10 of the Best Detective Movies of All Time
1. Chinatown (1974)
These days Jack Nicholson is rarely seen besides being courtside when the Lakers are playing in Los Angeles, so it’s easy to forget how great a career he has had. One of his early successes came with the film noir thriller Chinatown.
Playing private investigator Jake Gittes, Nicholson is set the simple task of following a woman’s husband that soon turns into a far-flung conspiracy involving the Californian water wars. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards – it only won one, with Robert Towne taking home Best Original Screenplay – the movie is a mystery tour de force with the chemistry between Nicholson and Faye Dunaway palpable.
Chinatown would also be the last movie director Roman Polanski shot in the United States after he fled to Europe when rape charges were brought against him. Despite his shady actions, the film remains a jewel in the detective genre crown.Watch on Apple TV
2. The Big Sleep (1946)
This is the first adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s famous novel of the same name and arguably the best. Humphrey Bogart plays the stoic private detective, Philip Marlowe, who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures that see him interacting with Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Sternwood, the daughter of the man who hired him.
Responsible for many of the film noir tropes that are still seen in movies today, The Big Sleep works because of Chandler’s iconic pulp dialogue and the sexual chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which isn’t surprising considering the two had become an item after meeting on the set of To Have and Have Not.Watch on TMC
3. Prisoners (2013)
Before Sicario, Blade Runner 2049, and Dune turned Denis Villeneuve into one of the most exciting filmmakers in the business, the Canadian released this gripping thriller in 2015. Prisoners is a dark tale about two young girls who are abducted and the search for them and the man who kidnapped them.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki, a brilliant yet troubled man intent on finding the girls, while Hugh Jackman is Keller Dover, one of the girl’s father’s who takes matters into his own hands. The tension ramps up the longer the movie goes until the epic climax which will leave you stunned.
This movie is a true showcase of Vileneuve’s talents behind the camera with Aaron Guzikowski’s script full of twists and turns. The two leads are fantastic and helped by an awesome ensemble cast that includes Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo.Watch on Netflix
4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Giving us one of the greatest movie villains in history, The Silence of the Lambs is a thrilling flick following inexperienced FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) trying to get the serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) to help her catch another murderer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).
While not a detective movie per se, as Starling is actually an FBI trainee, she does have to use the detective skills she learned at the academy to track down the killer. The film took out the five big Oscars at the Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally) – becoming only the third film to do it.
The Silence of the Lambs also turned Hopkins into a certified A-lister and established Foster as one of the best up-and-comers. The final stanza of the film will have you on edge as Lector masterminds his escape from police custody while Starling confronts Bill in his home.Watch on Hulu
5. Dirty Harry (1971)
Clint Eastwood’s iconic turn as Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the cop flick Dirty Harry led to a multi-million dollar franchise that spawned four sequels and catapulted Eastwood straight to the top of the Hollywood A-list.
As Callahan, Eastwood is a no-nonsense San Francisco police officer whose prehistoric ways are no longer being tolerated. More of a shoot first, ask questions later kinda guy, Callahan finds himself on the trail of a psychopathic killer named Scorpio, who is modeled after the Zodiac Killer.
A violent police procedural with plenty of action that coined several classic phrases that have found their way into the pop culture zeitgeist, including the iconic, “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?,” Dirty Harry still holds up today and is easily one of Eastwood’s best features.Watch on Prime
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6. The Long Goodbye (1972)
The Long Goodbye is another Philip Marlowe mystery, this time with Elliot Gould in the role of the wise-cracking PI. Adapted from the book of the same name by director Robert Altman, Gould is perfectly cast as Marlowe, who investigates the apparent suicide of his old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), while also working on a separate case about the disappearance of an alcoholic novelist.
Nothing is as it seems as Marlowe goes from LA to Mexico in search of the truth, running into an odd assortment of characters and getting into more trouble than he can handle. Although it didn’t fare well at the box office, The Long Goodbye is these days considered one of the better Raymond Chandler book adaptions and some of Gould’s best work.Watch on Paramount+
7. Seven (1995)
The script for Seven was written by Andrew Kevin Walker while he worked at Tower Records during the early 90s. Eventually finding its way to David Fincher, it soon took shape when Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman signed on to star as Detective David Mills and Detective William Somerset respectively.
The two play detectives in an unnamed city on the hunt for a serial killer carrying out his crimes based on the seven deadly sins. This results in some pretty gruesome crime scenes as the duo race against time to stop Joe Doe from completing all seven sins.
Similar to Denis Villeneuve with Prisoners, Seven was the movie that made people take notice of Fincher, who up until then had been directing music videos and commercials. His direction and fast editing are first class while both Pitt and Morgan are great, but it’s the shocking twist ending involving Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box that makes Seven such an incredible movie.Watch on Fubu
8. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher left nothing on the table with this exhaustive yet detailed movie about the infamous Zodiac Killer. Based on Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, the film follows cartoonist turned true crime author Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) as they try and uncover the identity of the killer.
The takes place over a nearly 15-year period as the three men’s own investigations intertwine as they put everything on the line, including their careers, marriages, and own sanity, to find the man responsible for the unsolved murders. As you would expect from a Fincher movie, Zodiac is well made with creative editing and star turns from its three leads, making this a must-watch for detective fans.Watch on Fubo
9. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Here’s another classic detective movie starring Humphrey Bogart, this time as private dick Sam Spade. Crossing paths with three different people who are all on the hunt for the famed Maltese Falcon while investigating the disappearance of femme fatale Ruth Wonderly’s sister, Spade realizes things might be better if he’s the one who finally uncovers the sought-after Maltese Falcon.
Maltese Falcon remains one of the best exponents of the genre and is considered a classic by film historians. Not only are the performances incredible but John Huston’s screenplay and direction are next level.Watch on Prime
10. Knives Out (2019)
Having already made a detective movie with his first feature Brick (which is a fantastic flick), Rain Johnson returned to the genre in 2019 with the smash hit Knives Out. A classic who-done-it murder mystery, Knives Out works so well thanks to the smart script and incredible cast led by Daniel Craig as Detective Beiont Blanc, a Southern gent with high intelligence and whip-cracking wit.
Also along for the ride are Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer as the 85-year-old victim. The movie was so popular it spawned a Netflix sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, that was also a hit, with a third movie currently in the works.Watch on TruTV
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