Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mystery Films - Sean Wicks ""

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mystery Films - Sean Wicks

Sean is the lead detective at the Cinema-Scope blog ( An all-around social media rambler, he's very active on twitter (, tumblr ( facebook (, and letterboxd ( Follow the dude!
I can’t think of anyone that I know who doesn’t like a good mystery. Books, Movies, Television – I mean look at MURDER SHE WROTE.  It was a show that was on the air for 12 years with 264 episodes, all whodunits with Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher (and in a few cases near the end, guest sleuths) almost being like an angel of death for any town she happened to be visiting in the episode.  That’s a lot of corpses. 
I’d go so far to say that Mysteries are the most popular genre for movies and television, period.  Following characters as they go through the paces to solve the puzzle has always intrigued audiences.  There’s a reason that TV is littered with so many Detective and Cop shows (and let’s throw the countless Doctor and Lawyer shows in there as well as they almost always involve some sort of mystery).
With so much content to choose from, it’s no surprise then to find that a lot of underrated gems have been forgotten, or were unnoticed thanks to other titles that have made a bigger splash.  Here are a few that I think deserve a chance in the spotlight.
Picks are in chronological order…

The “WHISTLING” series starring Red Skelton
WHISTLING IN THE DARK (1941; Directed by S. Sylvan Simon)
WHISTLING IN DIXIE (1942; Directed by S. Sylvan Simon)
WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN (1943; Directed by S. Sylvan Simon)
Red Skelton stars in these 3 comedic mysteries as Wally “The Fox” Benton, who stars in a murder mystery radio program while solving real mysteries in his spare time as an amateur sleuth. 
In the first film, WHISTLING IN THE DARK, Skelton is kidnapped by a cult leader who threatens to kill his girlfriend (played by Ann Rutherford in all 3 films) if he doesn’t devise a perfect murder.  WHISTLING IN DIXIE sees Skelton and Rutherford solving a murder way down south, and inWHISTLING IN BROOKLYN, Skelton’s plans to marry Rutherford are sidelined when he is mistaken as a serial murderer and has to clear his name. Of course the police have orders to “kill on sight” (a little excessive perhaps?) making Skelton’s job even tougher.
In all 3 films, Skelton uses his role as radio personality and usually his show itself to get out of jams and all are light hearted romps with plenty of comedic sight gags, but also contain plenty of suspense – even if the plots are a bit out there (evil cult leaders, etc.). 
This series was originally released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, now available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection in a set.

DETECTIVE STORY (1951; Directed by William Wyler)
No comedy here in this Film Noir (which recently screened at the American Cinematheque Film Noir Festival) starring Kirk Douglas as a cynical detective who views the law as an unbendable, unbreakable force.  He doesn’t like criminals with the approach that once a criminal, always a criminal, and goes out of his way to prosecute anyone and everyone who breaks the law from burglars to small-time shoplifters.
Douglas’ character is gunning to bring to justice an arsonist (Charles Macready) who always manages to get off scott-free, a case that brings with it a personal conflict when his wife (Eleanor Parker) is implicated. Can his unmovable attitude on wrong-and-right be moved to help his wife?
Shot in stark black-and-white, the movie takes place over one shift in a New York city precinct, and with a strong supporting cast that includes William Bendix and Lee Grant, it’s a moody story and Douglas brings a great deal of weight to role.
There is an Out-of-print DVD from Paramount as well as Digital HD from retailers like, and Warner Archive has also just re-issued the film on DVD.

TIGHTROPE (1984; Directed by Richard Tuggle)
TIGHTROPE is one of my favorite Clint Eastwood detective movies that seems to have been forgotten in favor of the more popular and accessibleDIRTY HARRY series (ok I’ll even admit, when I was a teen I thought it was a DIRTY HARRY movie for about a day until I figured out otherwise thanks to the Leonard Maltin book and when I finally got around to seeing it).
Clint’s character is much darker than we’re used to as he’s a single parent with two beautiful daughters and personal demons as he frequents prostitutes in the seedy part of New Orleans.  A Serial Killer is on the loose, and things get dicey when it becomes obvious that he is targeting women Clint has frequented, and Clint finds that he can relate with the killer putting his family in jeopardy.
The dark and seedy tone of the movie sets it apart from many others in the genre of the time period, and is a testament as to how Clint is so good at playing with his persona with different types of roles and films than you would see a movie/action star of his stature portraying.

V.I. WARSHAWSKI (1991; Directed by Jeff Kanew)
Who says that hard boiled P.I.s have to be men?  In fact some of the most popular fiction detectives – Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher – are senior-aged women.
No senior citizen here as Kathleen Turner in her late 30s (and just as tough as Bogart) is a Chicago based P.I. who agrees to babysit for a friend and ends up investigating his murder as a result. 
This movie was made during that late 80s/90s time period when Disney was pumping out a steady stream of modestly budgeted movies with name stars like this, STRAIGHT TALK (with Dolly Parton), BIG BUSINESS (Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin) and others through their Hollywood and Touchstone pictures labels.  Most of these can be found on budget priced Blu-rays from Mill Creek Entertainment (usually for $5 or less!) including V.I. WARSHAWSKI.
There wasn’t a lot of love forWARSHAWSKI when it came out and it bombed at the box office with just over $11 million in domestic gross.  It was supposed to spawn a franchise for Turner, although she did go on to star in a BBC radio series as the character.
In fact, when I first sawWARSHAWSKI (and I saw it in the theatre) my initial reaction was a very strong “meh” but I have since grown to appreciate this movie over time thanks mainly to Turner’s fearlessness in the role.  Her Warshawski could easily go toe-to-toe with Spade or Marlowe and come out on top.  She has the attitude and the voice (oh that voice) – and to me she has always had a Lauren Bacall vibe going for her.

THUNDERHEART (1992; Directed by Michael Apted)
I remember seeing THUNDERHEARTon the first night it opened, and then talking about it for weeks following as I found it to be a solid thriller that nobody around me seemed to want to see.  I may have talked a couple of people into it, and anyone who didn’t listen truly missed out (well at least in my opinion).
Val Kilmer plays an inexperienced FBI agent who also happens to be one-quarter Sioux, investigating a series of homicides on a South Dakota Badlands Native Reservation.  The locals don’t trust the intruding agents and with good cause as they don’t seem too keen on solving the case at all.  With help from the tribe police chief played by Graham Greene (fresh off DANCES WITH WOLVES) Kilmer believes there may be a larger conspiracy at work here as he also becomes more attuned to his Native heritage.
It’s a solid, smart and well-acted movie that really has been seemingly forgotten over time and deserves some recognition.

ZERO EFFECT (1998; Directed by Jake Kasdan)
Anyone I talk to who has seen ZERO EFFECT, loves it.  I also happen to know it is a favorite of our host Rupert Pupkin himself which says a lot as he has excellent cinematic taste.
I first saw the trailer for this in Century City at the no-longer-in-existence Loews Cineplex, and instantly wanted to see it.
It features Bill Pullman as a socially challenged private investigator who is such an anti-social recluse that all his dealings – including all client interactions – are handled through his associate (played by Ben Stiller) who he drives beyond nuts with his crazy behavior.  Pullman’s character is a genius and when he takes on a blackmail case from client Ryan O’Neal, it leads him to Gloria (played by Kim Dickens), a woman who captures Pullman’s hard-to-get attention.
It is easy for movies about Private Investigators to fall into clich├ęd traps; however ZERO EFFECT provides a refreshing and unique take on the genre.  It’s a witty and smart movie that is engaging thanks especially to strong performances by Bill Pullman (and I would argue that it is his best) and Ben Stiller. 
I had to wonder when the MONK TV series came along featuring Tony Shalhoub as a Detective with OCD, that the creators hadn’t taken a few notes from ZERO EFFECT.

1 comment:

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Very good list... I've been meaning to watch all of them again.

Tightrope's particularly under-recognized, even though it's one of Eastwood's most straightforward crime thrillers.