12 of the Best Movie Detectives Ever

12 of the Best Movie Detectives Ever

Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is back three years after lacerating a rich bunch of arseholes in Knives Out, and Glass Onion throws an even bigger anti-wealthy mystery at him, proving Netflix was, er, on the money in shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to turn the character into the next Sherlock Holmes.

Is the folksy private investigator character destined to become one of the movies’ best detectives? Two great movies suggest he’s well on his way to joining the list.

It may be premature to add Blanc to the pantheon of cinematic gumshoes, but considering detective series past, it’s more the rule than the exception that fictional detectives eventually outgrow their stars, with new actors stepping in, for better or worse. It’s hard to imagine a Benoit Blanc mystery without Daniel Craig, but sometimes these characters unexpectedly take on lives of their own. Here are a dozen of the most enduring cinematic detectives, and their most memorable portrayals.

Hercule Poirot

Best Movie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

We’re skipping over David Suchet, but only on a technicality. The actor played Poirot in 70 episodes of the eponymous 1989 to 2013 TV series that adapted each and every Agatha Christie-written TV series. More than volume, though, he flawlessly captures Poirot’s blend of uptight fussiness and charm, playing a character who absolutely knows that he’s the smartest man in the room, but also knows that it’s rude to say so until he can’t help himself. Though it may sound blasphemous, I’d place Kenneth Branagh’s version in second place for very nearly capturing that same balance, but Sidney Lumet’s multiple-Oscar-nominated take on Murder on the Orient Express remains the star-studded gold standard to which Branagh’s adaptation, and even the Knives Out movies, are compared. Albert Finney’s Poirot plays up the character’s more cartoonish ticks, but that works in such a heightened film, and sets up moments of deadly seriousness.

Honorable Mentions: As controversially noted, the 2017 Murder on the Orient Express is quite good in its own right, while the entertaining 1978 Death on the Nile (steaming on Tubi) launched Peter Ustinov’s run with the character, leading a cast including Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, and Maggie Smith.

Sherlock Holmes

Best Movie: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

There’s plenty to choose from here: parodies, updates, reboots, etc. As with Poirot, the best and most authentic Holmes is to be found on the small screen (that’s Jeremy Brett in the 1984–1994 TV series). Still, Holmes has never been shy about popping up in movies; the first short featuring the character debuted in 1900, a full three decades before the death of his creator. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which earned an Oscar-nomination in 1976, set the stage for more modern, deconstructionist takes on Holmes, minus some of the archness that all implies. Nicol Williamson plays Holmes to Robert Duvall’s Watson, who comes to believe that drug use and obsessive tendencies have led the detective to conjure a fictional villain named Moriarty. The movie plays with the quirks of the canon, including the fact that we only hear about the evil professor from Holmes without ever really encountering him.

Honorable Mentions: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were once the standard by which all other Holmes/Watson teams were judged (even if their fidelity to the canon was dubious), so their Hound of the Baskervilles is worth mentioning (it’s on Tubi). Young Sherlock Holmes (on Pluto) is a fun boarding school adventure featuring some then-groundbreaking digital effects.

Miss Jane Marple

Best Movie: Murder, She Said (1961)

It’s not wildly faithful to the novel on which it’s based (4.50 from Paddington), but Murder, She Said introduces Margaret Rutherford’s Jane Marple; the actress played the sharp sleuth three more times with a dotty-like-a-fox resourcefulness. The movies play up Christie’s humour more than even Agatha Christie herself preferred (she didn’t love the adaptation, but eventually came around on Margaret Rutherford’s performance), so the movie feels a bit more like a comedy of manners (‘60s-style), but that’s OK. It’s light and airy, and gives Miss Marple plenty to do: After witnessing a murder on a train, she goes undercover as a housekeeper in order to investigate the crime.

Honorable Mentions: The Miss Marple TV series produced a couple of memorable sleuths, with portrayals by Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie, but, for movie Marple, the 1980 The Mirror Crack’d, with a pre-Jessica Fletcher Angela Lansbury in the lead, is underrated. It’s also steaming on Britbox.

Mike Hammer

Best Movie: Kiss Me Deadly (1961)

The second of five theatrical movies to feature Mickey Spillane’s hardboiled detective (before multiple TV movies and series) was scripted by A. I. Bezzerides, who has made no secret of his disdain for the ultra-violent character as portrayed in his many novels. The writer saw the P.I. as a complete bastard, and that’s exactly how he comes across in this ultra-paranoid atomic-age apocalypse thriller, which became one of the definitive films of the noir genre.

Honorable Mention: Meh. Don’t bother, unless you want to catch up with the character as played by Stacy Keach on TV, streaming on Crackle.

Philip Marlowe

Best Movie: The Big Sleep (1946)

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was, along with various Dashiell Hammett characters, part of the first wave of hardboiled crime fiction. Hard-drinking and tough on the outside, Marlowe has a contemplative and empathetic streak that made soulful, but stone-faced Humphrey Bogart perfect casting. The plot, about Marlowe being hired by a rich man to resolve his daughter’s gambling debts (segueing into a series of murders) is impossibly convoluted, but that’s beside the point. The movie is all about atmosphere, and the chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall is for the ages.

Honorable Mention: Robert Mitchum made for a great Marlowe in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely, but Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (starring Elliot Gould, and available on Tubi and The Criterion Channel) is an unconventional but compelling take that occasionally borders on parody.

John Shaft

Best movie: Shaft (1971)

There’s not a ton of detecting going on in Gordon Parks’ film, one of the most influential and successful of the blaxploitation era, one that more or less defied the label in having a black director, editor, and composer in Isaac Hayes (many of the films of the era with Black leads featured behind-the-camera teams that were almost entirely white; even Shaft nearly had a white actor in the lead). Shaft is a bad mother…you know, and also a private detective who comes up against Black mobsters before coming to understand that the Mafia is the real enemy, kinda/sorta working with the police to crack open the case against them. It spawned two pretty good sequels and a pretty great reboot in 2000, but Richard Roundtree will always be John Shaft.

Honorable Mention: The 2000 reboot/sequel (requel?) with Samuel L. Jackson is pretty great, and includes Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft just for kicks. It’s on Paramount+

Nick & Nora Charles

Best movie: The Thin Man (1934)

They’ve been the subject of seven movies, a TV series, a radio show, and multiple plays, as well as a planned Johnny Depp-starring reboot that mercifully went nowhere. Their film debut happened the same year that Dashiell Hammett’s novel came out, and remains, possibly, the greatest comedy-detective movie of all time. There’s a real mystery (to do with a missing inventor), some genuine danger, and a satisfying dinner-party reveal at the end, but everything else is pure boozy chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, who are more-or-less equals in solving the case, even though he’s technically the detective, and they are both technically plastered throughout. Cute dog too.

Honorable Mention: The entire original Thin Man series is pretty great, but the next great portrayal of the characters comes in 1976’s Murder by Death, a parody of the detective genre in which David Niven and Maggie Smith play the thinly veiled “Dick and Dora Charleston.”

Alex Cross

Best movie: Kiss the Girls (1997)

James Patterson’s cerebral police detective Alex Cross has been a bit more successful on the page than in films (30+ books versus three movies), but that might be about to change with a new Prime Video series with Aldis Hodge on the way. In Kiss the Girls, Morgan Freeman plays the detective on the hunt for a Buffalo Bill-type killer who has taken Cross’s niece. The movie tries a little too hard to steer the plot into Silence of the Lambs territory, but Freeman is perfectly cast and believably human, even when things around him are amped up to the levels of Hollywood nonsense.

Honorable Mention: While not quite as successful, Along Came a Spider (also on HBO Max) has the virtue of Morgan Freeman’s continued presence. The 2012 reboot, Alex Cross, was a rare miss for star Tyler Perry.

Sam Spade

Best Movie: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Hammett’s unsentimental Sam Spade found his fullest expression in 1941, by which point the character had already been portrayed in two pretty good adaptations of the same novel. This one, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, was the stuff that dreams were made of, never bested before or since for its hardboiled noir sensibilities, its alluring femme fatale (Mary Astor), nor for its memorable central prop (film history’s most famous MacGuffin).

Honorable Mention: Satan Met a Lady, from 1936, adapts The Maltese Falcon but changes Spade’s name to Shane for some reason. Bette Davis gets top billing in the lighter-toned picture, which interestingly gives the material a spin that puts the femme fatale in front.

Philo Vance

Best Movie: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

We haven’t seen much of Philo Vance (a character created by crime novelist S. S. Van Dine) since the 1940s, but the character spawned 15 films starring ten different actors over the course of nearly two decades. Some of the later entries are fairly by-the-numbers B-mysteries, but there are real standouts to be uncovered in the series. Among them is The Kennel Murder Case, starring a pre-Nick Charles William Powell as the effete, high-society detective in a film co-starring Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) and directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

Honorable Mention: A pre-Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone played Vance in just a single movie, The Bishop Murder Case (1929), with crisp charm. It’s a bit slow, but Rathbone’s great and the mystery is clever. It’s on YouTube.

Inspector Clouseau

Best Movie: A Shot in the Dark (1964)

The Pink Panther movies of the 1960s were all about goofy, groovy style — a feature rather than a bug. In a somewhat rare occurrence, it’s actually the second of the series, which would eventually run to nine movies (not counting the reboot), that works best. Here, it’s clear that Peter Sellers’ notoriously bumbling Inspector Clouseau is the star of the series, and so director Blake Edwards (who co-wrote the screenplay with William Peter Blatty, later of Exorcist fame) shifts the focus to him while continuing to stage expertly orchestrated slapstick. In later films, the silliness starts to feel like a bit much, but here there’s just enough of a plot (about a maid accused of murdering her lover) to keep things from going completely off the wall.

Honorable Mention: The 1975 soft reboot of the series, The Return of the Pink Panther, welcomed back Peter Sellers after Alan Arkin took over the role. It’s very much on the silly side, but many of the gags are inspired.

Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist

Best Movie: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Noomi Repace, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy have all played the introverted hacker and investigator Lisbeth Salander, who teams up with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Craig, or Sverrir Gudnason) to solve a 40-year-old murder case. Both the 2009 Swedish adaptation of the first book and the 2011 American version, from David Fincher, are both pretty grea. I’ll give the edge to the Swedish version only because it continues into two very good sequels that Fincher, Mara, and Craig never got to make.

Honorable Mention: The 2011 David Fincher take on the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is worth a watch; it’s on Hulu.


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