Mystery is a film genre that typically revolves around finding the solution to a series of events or figuring out the perpetrator of a crime. The protagonist is often a detective, investigator or amateur sleuth who sets out to discover the truth by means of navigating clues and using clever deduction.
Mystery films typically take the audience through the journey of discovering the truth along with the detective. However, occasionally the audience may already know the answer before the detective, and they watch the detective cleverly unravel the mystery before their eyes. The plot will often show the detective solve the crime or situation using evidence, interrogating witnesses, encountering red herrings, and eventually tracking down the perpetrator.
Mystery films have existed since the early days of silent film. The most well-known of these was The Perils of Pauline (1914), a primitive serial that had a degree of mystery. This type of film eventually blossomed into a full film category in the talking film era during the 1930s and 1940s, borrowing a lot of influence from popular detective literature.
Perhaps the most well-known subset of mystery films are the many different iterations of Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that we can find on the big screen. The Baker Street sleuth is a household name first published in 1887 and appearing in over 200 films.
Holmes has been solving mysteries on screen since 1900 using “elementary deductions” with help from his assistant Dr Watson. It is estimated that Holmes is the most prolific screen character in cinematic history. He has appeared in so many different iterations, including in silent films in the early 1900s, as a child in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), as a mouse in The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and as a 93-year-old man in Mr Holmes (2015). When people think of the mystery genre, they likely think of at least one of the many screen portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.
Aside from amateur sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, there was also a surge in police procedurals, with the emphases on the investigations of a police office or private detective. The plot focuses on solving a crime with the protagonist often constrained by the profession of law enforcement, providing elements such as forensic science, autopsies, search warrants and adherence to legal procedure.
Some examples from this subset of mystery films include Knives Out (2019), Fargo (1996), Filth (2013), Game Night (2018) and The Lady Killers (1955).
Memory Loss Mysteries
Another subset of the mystery genre is the use of amnesia as the central plot causing something to become a mystery, with a character needing to discover the answers to questions about their past.
The most famous of these is perhaps Memento (2000), which features two different sequences of interspersed scenes throughout the film, with one shown in chronological order and the other shown in reverse order. The sequences meet at the end of the film to produce one complete and cohesive narrative as the protagonist searches for the people who killed his wife, using his own tattoos to track information he can’t remember.
The subset genre started in 1936 with Two in the Dark (1936). Amnesia had a resurgence in the 1960s as a mystery-thriller genre, seeing the rise of a protagonist losing their memory and setting out to rediscover their identity. The trope can also be found in crime dramas, adventure and comedies, as in The Addams Family (1965), Get Smart (1967), Gunsmoke (1973) and Charlie’s Angels (1978).
The spy film, also known as espionage film, depicts government agents’ espionage activities against their enemies. Whether it’s the Nazi espionage films of the 1940s to the James Bond series of films from the 1960s onwards, the spy film is a popular subset of the mystery of genre with audiences worldwide.
Combining action and often science fiction, spy films began in the silent era thanks to the paranoia of invasion literature following the Great War. Alfred Hitchcock did a lot to popularise the spy film in the 1930s with his thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). The peak of the spy film popularity was in the 1960s, driven by Cold War fears, then the Bond phenomena followed.
More recently, you can find more spy films intermingled with parody and comedy, such as the Austin Powers franchise and Penguins of Madagascar (2014).