The Verdict of Us All: Our Favourite Mystery Film

It has been eons since we did our last The Verdict of Us All collaborative post, (2,3 years?), so I thought it would be good to begin with a reminder of what these posts are all about. They were inspired by the panel discussions at Bodies from the Library conference and these posts were designed to mirror them. Each post is a discussion around a specific theme and is comprised of a panel of fellow bloggers. The blogger responses are a little longer than usual this time, but I think that demonstrates how much everyone loves the film they have chosen. So without further ado here are the mystery films recommendations…

First up is Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery blog, who sent his response was emailed to me in record time. But given his highly popular choice I think we can see why…

Leave it to Kate to come up with a virtual stumper for the latest “Verdict of Us All!” Recently, I decided to divide my vast collection of DVDs into categories rather than shelve them alphabetically. I was honestly surprised to discover that over half of my film collection was comprised of mysteries of both the film and TV variety. You would think I would have a terrible time coming up with a favorite.

It turns out, however, that my favorite film of all time happens to be a mystery: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window. And so my choice was an easy one. What’s harder to do is to write about it in a limited enough way that doesn’t hog the space from the other bloggers. (Their choices are wonderful, too!) I’ve written at length about the film on my own blog, so here I want to say a few things I haven’t said before.

If Hitchcock had produced a film more faithful to Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” we would be dealing here with a nifty little noir thriller – and I would probably be talking about a different movie. What makes Rear Window a perfect film is how it operates on two levels. As a whodunit, – or, rather, a “did-he-do-it” – the film ratchets up the suspense brilliantly, taking us to a point where we’re sure Mr. Thorwald killed his wife, then pulling the rug out from under us, and then starting all over with that ratcheting business until the tense climax in the dark between hero and villain.

While some mystery fans would deem this enough, Hitchcock has other things to say, and he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that murder mysteries can delve into the deeper mysteries of the heart. The classic closed circle of suspects here becomes a closed circle of neighbors, each of them interconnected without even knowing one another. Every little moment where Hitchcock reveals this connectedness, often in passing, enriches the film’s effect on the viewer. The requisite second murder that so often appears in a GAD novel merely to goose our interest here proves to be a necessary plot twist that propels us into the final act. Best of all, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), our over-eager amateur sleuth, solves more than a possible murder; since his life oddly mirrors that of his prey, he uncovers some hard truths about himself, and his relationship with the gorgeous, utterly perfect Lisa (Grace Kelly), leading to a (hopefully) idyllic resolution for the pair. With Raymond Burr at his sinister best – the antithesis of Perry Mason – a scene-stealing, hilarious Thelma Ritter, and a marvelous cast of near unknowns as the nameless people in the windows across the way, Rear Window is one of those films you can watch again and again – even though you know the “solution” – and discover something new and marvelous every time.

Our next blogger, John, writer of the Noirish blog, is a newcomer to The Verdict of Us All panel, but his debut appearance shows he is more than up for the challenge…

The identity of my favourite mystery movie, like the identity of my favorite anything (except, of course, my wife and daughter), tends to change with each new day, but among the four or five that remain always at or near the top of my list is In a Lonely Place (1950). It’s arguably the finest hour of one of my favourite actors, Gloria Grahame, and likewise of the great director Nick Ray. As a bonus you get Humphrey Bogart; indeed, the movie was done by Bogart’s production company, Santana, to which Grahame was rented out for the occasion by RKO. Grahame was not in fact the first choice—Ginger Rogers and Lauren Bacall were approached before her—but, watching the movie today, it seems inconceivable that anyone else could have played the part so effectively. An additional frisson was added by the fact that Grahame’s marriage to director Ray was at the time crumbling: something of a free spirit, Grahame had been caught in bed with Ray’s son, her stepson. So worried about all this was producer Robert Lord that he took the precaution of putting clauses into Grahame’s contract stating that, during working hours, she had to be subservient in every way to her director. (The two behaved professionally and the situation never became a problem.)

Loosely based on a splendid Dorothy B. Hughes novel, the movie concerns screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart), a man with a history of violence whom circumstances conspire to make Suspect #1 in a murder. The person whose evidence seems to prove his innocence is his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame). The two fall in love and their thoughts turn toward marriage, yet Laurel is terrified of Dix’s sudden, uncontrollable outbursts. The final straw is Dix’s attempt to strangle her on learning she’d rather flee than go through with the wedding. In the closing moments, Laurel speaks the famous lines: “Yesterday this would have meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.” And, as the two protagonists head for their separate lonely places, she tearfully quotes an earlier line of Dix’s: “I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”

Almost everything about the movie is perfectly done, from performances to dialogue to cinematography. The only aspect that gives me pause from time to time is Bogart’s performance: I find his portrayals of Dix’s eruptions of fury a bit contrived. (Mind you, anyone acting opposite Gloria Grahame at her peak might feel bullish about coming off as high as deuxième.) In terms of mystery In a Lonely Place is fairly easy on the old grey cells, because all that’s really at stake is whether or not Dix is guilty, a question that remains open to us as audience even after the end of the movie, despite the (screen) cops having made up their own minds. Thanks to the pacing and Grahame’s marvellous ability to express emotions through her face, eyes, diction and slightest movements, I get drawn right into the movie every time I watch it, and afterwards have to make an effort to pull myself out of it. Yes, today it’s definitely #1 on my favourites list.

Following on from John is Bev, reading challenge deviser extraordinaire and writer of the blog My Reader’s Block and her choice is another classic of the genre…

I love Laura (1944) for a variety of reasons. The movie is a classic in misdirection and is a wonderful period mystery. You have a corpse that isn’t quite what you think it is.  And a dead woman who may not be quite as dead as you think.  Is the “corpse” really the murderer?  Or has someone else missed their target?  Detective Mark McPherson spends his time interviewing suspects, looking through Laura’s letters, and reading her diary in an attempt to understand this woman and who might have wanted to kill her.  He’d like Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) to be the villain of the piece, but he’s not sure he can make it fit. I am a solid Price fangirl and enjoy watching him in something other than a straight villainous/horror part. He is quite slimy in a genteel, gold-digging kind of way. Dana Andrews (McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), and Gene Tierney (Laura) are all perfect in their parts. Andrews as the tough detective; Webb as the rather effete newspaper columnist who feels he has claims upon Laura because of the part he played in starting her career; and Tierney as the mysterious and lovely Laura.  If you haven’t seen this classic film, you should–you’re in for a treat.

Next up is John from Pretty Sinister blog and in keeping with his love of discussing all things obscure, has a picked a film a little more off the beaten track…

Anyone familiar with the classic movie Gaslight will catch on fairly quickly to the basic plot of one of my favorite suspense films Sleep, My Love (1948).  Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) is being victimized by her philandering husband, (low key and monotone voiced Don Ameche), who wants her locked up in the loony bin so he can live happily ever after with his lover Daphne, (sultry Hazel Brooks in a text book femme fatale role), a wicked city woman who works in a photo studio and likes to parade around in flimsy negligees. Joining in this conspiracy to drive poor Alison out of her mind are Daphne’s sinister photographer boss (menacing George Coulouris) and his mousy ill-informed wife (ubiquitous character actress Queenie Smith turning in another sharp portrait). Raymond Burr also makes a brief appearance in two scenes as a police detective.  From the opening shots when Colbert wakes up to find herself inexplicably on board a train speeding out of New York City to the climax taking place in the shadow drenched brownstone apartment with a startling view of the Queensboro Bridge, Sleep, My Love is a thoroughly entertaining example of the urbane crime drama. In the hands of director Douglas Sirk who would later become famous for his Technicolor melodramas in the 1950s it is lush and creepy and sometimes takes your breath away in its avowed wickedness.

So what if many of the scenes seem lifted from better done movies.  Ameche passes a drugged cup of cocoa to his wife in one sequence with several sinister close-ups and even a scene of Ameche walking up the staircase as shot from above that clearly is inspired by the similar poisoned glass of milk scenes in Suspicion (1941).  Amid all the plotting and scheming there is a bizarre comic section involving a wedding in Chinatown!  I truly love this movie for its noirish lighting, heightened drama, creepy score and some excellent acting, especially newcomer Hazel Brooks in her screen debut. Hazel is worth the price of admission alone. She is deliciously amoral in all her scenes, absolutely fabulous in the movie.  When she says “I want everything she has!” with such deadly earnestness you know exactly why Ameche has become her love slave and obeys her every wish. Had Brooks decided to stay in films instead of getting married and becoming a fashion photographer she easily could have surpassed both Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor as the epitome of the deadly dame in Noir cinema. Sleep, My Love is available in an excellently produced DVD from Olive Films.  At one point that version had been uploaded to YouTube where I so happily stumbled across it, but it’s since been deleted.

Our next choice from the Puzzle Doctor, (writer of the blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, and Brian Flynn revivalist), brings our film recommendations into the 90s…

I first saw Dead Again in the cinema when it was released in 1991. Before that, Kenneth Branagh had directed the outstanding film version of Henry V – it has one of my favourite shots in cinema, the tracking shot over the field of Agincourt after the battle – so it seemed an odd choice to switch to what appeared to be Film Noir. The film tells of Mike Church, an LA private eye and Grace, an amnesiac who he is hired to help. In attempting to uncover her memories through hypnosis, Grace finds herself living her past life from the 1940s. In the 1940s, Margaret Strauss was brutally murdered by her husband Roman – a man who is the spitting image of Mike.

I mentioned that this appears to be Film Noir, but it’s so much more than that. It has an excellent cast – Branagh’s US accent sounds pretty good to me, and he’s ably assisted by Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia and an uncredited Robin Williams – and the imagery is very impressive, with the past scenes, shot in black and white, looking particularly stunning. But it’s the plot that makes it. This is a proper mystery – although I won’t spoil exactly what the viewer is supposed to solve – and there are some beautiful clues that the most observant viewer won’t spot on the first viewing, but are in plain sight on a second viewing. It’s a masterpiece of plotting that I’ve rarely seen in a cinematic film – if you haven’t seen it, you really, really should…

However, with Moira from the blog Clothes in Books, we’re jumping back to the 1940s…

My favourite mystery film – now and forever – is Green for Danger, based on the Christianna Brand novel of that name – book published 1944, b/w film 1946 (UK)/47 (US), director Sidney Gilliat. The real test of a great film, I consider, comes when you catch 10 seconds on a TV channel while flicking: would you know instantly what film it was, and what scene – and, would you be unable to move away from the TV for however long it takes to watch the rest of it? This film passes that test. Alastair Sim (Inspector Cockrill) and Trevor Howard (Dr Barney) are both superb, but so is the rest of the cast. The story is set in a war-time hospital outside London: bombs are dropping and emergency surgery is going ahead. Someone dies on the operating table, and one of the medical staff must be responsible. This small group of friends gets more and more claustrophobic and terrified. The already slightly manic atmosphere of a busy hospital is very well-done and convincing – hard work but also romance and social events, gossip on the wards, the shift patterns and shared accommodation. An outsider knows too much: there is a truly scary scene of come-uppance. I first saw Green for Danger when I was about 12, and I think I didn’t sleep for three nights – it is always reported that it couldn’t be shown in in certain institutional settings as being too scary, and making people mistrust hospitals. The climax is a reconstruction of the crime during which the viewer scarcely breathes. It is very atmospheric and very funny, and completely irresistible – I know every line (‘You’ve got a nerve!’ is a great family catchphrase round here) and clue and nuance, but would still watch it again today. In fact I may have to go and do so right now…

Our next choice sees another blogger debut appearance from Aidan, writer of the blog Mysteries Ahoy – a blog name which should give you a clue as to which film he has picked…

My selection for this will not be my favorite mystery movie. I have written and spoken quite recently about my love for The Third Man. Instead I am selecting a piece of comfort cinema – the mystery movie I turn to when I am in need of smiles and general good cheer. Murder Ahoy!

In truth I could have selected any of the Rutherford Marple films. That is in part because they stick to a bit of a formula. Jaunty music, comical misadventures, familiar British character actors and a proposal at the end. Murder Ahoy has one thing in particular going for it – it is a (largely) original story and so you can’t get mad about missed moments or plot mangling. Just sit back and enjoy the sight of Rutherford parading around in a sailor-inspired outfit, some lovely guest appearances (including a very young Nicholas Parsons) and a pretty entertaining mystery plot. It may not really be Christie but it is a heap of fun!

… and then of course there is my own choice, which was no easy decision and in fact took a number of film watching sessions to pin down. The main problem was watching a film I thought I really loved, to then after re-watching it, feeling rather ‘meh’ about it all. However, at long last I made my decision and it is…

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956), which was the film adaptation of Philip Macdonald’s 1938 novel, The Nursemaid who Disappeared a.k.a.  Warrant for X. A key reason why I enjoy this film is the way information is unfolded to us piece by piece; from the protagonist, play writing Philip Hannon’s blindness, to the case he eventually uncovers and intervenes in. Hannon’s entry into crime he goes onto investigate is wonderfully set up, with him overhearing a conversation in a pub, between two people, in a private room behind him. Outside noises prevent him from getting a perfect hearing and the voices of the two characters are also partially muffled. It’s not surprising that the police don’t feel they can do much with it when Hannon initially turns over his information.

Like a cold case mystery, such as Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, Hannon is able to find out more about the impending crime in plausible ways, regardless of the nebulous beginning and the unconventional methods employed. Despite Hannon’s blindness, a number of dangerous action scenes are included, their peril heightened by Hannon’s vulnerability. A bombed out building is used to great effect in one such scene, with the audience on the edge of their seats as the tension mounts and Hannon doesn’t realise the danger he is in. Yet the audience have become invested in Hannon’s character long before this point, as even though he is at times a prickly character who pushes others away, he is still one you can sympathise with. The early presence of his fractured relationship with Jean Lennox, who he used to be engaged to, also helps the audience get attached to the central characters and part of you hopes the case will bring them back together.  The film ends on a high note with a showdown like a darker version of Home Alone, and with a significant nod to Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?  If you enjoyed Rear Window, (which we all know Brad did!), then this film bears a number of similarities, not least in the choice of central character. The Sherlock Holmes reference is a slight one, but the tension and mystification is not, so it is definitely one I can recommend.

So there’s our selection of favourite mystery films. Which ones have you seen? Which ones are you going to be tracking down this weekend to watch for the first time? Let us know and also join in the discussion by sharing your own favourite films with us.

57 comments

  1. MURDER AHOY is the only one of your panelist’s choices I haven’t seen, and it’s a commendable list, though I think some mystery purists, such as purism can be said to exist in that rubric, would cry “Suspense!” or “Intense character drama!” in a case or two. Since you have reminded me, and I like Noircyclopdia’s John Grant have too many favorites to pick just one static example, I’ll go ahead and cite the film version of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW at the moment, not least for its jazz-heavy score and over-the-top but utterly fitting ending.

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    • True we did take a more relaxed definition of ‘mystery,’ but I think the variety of choices means there will (hopefully) be something for everyone.
      I haven’t watched any of the Rutherford films either. Though I like Aidan’s reasoning that they’re so outlandish that you can’t get mad at them!

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  2. Of all the films listed the only one I haven’t seen is Sleep My Love, but I’ll definately be looking for it now. I’m actually torn when it comes to my favorite, as it changes depending on my mood, but at this moment I would have to say it’s Wait Until Dark (1967). Very atmospheric and suspenseful.

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  3. I believed to have seen most of the films except perhaps Murder Ahoy!
    However my favourite film will be Elevator to the Gallows (French: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud; previously known as Frantic in the US), also known as Lift to the Scaffold (UK), a 1958 French crime film directed by Louis Malle.

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  4. A very interesting collection of views. I loved “Green for Danger” as a book and anything with Alastair Sim is worth watching so I must get hold of that one. I’m also quite intrigued by the Branagh/Thompson film.

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  5. More French films, all by Henri-Georges Clouzot: Le Corbeau, about poison-pen letters in a French provincial town, Les Diaboliques, about the wife and the mistress of a cheese-paring boarding-school headmaster and Quai des Orfèvres, about an ambitious music-hall singer, her jealous husband and a rich lecherous old man. The last has Louis Jouvet as the detective and isn’t as dominated by Clouzot’s misanthropy.

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  6. Although I’m fond of nearly all of the films cited in the post (one major exception— despite the wonderful score, cast, and portrait, I find the plot of Laura exceedingly boring), only one of them makes my list of top ten favorite mystery films:

    1. And Then There Were None 1945

    2. Green For Danger 1946

    3. The Last Of Sheila 1973

    4. Death On The Nile 1978

    5. The Kennel Murder Case 1933

    6. The Verdict 1946

    7. Love Letters Of A Star 1936

    8. The Phantom Of Crestwood 1932

    9. Charlie Chan In Paris 1935

    10. Affairs Of A Gentleman 1934

    Incidentally, though it doesn’t make my top ten, the 1939 film version of The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (which is much more faithful to the source novel than is 23 Paces to Baker Street) makes it in my top 15.

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  7. I think a triple feature of Blow Up/The Conversation/Blow Out would satisfy any mystery lover. The unknowns in these films are based on photography and sound, making them ideal cinematic mysteries.

    For a more conventional mystery, Preminger’s Laura is wonderful. Of course, more than half of Hitchcock or Chabrol could go here. Night Moves, Chinatown, The Parallax View…too many to choose from.

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    • No disagreement here: Blow Out, in particular, is a personal favorite. On the other hand, pace Nancy Allen (of whom I’m a huge fan, because I think she’s one of our most underrated actors), there’s no Gloria Grahame in it.

      Hm. Thinking further. This was the first movie I ever saw that persuaded me John Travolta could act. He’s pretty damn’ fine here.

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    • Those are all excellent films, but for me the highest aim of a mystery is what I refer to as “sudden retrospective inevitability”— a simultaneous sense of surprise and inevitability—and I feel there’s very little of that in the titles you mentioned.

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      • You’re quite right. I’m not sure the mystery genre as we know it from GAD translates all that well to film. I enjoyed the adaptations of Green For Danger and And Then There Were None just fine, but they aren’t what I would call great cinema. Lots of whodunnits end up looking rather stagebound. The Italian giallo films might be the ones that give me the same wonderful feeling of dread I get from a good murder mystery, but they are usually horribly violent or moronically constructed. The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Fifth Cord, and (if you can stomach the violence) Deep Red are fantastic cinematic mysteries that might have the quality of inevitability you mentioned.

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      • It’s hard to judge Dial M For Murder properly as it was meant to be in 3-D. One problem with Hitchcock (for this list) is that his movies lean far more towards the thriller category. Some of his films might qualify as inverted mysteries — Frenzy comes to mind.

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    • I thought about Vertigo in this context — who wouldn’t? — but at the same time is it really a great mystery movie? The various contributors here clearly aren’t idiots yet didn’t place it: Why, Ken? They didn’t place Psycho either, even though Psycho is obviously a far better known movie than most of those discussed here.

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      • The usual reason people disagree with me: they were dropped on their heads as infants 😉
        Seriously you’d have to ask them. I think it fits within what Kate said was a loose definition of mystery. But everyone has their own definition.

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      • The thing people do in reply to questions like this is to mention the films people might not know but would like to see – that ‘s probably why The Maltese Falcon (and The Big Sleep) aren’t here, I think.
        The thing about Vertigo is that it isn’t a very good mystery film. It may – as critics say – be the best film ever made, but it’s other thingswe remember, not the mystery. In the same way, we remember The Bid Sleep as a wisecracking screwball comedy, rather than a mystery. There’s actually a version of The Big Sleep that emphasises the mystery, but hardly anyone has seen or thinks of it.

        Another very good unknown mystery that isn’t a mystery is Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin. partly a police procedural about the hunt for a criminal gang in the USSR in 1935, partly a picture of people who believe they are building the future and are going to be betrayed seen through the memories of a child.

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    • As I’ve often said, defining a genre is like marking the outline of a cloud. For me, the defining feature of the genre that interests me is my aforementioned “sudden retrospective illumination,” of which there’s little to none in Vertigo and The Maltese Falcon, and only a small (though choice) bit in Chinatown (the Albacore Club thing). On the other hand, two other highly lauded films rarely cited as “mysteries,” Citizen Kane and Brief Encounter, both benefit from a strong presence of that element. That is, Brief Encounter actually has more of what I seek in the works of Carr and Christie than does The Maltese Falcon (a paradigm shift that allows for a new, surprising understanding of that which one witnessed before), but should it be considered “of the genre”? It’s hard to say.

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      • There are actually two mysyeries in Citizen Kane. The really mysterious one is: how does anyone know Kane’s dying word was “Rosebud” when there was no-one in the room – the nurse rushes in just after he dies?

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      • I’ve heard that several times, but how do we know there’s no one else in the room? We certainly never see the entirety of the room, and the presence of the camera itself is proof that there is a place in it where someone could be standing unseen out of camera view.

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  8. The reason I didn’t choose Vertigo was because I heard that Ken liked it.

    Seriously, it’s a brilliant film, but less so for its mystery, as Roger has already pointed out. It has a great twist in the middle, and that’s where Hitchcock preferred his twists to be. He was never a fan of the whodunit. Rear Window may not be a whodunit, but it is just as thematically brilliant as Vertigo and ten times more entertaining.

    I don’t want to encourage Scott, but I agree with him that Citizen Kane is a fabulous mystery. The ending shocks and pleases, but if Scott uses that term one more time in this post, I will drop HIM on his head.

    I have to agree with James about the tendency for whodunits to be stodgy on screen. They simply are too reliant on words and not enough on visuals. I wish I had a greater tolerance for gore because there are some interesting slasher films out there. But I think this group cheerfully went further afield from the whodunit for this post; otherwise, you would have basically seen half of Scott’s list up here, most of them the standard replies when asked for a list of best mystery films. In cinema, mystery encompasses so much more than the “who.”

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    • You don’t scare me there, Brad— is I hadn’t already been dropped on my head, I probably wouldn’t be in this conversation!

      Don’t get me wrong— a lot of my favorite films are films that would be classified under the wider definition of mystery: THE THIRD MAN, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, REBECCA, STATE SECRET, DIAL M FOR MURDER, THE THIN MAN, THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED, CHARADE, THE LADY VANISHES, GUILT AS HELL, THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, CHINATOWN, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. And many of these have unmistakable puzzle plot elements. But at the same time, most of them have got less of that (for me) requisite element (that I shall resist naming for at least this comment) that can be found in the 40’s romance BRIEF ENCOUNTER— which no one in their right mind would refer to as a mystery. So unless we choose to find new, more specific genre names (e.g. “paradigm shift cinema”?), I find it impossible to delineate genre boundaries.

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