Movie detective films are sometimes smart, sometimes funny, and sometimes incredibly serious. It's really only fitting that, in the movies, detectives almost always find what they're looking for, sometimes in the most unbelievable ways imaginable. The most innocuous clues always emerge at just the right time – but it's that suspension of belief that often makes detective movies memorable. I don't even care if they're unbelievable; whether they're fictitious or true to life, there's something thrilling and suspenseful about detective films and mysteries. From the dramatic to the comedic, take a look at some of the best detectives in movies, and don't forget to share your favorites as well!
1. Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes is probably the most well known movie detective in recent memory, although honestly, Watson definitely deserves its props as well. Sherlock's getting a lot of love on the small screen as well, but Robert Downey, Jr.'s turn as the brilliant detective really brought the public's attention back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's slick, smart sleuth. With all that success, two films might not be enough – and I for one have no complaints. Plus, can I just say that the chemistry between Robert and Jude Law is amazing? It goes without saying that Sherlock falls into the “funny” column, but the man is brilliant as well, and that's just terribly sexy.
2. J.J. Gittes from Chinatown
Jack Nicholson played one of the most incredibly movie detectives of all time in Chinatown. Jake is just a prolific character, and pretty much everything you expect a detective to be. The movie itself is crazy good, although I'm generally fond of Roman Polanski's films anyway. Naturally, a gorgeous dame hires J.J. Gittes to do a little sleuthing, and since Jack's doing the job, there are some darkly comedic moments. A lot of people consider this one of the best detective films ever, and Jake the best detective. Give it a look, you'll quickly see why.
3. Jacques Clouseau from the Pink Panther
No one does zany like Peter Sellers – no one. Forget about the Steve Martin remake – and that's coming from a girl who loves her some Steve Martin. Peter Sellers is the only Inspector Clouseau in my book – he's such a terrific actor anyway, and in this film, he's at his absolute best when it comes to turning into someone else. The follow-ups are just as funny, but the first one is the classic that made everyone fall in love with Clouseau!
4. Philip Marlowe from the Big Sleep
Here's another smart movie detective, this time with the incomparable Humphrey Bogart. I had to choose between this film and The Maltese Falcon, but when it came down to brass tacks, I had to go with Philip Marlowe. It's not just that you get to see him with Lauren Bacall, it's that he gives the notorious detective new life, and lots of that gritty, Bogie charm. If you've only ever seen films like the Falcon, Casablanca, or his other more well known movies, but like detective flicks, do yourself a favor and give this one a shot.
5. Jimmy Doyle from the French Connection
The French Connection is one of my favorite detective movies for dozens of reasons, beginning with the fact that I absolutely adore Gene Hackman. He does rough, gritty, and crass like no one else – see him in The Royal Tenenbaums for proof; he even makes me love Heartbreakers. In this film, his detective Jimmy Doyle is but smart and funny – a twofer! He's kind of crazy, and if you've got a thing for car chases, then this movie is definitely right up your alley.
6. Dick Tracy from Dick Tracy
You can't really discuss funny detective films without discussing campy Dick Tracy. As always, there's a big difference between the movie and the comic, but the film is pretty solid on its own – and funny, of course. Warren Beatty was actually a great private dick (haha, get it?), and this is one of the only movies in which Madonna excelled. Plus, you have to love the cast of characters – Little Face, the Rodent, the Brow, even Tess Trueheart.
7. Ace Ventura from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Ace Ventura is definitely a memorable movie detective. Really, really memorable. Kind of obnoxious, too, but the first film is still popular in a campy kind of way. You don't see many (or any) pet detectives, so the idea was novel, and naturally Jim Carrey was at his most Jim Carrey-ist. I could have gone my whole life without seeing When Nature Calls, but the original really was original. Of course, Philip Marlowe or Dick Tracy could both probably kick Ace's ass, but still!
8. Marge Gunderson from Fargo
There are way too few female detectives, so you don't see many detective movies featuring women. I debated on including Clarice Starling, because she's my favorite, but she's an FBI agent. Marge Gunderson from Fargo isn't precisely a detective either, but she's the chief of police, so I'm counting her. Besides, Frances McDormand played her to such perfection, and added so much to an already great movie.
I think everyone has their own favorite movie detective. It all comes down to what kind of films you like, whether you prefer your mysteries funny or serious. A little mad-cap sleuthing is always fun, but a down and dirty mystery has lots of intrigue too. There are tons of great movies featuring amazing detectives, cops, FBI agents, and so on – The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, Bladerunner – but I've tried to pick a mix of smart and/or funny detectives who can make you laugh and give you thrills. What do you like to see in your detective movies? Sound off in comments!
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