Murder, mystery, intrigue, and the machinations of the macabre hold a lot of what movie-goers find most entertaining and thrilling about storytelling. Found within the idea of not-knowing, the classic “Whodunit?” offers something in the foundation of its conception that other genres do not: An active role for each viewer as a guest detective. The best murder mysteries/whodunits do just that, they bring the audience into the story, taking them on a ride, introducing characters, obstacles, and settings to deliver the poignant punch of mystery.
Updated June 15, 2023: This article has been updated to include even more great mystery films to check out.
This complexity is what captivates each movie-goer and puts them on both a chase and a race to the finish line, as viewers are tantalized by the mystery and galvanized in their participant-watcher role of both trying to inwardly figure out “who did it” while watching the plot unfold toward the ultimate revelation that either confirms their suspicions or gives them the best “A-Ha!” moment. Over the years, there have been several movies that have done this extremely well, and here are the best ranked.
12 Clue (1985)
Based on the original board game of the same name, Clue revolves around six guests who are mysteriously invited to a mansion for a dinner, but when the host of the dinner is murdered, the guests and the attending staff are all suspects as they attempt to figure out who is the killer. The movie is considered a brilliant comedy while simultaneously offering a great mystery to solve. It even inspired an episode of the popular TV series Psych, which is its own brilliant mini-mystery movie in each episode.
11 The Batman (2022)
While it may be a bit different from the other entries on this list, as The Batman is a superhero story, the gritty direction and intense mystery that make up the plot of this movie provide the audience with a murder mystery like few others. An unidentified man targets the men of several influential families in the city of Gotham, brutally killing each of them as he slowly gives Batman (Robert Pattinson) the clues to figure out why he is on his murderous rampage and what it will take to stop him.
While the ending of the film left plenty to be desired, mainly because it suddenly added on a superhero ending to an otherwise completed mystery arch, the film gives the audience quite the riddle to solve. It is hard not to feel caught up in the tension of the story as Batman struggles to find this masked villain. For a character often described as “The World’s Greatest Detective,” it was nice to see a Batman story that actually embraced this angle of the character.
10 Chinatown (1974)
Very much known as a classic, Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson as a detective who is hired to expose an adulterer. However, in the course of doing so, is thrown into a web of deceit that involves both corruption and murder. The film also stars Faye Dunaway and is directed by Roman Polanski, and is considered to be a multi-layered mystery that has nuances of a psychological drama. Additionally, Chinatown was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
9 Rear Window (1954)
The thing that makes Rear Window such a special murder mystery movie is that part of the mystery is if a murder happened at all. Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer who finds himself bed bound and bored after an accident breaks his leg. To stay entertained in his stiflingly small apartment, he watches his neighbors through their apartment windows that all back up to a courtyard.
He becomes convinced that one of his neighbors has killed their wife, but he’ll need to keep watching to prove it. Rear Window offers an interesting challenge to viewers to decide if they want to believe in the mystery like the protagonist does or if they are just so eager for entertainment that they’ll imagine anything.
8 Brick (2005)
Rian Johnson is probably best known for his more recent murder mysteries like Knives Out and the Peacock series Poker Face. Before then, there was Brick, his debut feature film. Brick is considered a neo-noir mystery film and is a hard-boiled detective story centered around high school students in a California suburb. The Whodunit stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenager trying to figure out who murdered his girlfriend.
Brick was an early indicator of Johnson’s talent for a captivating mystery. On such a small budget, it crafts a complex narrative in a rather mundane setting which makes it all the more interesting. This story could happen to anyone.
7 Blowout (1981)
Blowout is viewed as a gripping thriller that stars John Travolta as a sound engineer who believes he has proof that a politician did not die in an accident but instead was murdered. From there, the story unfolds as finding out whether or not the proof is accurate parallels with the possibility of the notion that if it is true, then who is behind the murder and cover-up.
6 Scream (1996)
Also known as part of the horror genre and slasher subgenre, Scream differs from a lot of the other movies in that genre because of its murder mystery nature. While the killer is a slasher and is terrorizing victims, the identity of who is under the Ghostface mask is a mainstay of the mystery, offering a penultimate reveal at the end of just who it is that has been killing off the group of teenagers.
Scream nailed the murder mystery formula so well that it has become the foundation of the franchise. Audiences return to the series, most recently with the box office hit Scream VI, to try and solve who will be the killer under the Ghostface mask. The audience is put in the mindset of the characters, but none of the sequels can quite capture that first feeling of mystery that the 1996 original had.
5 The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart as Detective Sam Spade, who’s out to find out who murdered his partner, Miles Archer, and how a statue of a falcon ties into it. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and is considered to be one of the best earlier Whodunit films in the genre. It is a foundation of the film noir genre, and even after all these years still a captivating mystery.
4 Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
This family movie centers around a hard-boiled detective that exists in the real world, which also comprises a very much known cartoon world where humans and cartoons co-exist, interact, and work together. However, when a human is murdered, a “Toon” named Roger Rabbit is suspected of murder. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a classic Whodunit set in a world filled with cartoon characters.
Groundbreaking and captivating, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a delight for all ages. It also set a template for family-friendly mysteries that can be felt in movies like Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers.
3 Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Based on the novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express is set in the 1930s and on a transcontinental luxury train that has been halted by deep snow. Within that time, a murder takes place, and the great detective, Hercule Poirot, one of Agatha Christie’s best characters and protagonists, is called in to solve the mystery. Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved Whodunits, and the film adaptation is held in very high regard, even garnering an Oscar win for Ingrid Bergman.
2 Kiss Kiss Bang (2005)
Kiss Kiss Bang is full of action and comedy as a case of mistaken identity sends a New York thief to Hollywood to train under a private investigator for a movie role. However, both find themselves caught up in a murder mystery with a struggling actress as they attempt to weave their way through the chaos and find the truth. Kiss Kiss Bang is based on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan.
Directed and written by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the best mystery stories of all time. Even after the audience knows the mystery, they will still want to revisit it because of the great characters. What is more interesting is this mystery helped solidify Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback, landing him the part of Tony Stark in Iron Manand launching the MCU where Black would direct Iron Man 3. There probably would not be an MCU as audiences know it today without Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
1 Knives Out (2019)
After a couple of other films, including The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson returned to the Whodunit genre to pen and direct Knives Out, which many consider to be a launching pad for the revitalization of the Whodunit genre. Knives Out has an ensemble cast of stars and is about a detective who investigates an eccentric and well-off family after the patriarch, a successful author, and publisher, mysteriously dies. Knives Out is an original screenplay and even was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Knives Out is now the launching point of a successful film franchise. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was released in 2022, and audiences are eagerly awaiting the third entry in the franchise. Knives Out showed that there was still plenty of room for this subgenre to grow.