Everybody loves a good mystery story. And if it’s a murder mystery, then nothing like it. Since the inception of mankind, murders have always intrigued us. Even from the biblical times, the very first murder occurred when Cain killed his brother Abel over pangs of jealousy and envy. Thus, it was established that every murder must have a motive behind it. It is this fascination with murders that has prompted authors, filmmakers, producers to explore the heinous crime in great detail and with great alacrity.
It is said, there is no such thing as perfect murder. But is there a perfect murder movie? Well, it depends on who you ask. But if you ask me, most movies on today’s list are almost perfect murder movies. They have everything that a murder mystery should have: suspense, unpredictable plot, and most importantly, the big reveal. While I had plenty to choose from, I finally settled on the below list as the top murder mystery movies ever made. You can find several of these best murder mystery movies on YouTube, Amazon Prime, or Hulu.
28. Wind River (2017)
Set inside the Wyoming Wind River Native American Reservation, Cory Lambert, a seasoned tracker and a Wildlife Service agent finds the body of a young native American girl Natalie with gruesome injuries. An amateur FBI investigator Jane starts an investigation to unfold the mysteries behind Natalie’s murder and as it turns out, something really bad happened on a night preceding a few days before the murder that involved Matt’s (Natalie’s boyfriend, who was found murdered too) drunk friends and a lot of cover-ups. ‘Wind River’ was widely praised for pathbreaking performances, layers deep characters, spellbinding thrill and depictions of chilling crimes. If you have missed ‘Wind River’, you’re missing out a lot on bone-chilling murder mysteries.
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27. Primal Fear (1996)
A timid, fearful altar boy is alleged of murder. A hotshot attorney agrees to work pro-bono for him, not out of generosity or necessity, but just to test himself and challenge himself to do the impossible. The seemingly benign and helpless kid is revealed to be a raging psychopath, which surface during fits of blackouts and control. It is not a conventional murder mystery, although of a very interesting kind. A film where the protagonist plays with the minds of both his attorney and audiences.
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26. Scandal Sheet (1952)
Listen to the pitch: a middle-aged newspaper publisher murders his wife in cold blood and disposes of all the evidence he could find relating the case to him, but when his own paper’s top reporters try their hand at solving the case, he feels the pressure and doubt of others piling upon himself. Whoa, is this clever! The film has smart characters and a smart script backing it up, and it got me smirking because of how coolly it handled the story. This is some top-class noir here, which is surprising because it is often listed along with the mainstream detective films of the time. It is not the typical, conventional kind that did big business in the ’40s and ’50s. It keeps you on your toes, in suspense, and definitely wanting more!
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25. Identity (2003)
‘The Thing’ (1982) first came to my mind when I was finished with this film. Not that it had any inspirations taken from the picture, the similarity between the two was in the style of the plot. While John Carpenter treats his visualisation of the concept as more of a horror film, James Mangold crafts it as a murder mystery thriller, providing one of the most exciting, confusing, yet nevertheless fulfilling experiences you’ll ever have with the medium. Having to do with people who have no choice but to befriend each other as a mysterious figure starts killing them off one by one, the characters soon realise that the perpetrator may be one of them. The mystery here is the identity of this killer, which is revealed at the end, and done so in an absolutely shocking manner. Another film following a similar plot structure will be explained further down on this list, for fans of this movie who want to see more like it.
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24. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
One of the great modern murder mystery movies, this Oscar winner is a testament to what an assured direction with an intriguing plot should look like. The main strength of the film is in its moments of silences — and the symbolism around them. Psychological crime dramas usually rely on the tried and tested formula, but this film actually relies on the fragile psychological state of the audience, which in turn is the reason why it’s so compelling.
23. Rope (1948)
One of Alfred Hitchcock‘s greatest films (and one of the several movies from his filmography that are to feature on this list), ‘Rope’ is a thriller that presents a mystery of a different kind. I’ve never sided with the villains in any other film like I have with the antagonists in this one, and I believe that’s part of the great director’s wonderful talent shining, bringing out the morbid characteristics within his viewers. There isn’t really a mystery behind the kill, because we know from the first minute the identity of both the victim as well as the people who take his life. The latter then celebrate their murder by creating a little mystery for themselves; by hosting a party in their home, inviting several of the deceased’s closest friends and family members (including his father) to test and see if they stand any chances of getting caught. The suspense here is particularly intense.
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22. Strangers on a Train (1951)
I promise to give a break to the Hitchcock films after I’m done with this, but ‘Strangers on a Train’ is one of his greatest works ever, and looks at the murder mystery plotline from a different angle, telling a masterful story of manipulation, pressure, and personal confusion. The movie talks of two people who meet on a train, one of whom starts up an awkward conversation with the other that ends in them settling a deal – in the eyes of the proposer, though the proposed party hasn’t accepted – to kill off a person for the other as a sort of psychotic favor. Tensions build when, a couple of scenes later, the one who denied wanting any involvement in the deal finds out that the other has already committed his first murder, and now wishes to see him carry out his part of the unofficial agreement. The film turns into something of a cat-and-mouse game, and unfortunately, for the better part of the runtime, the mouse in reference here is our poor, innocent protagonist.
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21. Mystic River (2003)
Clint Eastwood has done some interesting directorial work in the past, and my favorite of all the films he’s helmed is ‘Mystic River’. A more standard approach to the murder mystery concept, ‘Mystic River’ is a thoughtful crime-drama that follows a plot involving three childhood friends who’d led tragic lives following disturbing incidents in their past, and details the furthering of how they are made to meet again as fate brings forth yet another shocking moment for them several years later, in the form of a death. This film has some absolutely stunning performances and is one of Eastwood’s few features where he gets his character writing done well, which becomes essential to the story and its build of suspense.
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20. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Arguably Billy Wilder’s most personal film, this isn’t the most conventional of murder mysteries, because there’s more of a dream-like quality to the passing, which is only giving a hint of a reference to at the beginning of the tale, following which the picture carries little to none of the emotions that one usually associates with a murder mystery. Still, that is what it is, and the way the mystery is grounded here is by making the characters involved in the ultimate murder well-rounded, deep, and worth studying. The film ropes in the sadness that consumes the life of a silent-era actress who attempts to masquerade it with her ego to fuel the activities that take the plot from beginning to end here, and in that, creates some of the most iconic scenes and characters (and one-liners) cinema’s ever seen. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is my favorite Billy Wilder film, but I’ve placed it lower than his other works that appear here because of how much it strays away from the popular concept of the murder mystery genre.
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19. Clue (1985)
I think it’s safe to say I’ve never seen a murder mystery like this in my life. I added it to the list because of how outlandish it is, and how distinctively it approaches the subject. Based loosely on the famous board game, the film invites a group of people to solve a murder mystery, which gets sillier and sillier as gut-busting, hilarious revelations are made. I’ve heard that this film cast some of the funniest people in show business during its time, and it isn’t very hard to believe that. Tim Curry gives what is perhaps the best performance of his career, and the fast-paced, no-care attitude of the picture delivers quite the number of chuckles, while not looking stupid or childish during it all.
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18. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
A modern-day masterpiece, based on the late author Stieg Larson’s work, took the world by storm. An investigative journalist and a troubled hacker join hands to search for a girl who vanished from her house 40 years ago. The only clue they have is a diary of the missing girl. Soon, the diary reveals a series of clues that leads them to brutal murders of young girls 40 years ago. Sensational and shocking to the core, this Swedish movie was raved by the critics and the audience alike, giving it a successful hollywood remake. Naomi Rapace gives a thunderous performance as Lisbeth Salandar.
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17. Laura (1944)
You know, I’ve always thought the best way to watch a film noir was with the lights turned off and all sounds silent. All you can see is the screen. Sure, you could argue that all films have to be seen this way, but there’s something about this particular genre that commands the darkness. That’s how I first saw ‘Laura’, and I could still feel those walls I couldn’t see steadily closing in on me. Every minute had me enthralled, thrilled to know what was going to happen, who did it, and why. Relying upon a quaint cinematography that feels vaseline’d onto the lens, the pervasive shadows that smother this film pull it into a menacing world filled with suspicious, dangerous people, with no one fitting any criteria for exclusion, not even the detective protagonist.
16. Chinatown (1974)
Roman Polanski‘s ‘Chinatown’ is an education about how neo noir mysteries should be made. A woman assigns a private detective to surveil her husband, who is found dead in a reservoir. The catch? The woman isn’t the one she claims to be. The plot is a labyrinthine maze with multiple sub-layers, thus making it one of the most amazing mystery movies. And did I forget Mr. Nicholson? In one word, wow!!!
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15. Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
On a long train journey from Istanbul to Calasis, an American millionaire is stabbed to death. The famous Hercule Poirot is aboard and expectedly starts to investigate everyone present on the fateful coach. What he finds out, turns to be a dastardly act of murder where each of his suspects have a motive to kill. Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit, directed by Sidney Lumet is an ode to old school thrillers with humour, used as the primary weapon of story telling.
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14. Memories of a Murder (2003)
I’m a big serial killer buff, and I’m always looking for that one great film about this subject, getting not just the kills and investigation right, but further exploring the mind of the multiple-murderer(s). ‘Memories of a Murder’ is right up there with the very best of serial killer films, because it uses every element it has going for it – being acting, cinematography, music, etc. – to compose a wonderfully haunting mood to set the stage for masterful storytelling that’s based on the real-life murders that took place in Korea. The ending to this film can rival some of the greatest film endings of all time, in my opinion.
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13. And Then There Were None (1945)
Films like ‘Cube’ (1997) and ‘The Maze Runner’ (2014) definitely owe concept credits to this mystery classic. Adapted (loosely) from the Agatha Christie classic of the same name,’And Then There Were None’ has a different kind of murder story to tell, where we follow the victims themselves, who are lured into a mysterious island one by one, and killed off individually, leading to a suspenseful and intriguing manhunt for the perpetrator – who could very well be one of them! It doesn’t just become a question of who did it, but the lack of knowledge regarding who will survive drives the emotional factors of this masterpiece.
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12. LA Confidential (1997)
Set in the fifties of a crime ridden Los Angeles, this a story about three cops and their ways of dealing with crime and perpetrators. It’s essentially a crime thriller but the whodunit saga goes beyond that. An investigation into a series of murders in the city, opens a can of worms of corruption and deceit. A relatively unknown Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe along with the seasoned Kevin Spacey played the protagonists. Kim Basinger won the Oscar for her portrayal of a prostitute.
11. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1971)
Who committed the murder here isn’t much of a mystery, it’s literally thrown to you in the opening ten minutes of the film. It’s the question of whether the perpetrator gets caught, that becomes the element of intrigue of this picture. See, the movie has to do with a high ranking police officer who commits the crime and tries to plot his innocence using his power as a citizen. The first act to this feature left me in a position with the way it captivated my attention where I probably wasn’t able to breathe. The way the story is structured here is downright perfect, being both beautifully stylized as well as a curiosity inciter. Ennio Morricone’s score is literally perfection.
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10. The Third Man (1949)
‘The Third Man’ is one of my favorite films of all time. There’s so much to love about this brilliant classic — the music, the performances, the beautifully tilted cinematography, the stark shadows, and the astounding character writing are just some of these. The film gives us a very muffled murder to think over, one that has an unidentifiable third man involved, until several scenes later, when a new revelation questions the integrity behind the death of the person who was said to have been murdered. It’s a beautiful work of art, this movie, with fascinating dialogues (the ‘cuckoo clock’ line is nothing short of wonderful) and perhaps the greatest film ending I’ve ever seen.
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9. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan‘s breakthrough moment came into prominence by this movie told in a non-linear way, using black and white sequences for the past and color sequences for present timelines. A man suffering from anterograde amnesia keeps looking for his wife’s killer. His only clues are the tattoos on his body. Apart from the innovative story telling format, the movie is also famous for its open ended finale which makes the viewer wonder.
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8. Double Indemnity (1944)
I do believe I have a strange fascination for murder mysteries that get you to side with the villains. ‘Double Indemnity’ is one of the greatest thrillers ever made, and there’s something so very poetic about its ending. Billy Wilder sets a story based on a premeditated murder plan gone wrong, and it was so tense throughout its runtime that I believe I had no fingernails left by the time it came to a close. Since we follow the bad guys of the tale, there’s always a sense that they’re being watched, what with the way they communicate in utter secrecy, and this sense of a lack of personal space is, I believe, the biggest win that this picture has to its credit. Billy Wilder is a master and ‘Double Indemnity’ is one of my favorite noirs of all time!
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7. Zodiac (2007)
In the late sixties/early seventies, a serial killer was roaming loose on the streets of San Francisco. Each of his killings was followed up by an encrypted letter to the local news papers, taunting the police to crack them. While the police were unable to find the killer, two journalists take it on themselves to solve the mystery. David Fincher tells a chilling tale about the most infamous and still not caught serial killer of the modern era – Zodiac.
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6. Se7en (1995)
Brutal killings, each describing a biblical sin, in an unnamed American city. A soon to be retired detective with his hot headed partner starts looking for this unknown killer called John Doe. After five dead bodies, the killer turns himself over to the police and offers to take them to two more bodies. What transpires next is an amalgamation of disturbing, nasty and thorough bizarreness. David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ is a work of fiction, but somehow it appears to be a truth close to the heart that eventually your sin catches up to you.
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5. The Big Sleep (1946)
‘The Big Sleep’ is the epitome of Humphrey Bogart murder mysteries, giving us a story that’s infamously complex, though I didn’t find it that hard to comprehend. Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel has so much going for it along the lines of murder, seduction, love, and deep, deep secrecy. Bogart plays a detective who gets involved in a blackmailing scheme with the daughter of a wealthy, old man; and this might be his best role, because while I haven’t considered him to be one of the greatest ever American actors, he’s given some extraordinary lines to say here – some of the best cinema has ever offered, in fact. I’d avoided watching ‘The Big Sleep’ for a long, long time because of how undecipherable people told me the plot was, until I discovered what the strange title was referring to: ‘The Big Sleep’ is death.
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4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
I feel not many people give Billy Wilder credit for his ingenious film noir work, three of which appear on this list, including this one. Since I didn’t think ’12 Angry Men’ (1957) and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1959) really counted as murder mysteries despite their plots handling similar themes, I decided to include this masterwork, which could be considered an amalgamation of the aforementioned movies. It is a character-driven courtroom drama homing my favorite Charles Laughton performance, and it delivers the kind of suspense you’d expect (and more) from a film that is adapted from an Agatha Christie novella.
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3. Rear Window (1954)
When murders are being discussed, can the master of mysteries be left out? Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated thriller is about a man in a wheelchair watching his neighbours through his window. One night he hears a scream and sees his neighbour moving surreptitiously. Suspicious that the neighbour killed his wife, he starts surveilling him. A dangerous game of cat and mouse occurs between the two, turning out to be pure fun for the audience. Apart from the suspense, this is an apt mockumentary about today’s fast yet sad life of city-mongers.
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2. Les Diaboliques (1954)
They say, Alfred Hitchcock got his inspiration for ‘Psycho’ from this movie. In every sense, this film gives you the thrills as well the jitters. A notorious headmaster of a french boarding school is much hated by his students, wife and mistress alike. The two distraught women hatch a plan to bump off their common truant and are successful too. But soon, the dead headmaster starts resurfacing in unlikeliest of places. Is it the devil at work? Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this psychological noir was much appreciated by the viewers for its spine chilling plot. In order to protect the explosive finale, the director had the following added to the end of the movie – don’t reveal the plot of Les diaboliques to your friends!
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1. Vertigo (1958)
A man afraid of heights who had seen his fiancé jumping from the top of a tower, suddenly finds her alive. But she claims herself to be someone else. Then who jumped to her death that fateful day? Alfred Hitchcock’s second movie on this list is a true insight to human psyche and a perfect psychological thriller. ‘Vertigo’ has the classic Hitchcock signatory work with a twist in the climax catching the viewer unaware. Released to a mixed review, over the years, ‘Vertigo’ achieved a cult status to be designated as a classic murder mystery.
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