10 Great Detective Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

5. Max and the Junkmen (1971)

Max is a stubborn, obsessive senior police detective in Paris. He is obsessed with the idea of catching criminals in the act. He gets a piece of reliable information but still fails to catch them. So, he decides to set a trap for a gang of small crooks. To do this, he uses a false name to approach a prostitute, the girlfriend of a crook. He soon wins her trust but things will not go to the places you may expect. Great performances from Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli and amazingly directed by Claude Sautet who previously worked with Romy on other successful projects deliver an interesting psychological portrait here.

The dignity and the sympathetic humanity with which the prostitute character is portrayed here is great – both from the script and from the once again brilliant Romy Schneider. Max, however, is someone who takes life and himself much more seriously. So, you get a contrast of two different characters here. That’s the magic of Sautet’s direction. When you like at it: Max is a typical figure of film noir: a disaffected, obsessed detective who instigates a group of criminals to commit an act and then falls in love with the girlfriend of the leader. It might turn into a clichéd crime/romance story but he finds so many nuances in it and when the film ends, you actually keep thinking about it.


4. Small Town Crime (2017)

How unfortunate that the recent effort by Eshom and Ian Nelms called “Fatman” didn’t live up to expectations because their previous work “Small Town Crime” is an absolute gem. John Hawkes is fantastic as Mike Kendall / P.I. Jack Winter, an ex-cop now working as a private investigator. He’s half-heartedly looking for work, but all he seems to be doing is drinking and fooling around with his brother-in-law, Teddy. But one day, the job itself finds him.

Just like “The Kid Detective”, this is a smart neo-noir that combines new and old elements but again, just like that film it got released at the wrong time by a rather weak studio. So, it’s understandable that it didn’t get much traction but this is a very good, almost a great film. Feels a lot like an Elmore Leonard novel; that humor, that cagey plotting, those kinds of interesting characters. The movie avoids being formulaic and instead keeps bringing surprises. It would probably please most people who look for a gritty detective story with some B-movie charm, violence, and of course, lots of twists and turns. Even though their last film was not as good as “Small Town Crime”, hopefully Nelms brothers will manage to make more good films in the same vein.


3. The Kid Detective (2020)

One of the finest but most underrated films of recent years. This is a film that respects detective films but also brings something new into it which is why it works as both as a traditional detective story but also manages to be something millennial and fresh. It has many elements of what you associate with “detective films” as a genre: interesting central mystery, the compelling lead character, and surprising revelations but it’s also full of smart humor which is why it also works well as a satire.

Adam Brody gives maybe his best film performance as Abe Applebaum, a man who was a local celebrity as a “kid detective”. He was solving minor mysteries and crimes for the residents of the town of Willowbrook. Now that he’s grown up, he’s down on his luck and not really matured enough. However, one day, one surprising case comes up and his life takes a turn. It might be his time to prove himself once again.

What’s so special about “The Kid Detective” is that it’s both fresh and old-fashioned. It has that millennial angst but it’s also handled in the traditional neo-noir style. Adam Brody’s character is unique altogether; you don’t get to see a character like this in detective movies or even noirs so often. It could even go further at exploring the mindset of someone who used to be a child celebrity but it’s already great in the way it is. Maybe because it was mostly a Canadian production or maybe because of the distributors, it didn’t get much recognition but certainly deserved to be seen more.


2. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Illegal games of chance in smoky backrooms, where people gamble for life, gangsters who rule the underworld, a world made entirely of shadow and fog – and in the middle of it we have the police detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), who, through his ruthless methods, is actually on the other side of the law. Because his own father was a criminal, he hates them even more than is acceptable to the force. When Dixon is supposed to solve the murder of a millionaire, who was recently found dead, he entangles himself in a web of slander and cover-up.

Otto Preminger was the master and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” should be regarded as one of his best efforts. He does a terrific job of pacing the story and of building sympathy for our main character. Dana Andrews is great, he the part with an impressive combination of toughness and vulnerability.

Of course, it’s not “Laura” level maybe but still a great work of the genre. It is the dark corners of the city that take center stage in the film, the little people who cannot escape the effects of these dark corners, regardless of which side of the law they are on. The cinematographer Joseph LaShelle also brings his A-game with an excellent series of night scenes. So you basically get excellent cinematography, amazing editing, great direction, terrific lead performance/character, engaging story. What else one can need? This is well-made entertainment, pure and simple, with enough surprises along the way.


1. Detective Story (1951)

From one legendary director to another. It was hard to pick number one. Should it be Prominger or Wyler? But it makes sense to end the detective list with, oh well, a detective story titled “Detective Story”. It’s not necessarily “underrated” in the sense that it got nominated for four Oscars and it is critically acclaimed enough, some even called it better than the play it was based on. However, you don’t often hear this among the very best of William Wyler or his star Kirk Douglas.

This is indeed a very impressive film adaptation of a Broadway play that depicts the daily routine at a police station in Manhattan. Jim McLeod hates anything that is against the law, and he’s not squeamish about the suspects – or the witnesses, either. At the same time, he is working on the case of young Arthur who is said to have stolen money from his boss. And he’s got to solve a break-in that Mr. Gennini has been linked to.

Kirk Douglas plays an indomitable, principled detective whose personal code is shaken by dealing with too many criminals. Eleanor Parker plays his wife, who is tormented by a dark secret. It’s not easy to talk about the plot without giving away too much, mainly because the film is more about characters’ personality and their mental state.

This is not your average crime film and it’s more talky than you might expect but it’s terrific at what it does. Almost every shot Wyler chooses for his film reveals something, about the plot, about the characters, about motivations. It feels a rather claustrophobic experience for a detective story but you can’t look away. You never get a feeling that you’re watching a filmed play. Instead, you’re getting a rich, complex character study made by absolute legends of their craft.