Top 20: Private Eye movies

“The bottom is loaded with nice people. Only cream and bastards rise” – HARPER (1966)

The private investigator or, in Sherlock Holmes’ case, ‘consulting’ detective, is a figure completely embedded into the history of the crime and mystery genre, but one with many faces and attributes. Many of the best known sleuths after all were not in fact police officers but men (and occasionally women) working in an unofficial capacity, acting instead of, in competition with or in parallel to, the official forces of law and order. This is certainly true of such well-connected amateurs as Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple for instance but we would probably hesitate to actually call them ‘private detectives’ as there is something semi-official about that phrase, connoting a professional activity which we would instead connect more directly with the likes of VI Warchavski, Poirot, Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe rather than just a hobby for an inquisitive amateur sleuth.

The following list for the most part includes stories in which the protagonist is a professional detective but not officially with the police. There are a few cases where this definition probably slips a bit as in Klute for instance as the eponymous investigator is a small town cop who eventually is hired in a private capacity to carry on the investigation. What is true about most of these films, and what perhaps distinguishes them from those featuring the cosier amateur, is how the professionalism of the main character is challenged by a deep personal involvement that will greatly change them as people.

So, strictly in chronological order, here is a list of twenty of my favourites, most of which, it will come as no great surprise, derived from literary sources, all of which I will note as we go.

1. THE THIN MAN (1934)
William Powell was already well-known for his portrayal of SS Van Dine‘s upper-class sleuth Philo Vance when he became the definitive Nick Charles, an ex cop who gets involved in murder and a mysterious disappearance in New York’s high society through Nora, his wealthy and beautiful wife, played exquisitely by Myrna Loy who partnered with Powell a dozen times in the movies – but this one is the best. From the novel by Dasheill Hammett.

This, the third adaptation from Warner Bros. of Hammett’s classic San Francisco Mystery in just 10 years, is clearly the best – though the first version, now retitled Dangerous Female, and starring Ricardo Cortez as a slightly sleazy incarnation of Sam Spade, is well worth rediscovering as a tougher, less romantic version of the story. This exceptionally close adaptation of the novel features a veritable rogues’ gallery of character actors, all seemingly cast to perfection, from Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman and Peter Lorre (their first on-screen aspiring) as Joel Cairo, while Bogart and Nancy Astor were never better than when playing the dark and twisted romance of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy – wonderful. From the novel by Dasheill Hammett.

3. MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)
The first Philip Marlowe movie, and perhaps the best of them all. Dick Powell, making the startling transition from hoofer to tough guy in one confident leap, is brilliantly cast against type and in fact began a whole new career on the back of its success. Chandler’s books had already been used to provide plots for Falcon and Mike Shayne movies, but this is the first time in which perhaps the quintessential literary private eye is depicted on-screen. He gets a great entrance here, wearing a blindfold in a dark room filled with cigarette smoke, leading to a classic flashback structure and a genuinely spooky introduction to Moose Malloy – all of it original to the film and bringing Chandler’s book wonderfully to Noir life. From ‘Farewell My Lovely’ by Raymond Chandler.

4. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
This is the classic adaptation of the Chandler novel, even though the Michael Winner remake from 1978 is more literally faithful. Produced on a big budget, the second classic pairing of husband-and-wife team Bogart and Bacall works like a charm, even if the original story and characters have been largely filleted and generally mucked around with. More of a comedy than a thriller, but great fun just the same. From the novel by Raymond Chandler.

5. OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
With Double Indemnity, this is the film that best seems to exemplify what people imagine when they think of Film Noir. It has a doomed hero who by the end seemed to not so much welcome as invite his end, a femme fatale as its protagonist, a complex crime plot, shimmering and moody cinematography, a strong sense of character and place in which people pay for playing outside of societal’s accepted boundaries – and lots of double crosses and dead bodies. Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas make for a great triumvirate in another dark romantic triangle that ends in death and destruction. And its all filmed with the greatest possible taste with exquisite flair by Jacques Tourner, here simultaneously making the transition to the big time and peaking in a career that already included Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie for the Val Lewton unit. Subsequently remade as Against All Odds (1984). A classic private eye noir movie. From the novel ‘Build My Gallows High’ by Geoffrey Homes (aka Daniel Mainwaring).

6. KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
The anti-everything movie for the nuclear age – quite unlike any other film of its type up to that time. In many ways this is an anti-Noir in the sense that it seems to fly in the face of every conceivable convention – even the opening titles scroll in the wrong direction! It takes Mickey Spillaine’s eponymous Mike Hammer potboiler and then undercuts it – Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as a truly sleazy sociopath with a callous disregard for friends and foes alike. This proved to be enormously influential, the climactic sequence with the opening of the ‘Pandora’s Box’ directly referenced at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, even to the extent of re-using the same sound effects, as well as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. A horrible story full of awful people, brilliantly and cynically realised. From the novel by Mickey Spillaine.

7. VERTIGO (1958)
Romantic, misanthropic, operatic (the extraordinary score is by Bernard Herrmann) and genuinely mysterious, this is classic Hitchcock and is a rich and strange experience to be savoured several times over. Hugely influential (everything from Verhoeven’s Basic Instict and Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys to Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto the Hero and several homages by Brian de Palma, most notably Obsession). My favourite San Francisco MysteryFrom the novel ‘D’entre les morts’ by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

8. HARPER (1966)
The classic PI genre gets a glossy 60s makeover in this hugely entertaining movie with a cast to die for and some fine dialogue by William Goldman from the first of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. Newman would reprise his role in 1975 for the rather less successful The Drowning PoolFrom ‘The Moving Target’ by Ross Macdonald.

This beautifully crafted valentine to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal character was originally intended as a three-hour epic, but the production company lost confidence and so what eventually emerged was much shorter – a long introductory segment, an episode set on a liner and a long flashback to the protagonist’s youth were all edited out to get it down to a more standard running time. This is a real shame, but not critical as the meat of the film, exploring Holmes as both detective and as an individual, remain in place. Colin Blakeley, a fine actor, plays Watson too broadly perhaps but Robert Stephens makes for a wonderfully sensitive Holmes. There is also a magnificent score from Miklos Rozsa (who makes a fleeting cameo conducting Swan Lake) based on his Violin Concerto.

10. GUMSHOE (1971)
A clever homage set in Northern England with Albert Finney forced to solve a family imbroglio and affecting a Bogart drawl and dress sense to try to make sense of it all. Unexpected and delightful, wonderfully acted.

11. KLUTE (1971)
This tough and adult movie takes a trenchantly realistic approach to its story by Andy and David Lewis of a prostitute being targeted with obscene phone calls. Jane Fonda got an Oscar for her portrayal of troubled call girl Bree Daniels but apart from a slightly conventional finish everything about this movie exudes class, from Michael Small’s genuinely spooky score and Gordon Willis trademark dark cinematography to the fine cast and Alan J. Pakula’s tight directions. A brilliant film

A thriller for movie buffs and true connoisseurs of the genre, this is a film that takes the private eye genre and gives us back something dark and plausible with its depiction of two detectives working seedy cases for too little money. Culp and Cosby determinedly go against the light and breezy personas they had so successfully defined in their TV show I Spy in the 1960s, re-tuning it for the dishevelled sensibility of the next decade. The plot is probably a bit too opaque but it’s the characters that stick with you, especially Culp (also the director) as a truly tragic protagonist, in love with a woman who symbolically castrates him at every chance she gets. A real cult classic, there are some great reviews of this movie on the web – I particularly recommend Glenn Erickson’s typically incisive essay over at his DVD Savant site and another by Ned Merril here.

Adapted by Leigh Brackett, who also worked on the Hawks version of THE BIG SLEEP (see above), this is a steadfastly counter-culture revisitation of Chandler’s last major novel. As played by Elliott Gould and directed by Robert Altman this is a shambling, anti-heroic depiction of a man out-of-place and out of time in 1970s Los Angeles. It is far from being the faithless translation of the original as some have claimed but is a mellow and sad film well in keeping with the text with a little more Nixon-era despair thrown in – and is a classic bit of 70s cinema too, beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. From the novel by Raymond Chandler.

14. CHINATOWN (1974)
More than anything, the Oscar-winning success of this brilliant film relaunched the 40s era private eye genre in a darker mode to suit the unstable 1970s. With its rich score by Jerry Goldsmith (a last-minute replacement for Philip Lambro’s original music that was allegedly put together in just 10 days), a wonderfully quotable script by Robert Towne with scalpel-precise direction to match by Roman Polanski, this is a work where the lead actors are able to do some of their best ever work – the scenes between Jack Nicholson, John Huston and especially Faye Dunaway just take your breath away. A classic and if you want to read a sustained bit of writing on it, you can do no better than finding a copy of Michael Eaton’s fine BFI Classics monograph on the film – for further details click here. Nicholson would go on to play JJ Gittes in the very different sequel, THE TWO JAKES (1990).

15. NIGHT MOVES (1975)
Quite possibly the most oblique film on this list, and quite possibly the most powerful, precisely because it is what it wants to be: impenetrable. Gene Hackman is the detective investigating a missing person in the Hollywood community who gets involved in a deadly smuggling case. This is a highly sophisticated look at the genre, which delights in not giving anything away. Its closing image, of a boat going round and round in circles, perfectly sums up a film full of questions and no easy answers, though everything you need is in fact all in plain sight.

16. CUTTER’S WAY (1981)
Ivan Passer’s film of a classic post-Vietnam novel offers some highly disagreeable protagonists who fail to understand themselves any better than they do the case they decide to investigate when a woman’s body is dumped in a  dumpster. Jeff Bridges and John Heard have never been better than when playing the eponymous losers in this fascinating and uncompromisingly bleak work. From ‘Cutter and Bone’ by Newton Thorburg.

17. ANGEL HEART (1987)
A brilliant meshing of the amnesia theme so beloved of 40s noir but with a supernatural twist, in many ways this plays as an homage to the work of Cornell Woolrich. Despite a long and ludicrously self-indulgent section in which the protagonist goes around wearing a silly pair of glasses, Alan Parker’s film improves considerably on the original novel which, without cutting back from its pulpy excesses, makes for a truly powerful and frightening missing person case. From ‘Falling Angel’  by William Hjortsberg.

18. TWILIGHT (1998)
Nothing to do with Stephenie Meyer – more a reference to Wagner by way of the Hollywood predilection for shooting at ‘Magic Hour’ (the film’s original title), when the light can look either like sunset or dawn. A nostalgic PI movie by Robert Benton, who had already done something similar with his The Late Show in 1978, this has a nicely complicated plot served by a cast of great actors who all have great pedigree in the genre: Paul Newman was Lew Archer twice (see HARPER, above), Gene Hackman starred in NIGHT MOVES (see above) and James Garner was not only Jim Rockford on TV but played Chandler’s great investigator in MARLOWE (1969), an adaptation of The Little Sister. Susan Sarandon makes for a great femme fatale and you have never seen Reese Witherspoon as she is here. A classy retro delight.

19. ZERO EFFECT (1998)
A clever updating of the Sherlock Holmes mythos for the 1990s, with Bill Pullman as the irritating and reclusive genius detective Daryl Zero (‘the world’s most private detective’) and Ben Stiller as his highly annoyed ‘Watson’. This debut film by Jake Kasdan (his dad Lawrence Kasdan write and directed Body Heat) is smart and humane and ticks all the right boxes without seeming too clever or tripping over its own conceit.

20. BRICK (2005)
It would be easy and not entirely inaccurate to simply summarise this indie sleeper hit as a teenage slacker re-telling of The Maltese Falcon but this is also a beautifully made film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt truly impressive as the smart college student who sets out to solve the death of his girlfriend amongst the rich and wealthy California youth. Their tribal world of secret linguistic codes and brutally hierarchical cliques is just as enthralling, and potentially dangerous, as the mean 1930s streets of Hammett and Chandler – a minor classic.

This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, Dashiell Hammett, Film Noir, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, William Goldman. Bookmark the permalink.

97 Responses to Top 20: Private Eye movies

  1. Ela says:

    NIce list of PI films there. It’s a shame VI (a filmed version of the V I Warshawski books by Sara Paretsky) wasn’t better – there’s a lack of female sleuths in your list.

    Incidentally, isn’t Pullman’s sidekick in ‘Zero Effect’ Ben Stiller, not Ben Affleck?

    • Thanks Ela – I’ve corrected that ‘ben’ mistake – real slip of the keyboard. As for the missing female PIs, I couldn’t agree more – definitely open to suggestions on that one because I really had trouble with that – on TV there are such wonderful characters as Laura Holt from REMINGTON STEELE, VERONICA MARS not to mention the NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY.

  2. Patrick says:

    Brilliant post, Sergio! Although I tend to dislike hardboiled private-eye novels, I unreasonably love the movies starring them. (I must admit I was alarmed when I saw “Twilight” on your list, but then I realised I was on a different page.)

    Some excellent choices. I love “The Thin Man” and I’m glad to see “Chinatown” on the list- Roman Polanski is a director whose work I highly admire. Jack Nicholson is also very charismatic in the role, and the whole thing is just a beautiful, passionate work, with a haunting score (which doesn’t hurt). I’m somewhat surprised “The Two Jakes” didn’t get a mention when you talked about “Chinatown”- it’s a sequel to “Chinatown”, and although nowhere near as great, it doesn’t deserve the disdain it often gets. It’s a solid, watchable sequel.

    I really love “Vertigo” and how it reveals the mystery with plenty of film time left, but one thing has always bothered me about it… the impossible disappearance from the house. How was that done? Was it an actual ghost or something? Hitch’s icebox scenes at their most mind-boggling. And the fun thing is, I didn’t even think about it until I saw the movie a second time, but once I got it in my head… oh, boy.

    I have yet to see “The Big Sleep”. Mainly because when I tried watching it, a woman is swooning in Marlowe’s hands five seconds after meeting him. I highly dislike Chandler and particularly detest Marlowe- even for a nymphomaniac, it’s a stretch!

    • Hi Patrick, thanks very much for the comments. Chandler is definitely an author we should pick to disagree about in the future! The disappearance from the house in VERTIGO is, I agree, a major issue with the plot – I think it was only meant to be a bit of teasing mystification but does tend to enhance the dreamlike atmosphere of the movie, which let’s face it you need to buy what is a wonderfully ingenious and yet utterly absurd plot. I need to watch THE TWO JAKES again as it’s been too long since I saw it – at the time I found it a bit disappointing in that it seemed very flabby as a narrative and too slowly paced, not least because it is so different from the first in terms of style but now I think I really need to give it another shot and see if it was just a case of the ‘shock of the new’.

  3. J F Norris says:

    I am not a fan of two of these movies. GUMSHOE bored me. In fact, I turned it off and sent it back to Netflix having not finished watching it. And while I recognize the innovation in BRICK it just bugged the hell out of me. The tricky dialog grated on my nerves by the middle of the movie, I hated that ineffectual actress who played the “femme fatale,” and I really was bothered by all the actors being far too old to play teenagers. Lucas Haas was 29 when he made that movie! My suspension of disbelief flew out the window and attempted suicide. I rescued it just in time. I think JGL is one of today’s finest young actors. He just this year turned 30 and is wisely taking adult roles. When will we see another JGL in this day and age? (Whatever happened to the intriguing Nick Stahl, BTW?) I see incredible young actresses quite often – the most recent being the amazing Maia Wojciechowska. But as far as men – nothing special in a long time.

    I’ve seen all these except HICKEY & BOGGS. I hope its available on DVD somewhere. Definitely would like to see it.

    I’d add to your list a movie I just saw last night: THE MISSING PERSON (2009) with Michael Shannon as the private eye. Uses all the conventional tropes, lighting tricks, editing gimmicks in a new way in telling a story of the pursuit of a “missing” man all in the shadow of the events of 9/11. By the time the movie is over you realize there are multiple meanings to the clever title. And the surprise that comes linking the private eye with the man he is pursuing is eye opening and somewhat brilliant. I’m writing a review for my blog. It should be up later tonight.

    • Hello John – well, 17 out of 20 is pretty bloody amazing, right?! HICKEY & BOGGS has come out on DVD but is apparently , to be kind, not ‘official’. If you want to read a bit more about it I recommend Elizabeth Ward’s essay in ‘The Film Noir Reader’ edited by Silver and Ursini where she makes a compelling case for it being THE great neo-noir of the 70s along with THE LONG GOODBYE.

      I haven’t seen THE MISSING PERSON so I’m really looking forward to reading you review. Thanks for the preview as I shall definitely track it down just on that basis.

  4. Graham says:

    I’m really glad to see ZERO EFFECT here. An unconventional and surprising movie, it looks like it’s going to be a comedy but veers off into much more serious territory. Ben Stiller was never better.

    • Hello Graham, thanks very much for the kind words – I think it’s just this little gem of a movie, a great blending of story and character with an indie sensibility. Apparently a pilot for a TV version, a prequel, was made but never went to series which sounds intriigueing but admittedly it’s hard to see this working on a weekly basis!

  5. Thanks. I’ve seen most and agree. Especially like Twilight — my kind of PI movie. Also I’m glad to have a couple to add to my Netflix list.

  6. Hello Ronald, great to have your comments, thanks. I seem to have split my list between more traditional / nostalgic mysteries like TWILIGHT and thoroughly despairing existential films like NIGHT MOVES … Not too sure what’s going on there really! I have ‘Nickel-Plated Soul’ on my shelf by the way and look forward to getting to it very shortly.

    Best wishes,

  7. TomCat says:

    I feel ashamed to confess this in “public,” even from within the cocooned safety of an alias, but I have seen no more than two of the movies you listed, which shows how radically opposed I was in the past years to anything that I didn’t perceive as worthless crime stories without a plot. You know, I really do think I’m finally beginning to mature, but who’s going to believe that?

    By the way, I also compiled and posted list of 100 favorite mysteries of my own, which proved itself to be a real challenge.

    • TomCat says:

      What I meant, of course, was “how radically opposed I was in the past years to anything I perceived as worthless crime stories without a plot.”

      Proofreading is a difficult concept. 😦

      • Proofreading is definitely a tough concept, specially in a second language as in my case! I would really recommend CHINATOWN and TWILIGHT (1998) for their excellent whodunit plots with proper physical clues and great star casts.

    • A fascinating top 100 list TomCat – congrats – a lot of really unusual choices.

  8. Yvette says:

    I don’t know what it is about private eye movies that makes me not like them much. I mean, I love private eye books, but…

    My favorite film on your list is THE THIN MAN – no big surprise there, I expect.

    I’ve only ever seen a few of the others over the years.

    But ZERO EFFECT is a new one on me. I’ll have to see if I can find it. It sounds intriguing.

    I tried to watch BRICK a long while back and could not sit through it for long. I simply could not understand a word any of the actors were saying. A movie like this just makes me realize that I am getting too old to watch anything ‘newfangled.’ HA! No, it’s the truth. Even though I adore Joe Gordon Levitt (I’m not too old for that much, at any rate.) I do wish that just once in a while he would act in a comprehensible movie.

    I’ve added THE MISSING PERSON to my Netflix queue, so obviously, I do remain ever hopeful :).

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post, as usual. 🙂

    • Hello Yvette – well, there is no denying that this list, as Ela pointed out, is one that seems to be mostly ‘for the boys’ in the sense that the perspective is relentlessly male. And this is certainly a point worth making and reflecting upon.

      When it comes to crime and mystery I enjoy most anything if it’s well done and I wouldn’t want to do without Janet Evanovich, Miss Marple or MURDER, SHE WROTE for instance. On the other hand THE THIN MAN is the only one of these films which can really be said to have a female investigator in it, and that’s stretching the definition just a little bit. There are some wonderfully strong women here, especially KLUTE and CHINATOWN, but taking a long hard look at my own list, all the women here also tend to be portrayed either as victims of men, victims of circumstance, or Femme fatales / man-eaters – combinations of all three, and that is very reductive and not right.

      I still think that on an individual basis these are all splendid movies – but I definitely need a bigger list!

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  13. Jeff Flugel says:

    Really fun post, Sergio! Can’t really fault you on any of your choices. The THIN MAN is of course an all-time classic, and it’s nice to see greats like HARPER and MURDER, MY SWEET high on your list. Glad also to see the fascinating BRICK getting some love (that one really blew me away when I saw it a few years back).

    It’s a really diverse and interesting list…Personally, I’d probably trade out ANGEL HEART for something like TONY ROME, MARLOWE, THE LATE SHOW or DARKER THAN AMBER, but that’s just me. It’s been years since I’ve seen ANGEL HEART and so I can’t remember much “private eye” stuff in there. Mickey Rourke does seem to be a perfect choice to play a seedy P.I., though, so that one’s likely due a re-watch.

    I can see where Ela and Yvette are coming from, but let’s face it, there’s not a lot of female P.I.s in the movies, full stop, and none really worth talking about. There are lots of great female sleuths in the book world, of course, especially in the classic British form, but the private eye genre is pretty much a male domain in the movies. It is what it is; I wouldn’t feel too guilty about it.

    • Jeff Flugel says:

      TV, of course, is a different story, with slightly better results for memorable female private detectives, with shows like HONEY WEST, REMINGTON STEELE, VERONICA MARS, etc. Still not to many but a far better showing than on the big screen.

      Of course, my interpretation of “private eye” is quite different from “amateur sleuths” like the great Miss Marple…

      • Well, exactly, if you include amateurs then you suddenly realise that the scene is quite differnt, which is probably very telling. Remigton Steele remains a firm favourite (always preferred it to Moonlighting). Am now a huge fan of Medium, which that really is stretching the definition, though in season 4 Anjelica Huston had a long recurring role as a PI with a stroy arc that really paid off in the end.

    • Thanks very much Jeff. Angel Heart was a film I saw when it came out at the cinema and it seemed, at the time, to be a unique take on the genre – in some ways I prefer it to the book, though the plot is basically the same. I included it, more than anything, because it is so different, but I agree that one could question its credentials, though I think it is a a true private eye story in the sense that the protagonist is compelled to complete his ‘mission’ despite all the perils he faces.

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  15. Bobbi says:

    I thought for sure that “Farewell my Lovely” with Robert Mitchum would be on the list.
    I do love the entire “Thin Man” series as well as “The Big Sleep” with Bogart.
    Chinatown is another classic.

    • Hi Bobbi, thanks for the comments. I do really like the Mitchum remake (especially for its classic score by David Shire) but do prefer the original and it would have been a bit cheeky to have 2 adaptations of the same novel – maybe I should do a post dedicated solely to remakes though!

      • Bobbi says:

        I agree with you about David Shires music score in fact I downloaded the opening theme because I enjoy it that much. Personally I like Robert Mitchum better then Powell. When Mitchum did “Farewell my Lovely” he was (in my opinion) at the perfect age, someone who as been beat down so many times but keeps getting up, someone who is tired but keeps trying, a veteran. I would rank him just below Bogart as one of the great movie P.I’s.
        “Farewell my Lovely” is often overlooked but I feel that it is easily one of the top 5 great P.I. movies.

      • Bobbi says:

        In some ways I see some of Robert Mitchums Marlowe in me, he sees the world through tired cynical eyes, a world with not much good in it, someone who can count all his friends on one hand and still have four fingers left. Even David Shires music tells you that. I have nothing against Dick Powells portrayl in “Murder my Sweet” but there is something about Robert Mitchum portrayl that Dick Powell could not pull off, maybe it was Mitchums age at the time “Farewell my Lovely” was made, maybe he just looks the part, I can’t put my finger on it but “Farewell my Lovely” is better than “Murder my Sweet”. At least in my opinion

        • His version was the first Marlowe adaptation I ever saw and I used to avidly watch this one on Super 8 when I was a kid. I completely understand why you like it so much though you do touch on the age factor – at nearly 60 Mitchum really seems to old to be int hat line of work and canoodling with a thirty-year younger Charlotte Rampling. I wish there were a decent DVD or Blu-ray of this version though.

          • Bobbi says:

            Having seen both versions they are both good, as far as Robert Mitchums age and being to “old” to be messing around with Charlotte Rampling I’m nearly 60 and have a lot of younger men hitting on me all the time and I’m no cougar. Remember Charlotte Ramplings character was an ex-prostitute who was trying to cover herself, hide her past and avoid her ex beau Moose. That is why she threw herself at Robert Mitchum. I just feel the Robert Mitchum was better suited for the role than Dick Powell.

          • Well done on the whole sexual attractiveness there Bobbi – Mitchum is wonderful in it, no question there chum.

  16. Jerry House says:

    A great list, Sergio, although I’d add THE BIG FIX. (Just can’t decide which one I’d bump to make way for TBF, though.)

  17. Ron G. says:

    Love the list. There is a small hand full I will admit to having not seen and intend to remedy that. As far as the one comment on Chandler being unreadable, I put Chandler at the very pinnacle of the genre, especially for that era (Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke and Max Allen Collins are all more current, but are in the same league). I would go as far as to say that Raymond Chandler’s name can easily be used in the same breath as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. As far as portrayals of Marlowe? I saw Bogey first and loved him as Marlowe even though it was obvious that the censor made it impossible to do that book justice on film. Oh, and Carmen Sternwood wasn’t just a nymphomaniac, she was a sociopath. So, her coming on to Bogart in the first 5 minutes made sense and set that tone. All that said, I think Dick Powell did the best job by far, and when I read a Marlowe book, it’s him that I picture in my minds eye. And finally, I hated what they did with “Marlowe” and “The Long Goodbye”. I hate updating something that, one of the main reasons it was great to begin with was, The time and place it was set.

    • Thanks for all the feedback Ron G, much appreciated. I’m a Dick Powell man too (Chandler apparently had Cary Grant in mind …) and my love for Chandler remains unabated even after 30 years.

      • Bobbi says:

        To me Dick Powell just didn’t fit right, maybe is was just to much of a “pretty boy” for my tastes.
        Bogart was far better than Powell he looked the part, but for me Robert Mitchum and his weary, beaten down but still get up look, the look of someone who has seen the worst side of people is why he will (and Bogart) always be my favorite as Marlowe.

        • Thanks Bobbi – certainly had Mitchum played the role in the 1950s he would have been the right age and would have been near perfect casting though there is something of the boy scout about the chivalrous Marlowe so that may be why I like Powell in it – but the tone of the the films is so different that comparing them is practically impossible anyway!

          • Bobbi says:

            When Robert Mitchum did “Farewell my Lovely” he was in my opinion the perfect age, he looked like a PI who knows that his luck is on borrowed time, the same with Bogart. When I look at some of the past tv PI’s now they just look to young for the part. James Garner in the “RockfordFiles” was at the right age but some of the others just to young. Maybe that is one reason I love “NCIS” so much because Mark Harmon is at the right age to lead the team. With age comes experience, that is why Mitchum was at the right age to play Marlowe.

          • Joe Mannix was a perfect age to be a PI. Under 35yo tells me you are playing at it and haven’t had the chance to fall at enough things to give you the seasoning to read people and read the streets. Whether it’s as failed lawman, failed bondsman, failed private security/bodyguard, or faled criminal. Over 55 tells me you may have the experience and maybe even the toughness. You know a lot of people and have a lot of contacts, but you also should be more successful at your age, which tells me you’re not the sharpest #2 Ticonderoga in the box. And just like every body your age, you are slowing down physically. Nope, a happy medium of 45yo is the perfect age for an interesting private gumshoe. You know men, you know women, you know the law. And you know your way around all of them.

          • Just to absolutely clear, my comments about age are purely based on the fact that according to Chandler marlowe is meant to be in his late 30s at the time of BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL MY LOVELY. Nothing wrong at all with playing the character older as Mitchum did so brilliantly.

      • Well, there is no accounting for taste. Cary is too suave to be Marlowe and although he has great comic timing, he wasn’t enough of a quick witted smart aleck. I have two other canidates of the era and you are gonna think I’m off my rocker, but I’m am a huge OTR fan and after listening to Jeff Reagan, Investigator (The Lyon’s Eye), Pat Novak for Hire, and Joe Friday in Dragnet (all 400 or so episodes on the radio and 275 episodes between ’51-’59 (I find the ’67-’71 “revival” an almost unwatchable sermon against the counter-culture of the late ’60s. But if he would have reined in the Damon Runionesque oneliners from Pat Novak and leaned a little more toward Jeff Reagan, but as an independent peeper not atached to an agency, and go nowhere near the stick in the mug that was Joe Friday, I think Webb could have been an awesome Marlowe.
        My other idea was a little (or a lot) less suave Matt Helm, with no fancy cocktails and even fewer fancy dames, but I think Dean Martin in the early ’50s minus The Nutty Proffessor, would have made a damn good Philip Marlowe.

        • Dino as Marlowe would definitely be very interesting casting and the few times he got to play a tough guy he was really good I quite agree – but hey, if Sinatra can play Tony Rome in two movies so closely modelled on BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL then absolutely –

          • Bobbi says:

            Heres another Craig Stevens from Peter Gunn I liked that show also, but to me the 1940’s was the perfect setting for the “classic” PI and to be honest I would have lived in that era. I have always likethe “manly man” over the “pretty boys” that is why I have this special place in my heart for men like Robert Mitchum and Bogart, they were tough as nails. Dick Powell was good not just not in the same league as Mitchum and Bogart.
            There was a movie that Dean Martin did in which he played a lawyer in San Francisco in which someone was trying to kill him that I really enjoyed because he played it serious and it really showed off his acting ability, I wish I could remember the name of the movie but I don’t.

          • Hi Bobbi, actually I have theory that Powell was probably a a lot tougher than Bogart in real life but we are talking about screen personas here of course. The Dean Martin movie you are thinking of must me Mr Ricco, virtually his last starring role in the cinema – here’s the trailer:

          • Bobbi says:

            Thank You for the clip of Mr. Ricco is was a movie that I enjoyed all those years ago.
            As far as Dick Powell being tougher than Bogart well we will never know as both are no longer with us. As much as enjoyed Bogart in “The Maltese (I’m sure I spelled that wrong) Falcon” it was Bogart in “The Big Sleep” that really stood out to me. I loved that movie, it had more “red herrings” that a New York fish market as well as a great cast. It seems that todays movies rely more on violence than on good plots and good scripts. When I watched ” Mulholland (I’m sure I spelled that wrong too) Falls with Nick Nolte it harkened back to the days when there were great PI movies and great actors like Powell (both Dick and William), Bogart, Mitchum and so many others.
            It also seems that the PI movie like the western have been pushed to the side in favor of giant robots and super heros, maybe one day great PI movies will come back into vogue but till then I will watch the classics.

          • My pleasure. You can get Mr Ricco on DVD (click here). The police procedural has become so ubiquitous that it is very hard to imagine an original PI being able to make much of an impact any more – Veronica Mars is the only decent one I can think of in fact …

  18. Watching Brick, which gives me interest in the genre because The Big Lebowski is also supposed to have come from here. Thoughts on Lebowski?

    • Hello Matt – I do like Lebowski, which takes the plot of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and revisits it through the shambolic prism of Altman’s film of The Long Goodbye. The Coen brothers know their hardboiled fiction very well, so much so that Miller’s Crossing is beyond an hommage to Hammett’s The Glass Key but actually an unauthorised remake. Similarly, I wish there were a bit less of Chandler’s plot in Lebowski, but it’s still a fascinating movie.

  19. Pingback: Top 20: Private Eye movies | CINE DIGITAL ...T...

  20. Jeff Cordell says:

    I finally watched “The Long Goodbye” two days ago. I don’t usually like Robert Altman’s films, but this was one of three movies that he has done that I actually liked. In case you are curious the other two were “Gosford Park” and “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial”. I was prepared not to like it, but it surprised me.

    • Hiya Jeff – well, you’ve certainly picked the one that have the most structured plots and I can see where you are coming from. Have you seen the film he made of the John grisham story, The Gingerbread Man? I thought it was pretty good actually. I’m a big fan of Altman’s seemingly chaotic style and would probably say that Nashville, Short Cuts and McCabe and Mrs Miller are my favourites but I love The Long Goodbye and it is coming out on blu-ray in the UK nxt month and I will grabbing it as soon as it’s out!

  21. Rosie says:

    Reblogged this on Twin Lens Object and commented:
    For all the private detective books I’ve read, I’ve seen suprisingly few films. As the days get shorter, it’s definitely time to fix that…

  22. Rachel says:

    I can see that you enjoyed Angel Heart quite a bit more than I did. 🙂 I sometimes wonder when it’s an adaptation how my response would have been had I not read the source material first. Obviously I can never know but I was quite immediately attached to the book and this adaptation did not capture the bits that I loved. Thanks again for stopping by my review. Cheers, Rachel

    • I think you raise a very important point because although I enjoyed the book I didn;t think it was necessarily as well written as it might have been and the movie, on its own terms it seemed to me, succeed more – but then again I’m showing my age here as I saw it when it came out at the cinema! And that sequence with the stupid sunglasses is just awful – you made some really interesting points about the decision to move part of the story out of New York which hadn’t really bothered me before but now I really will want to watch it again with that in mind!

  23. Pingback: Fedora’s 400,000 visits | Tipping My Fedora

  24. testingafc says:

    Hi, interesting list. One key omission has to be Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone. A very, very underrated film, and a refreshing modern take on the PI, although it has that 70’s downbeat feel.

  25. Peter Haas says:

    I loved “Brick,” but my impression was that it was set around a high school in southern California, and not a college.

  26. martin fennell says:

    Hello. I liked Mitchim in Farerwll too. Did anybody mention his other Marlowe film “The big sleep”
    which despite a good cast didn’t work” Can we blame it on Michael Winner. I guess on first viewing, I didn’t like The Altman movie either. although It’s probably growm on me, as I’ve seen it on sucessive occassions. I think Mitchum would have been more suited agewise to The long goodbye. I don’t know if this will interest anybody. But I saw imho a great japanese version of “goodbye” It’s a tv mini series. but, subtitled.

    • Thanks Martin – never seen that Japanese TV version – fascinating! Mitchum is great casting in the role and it’s a shame that the Winner film, despite the textual fidelity, is just so dull. He made some films in the 60s that I liked but for me his talent was for satire and comedy mainly despite his box office successes making action movie with Charles Bronson and the like

  27. martin fennell says:

    I could provide the link for streaming of that japanese version if it’s allowed.

  28. martin fennell says:

    I know what you are saying about Michael Winner. You are referring to such films as The Jokers.
    Of the other films you mention, I would like to see Zero in effect in particular.
    Chandler is my favourite overall. , and I guess overall, he has been pretty well served by cinema.
    Do you remember The Dain Curse mini series. I’d like to see that again.
    After Chandler, it would be Ross McDonald. Funny I never consider his books as favourites. but I keep rereading them. The plots are very hard to follow though. But I would say the private eye movie I’ve seen is The Maltese Falcon.
    But is vertigo really a pi movie?
    Did you see where it has tooped kane on the BFi geatest movies poll.
    One thing about Elliot Gould in as Marlowe. I read somewhere he was the closet psychically to the character.
    When I first read that Chandler thought of Cary Grant as Marlowe.Because I guess we think of Marlowe as hardboiled, and it;’s hard to see Grant playing that type. But Marlowe also played chess, and smoked a pipe, and He knew that Proust wrote in bed. The only Marlowe film
    where I can actually recall him smoklng a pipe was in Winners movie.

    • Thanks for that Martin – George Montgomery also smoked a pipe in THE BRASHER DOUBLOON, a fun b-movie version of THE HIGH WINDOW. I think Grant was definitely what Chandler had in mind, which is why I think Dick Powell is probably the closest on-screen Marlowe to that conception. But i really love the Gould film and I am a huge fan of the Ross Macdonald series, especially the ones he wrote from the late 1950s onwards.

  29. martin fennell says:

    The link would be to a site for streaming Asiam dramas and moves and tv dramas.
    So I would yes, illegal, yes.
    Therefore I won’t provide the link.
    I’m glad to know that in these days of east media acess, there are still those flying the flag for incorruptiliby 🙂
    Thanls for info on “Brasher” Saw it, but did not remember pipe.
    I like Elliot Gould, and there are things aboit the Altman movie, I like, particulary Sterling Hayden’s performamce. He’s an actor I would have liked to gave seen as Marlowe. That bottle scene with Mark Rydell is one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen. It’s just so casual in it’s brutality.
    Paul Newman is my fav actor. So a treat to see him playing Archer. Called Harper because of Lucky H films Hud, Hustler. Yep, Drowning pool, not in same leaguem, but still good movie imho
    Character in Twilight called Harry Ross, make of that whar you will.
    Would have liked to have seen The tv series. Did see The Underground man tv movie. It was okay.
    Other notable adaptions of Chandler novels was recent BBc radio adaptions, better imho than
    earlier version with Ed Bishop.
    Two other pi movies I liked a lot, both written by Shane Black, Last boy scout+Kiss kiss bang bang.
    Sorry for way this written. Wrote some before, but lost.

    • Thanks for all the great feedback Martin. I glad you also enjoyed the new BBC radio adaptations of the Marlowe books (I profiled them here). I like Hayden a lot must have never thought his as as a blonde Marlowe, but it would have certainly been interesting! Never saw the TV versions of the Archer books though – if they ever did it for TV again, one thing is certain – they wouldn’t be able to title it ‘Archer’ 🙂

  30. martin fennell says:

    Sorry. to finish off.
    Powell movie calleed “Mirder my sweet” because makers afraid calling it farewll would have audiences believe it another Song and dance movie.
    Nothing to do with Pi movies, but Altman/Gould movie I liked better is California Split.

  31. martin fennell says:

    I liked him better in his early movies. He started developing these mannerism’s later,and I think
    relied more on them, than doing good acting. But just to keep on the private eye thread. He Did play Sam Spade’s son in The Blackbird. which I found somewhat dissapointing. Oh, and apologies, I looked up Vertigo on wikpedia, and it stewart is hired as a Pi.
    Comedy wise Dead men don’t wear plaid was nicely done, and The cheap detective is one of my favs.

  32. martin fennell says:

    ” It’s just so casual in it’s brutality”
    probably better better to say, That the way it was so casually done without an malice made it even more brutal, or something like that.

  33. Bill Ectric says:

    Reblogged this on Bill Ectric's Place and commented:
    Check out the top twenty private eye movies according to Tipping My Fedora. There are some good ones here.

  34. chnip says:

    When one re-watches Chinatown a number of times, it’s as much a subversion of the classic hard boiled detective noir as Night Moves but while the film is superlatively well-made in every area, nothing in the film is more impressive than Jerry Goldsmith’s ultra dynamic score.

  35. vinnieh says:

    I just watched The Big Sleep. Pretty confounding plot but hugely enjoyable, plus Bogart and Bacall sizzle.

  36. Pingback: #67 Murder, My Sweet – 1000 Films Blog

  37. Some new ones for me to hunt down there; I have The Long Goodbye and although it leaves you rubbing your eyes it’s a perfect Seventies mirror of Chandler in most respects. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his pants was a bit much, but overall it was fantastic. I’m annoyingly hooked on The Thin Man films at the moment – they get under your skin despite the damn dog stealing every scene and solving half the cases… I watched Hart to Hart for years as a kid without knowing it was based on these films. The Maltese Falcon is that iconic film that I can never get to like even though I know I should. Bogart made Casablanca and somehow nothing ever matched up for me. Something always draws you in, back to The Maltese Falcon though; Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer is a prequel (in book form) no-one here should be without. Chinatown is a film apart – better even than Bogart?; yes, it is. Just getting John Huston on-screen would have sold me, but the whole thing is perfect. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a favourite – despite the trouble I had finding the cut scenes some studio ****wit decided to butcher. A masterpiece – despite the stage makeup. They Might Be Giants (1971) with George C.Scott as a troubled man retreating from grief into the character of Sherlock Holmes is simply unmissable and I’d have found room for it myself… still, good fun!.

  38. A. D. Umpi says:

    Why not have a special channel and show these wonderful films of that era.

  39. Ken B says:

    Cutter’s Way is a forgotten masterpiece. The book too.

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