This year’s Academy Awards race finds Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon—a verrrry long (206 minutes) crime drama—among the nominated titles. Adapted from David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book, which is subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the film is nominated in 10 categories, including Best Picture.
Inevitably, there are a lot of politics involved in the vote casting, which is why Flower Moon’s leading lady, Lily Gladstone, will probably rack up a Best Actress win. She would be the first Native American actress to do so, and Oscar loves “firsts.”
However, in its 95-year history, the Academy Awards hasn’t been so lovey-dovey with the mystery-crime genre. I went looking for top-honored genre movies—concentrating on titles adapted from books—and here’s what I found...
1. Rebecca (1940) – Best Picture and more
First published in the UK where it garnered huge sales and enjoyed critical acclaim, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was on the verge of its United States publication when it was announced the novel was already headed to the screen. Producer David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) paid a whopping $50,000 for the rights, after reading the book’s galleys. Then he hired England’s most talked-about director, a young Alfred Hitchcock. No wonder Rebecca was destined for screen success—and Oscar attention.
Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson in a chilling performance, the gothic mystery about a young woman who must compete with the memory of—and the mystery surrounding—her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, earned 11 Academy Award nominations. Famed for its no-name narrator (we never learn the protagonist’s name) and its opening line, "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again," Rebecca nabbed the Best Picture statuette as well as Best Cinematography (George Barnes).
Footnote: Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for Rebecca and four subsequent films. He never won. Now that’s a crime!
2. In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Best Picture and more
John Ball’s 1965 book about African American cop Virgil Tibbs won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and launched a popular series. It also provided Sidney Poitier, who was then on a roll, with a signature part.
Already an Oscar-winner—and the first African American to be named Best Actor—for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, Poitier starred in three films in 1967. Along with In the Heat of the Night there was To Sir, With Love and later, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But it was Heat of the Night that had...the heat, earning seven Oscar nominations, winning Best Picture, along with Best Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant), Best Sound (James Richard), Best Editing (Hal Ashby), and Best Actor. Except, the latter went not to Poitier, but to costar Rod Steiger for his memorable depiction of a racist police chief of a town in Mississippi.
The taut storyline begins with the discovery of a body and the suspicion that Tibbs, stuck in town at a late hour because he missed a train connection, might be a suspect. Turns out he’s a homicide detective from Philadelphia, and he and the local police chief team up to solve the crime. Along the way, they come to understand, and even possibly respect, one another.
In the Heat of the Night remains a strong example of a popular film with a message that doesn’t trample the moviegoers—because it is inherent to the storyline and not employed as a sledgehammer.
Footnote: Inevitably there was a sequel, and a popular TV series starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins which ran for eight seasons.
3. The French Connection (1971) – Best Picture and more
Robin Moore’s 1969 book about a real-life international narcotics case that played out on the streets of New York City, garnered strong reviews. (“Few police procedure novels . . . are so complete,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Robert Kirsch, who called it “a superb piece of journalism.”) Film rights were snapped up and William Friedkin, whose early credits included The Boys in the Band, was named director.
Filmed on location in NYC, the gritty look of The French Connection influenced countless wannabes. Though acclaimed for its monumental car chase scene, in which cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) floors his Pontiac to catch up with an elevated train, the entire film plays out like an extended and breathless pursuit, as Doyle and his partner (Roy Scheider) try to catch the bad guys while using their own questionable tactics.
Named Best Picture, the film also snagged honors for Best Director (which allowed Friedkin to go on to do The Exorcist), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), and Best Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg). And Gene Hackman, who’d been building an impressive roster since Bonnie and Clyde, saw his career go into overdrive after being named Best Actor. Two years later there was a sequel, also starring Hackman, this time based on an original screenplay.
4. The Godfather (1972) – Best Picture and more
For cineastes as well as crime film devotees, there’s no topping the Francis Ford Coppola-directed saga of the Corleone dynasty. Based on Mario Puzo’s sprawling (446 pages!) mega-selling 1969 novel, the film takes us prisoner via its complex characters, dark family dynamics, the matter-of-fact brutality of mob rule—and bloodshed galore. All of which is made sweepingly artistic via the cinematography of Gordon Willis and the score (that theme music!) by Nino Rota, as well as the performances of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton (even with that bad wig), and more. It's a sumptuous Italian feast we can’t get enough of. Which is why there had to be a sequel (see the next entry).
Earning 10 Oscar nominations, it lost in most categories to the period musical Cabaret. But it was The Godfather that captured Best Picture and Best Screenplay Adaptation (a collaboration between Puzo and Coppola). And in what remains a legendary Oscar moment, Best Actor winner Brando was a no-show who nonetheless stole the show by having a Native American woman, in fringed leather and beaded moccasins, take the stage in his place and declare that he declined the honor and was en route to support Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It was a fitting coda for the mob king, and a movie no crime buff can refuse.
Footnote: following the death of Sasheen Littlefeather, the woman who read Brando’s statement, her family repudiated her claim to be of Native American ancestry.
5. The Godfather Part II (1974) – Best Picture and more
C’mon, everybody knows you can’t take down the mob. Once again, Mario Puzo’s novel was the source material, with a screenplay adaptation by the author and director Francis Ford Coppola. But this film is more than a sequel; it’s also a prequel. The parallel stories chart the rise of young Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro, who immigrates to New York from his Sicilian homeland, as well as the rise of Corleone son Michael, again depicted by Al Pacino.
A great supporting cast, including Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale (poor Fredo!), and amazing set pieces, like the scenes of Michael’s visit to Cuba, and those at the Corleone compound at Lake Tahoe, adds to the must-see factor.
Over the years there’s been much debate over which of the two Godfather entries is best. (Yours Truly disavows the third film in the series.) Fans will have to duke it out. As for Oscar wins, the film snatched Best Picture, along with Screenplay Adaptation, Original Dramatic Score (for Nino Rota, natch) and earned De Niro the Best Supporting Actor honor.
6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Winner, The Big Five
Based on Thomas Harris’ huge 1988 bestseller, which was a sequel of sorts to his 1981 chiller Red Dragon, the film was a game changer—a pop culture phenomenon in spite of (or because of?) its explicit violence and gore.
Winning the Big Five—Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Screenplay Adaptation (Ted Tally), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster)—Silence also became the template for serial killer thrillers.
Hopkins’ performance as Foster’s manipulative mentor has become his signature role. Befitting the film’s iconic status, there have been sequel films and TV shows. And Hannibal is a celeb in his own right—just ask anyone who knows of the film if they’d like some fava beans served with “a nice Chianti.” There’s even a Hannibal Lecter Bobblehead.
Footnote: It was also a milestone in another arena: At the time of its Oscar wins, no other horror film—and this movie straddles that genre—had broken through as Best Picture.
7. No Country for Old Men (2007) – Best Picture and more
The picture was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, set in the dusty Texas-Mexico borderlands and involving the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. The relentless drama follows intertwined journeys of a Texas lawman, a good ol’ boy who happens upon a briefcase filled with cash, and an unrelenting hitman-psychopath who has a perverted code of justice involving a coin toss.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, and has great supporting turns by Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson.
Nominated in eight Oscar categories, No Country won for four: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, for Javier Bardem’s creepy hitman, Best Supporting Actor. Watch out for those coin tosses!
8. Argo (2012) – Best Picture and more
A 1999 memoir called The Master of Disguise, by retired CIA “espionage artist” Tony Mendez—and a 2007 Wired magazine article about Mendez and his exploits—are the basis of Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort. Affleck, who stars in this one, previously helmed adaptations of Dennis Lehane’s 1998 detective novel Gone Baby Gone (for 2007’s film of the same name) and Chuck Hogan’s bank robbery thriller The Prince of Thieves (as 2010’s The Town).
Affleck, who was a Middle Eastern studies major during his college days, says he was immediately drawn to Chris Terrio’s script—an amalgam of spy caper, comedy, hostage drama, and historical thriller. Then there’s the fact that the CIA really did concoct a wild covert effort to free American hostages during the 1979 siege of the American Embassy in Tehran by militant students. “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true,” Affleck told the L.A. Times, on the eve of the film’s release. “It would just seem like bad storytelling.”
Author Mendez (portrayed by Affleck) was a consultant on the film. After all, he came up with the idea to have the hostages disguised as members of a Hollywood film crew, allegedly in Iran to make a science fiction film called... Argo. It was under that guise that they were spirited out of the country.
Also starring Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin, the film won Best Picture, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio), and Best Editing (William Goldenberg). This was the second Oscar for Affleck, who—along with pal Matt Damon—won Best Original Screenplay for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. All that, and J.Lo!
A regular Mystery Scene contributor, Pat H. Broeske is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer known for her Hollywood coverage. She’s written countless column inches about the Academy Awards, and has covered the event from both the red carpet and its press room.