“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.
2. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
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 Mystery. From 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 Pool. From ‘The Moving Target’ by Ross Macdonald.
9. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
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
12. HICKEY AND BOGGS (1972)
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.
13. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)
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.