Best Detective Movies

Gearing up for the April 1st release of Cat Run with a trip through the best detective films in history.

Editorby Editor

Best Detective Movies


With the April 1st release of Cat Run , the detective-film genre will be turned on its head as the stars of this hilariously violent action-comedy (including Paz Vega, Janet McTeer, Christopher McDonald, Tony Curran and more) turn in some of their all-time best performances. 


Directed by John Stockwell and written by Nick Ball and John Niven, the film centers on a sexy, high-end escort who holds the key evidence to a scandalous government cover-up, and the two bumbling young detectives become her unlikely protectors from a ruthless assassin hired to silence her. 


To gear up for what’s sure to be an action-packed and over-the-top cinematic escapade, we’re taking a look at the Best Detective Movies in film history.



The Maltese Falcon (1941)


Perhaps the most popular and classic detective mystery ever made, The Maltese Falcon set the standard for an entire genre of dark detective tales to follow with leading-man icon Humphrey Bogart heading an impressive cast in golden-era Hollywood. We’re witness to the remarkable directorial debut of John Huston in a faithful portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 namesake novel from a detective story magazine publication named Black Mask. Interestingly, in a bit of film trivia, early preview audiences were witness to a different spin on the film. Initially named The Gent From Frisco the film sported two major differences from the book and resulting film: Gutman was killed by Wilmer, and the last quotable line of dialogue, with a Shakespearean reference, was improvised by Bogart on the set.



Chinatown (1974)


A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on a murder plot in what many consider to be Jack Nicholson’s finest role. Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown is a twisting tale centering on Nicholson’s turn as Detective Jake Gittes, a volatile man with an ironclad determination to get the job done – especially in the face of intensified complication. Faye Dunaway also shines opposite Jack in one of the best detective movies ever made, a true classic the likes of which they just don’t make anymore. 



Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)


Shane Black’s first script since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 was also his first turn as director, navigating the first major lead role for actor Robert Downey Jr. Downey plays petty thief with a heart of gold Harry Lockhart, a man suffocated by perpetual bad luck. His streak takes a turn when, in a desperate bid to avoid police chasing him down for breaking into a store, he inadvertently stumbles into an audition for a Hollywood detective movie. He kills, and soon finds himself in the Hollywood world, paired with a tough-guy private eye Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), AKA "Gay Perry," to prepare him for his screen test. The conflicting chemistry between Downey and Kilmer is fantastic, 



In the Heat of the Night (1967)


Sidney Poitier stars as Virgil Tibbs in a commentary on race relations as the Philadelphia detective is immediately suspected of a local murder in a rural Mississippi town. A winner of five Academy Awards upon release, In The Heat of the Night’s gritty depiction of the deep-South back country was a stark statement on the civil rights era remnants, with overtly racial themes. Rod Steiger turns in an outstanding performance as Gillespie, the sheriff who recognizes the value of Tibbs’ contribution but must maintain an image within the local hive mind.



Mississippi Burning (1988)


This dramatization of the Ku Klux Klan’s murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 would be grippingly disturbing enough, even if it weren’t based on a true story. Investigating the mysterious disappearances of the three activists are FBI agents Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe entrench themselves in a world of unfathomable hatred to find the truth. The title Mississippi Burning is certainly appropriate, as nearly half the film features scenes of smoke and fire.



Se7en (1995)


In the most jarringly captivating tale to date in cinematic history, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are detectives on the case of a killer using the seven deadly sins as his way of choosing and attacking victims. He has a message to send, and these two detectives must put a stop to it before he kills again. An intensely dark detective story about sin and redemption, Se7en provides a gut punch right up through the very end, with Freeman and Pitt acting at their best. With a rising-star Kevin Spacey as the killer, this high-powered detective thriller has earned a place among the more intense detective films ever produced.



L.A. Confidential (1997)


In this brilliant 1997 crime fiction tale, golden-era Los Angeles is a seedy place full of ruthless corruption, a tangled web of Hollywood lies and cover-ups running all the way to the top with a heavy weight of political malfeasance. Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce are all very different kinds of cops, but are forced into a deadly mind maze in investigating brutal murders at the Night Owl. The climax is a pulverizing force of exhilarating greatness.



The Big Sleep (1946) 


Humphrey Bogart makes an iconic impact as Private Detective Philip Marlowe, starring opposite Lauren Bacall, working for a rich family that is trying to discover what has happened to one of his favorite employees. For each piece of truth that he uncovers, a world of new and troubling mysteries emerges. While often overshadowed by more impactful films such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, Bogart carries The Big Sleep to wonderful heights in a classic detective tale.