Movie Elements: Crime and Mystery

I recently, and finally, watched “Basic Instincts” an icon in it’s own right. It’s reputation precedes it and the brutality with which it deals with genre cliches had me wincing. Maybe I’m just soft, but the gratuity of both the sexual and violent elements in this rather hard boiled crime thriller disturbed me, even with modern day comparisons. Not one for wanton violence, gore or sex, I did, however, enjoy the film.

As I have been researching what elements within a genre makes a film enthralling,  for example, what makes a romantic comedy work or not work and etc… I have been blowing through movies like Charlie Sheen on coke. So let me share some things I think make for great crime and mystery flicks.

1. The Hero is not such a good guy.

Here we can reference the classic “hardboiled” character sketch made famous by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep, brought to life on film by Humphrey Bogart. Why make the main man no saint? Well, it’s rather more identifiable, if you think about it. Our hero deals neck deep in the scum of the human race, daily; no one can encounter that dark world and come out alive without a stain.

2. The real bad guy is rarely the main suspect but often exposed early on, under the radar.

I mean, this makes sense. If it was that easy to figure out, than it wouldn’t be worth watching for an hour and a half. However, when I watch crime and mystery flicks, I’m always amazed at how quickly my father can predict the outcome of the film, and here’s why. The key to solving the case is always slipped in early, unobtrusively and in a very passive way. And that’s what makes it so darn frustrating. For example, in Basic Instinct, the connection between Catherine and Elizabeth’s character is that they are both psych majors, Catherine becoming a writer and Elizabeth a practicing professional. One makes up “stuff” and the other puts it to practice. There are other clues, but I’ll leave that to you to find. The obvious is that it’s never obvious, unless it’s obvious… tricky huh? You’ve got to be a great story teller to make that work.

3. The main suspect is in some way linked to the actual bad guy.

ie. Elizabeth and Catherine’s relationship- Basic Instinct, Evelyn Mulwray and her father- Chinatown, Vivian Rutledge, Eddie Mars and Carmen- The Big Sleep.

4. Sex/sexuality must be involved.

This genre deals with a lot of the dark side of people. Lust, one of those deadly sins, is always a key motivation and often a tool used to solve the mystery, especially in Basic Instinct. Femme Fatale, anyone? By the way, love doesn’t usually win out, and mostly just brings about death ie. Chinatown, The Big Sleep (book version), and even Basic Instinct, although that ending is left somewhat ambiguous to me.

5. The hero always has a mysterious past.

This is probably one of my favorite habits of this genre, and along with  1. reminds me a lot of classic westerns. The mystery of the hero’s past is as important to solve as is the overall investigative mystery, and they are always somehow intertwined. Key plot points which solve parts of the overarching case inevitably unearth facts about our hero and as he grows closer to solving the crime/mystery, we become closer to solving the mystery of our hero. So, you get double for your money!

6. The ambiguity of good and evil.

Again, this strays back to 1. After all, if our good guy isn’t such a good guy, it leaves the door wide open to questions of  morality and right and wrong. Of all the genres, I’d say that this one is probably one of the most redemptive and human of all. It’s more than just about justice for a crime, but also about the justice in forgiveness and exoneration of the hero. Justice is, in itself, and open subject and often left to question.

7. The use of color to create mood and symbolism is key.

Now here I get a little artsy. But honestly, color and costume are artistic points which hit us as viewers in a way we don’t even realize. Color scheming lays the groundwork for the subconscious atmosphere of the film and is especially powerful in the crime genre. The original crime/mystery genre had the advantage of black and white film noir, and today, we can develop upon that idea of color context by using color as symbolism. In Basic Instinct you notice the color of the investigators, usually browns, greys and other neutrals; no stark colors and especially no white. Catherine wears white, perhaps to symbolize her actual innocence, her claim to innocence, or as a sardonic admission to her actual guilt. Roxy where’s black, so we know from the get go that there’s something up. Yet it is Elizabeth who is the biggest success. Her neutrals, verging on the darker side (and note, her completely black undergarments which are “revealed” during the violent scene with Nick in her apartment) are nothing that would tip off the audience to her guilt. Well done costume and artistic team…well done. The best psychopaths are the ones no one notices till the very end at their reveal, even though the clues are everywhere along the way. Next time you watch one of these films, notice the color usage and think about what it is trying to say or emotionally evoke.

Of course, there are so many other elements that I’ve completely omitted from this list, but I do think these are some of my favorite attributes in the crime genre.

Have a favorite crime/mystery movie? I’m always looking for new, good watches, so share them in a comment. If you have another genre you’d like to hear about, comment below and let me know!


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