The Demise of the Whodunnit Movie
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: “The Usual Suspects” is a terrific throwback to the kind of movie you don’t see a lot of these days. It’s a mystery, a great, old-fashioned mystery, complete with a criminal mastermind, a number of deliberately diversionary devices, some obscure but logical clues, and it is fired by the best of questions: Who done it? Most movies made nowadays are thrillers, not mysteries.
It makes you wonder why. Are we tired of discovering who done it? Do we no longer care? Would we rather see a shoot ‘em up or to be more accurate an explode ‘em up than a story of cleverness and intrigue that makes us want to work through a puzzle?
Not that the new thrillers aren’t fun to watch. Many decent-minded people would not go near one, but my low- minded friends and I dearly love to head for the theater, preferably for the last of the late shows, and hunker down in the fourth or fifth row to watch Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger beat up or blow up much of the world. It is very relaxing.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (in “True Lies” segment) Do you tango?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The movie “True Lies” begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger looking natty in a tux, waltzing into a lavish party to which he was not invited, then tangoing with a beautiful villainess and finally, as he fox trots away after a halcyon evening, blowing the place sky high. Typical behavior for today’s thrillers, almost boring really.
All you have to do is see Steven Seagal walk into a bar filled with unshaven characters and you know at once, there goes the neighborhood. Compare all this mayhem to the “Mask of Dimitrios,” the grand old mystery film to which the usual suspect has a pleasant resemblance, or those wonderful mysteries made between the 1930s and the early 1970s, “The Kennel Murder Case.”
WOMAN: I think he’s dead.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: “Stage Fright.”
WOMAN: I didn’t mean it.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: “Bullitt.” “Charade.”
AUDREY HEPBURN: She didn’t do it.
CARY GRANT: Oh, she did it all right.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: “Klute,” splendid pictures all. The idea behind such films was that the audience wanted to be titillated, indeed, thrilled with a problem that needed solving, that everyone was deep in hers or her problem-solving heart a Sherlock Holmes. Thus, the popular Sherlock Holmes series of movies in the 1940′s with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: My conjecture is that he’ll be murdered.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Few of those films were true whodunits, since the audience knew it was usually Professor Moriarity, but they were mysteries in the sense of urging us to follow a mind on a trail.
DR. NO: A medium dry martini, lemon peel, shaken, not stirred.
DR. NO: Of course.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: It may have been the James Bond series that eventually drove our mystery movies away. Audiences may have decided that it was more entertaining to see a hero destroy than seek, or maybe that mysteries, themselves, were no longer interesting. Thrillers are more like microwaves or minute rice; they’re quicker; they cut to the chase, rather than chase.
Maybe people decided that in an unjust world justice was more efficiently served by a Rambo armed to the teeth, shooting everyone in sight, than by a William Powell or a Dick Powell or a Humphrey Bogart or an Alan Ladd, doggedly progressing from clue to clue. But “The Usual Suspects” is a reminder of how gratifying it can be to sit in the dark and wonder how things will turn out.
ACTOR: If I see you or any of your friends before then, Ms. Finneran will find herself the victim of a most gruesome violation before she dies, as, indeed, will your father, Mr. Hockney. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: We have evolved in this past century from “who done it” to “done it.” Still, there is nothing like that wondering. What I miss most in movies is the final wrap-up scene: Charlie Chan naming the murderer as the lights go out, or Sam Spade giving up the murderess he loves, or the Saint or the Falcon, or Nick Charles.
ACTOR: A murderer is right in this room, sitting at this table. You may serve the fish.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Was there ever a better wrap-up than the final dinner scene in “The Thin Man,” in which suspect after suspect is eliminated until we come down to the one most unlikely suspect, who done it? Picture Steven Seagal walking in on that dinner. First he says, “Okay. One of you is guilty.” Then he blows up the room.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.