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DEFINITIVE DICKS: The 64 Essential Detective Movies

The words “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.

Pauline Kael – “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” 1968

Detective movies, like detective novels, are the perfectly digestible cinematic pulp. There’s something about a detective film on your blu ray shelf and in your Netflix queue that shimmers like the embossed covers of novels, glimmering in airport newsagents. If you’re ever indecisive, there it is, a title that becomes like an itch underneath a bone cast. Chinatown…Se7en…The Maltese Falcon, they’re the kind of flicks with an irresistible lure to be watched multiple times. What makes a great detective film is the ability to elevate that most elemental movie appeal. Great detective films have characters as beacons, illuminating darkness. Great detective films exist in palpable worlds that illuminate the social and political mechanisms of the time. Great detective films are as much about illuminating the insecurities and flaws of the detective as they are about finding and capturing their foes. Great detective films feel lived in.

Now of course, T.V in more recent times has been kicking film’s arse when it comes to the genre (True Detective, Sherlock, Luther); but there is a significant chunk of mandatory stand-alone detective stories for your consumption.

After compiling about 20-25 films in the first cut, I took to Facebook and Twitter. Thanks to some great suggestions from Greg O’Regan (graphic artist on the Film a Day/Film Drawing a day crusade @Nerdroaring on instagram), Maria Lewis (author, journalist, purpled haired presence on this very site), Stu Coote (film guy on Geek of Oz ), Dark Horizons’ Garth Franklin and our very own living iMDB Dave Grenfell. The group assembled 64 essential detective films.

Here they are:

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The films in alphabetical order are (plot summaries/recommendations by Dave Grenfell, Maria Lewis, Garth Franklin and I):

8MM 1999: A P.I is drawn into the seedy underbelly of the illegal porn industry as he is assigned to determine if a “snuff” film is real. The closer he gets to the truth the further he is plunged into the darkness as he searches for answers and his own salvation. D.G

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 1994: When the Miami Dolphins’ mascot snowflake is kidnapped; they turn to Ace Ventura, Jim Carey in his breakout performance, a pet detective. Probably the most hilarious take on rogue P.I’s and the ‘femme fatale’ in the genre and you’ll learn how to think like dolphin and get inside a dolphin’s head. Also, bring your own gum. B.H 

Along Came a Spider 2001: Weirdly the first novel in James Patterson’s Alex Cross detective series became the second film. Yet there was something Maori filmmaker Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, Die Another Day) was able to capture in the plight of the African American detective that Kiss The Girls just couldn’t. A larger scale mystery full of international intrigue and one helluva surprise, the audience gets the fine detail of a detective movie but within a popcorn blockbuster. Monica Potter is a nice remix of a classic Hitchcock blonde and a young Anton Yelchin shows all the promise he goes on to display later in his career. ML

Angel Heart 1987: A detective film that occupies the realms of psychological horror as Mickey Rourke’s detective Angel is caught in the middle of a series of murders during an investigation of the missing Johnny Favourite. It’s a daring high concept film made with audacity across the board. De Niro may or may not work for Satan. B.H

Blood Simple 1984: There’s something so unique and raw in the Coen Brothers first film Blood Simple. It bursts with a sadistic hilarity at the characters’ misfortune. Suspicions and insecurity between a trio of work colleagues lead to the hiring of M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I Visser, who turns out to be an agent of chaos in their world. B.H

Brick 2005: With more in common with The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown than She’s All That; Rian Johnson’s high-school noir is a proclamation, announcing the arrival of incredible new cinematic voice. B.H

Bullitt 1968: A San Francisco cop is entrusted to guard a Chicago mobster who’s about to sing on his former colleagues, after being set up Lt Bullitt’s single minded pursuit of the crime kingpin who is behind the killing of the witness in his protection leads us thru one of the screens great car chases and a close-up of the man’s man and movie star Steve McQueen. D.G

Chinatown 1974: Lush, sleazy and shot with meticulous attention to detail Chinatown is as much about finding missing persons as it is about post war loss of innocence. Roman Polanski’s film arguably the greatest detective movie of all time. B.H 

Cruising 1980: A series of killings in the New York Gay S&M scene leads a cop (Pacino) deep undercover into a world he must quickly learn to catch a killer and survive his own metamorphosis. Friedkin directs this thriller through an alternative lifestyle and its subculture. D.G

Dead Again 1991: A private detective is dropped in the middle of a mystery as a amnesia sufferer details a murder she remembers nothing of but the nightmares she suffers from. He enlists the help of a hypnotist whose sessions with the client he calls “Grace” reveals some surprises as the question of past lives begins to lead to a unwitting connection. D.G

Death on the Nile 1978

Peter Ustinov’s first time in his iconic take on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot explores one of Christie’s most famous tales.  Shot on location on a steamboat headed down the Nile, a hated American heiress is shot to death in her cabin and soon bodies start piling up.  Gorgeous locations, wonderful music, famed murder scenes, a genuinely clever solution, and a grand sense of fun with colorful characters from Bette Davis and Maggie Smith as a bitchy couple to one of Mia Farrow’s best performances. – G.F.

Evil Under the Sun 1982

As much a tribute to Cole Porter as it is a murder mystery, Peter Ustinov’s second Christie adaptation follows a group of people at a hotel on a private Aegean Island owned by Maggie Smith.  Diana Rigg waltzes in like a force of nature and is surrounded by sycophants until she winds up dead on beach – who could’ve killed her as everyone’s alibi is accounted for? Contains one of the single greatest insults ever out on film, delivered by Smith to Rigg of course. – G.F.

Eye for an Eye 1996: A story of revenge, as a murderer/rapist is released on a technicality and the mother of the victim is engulfed in the world of vigilantism. It draws in to question the hazy line between justice and “the law.” D.G

Fallen 1998: When a serial killer is executed Detective John Hobbs thinks that’s the end of murders, but when the deaths continue in the (now deceased) monster’s style he is forced to question everything. As the bodies start falling too close to home and as he can no longer trust even those closest to him, as he is lead to an almost divine conclusion. D.G 

Fargo 1996: The most polite detective movie featuring kidnapping, extortion and disposing of bodies with a ‘wood-chipper.’ The Coen Brothers produce a perfect film on every conceivable level…again. B.H

Goldstone 2016: Ivan Sen’s sequel to Mystery Road brings Aaron Pedersen’s Jay Swan back from the jagged edge on the trail of a missing person that leads him to illegal sex trafficking ring and a mining company that’s trying to buy immunity. Graceful action, superb performances and a score that thatches together a wall of sound; it’s one of the best films in 2016. B.H

Gone Baby Gone 2007: Ben Affleck’s first time behind the camera renders Dennis Lehane’s South Boston crime story of a little girl who goes missing with the insights of a local. Affleck and his leading man (and brother) Casey Affleck, navigate the hostility between police, small time crooks embedded in the community of “Southy” with anxiousness and intrigue. B.H

Harper 1966: Newman brings to life the ultra-cool but troubled P.I Lew Harper. He’s hired to find a missing person by a wealthy client. As he battles his own failing marriage he is thrust into a world of money, power and betrayal. D.G 

Heat 1995: A Los Angeles crime epic that pits Pacino against De Niro as the cop and crook so fuelled by professional perfection that their impending collision is cushioned by their mutual admiration. Featuring a performance masterclass in the coffee shop showdown and the best urban shootout committed to celluloid; Heat is unmissable. B.H

Hot Fuzz 2007: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s love letter to Tony Scott styled action set in a quaint English village takes the absolute piss out of the entire genre in a way that only makes you love it more. It’s definitely the only film in the bunch where you’ll see a grown man fly kick a grandma in the face. B.H

Inherent Vice 2014: Thomas Pynchon was thought to be a novelist that couldn’t be adapted. Paul Thomas Anderson begged to differ. This collision of 60s psychedelic hope and 70s commodification is a perfectly tangled web of intrigue viewed through the eyes of steadily stoned Doc (Joaquin Phoenix). Dense, precise, hilarious; Inherent Vice is one of the very best from one of America’s very best contemporary filmmakers.   B.H

 Insomnia 2002: Christopher Nolan’s sleep deprived psychological thriller set above the Arctic Circle functions like a dark companion piece to Pacino’s litany of tremendous cop characters. In the same way that John Ford’s The Searchers, examined and undermined John Wayne’s cowboy persona; Will Dormer takes a cop who’s crossed the line to make a charge stick and now can’t wade out of the quagmire. Pacino is breaking down before the audience. Robin Williams has never been more chilling. B.H

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2005: Black’s first go round behind the lens weaves a meta examination of the Hollywood that simultaneously proves that this genre is in the filmmaker’s DNA at a subatomic level. Harry, Robert Downey Jr rising like a phoenix, is a small time crook who by happy accident is cast in a Hollywood movie and paired with real life P.I Gay Perry, Val Kilmer at his acid tongued best, to learn detective skills. Fits like a glove into the genre but stands apart as one of the wisest and cheekiest. B.H

Kiss the Girls 1997: James Patterson’s famous forensic psychologist Alex Cross – the star of 19 best-selling novels – got his first big screen appearance in Kiss The Girls. The premise of a serial killer who ‘collects’ and keeps uniquely gifted women until they displease him is an intensely creepy one that descends into OTT plot twists the longer the movie runs, but Morgan Freeman’s performance as the quiet, considered and careful Cross grounds the film. Bonus points to Ashley Judd, who solidified her spot as the queen of late 90s crime thrillers with the triple sweep of Kiss The Girls, A Time To Kill and Double Jeopardy. M.L

 L.A. Confidential 1997: Divine 50s L.A crime, when police corruption functioned in the spaces between the camera flashes of the emerging celebrity industry. When an ex-cop and his girlfriend (a hooker with plastic surgery alteration to look like a movie star) are found dead in a diner, an unlikely alliance forms between blunt instrument Bud White (Russell Crowe), political animal Ed Huxley (Guy Pearce), and “Hollywood” Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Divine pace, stunning composition and James Ellroy’s novel (one of many that were adapted) as the foundation, you’ve got an instant American classic. B.H

Laura 1944: Director Otto Preminger’s seminal noir about Gene Andrew’s police detective who is knee deep into an investigation into the death of Gene Tierney’s Laura when she arrives back in her apartment. Laura is a film that has aged so beautifully. B.H

Lethal Weapon 1987: Just when 50yr old Roger Murtaugh thinks he’s getting too old for this shit, he’s paired with Martin Riggs, a suicidal ex Special Forces operative who needs babysitting. Donner (with THE script of the 80s by Shane Black) crafts magic between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover that spawned a franchise. The original film though, has the hard serrated edge that makes it stick with you. B.H

Manhunter 1986: Michael Mann takes the original Thomas Harris ‘Hannibal’ story and fires it through his aquarium style lens; and lots of amazing 80s synth. Mann manipulates the audience’s gaze to ask them, is Will Graham’s gaze any less predatory than the Red Dragon. The first cinematic Hannibal Lektor (yes it was spelt like that for some reason) was the incredible Brian Cox. B.H

Memories of Murder 2003

 

Miami Vice 2006: Mann drags the 80s kicking and screaming into the digital age, the sublime lure of the undercover world has never been so strong (or have as cool a facial hair). A completely misunderstood and underrated reimagining of the T.V juggernaut. B.H

Murder on the Orient Express 1974

Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning Christie adaptation boasts an overacting Albert Finney as Poirot amidst a stunning cast of screen legends like Connery, Gielgud, Bacall, Bergman, and Redgrave as passengers on the famed train.  When a slimy American businessman is murdered, the killer could be anyone onboard and the reveal is one of the most famous in all of literature and on film. – G.F.

Mystery Road 2013

Ivan Sen and Aaron Pedersen’s first rendering of Jay Swan, an indigenous police officer, returning home from a timing honing his skills in the city, to discover the body of a dead girl. Jay methodically makes his way through a town with an impulsive reflex to avoid the law. The difficult case illuminates drugs manufacturing, child prostitution and a larger undercurrent of racism in regional Australia. B.H

Mystic River 2003: Three best friends are playing in a South Boston street when a Priest and a policeman stop and take one of them away. Those three friends are brought together after a family tragedy and suspicions look to cannibalise the group. Probably the best ensemble that Clint Eastwood has ever assembled, doing justice to another great Dennis Lehane mystery. B.H  

Night Moves 1975: When a private detective is hired for a routine missing person case he soon finds himself in the middle of a world of murder, smuggling and the darker side of Hollywood. Screen icon Gene Hackman is electric in his performance as private detective Harry Moseby. D.G 

Point Break 1991: The most beautiful (save for Gary Busey’s teeth) undercover cop story you’re going to see and one that so directly engages with the thrill of embedding yourself into a criminal organisation. Johnny Utah must joint a group of surfers suspected of being the infamous “Dead Presidents” bank robbery outfit avoiding capture at every turn. Yes it’s the movie that we can blame for the template of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the movie that Hot Fuzz mocks and loves. B.H

Prisoners 2013: Not since SE7EN has their been a film so exquisitely dark in form and morality. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Blade Runner 2, Arrival, Incendies) is one of those exciting filmmakers on a hot streak, who just happens to be paired with the world’s greatest cinematographer not to win an Oscar, Roger Deakins. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is one of the best contemporary detectives in the list. B.H

Se7en 1995: Part suicide note, part love letter to rainy New York, part manifestation of fear of religious fundamentalists, David Fincher’s dark and out of time rendering of this big city breathes the sickly textures of Andrew Kevin Walker’s script to life. Morgan Freeman’s well mannered and even tempered investigator is the voice of reason alongside Brad Pitt’s jittery ambition. B.H

Sea of Love 1989: Face down, imitating a sex act, at gunpoint. BANG. Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) and Detective Sherman (John Goodman) are cops from two New York precincts who catch matching ‘whodunnits.’ Two men using poetry in personal ads from the New York weekly have ended up dead and they create a two-man taskforce to bait a woman that they feel is responsible. When Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) responds to the ad, Keller has to wrestle with infatuation and the prospect that she’s the killer. B.H

Taking Lives 2004: Angelina Jolie is an FBI agent on the hunt for a dangerous serial killer who is also an identity thief, jumping from person to person as he assumes the identities of his victims.  As several murders pop up on the grid in Montreal, she investigates and becomes drawn to Ethan Hawke’s art dealer who works with her to bring in the killer.  Contains a genuinely creepy ‘I’m in the killer’s lair…and he’s here’ moment. – G.F.

The Absent One 2014: The second and probably the best the Department Q series has had to offer. The team are dragged back to a boarding school murder/suicide when the father of the victims (a fellow cop) commits suicide to convince the team to take up the case. B.H

The Big Lebowski 1998: When is a P.I not a P.i? When he’s a dude. A reluctant hero is transported into a world of kidnapping, pornographers, rug defilement and vaginal art. Sound confusing? Well, that’s just like your opinion…man. The Coen Brothers at their finest. D.G

The Big Sleep 1946: Bogart stars as Phillip Marlowe Private Detective in this film noir classic. Wealth, power, murder, betrayal, blackmail and even love combine as a screen legend shines in a film that stands still as a perfect example of the genre. D.G

The Bone Collector 1999: An unlikely partnership between an ex-cop now a quadriplegic & a female cop dealing with the suicide of her father who too was police officer, they must become a team & trust each other as they piece together the clues left behind by a sadistic killer. D.G

The Dark Knight 2008: Heat with Batman and the Joker – what more do you need. B.H

The Day of the Jackal 1973: The original and some say the best, a taut thriller based on historical events, the preparations taken by the “jackal” as he attempts to assassinate the French President with the Police hot on his trail. Well-constructed all the way through to the gripping final act. D.G

The French Connection 1971: To quote the great Gene Siskel “There is only one problem with the excitement generated by this film. After it is over, you will walk out of the theater and, as I did, curse the tedium of your own life. I kept looking for someone who I could throw up against a wall.”

The Fugitive 1993: Dr Richard Kimble is convicted for murdering his wife, he claims that it wasn’t him but instead a “one-armed” man. A great amateur investigation from Kimble, as he attempts to elude top cop Samuel Gerard. I couldn’t resist this quote: “Alright, listen up, people. Our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.” B.H

The Hidden 1987: What happens when a parasitic alien with a passion for violence and heavy metal music uses its power to possess human bodies is set loose on L.A. ? A trail of death and destruction as an unlikely team of a detective & alien in human disguise crash their way thru this kick-ass joyride with an almost too close encounter! D.G

The January Man 1989: A serial killer is preying on the city of New York, in attempt to curtail his wave of terror a former detective is brought back into the fold from an imposed exile. This unconventional almost ‘Sherlock Holmes’ type must fight his past and the clock to get his man. A stellar cast drives this clever thriller to near perfection. D.G

 The Keeper of Lost Causes 2013: The beginning of Danish crime series Department Q takes this odd couple detective pairing, Detective Carl Mørk and Assad, through ‘cold’ cases that aren’t as dead as they appear. A woman is being held hostage in a pressure chamber and gradually being crushed by the vice like air inside. B.H

The Last Boy Scout 1991: There are more unbelievable one-liners in The Last Boy Scout than ten of these other prestigious selections combined. Opening with a NFL running back murdering members of his opposition before committing suicide, this investigation into illegal gambling and political manipulation is an absolute riot. Damon Wayans and Bruce Willis go toe to toe before they can go arm in arm. B.H

The Long Goodbye 1973: A private eye is caught in the middle of murder, the mob, loyalty to friend and the law as Robert Altman leads us thru a web of intrigue in the true shadow of film noir, where all may not be as it seems and figuring out who’s playing who may solve this 70s masterpiece. D.G

The Maltese Falcon 1941: Falcon is director John Huston’s first film in his illustrious 40yr career behind the lens; Humphrey Bogart stars as the iconic Sam Spade in the role that defined him prior to Casablanca; Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in their pre-Casablanca pairing and the master Roger Ebert gives it top marks here (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-maltese-falcon-1941 ). B.H

The Naked City 1948: Classic film noir as New York stars in a story set on its streets where two detectives must solve the murder of a beautiful young woman that seems entwined to a recent spate of burglaries. This leads to a climatic and frantic manhunt. D.G

The Name of the Rose 1986: Mystery and murder abound in a Benedictine Abbey, set in the 1300s long before CSI and technology helped solve crimes; it falls to the guile of a well-respected friar as he searches for the truth amongst the subterfuge of religion. D.G

 The Nice Guys 2016: When muscle for hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and private detective/dick Ryan Gosling are brought together by mutual missing persons, they stumble into an unfolding conspiracy that spans the sleazy depths of the porn industry and the heights of L.A city hall. In other words, this sordid 1970’s fast-talking detective noir is the perfect sandbox for filmmaker Shane Black. B.H

The Secret in Their Eyes 2009:

Juan Jose Campanella’s original 2009 Argentian film won the foreign language Oscar and often makes the list as one of the best films of this century.  A retired legal counselor trying to write a novel revisits a lingering cold case of a young woman’s rape and murder – and seeks the help of a female judge with whom he worked on the case twenty-five years ago.  It’s a tale of how some doors from our past can never be closed.  Also look out for one of the most amazing seamless tracking shots ever put to film and all done in a crowded stadium. – G.F.

The Silence of the Lambs 1991: Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is arguably one of the greatest female leading characters of all time. Her tireless pursuit of “man-gina” enthusiast and human skin suit creator Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) with the assistance of the intellectually intoxicated Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) makes this profiling exercise feel like you’re playing with a grenade. The hypnotic Jonathan Demme visual choices to control the audience’s perspective make it even tenser still. No wonder this film won all five major categories at the Oscars in 1991. B.H

The Thomas Crown Affair 1999: Millionaire and art thief is pursued doggedly by an insurance detective with the posture of a big predatory cat; who stops to play with her food. Rene Russo is the reason to see this movie, despite stylish direction from Jon McTiernan and Pierce Bronsnan’s best performance outside of Goldeneye. B.H

To Live and Die in L.A. 1985: Set in the world of money counterfeiting a secret service agent will move heaven and earth to find the killer of his partner. Master director William Friedkin guides us through a slick, stylistic tale that says to catch a monster you may have to become a one. D.G 

Touch of Evil 1958: A tale of the dark side where murder and police corruption pit alpha males Welles and Heston against each other in a Mexican border town. With Welles in the director chair we are treated to film noir at its finest; the recently restored version closet to Welles vision is a must see and an insight into the man’s genius. D.G

Vertigo 1958: Frequently lauded as the greatest movie of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s lyrical mystery follows a failed detective obsessed with a dead mystery woman, and her doppelganger. Hitchcock’s acute psychological awareness is on show with incredible visual choices. B.H

Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988: Robert Zemeckis’ drops Bob Hoskins’ P.I Eddie Valiant is thrust into the cartoon world to investigate claims that Jessica Rabbit (the character that launched a thousand bad plastic surgery choices). Jessica’s alleged paramour and the owner of Toontown, is found murdered, the villainous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) vows to catch and destroy prime Roger Rabbit. It’s a detective caper with the madness and physics of an ACME cartoon. B.H

Zodiac 2007: Fincher’s crime opus is one of the most intriguing and ‘officially’ unsolved mysteries in American crime. The Zodiac killer’s reign of terror in San Francisco had an indelible effect on three key men; Robert Graysmith, Paul Avery and Dave Toschi. Zodiac uses some of the most inventive integration of digital effects to honour the period setting by blotting out the modern skyline. David Fincher’s meticulousness is applied to every element of the film from wardrobe, to set dressing to the characters investigation notes. Masterpiece is often bandied about but Zodiac earns the moniker. B.H

 

If you’re on Letterboxd, you can play along here.

Now for the fun part; I have two questions:

  1. What have we missed?
  2. What needs to go?

Let us know in the comments.

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman

Dave Grenfell – follow Dave on Twitter here: @nowshowinghigh

Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz 

Garth Franklin – follow Garth on Twitter here: @darkhorizons

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