by Tom George Hammond
“I suspect foul play”.
It was a sheer joy to watch Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, even if the central mystery was not that difficult to untangle, purely for the paraphernalia of the whodunnit that was littered across every scene. The house of the deceased Harlan Thrombey was built from the same blueprints as Clue’s neo-gothic mansion, and the former’s interiors brimmed with the eccentric design of Andrew Wyke’s writerly retreat in Sleuth. The Thrombey family were so carefully created they almost appeared three-dimensional; Don Johnson’s buffoonish, Hamilton-quoting Richard Drysdale was the most enjoyably nasty one of the clan, but Jamie Lee Curtis brought a prickly humanity to her role as the eldest of the Thrombey siblings, keeping her kin from sliding into pure caricature. The greatest deception of Knives Out was its advertising campaign, which suggests an ensemble mystery which never arrives. Instead there is the surprise of Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, in a toweringly quiet performance, leading the narrative and revealing much of the mystery very early in the film’s runtime.
Marta is the most unexpected twist as, in the language of the traditional whodunnit, there is the split of the family, the help, and the detective. To consider the 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, for example; the ‘family’ are the wealthy passengers on the boat, as played by the likes of Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, and many more famous faces performing in various shades of ham, while the help is the boat staff, who are never suspects, and Jane Birkin’s Louis Borget, who is killed off before the final reveal. The detective is of course Hercule Poirot, who should really be called Hercules Parrot given how broad, camp and breathy Peter Ustinov makes the character. Rian Johnson jolts this formula and repositions the Jane Birkin character as his narrative’s principle perspective. Filling the shoes of Peter Ustinov is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, who carries himself like a pouting Bing Crosby and sings Sondheim while Cabrera runs towards jeopardy. Anyone unfamiliar with Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot could be forgiven for wondering whether Ustinov’s incarnation is even that much of a detective, as so many of his deductions are left unmentioned until the big reveal in the drawing room. Johnson plays with this further, making it unclear if Benoit Blanc truly is a master detective until the film’s finale. Craig channels the energy that made Ustinov so compelling, where you can watch them both and wonder if they are just strange men with silly voices who are entirely incidental to the investigation itself.
And that is the joy of the whodunnit in its most purified form, when the audience is asked to be a better detective than the one assigned to the case on screen. Unfortunately, the genre discovered its limitations very early on, because of the inherent classism of the formula. The ‘family’ of suspects has to be wealthy, as the chief concerns of every murder mystery are love and money. Harlan Thrombey’s last will and testament becomes a central point of conflict, after it is announced by Thrombey’s attorney that Marta is the sole inheritor of the deceased party’s financial holdings and entire estate. The attorney, incidentally, is played by Frank Oz, director of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, one of the few competent cinematic farces. There is also a delightful cameo from M. Emmet Walsh as the decrepit security man, who once played the demonic detective in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. It is small details like these that create a collage of whodunnit history, which the film carries on its shoulders as it reaches its proud, polemical conclusion. Almost every popular whodunnit hinges on the will, and who inherits what. Knives Out twists this familiar trope by building the narrative on Cabrera’s struggle to gain what is rightfully hers. The film becomes as much about a working-class character besting a family of wealthy ne’er do wells as it is about catching the killer.
Much of the contemporary discussion on the whodunnit centres on subversion, and Johnson is the most confidently subversive filmmaker to try their hands with the genre since Robert Altman with Gosford Park in 2001. Altman’s film similarly capitulates the ‘help’, in the form of Kelly Macdonald’s gentle amateur sleuth Mary, to the role of protagonist. Scripted by Julian Fellowes, who later penned a completely dreadful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, Gosford Park uses the whodunnit formula as a way of investigating the British class system. Much of the film is bloodless and feels like an unabridged episode of Downton Abbey with nastier and sexier people. The central mystery is only solved in the servant’s quarters, and when Stephen Fry stoops into the film as the detective, with the shambling build of a younger Peter Ustinov, he promptly reveals himself to be an ignorant toff who is no use to anyone. As a complete work, Gosford Park is dryer and darker than the average whodunnit and is less concerned with the games and red herrings that are usually the staples of the genre. Indeed, when the murder takes place, it’s clear that none of the wealthy ‘family’ characters above stairs could have done it, as they’re too busy playing cards and listening to Ivor Novello. It is also that rarest of mysteries in which the butler actually did it, along with the housekeeper, which contradicts the most fiercely obeyed rule in Christie’s fiction, as instructed by SS Van Dine; “a servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit… It is a too easy solution”. Many of Christie’s victims were decidedly rotten aristocrats, but the ‘help’ are never the guilty party. Gosford Park’s subtlest subversion to the form is when it passes the weapons back to the servant class and lets them revenge their terrible master.
The foppish sneers of the old British gentry become vital set dressing for the typical whodunnit, as they are so concerned with money and aesthetics they barely react to the news of a murder. That notion is as present in Gosford Park as it is in any Christie adaptation, such as the 1980 adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d, starring Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. Gosford Park emulates Christie further by folding in the American counterpart to the cold British fop; the Hollywood player, whether it be a movie star or a director or an agent or a financier. These two sorts of characters blend into an apathetic broth, who shrug off news of murder with a light quip. When Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins penned their own subversive take on the whodunnit with The Last of Sheila, they wisely maintained this tradition and staffed the film with a pack of L.A cynics who are facing periods of career decline. Just as Gosford Park employed the murder mystery to examine class, The Last of Sheila is a Hollywood satire contained within a whodunnit. The six central characters sit around drinking, smoking, and having affairs, all the while bitching about other films and other actors, and at least three of them attempt a murder during the film’s runtime. Whereas Gosford Park steps away from the complexities of the typical Christie plot, The Last of Sheila glides towards convolution with a gin-soaked smile. As the opening credits roll, Herbert Ross’ camera glimpses puzzle sets, poker chips, and a Cluedo board, inviting audiences to enjoy the game of the narrative. Sheila is the most obvious precursor to Johnson’s Knives Out, although it did not enjoy the latter’s apparent financial success, in part perhaps because The Last of Sheila is both a fiendishly clever and completely uninviting film title. The central subversion of Sheila comes when a character begins to play detective, and instinctively the audience believe them. There comes a drawing room reveal scene that is all the more exciting on second viewing. Usually when Poirot or Marple gathers the family together, the innocent parties interrupt the detective’s spiel with needless protestations (“are you seriously saying, I, Doctor Herring, took the gentleman’s life?!”). Sondheim and Perkins have a character interrupt the faux-detective’s speech with a truthful deduction. These interjections are designed to frustrate the audience and delay the moment of reveal, and so in Sheila the truth is lost in the debris of conjecture.
The Last of Sheila is a fascinating example of a film that subverts a cinematic genre that it largely predates. It was released to a largely disinterested audience in 1973, a year before Sidney Lumet’s all-star Murder on the Orient Express and the brief revival of Agatha Christie adaptations that were released in the decade that followed. Where Sheila attempted to modernise, the Christie adaptations increasingly doubled down on their antique appeal, which peaked with the hilariously kitsch Evil Under the Sun in 1982. Any film that features Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg aggressively singing Cole Porter at each other can only take its murder plot half-seriously, and the resolution, when it comes, is one of the most far-fetched of its kind. The films of Peter Ustinov as Poirot all feature pale faces in hot countries, and Kenneth Branagh has a challenge ahead of him to rid his future Poirot adaptations from the sheen of privilege. Other Agatha Christie adaptations, like the BBC’s recent take on The ABC Murders, buckle from the demand to be subversive. John Malkovich was a nicely itchy Poirot, who felt respectfully distinct from previous incarnations, but the three-part series was a pinch too grey and severe. A whodunnit is ultimately light, even if Christie and her artistic descendants sprinkled their narratives with moments of gothic terror. The 2015 BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None likewise tripped on its own severity because it dwelled for too long on the murders themselves. In Scandi murder mysteries, the grisly murders are shrewdly dispersed between shots of likeable people in comfortable knitwear. The grittier Agatha Christie adaptations that show up every Christmas keep the audience stuck between horrible characters and bloody murder, and occasionally one longs for Maggie Smith to just pop her head round and sing an old showtune.
The finest whodunnits are also usually the funniest. Knives Out is consistently funny and uses its political narrative of class usurpation as a tool to produce some cogent satire. It finds new ways of harnessing the central joke of contemporary whodunnits, that being the blind privilege of the principle ‘family’. Don Johnson’s Drysdale is an update of the classic vile spouse (like Phillip Durant in Ordeal by Innocence or even Ian McShane in The Last of Sheila) who is at least as awful as the actual murderer. With this transposition of character comes pop-cultural inspiration, and Drysdale also bears resemblance to Bradley Whitford’s silvery antagonist in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Whitford and Johnson are both boyish sons of American television, who weaponize their charm to portray the vacuous bigotry of modern privilege. In Toni Collete’s Joni Thrombey, a new monster has been created from the ashes of the likes of Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile. Joni is a new-age Californian type who has a line in skincare, although Rian Johnson does not go so far as to call the skincare range “Moop”.
These political subversions are more radical to the genre than any of Johnson’s experimentations with the form. It has the familiar feature of a crime writer in a crime story, a trope never more effective than with Laurence Olivier as genre obsessive in Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. Shaffer is perhaps the greatest deconstructor of the whodunnit form with Sleuth, and indeed a stage play that was literally called Whodunnit, but he then went on to script all of the Peter Ustinov Poirot adaptations. Perhaps he concluded, having stripped the genre down to its breeches in Sleuth’s rattling two-hander, that there was more fun to be had in keeping the genre retained in its antique sensibilities. After all, The Mousetrap was devoured by Tom Stoppard with The Real Inspector Hound (the title of which even alludes to the former’s central twist), but Christie’s play is still running and may outlive us all. What remains captivating about the form is its fundamental promise that all that is hinted at in the first act will be explained by someone trustworthy in the third act. While playful subversions are the more superficially interesting to viewers, Knives Out breathes life into the whodunnit with its snarky political eye and the triumphant arc of Marta Cabrera, which felt like a small revolution in a genre steeped in tradition.