Tom Jolliffe on why the 30’s to 50’s were a golden age for mystery films…
Whether it’s a murder mystery, or a cat and mouse quest to uncover a mystery, the 1930’s, up until the end of the 1950’s saw a prolific output of mystery films. Across world cinema, from Britain, to Hollywood to Europe and Asia, a period of two decades delivered some of the most iconic whodunnits ever committed to film. In an era where there was a distinct level of censorship through most of the worlds major cinema territories, it meant that in order to create a sensation of surprise and tension for the audience, a watertight screenplay and impeccable direction were required in order lure you into a story that slowly weaved its magic.
One director in particular stands out across that era for an array of mystery films, with a mix of noir, espionage, intrigue, psychological mystery and more. Alfred Hitchcock began the 30’s well established as a director (having made a number of memorable films in the silent era). He began a particular fascination with mystery cinema that tended to permeate the majority of his career. Most of his iconic films have an overriding mystery. Some of his early films were more linear mystery thrillers (occasionally from literary source) such as The 39 Steps (such an iconic story which has been adapted many times in film and TV, as well as stage).
This classic, enthralling and superbly written mystery sees Hannay stitched up for the murder of an espionage agent, who travels from London to Scotland in order to find the real perpetrators, clear his name, and foil a plot to sell international secrets. Not only was it an early sign of Hitchcock’s ability to expertly stage every scene (from his choice of shots and blocking to his pacing,) but it’s also a film with exquisite dialogue (it zings, and it’s still wryly amusing to this day).
The same decade also saw Hitchcock deliver such classic mystery films as The Man Who Knew Too Little and The Lady Vanishes, both of which have been revamped over the years (the former, remade by Hitchcock himself). In 1940 Hitchcock would make Rebecca, a gripping mystery with drama and romance, that saw a woman struggling with the spectre of her new husbands late ex wife. This notion of a man still gripped by an overwhelming inability to let go of the tragic past, was something Hitchcock would revisit with even more elaborate plot and twists in the incomparable Vertigo (at the end of the 50’s, to an extent raising the bar to a degree that the humble mystery film would rarely match henceforth). Hitchcock was a master of creating an engrossing story, with satisfying payoffs. His peak era in the 50’s, crossing into the early 60’s saw him at his most adventurous and precise, giving us the likes of Rear Window, Psycho and North By Northwest.
Stylistically the era, predominantly black and white of course, offered a distinctly noir look that was popular. From playful use of shadows to continuing groundbreaking techniques (long takes, oners, camera movement and engaging blocking, dutch angles), films like The Third Man or A Touch of Evil, weaved their magic with a visual style that has been proven timeless since. The Third Man particularly, largely taking place at night with beautiful visuals and expert use of shadow was a perfect example of crafting slow brooding tension, as Joseph Cotton suspects something fishy about the death of a good friend and begins investigating in Vienna. The locales look wonderful of course, and there’s something distinct and lavish about those old studio films, whether they shot on location (or more commonly back then) on studio back lots. The Third Man had a particular penchant for off kilter angles and withdrawn voyeuristic camera angles, be it raised angles, low angles or its infamous use of the Dutch angle (a noticeable tilt). From the off it sets us on the footing that something is amiss, that there’s a definite inherent mystery to the story. From the reveal of the third man (turning out to be the ‘late’ Harry Lime himself, played with charismatic relish by Orson Welles) to an astonishingly staged finale, this film is pure atmosphere, directed with distinct flair by Carol Reed.
There did seem a distinct fascination with detective stories and adaptions like The Maltese Falcon. Film-makers, taking no shortage of inspiration from silent era European cinema (particularly in use of harsh shadows) were trying to create their own distinct ways of shooting. A lot of care was taken in creating these studio movies and a real desire to make exceptional work. Perhaps this is something slightly lost in modern studio cinema which is all about recreating the old, or making products over art, but the 30’s to 50’s was a booming era of groundbreaking cinema, only matched (or just about bettered by the late 60’s-70’s, which also saw a new wave of excellent mystery films such as Chinatown, Klute and The Conversation).
Adding a dash of horror would also become popular toward the latter part of this golden era (and have a profound influence on the giallo, which blended whoddunit mystery with macabre horror). Les Diaboliques, a masterfully made thriller which seemed to have a direct influence on Hitchcock’s late 50’s shift to push himself to a whole new level of intrigue was moody, dark, tense and unsettling. A wife and mistress off the husband at the apex of this triangle, believing they have the perfect alibi. The only problem is, the body has disappeared, and thereby begins a brooding mystery where the wife in particular is slowly driven mad by the spectre of the ‘deceased.’ I don’t think an era has consistently mastered atmosphere quite like this period. That’s as a whole, no matter the genre. Atmosphere and creating a sense of your surroundings (and giving said locales associations with everything from dread to claustrophobia), are paramount to the success of a mystery too. Whether you’re in Vienna, Scotland, in Japan (with Kurosawa in particular, capable of crafting brilliant mystery thrillers like Stray Dog) or in remote France. Whether you’re limited to predominantly one location or spread across many, this is an essential part of enrapturing an audience and bringing them along for the ride. They just don’t make them like this anymore. Some recommendations; (besides anything from Hitchcock and Welles not mentioned, and any Sherlock of the era), Detour, Rashomon, The Big Sleep, The Naked City, The Woman in The Window, The Uninvited, The Spiral Staircase, Ministry of Fear.
What’s your favourite mystery film? What was the greatest era of mysteries? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/