Greatest Movie Detectives

The “detective story” is a staple of fiction across the entire pop culture landscape. From television to books to comics and of course film. Every good mystery needs a good detective, and the silver screen has been filled with plenty of them over the years. In no particular order here are the greatest movie detectives.

Sherlock Holmes: Arguably, the most famous detective in fiction as a whole, this Baker Street resident has been in too many films to count usually with Dr. Watson by his side. Historians believe his first onscreen appearance dates all the way back to 1900 in a short called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. In the 1940’s Basil Rathbone arguably defined the character through 14 films with Nigel Brue’s Watson by his side. A gothic take on Holmes joined the ranks of the iconic Hammer Horrors in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskerville. In the 1980’s Young Sherlock Holmes became a fan favorite focusing on young Sherlock beginning his sleuthing ways. Even today, the movie popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective lingers as Robert Downey Jr. starred in two big blockbusters focused on the character, while Sir Ian McKellen portrayed an aged Sherlock in Mr. Holmes.

Philip Marlowe: For many noiristas this Raymond Chandler created PI is the equivalent of Batman or Bond. There has been a rotating door of actors who have played him and everyone seems to have their personal favorite. Debuting in Murder My Sweet, in the process revitalizing the career of actor Dick Powell he was a stalwart gumshoe put through the ringer. Two years after that Humphrey Bogart gave perhaps the most famous portrayal of the character in the stylish classic The Big Sleep. Robert Montgomery made him a talkative POV for the audience in Lady in the Lake, Elliot Gould played him as a laid back sleuth in The Long Good-Bye, and Robert Mitchum gave audiences a more cool brooding take in Farewell My Lovely. Through 8 films spanning 3 decades, Marlowe has been a go-to character for some of the best leading men in Hollywood history.

Nick and Nora Charles: Hoping to leave behind his life as a brilliant detective, Nick Charles married the love of his life, the wealthy Nora for a lifetime of witty banter and alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, for him, Nick’s reputation brings him back into the fold when he is brought onto the case of The Thin Man. Only this time Nick has Nora by his side (and their lovable dog Asta) to close the case. Driven by the insanely glorious chemistry of actors William Powell and Myrna Loy, these two socialites solve crimes while trading hilarious verbal spars and guzzling down booze. Upon its release, The Thin Man proved so popular that Powell and Loy returned to the roles 5 more Thin Man sequels.

John Shaft: Among all the private eyes in cinema there is one fly dick who gets all the chicks, and he is one bad mutha….SHUT YOUR MOUTH!!!! I’m talking about Shaft. In Shaft, one of the key films of the Black Cinema movement of the 70’s, John Shaft is a private eye with eyes and ears in every social circle of the streets. This is why he is hired by Harlem-based crime boss Bumpy, to find his daughter, who he believes has been kidnapped by the Mafia. As Shaft pounds the pavement unraveling the truth he knows that the city is inching towards a race war unless he can save the day. With the police and mobsters watching his every step, the smooth detective has to use all of his wits and resources on this case. Over the years Shaft has become recognized as one of the coolest heroes in movie history being featured in a number of sequels and reboots.

“Dirty” Harry Callahan: Go ahead punk, make his day. Arguably the most famous non-Western character of the legendary Clint Eastwood. As the toughest inspector in San Francisco, “Dirty” Harry  Callahan does not let any red tape stand in his way of busting the bad guys. Introduced 1971’s Dirty Harry where he is brought in to hunt down the dangerous Scorpio, the character has become a pop culture icon who is familiar even to those who have not seen any of his five films. He was a perfect example of the cinematic antihero protagonist who ruled movies during the 70’s. The second film in the series Magnum Force, does show there are lines he will not cross when he has to confront a secret death squad of fellow cops. This does not mean he is soft, as Dirty Harry has no problem breaking out his trademark Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum on any crook he sees fit.

Clarice Starling: When the daughter of a senator is in the hands of the serial killer Buffalo Bill, Clarice Starling, who is not yet even a full-fledged agent takes it upon herself to save her. This means she will have to plunge into the darkest corners of evil to meet with Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Undeterred by his sinister charm and mind games, Starling must probe into Lecter’s horrific mind to find the clues she needs to stop Buffalo Bill. As if dealing with one of the greatest villains in fiction were not enough, Agent Starling must also contend with the condescending attitudes of colleagues because of her gender and experience level. Agent Starling that as her career advanced that Hannibal has never forgotten her, leading to the brilliant FBI agent having to confront him once again only without the cage between them. Thanks to a powerful performance from Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling has been recognized as one of the greatest movie heroines in history.

Sam Spade: When an aloof woman walks into his office looking for help, the life of private eye Sam Spade. In the role that made him a star, Humphrey Bogart portrays on of the greatest cinema antiheroes in The Maltese Falcon. After his partner is gunned down while helping their latest client, Spade has to figure out who did it otherwise it would be bad for business. He discovers the femme fatale who hired them is actually looking for a legendary bejeweled falcon coated in black enamel. The world-weary detective soon finds himself embroiled in the treasure hunt with a scheming killer and an urbane crime boss breathing down his neck. Sam Spade’s exploits in The Maltese Falcon have become the stuff that dreams are made of. Not only is the film one of the keystone pictures in American cinema but also kicked off the entire film noir movement.

Inspector Clouseau: Upon reading that name any self-respecting cinephile probably got Henry Mancini’s iconic Pink Panther Theme stuck in their head. This famously incompetent French detective was merely a supporting character in 1963’s The Pink Panther as the focus was on David Niven as the infamous jewel thief The Phantom. But a bumbling performance from Peter Sellers stole the movie and for the rest of the Pink Panther series he became the main character. His character was fleshed out in A Shot in the Dark, and though Sellers passed on the role in the following film, he did return for 1975’s Return of the Pink Panther.

Virgil Tibbs: They call him MISTER Tibbs. While travelling through rural Mississippi to visit family, the top homicide detective from Philadelphia, Virgil Tibbs becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Reluctantly partnered with the racist Chief Gillespie. Solving the murder of a prominent citizen would be harder given the white supremacist attitudes of the locals, but Tibbs does not have time for their crap. In one of the film’s most iconic scenes when a wealthy white man slaps the detective, he slaps him back even harder. Being a fish out of water in the Deep South provides plenty of red herrings and messy relationships along the way but the detective refuses to give up his pursuit of a killer.

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle: An international drug cartel is looking to make moves in New York, but not if the surly “Popeye” Doyle has anything to say about it. With his partner “Cloudy” Russo by his side, Doyle has never been afraid to take on anything. Throughout The French Connection we see Popeye is quite familiar with all of the seedy locales on the urban hellscape which was New York in the 70’s. But a new more polished class of criminals have moved into is city and he is going to take them down with the same tenacity he does any crook. This means everything from going on the coolest car chase in movie history to tearing a car apart to find a hidden stash of narcotics. The great Gene Hackman won his first Oscar bringing Popeye Doyle to life and making him one of the toughest cops in moviedom. 

Frank Bullitt: Steve McQueen brings every ounce of his classic unflappable coolness to this SFPD detective. When an important witness who was to testify before the Senate is murdered on his watch, Bullitt gets behind the wheel of his iconic 1968 Ford Mustang GT and gets to work. One of the things Lt. Bullitt has been applauded for by audiences is the fact that beyond the jazzy soundtrack and the kick-ass car chase he adheres to actual investigation procedures. This realism in a detective flick is hard to come by, but Bullitt does it and still manages to be stone cold cool in the process.

Eddie Valiant: In a world where cartoons and humans live alongside each, it takes a special kind of detective to navigate the streets of Los Angeles. Eddie and his brother used to be that special kind of detective but after the loss of his brother this grizzled PI’s life fell apart as he took on a certain disdain for the Toons. His latest job sees him reluctantly forced to help Roger Rabbit who has been framed for murder. While working this case, Valiant discovers a plot of Judge Doom’s to wreak havoc on all of Toontown.

Jeff Bailey/Markham: To the people of his community, Jeff Bailey seems like an ordinary wholesome guy. When a kingpin named Whit seeks a meeting with Jeff, we learn about his seedy past as a private investigator in Out of the Past. Real name, Jeff Markham, the detective is pulled out of hiding and put back together with his old partner. The two have been hired to find the wealthy tycoon’s ex girlfriend who shot him and stole $40,000. As with any good film noir Jeff has to navigate a series of betrayals and plot twists along the way. As with so many classic film noirs the ways things fall mean nobody gets a happy ending. With a stone cold cool style and demeanor thanks to the great Robert Mitchum, Jeff stands as one of the most iconic detectives of the film noir movement.

John Klute: When a business tycoon is murdered, the only clue is a letter addressed to a New York prostitute named Bree. With this sole lead, private detective John Klute is put on the case of tailing Bree in the hopes of finding something in the neo-noir thriller Klute. As the two grow closer while working this case, the PI finds clues to possibly connect the murder victim to two women who committed “suicide”. Things become more dangerous when Klute realizes he has been played and has to act fast to save Bree from a killer.

Benoit Blanc: When a famed novelist dies and his entire family is filled with people with the motive to kill him, it is up to a private eye with a cool Mississippi Delta-dialect to get to the bottom of it. As the family scrambles around trying to get their hands on the money, Benoit knows it is the victim’s nurse Marta who holds the key to busting the case open. In an era when the “whodunnit” seems like a thing of the past in cinemas, Benoit Blanc brought a breath of fresh air to the genre.

Miss Marple: One of the great creations of legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie. Most famously played by stage actress, Margaret Rutherford. Departing from the source material Rutherford played Marple in four films as a bold, eccentric, and worldly character who is more than willing to throw herself into a case. Debuting in Murder, She Said, Marple witnesses a murder on a train and goes undercover herself to get to the bottom of it. In 1980, Angela Lansbury took over the role in a major adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d. The Murder She Wrote star gave audiences a more serious Miss Marple who was closer to the Agatha Christie stories.

Hercule Poirot: The other great creation of Agatha Christie is also no stranger to the big screen. This Belgian detective has appeared in countless short stories, books, TV shows, radio dramas, and of course films. Strangely, his first movie appearance in 1931’s Alibi, actor Austin Trevor played Poirot without his iconic mustache. Luckily in 1974, when Albert Finney gave in Oscar nominated performance as the detective in Murder on the Orient Express the iconic facial hair had returned. Throughout the 80’s Pete Ustinov portrayed Poirot in a series of films and made to TV movies. Ironically, David Suchet who is perhaps the definitive television version of the character co-starred along with Ustinov as Inspector Japp. Currently famed thespian Kenneth Branagh has taken on the role, originally in an updated version of Murder on the Orient Express and in the upcoming Death on the Nile.

Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins: In the slick neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins finds himself hired to find a mysterious woman with ties to the LA mayoral race. What should have been a fairly simple job lands Easy in a world of trouble.

J.J. Gittes: The service of private eye “Jake” Gettes are hired out to tail an engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power. He soon learns this was a set-up when the man he was tailing ends up dead in the reservoir. Soon the detective finds himself embroiled in a grand conspiracy involving powerful men who are after land and want him out of their hair. Alongside, Evelyn the widow of the murdered man alongside him, Gittes tries to get to the bottom of this, but he does not know who he can trust. When dealing with something this big there is no way, he can truly come out on top and the PI has to forget it, because its Chinatown.

Rick Deckard: In a dark noir-inspired future androids or “replicants” need to be permanently “retired” and the blade runners are the investigators who hunt them down. When a particularly dangerous replicant, Roy Batty returns to earth, the Blade Runner Rick Deckard, is brought in to find him. Deckard is efficient, and depending on the version of the film you watch is in fact a replicant himself. Despite being set in the far future, director Ridley Scott approached Blade Runner as a film noir, and Deckard is the perfect detective protagonist for this world.