Case Closed: 25 Detective Movies That Define the Genre

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Photo Source: “Knives Out” Courtesy Lionsgate

For almost as long as there have been stories, there have been detectives—hard-boiled, goofy, enigmatic, or otherwise—tracking down clues and solving mysteries. A mainstay of novels since the mid–19th century, the sleuth figure helped launch the Golden Age of Hollywood and has remained a cinematic fixture ever since, even as the types of crimes, the motives, and the world at large have changed around it. 

Narrowing down exactly what qualifies as a staple of the detective genre takes some effort. Not all cop movies (like 1982’s “48 Hrs.”) count, and films with an investigator in a supporting role (think 1944’s “Double Indemnity”) don’t quite make the grade. To really paint a picture of the quintessential detective movie, we’ve compiled 25 films that exemplify its hallmarks, thematic throughlines, and recurring themes (as well as a few that subvert them). Here are the usual suspects.

The best detective movies to learn the genre

Golden Age gumshoes

“The Thin Man” (1934)
An adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1933 novel, W.S. Van Dyke’s “The Thin Man” is the first of six films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as crime-solving couple Nick and Nora Charles—who are accompanied by their adorable wire-haired fox terrier, Asta. The duo’s movies carry a much lighter tone than the gritty world of Hammett’s most iconic creation, Sam Spade (more on him in a bit). In their first outing, Nick, a former private detective now married to the wealthy heiress Nora, is hired to find the missing inventor Clyde Wynant (the titular “Thin Man,” although later films would refer to Nick as the “Thin Man”). While still firmly a detective story, a great number of crime capers owe their existence to the success of this film and the singular chemistry between Powell and Loy.

“The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
There’s an argument to be made that detective movies hit their pinnacle as early as 1941 with this adaptation of Hammett’s 1930 novel. The directorial debut of legendary filmmaker John Huston, “The Maltese Falcon” sets private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) on the trail of the eponymous bird statue following the murder of his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). Spade’s detection skills are more about reading other people. As he comes across various shady characters, he plays them against each other in his quest to find a measure of justice, even if it comes at the expense of his own desires. Bogart’s Spade is the quintessential hard-boiled detective, a man steeped in cynicism yet never veering into outright nihilism.

“Laura” (1944)
Hallmarks of the detective game are obsession and voyeurism—two themes that crash together in Otto Preminger and Rouben Mamoulian’s simmering drama “Laura.” New York Police Department Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the death of beautiful advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), who was killed by a shotgun blast to the face. While looking into Laura’s death, McPherson not only learns about the men who fixated on her, he also starts to share their infatuation. Things take a turn when Laura shows up alive, only adding more urgency to the search for her potential killer. The sexual tension between Tierney and Andrews gives the film a steamy undercurrent that complements the film’s larger mystery while adding layers and texture to the title character.

“The Naked City” (1948)
For a straight procedural, look to Jules Dassin’s “The Naked City.” The story follows a group of homicide detectives looking into the murder of a former model. While the film may appear by the book with its matter-of-fact investigative techniques and wry narration, the long-running procedurals of today can trace their heritage to what Dassin did here. He took colorful characters and enveloped them in their specific setting. It’s not difficult to see a straight line from “The Naked City” to your “Law & Order” and “CSI” series of today. However, “The Naked City” never feels dated, and it makes the shoe-leather investigations of the average detective constantly compelling.

“Touch of Evil” (1958)
The contradictory nature of justice sits at the center of this Orson Welles noir. The murder that starts the film—a car bombing at the end of an exhilarating, seven-minute unbroken take—becomes secondary to the war between noble prosecutor Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and the seedy, slimy police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). While other detective stories feature crusaders who will stop at nothing to find the truth, Quinlan represents the darker, more prosaic feature of criminal investigation. He’s simply looking to get a case off his books, and he’s not above extorting a confession from an innocent man. Watching “Touch of Evil,” it becomes clear that what makes a compelling detective isn’t necessarily that he’s a good guy. A dirty cop can take hold of an entire investigation to feed his own demons.

International investigators

“M” (1931)
Fritz Lang’s dark classic proves detective work isn’t just for professional investigators. A serial killer of children is on the loose in Berlin. This case leads into a procedural drama, as police officers work around the clock to stop the murderer. However, this uptick in attention disrupts organized crime, which inspires the city’s underbelly to stage its own investigation. “M,” anchored by Peter Lorre’s unnerving performance as the murderer, skillfully interrogates how people both inside and outside the law can work toward the same purpose—stopping a monster—without it feeling equally just. The film asks, who can be deemed worthy of acting as judge if all that matters is ending a crime spree? 

“High and Low” (1963)
One of Akira Kurosawa’s finest films, this drama shows citizens interacting with detectives on almost equal footing. Toshirô Mifune’s wealthy executive Kingo Gondo is forced to choose between protecting his own personal success and saving the kidnapped child of his chauffeur. What makes “High and Low” a terrific detective yarn is the way it works on both the surface and deeper levels. Not only are we trying to solve the case in a thrilling race against time, but Kurosawa also puts us in captivating moral territory. The audience is forced to reckon with how much we would sacrifice—not for ourselves or our own, but for the family of another. However, even when the kidnapping is resolved, the story digs further into the class divide by empathizing with the criminals, even if it doesn’t absolve them.

“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970)
Elio Petri’s Italian crime drama is pretty twisted in how it positions the detective not as the solver of a crime, but as its creator. A respected police inspector (Gian Maria Volontè) kills his mistress, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), and then uses his power to try and steer the investigation to his liking. The detective becomes a puppet master intent on proving that he, because of his position of authority, is above suspicion. While there are plenty of “by any means necessary” detectives in the genre, Petri’s movie creates a fascinating figure whose story is more in line with an antihero than an officer of the law. 

“Insomnia” (1997)
Detective and killer get locked into a disturbing affair in Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 Norwegian thriller. Disgraced officer Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) accidentally kills his aging partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), while pursuing a murderer. The killer, Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg), witnesses the homicide and blackmails Engström. While the 2002 American remake by Christopher Nolan is more of a cat-and-mouse game, Skjoldbjærg’s take is a far bleaker affair. It asks if justice can truly exist if a murderer is able to get away with his crimes with the help of another murderer. 

“Memories of Murder” (2003)
More than a decade before he became an Oscar winner for the thriller “Parasite,” South Korean director Bong Joon-ho helmed this fascinating story loosely based on the country’s first confirmed serial killings. The film follows detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) as they try to catch a serial rapist and murderer in Hwaseong during the late 1980s. But as the investigation draws out and leads turn into dead ends, Bong cleverly shows that the lengths people will go for closure are far greater than what they’ll do to find the truth.

Comedic crime solvers

“Sherlock Jr.” (1924)
Leave it to Buster Keaton to make a detective comedy so good that it’s still funny 100 years later. In this silent film, Keaton plays a projectionist who also aspires to be a detective. The film’s central (and still wondrous) set piece sees Keaton’s character falling asleep in the projection booth and then entering the still-playing movie as Sherlock Jr. It’s not only a fun romp, but it also takes the meta—and far ahead of its time—step of visualizing the audience’s desire to be the person who solves the crime and foils the bad guy.

“The Long Goodbye” (1973)
Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel straddles the line between the silly and the somber. There are plenty of laughs to be had from Elliott Gould’s take on Chandler’s character, Detective Philip Marlowe—from his constant muttering to himself to his search for cat food to the nearby apartment full of beautiful women he keeps at a friendly distance. And yet Altman ultimately made this an off-kilter, darkly comic investigation, as Marlowe trudges around 1970s Los Angeles trying to find out if his pal, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), is guilty of murder. The loose, shaggy nature of “The Long Goodbye” clearly served as an inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” 41 years later. 

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
Bob Hoskins gives one of the greatest screen performances of all time in Robert Zemeckis’ half-animated, half-live action feature. At the time, nothing like this had ever been attempted. While it’s now routine for actors to perform across from tennis balls and hope it all works out in postproduction, Hoskins had to fully commit to playing a hard-boiled investigator in a town full of toons in an era when this tech was largely untested. Hoskins’ commitment is why the film works. He’s never winking at the audience or trying to find an escape route in case the animation doesn’t work. The character of Eddie Valiant may be a detective archetype, but the role feels alive because Hoskins makes the viewer believe that toons and humans live side by side. 

“The Big Lebowski” (1998)
While law enforcement figures are not uncommon in Coen brothers movies, “The Big Lebowski” has fun with making one of the laziest men in the world work a case all because some guy peed on his rug. In one of his most memorable performances, Jeff Bridges plays Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who gets drawn into a web of intrigue when a millionaire—also named Lebowski (David Huddleston)—hires him to find his missing trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). While there’s certainly satisfaction in watching a competent investigator at work, “The Big Lebowski” gets a lot of mileage from a guy who’s not an idiot, but who would definitely rather be bowling than solving a crime.

“Inherent Vice” (2014)
Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of Larry “Doc” Sportello. Like many of Anderson’s movies, it’s set in Los Angeles and explores the city’s weirder corners, with Doc on the case of his missing ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) and her rich new beau (Eric Roberts). While the Dude’s stoner detective is more quotable (although, that’s just, like, my opinion, man), Phoenix’s Doc deserves a lot of credit for being on a wacky, bizarre wavelength that relies on the actor’s physicality and commitment to the bit. However, while other detective movies are all about revealing the truth, “Inherent Vice” just gets murkier and stranger as it goes along—so be prepared to coast on its vibes.

Sadness for sleuths

“Vertigo” (1958)
“Vertigo” was met with middling reaction upon its release in 1958, but the movie now stands as a towering achievement by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. James Stewart—who is so often seen as a warm and comforting figure—plays perfectly against type here as investigator John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former cop forced into retirement by his acrophobia and vertigo following a traumatic rooftop chase. An old acquaintance asks Scottie to look into the odd behavior of his wife, Madeleine Ester (Kim Novak), which leads Scottie down a dark spiral of fetishistic longing. Even when Scottie figures everything out, it’s not enough to save him from his own mania.

“The French Connection” (1971)
When does the pursuit of justice end up creating more havoc than it prevents? Narcotics detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) attempt to stop the flow of heroin into New York City, but their methods are far from the clean, polite police work seen in something like “The Naked City.” Instead, William Friedkin’s Academy Award–winning film highlights the ways that wealthy criminals get to glide around the city while guys in the gutter like Popeye have to go to extremes—featuring one of the most memorable car chases ever committed to film. At street level, Popeye’s tactics end up looking an awful lot like revenge.

“Chinatown” (1974)
With “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski took the look of the Golden Age gumshoe and infused it with a New Hollywood bleakness. Set in 1937 during a water crisis in Los Angeles, investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) tails engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), only to come across a trail of murder, deception, and conspiracy that goes far beyond his usual spurned-spouse cases. Jake, a former cop traumatized by his time on the force, thinks he’s wise to the world and all its horrible ways. But in his quest to find the truth, he comes to places so dark and unforgiving that victory is impossible. The concept of justice only works if society plays along with it. What happens when the system is too corrupt to protect the innocent and punish the wicked? Well, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

“Se7en” (1995)
As in the case of David Fincher’s ’90s thriller “Se7en,” detectives don’t always win, even when they follow procedural beats. The film’s structure provides a comforting misdirect as we follow detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in their hunt for a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as motivation for his crimes. Fincher’s tight direction brings immediacy to the gloomy atmosphere, and the memorable ending is not only shocking for what it does, but how it takes the detectives—usually outsiders to the crime—and makes them complicit in its outcome.

“Zodiac” (2007)
Similar to “Memories of Murder,” Fincher’s take on the Zodiac Killer isn’t about giving a definitive answer. Instead, it’s a story about how obsessive pursuit can destroy your life. “Zodiac” follows cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in 1960s and ’70s San Francisco as he, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and homicide detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) try to unravel the mystery behind the notorious serial killer. Rather than craft a step-by-step procedural or a tale of corruption, Fincher lands at the human place of our own desires and shortcomings—where there is darkness in the world, but noble intentions sometimes aren’t enough to bring it into the light.

Dynamic detectives 

“Sleuth” (1972)
If you can track down this Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie, then you may be as clever as its two protagonists. (Pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb holds the rights to “Sleuth,” and its entertainment division no longer exists.) Laurence Olivier stars as Andrew Wyke, a brilliant crime author who invites his wife’s lover, Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), over for a discussion about the tryst. Wyke then starts to play a sadistic game with the young man, only for the narrative to upend who is really holding the power in this dynamic. “Sleuth”—which was remade by Kenneth Branagh in 2007 with Caine and Jude Law, to lesser effect—expertly weaves together the concepts of master detective and criminal so tightly that it eventually becomes difficult to discern which is which. 

“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)
There is no shortage of Agatha Christie adaptations featuring her beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it done better than Sidney Lumet’s take on Christie’s 1934 novel. Featuring Albert Finney as Poirot, the film has an all-star cast that includes Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar for her performance), Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Lauren Bacall. In one of Poirot’s most famous cases, the detective is riding the titular train when one of the passengers, a man everyone has reason to hate, is found dead. It’s up to the master of deduction to piece together the crime, and you can’t do it with more style and panache than Finney and Lumet brought to bear in this whodunit.

“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Madness has rarely been as razor sharp as it is in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning crime thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.” Rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is on the hunt for Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), aka “Buffalo Bill,” a serial killer who abducts young women, skins them, and then uses their flesh for a suit. Her best hope of finding him is the incarcerated psychiatrist and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who will only play along if he gets to psychoanalyze Clarice. Many have tried to imitate Demme’s brilliant movie about how close you can get to darkness without it touching back, but what makes Clarice singularly heroic is how much of her own psyche she’s willing to risk if it means catching a killer.

“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995)
In a just world, we’d have loads of Easy Rawlins mystery movies starring Denzel Washington. Sadly, we’ll just have to settle for this sole adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel. Directed by Carl Franklin, the film takes place in post–World War II Los Angeles and follows amateur investigator Rawlins as he looks into the disappearance of a white woman, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). The film excels in showing not only Rawlins’ brilliance, but the way he—a Black man navigating segregated America—has to work harder and be sharper than white detectives doing the same job. The racial element, combined with Franklin’s smart direction and Washington’s effortless charisma, gives “Devil in a Blue Dress” a beautiful complexion all its own.

“Knives Out” (2019)
If previous generations had Christie’s Poirot, director Rian Johnson and actor Daniel Craig have gifted us Benoit Blanc. While there are currently only two Blanc movies—“Glass Onion” came out in 2022, and a third installment is on the way—the duo has created a character for the ages. With his Southern drawl, self-deprecating manner, and eye for larger conspiracies, Blanc takes aim at America’s gaping class divide. In his first outing, Blanc is called in to investigate the death of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a mystery novelist who had friction with everyone in his family and found solace in his kindly nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Johnson keeps the action moving with whip-smart dialogue and clever visual gags, all grounded in a mystery that keeps you guessing until the end.

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