30 Great Detective Movies That Are Worth Your Time

23. Se7en (1995)


Another entry in the neo-noir crime genre, with generous helpings of horror and heartache – the eerie ending especially – Se7en was David Fincher’s breakthrough film, it was not only met with critical success but it was also one of 1995’s highest grossing films.

Set in a fictitious American city – though filmed primarily in Los Angeles – Se7en seduced a buddy-cop formula pairing about-to-retire Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) with feisty and idealistic Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). David, recently transferred to the department, has much to prove, and their first case established a sicko serial killer bent on arranging elaborate and grisly murders focused on the seven deadly sins.

Se7en also features Gwyneth Paltrow in her first major role, as David’s doting wife, Tracey, and an especially sinister turn from Kevin Spacey as a John Doe and prime suspect.

All in all this was an impactful and influential film, not only showcasing stirring and emotional performances from its fine ensemble, but it vested Fincher as a bankable, and ingenious director capable of uncompromising yet satiating work. It’s rightly considered a genre classic and is essential viewing for anyone who likes their psychological thrillers cynical and sardonic and hard to shake off.


22. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)


This playful piss-take on hardboiled detective thrillers by writer/director Shane Black – who’s screenplay credits already included Lethal Weapon and Predator – is a flip, tongue planted firmly in cheek affair.

With a charismatic cast including Robert Downey Jr., and Val Kilmer, in his best role in years, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a dessert buffet for a post-Tarantino audience capable of dissecting and detecting a satirical and sarcastic edge in their entertainment. It’s almost too smart for its own good, and therein rests its seductive charm.

Black’s screenplay was partially inspired by prolific mystery writer Brett Halliday’s novel “Bodies Are Where You Find Them”, but much of the playfully perplexing plot and quick-witted banter is all Black.

A deliberately ironic homage – the film’s title says it all, essentially – it’s the best kind of mock-heroics, an inside joke that doesn’t alienate, even when Kilmer’s private detective, “Gay” Perry van Shrike speaks directly to camera, “Thanks for coming, please stay for the end credits, if you’re wondering who the best boy is, it’s somebody’s nephew, um, don’t forget to validate your parking, and to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said fuck so much.”


21. The Killer (1989)

The Killer (1989)

A pulsating, neon-lit postmodernist Hong Kong punctuated with piercing skyscrapers is the perfect backdrop for John Woo’s The Killer. In what was their third pairing, Woo and action star Chow Yun-Fat, clearly and expressly influenced in equal parts by American Westerns, gangster movies, and police procedurals leaped into a hyperkinetic and highly stylized frame of mind for what was not only huge international box office, but a career pinnacle for both.

So visually adventurous and viscerally stylish, it’s hard to view films that came after, like Pulp Fiction and The Matrix, without seeing The Killer’s bloody fingerprints.

The story, which concerns a familiar one last hit motif for guilt-ridden hitman Jeffrey Chow (Yun-Fat), forever dogged by Detective Lee (Danny Lee), isn’t exactly groundbreaking or particularly original, but the deft choreography of the action sequences – each more outrageous than the last – and the moral grayness of the heroes and villains is what makes Woo’s film so dazzling and devastating.


20. Out of Sight (1998)

Out of Sight (1998)

Adapted from the Elmore Leonard bestseller, Out of Sight represents a rare instance, both on this list and in the detective film sub-genre in general, with a female flatfoot as the principal protagonist. Here it’s Jennifer Lopez’s deputy federal marshal Karen Sisco, embroiled in shenanigans with George Clooney’s charming bankrobber ex-con Jack Foley, on the lam, and under the exceptionally strong direction and ambitious sweep of Steven Soderbergh.

Karen and Jack’s ill-omened affair is alternatingly obvious, twee, and spectacularly smart, just like you’d expect from a merger of Leonard and Soderbergh.

Out of Sight also boasts a uniformly strong supporting cast with the likes of Nancy Allen, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Steve Zahn, and an uncredited cameo from Michael Keaton reprising his role as ATF Agent Ray Nicolette – whom he portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, which was based off of Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch. As far as zero cool crime gambols go, this films is aptly titled and certifiably outta sight.


19. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

An artful and audacious female-led neo-noir that’s also a tad self-conscious, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nevertheless transcends a few requisite genre trappings via impressive stylization, abstraction, and a brilliant turn from Noomi Rapace at the titular heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

Adapted from Swedish author/journalist Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published best-selling novel, director Niels Arden Oplev (We Shall Overcome) expresses a fair bit of existential angst and punk rock attitude as we follow Lisbeth, a rape survivor and avenging angel, of sorts, who’s also a brilliant hacker and surveillance agent with an agenda and an axe to grind.

The first film in the Millennium trilogy – each starring Rapace and Michael Nyqvist (as journalist and junior detective Mikael Blomkvist) and directed by Oplev – it was also given a decent American remake treatment courtesy of David Fincher.

While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is incredibly violent and deals with sensitive subject matter – the rape/revenge scenario is harrowing enough but the sexual sadism doesn’t end there – it offers great fascination, deeply realized and relishable characters, catharsis and shattering suspense. Believe all the hype, this film doesn’t disappoint.


18. The Untouchables (1987)


Brian De Palma’s heat packin’ Prohibition-era epic The Untouchables represents a fateful package and presentation of numerous fortuitous circumstances. The stylish innovator was in need of a hit after his black comedy Wise Guys (1986) failed to meet expectations, and David Mamet’s script revamping the Eliot Ness vs. Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s seemed a potentially promising project.

It also enabled De Palma to re-team with Robert De Niro, whose career he helped boost with his early comedies, Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970).

Also adding bite to the cast was then unknown Kevin Costner, as Ness, and Sean Connery making a late career comeback, and an Oscar win, for his supporting role as Irish-American beat cop Jimmy Malone.

A violent, vulgar, over-the-top crime spectacle, it’s easy to draw a line from De Palma’s other big gangland epic Scarface, to this, as far as shots fired and stylish flourishes are concerned. Emblematic of all De Palma’s work, The Untouchables encompasses all his trademark furbelows; the split-diopters, slow motion, split screens, tracking point-of-view shots, and intricate action sequences.

The tommy-gun toting shootout at Union Station, which plays out with a ferocious intensity and even boldly dares to references Sergei Eisenstein’s epic Battleship Potemkin, specifically the massacre on the Odessa steps, is a show-stopper.

Gangland Chicago is romanticized and bullet-ridden by the film’s end, some historical liberties aside, it all still amazingly amounts to one of the best cops and gangster movies around, period.


17. Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

“I never saw her in the daylight,” remarks private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), “we seems to live by night. What was left of the day went away like smoke from a pack of cigarettes.”

Long serving noir linchpin Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, They All Come Out) directed Mitchum, working from a meaty script from novelist-screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, in Out of the Past. When our hero, Jeff, is hired to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) he soon finds her in Acapulco and falls for the dame, hard. “I knew what a sucker I was,” he spits out, self-aggrandizingly.

Greer’s Kathie is cool, collected, and quietly devastating. She would become a model for all later femme fatales to follow, deftly fending off advances, coyly corrupting and destroying the man who loves her. Flashbacks and flawed heroics riddle the narrative as clean exits are forbidden and guilty parties and misguided detectives fumble for safe passage.

“Build my gallows high, baby,” mutters Jeff to Kathie, with passive acceptance, unaware his fate’s been sealed with a killer’s kiss.


16. Prisoners (2013)


Beastly horrors lurk in the behind-closed-doors narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which reteams the director with Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in his intense psychological thriller Enemy (2013). Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki on the case of two missing girls in an emotionally complex ensemble piece that also stars Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Hugh Jackman, and Viola Davis.

Prisoners is a haunting, deep-seated and disturbing film, the kind you carry around afterwards, processing and pondering it all, and makes for a very rewarding experience.

Buoyed immeasurably by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the framing is sharp, bristling with energy and a compulsive panache that makes turning away all but impossible, even when some of the more nightmarish aspects of the film perturb and exasperate the viewer. It’s not always easy to take, especially with the subject matter, but Villeneuve is a gifted and calculating craftsman, and while his film may take no prisoners, it also sets the viewer free with a purgative wheeze and an audible gasp.