7.Â The Thin ManÂ (1934)
Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait.Our introduction to Nick and Nora Charles is still the best of the bunch, a comic sprint through a twisty killing involving an inventor on a secret business trip, a skeleton with massive clothing, and a metric ton of martinis. Crime writing mastermind Dashiell Hammett crafted an eloquent conspiracy, but Myrna Loy and William Powell are the secret sauce that makes everything work.
6. Murder By DeathÂ (1976)
Let’s be honest: comedies never get their due. This satire from Neil Simon is a loving take down of all the detective tropes we loathe and adore. The outsized personalities, the labyrinthine plots, the impossible twists…everything is served up for laughter here in a spooky mansion with stand-ins for the most famous literary detectives. With Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, David Niven, James Coco, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, and more, it features a murderer’s row of comedic talent and a story that could only be delivered by someone passionate about detective stories.
5. Memories of MurderÂ (2003)
Bong Joon-ho’s cinematic crime spree is a masterwork of police department frustration. Based on real events, Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and his team face an uphill battle of forensic limitations and their own failings while tracking a serial rapist and murderer. One of the most gorgeous detective movies ever shot, it’s as much about revealing the men behind the badges as it is the man behind the killings, and the final moments are as chilling as they come.
4. LA ConfidentialÂ (1997)
Speaking of police corruption getting in the way, the Curtis Hanson noir infamously shut out near-totally at the Oscars byÂ TitanicÂ is a dense, winding car ride through 1950s Hollywood. It’s a land where prostitutes make more if they look like movie stars and police departments care more about protecting its image than its citizens. LA Confidential is a prime example of incredibly unlikable characters that you grow to care for over the course of the film.
3. ChinatownÂ (1974)
No way we could forget it, Jake.Â Chinatown distilled everything beautifully tragic about detective stories into one package, becoming the archetype for neo noir. Intimate killings open up big wounds and lead to a lid blown off of a statewide cash grab over water rights. Jack Nicholson’s performance is smug and as raw as a frayed nerve. Faye Dunaway makes even the most ridiculous elements feel real. Its grinning nihilism is what all crime stories aspire to.
2. ZodiacÂ (2007)
Grisly perfection. David Fincher’s attention to detail has secured him a place as our modern crime master, and he leads a massively talented ensemble through the manhunt for one of the most infamous serial killers in our nation’s history — a serial killer who was never caught. It’s a stunner of police and journalistic doggedness while lives are literally at stake.Â Zodiac is meticulous and cold, and when Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, or Robert Downey Jr. sag in response to the weight of their responsibility, you feel it in your gut. Spanning decades, it’s also a rare crime epic that demands every inch of attention we can give it.
1. Silence of the LambsÂ (1991)
This is the one to beat. Horror film, thriller,Â freakish romantic comedy. No matter what genre bin you want to toss it in, Jonathan Demme’s scorcher is an outstanding detective narrative. Underestimated at every turn, Clarice Starling is a phenomenal manhunter and Jodie Foster’s performance, fighting through childhood trauma to save others from the skin-hungry Buffalo Bill, is a horrific thing of beauty. There’s also never been a more iconic villain in a detective story than Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, charming as he smiles with blood in his teeth. Every bit of its mystery is a calculated horror that we get to see from the bottom of the well. It’s not about whodunnit, but about how Starling will figure it out.Which detective movies top your list?
Â Images: MGM, Columbia Pictures, CJ Entertainment, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Orion Pictures