Knives Out is one of the most exciting movies of the year. A new release from writer-director Rian Johnson is always reason enough to be excited, but this one harkens back to the halcyon days of whodunit mysteries, which have been largely missing from Hollywood since their heyday came to an end some decades ago.
Of course, we recently saw there is still an appetite for these movies. Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of Murder On the Orient Express proved that Agatha Christie is still a box office draw, and — despite being an original story — Knives Out is another film that wants to keep the iconic author’s memory alive at the multiplex.
That said, the release of Knives Out is the perfect opportunity to watch other cracking whodunits and murder mysteries. Most of the movies assembled in this list are works that inspired Johnson, so if you’re interested in exploring Knives Out’s cinematic DNA, you can’t go wrong with these gems.
The 39 Steps (1935)
In an article he penned for the Los Angeles Times, Johnson describes Knives Out as “an attempt to combine an Agatha Christie-style whodunit with a Hitchcock-style thriller.” He’s a fan of Christie’s ability to create an engaging murder-mystery with great characters, but he wanted to capture some of that Hitchcockian suspense as well.
With Knives Out, Johnson also adopted the Hitchcock school of thought in the sense that he wanted his whodunit to have more substance than a murder plot and the revelation of a killer. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of whodunits because he believed they were a cheap form of entertainment, and while Johnson is a big fan of them, he doesn’t disagree with Hitchcock’s assessment. Therefore, he made sure that the characters in Knives Out had some depth.
There are plenty of Hitchcock mysteries and thrillers that are rife with mystery, so take your pick. That said, one film that struck a chord with Johnson while creating Knives Out is The 39 Steps, an espionage thriller about an everyman who finds himself on the run after being wrongfully accused of a murder. According to Johnson, this movie inspired the character Marta (Ana de Armas) in Knives Out, as she’s also an innocent bystander who must escape from a dangerous situation.
In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death, Johnson named this “whodunit-adjacent” movie as a key influence on Knives Out. Starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, Sleuth revolves around a battle of wits between a wealthy novelist (Olivier) and a working-class hairdresser (Caine). The latter is having an affair with the author’s wife and wants her hand in marriage, and her freedom from her current spouse is negotiable — at a price. Or is it?
According to Johnson, Knives Out more or less copied Sleuth’s set design, so the inspiration here is more stylistic. However, like the author’s mansion in Sleuth, Johnson wanted his mystery to take place in a property that was decorated with the eccentric owner’s obsessions. Additionally, the mansion owners in both films are also crime novelists.
The Last of Sheila (1973)
Another movie that inspired Johnson while creating Knives Out was this 1973 thriller about a grieving husband who hosts a gathering on a yacht, where he invites all of the people who were present on the night of his wife’s death in a bid to flush out her killer.
Johnson introduced this movie at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, so it’s evident that he’s a big fan of the Herbert Ross-directed thriller, which was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Interestingly, the movie was inspired by a series of real-life scavenger hunts that the writers came up with for their friends. Unlike the events in the movie, no one died during their activities.
Johnson describes The Last of Sheila as a “funky whodunit” in an interview with the Motion Picture Association. In addition to being an excellent mystery, it’s a movie in which the stellar cast is clearly having a blast, which is what Johnson wanted to accomplish with Knives Out.
Murder by Death (1976)
While Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is the main detective in Knives Out, it’s worth noting that the movie features a team of sleuths. Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan also play crime-solving characters who are involved in the investigation. And when it comes to whodunits that follow multiple investigators, you can’t beat Murder by Death.
The 1976 comedy follows a group of detectives and their sidekicks who are invited to a mansion to solve a bizarre mystery. The property’s owner hosts a dinner party and reveals that someone will be murdered, and whoever solves the mystery first will be given a large sum of money for their efforts.
In an interview with Syfy Wire, Johnson compared Murder by Death to Hitchcock’s criticisms of the genre. The movie is a spoof, but it’s a smart one that addresses the whodunit’s more base-level elements, such as withholding information from viewers until the very end.
“[The film] is also a little bit like Hitchcock’s criticisms of the genre, which is the danger of it is that it is just one big buildup to a cheap surprise at the end. I think the best examples of the genre avoid that by putting a different engine in the car. It’s not just clue-gathering. There’s something else going on. Agatha Christie is great at that, actually, figuring out different ways of driving it.”
Murder by Death is pure entertainment, and one of the best movies out there that have a lot of fun with its deadly central scenario.
Death On The Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982)
During his conversation with Birth.Movies.Death, Johnson cited these two Agatha Christie whodunits as major influences on Knives Out. Both film adaptations see Peter Ustinov as Detective Hercule Poirot investigating murders involving wealthy people in isolated locations (a boat and an island resort, respectively), which is similar to the plot of Knives Out.
However, as Johnson told Empire, the Poirot movies also inspired the creation of his own detective. He wanted Benoit Blanc to be quite egotistical but have a warm center that made him endearing to viewers. Like Poirot, Blanc is quite “self-inflated,” but he’s also a bit of a buffoon.
Furthermore, Johnson was inspired by Death On the Nile and Evil Under the Sun — as well as movies like Murder On the Orient Express — because of their all-star casts. For his movie, he also wanted to assemble a dynamic group of performers and let them have some fun.
The Private Eyes (1980)
If Knives Out is Johnson’s humorous take on Poirot, then The Private Eyes is Lang Elliot’s fun homage to Sherlock Holmes. The story follows a pair of Scotland Yard detectives who are assigned to investigate foul play in a mansion that might be haunted.
The Private Eyes is more of an all-out comedy than Knives Out, but both films’ obvious love for classic pop culture detectives and whodunit mysteries makes them complementary in many ways. However, The Private Eyes goes one step further by incorporating elements from haunted house movies while throwing some snakes, samurais, and hunchbacks into the mix for good measure.
This is another movie that Johnson has mentioned as being an inspiration while working on Knives Out, but he didn’t get into any specifics.
Based on the play of the same name by Ira Levin, this Sidney Lumet-directed comedy is another movie that influenced Johnson’s latest effort. While the director hasn’t gone into any great detail about which aspects of Deathtrap got his creative juices flowing, there are obvious nods to Lumet’s film there.
Deathtrap revolves around a murder plot concerning writers. The story follows a struggling playwright (Michael Caine) who hatches a plan to murder a talented student (Christopher Reeve) and take credit for his work. However, when the young writer arrives at his more experienced counterpart’s mansion, things start to get a little bit crazy.
It’s difficult to talk about Deathtrap without giving too much away, and while it’s another movie of the “whodunit-adjacent” variety, it’s well worth a look if you like mystery, murder, and exquisite dark comedy. Pair this one up with Sleuth and enjoy a wonderful double bill.
Johnson wants all of us to know that Knives Out isn’t Clue, but the 1985 film based on the murder-mystery board game of the same name was still an inspiration for him. The similarities are also evident: both movies are genre reconstructions that take place in isolated mansions, they revolve around groups of quirky characters being investigated for murders, they boast strong ensemble casts, and they each possess a streak of black humor.
More than anything, however, both Clue and Knives Out are love letters to classic whodunits. When Clue was released in the mid-1980s, the murder-mysteries that inspired it were a thing of the past for the most part. Clue and Knives Out are very like-minded because they’re both celebrations of a bygone era of filmmaking and literature, albeit with some modern twists.
Gosford Park (2001)
This Robert Altman film is another 21st-century whodunit that channels the manor house mysteries of yesteryear, but that’s not the only similarity that Gosford Park shares with Knives Out. The story follows a rich family who gathers for a weekend of shooting, but it doesn’t take long until their dark secrets come pouring out. While many movies of this ilk are primarily concerned with plot, this one is also very character-focused. As we’ve already established, strong characters are important to Johnson.
Moreover, Gosford Park is also a satire of classism that takes jabs at the elite. Knives Out explores similar themes about class politics, while also poking fun at MAGA supporters and the alt-right. Johnson acknowledged the similarities with Gosford Park in an interview with ScreenRant, while opening up about his intentions to make his themes more relevant to modern America.
“I think about ‘Gosford Park’; you think of Agatha Christie’s books — it’s all about the upstairs, downstairs. I think, because you’re getting a cross section of society with the subjects, you see the issues of class come to the forefront.
[It’s] usually done, though, in a period movie and usually done in Britain, so we can kind of cluck our tongues and say, ‘Oh, those British class things.’ The idea of putting it in America in 2019, and carrying that over and using it to dig into some of the stuff that we got going on right now – that seemed really interesting.”
In short, Knives Out is another whodunit that comments on sociopolitical issues in an entertaining way.
Johnson burst onto the scene with Brick, a film noir throwback that takes place in the contemporary suburbs of California and revolves around a high school student investigating a murder. It’s like a Dashiett Hammet story about and for millennials, and it’s just wonderful.
Noir and whodunnits are completely different types of movies, but they share enough similarities to make them entertaining bedfellows. However, the reason why Brick deserves a rewatch before Knives Out is because it showed from the outset that Johnson has a knack for putting a fresh, fun spin on well-known film genres.
The Internet Warriors (2017)
In Knives Out, Jaeden Martell plays Jacob Trombey, a teenager who spends most of his time trolling people on the internet by espousing the kind of hate speech that would make Richard Spencer proud. Of course, as the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson has encountered many of these people in the past, so you can understand why he wanted to poke fun at them in his new movie.
That said, Kyrre Lien’s 2017 documentary The Internet Warriors examines the real-life versions of these trolls in a bid to determine what makes them act like toxic assholes on the internet. Lien interviews various subjects who have been guilty of this behavior in the past, and it’s worth checking out if you want to learn more about the real Jacob Trombeys of the world.
Stream The Internet Warriors below via The Guardian