The detective genre was invented in 1841 with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” C. Auguste Dupin, the sleuth assigned to solve the case, would also appear in the Poe story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Both of these stories were later–like, a hundred years later–made into movies.
Many of the famous literary detectives found a second life and a new audience in film. As of late 2022, IMDb listed a whopping 52 movies featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson. It lists 11 movies featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe and five with Dashiell Hammett’s detective Sam Spade. These films go all the way back to the silent era to the present.
Here are some of the prime examples of this genre where investigators–mostly, but not always male–have to wade through mountains of clues and lies to figure out who did wrong and how to bring them to justice.
Old Detective Movies
Widely considered to be the first film noir. Based on the novel of the same name by hard-boiled maestro Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart in a career-making performance as Sam Spade, a cynical San Francisco detective who decides to take on a case involving the theft of a gold-encrusted life-sized falcon. This decision entangles him in a dark web involving a beautiful femme fatale named Miss Wonderly (Brigid O’Shaughnessy) and shady underworld characters such as Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Upon the film’s release, The New York Times wrote, “Don’t miss The Maltese Falcon if your taste is for mystery fare. It’s the slickest exercise in cerebration that has hit the screen in many months, and it is also one of the most compelling nervous-laughter provokers yet.”
Whereas Dashiell Hammett’s fictional detective was Sam Spade, hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler’s storybook gumshoe was Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart would wind up playing both private eyes. Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay to this movie based on his 1939 novel of the same name. Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood, a rich but terminally ill man who wants him to unravel a blackmail scheme against his youngest daughter over her unpaid gambling debts. Bogart appears in every scene, often with the camera right behind his shoulder so that you view the proceedings from his perspective. Reel Views writes, “It’s a movie that every film student should study and every movie lover should watch at least once. Things may not always make sense, but the film’s numerous delights completely eclipse its few, small weaknesses.”
Many critics not only consider Vertigo to be the best film that Alfred Hitchcock ever made, some lists rank it as the greatest film of all time. James Stewart stars as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who has retired from the force due to his morbid fear of heights. A wealthy industrialist hires him to track his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he fears is going insane and may be possessed with the soul of an ancestor who committed suicide. Scottie falls in love with the blonde Madeleine, but after she disappears, he falls in love with a redhead who looks suspiciously like her. He tries to mold her into Madeleine, not realizing that she is Madeleine. He’s not exactly the world’s greatest detective. Roger Ebert writes, “Bernard Herrmann’s score creates a haunting, unsettled yearning. And the camera circles them hopelessly, like the pinwheel images in Scottie’s nightmares, until the shot is about the dizzying futility of our human desires, the impossibility of forcing life to make us happy.”
This police procedural action thriller by director William Friedkin won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also earned Gene Hackman a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a tough and not always ethical NYPD detective. Although an extended chase scene filmed under the New York subway is ranked as one of the best chase scenes of all time, most of the movie feels like a chase scene as Popeye and his partner never rest in their attempt to thwart a shipment of $32 million of heroin coming in from Marseilles. Film critic Pauline Kael writes, “The only thing that this movie believes in is giving the audience jolts, and you can feel the raw, primitive response in the theatre. This picture says Popeye is a brutal son of a bitch who gets the dirty job done. So is the picture.”
When a Pennsylvania private businessman suddenly disappears, his boss and wife hire detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) to investigate the only clue they have–an obscene letter he’d written to Manhattan prostitute Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda in an Oscar-winning performance). Bree tells Klute that she had received strange, sexually themed letters, as well as harassing phone calls from someone. Although Bree is initially skeptical of Klute, the pair gradually find themselves drawn toward one another. The BBC writes, “The taut sense of menace and urban claustrophobia is heightened by the performances. Fonda won an Oscar for her part as the independent woman twisted by emotional contradictions, while Sutherland–as the morally uptight guardian confused by the notion of dependency–more than matches her for intensity.”
Based on the 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name as well as an unrelated real-life incident in 1929 where a westbound Orient Express train got stuck in snow for five days near Istanbul, this taut thriller by Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) strands passengers together on a snowbound train heading out of Istanbul. When a murder suddenly occurs on the train, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is reluctantly dragged into the case because his friend doesn’t want to get the local police involved. Roger Ebert writes, “This isn’t a ‘thriller,’ because we’re not thrilled, or scared–only amused. The murder itself has a certain antiseptic, ritualistic quality, and the investigation is an exercise in sophisticated cross-examination and sputters of indignation. What I liked best about this movie is its style, both the deliberately old-fashioned visual strategies used by director Sidney Lumet, and the cheerful overacting of the dozen or more suspects.” The film was remade in 2017 by Kenneth Branagh.
Roman Polanski’s celebrated neo-noir is set in 1937 during the infamous “Water Wars” over access to irrigation in the greater Los Angeles area. Jack Nicholson stars as Jake “J.J.” Gittes, a private eye who focuses on cases involving marital infidelity. Faye Dunaway portrays the femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, who wants Jake to tail her husband Hollis, a chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and see if he’s cheating on her. What Jake discovers is a byzantine plot that goes beyond what you’d expect from a case of infidelity. Reel Views writes, “Chinatown is unquestionably one of the best films to emerge from the 1970s, a period that has been called the ‘last great decade of American cinema’ by more than one movie critic.”
Seven major Hollywood actors–Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum–have portrayed Raymond Chandler’s ace detective Philip Marlowe, but only Mitchum has played him twice, both in this movie and in a remake of The Big Sleep (1978). Two of his recent cases–one involving an ex-con’s search for his lost sweetheart, the other centering around a murdered client–start dovetailing in unsettling ways. Roger Ebert writes, “Mitchum is one of the great screen presences, and at 57 he seems somehow to be just now coming of age: He was born to play the weary, cynical, doggedly romantic Marlowe. His voice and his face and the way he lights his cigarette are all exactly right, and seem totally effortless.”
Based very loosely on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi is set in LA in 2019. A group of lifelike robots known as “replicants” had been designed to help humanity but were ultimately banned from Earth after staging a mutiny on another planet. The police units who are assigned to destroy any replicant they find on Earth are known as “blade runners.” When four combat-seasoned replicants find their way back to Earth, former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is dragged out of retirement to confront the menace. Arthouse Grindhouse writes, “Blade Runner’s universe is mysterious and mesmerizing. The story and characters are lifted from film noir; Deckard, our disgraced hero, is led into trouble by a femme fatale, his dangerous line of work, and, most of all, the heartless, fatalistic nature of existence.”
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an FBI trainee who is deeply ashamed of her humble roots in dirt-poor West Virginia. Her boss asks her to question a convicted serial killer named Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist who had cannibalized his murder victims. Clarice’s task is to slalom around Lecter’s terrifying presence and adeptness at playing mind games to get his expert opinions about how she might be able to track down a new serial murderer known in the media as “Buffalo Bill.” Bill has five victims, all of them young overweight women. He drowned all of them and then peeled their flesh from their bodies. Roger Ebert writes, “It has been a good long while since I have felt the presence of Evil so manifestly demonstrated as in the first appearance of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. He stands perfectly still in the middle of his cell floor, arms at his sides, and we sense instantly that he is not standing at attention, he is standing at rest–like a savage animal confident of the brutality coiled up inside him.”
Already an established TV star from his role in the sketch comedy series In Living Color, Jim Carrey became a breakout Hollywood film star with his goofy, rubber-faced depiction of a detective who specializes in cases involving pets. His latest case involves the kidnapping of the Miami Dolphins’ mascot, a dolphin named Snowflake, two weeks before the team is scheduled to play in the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Austin Chronicle writes, “Carrey’s caricature of Ventura borrows from all the great detectives: Inspector Clouseau in his ineptitude, Magnum P.I. in his loud Hawaiian shirts, Columbo in his gaucherie, Mission Impossible in a wonderful, out-of-nowhere charade to the TV show’s theme music.”
Two homicide detectives–one (Brad Pitt) young and impulsive, the other (Morgan Freeman) old and reflective–are assigned to find a serial killer who chooses his victims to make an example of them for violating one of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, he slays an obese man and then scrawls the world GLUTTONY on the wall over his corpse. Reel Views writes, “It’s refreshing to find an intelligent maniac who is not undone by a moment of sheer stupidity. From beginning to end, Seven‘s murderer has the situation under control. The police are his pawns, not the other way around. Shades of Silence of the Lambs.”
Frances McDormand, wife of co-screenwriter Ethan Coen, won a Best Actress Oscar for her muted yet brilliant portrayal of Marge Gunderson, a folksy and pregnant Minnesota police detective. When dead bodies begin staining the ubiquitous winter snow a blood-red, Gunderson is tasked to find the culprit. Under her gentle yet unremitting questioning, car salesman Jerry Lundegard loses his temper with Marge, and she begins to unravel a twisting plot. But everything goes wrong–as wrong as things could possibly go. Calling it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen,” Roger Ebert writes, ‘To watch it is to experience steadily mounting delight, as you realize the filmmakers have taken enormous risks, gotten away with them and made a movie that is completely original, and as familiar as an old shoe–or a rubbersoled hunting boot from Land’s End, more likely. Films like Fargo are why I love the movies.’”
In this 2009 installment by Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey, Jr. portrays a scrappy and tough Detective Sherlock Holmes as he and Dr. John Watson track down and capture a serial killer and occult sorcerer known as Lord Blackwood. The problem with Blackwood is that he may possess the power to rise from the dead. The Austin Chronicle writes, “This is Downey Jr.’s film all the way…the actor’s more masculine interpretation of the character is never anything less than startling, fresh, and altogether entertaining.”
New Detective Movies
In what would become Martin Scorsese’s most lucrative film up to that time, Leo DiCaprio stars as Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels, who along with his partner Chuck take a boat out to Shutter Island, off the coast near Boston. They have been assigned to search for a missing inmate at the highly fortified asylum on the island. Teddy is a World War II veteran and is still haunted by memories of what he saw when he and his unit liberated Nazi concentration camps. What he sees at the asylum brings back all the bad memories of the camps. Reel Views writes, “The strength of the film, like the book, is that it never allows the viewer to feel comfortable with what he is watching. That’s because Shutter Island is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator and, as such, the lines between fantasy and reality sometimes blur so strongly that it’s easy to become unanchored in trying to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.”
As a result of being successfully sued for libel, former journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) must find a new career. A rich industrial magnate asks him to write a biography about his family. Underlying this simple request is his burning desire to trace the fate of his niece, who disappeared 40 years ago. With the help of a free-spirited hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the pair seek to crack the case wide open. Reel Views writes, “Aided by a tightly-wrapped screenplay adapted from Stieg Larsson’s global best-seller by Steven Zaillian, [director David] Fincher strips the material to its skeleton, then adds back the sinew and tissue to create something that is unmistakably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but in no way a carbon copy of the earlier Swedish movie or the book itself.”
Magazine writer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) contacts authorities to tell them that on his fifth wedding anniversary, his wife–who is both smarter and richer than he is–is missing. Nick’s high profile in the media, combined with his suspicious behavior, puts him under the spotlight as he becomes a murder suspect. With reporters camped outside his house, will Nick be able to keep his cool? Salon writes, “It depicts a world of naked, stupid hunger where soulfulness has been stripped away and where all marriages end up in big, empty houses of lies and betrayals….”
The morning after world-famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) celebrated his 85th birthday along with his highly dysfunctional family at his mansion in Norfolk County, Thrombey is found dead. Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate. He must also sift through the stacks of lies that Thrombey’s family, as well as his maid, seem to be telling him. It’s hard to find the murderer when everyone is acting like they did it. Reel Views writes, “The only things we learn about Benoit Blanc are that he’s famous, he always solves the case, his dad was a police detective, and Daniel Craig is having a wonderful time playing someone without a license to kill.”
In his follow-up to his breakaway horror debut Get Out (2017), director Jordan Peele relays the unsettling story of a family who are taking their annual lakeside vacation in Santa Cruz, CA. Late on the evening of their arrival, they are suddenly confronted in their driveway by a group of their own body doubles who proceed to invade the family’s vacation house. All Horror writes, “The acting in particular carried this movie. The cast had to play two roles, themselves and their doppelgangers, which was especially impressive considering the doppelgangers didn’t really seem human. And they nailed this ambiguity perfectly.”
On London’s West End during the 1950s, Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) are assigned to solve a case. Stoppard is jaded and older, while Stalker is enthusiastic and young. The case involves the production of a movie version of Agatha Christie’s hit play The Mousetrap. Filming suddenly ceased when a crew member was killed. Film Dude writes, “See How They Run is a playful take on the classic ensemble whodunnit. Thankfully, the genre isn’t tired. The 1950s are charmingly recreated and the plot is balanced to keep the audience guessing about who might be responsible.”
More Detective Movies
- Sherlock Jr. (1924) Silent film legend Buster Keaton stars as a film projectionist who daydreams his way into a fantasy where he’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes.
- The Third Man (1949) a pulp novelist (Orson Welles) travels to Vienna to investigate the death of his friend, Harry Lime.
- Kiss Me, Deadly (1955) Mickey Spillane’s fictional detective Mike Hammer gets lured into a case involving a female hitchhiker.
- High And Low (1963) In this Japanese procedural drama by Akira Kurosawa, actor Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy industrialist whose family member gets kidnapped.
- In The Heat Of The Night (1967) winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this steamy Southern drama pairs Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier as unlikely allies in trying to solve a murder case.
- Dirty Harry (1971) the first of Clint Eastwood’s series of films about unorthodox San Francisco cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan.
- Clue (1985) when the host at a formal dinner is killed, the six attending guests must figure out who did it.
- The Untouchables (1987) Kevin Costner stars as Chicago Detective Elliot Ness in his quest to take down Mafia king Al Capone.
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Bob Hoskins plays a flesh-and-blood human detective who takes on a case involving cartoon characters in Toontown.
- Primal Fear (1996) Richard Gere stars as a defense lawyer who takes on the case of a young male from Kentucky who is charged with murdering an archbishop.
- Inside Man (2006) in this Spike Lee joint, Denzel Washington stars as a detective involved in a cat-and-mouse game with a thief (Clive Owen).
- The Nice Guys (2016) finds Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe attempting to solve a missing person’s case in 1970s Hollywood that leads to unlikely and oft-hilarious ends.