Tom Jolliffe offers up 10 essential private investigator movies…
The humble Dick. I mean P.I of course. Private Investigator. They often operate on a perilous high wire between law and unlawful. When the police have given up or are hamstrung by the book, the P.I can go that extra mile, or indeed focus entirely on the case at hand. Whether professional P.I’s, or hired specifically for a case, these intrepid information seekers dig themselves further and further into intrigue, deceit, murder and more. It has been a cinematic staple for years, as it has also in literature (and indeed there have been a few adaptations of great P.I fiction over the years too). In particular it has been a popular staple in American noir and neo-noir. Here are 10 essential P.I. films…
The Long Goodbye
Robert Altman’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel was updated for the 1970’s and transformed from noir to neo-noir. Altman takes things in unexpected directions as far as genre, and the film subverts many of the tropes as Marlowe (Elliot Gould) blunders his way sardonically through a murder investigation that he’s become unwittingly entangled in. With stylish visuals, brilliant dialogue and some unexpected moments, The Long Goodbye has often been regarded as one of the more overlooked films of American neo-noir from an era rife with classics. Gould is fantastic as the wisecracking, chain-smoking, cat loving P.I.
Whilst we’re on the subject of overlooked, lets talk Klute. This is particularly good. Donald Sutherland plays a cop hired privately to investigate the disappearance of an old friend. The case gravitates around the one lead, a prostitute played by Jane Fonda. The film is less about the investigation itself and more about the intensifying relationship between Klute (Sutherland) and Bree Daniels (Fonda). Fonda is sensational with a role that is wonderfully complex and enigmatic. The film is a master class in editing and structure too. On top of everything the film is stunningly shot.
The Maltese Falcon
A step back to vintage era noir and another great adaption of classic detective fiction with this take on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. It’s not quite as good as the source material, but it’s still a great piece of cinema. John Huston writes and directs and has a noir icon at his disposal in the inimitable Humphrey Bogart. Additionally, Peter Lorre also appears. Undoubtedly one of the best noir films of the era, and adapting an absolutely iconic tale, The Maltese Falcon is definitely essential viewing for fans of P.I films.
A P.I film with a difference. Here, the P.I who triggers the chain of chaotic events, is very much the antagonist and driving force of the film. Hired initially to spy on the wife of a business owner suspecting her of adultery, and then tasked with killing her. From then on things get out of hand as the wife, lover, P.I and husband are embroiled in a sordid tale of misconception, distrust and murder. The Coen’s delivered a thrilling neo-noir debut. It looks sensational, and even whilst they’ve subsequently worked regularly with cinematography deity, Roger Deakins, Blood Simple (as lensed by Barry Sonnenfeld) may still be their best looking film.
The Last Boy Scout
Writer Shane Black has had a lasting love affair with the Private Dick. It began with this Tony Scott helmed buddy film that paired Bruce Willis (as a down and out P.I) with Damon Wayans (as a disgraced ex-footballer) to investigate the murder of the footballer’s girlfriend. As one would expect from Black, this film is powered by sharp dialogue and relentless repartee between the mismatched partners. Willis is in his element as the sardonic and bedraggled Detective. Scott’s visual flair is on full display with excellent set pieces in a film that threatens to be Black’s most quotable.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
I told you Shane Black liked P.I’s. This criminally overlooked film (that almost went straight to video) also marked Black’s directorial debut. It’s a tale of murder and corruption in Hollywood that sees a thief become entangled in a murder investigation. He evades arrest, by posing as an actor, before pairing up with a homosexual P.I as they try to uncover the truth. It’s playful, brilliantly crafted and packed with zinging Black dialogue. Robert Downey Jr. had been almost blacklisted at the point he made this. A forgotten talent. The film, at least to those who saw it, was a timely reminder of just how good he could be. Likewise, Val Kilmer had been on something of a downward trajectory and delivered arguably one of his best performances. The dynamic between the pair was scintillating.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Let’s get animated. Well…partly. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, like no film before or since, magnificently blended live action and animation. It’s relentlessly inventive, persistently entertaining and at the centre has a great P.I story. The titular Rabbit, a once lauded cartoon character on a decline is framed for murder after a P.I has delivered pictures of Rog’s wife in an uncompromising position with the soon to be victim. Said P.I, riddled with guilt begins investigating when it becomes increasingly clear Roger was set up. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt and it just never gets old. I loved it when I was a kid back in the day and I still love it now. My 4 year old daughter now loves it too, and yes…Christopher Lloyd can still terrify.
“It’s Chinatown Jake.” Possibly the finest example of not only neo-noir, but a P.I film. Chinatown is a supremely crafted thriller from the greatest era in American cinema. It’s a masterpiece with one of the best screenplays written. An embittered, cynical and morally obtuse P.I (specialising mostly in spousal spy jobs) is drawn into a seemingly simple task that soon turns twisted. He gets deeper into a plot of corruption, familial drama and a murder case with a chief suspect he begins having feelings for (played superbly by Faye Dunaway). As the plot begins to develop and the pieces fall into place, Chinatown is enrapturing. Jack Nicholson is restrained and brilliant. It’s also as exceptionally crafted as you would expect from peak-era Roman Polanski.
This underappreciated classic from the late Alan Parker was an obtuse and mystifying thriller that strides the literal and metaphorical. The film is as psychologically complex as it is occasionally convoluted as P.I Harry Angel is tasked with finding the elusive singer, Johnny Favorite. It becomes more a search within than anything else, with Angel encountering duplicitous characters along the way and none more confounding than Louis Cyphre (played with intensity by Robert De Niro). Rourke was at the apex of his rise that decade. He began the decade being talked of as the next De Niro. He ended it as a Hollywood black sheep. The talent was undoubtedly there and on full display here with an enthralling, complex and committed performance.
SEE ALSO: When Mickey Rourke Almost Ruled Cinema
A retired detective, suffering from crippling acrophobia is brought out of retirement to investigate the wife of a friend, who worries his spouse has been behaving strangely. Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) is increasingly intrigued by her behaviour and her routine visits, but has to intervene when she jumps into the river. They engage a little, but Scottie must retain some distance to a woman seemingly driven consciously/unconsciously by thoughts of suicide. So when she finally does commit suicide, with Scottie there to witness it, it drives the retired detective further into his crippling fear and guilt. When he encounters a woman with a striking resemblance to the late wife of his client, he becomes increasingly obsessed, particularly after they begin a relationship. Hitchcock, the master craftsman and one of the undisputed kings of the thriller, delivers a film that has regularly been considered one of the greatest ever. For a number of years it even topped the Sight and Sound Poll. It’s certainly a master class on all fronts, with Hitchcock’s most striking visual palette.
Honourable mentions: The Nice Guys, Inherent Vice, City Hunter, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Who’s Harry Crumb, and The Big Sleep. What’s your favourite P.I film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.