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.