Lee Wong (simply Mr. Wong) created by Hugh Wiley (for a series of stories in Colliers Magazine in the mid-1930s) was the lead character in a series of six films from Monogram Pictures. In the first five films, Boris Karloff took the lead role. In the sixth (and final) film in the Mr. Wong series, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), Chinese-American actor Keye Luke took the role of the title character. This marked the first time an American film featured an Asian character as a lead Asian detective.
The Thin Man Series - (Nick and Nora Charles)
The most popular film detectives of the 1930s were a delightful, high-society sleuthing couple: the inebriated Nick Charles with his wife Nora (and dog Asta). The characters in MGM's The Thin Man (1934) were derived from Dashiell Hammett's 1934 novel of the same title. The sophisticated, wise-cracking, boozing couple (magnificently portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy) managed to solve crimes and crack jokes in a long series of screwball-mystery gems. After their first film in 1934, there were five more grade-A sequels from 1936-1947 from MGM, although none were as good as their first effort. The first four films were directed by W.S. Van Dyke:
On television, Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk starred as the couple in 72 30-minute episodes, beginning in the fall of 1957.
Bulldog Drummond -
Another literary figure from "Sapper's" (Herman Cyril McNeile) famed detective novels - Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond - became the featured suave, gentleman-spy hero in many films mostly made between the silents through to the late 40s. Drummond battled foreign agents, kidnappers, spies, and other villains during his adventurous exploits. The detective was portrayed by, among others:
Bulldog Drummond was resurrected for a short period of time in the mid-to-late 1960s as a resourceful British agent, during the flurry of James Bond imitators:
Boston Blackie -
Columbia Pictures presented fourteen low-budget installments of another detective series (from 1941 to 1949) titled Boston Blackie, starring square-jawed Chester Morris in the lead role as a former jewel thief/con artist and debonair tough guy who reformed himself and turned detective. The series was based on the 1910 book by Jack Boyle, and the wise-cracking character first appeared in various silent era versions:
The 14 mass-produced Columbia Pictures films in the 1940s, often training grounds for a number of future prominent directors, were:
On television, there were 58 half-hour episodes in a 1951 Boston Blackie series, with Kent Taylor as the sleuth.
The Shadow -
A crime-fighting vigilante, The Shadow was based upon the Walter B. Gibson character created in the early 1930s. He made his first appearance on July 31, 1930, as the mysterious narrator of a radio program titled The Detective Story Hour. In 1931 and 1932, Universal Pictures created a series of six film shorts based on the popular Detective Story Hour radio program, narrated by The Shadow.
A pulp series detective magazine from Street & Smith was also dedicated exclusively to The Shadow. The magazine was titled The Shadow - A Detective Magazine, published in April of 1931, and it featured The Shadow in his first literary pulp story, "The Living Shadow." It was created and primarily written by the prolific Walter B. Gibson, who had been hired by the publisher to create a backstory. Author Gibson refashioned the sinister narrator of CBS Radio's The Detective Story Hour into a dark super-hero - a super-sleuth who often battled against super-criminals. Then, in September of 1937, The Shadow radio drama premiered, and the first full-length feature film about The Shadow was released by Grand National Pictures.
His alter-ego was Lamont Cranston, an amateur criminologist and detective, a wealthy crime-fighter who often wore black, a trench coat, and a face-concealing mask. The words that introduced The Shadow in the radio program (and the films) have become immortalized: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the Shadow knows!"
The Saint (Simon Templar) -
One of the most popular, long-running mystery film series of the late 1930s through the early 40s featured the Saint, a mysterious, sophisticated, and debonair British detective named Simon Templar. The half-crooked sleuth, a rogue-turned crusader for Scotland Yard, was derived from Leslie Charteris' popular crime novels of the late 20s. Eight films (of the nine films) in the 15-year long series were from RKO, with one entry from Republic in 1943. In the first and last Saint films, Louis Hayward played the role of Simon Templar. The other two actors were George Sanders and Hugh Sinclair:
On television in the British-made series of hour-long shows in the mid-1960s, Roger Moore portrayed the worldly traveler.
The Falcon -
Another hardboiled detective, a suave and sophisticated sleuth named the Falcon, was featured in another RKO series during the 1940s - almost a carbon-copy of RKO's former Saint. The debonair and aristocratic Falcon character was taken from Michael Arlen's detective stories. In six years, there were 13 black and white films in the RKO series. Various actors portrayed the Britisher (named Gay Falcon, Tom Falcon, and Mike Waring) in the 16 Falcon pictures, including the former Saint George Sanders (1941-1942) in the first four, and then Tom Conway (Sander's real-life brother) in the next nine (from 1943-1946). After a two-year break, independent low-budget Film Classics bought the rights to the Falcon, and produced three more entires with John Calvert (1948-49):
On TV during 1954-55, the Falcon (Mike Waring) was portrayed by Charles McGraw in 39 30-minute episodes.
Agatha Christie's Adaptations:
The prodigious works of British mystery author Agatha Christie (a total of 72 novels, 160 short stories, and 15 stage plays) provided a great source for a number of classic detective film mysteries.
One was 20th Century Fox's atmospheric And Then There Were None (1945) (aka Ten Little Niggers (UK)) from director Rene Clair. It was often remade (for feature films or TV movies) with Christie's original novel title Ten Little Indians (or Ten Little Niggers):
[Christie's book was first published as Ten Little Niggers in the UK in 1939, and then in 1940 as And Then There Were None in the US (the offensive title was changed). It was adapted in 1943 by the author and titled Ten Little Niggers in the UK for its stage opening in 1943. It was retitled Ten Little Indians for its US stage opening in 1944. In further film versions, UK's Seven Arts Films moved the setting to a remote mountain top castle in the Austrian Alps and released the film as Ten Little Indians (1965, UK). Avco-Embassy, Inc., produced a third film version titled Ten Little Indians (1974), with the setting in a remote hotel in the Iranian desert. In its fourth incarnation titled Ten Little Indians (1989, UK), Breton Films moved the locale to an African safari.]
A four-character short story by Christie was made into a London/Broadway stage hit and was filmed by famed director Billy Wilder as Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
Agatha Christie's Master Sleuth:
Hercule Poirot -
And in the 1970s and 80s and afterwards (and even in the 1930s), there were a few screen who-dun-its derived from the works of Agatha Christie with all-star casts, featuring Christie's colorful, insufferable, meticulous and fussy Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The films (and stars) included:
Agatha Christie's Famous Female Detective:
Miss Marple -
The character of Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple, a gray-haired, wily, spinsterish detective, was also portrayed in the movies and on TV over many years, beginning in the 1930s, and prominent in the 1960s (with four films starring Margaret Rutherford) and afterwards. The films (and stars) included:
Another of the best of the late 40s murder mysteries from Britain was director Sidney Gilliat's film Green For Danger (1947), featuring Alistair Sim as Scotland Yard Inspector Cockrill.
Other Fictional Crime Fighters:
Philo Vance -
The gentlemanly, artistocratic, independently-wealthy New Yorker, amateur detective Philo Vance was introduced in the works of Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine), first in his 1926 novel The Benson Murder Case. Thin Man star William Powell and others portrayed Philo Vance from 1929 to 1947:
Other Fictional Crime Fighters:
The Lone Wolf -
During the silent era, Bert Lytell often played the crime sleuth Michael Lanyard (The Lone Wolf), derived from the novels by Louis Joseph Vance. The Lone Wolf invariably was an international ex-jewel thief who also served on the side of the law after a change of heart.
The Columbia series was capped by nine performances from Warren William (from 1939-1943) as the upper-class retired crook:
On television, Louis Hayward portrayed the Lone Wolf in 1954's 39-part series (of half-hour shows) entitled Streets of Danger.
Other Fictional Crime Fighters or Sleuths:
Hildegarde Withers -
The 40ish, crime-solving, frumpy, spinsterish schoolteacher in NYC, a version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, was the fictional creation of Stuart Palmer. His second novel in 1931 with the character was titled The Penguin Pool Murder - also the title of the first feature film. Edna May Oliver, the definitive character, played the gaunt, thin Miss Withers in the first three films from RKO Radio Pictures in the mid-1930s. Her comic foil in all six of the murder mystery film series was Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason).
There was also A Very Missing Person (1972) (CBS-TV movie) starring Eve Arden as Miss Withers.
Ellery Queen -
A smart, scholarly and analytical crime-solver named Ellery Queen was a recurring who-dun-it detective-hero derived from the late 1920s novels of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (who used "Ellery Queen" as their joint pseudonym). Ellery Queen appeared for the first time in the detective mystery novel The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).
In the mid-30s, Republic was the first studio to release low-budget films about Ellery Queen, a brilliant amateur detective. These were followed by seven films from Columbia Pictures (from 1940-1942), with two actors, Ralph Bellamy and William Gargan in the lead role.
There were other iterations of the character in many TV shows-movies or series, beginning in 1950: