A graven image from the first moments of film, the detective was an archetypal hero from the hard-boiled school seminary of crime stories and early cinema through to present day. Sometimes referred to as a private eye, a peeper, a gumshoe, shamus, dick or a sleuth, and usually an embodiment of über male machismo, detective films, while often times two-fisted, aren’t necessarily specific to any one genre, though traditionally noir is their seedy domain.
For the purposes of the following list a few detective progenitors have been omitted but will be briefly acknowledged here. The giallo films from Italy, often occupied with detectives and agents of the law, have been precluded, along with science fiction fortune-hunters like Lemmy Caution from Alphaville and Rick Deckard from Blade Runner.
And seeing how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved creation, Sherlock Holmes, has starred in a multitude of films dating as far back as the silent era (circa 1900) to the present day, only one representative film with him was selected, though so many are worth watching.
By no means a definitive list of the private eye picture, what follows functions as a well-supplied summation of some of the best niche offerings ever produced. Adventure, adulation, danger and despair dogs these footsteps, but be certain that the risks match the rewards that these surprising films offer.
30. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
As you’d expect, there’s an irresistible screwball rhythm to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that, combined with its well executed running gags and ingenious animation-meets-live-action gimmick renders it essentially bulletproof, critically speaking. To poke holes here would be like poking a sleeping baby as populist filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future) fantasy-comedy gives generously to its audience while paying wise homage to all the noir-ish designs the detective genre has to offer.
Set in 1947, deadeye dick Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) reluctantly partners with Roger Rabbit (memorably voiced by Charles Fleischer) – an animated character from Toontown, a Max Fleischer-meets-Dr. Suess-style anthropomorphic city nestled just outside of Hollywood – in an attempt to clear his good name after being framed for murder.
The film is populated with cameos by characters from Disney (Donald Duck, Dumbo) to Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.), with other classics like Betty Boop, and introduces the vivacious scene-stealing moll, Roger’s femme fatale wife, Jessica Rabbit (voiced brilliantly by Kathleen Turner). It’s a classic family centric comedy and the best of it’s kind since Mary Poppins.
29. Dirty Harry (1971)
No one does urban action as sleek and as exciting as Don Siegel (Coogan’s Bluff), and while politically problematic, Dirty Harry is a suspenseful, and taut, gun-fetishizing thriller.
As tight-lipped San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood is a man driven, with nothing to lose – his wife and daughter were slain by smoking gun baddies – he’s on the trail of a crazed killer who goes by the epithet Scorpio (a sly reference to the real-life Zodiac killer, who eluded capture and was never brought to justice, let alone identified).
Dirty Harry is a decent early 70’s undertaking, fans of Eastwood adore it, and not only did it spawn a franchise – to diminishing returns, mind you – it also contains one of the most memorable rejoinders of the detective film genre: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
28. Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-ho (The Host) rose to international fame, as did lead actor Song Kang-ho, in this startling South Korean crime thriller, based off of actual events. Memories of a Murder begins in the autumn of 1986 when a woman’s body is discovered in a field outside of Hwaseong, a city fringed by bucolic fields and farmland.
Local detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho) is out of his depth with the brutal crime – soon to be the first of several – and his bungling, ill-equipt team are soon bolstered by Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from the mean streets of Seoul.
The film, a favorite of many auteur loving critics and filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, is wonderful mixture of police procedural, detective film, black comedy, and social satire.
It’s an elusive, at times frustrating film – the real-life crimes and those in the film are never satisfactorily solved, making it similar somewhat to David Fincher’s Zodiac – Memories of a Murder is one of the freshest and most formal serial killer films around, with enough surprises and shocks to keep viewers riveted and rattled until it’s final polished frame.
27. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
David Lynch is certainly no stranger to exposing the darkness belying the underbelly of small town America, this is exemplified and epitomized both in his groundbreaking neo-noir mystery film from 1986, Blue Velvet, and his iconic 1990s TV series Twin Peaks.
Morally ambiguous and deliberately arthouse, Fire Walk With Me appeared in multiplexes a year after the Twin Peaks TV series was unceremoniously sacked, and fans hoped it would shed light on the cryptic and confusing series finale – itself a small-scale masterpiece of expectation subversion – the film was, for better or worse, a hallucinatory and amusing mindfuck.
Lynch, with his uncanny talent for sidestepping easy categorization makes challenging, adult-oriented cinema, Fire Walk With Me, which was critically derided and outraged fans of the TV show, has, thankfully, in recent years been reassessed and rightly recognized.
And while it didn’t pick up where the series ended, it’s a kinda sorta prequel that details both FBI Special Agent Chester Desmond’s (Chris Isaak), and Agent Sam Stanley’s (Kiefer Sutherland) murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), pre-dating the Twin Peaks murder mystery slant, as well as the days leading up to Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) disappearance and death.
Made complete with standout performances – Ray Wise is terrific, as is David Bowie in a small role, and Kyle McLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper is a customary cult icon – an atypically haunting Angelo Badalamenti score, and a formalistic and denotative directorial style. Mental misery is given a masterclass, and the whispered line, “he’s under the fan now” is pure nightmare fuel. Watch this one with all the lights on.
26. Heat (1995)
No one does the cops and robbers game quite like Michael Mann (Miami Vice), and his mid-90s crime caper laudation, pitting master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) against veteran LA robbery-homicide detective Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) has a mythic quality.
Mann, at the height of his considerable directorial powers, grounded this variegated and violent tale on actual events, buoyed by an incredible cast which also includes Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, John Voight and a young Natalie Portman.
Never less than gripping, Mann’s tale of heists and inquisitions is hampered here and there by stilted dialogue and Pacino’s trademark overblown delivery – “She’s got a great ass, and your head’s all the way up it!” nets unintentional laughs, for instance – but the armored car takedown and daytime shootout centerpiece in downtown Los Angeles is one of the most exciting action sequences of the 90’s.
Landing when Heat did, in a post-Pulp Fiction postmodernist sphere, Mann’s guns-blazing old line permutation holds up and keeps pace like a Swiss watch. Another boon to this supreme cat-and-mouse caper is the controlled and keen camerawork by Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, The Insider), which is top-drawer all the way.
25. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Director Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys, 8 Mile) cleverly conjures all the time-honored trappings of 40s and 50s film noir with his pièce de résistance picture, L.A. Confidential. But don’t let the old line allusions convince you that this is all pastiche and reminiscence, the crime and corruption that Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti detail and deconstruct in their sun-dappled Los Angeles is a richly textured and diligently individualized work.
In their elaboration of an early 50s Lotusland locale, radically different from today, they eschew all the prosaic genre adornments in favor of glossy fluorescent and vividly undimmed tableau. Amorality never looked so clarion and unclouded.
With an appealing and magnetic ensemble cast, including Danny DeVito as tabloid dirtbag Sid Hudgeons Kevin Spacey’s egomaniacal Officer Jack Vincennes, Guy Pearce’s Officer Ed Exley, Russell Crowe’s short-tempered Bud White, and Kim Basinger’s moll fatale Lynn Bracken – she won an Oscar for her efforts – Hanson’s film is nearly faultless.
Not only does the film do justice to the James Ellroy novel on which it’s based, itself a cynical yet wise tome that takes down Tinseltown and the psychology of the denizens who dwell there, it stands as one of the finest neo-noir crime films by any chance. Its evil secrets, artistic sweep, and high-intensity make L.A Confidential a conquering hero of hard-boiled moviemaking.
24. Manhunter (1986)
Michael Mann (Heat) makes this list once more with Manhunter, the first and finest adaptation of Thomas Harris’ psychological thriller bestseller, Red Dragon.
It was also the first cinematic manifestation of cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, here performed brilliantly by Brian Cox, and while initially met with mixed reviews, it wasn’t long before home video and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) helped upraise this powerful police procedural into the prominence and public attention it deserved.
Detailing the forensic investigation led by FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (William Peterson) and Agent-In-Charge Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) as they pursue a vicious and elusive killer dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” (a terrifying Tom Noonan).
Impelled as he often is, by a rakish and intense use of color – maudlin blues and perverse greens, for instance – such stylish plumes mark Mann’s work as sophisticated emblems, amping up the deepening story as the plot morphs into a moral maze of depravity and danger. As far as suspenseful and stylish thrillers go, Manhunter nets its quarry ruthlessly.