With the critical and commercial success of Knives Out and its sequel Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the genre of comedy mystery has made an endearing comeback to Hollywood. However, any mystery film buff can affirm that the success of the Daniel Craig-starring franchise only works because it gets the old tropes of the whodunit genre right. This genre gained popularity in the 1930s with films like Ghost Parade and The Limejuice Mystery or Who Spat in Grandfather’s Porridge. The former was directed by Mack Sennett, who was considered the “King of Comedy” at the time.
Several artists started their comedy film career with Sennett, including including Charlie Chaplin. As an actor, Sennett also played played Sherlock Holmes 11 times, adding to his interest of fusing comedy and mystery in his filmmaking career. Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, The Limejuice Mystery or Who Spat in Grandfather’s Porridge was a parody of Sherlock Holmes with a protagonist named Herlock Sholmes who solves a murder mystery in a bar. One can trace this genre to be as old as Hollywood, sustaining its popularity till-date for its feel-good blend of suspense and entertainment. Every day is a perfect day for a satisfying comedy-mystery with eccentric characters and intriguing clues that completes the final puzzle. Here are 10 classic comedy mystery movies that still tickles the funny bones.
Clue is inspired from the popular board game of the same name. Six guests are invited to a mysterious mansion for dinner, but the night goes awry with a suspicious murder, leaving the guests to identify the murderer amongst them. The film unfolds like a game, filled with several references to the board game, including the color-coded names of the lead characters and their weapons. The film was directed by Jonathan Lynn and starred Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Brennan, Michael McKean, Leslie Ann Warren and Madeline Kahn as the leading characters. The film had three possible endings and can be considered much ahead of its time for its experimental concept. Although the film was considered a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, it has gained cult status amongst mystery film fans and has inspired several other films and TV shows.
Fletch stars Chevy Chase as Irwin M Fletcher aka Fletch who is a witty investigative journalist on an undercover operation to bust a drug trafficking ring on a beach. Fletch is charming but not free of troubles as he balances his professional hazards and his personality issues. Fletch also stars Joe Don Baker, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Richard Libertini, Tim Matheson, M. Emmet Walsh and was directed by Michael Ritchie. Chase’s performance as Fletch holds an iconic status for making the character irresistibly likable, making the film a box office hit as well as gain cult status in the later years. The film was followed by a sequel, Fletch Lives, which too became commercially successful. The character is representative of the smart-stupid duality that several comedy actors like Bob Odenkirk can bring to their performance, which was typical of television entertainment in the 1980s – 1990s.
8 The Thin Man
The Thin Man follows Nick Charles, a retired detective played by William Powell, who investigates a missing inventor with his wife Nora. The film fulfills the checklist of what makes a classic comedy mystery for its enjoyable characters, red herrings and hit or miss clues that keep viewers guessing. The film was also produced during the Hollywood Pre-Code era (1927- 1934), when for a brief time filmmakers could explore explicit themes such as infidelity, violence, abortion etc. in their stories before the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code which censored the depiction of such sensitive subjects. The Thin Man explored the notions of sexuality and romance in a married couple, which was not shown in films of the era. The film enjoyed commercial success that led to five sequels, turning Nick and Nora into one of the most admired Hollywood couples.
7 Murder by Death
Murder by Death is a parody of 5 fictional detectives that are inspired from popular characters such as Earl Derr Biggers, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple and Sam Spade. In this murder-mystery detective fest, five famous detectives are invited to a mansion to solve a case. Things take an ugly turn when they realize they too are targets for murder. The film was directed by Robert Moore and starred classic Hollywood flag bearers such as Peter Flak, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers and Truman Capote. The movie was a nod to the works of Agatha Christie and characters that made the detective genre gain worldwide popularity. Murder by Death was applauded for its satire and the performance of by an all-star cast of American and British actors. Truman Capote was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture, and Neil Simon was nominated for his screenplay by the Writers Guild of America Awards.
Charade follows a widow named Regina Lampert, played by Audrey Hepburn, who is caught in a dark web of murder, betrayal and danger as her late husband leaves behind more troubles after his demise. Regina seeks help from a mysterious man named Peter, played by Cary Grant, only to realize he too cannot be trusted. Charade was shot in Paris and is known for its iconic cinematography and performance by the leading Hollywood stars. The glamorous chemistry between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn became a huge selling-point of the film, even though the age difference between the two actors were put under scrutiny. Hepburn’s stylistic aura, funny dialogues and eccentric plot twists makes the film an entertaining watch despite its undertone of violence and themes of deceit.
5 Murder, She Said
Murder, She Said is based on 4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie. The film follows the detective Miss Marple played by Margaret Rutherford who witnesses a murder on a passing train but she is not taken seriously by the authorities when she approaches them. Seeing the negligence, Miss Marple takes matter into her own hands and solves the case in an undercover mission.
The film interpreted Miss Marple in a different light than the book, and several other creative liberties had been taken to adapt to the comedic tone of the film. Agatha Christie was not on board with several aspects of the film, including the Rutherford’s interpretation of Miss Marple as a working independent woman as opposed to Christie’s interpretation of Miss Maple who was meek and never had a job. Later, Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side to Rutherford.
4 The Cat and The Canary
The Cat and the Canary is another comedy mystery that takes place in a mansion. The film follows a group of people who gather to hear the reading of a will, only to find themselves in the traps of a murderer. The film was directed by Elliott Nugent and starred Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. Hope was applauded for his comic timing and the story remains a favorite amongst mystery and comedy fans alike, as The Cat and the Canary is as great a comedy film along with its suspenseful story devices.
3 A Shot In The Dark
A Shot In The Dark is the sequel to the first Pink Panther film. The film follows Inspector Clouseau, who is assigned to investigate a murder. He meets his partner who is equally incompetent as Clouseau, thus ensuing a laughter riot of comedy of errors as they solve the murder. Peter Sellers reprises his role as Inspector Jacques Clouseau from Sûreté who is characterized by his exaggerated French accent and his clumsy nature. Everything Clouseau touches turns into havoc, making it an entertaining watch. Peter Sellers created this iconic character who is known for his physical comedy. Several other actors added their own idiosyncrasies to the character in the future adaptations, but Seller’s performance remains the most iconic till date.
2 The Trouble with Harry
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Trouble with Harry is one of the few films by the director where humor goes hand in hand with suspense. The film follows Harry, played by Edmund Gwenn, who is found dead in a small town in Vermont. This results in the dwellers of the town to have their own theory about Harry and his untimely death. As they speculate, the story unravels their motives as everyone becomes clear suspects to his alleged murder. The film did not do as well as Hitchcock’s other acclaimed films but is known for its awkward and absurd sense of humor which complemented well to the dark tone of the movie, making it a rare Hitchcock film.
1 The Pink Panther Strikes again
The Pink Panther Strikes Again is the fifth installment to the Pink Panther Film series. Peter Sellers reprises his role as the clumsy and forgetful Inspector Jacques Clouseau as he solves the case involving several assassins across Europe. The film is iconic for its old-timey comic gags, physical comedy and the camaraderie between Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom. The film was a massive box office success, earning $75 million from a budget of $6 million. The film is often considered to be the most unconventional in the entire franchise for its eccentric fool-vs-villain dynamic. The film was nominated for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actor for Peter Sellers at the Golden Globe Awards.