Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot
for The Maltese Falcon.
A friend of mine, knowing that I write shamus fiction, was asking me
recently about my favorite detective movies. So I got to thinking about
it, and I decided that as long as I was compiling the list for her that
I might as well do a post on it. So this is for you, Margo.
The odd thing is that there really aren't that many private-eye movies
out there. Not when compared to other genres such as the Western or
horror films. If you add movies featuring police detectives, though, the
list suddenly gets a bit longer. So this list contains both private
dicks and public ones.
Most of the movies here will be known to people. But strange as it may
seem, people like my friend didn't necessarily know all of them. So
there may be a few here that are new to you. Or, not.
The list doesn't include a few recent notable movies in the genre, due
to the fact that I haven't seen them yet. I usually run a bit behind in
most things, it seems.
This would be my choice for the best noir detective movie of all time.
It has all the elements of the form — from the rather shades-of-grey
moral ground to the femme fatale to the shady criminals that the
detective becomes involved with. And it's got Humphry Bogart, of course.
The only thing I've never liked about this movie is Mary Astor. She just
wasn't right for the role, in my opinion — a little too old and a
little too school-marmish.
Based upon Raymond Chandler's first novel, the screenplay for this one
was actually co-authored by William Faulkner, who obviously gives a
great respect to the original. This one has Bogey and Bacall in their
first movie together, and the chemistry is wonderful to watch. I suggest
you read the novel first. Otherwise you're going to have to watch the
movie about six times before you really get what is going on.
"I don't slap so good this early in the evening."
Another Chandler adaptation, this one of his fourth novel. I normally
don't like it when people jack with Chandler's plots, but in this case
the script takes Chandler's two only vaguely connected plots and sews
them together. And it works well. The strange thing about this movie is
that it is shot from "the point of view of the detective" i.e. after the
introduction you only see Phillip Marlowe when he looks in the mirror or
something. Which is kind of a neat trick, but my view is that if they
had just done the thing straight-up that it might have been the best
Chandler adaptation. It has some great performances by some people that
you've probably never heard of.
This is a gritty, cop-based detective movie filmed on location in New
York (not typical for 1948) and includes just some wonderful city shots.
The movie puts you into the neighborhoods and onto the mean streets, and
that is perhaps the best thing about it. Barry Fitzgerald, complete with
his thick native Irish accent, plays the experienced old detective who
is investigating the death of a young woman. The movie also has some of
the first Crime Scene Investigation type stuff I can ever remember
seeing. The classic line "there are eight million stories in the naked
city, this has been one of them" originally comes from this movie.
I've done a full-length review of that one, so I will refer you there.
The fast skinny is that this is a great movie featuring Mickey
Spillane's detective Mike Hammer and his Velda.
When director Roman Polanski took on the noir form, he didn't fool
around. This stars Jack Nicholson as the private-eye and Faye Dunaway as
the femme fatale.
"How do ya like them apples?"
This is the best and most faithful adaptation of a Chandler novel. It
also has Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe, and as far as I'm concerned
Mitchum IS the definitive Marlowe. The only shame is that this movie
wasn't done twenty years earlier and in black-and-white. If it had been,
I think it would be the best of the best. There is an earlier version of
Farewell titled Murder, My Sweet (1944), but in spite of high marks by some
I don't like that movie. It seems like a Saturday afternoon B-movie version
of Chandler. I don't like The Long Goodbye, either.
Robert Mitchum is Phillip Marlowe.
Director Ridley Scott got in some practice with making a noir-ish movie
with Blade Runner, and he continues that here. This is a thematically
rich movie. It's basically the tale of an ordinary-joe Queens police detective
(Tom Berrenger) who is assigned to protect a rich socialite (Mimi Rogers) who
has witnessed a murder. As such both find themselves lost in a world that is
foreign to them, losing themselves and then finding themselves again.
This is second-best cop-based detective movie I have seen in recent years,
following The Departed (below) by a close margin. Set in L.A. in the 1950s
it tells the tale of three diverse cops who along the way all end up on the
same side investigating unsolved murders, a heroin ring, and police corruption.
The final 30 minutes or so includes the best police stuff I have ever seen on
film. I may not particularly like James Ellroy's writing style, but the
translation of his novel's plotting here is the best serial plotting I have
run across. I think this is one that all the greats — Daly, Hammett, Chandler,
Spillane — would all appreciate.
The Departed (2006)
The movie is a remake of 2002's Internal Affairs from Hong Kong. It really
didn't surprise me then that the movie was excellent — Hong Kong has had
the "gangster" flicks down pat for decades now. It's essentially a "good cop,
bad cop" type, but more intricate than the norm, with Matt Damon and Leonardo
DiCaprio as thesis/antithesis to each other. Leonardo DiCaprio just keeps
getting better and better. Especially with his beard and the little bit
of extra weight he's put on he reminds me so much of the young Orsen Welles
both in looks and in acting ability. Damon is very good too and Nicholson as
great as always. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
There's a certain school of thought that the hardboiled detective novel
that emerged in the 1920s was an evolution of the old pulp Western
translated into a modern, urban setting. If that is the case, this movie
seems to work backwards, with the hardboiled form influencing the
Western. This one stars Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall as two cattlemen
trying to make a living for themselves grazing their cattle on the open
range. Against this they come across a greedy, rich landowner who hates
the open rangers and wants it all for himself. Things escalate slowly
over the course of the movie until it becomes apparent that Costner and
Duvall have no choice but to battle it out against the landowner and his
henchmen. The middle of the movie is very slow, but the movie more than
makes up for it with a titanic final shoot-out that makes the ending of
Firecreek look like a loose warm-up by comparison. When the old
Colts go off in this one they really explode. And, just like those old
Colts, they can't hit the broad side of a barn really, which makes for a
little bit of chaos. You learn real quick here why the shotgun or the
rifle were really the preferred weapons in the old West — no matter how
many six-gun confrontations Hollywood has generated over the years.
Annette Benning is great in this, too. "I don't think you understand"
Costner tells her towards the end. "Men are going to get killed here today.
And I'm going to kill them." It really doesn't get more hardboiled
All hell breaks loose in Open Range.