10 great private eye films

As The Maltese Falcon returns to cinemas for its 80th anniversary, we salute cinema’s great sleuths and the treacherous plots that threaten to engulf them.

16 September 2021

By Trevor Johnston

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

In the bustling urban US, police were often too stretched to search for missing persons, and facilitating divorce proceedings was never part of their remit, hence the need for private investigators or PIs.

Very much an American phenomenon, the PIs’ combination of trustworthiness, guile and insight proved highly suitable for fictional and cinematic treatment. Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, for instance, had already been adapted for the screen twice before the classic 1941 John Huston version ensconced it in the canon, with Humphrey Bogart’s steely Sam Spade negotiating labyrinthine intrigue, characterful villains and considerable personal risk.

A celluloid formula was established, which subsequently took in various incarnations of Raymond Chandler’s equally iconic gumshoe Philip Marlowe. As time went on, it also reflected societal transformation, as America grappled with the new anxieties of the atomic age and post-Watergate disillusionment.

Where once the Spades and Marlowes could see through the treachery around them and make sense of the world, detectives in latter-day private eye movies uncovered a universe even more complex and threatening than we suspected, their intensifying unease mirroring our own modern condition.

The genre’s propensity for palliative puzzle-solving subsequently moved to quick-fix television, while the age of the internet search engine and easy-access information made future prospects for the cinematic private eye more uncertain. As this selection demonstrates, however, a captivating filmic legacy remains.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
© Warner Bros

He’s nobody’s fool, obviously, but there’s also an edge to Humphrey Bogart’s private eye Sam Spade – a calculating, unsentimental, morally questionable observer of the iniquities around him – which brings live-wire tension to this much-loved artefact of golden age Hollywood. It starts with a mysterious lady walking into his office, and proceeds with a cavalcade of memorable swindlers willing to kill for the eponymous antique treasure. For modern viewers, it perhaps seems more parlour game than film noir, as Hammett’s scintillating dialogue bounces off the studio flats.

Making his directorial bow after screenwriting success, director John Huston sustains sharp levels of concentration throughout. In the unholy trio of fake-demure Mary Astor, wheedling dandy Peter Lorre and grandiloquently stout Sydney Greenstreet, he marks out the territory he’d further explore in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and many more. The more tantalising the quest, the more intoxicating the dream, the more elusive its completion…

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

It’s still a mystery why they changed the title from the original Farewell, My Lovely, but this first film adaptation of a Chandler novel retains the trademark wry first-person narration, and gets almost everything else right, winning the author’s admiration in the process. Former crooner Dick Powell seems oddball casting on paper, but registers an attitude of resigned bemusement that proves most ingratiating, and – unlike, say, the teeth-baring Bogart in Howard Hawks’ better-known Philip Marlowe outing The Big Sleep (1946) – he always seems to keep in mind Chandler’s essential guidance that “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”

Credit too to screenwriter John Paxton for marshalling a multi-layered plot – involving a befuddled scientist, Claire Trevor’s slinky femme fatale, and a volatile ex-boxer – which satisfyingly fits together in the end, allowing director Edward Dmytryk to deliver some striking drug-induced hallucinations to test Powell’s mettle along the way. A strong candidate for the best-ever screen Chandler.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

In the three years between The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet, we were edging towards the modern world. A decade later, we’ve arrived. And it’s brutal. Mike Hammer, the signature creation of pulp regular Mickey Spillane, can certainly take a beating, but he relishes dishing it out too. No dowdy office for him; instead a reel-to-reel telephone answering machine in his swanky apartment, where he feeds off a steady diet of sleazy divorce work, until he gives a lift to a frightened female fugitive whose subsequent murder has him thinking there’s a bigger score to be tracked down.

Ralph Meeker’s all-in performance makes no excuses for this heartless, cocksure thug, who’s almost as scary as the ruthless foes he’s up against. We’re light years away from Messrs Spade and Marlowe, as Robert Aldrich’s film pits classical allusions against vicious carnage to signal that chivalry is dead, before finally confronting the terrifying wonder of our post-atomic world. Landmark stuff.

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

Strictly speaking, James Stewart isn’t a private eye here but a cop who’s left the service after his vertigo was to blame for the accidental death of a fellow officer, and takes on a surveillance gig for an old friend. The latter’s wife appears mysteriously under the sway of a woman dead for decades – won’t Stewart take a look?

That’s the pretext for the most thematically and stylistically daring film of Alfred Hitchcock’s storied career, with misty cinematography, hypnotic pacing and Bernard Herrmann’s anguished romantic score establishing a unique mood of immersive unease as the investigation moves inward, probing Stewart’s addled psyche. Kim Novak’s disorientating there-but-not-there presence is perfect in a double-role as the siren Stewart falls for, and the second woman he fastidiously remakes in her image. Given Hitchcock’s own much-noted obsessive focus on just-so costuming for his sexy-yet-unavailable leading ladies, it all feels unsettlingly personal. See it for the first time or the hundredth, it’s a haunted and haunting masterpiece.

Gumshoe (1971)

Director: Stephen Frears

Gumshoe (1971)

What’s listless Liverpool bingo caller Albert Finney to do but set himself up as a private detective named Sam Spade? Amazingly, he gets a job and is handed an envelope containing a woman’s photo and a handgun – he’s out of his depth already. We watch and wonder if this stuff is for real, and it’s that see-saw teetering between snarky pastiche and real-world suspense that gives Stephen Frears’ first theatrical feature its unique flavour.

Neville Smith’s screenplay delivers a mock Hammett and Chandler narration, but makes the point that in bleak early 70s Britain you had to get your dreams from somewhere else. Chris Menges’ camerawork captures a vortex of dun browns in the down-at-heel locales, yet the irony is that by taking on his new role, out-of-sorts Finney acquires a new moral purpose as he finds himself stumbling into a plot involving nefarious South Africans. Can he square this with his own casual racism? The film leaves it for us to ponder.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Director: Robert Altman

The Long Goodbye (1973)

1970s Hollywood liked to glance back at 1940s gumshoe classics, by investing in period detective stories, tackling modern private eye equivalents, and even wheeling out a too-old Robert Mitchum for a solid-enough remake of Farewell, My Lovely. This most potent combination of then-and-now, however, saw Robert Altman replanting Philip Marlowe in hippy-era, crime-ridden Los Angeles, where behind star Elliott Gould’s shambling gait and seemingly chilled-out demeanour lies a crumpled innocent who still believes in loyalty and justice.

The adaptation by veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who also worked on Hawks’ The Big Sleep) takes some liberties with Chandler’s 1953 novel, while Altman too is in playful mood, shuffling through umpteen different arrangements of the John Williams title tune. Much of the time, the movie seems to be smiling at Gould’s confusion at the fate of an old pal and the mess left behind, but his easygoing resilience shines through, and the ending is a powerful moment – if decidedly controversial among Chandler true believers.

Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski

Chinatown (1974)

Set in the 1930s, Chinatown unfolds in sunshine, palm trees and lavish houses – a city we might imagine in retro Hollywood movies had they ever ventured out of the studios. Robert Towne’s original screenplay sends a private-eye after an errant husband, then threads together historical revelations about LA’s fragile infrastructure with moral turpitude so vile we can barely see it coming.

We take the point that this is also a story about the now, posing questions about money and power that never go away. At its centre is a stellar turn from Jack Nicholson – knowing, assured, and a terrier in pursuit of the truth – alongside remarkable work from Faye Dunaway, who changes from diva to broken soul at the twitch of an eyelash. Shot three years before director Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to a child sex charge then fled the US, the result shows the filmmaker at his peak, its unblinking look into the heart of American darkness still a white-knuckle moment.

Night Moves (1975)

Director: Arthur Penn

Night Moves (1975)

Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is a man who likes working out puzzles, but the world is complex for a 70s private eye. On the trail of a missing teenage girl (Melanie Griffith making her debut in a clothes-averse nymphet role that wouldn’t be tenable today), he runs across an illicit smuggling operation and a dead body in a sunken boat, all the while struggling to comprehend why his marriage is falling apart.

Scots screenwriter Alan Sharp’s dialogue offers next-level accomplishment, articulating the gnarly adult emotions of a fraying mature couple as a dizzying thriller plot circles around them. There’s an unsettling feeling that understanding is theoretically possible yet nowhere to be found in this treacherous setting. Pointedly, Hackman pores over a significant chess game when a great champion unaccountably failed to spot his opponent’s winning strategy. It all builds to a climactic overhead shot that’s among the most emblematic moments of 70s Hollywood’s brow-furrowing greatness.

Blood Simple (1984)

Director: Joel Coen

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ micro-budget debut shows just what’s possible with a handful of locations and a script packed with great ideas. Having proved that dodgy bar owner Dan Hedaya’s wife has been unfaithful, shabby Texan gumshoe M. Emmet Walsh is assigned by him to kill her, but key to the movie is how the Coens weaponise the character of the private eye – who cunningly exploits the situation with an unexpectedly placed bullet. Chaos ensues, animated by a body that just won’t stay dead and bad decisions made by key characters unaware that Walsh is evil personified in a cream-coloured leisure suit.

The Coens have long since demonstrated there’s hardly a genre they can’t freshen up by combining knowledge of movie lore with out-of-the-box thinking, and this set the template. Plus there’s the remarkable sight of a twentysomething Frances McDormand in her very first screen role, projecting a fresh-faced innocence far removed from the knowing presence of today’s seasoned multi-award winner.

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Set in 2012 (a dialogue reference to the demise of US TV pop show legend Dick Clark is a subtle giveaway), this isn’t actually a private eye movie per se, but after myriad small-screen outings have done the gumshoe genre to death, it’s a not-dissimilar story about a puzzle-solving investigator seeking a missing girl. Andrew Garfield’s irrepressible likability makes us warm rather more than we should to this work-shy shampoo-dodging wastrel, whose alluring new neighbour disappears without trace. This sends It Follows director David Robert Mitchell down a series of rabbit holes as Garfield burrows deep into sundry LA urban legends, actively seeking out solutions way off the internet search map.

Baulking at the vertiginous over-abundance of data presented to us by the information age, the movie suggests how this drives damaged minds to seek out epochal significance in otherwise trivial minutiae. Although divisive for audiences and critics alike, it’s gradually acquiring cult status, not least for the way it seems to prophesy the rise of terrifying QAnon-style conspiracy theorising.

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