Ten of the Best Private Eye Movies Ever Made

Bran Nicol, The Private Eye: Detectives in the Movies (Reaktion Books, 2013)

Thanks to countless portrayals over the years, the private investigator
is one of the most familiar characters in cinema. Think of Humphrey Bogart
looking out quizzically from under his fedora in The Maltese Falcon and The
Big Sleep
, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, ‘branded’ by having his nose
unceremoniously sliced by a hood (played with relish by director Roman
Polanski), or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, finally able to look himself
in the mirror, and terrified by what he sees: ‘I know who I am!’

My book is the first study of this classic cinematic figure. It offers readers
two things: first, a history of the private eye movie, containing discussions
on the most significant examples from the 1940s to the early twenty-first
century and, second, an analysis of what I think they are really about.

It’s natural to see the private eye as a heroic beacon of masculinity. But as I
watched and re-watched scores of movies while researching the book, a different
kind of figure emerged. The private eye is not really about steely heroism, or
brilliant detection, or rooting out dangerous criminal elements from society.
No, his job is more simply to present us with the mysteries of private life.
The special function of the private eye is to enter into people’s private spaces
and expose them to us, the viewers, so we reflect on our own.

Given the rise of new media, social networking and reality TV, the News of the
World scandal, the Leveson Inquiry and the current furore about government
surveillance, questions of privacy are more urgent and complex in the
twenty-first century than ever, and this, despite the fact that it represents a
bygone, very twentieth-century world, is one of the values of thinking about
this movie tradition now.

Having the chance to immerse myself in some wonderful pieces of cinema was one
of the great pleasures of writing the book. As a taster, here are examples of
what I consider to be the ten best. As with all such lists, it probably
reflects personal preference more than anything else, and no doubt will prompt
disagreement. In particular, you might be surprised that half my choices are
movies that pay homage to the great films noirs of the 1940s and ’50s rather
than coming out of this period. However, besides finding these films more
gripping and satisfying, I’d argue that since the 1970s directors seem to have
managed to find ways in which to capitalize on the potential of private eye
movie conventions to say something profound and poignant about human beings.

Angel Heart (1987)

Overblown and bombastic it may be, but Alan Parker’s Gothic take on the private
eye movie is still compelling and frightening. Mickey Rourke – before his
decline, and recent rebirth – is the perfect private investigator, a loner,
rather dishevelled but plausibly attractive to woman, sassy and scared in equal
measure, traversing a set of ‘mean streets’ new to the genre: those of New

Memorable scene: a demonic Robert de Niro peels his hard-boiled egg with
long sharpened fingernails before devouring it with conviction. Breakfast will
never be the same again.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The first ‘proper’ private eye movie, and for many the first proper film noir.
Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is barely off-screen as he attempts to figure out a
double mystery: who killed Floyd Thursby and Spade’s own partner Miles Archer,
and where is the eponymous priceless artefact that so many criminals are trying
to get hold of? The true mystery, though, is Spade himself, and what makes this
curiously heroic, morally ambiguous figure tick.

Memorable scene: the famous ending, as Mary Astor’s femme fatale, Brigid
O’Shaughnessy, is ushered into a lift to take her downstairs. Ostensibly this
is so she can be dealt with by the law, but as the bars of the lift close on
her and the dramatic music kicks in, it’s clear this is really a descent into

Laura (1946)

Another film revealing the Gothic origins of the noir private eye thriller,
this one revolves around a clash of worlds, as jobbing police detective Mark
McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the apparent murder of the beautiful
socialite and advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Goaded by her
‘friend’, the effete novelist Waldo Lydecker, who finds him vulgar and ‘cheap’,
McPherson loses his bearings as he tries to get to grips with the case. This is
because he has fallen in love with the portrait of Laura hanging over her
fireplace even before she suddenly reappears . . .

Memorable scene: McPherson has taken, rather strangely, to wandering
around Laura’s empty apartment and, having helped himself to a whisky, falls
asleep in an armchair under Laura’s portrait, only for him to be startled awake
as she herself suddenly walks in. His fantasy about Laura seems so strong that
it’s somehow managed to revivify the real person.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Stylish and violent, this film sees the wandering ‘Chandlerian’ private
eye recast as borderline psychopath. Ralph Meeker plays the sadistic,
womanizing Mike Hammer with relish: street-smart, dapper, but with a undeniable
streak of cruelty. The film is beautifully shot, showing just how far film noir
in the 1950s has come since the previous decade’s B-movie origins. It also
elevates the standard hard-boiled plot of Spillane’s original novel (married
woman meets dangerously attractive drifter, trouble ensues) into a paranoid,
apocalyptic Cold War drama revolving around, er, the ‘great whatsit’.

Klute (1971)

Set in an inescapably claustrophobic New York, Klute marks a departure not just
from the Chandlerian wandering private eye but from California, where the
majority of 1970s private eye films are set. Nevertheless it revolves around a
typical private-eye theme: the inability of the detective to remain detached
from a case. John Klute (Donald Sutherland at his thoughtful, taciturn best)
falls for Jane Fonda’s Brée Daniels, the high-class prostitute he is supposed
to protect from a killer at large in the city. The innovative camera angles and
creepy soundtrack manage to make the viewer fluctuate between feeling helpless
and complicit in the stalker’s intrusions into Daniels’s life.

Memorable scene: all the terrible vulnerability of a woman alone in an
uncaring metropolis is conveyed as Daniels settles down in her bed late at
night, and the phone rings . . .

Brick (2005)

Rian Johnson’s cool, indie ‘mash-up’ of genres – high school movie meets film
noir – manages to breathe new life into the private eye movie. It’s a reworking
of The Maltese Falcon for the slacker generation, with the eponymous object a
block of heroin rather than a jewel-encrusted ornament. The combination of
genres invites us to think of the private eye in a new way: as an adolescent
trying to enter the unforgiving adult world. He is morally pure, though often
tempted by impurities, and tries to preserve justice in a world where official
law is nowhere to be seen.

Memorable scene: Brendan Fraser’s desolation is palpable as the camera
stays fixed, unflinchingly, as he crouches in a storm drain beside the
abandoned body of his dead girlfriend.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

No doubt it might seem a little heretical to choose this film over the more
celebrated early Chandler adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart, The Big Sleep
(1946). But Murder, My Sweet, the first time Philip Marlowe appears on screen
(played by a believably vulnerable Dick Powell), is superior both in its
plotting and its depiction of a detective entering a bewildering, dangerous
world. This film combines the classic noir techniques of chiaroscuro lighting,
subjective camera angles and flashback voice-over narration, to end up with the
closest cinema has come to Chandler’s convoluted first-person novels.

Memorable scene: Marlowe begins and ends the movie with a bandage over
his eyes in a shadowy interrogation room surrounded by police – a clear visual
metaphor for the detective’s inability to see what has been in front of his
eyes until the very end.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

A movie which, as one critic of the time noted, ‘satirizes Hollywood and the
entire Chandler genre’. Nevertheless, as Elliott Gould’s downscaled Marlowe
shambles around his neighbourhood, always one step behind, Altman’s brilliant
movie captures the essence of the private eye better than any other. A lone
hero, faced with a bewildering, uncaring world, carries the fight because . . .
Why? Because someone has to.

Memorable scene: Sterling Hayden’s doomed alcoholic novelist Roger Wade
‘wades’ despairingly into the Pacific to end it all, as Marlowe, registering
what’s happening too late, is powerless to stop him.

Out of the Past (1947)

You can’t take your eyes off Robert Mitchum throughout Jacques Tourneur’s
movie, despite the beautifully-shot, evocative locations, both urban and
(surprisingly for a noir) pastoral. The wistful feeling of the settings is
matched by Mitchum’s portrayal of Jeff Bailey, a private eye trying to go
straight but unable to because of his murky past. The profession of private
detective here – as in so many other films – carries with it none of the
romance we associate with a Philip Marlowe. As Bailey puts it in his opening
lines, he does ‘shabby jobs for who’d ever hire me. It was the bottom of the
barrel, and I scraped it, but I didn’t care. I had her.’

Memorable scene: one of the great femme fatale scenes in movie history,
as Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat looks on while Bailey and his former partner
Fisher fight to the death in the claustrophobic surroundings of a rural cabin.
As the camera shifts to her face we realise her expression conveys not fear but
. . . unmistakable arousal.

Chinatown (1975)

A rare example of a great private eye movie written for screen rather than
based on a literary original, Chinatown uses the qualities of cinema to elevate
the popular thriller to the level of art. This ‘film blanc’ has everthing:
absorbing plot (about the sins of the fathers, in every sense), convincing
acting, lush cinematography and a haunting soundtrack. But what makes it
unbeatably powerful is how plot and underlying themes lock together into an
unforgettable conclusion: it’s not ignorance that hurts you, it’s what you

Memorable scene: another great private eye movie ending: a car horn
sounds continuously as its driver collapses on the steering wheel after being
shot. The sound seems to signify Jake Gittes’s recognition not only that he is
completely powerless in the face of corrupt LA authorities, but that his own
dark private history has repeated itself.

And three of the worst . . .

The Eye of the Beholder (1999)

Is it possible to make a film boring, when it’s about a seductive female serial
killer and the voyeuristic detective who abandons his job because he has fallen
for her? Yes: here’s the proof. Stephan Elliott’s adaptation of Marc Behm’s
masterful 1980 novel is pedestrian and unwilling to fully inhabit the deranged
desolation of the central character that drives both Behm’s novel and its
original adaptation, Claude Miller’s Mortelle Randonée (1983). A miscast
Ewan McGregor comes across as apologetic rather than unhinged.

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

You could see the appeal for Robert Montgomery, both director and star of this
third Philip Marlowe movie. Why not try to create a literal cinematic
equivalent of the first-person perspective of Chandler’s original fiction by
confining the perspective to Marlowe’s? A drink is offered to the camera, then
we see the detective’s hand putting it down; when Lavery punches him, we see
the fist draw back and then the camera keels over and blacks out. But the
effect is fatally stagey and unconvincing. Characters parade in front of the
camera, eyeing the detective with exaggerated suspicion and intoning lines from
the overly literary screenplay. And the attempt to make us hear Marlowe’s
speech as if it’s our own voice fails too. One critic has remarked that when he
tells Adrienne that her role in life is to take care of him, ‘it sounds as if
he’s leaning out of a car window and ordering burgers and fries at a
drive-through window’.

The Big  Sleep (1975)

This film demonstrates why the conventions of the American private eye movie
cannot be translated into an English setting without extreme care (or by giving
them a comic makeover, as in Stephen Frears’s Gumshoe, 1971). Like The Lady
in the Lake
, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, to build on
the success of Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely (1975) in casting an
ageing but stately Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe. Yet, as Mitchum wanders
around a peculiarly 1970s British world of suburban semis, Fulham penthouses
and mundane locations like ‘Hunt’s Garage’, he looks as if he’s having serious