What’s life without a bit of mystery, eh? As lovers of crime novels, we’ve all probably come across a fair amount of whodunits in our time. But head-scratching crimes aren’t just a thing of fiction – the annals of true-life crime are filled with enigmas too. Plenty of which have, in turn, gone on to inspire some rather good cinema…
Here are some unsolved real-life crimes which inspired some great films.
10. The Death of Bobby Fuller
At the very peak of Bobby Fuller’s musical stardom in the mid-1960s, with I Fought the Law topping charts across the world, the 23 year-old rock ‘n’ roller died in mysterious circumstances. Found dead in his car, was Fuller’s death an accident? A suicide? Was he killed by the mafia for carrying on with a mobster’s girlfriend? Some have even thrown Charles Manson’s reign of terror into the mix. Eddie & The Cruisers (‘Rebel. Rocker. Lover. Idol. Vanished.’) was Bobby’s story told with names and a few details changed. But truth (whatever that truth may be…) is stranger – and more entertaining – than fiction. The theory that persists? That one of The Bobby Fuller Four put a hit on him after he’d threatened to leave the band…
9. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders
‘The Phantom Killer’ stalked and killed five victims over the course of four months in the dusty in the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas in the Spring of 1946. But who was the man behind the murders? No one knew. And unsurprisingly, this caused some concern in the area. To put it mildly. Widespread panic gripped the cities – something portrayed nicely in the schlocky horror of 1976, The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Shot on location in Texarkana, the film takes a fair few liberties with the truth, but its mockumentary style lends an extra layer of realism to the story. Weirdly, the film always closes the ‘Movies in the Park’ film festival in Spring Lake Park – where the two of the victims were killed.
8. Archbishop Oscar Romero
The Most Revered Bishop of San Salvador was assassinated by an unidentified gunman on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass. As a high-ranking bishop and outspoken critic of the El Salvador government’s tyrannical regime, Romero’s death was headline news across the world. Technically unsolved, fingers were quickly point to the country’s powers that be. Outraged, quarter of million people attended the bishop’s funeral. A bomb exploded, killing forty. These tragic events were covered in Oliver Stone’s 1986 drama Salvador, starring James Woods (who was Oscar-nominated for his role). Interesting, head-scratching stuff.
7. The D B Cooper Hijacking
‘The only unsolved air piracy in American aviation history’, D B Cooper’s story was a quite remarkable one. In 1971, Mr. D B Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 and threatened to blow it up. He then demanded and received $200,000 from the airline, Northwest Orient, and jumped out of the plane with 21 lb of $20 bills strapped to his chest (he was wearing a parachute). He was never seen again. Did he die? No one knows. The Pursuit of D B Cooper came ten years later, dramatising events and speculating what happened to the gutsy crim Cooper with Treat Williams and Robert Duvall starring. An amazing story.
6. Christopher Wallace (aka ‘Notorious B.I.G’)
In rap parlance, East coast rapper Biggie Smalls and the West coast’s Tupac Shakur ‘had beef’. But was this bad blood behind B.I.G’s bullet-riddled end? Speculation in the world of hip-hop has always suggested so, but no one’s ever been convicted for his 1997 murder. The incident is comprehensively covered in the 2009 film Notorious. The whole thing is one B.I.G mystery.
5. The Bludgeoning of Bob Crane
WWII comedy Hogan’s Heroes was a smash hit on ’60s US TV, making its star, Bob Crane, one of the most famous faces in the country. Crane was to come to a sticky end in 1978 though when he was found beaten to death in his hotel room. Suspicion fell on Crane’s long-term friend John Carpenter (not the famous film director…). Paul Schrader’s biopic Auto Focus covers the incident – and the seedy side of Crane and Carpenter’s relationship (both were obsessed with filming themselves ‘with ladies’, shall we say…). And it’s fascinating. The murder remains an enigma.
4. Jimmy Hoffa’s murder
Jimmy Hoffa’s name is now synonymous with the idea of ‘the missing person’. Though it’s widely assumed that the former Teamsters union boss was murdered by the mob. And with little surprise – Hoffa did plenty to wind up the Mafia. And there aren’t many men who tick off the likes of Sam Giancana (Frank Sinatra’s long-time underworld friend) and Anthony Provenzano (a ‘caporegime’ in the Genovese crime family) and live to tell the tale. Jack Nicholson plays Hoffa in Danny DeVito’s 1992 film of the same name about the man and hints at the reasons behind the ‘disappearance’ but isn’t definitive. Well, the mystery was never solved after all! The prolific contract killer Richard Kuklinski did claim Hoffa amongst his hits in his book, The Iceman (now in cinemas, starring Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Shannon). But there’s no proof; his remains have never been found…
3. Elizabeth Short’s Murder
‘The Black Dahlia’ murder rocked post-war America. ‘The Black Dahlia’ was the nickname given to Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old would-be model who was found cut in half and completely drained of blood in a parking lot in Los Angeles. The tabloid press sensationalised the story incredibly, turning Ms. Short into a predatory femme fatale character, encouraging rumour and gossip across California. Her killer was never identified, something fans of the 2006 film noir The Black Dahlia will no doubt know. With an all-star cast including Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank, this moody true-life crimer is based on the novel of James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and is well worth a watch.
2. The Zodiac Killer Murders
The Zodiac Killer terrorised California throughout the ’60s and ’70s, murdering strangers and taunting police. Five murders were officially pinned on the mystery assailant, though – in letters to the authorities – the serial killer claimed to have killed almost forty. An absolutely cracking film from Se7en‘s David Fincher documents the events in remarkably in-depth detail. Zodiac is one of the best real-life crime movies ever made. If you’re yet to – check it out!
1. Jack the Ripper
There can be little doubt as to the most famous and intriguing unsolved crime spree of all time though, can there? ‘The Whitechapel Murderer’ stalked, killed and mutilated at least five prostitutes in East London in 1888. The Ripper left more than just bodies in his wake, though – he left a legacy. Theories on the assailant range from drifter Polish immigrants to surgeons to – incredibly – members of the royal family. Some even suggest that Alice In Wonderland scribe Lewis Carroll was The Ripper! Jack’s inspired a fair few cinematic outings but our favourite, 2002’s From Hell stars Johnny Depp as the ‘absinthe-swigging dandy’ Inspector Abberline. Based on the graphic novels of Alan Moore, this Hughes brothers film received mixed critical reviews but really evokes the dread of the heavily-fogged, terrorised and paranoid Whitechapel.
Is it a mystery to you why we’ve missed out a top movie about a famous unsolved crime? Let us know your thoughts on our list in the comments below!