Tomorrow we begin our “Movie Of The Week” discussion of the 1988 comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie that’s noteworthy for its synthesis of live-action and animation, and for being another step in director Robert Zemeckis’ stealthy ascension to the Hollywood A-list in the 1980s and ’90s. But Who Framed Roger Rabbit is also a riff on the old-fashioned detective story, which makes the movie a prime example of the “mystery-comedy” genre. Here are five more movies where the characters solving crimes are either witty, silly, or accidental shamuses.
The Thin Man (1934)
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Writer Dashiell Hammett is responsible for creating the character Sam Spade, one of the first of the “hard-boiled” detective heroes. But Hammett also gave the world Nick and Nora Charles, a married couple who solved mysteries while boozing heavily and cracking wise. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last published novel, coming out in 1934, the same year as its movie adaptation, which starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. The film was popular enough to inspire five sequels, but the first one is the best, because of the way it segues easily from being one of the high-class comedies common to the 1930s to being a classic mystery, complete with key clues and a drawing-room reveal. And the Charleses remain a magnificent comic creation; a loving couple who enable each other’s best and worst traits. Light TV mystery shows have been trying to copy that chemistry for decades, with limited success.
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Bob Hope’s screen persona relied on nervousness and deadpan asides, which meant his best showcases were in films that had him stumbling into straight-faced genre plots, then making matters worse while trying to extricate himself. In 1942’s My Favorite Blonde, Hope found himself in a spy thriller; in 1947’s My Favorite Brunette, he played a meek photographer who becomes an amateur detective. My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of noir conventions from the heart of the noir era, making fun of the exotic heavies and convenient clues that the “real” detectives were always encountering in movies at the time. And Hope gives one of his best performances, as a man who ultimately proves to be as capable as he is cowardly.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Directed by Carl Reiner
Steve Martin introduced a new variation on his absurdist brand of comedy with this 1982 homage to classic Hollywood detective pictures, which he wrote with George Gipe and director Carl Reiner. Martin cans his goofball act and does his best tough-guy impersonation as Rigby Reardon, a private eye working a complicated case involving a dead cheesemaker. The twist is that Martin’s Rigby interacts with the characters from old movies like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, whose images are spliced into scenes from Dead Men. It’s a cinematic mash-up, with Martin helping to make all the pieces fit by playing his character in the same register as the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Most mystery-comedies either put realistic heroes in bizarre situations (a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit) or thrust ordinary people into hard-boiled plots. Jim Carrey’s big-screen breakthrough Ace Ventura: Pet Detective announced what kind of movie star he was going to be by having Carrey play an out-and-out oddball in a story involving a kidnapped dolphin and NFL quarterback Dan Marino. Ace Ventura doesn’t poke fun at the detective genre so much as warp it to fit Carrey’s elastic face, while Carrey does all he can to make his Ace even more distorted than the picture he’s in.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
“This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head.”