The Top 10 Detective Films of All Time
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” – Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Detective fiction as we recognize it today began with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which featured a detective, C. Auguste Dupin, investigating said murders and discovering the truth by a combination of observation, deduction and intuition. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie perfected the British style of detective story, which were likely to end with a suspects gathered around the dinner table while the detective expounds how he or she arrived at the infallible conclusion. There is one movie in today’s Flickchart Top Ten list that copies (or parodies) that final dinner party, though it is by American Dashiell Hammett (whose birthday, not coincidentally, would have been this week). All the others trace their lineage, directly or indirectly, back to Hammett’s milieu, American hard-boiled detective fiction.
The quote above is from an essay by Raymond Chandler, perhaps the best known hard-boiled writer of them all, but Chandler is full of praise for Hammett, who took detectives out of drawing rooms and put them in alleys, who exchanged precious witticisms for the rough but honest talk of the street, and who created, especially in his recurrent hero Sam Spade, the kind of detective Chandler speaks of. This is the detective of noir and the precursor of neo-noir, though as you might expect, neo-noir complicates the Hammett/Chandler “man of honor.” There are plenty of detective movies about Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and even Auguste Lupin – in fact, Sherlock Holmes vies with Dracula for most number of screen appearances – but the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the cinematic world strike a chord. Theirs is the cinematic heritage that looms largest, and that’s reflected in Flickchart’s Top Ten.
10. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Though Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘s meta-humor and parodic tendencies distance it from the more traditional detective films on this list, it still owes a debt to to classic hard-boiled detective fiction as well as noir – after all, that’s what it’s parodying. Robert Downey Jr.‘s fast-talking crook gets mistaken for an actor when he stumbles into an audition, and he’s assigned to shadow cop Val Kilmer to prepare for a movie role as a detective. Before long, they get embroiled in a plot so convoluted it would make Raymond Chandler’s head spin. Meanwhile, Downey narrates the whole thing with in-jokey self-awareness. Writer/director Shane Black certainly knows his detective fiction tropes, and the film is one of the most purely fun entries on this list.
Currently ranked #582
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9. Brick (2005)
Another neo-noir, Brick remains resolutely serious despite its highly stylized dialogue style. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a student who tries to find a friend of his who has disappeared. Technically, he’s not a detective by profession – he’s only in high school – but the structure definitely follows that of a noir detective story. Levitt is a character very much like Chandler describes, though he is young and clearly in over his head as the layers of plot begin to twist and unfold. But that’s not unusual for a hard-boiled detective – unlike the intuitive genius of Sherlock Holmes, hard-boiled detectives win the day because of their dogged determination in the face of all obstacles, even if they’re not sure what the right answer is, and that’s something writer/director Rian Johnson gets exactly right in his feature debut.
Currently ranked #487
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8. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The classic film noir cycle is traditionally considered to be from 1941 (The Maltese Falcon) to 1958 (Touch of Evil), so Kiss Me Deadly is toward the end. By this time, French critics had come up with the term film noir to describe the dark crime films they saw Hollywood making, and some American films were starting to get self-consciously stylistic. The opening of Kiss Me Deadly is one such case – a blonde in a trenchcoat (Cloris Leachman‘s film debut) runs down a road, high contrast lighting blasting her every time a car goes by, strident jazz play on the soundtrack, and the credits run backwards, down the screen instead of up. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is the pulp version of the hard-boiled detective, a man who thinks with his fists. Add in the way Kiss Me Deadly harnesses the fears of the atomic age, and you’ve got one of the most memorable detective noirs of the classic era.
Currently ranked #417
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7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
In a world where cartoon characters and live-action people coexist, Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired to find out if Roger Rabbit’s wife Jessica is cheating on him, and ends up embroiled in a plot to take over Toontown and replace it with a freeway. Horrors! The idea behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit is so ingenious it’s amazing there haven’t been more attempts to realize it – perhaps in a world of photo-realistic CG creatures, combining 2D animation and live-action is just too goofy. And let’s be clear, Roger Rabbit is goofy, but in the best possible way. In addition, the villain’s plot is disturbingly close to what actually happened in Los Angeles that turned it into such a car-centric city, which gives the story a deeper edge to LA history buffs.
Currently ranked #356
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6. The Long Goodbye (1973)
In Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe is largely the kind of detective character Chandler valorizes, and we’ll see that character in a bit with the classic version of The Big Sleep. But Robert Altman‘s film of The Long Goodbye has something slightly different up its sleeve – Marlowe is still a decent guy trying to do the right thing, but he’s not quite the decisive man of action Chandler wrote. As embodied by New Hollywood staple Elliott Gould, Marlowe mumbles his way through the film, always a step behind what’s actually going on, bemused by the societal changes around him (he’s particularly befuddled by the gaggle of girls exercising in the nude at the apartment across the way), and attached to no one so strongly as the cat he calls “Cat.” The film is simultaneously a celebration and a deconstruction of 1940s noir, adapting it perfectly to a 1970s milieu, and including wonderful touches like casting quintessential noir actor Sterling Hayden (The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, many more) as the washed-up writer who takes up much of Marlowe’s time.
Currently ranked #202
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5. Laura (1944)
One of the most haunting films of the classic noir cycle (in no small part thanks to the beautiful and extremely popular theme music, which became a jazz standard in the years following the film’s release), Laura features a woman who fills to some degree the roles both of damsel in distress and femme fatale. Laura (Gene Tierney) is killed by a shotgun blast to the face before the film even opens, leaving detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) to question her friends and lovers, who have their own tangled sets of relationships. In doing so, McPherson develops a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the dead woman. Or is she dead after all? Look for a young Vincent Price as Laura’s smarmy fiancé.
Currently ranked #179
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4. The Thin Man (1934)
I mentioned in the intro that one of these films had a version of the dinner party reveal scene so common in British mysteries, and this is the one – but the dinner guests are a combination of gold-digging, wanna-be society dames, beat cops, criminal lowlifes, and stool pigeons. Hammett’s clearly poking fun at the convention here. Compared with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, detecting couple Nick and Nora Charles are a bit upper-crust themselves, or at least Nora is, coming from east coast money. But she’s more than willing to get her hands dirty alongside Nick to find a young girl’s missing father, and they’re both more than willing to drink a martini or four along the way. This is something of an atypical story for Hammett – I suppose Nick still largely fits Chandler’s description of a man of honor, but there are precious few “mean streets” to be found in this sparkling comedy/mystery. It hardly matters, though, with William Powell and Myrna Loy at their most charismatic, exchanging witticisms throughout.
Currently ranked #145
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3. The Big Sleep (1946)
We’ve already seen Philip Marlowe once on this list, in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye at #6. The character appeared in several 1940s films adapted from Raymond Chandler’s books, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and The Lady in the Lake (1947), but Humphrey Bogart‘s portrayal of Marlowe in The Big Sleep is the one that became definitive. The plot is famously complicated (legend has it that director Howard Hawks called up Chandler at one point during filming to ask who actually did commit one murder, and Chandler admitted he had no idea either), but involves blackmail and murder and gambling, plus a pair of sisters that Marlowe can’t seem to keep out of trouble. One of them is Lauren Bacall, in her second pairing with Bogart – by this time, the whirlwind lovers were newlyweds, and their on-screen chemistry never burned brighter. They’re the real reason to watch the film, and Hawks knew it – a pre-release cut shows that originally the plot was better explained, but a scene of exposition was removed to make room for an additional scene of Bogart and Bacall sparring. The info dump is narratively helpful, but I can’t help but think he made the right call.
Currently ranked #104
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2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Often credited as the beginning of film noir, The Maltese Falcon is also the best example of the “man of honor” that Chandler describes as the ultimate hard-boiled detective. When Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) partner Archer is killed, Spade is beholden to untangle the messy circumstances surrounding his death, and nothing’s going to stop him – not even Archer’s wife, with whom Spade was having an affair. This grey-area code of honor adhered to by Spade and other hard-boiled detectives is a hallmark of noir, but Spade’s a cut above a lot of later noir heroes – when he’s later tempted by a priceless artifact, lots of money, and a beautiful but dangerous woman, he rejects them all to do what’s right. This film largely created Humphrey Bogart’s enduring persona, set the template for film noir and the hard-boiled detective film, and launched John Huston‘s directorial career, plus it’s a great showcase for character actors like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in his debut film). Not bad at all.
Currently ranked #94
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1. Chinatown (1974)
In a list of detective films filled with noir, perhaps it’s appropriate that the most iconic neo-noir of all time snags the top spot. Classic noir ended in the late ’50s, but the style was making a self-conscious comeback in the 1970s, thanks to a generation of filmmakers who grew up with the originals and found that the existentialism of noir continued to speak to them. Roman Polanski‘s Chinatown is set in that classic 1930s-era Hollywood, but focuses on a much wider story of corruption than most classic noirs attempted. Water rights seems like an unusual topic for a detective film, but after taking on what seemed like a typical “photograph the straying husband” case, detective Jake Gittes finds himself butting up against something much larger. As is typical for detectives in the noir vein, he refuses to bow out while the bowing is good. Like The Long Goodbye, this film also benefits from some stunt casting, as none other than John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, plays the greedy Noah Cross. The events of the film are inspired by real ones, the Los Angeles Water Wars of the early 20th century, in which Los Angeles interests diverted water from the agricultural Owens Valley. In the midst of a historic drought in Los Angeles right now, Chinatown and its historical basis seem even more compelling.
Currently ranked #50
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