“.. when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth..” Sherlock Holmes (Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle)

The ‘Whodunit’ Genre

Fyodor Dostoevsky turned out to be more prophetic than what meets the eye when he wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. It is obvious that prison population and conditions reflect the starkest elements of social life. Yet the statement is incomplete without the complementary note that the ones who are missing in the prison are also an indicator of the strength of the judicial and legal institutions- another cross section of the civilization. Sure, it would be utopian to imagine a world where ‘wrong doers ‘ no longer exist and so the ideal was long set as the one in which every wrong doer, however clever or influential he/she is, cannot escape the judicial process- institutional or otherwise. A genre of art itself has evolved around this ideal and has caught the popular imagination ever since. The popularity of those mystery novels and films made their main protagonists icons of intelligence, bravery and/or charm. Like all popular arts, they reflect quite many intricacies of their respective societies and more importantly, the dominant thought process- the relative proportions of prejudices and rational thought. Crime thrillers, especially detective fiction, thus have a great academic value along with the entertainment.

Although there can be several contestants for the earliest detective fictions- from ‘Susanna and the Elders’ from Old Testament , through the fables from India to ‘Three Apples’ from Arabian nights- it was not until the dawn of renaissance values that this new genre established itself firmly. It was definitely 1887, the year in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in the Strand magazine, which proved to be the most important milestone in the history of detective fiction. Ever since the publications of Sherlock Holmes, several sleuths who bear resemblance to Holmes have appeared in books and films that he became the benchmark for the ability of a detective. Among the other equals Agatha Christie’s Poirot stand out. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple , Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville, Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, Sharadindu Bandopadyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi etc. have all earned reputations of their own and have fan following although to a lesser extend than Holmes and Poirot. It could be reasonably argued that films are an important reason for the wide popularity of many a detective novels. After 70’s television series too played a major role in popularizing and even inventing various sub-genres like court room, private detectives, police investigation, forensic specialists etc. In fact in the modern world, ‘whodunit’ thrives on the visual media and it will be the focus of this article.

Everybody Loves a Good Detective Film

What makes a good detective film?

Unlike other genres, almost every well made detective film has been a commercial success. Yet, we need not count a lot if asked to make a list of good detective films. A typical ‘whodunit’ mystery needs a crime, in most cases a sophisticated one, a mystery created by the cacophony of details and/or conflicting accounts, an intelligent protagonist with an eye for details and good deduction power, a proper setting correct to every detail and a gradual, logical unraveling of the mystery. A film that fails in any of these accounts will not fit the category of a good detective film although slight variations to introduce comic events, coincidences etc might be acceptable. Yet, much of these are easily said than done. It needs a brilliant author to create a good, original and believable fiction, even when the formula is readily available. Much of the detective fiction available fits the famous comment: “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good”

So why do we love a good detective film?

It could be the innate curiosity of humans, the one that propels innovation and kindles the spirit of rational thought that makes people like a logically constructed mystery film. it is not so much the mystery itself that makes one interesting, but the process of its unfolding. May be, we all would wish to be in the shoes of the protagonist, see though his/her eyes and solve a mystery, yet the awe generated by the smartness of the protagonist grips us to our seats. A masterly work stands out through the logical deduction of a crime committed through simple and unobvious clues that makes one wonder “how did I miss that”. Complicated plots in itself is not a merit and exaggerations are more often signs of defective scripts.

The Masters of the Game

Sherlock Holmes’s first acclaimed silver screen adaptation was done by Basil Rathbone through his 1939 series of 12 films. Humphrey Bogart’s role as private detective Sam Spede in Maltese Falcon (1941) and Big Sleep (1946) were the first among the detective characters that made an impact in the Hollywood. Yet undoubtedly, it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave a new identity to the crime and mystery film genre. Not all films by Hitchcock fits the ‘whodunit’ definition for its style of narration. It can be ascertained that Hitchcock redefined the mystery film from being movie based on script to movie defined by the shots. He created a new paradigm with the camera motion mimicking a person's gaze, and framed shots to manipulate the feelings of the audience and maximise anxiety, fear, or empathy. He was among the pioneers who deviated from the traditional 3rd person narration to narration from the point of view of a character.

Hitchcock remained the star film maker through out the film noir generation and even afterwards. A remarkable aspect of his films is the simplicity of the themes in itself while the brilliance of the direction makes it look out of the world. The plots of ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Rebecca’ are classic examples of this Hitchcock effect. Through path breaking films like ‘Psycho’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘North by North West’ etc. he became the single greatest Mystery and Crime film producer in English or perhaps the world.

Noris Jewison’s ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967) and Roman Polanski’s ‘China Town’ (1974) are two noteworthy detective films unique in their own respects. Hanibal Lector movies (Silence of the Lambs, Hanibal and Red Dragon) and Seven (1995) marked the era of psycho-noir. The film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) and ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) were also quite well received by the audience.

Desi Dilemma

A few early Bollywood films reflected the contemporary trends from Hollywood. A notable one being Kanoon (1960) by B. R. Chopra. But this did not last long and Hindi as well as regional films in India focusing on crime fiction too stooped down to badly directed, illogical plots with the entertainment part supplemented with songs and loud dialogues, with the notable exception of Satyjit Ray. Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ based on his own detective character Feluda (Pradosh C. Mitter) and ‘Chiriyakhana’ based on Sharadindu Bandopadyay’s short story stands out among the childish and over dramatized Indian mystery films.

Although there are abundant films from India which focus on crime or mystery, many of them supposed to be of the ‘whodunit’ genre, hardly a few score above the pass mark. It is a sad reality that Indian film makers somehow believe that engaging the audience at an intellectual level is not up them. Or perhaps, they are incapable given that our popular culture rarely gives a space to rigour and rationality. Most importantly, the subtlety needed in framing each scene and dialogue for a crime mystery is totally lacking in the Indian silver screen. Loud dialogues and over dependence on spicy elements (dances, songs and action sequences) plays the spoil sport every time.

It should be a worthwhile exercise to assess a society through its interest towards detective methods. In fact, it should give a measure of a society’s rationality quotient. In this context the visual media itself would be the best data source, which shall be the main theme of part II of this article.