7. The Thin Man (1934)
William Powell and Myrna Loy are outstanding and command great chemistry as Nick and Nora Charles. He’s a retired private detective, she’s an affluent heiress and socialite, and together with their lovable terrier, Asta, a little bit of mystery-solving between high balls are in order.
Based off the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), director W. S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man was a huge hit and marked the first of six successful films in this droll and delightful mystery-comedy series.
The film’s evident tenderness and domesticity is slyly offset by a bitter, even angry sense of reality and alcohol consumption, if anyone cares to look closely, but that shouldn’t belie the snappy dialogue, witty and intelligible characters, and not to mention a well-paced plot that packs plenty of punch as Nick and Nora tear through Los Angeles in search of a missing man, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), the eponymous “thin man”.
The repartee and rejoinders that Powell and Loy toss around are certainly the star attraction, and their star quality was certainly at the fore, garnering the film its Oscar nomination for best picture – it lost to Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night – but anyway you slice it, The Thin Man was a sophisticated and svelte affair, one of the finest of its time. Highly recommended.
6. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
At this film’s center, bereft of dialogue but nonetheless pulse-pounding jewel robbery sequence played out in the Place Vendôme is but one of the moodily perverse pleasures in legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s (Le Samouraï) simulacrum of American gangster pictures, Le Cercle Rouge.
All of Melville’s telltale narrative obsessions are on display here, from his existential philosophizing, his steely street smart visual poetry, even his favorite leading man, Alain Delon (The Leopard).
Set in Paris, Le Cercle Rouge brings together three disparate men; Corey (Delon), fresh out of prison, hard-drinking ex-cop Janson (Yves Montand), and escaped con Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté). The cunning and cool Police Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) is dogging their trail.
Melville, a towering figure in film, whose influence can be seen in filmmakers as far ranging as Martin Scorsese and François Truffaut also has a huge hold on John Woo who said, “I believe in brotherhood and everything that goes with it. Like honor, loyalty, and friendship. The reason why Le Cercle Rouge is a classic gangster film is because it embodies this kind of romanticism.”
A masterclass in formal technique, opulent pace, and the epitome of excellence. Not to be missed.
5. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Without question, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heroic Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest sleuths in literature and many of his adventures have been adapted for the silver screen. But rather than fill half this list with films featuring Fleet Street’s most famous detective – though note none of Guy Ritchie’s populist atrocities would darken our canon – a more personal choice was made for which Holmes incarnation would be represented.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has, until relatively recent reappraisals have relinquished it, remained one of Billy Wilder’s (Some Like It Hot) most cruelly underrated pictures, bar none.
Stylish as ever, Wilder presents Holmes’ (Robert Stephens) mythological figure in tragicomic terms. Having eschewed a life with emotional attachments, Holmes has, instead, committed his life to being a thinking machine, one undeterred by romantic servitude, with a certain cynicism and detachment in its place.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes wonderfully recreates Victorian England, has fun with a conspiracy plot that manages to work in the Loch Ness Monster, a Russian ballerina, the Fleet Street Irregulars, and some slick satire, too. This is actually, unequivocally, one of Wilder’s finest films, and does due process and then some to the Holmes mythos. A treat.
4. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
A dizzy, destructive and slapdash affair, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is hard-boiled Cold War cinema at its most excitingly subversive. Adapted from a Mickey Spillane crime novel, detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker in his most memorable role) prefers to think with his fists as he’s embroiled in a caper with femme fatales and a mysterious suitcase – the contents of which glow with a sinister perhaps radioactive countenance.
The suitcase, here in B-movie fashion dubbed “the Great Whatzit” is a classic McGuffin, paid homage in far-ranging works from Alex Cox’s Repo Man, Steven Speilberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, here a fatalistic and mind-boggling mystery that leads to one of the most bleakest, cynical, and heart-stopping movie endings in memory.
“To appreciate Kiss Me Deadly, you have to love movies passionately,” wrote François Truffaut in the pages of Cahier du Cinema, “in Aldrich’s films, it is not unusual to encounter a new idea with each shot. In this movie the inventiveness is so rich that we don’t know what to look at — the images are almost too full, too fertile… This is the film of a young director who is not yet worrying about restraint.”
3. Chinatown (1974)
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a hangdog private eye, hardboiled and shit out of luck. Blithely arrogant, his hunches almost always wrong, Jake exudes a vitriolic machismo, claiming here and there in the odd moment of clarity he experiences that he’s “just a snoop” in Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece, Chinatown.
Robert Towne’s script acts as a sort of compendium of film noir tropes and yet it defies them, it also wisely reflects glimmers of Greek tragedy, and, with Polanski’s nearfaultless direction results in a revisionist homage, that manages to be both cynical and sentiment in one fell swoop.
Masterfully evoking Hollywood’s Golden Age, even placing one of that era’s most dignified directors, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) in a pivotal role, helps to underscore the assured audacity of the film that Roger Ebert said is “…a 1940s private-eye movie that doesn’t depend on nostalgia or camp for its effect, but works because of the enduring strength of the genre itself.”
2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“I’m tired of making up lies,” says the dangerous and distrustful dame Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), in the classic period showpiece The Maltese Falcon, “of not knowing what’s a lie and what’s the truth.”
John Huston’s directorial debut, it not only made him and Humphrey Bogart stars, but household names as well. As nuanced private investigator Sam Spade, mixed with manipulator Brigid, trying to outmaneuver her without falling further for her, emotionally speaking.
Based off Dashiell Hammett’s novel, which by 1941 had already been adapted twice previously, Huston’s version was to be the definitive one, and is regularly cited as the ascendancy of film noir’s classic period.
Bogart, having graduated from playing gangster roles and goons, became leading man material, and his Sam Spade, sharp-suited and at the ready, he’s out to find whoever is responsible for the death of his business partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), and the mystery that follows is mythical even to this day.
“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” says Spade, effortlessly exuding cool,”it doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business.” And business is booming.
1. The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks’ film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep gleefully celebrated private eye Phillip Marlowe’s (Humphrey Bogart) incorruptibility in what is arguably considered the definitive take on this iconic figure.
Marlowe swiftly manoeuvres this bleak film noir landscape of betrayal, perversion, and murder with hugely entertaining results, the least of which being his silver-tongued verbal exchanges and innuendos with self-assured dames, many of whom deceptively more modern than the time period would suggest. The hardboiled genre had never been this self-aware and sepulchral.
The scenes between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall), as he snoops the trail of a murderous conspiracy, drips with a sexual tension and a deliberate erotic charge that got Hollywood in the 1940s all hot and bothered. The speedily moving narrative tempo, deliberate labyrinthine plot and standout sequences – particularly Dorothy Malone’s famously unforgettable seductive Acme Bookstore proprietress bit – cinch The Big Sleep as the yardstick against which so many a noir is measured.
“So, you’re a private detective,” says Vivian with a nonchalant verve in the first of many verbal duels. “I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My you’re a mess, aren’t you?”
The savage wit on display is par for the course in this cinematic treasure.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.