Knives Out is an attempt to combine an Agatha Christie-style style unit with a Hitchcock-style thriller. Which was an interesting challenge, because Hitchcock hated whodunits.
For the suspense master, the pleasures of a unit are built on the cheapest coins – surprise. Two hours of clue collecting for a big wet fart of surprise at the end. Can you guess the unit? Probably not, but even if you can, you're more likely to choose a horse than to follow the detective's path of reason, and how satisfying is that?
My problem has always been this: I fundamentally agree with Hitchcock about the dangers of the genre, and yet I love it. I love the musty mansions, the arrogant patriarchs and matriarchs; I love the gallery of rogues of snobbish suspects caught in their lies by eccentric detectives; I love the details of the library and yes, I love the surprises at the end. I am a whodunit addict.
On our last night in London, after we finished filming The Last Jedi, I dragged a large group to St Martin's Theater to Christie's The Mousetrap, the long-running play in the history of the West End, an old and old pile of dust whose dust rays are dusty. And yet … the actors were playing and having fun, and I had a smile on my face all the time. I loved.
So the challenge is to reconcile Hitchcock and Christie. For all Hitchcock's snappy rejection of locked-room prostitutes, if we really look at what sets them apart from his suspense stories, it's not a leap that far.
This has been successfully done before, "Columbus" is the most obvious example of taking a whodunit unit and activating the engine in suspense mode. For those who do not know, all episodes of "Columbus" begin with the murderer committing the crime in public view. Next, we typically stick with the killer for most of the episode, and Columbus becomes a bit like the shark in "Shark," circling and disappearing, and then comes up with "one more question." We wait in suspense to see how Columbus will dive. for the kill, but we see it through the killer's eyes, which creates a deliciously winding game of where our empathy lies. Hitch would approve.
But you don't even have to go that far. See Hitchcock's work. Remove a crucial scene in "Vertigo" (I won't spoil the scene, but you know what I'm talking about – and if you don't, stop reading and watch "Vertigo"), and it becomes a surprise-based mystery. There is not much difference in plot mechanics between a production unit and a thriller movie; It's mostly a matter of perspective and whose eyes you see the story.
Better yet, take a look at Christie's novels. In her best books, she always found a way to inject other driving narrative power beyond the collection of clues, be it the proto-slasher thriller of the movie "And Then There Were None" or the serial killer chasing "The ABC Murders". These Hitchcockian engine narratives also made the eventual mandatory turnaround more satisfying. Instead of a long awaited and unmistakable revelation, the outcome of the mystery is just the last hill that drags on a rolling roller coaster.
There is another way Hitch and Christie are more alike than not. In Christie's traditional whodunit, the first "act" sets the table with a gallery of suspects and a very powerful person who each has a reason to hate, who will obviously be the victim. The interesting thing is this: Christie never (or very rarely) attracts our sympathies to the victim. The victim is usually a rich or powerful idiot, or at least an annoying person.
In this first act, we are identifying with the possible killers. Does that sound familiar? Your motives have to resonate with us, your problems seem desperate and terrible enough that if we were in their shoes … well, who knows? Christie inclines us to identify with potential killers. There is nothing more Hitchcock than that.
Fortunately, all this genre talk will make more sense after seeing "Knives Out." It's my attempt to join Dame Agatha and Sir Alfred as conspirators in crimes. Let's hope for a successful marriage. Although if I'm wrong and they end up killing each other … well, hell, I'd watch this movie.