Knives Out was one of the best and most critically acclaimed films of last year, and became a surprise box office success (scoring 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and grossing $311.5 million on a $40 million budget). It was my favourite film of last year, and for me, it ranks amongst Parasite and Booksmart as the few films from last year that I will most likely continue to re-watch over the years.
The film is directed by Rian Johnson, who has made a name from himself over the years by producing postmodern, quirky, and subversive films that skewer and take apart a chosen genre. He has already done the film noir (with 2005’s Brick), the con man film (with 2008’s The Brothers Bloom), the time travel movie (with 2012’s Looper), the epic space opera film (with 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and with Knives Out, he takes on the old-fashioned big ensemble whodunit murder mystery. One of the real joys of the film, much in the same vein as the films of Edgar Wright, Johnson has a huge watching list chock full of influences that have inspired him.
Here, I will take you through all the influences for his work:
Firstly, the Agatha Christie Adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun)
Knives Out owes a huge debt to Agatha Christie. The incredibly iconic author has become famous mainly for writing mystery and whodunit novels, with labyrinthine plotting, complex characterisations and smart resolutions. Many of her novels have been adapted for the screen, and in particular, four adaptations have been called influences of Johnson.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is directed by legendary Hollywood director, Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afterman, Network), and remains probably the most famous Christie adaptation, possibly tied with it’s 2017 remake. Often called Christie’s most famous novel, the story is very iconic, and everyone will have heard of it, even if you’re not a fan of the genre. Everyone knows the story – a murder occurs on the iconic train of the title, every-one onboard is a suspect, and Hercule Poirot (played this time by Albert Finney) must investigate who has done it. Poirot is definitely an influence on Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, especially in his over-the-top and caricatured portrayal, and his funny accent. Otherwise, much like Knives Out, the film has a huge ensemble cast, who make up the large group of suspects, and this includes Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (in an Oscar-winning role), Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave. As we get to the ending (which I won’t spoil), the story tries to incorporate all of the characters in the ensemble into a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. Lumet, an always brilliant director, also does a fantastic job at the helm, as he is able to turn the novel into a properly cinematic movie, that does not feel made for television, as often these murder mysteries end up feeling like.
Death on the Nile (1978) is Christie’s follow up to Orient Express, however, in this adaptation, it done almost as a reboot, with a new director (John Guillermin) and a new actor portraying Poirot (Peter Ustinov). The plot is pretty much a repeat of Orient Express (a murder takes place, there are loads of suspects, and Poirot investigates), but this time, set on a boat going around the Nile. This is a interesting change of pace, and makes the drama all a bit more tense (because guess what, in a ship in the middle of the ocean, there is no escape), and also, a lot prettier to look at (the scenery and costumes are very beautiful). Much like Orient Express, the film has a large ensemble cast, includes Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, David Niven and Maggie Smith, very much like Knives Out. This is, for me, one of the best and most successful adaptations of Christie’s work, mainly only more brilliant by Christie’s brilliant plotting. The ending reveal of who exactly did it could be disappointing to some, as it is probably the most obvious culprit, but this is done more of “howdunnit”, giving us surprises with the exact nature of what happened, and who was involved (and this was definitely an influence on Knives Out). This adaptation is a huge example of Christie’s smarts up there on the big screen.
The Mirror Crack’d (1980) is adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and probably the most famous movie adaptation of Christie’s Miss Marple character, portrayed by Angela Lansbury. In this movie, Marple is an elderly spinster in a small village, who proves herself to be a bit of an amateur detective. Meanwhile, a costume drama film is being filmed in the village, starring two rival actresses, Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor) and Lola Brewster (Kim Novak). At a party, a gushing, devoted fan, Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett) is found dead from poisoning after drinking a drink meant for Rudd, leading to Marple to investigate. The plot is a little less ambitious and labyrinthe than the previous two adaptations, but it’s still a smart and though-out film with some surprises. It also feels like possibly Marple was a influence on Ana de Armas’s character, Marta from Knives Out. Both are outcasts from the richer, more upper class characters, and have to play amateur detective to figure out the case. Also, the ensemble cast, possibly not as large as some adaptations, is still packed and star-studded, including Lansbury, Taylor, Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Geraldine Chaplin. It’s not as well directed as the previous two adaptations, and does feel slightly televisual, but this film is still worth a look.
Evil Under the Sun (1982) is seen as the sequel to Death on a Nile, with Ustinov returning to his role for a new adventure. And, you got it, the plot is very similar to Orient Express and Nile (a murder takes place, there are loads of suspects, and Poirot investigates), but this time, set in a posh island resort frequented by the rich and famous. The cinematography is very lush and gorgeous, as is the costume and production design. The cast are as good as ever, however, is a little less star-studded – it does include Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg and James Mason, but also includes less famous cast members, including Colin Blakely, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Roddy McDowall and Sylvia Miles. This adaptation may feel a little old hat to some viewers, as it is very similar to Nile and Orient Express, but saying that, it is still a smart, intricately plotted and fun mystery. Much in the same way of Nile, this whodunnit is formatted as more of “howdunnit”, in which we wonder how exactly it happened, and who was involved. This is a technique that Christie often uses, and although, it sometimes lacks a element of surprise, it makes the story feel tight and believable. This is a effect that Johnson has definitely taken on, as even though, Knives Out is filled with surprises and twists, it’s script is still tight with no filler or wasted screen-time.
Secondly, the mystery comedies and spoof movies (Murder by Death, The Private Eyes, Clue and Gosford Park)
Other than Knives Out’s intelligent and surprising writing and brilliant performances, the film is just plain entertaining, and also, very, very funny. Johnson has assured that Knives Out is not necessary a spoof film, but more of a pastiche of this tired genre. That being said, the film still a huge sense of humour to it, and because of this, Johnson was very inspired by these comedies/spoofs.
Murder by Death (1976) is a comedy mystery film, directed by Robert Moore and written by legendary Hollywood scriptwriter and playwright, Neil Simon. The plot is a broad comedy of mystery/whodunnit tropes, in which 5 famous literary detectives and their sidekicks (that are send-ups of various fictional sleuths, including Poirot, Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade) are invited to a bizarre mansion to solve an even more bizarre mystery, very much in the style of Christie’s iconic novel, And Then There Were None. The film is the biggest spoof of all these influences, and feels very similar to various spoof movies of the 70s and 80s, including the works of Mel Brooks (like Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie and Spaceballs) and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (like Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun). The film is not quite as clever or quick-witted as some of these films (especially Young Frankenstein and Airplane), but it is still very funny and entertaining. It is brilliantly written by Simon (or Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Goodbye Girl fame), who gives us some very funny one-liners, and some very funny parodic characters. By how this film lovingly tributes whodunit films, it was definitely a influence on what Johnson does with Knives Out.
The Private Eyes (1980) is most possibly the most forgotten about film on this list. The film stars Tim Conway and Don Watts, recurring collaborators that previously starred together in 3 other films together. In this film, the pair play a couple of dim-witted and hopeless detectives, who travel to large English country mansion, to investigate the death of the rich couple who owes the house. All of the staff, including the butler, the maid, a gypsy, a hunchback and a samurai, are suspects. Soon enough, the situation becomes more deadly as the staff starts to be killed off one by one. The film is a lot sillier and more slapsticky than the previous comedies on this film, and is still fairly entertaining. This film is often called an influence on Knives Out for how, despite how the protagonists are very different (Blanc is definitely a lot smarter and more intelligent than Conway and Watts), we are still encouraged to laugh at them, and their over-the-top ridiculousness. It may not be a smart or intelligent as Knives Out, but saying that, it’s silly humour definitely influenced Knives Out’s subversive and funny playfulness.
Clue (1985) is another comedy spoof movie, which is directed and written by Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny), and is based off the classic board-game of Cluedo. The film, centres on six guests who are all invited to a strange mansion for dinner, and when their host is found murdered, they must work together (with the staff) to identify the murderer. Unlike Murder by Death, the film is not a straight-up spoof, but more of a black comedy, with it’s equal moments of thrills and laughs. The film also has an ensemble cast – this time, with comedic actors, including Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. The film, like Mean Girls and The Princess Bride, is a well-renowned cult classic, with a legions of fans, and has become one of the most quotable films of all time (from “flames on the side of my face” to “I am the singing telegram” to “2 plus 1 plus 2 plus 1”). The film is very iconic for how at cinemas, it offered 3 separate, different endings, which have been collected together for home release. The film is hilariously directed by Lynn, who creates the humour with almost watch-like choreography and is always one step ahead of the audience. It may not be a smart of intelligent as Knives Out, but this film definitely influenced it’s funny and quotable nature.
Gosford Park (2001) is a black comedy mystery drama, directed by legendary director Robert Altman (The Player, MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville), and written by Julian Fellowes, who went on to helm the classic British series, Downton Abbey. The film is an old-fashioned whodunnit, in which a bunch of Britons (plus an American film producer), and their servants, gather for a hunting party at the house of the title. Soon, a murder occurs at the party, and all of the characters are suspects. The film as always has an all-star cast, and has a bucketful of British actors, including Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Fry, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, and many more. Gosford Park is notable in how it was made at least 15 years after most of the films on this list, and a lot like Knives Out, the film was touted as a revival of a once tired genre. The series is often touted as a prelude to Downton Abbey (which had started life as a spin-off of this film), in it’s soap opera plots, and witty writing. The film is very well written by Fellowes, who gives all the characters a story-line and personality of their own, and is brilliantly directed by Altman, who always manages an all-star cast very well. It’s also got great cinematography, costume design, production design and performances. The film may not be as flat-out funny or thrilling as Knives Out (the humour is a lot dryer, and the film has a much slower pace), but saying that, this is actually the closest thing you will get to Knives Out with how they were both a revival of this tired genre.
Lastly, the more serious twisty-turny thrillers (Sleuth, The Last of Sheila & Deathtrap)
Although, Knives Out is very funny, and is very complexly plotted, the real genius of the film is just how thrilling it is. Yes, all the Agatha Christie adaptations (especially Death on the Nile) are great and all, but a slight criticism is that they aren’t that thrilling, and you could make the argument that they are slightly televisual in how they are directed. What is so brilliant about Knives Out, that it remains a very cinematic experience – it is exciting, thrilling and funny, and popcorn entertainment at it’s best. Because of that, Johnson looked at mystery popcorn thrillers for influences on his film.
Sleuth (1972) is a British mystery thriller that remains one of Rian Johnson’s favourite films. The film is last film by legendary Hollywood director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls), and stars Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. It is a twisty-turner mystery thriller, which centres on Milo Tindle (Caine) confronting his lover’s husband, Andrew Wyke (Olivier). Over the two hours run time, the two manipulate each other, and pull various cons on each other. The film is an incredibly confident and ballsy movie – essentially being a movie with just two actors in one location, and feels like it could be a feature-length episode of the BBC anthology show, Inside No. 9. The influence is especially seen in Knives Out for being set in a lavish, huge and posh mansion, as well for the various twists and turns, and plugging the rug from under the audience’s eyes. It is so much of an influence that a piece of automata from the film, Jolly Jack the Sailor is used in Knives Out.
The Last of Sheila (1973) is a really underrated gem from the 70s. The film is directed by underrated director, Herbert Ross (Funny Girl, Play it Again, Sam, The Secret of My Success, Steel Magnolias), and has a very odd writing team consisting of actor, Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and musical, song-writing legend, Stephen Sondheim. The film is influenced by various murder mystery parties that both Perkins and Sondheim used to host. The film is centred on a wealthy movie producer, Clinton Greene (James Coburn), who, a year after his wife, Sheila, had been killed in a hit-and-run, invites 6 of his friends to go on a cruise with him. Their is a secret motivation, however, as Clinton has figured out that one of these friends must have been the one who killed Sheila. As he plays a Cluedo-type of game with them, another one of the characters is found dead, and a new mystery begins. This is a whodunit, done seriously without many laughs, but still done very efficiently, with the props given to Ross and the writers. The cast are all very good, especially Coburn, Dyon Cannon, Richard Benjmain and James Mason. The film is very notable for how it basically has two mysteries going on at once, and both of them feel very interesting, developed and thought-out. The film also has an almost “false ending”, in which we think everything is resolved, only for them to have an even smarter resolution, which very much inspired Knives Out. An underrated gem, you should definitely check out this movie.
Deathtrap (1982) is another underrated gem, directed by the previously featured director on the list, Lumet, and written by Jay Presson Allen, based on the play by Ira Levin. The film is very similar to Sleuth, but this time we have Caine in the older man role, and Superman’s own Christopher Reeve in the younger man role. The film centres on failed playwright, Sidney Bruhl (Caine), who gets given a manuscript from one of his students, Clifford Anderson (Reeve). Annoyed that the script is much better than his, he invites Clifford for dinner with his wife, Myra (Dyon Cannon), which ends in tragedy for one of the three characters. The film, as always, is brilliantly directed by Lumet, who makes the film very tense and thrilling. Very much in the same way as Sleuth, the film is incredibly ballsy in how it centres mainly on two actors in one location for the whole run-time. The twisty-turny, subversive and thrilling plotting is also on display here, and you can definitely feel that influence on Knives Out. This is another one you should definitely check out, especially if you’re a fan of twisty-turny thrillers.
With all these influences, Johnson has created a film has intricate plotting, witty and subversive humour, and thrilling and tense direction. What’s so wonderful about Knives Out is that is a loving tribute to the murder mysteries/ whodunit genre, whilst reviving the genre with a new and original story. It is simultaneously a film that feels quintessentially Rian Johnson, while doing standing on it’s own as a stand-alone movie. It is such a great movie, that will hopefully grow in stature over the years. I can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson has in mind for the sequel, which is currently is development. Hopefully, it will be just as fantastic.