There's something comforting about settling in to watch a good mystery movie. You sort of know exactly what to expect. I watch a ton of mystery movies because I think they are wonderful at getting audiences excited about their premises and clearly defining their stakes.

Mystery movies have captivated audiences for generations, weaving intricate plots, enigmatic characters, and thrilling suspense.

Their ability to transport us to worlds of intrigue and challenge our deductive skills is what makes them so enduring.

Today, I want to go over the best mystery movies and look at some lessons we can learn from the genre.

Let's dive in.

Defining The Mystery Movie

Defining The Mystery Movie

'The Maltese Falcon

Warner Bros.

At their core, mystery movies are narratives built around a puzzle or a crime that needs solving. They often involve a detective, investigator, or amateur sleuth who embarks on a quest to uncover the truth.

Clues are scattered throughout the film, inviting the audience to join in the investigation. The climax typically reveals the culprit and the methods behind their actions.

Tropes of Mystery Movies

Tropes of Mystery Movies

L.A. Confidential

Warner Bros.

As a writer of many a mystery script, I am constantly returning to a list of tropes in order to figure out what my story needs.

Tropes are like rides on a playground. you can use them the way they're designed or you can subvert them and run up the slide.

Check out a few mystery tropes below.

Character Tropes:

  • The Brilliant Detective: This is often the protagonist, a character with exceptional intelligence, keen observation skills, and a knack for deductive reasoning. They may be eccentric, socially awkward, or even arrogant, but their brilliance is undeniable. Examples include Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Benoit Blanc from Knives Out.
  • The Sidekick: Often a loyal and reliable companion to the detective, providing a sounding board, offering a different perspective, or even possessing hidden talents of their own. Think of Dr. Watson, Hastings, or even the comedic relief character in many mystery films.
  • The Femme Fatale: A seductive and alluring woman with a mysterious past who may be a victim, a suspect, or even the mastermind behind the crime. Think of Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon" or Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct.
  • The Red Herring: This is a character who initially seems suspicious but ultimately turns out to be innocent, serving to mislead the detective and the audience. Red herrings add layers of complexity and suspense to the plot.
  • The Unlikely Suspect: Often a seemingly ordinary or unassuming character who is ultimately revealed to be the perpetrator, subverting expectations and delivering a shocking twist.

Plot Tropes:

  • The Locked Room Mystery: A crime committed in a seemingly impossible scenario, like a sealed room, challenging the detective to explain how it was done.
  • The MacGuffin: An object or goal that drives the plot, often serving as a catalyst for the crime or as a distraction from the true motive.
  • The Twist Ending: A surprise revelation that subverts expectations and forces the audience to re-evaluate the entire story.
  • The False Confession: A character admits to the crime, either out of guilt or to protect someone else, leading the detective down the wrong path.

Setting Tropes:

  • The Dark and Stormy Night: A cliché yet effective setting that creates an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding.
  • The Isolated Location: A remote mansion, a secluded island, or a snowbound hotel, providing a sense of claustrophobia and limiting the number of suspects.
  • The Hidden Passageways: Secret rooms, tunnels, or hidden compartments that add an element of intrigue and often reveal crucial clues or evidence.
  • The Grand Estate: A symbol of wealth and power, often housing secrets, rivalries, and a potential killer among the residents.

A Brief History of the Mystery Movie

A Brief History of the Mystery Movie

The Conversation

Paramount Pictures

The roots of mystery movies trace back to the early days of cinema. Silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) explored themes of crime and deduction.

The Golden Age of Hollywood saw the rise of film noir, a genre characterized by its dark atmosphere, morally ambiguous characters, and twisty plots. Films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) epitomize this era.

The 1970s brought a resurgence of interest in mysteries with the rise of neo-noir films like Chinatown (1974) and The Conversation (1974). These films explored social issues and paranoia, adding layers of complexity to the genre.

Global Mystery Movies

Global Mystery Movies



The appeal of mystery transcends borders - and a lot of the most innovation mystery movies come from other countries, where their tropes or ideas may be very different than our own.

Here are some of my favorites.

  • Japan: Known for intricate detective stories and psychological thrillers like Rashomon (1950) and Cure (1997).
  • France: Celebrated for stylish and suspenseful crime dramas like Diabolique (1955) and Tell No One (2006).
  • South Korea: Acclaimed for its dark and violent thrillers with unexpected twists, such as Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016).
  • India: Bollywood produces a variety of mystery films, often blending the genre with romance or action. Check out the Dhoom movies for some fun.

The Best Mystery Movies of All Time

As always, this is a subjective list that's not in order. It's just a bunch of mystery movies Ithink are awesome, and that you should check out.

  • Vertigo (1958): Hitchcock's haunting masterpiece about obsession, mistaken identity, and a twisted plot.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A chilling psychological thriller featuring a cat-and-mouse game between an FBI trainee and a brilliant but cannibalistic psychiatrist.
  • Chinatown (1974): A neo-noir classic set in 1930s Los Angeles, where a private investigator uncovers a web of corruption and deceit.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941): The quintessential film noir, featuring a hard-boiled detective, a mysterious statuette, and a cast of femme fatales.
  • The Usual Suspects (1995): A mind-bending neo-noir with a twist ending that will leave you questioning everything you thought you knew.
  • Rear Window (1954): Hitchcock's suspenseful thriller about a wheelchair-bound photographer who believes he witnessed a murder.
  • Memento (2000): A non-linear narrative about a man with short-term memory loss trying to solve his wife's murder.
  • Se7en (1995): A dark and gritty thriller about two detectives tracking down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.
  • North by Northwest (1959): A classic Hitchcockian adventure about an ordinary man mistaken for a spy and thrust into a world of danger.
  • L.A. Confidential (1997): A neo-noir crime drama set in 1950s Los Angeles, exploring police corruption and Hollywood scandals.
  • The Third Man (1949): A post-World War II Vienna setting, a missing friend, and a shadowy figure known as Harry Lime create an atmospheric thriller.
  • Prisoners (2013): A suspenseful and emotionally charged story about a father's desperate search for his missing daughter.
  • Zodiac (2007): Based on the true story of the Zodiac Killer, this film delves into the obsession of a cartoonist and a reporter to uncover his identity.
  • Mystic River (2003): A dark and emotional drama about childhood friends reunited by a murder and the secrets they harbor.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009): A journalist and a troubled hacker team up to investigate the disappearance of a young woman from a wealthy family.
  • Shutter Island (2010): A psychological thriller set in a mental institution, where two U.S. marshals investigate the disappearance of a patient.
  • In the Mood for Love (2000): A visually stunning Hong Kong film about unspoken desires and missed connections, with a touch of mystery.
  • Memories of Murder (2003): A gripping South Korean crime drama based on a real-life serial killer case.
  • Rashomon (1950): A Japanese masterpiece exploring the nature of truth through multiple perspectives on a rape and murder.
  • Oldboy (2003): A South Korean neo-noir about a man imprisoned for 15 years who seeks revenge upon his release.
  • The Conversation (1974): A surveillance expert becomes increasingly paranoid as he believes he's uncovered a plot to murder.
  • Secret in Their Eyes (2009): An Argentine crime drama about a retired legal counselor haunted by an unsolved rape and murder case from his past.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011): A Cold War spy thriller about a disgraced MI6 agent brought back to uncover a Soviet mole.
  • Gone Girl (2014): A twisted thriller about a husband who becomes the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance.
  • The Sixth Sense (1999): A supernatural thriller with a twist ending that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
  • Knives Out (2019): A modern take on the whodunnit genre, featuring a star-studded cast and a clever mystery.
  • Detective Story (1951): A hard-boiled police drama exploring the personal and professional lives of detectives in a New York City precinct.
  • Laura (1944): A detective falls in love with the portrait of a woman he's investigating for murder.
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938): A Hitchcockian thriller about a woman who disappears on a train, and her friend's quest to find her.
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957): A courtroom drama based on an Agatha Christie novel, with a shocking twist ending.
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2009): An Argentine film about a retired legal counselor haunted by an unsolved case.
  • Spellbound (1945): Hitchcock's psychological thriller about a woman who falls for an amnesiac who may be a murderer.
  • Fargo (1996): A dark comedy crime film set in snowy Minnesota, with a pregnant police chief investigating a series of murders.
  • Basic Instinct (1992): A seductive thriller about a police detective investigating a murder suspect who is also a crime novelist.
  • The Fugitive (1993): A man wrongly convicted of his wife's murder goes on the run to find the real killer.
  • The Departed (2006): A crime drama about an undercover cop and a mole in the Boston police force.
  • Prisoners (2013): A father takes matters into his own hands when police fail to find his missing daughter and her friend.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish, 2009): A journalist and a hacker team up to investigate the disappearance of a young woman.
  • Tell No One (2006): A French thriller about a doctor who receives an anonymous message suggesting his wife, who was murdered eight years earlier, may still be alive.
  • The Body (2012): A Spanish mystery about a group of teenagers who find a dead body and try to hide it.
  • Memories of Murder (2003): A South Korean crime drama based on the country's first serial murders.
  • Burning (2018): A South Korean mystery about a young man who gets caught up in a love triangle with a mysterious woman and her wealthy friend.
  • The Hidden Fortress (1958): A Japanese historical adventure with elements of mystery, considered an inspiration for Star Wars.
  • Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010): A Chinese historical mystery about a detective investigating spontaneous combustion cases.
  • Kahaani (2012): An Indian mystery thriller about a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata.
  • Drishyam (2013): An Indian thriller about a man who goes to great lengths to protect his family when they become entangled in a murder investigation.
  • Andhadhun (2018): An Indian black comedy thriller about a blind pianist who witnesses a murder.
  • Talvar (2015): An Indian thriller based on the true story of the Aarushi Talwar murder case.
  • Gupt: The Hidden Truth (1997): An Indian mystery about a man wrongly accused of murdering his stepfather.
  • Manorama Six Feet Under (2007): An Indian neo-noir about a struggling engineer who gets caught up in a murder mystery.
  • Brick (2005): A neo-noir set in a high school, with a teenage detective investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.
  • The Nice Guys (2016): A buddy comedy with a mystery twist, following two private investigators who team up to find a missing girl.
  • The Game (1997): A wealthy banker receives a mysterious gift – participation in a game that soon consumes his life.
  • Angel Heart (1987): A private investigator's search for a missing singer leads him into a dark world of voodoo and murder.
  • The Woman in the Window (1944): A psychology professor confined to his apartment becomes obsessed with his neighbors and believes he witnesses a murder.
  • Identity (2003): Ten strangers stranded at a motel during a storm are killed off one by one, and their connection is slowly revealed.
  • The Illusionist (2006): A magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna uses his illusions to help a woman escape the clutches of a cruel prince.
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): A comedic neo-noir about a thief who accidentally lands a role in a Hollywood detective movie.
  • Gosford Park (2001): A murder mystery set in a grand English country house during a weekend party.
  • The Last of Sheila (1973): A year after a hit-and-run accident, a movie producer invites a group of friends to his yacht for a murder mystery game with a dark twist.
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1974 or 2017): Hercule Poirot investigates a murder on a luxury train where everyone is a suspect.
  • Death on the Nile (1978 or 2022): Poirot's Egyptian vacation is interrupted by a murder among a group of wealthy socialites.
  • Clue (1985): A comedic mystery based on the popular board game, with multiple endings.
  • Sleuth (1972 or 2007): A psychological battle of wits between an aging mystery writer and his wife's lover.
  • The Mirror Crack'd (1980): Miss Marple investigates the poisoning of a movie star during a party.
  • Evil Under the Sun (1982): Poirot vacations at a seaside resort and must solve the murder of a glamorous actress.
  • The Mousetrap (1952): The longest-running play in history, based on an Agatha Christie story, about a group of strangers trapped in a guest house with a murderer.
  • The Thin Man (1934): A charming couple, Nick and Nora Charles, solve murders while trading witty banter and enjoying cocktails.
  • Sherlock Holmes (2009): Robert Downey Jr. plays a more action-oriented Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London.
  • Young Sherlock Holmes (1985): A fictionalized story of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson's first meeting as teenagers.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Sherlock Holmes investigates a family curse and a monstrous hound on the moors.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939): One of Basil Rathbone's iconic portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, facing off against his nemesis Professor Moriarty.
  • Murder by Decree (1979): Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper murders.
  • Without a Clue (1988): A comedic take where Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, and Dr. Watson is the real detective.
  • The Name of the Rose (1986): A medieval mystery set in an abbey, where a Franciscan friar investigates a series of deaths.

Let me know what you think in the comments.