What are the best detective movies? Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Jake Gittes, Benoit Blanc, Frank Bullitt. The big screen is awash with detectives whose needle-sharp brains can seem almost superhuman to us mortals. Murder mysteries have long been one of cinema’s most popular genres, and a dogged detective is always at the centre of these stories. These characters are our guide into these dark, often blood-soaked tales, methodically following the clues and gathering the information that will lead us to the guilty party.
Course, not all movies about detecting are bona fide detective flicks. Some might argue that All The President’s Men and Zodiac tick the box, but they’re more journalism dramas than traditional ‘tec films. And while we could include Seven or The Silence Of The Lambs in this list, they edge more into horror than they do murder mystery.
So we’re going for straight-up dramas (and one or two comedies) about the art of detecting, whether our protagonists be gumshoes-for-hire or working for the Five-O. However, what they all have in common are lead characters with brains of diamond-like brilliance, so here are the best detective movies.
What are the best detective movies of all time?
- Murder On the Orient Express
- Murder By Death
- Knives Out
- The Nice Guys
- Sherlock Holmes
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
- LA Confidential
- In The Heat Of The Night
Murder On The Orient Express (2017)
Kenneth Branagh was stepping into some frighteningly big spats when he parachuted himself into the role of Belgian ‘tec Hercule Poirot in his star-soaked remake of Agatha Christie’s most famous novel.
Originally published in 1934, the book has been adapted countless times before, most notably by Sidney Lumet in 1974, but Sir Ken’s 2017 take was the most lavish and starry to date.
Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Willem Defoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are just some of the famous faces in the frame for stabbing American businessmen and gangster Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to death. Its batsh*t-crazy denouement, meanwhile, is one of Christie’s very best.
Roman Polanski’s labyrinthine 30s-set neo-noir gave Jack Nicolson one of his signature roles as JJ “Jake” Gittes, a high-end private eye investigating a corrupt conspiracy at the heart of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power.
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As much about the moral decay of 70s America as it is about pre-war LA, Chinatown is rightly regarded as one of the greats of the New Hollywood era. Feel free to ignore its belated 1990 Polanki-less sequel, The Two Jakes.
Murder By Death (1976)
Neil Simon’s brutally funny spoof of the murder-mystery genre features an Avengers: Endgame-like coming together of some of the most iconic detectives in fiction – Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade and The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles.
Or rather, thinly-disguised comedic versions of them, at least, to solve a seemingly impenetrable mystery posed by the mysterious Lionel Twain (an unexpectedly hilarious Truman Capote).
Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson’s valentine to the drawing-room whodunnits of Agatha Christie gave us a new detective to love in the flashily named Benoit Blanc, a southern-fried private dick who might well out-sleuth even Jane Marple.
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As much a love letter to big screen Christie adaptations as to the novels themselves (the film is as bounteously star-studded as any of your Death On The Niles or Evil Under The Suns), the movie boasts a fabulously twinkly performance from Daniel Craig as the enigmatic Blanc. Its as-yet-untitled sequel arrives on Netflix next year.
The Nice Guys (2016)
Having penned Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, Shane Black had form with the mismatched cop movie, so he was, in many ways, returning to his roots with this gleefully old-fashioned action-comedy.
Ryan Gosling stars as a luckless private investigator who buddies up with Russell Crowe’s gruff, out-of-shape enforcer to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. Though it was critically love-bombed on its release, the movie didn’t quite hit the box office heights Warner Bros were hoping for, and its mooted sequel was tragically abandoned. Boo.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
In recent years, Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes flicks have been somewhat overshadowed by the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss-authored Sherlock TV series.
Still, there’s much to cherish in the Lock, Stock director’s hi-octane reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking detective, not least Mark Strong’s Aleister Crowley-style baddie and, of course, Robert Downey Jr’s wise-cracking turn as Baker Street’s finest. A third movie, to be directed by Rocketman’s Dexter Fletcher, is currently in pre-production.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
A world-class hacker on top of her detective work for Milton Security, Lisbeth Salander is so blazingly smart she makes Columbo look like Joey Tribbiani. Three actors have portrayed this perma-scowling goth on screen, but, for this list, we’re choosing Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s chilly remake of Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish-language original.
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Tragically, plans for Fincher to adapt Stieg Larsson’s sequel novel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, came to nothing and the franchise was calamitously rebooted with 2018’s Claire Foy-headlining The Girl In The Spider’s Web.
LA Confidential (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s masterful adaptation of James Ellroy’s sprawling novel about police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles boasts three of cinema’s most memorable cops in Guy Pearce’s morally upstanding Ed Exley, Kevin Spacey’s fame-hungry Jack Vincennes and Russell Crowe’s violent, damaged Bud White.
Ellroy himself may not have been a fan (“[The movie] is about as deep as a tortilla,” the writer once grumbled). Still, most disagreed, with the film grossing $126 million against a $35 million budget and winning a heap of awards, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Kim Basinger and a Best Adapted Screenplay gong for Brian Helgeland.
In The Heat Of The Night (1967)
Norman Jewison’s twisty race drama has lost little of its power in the 54 years since it walked away with the Best Picture Oscar. Rod Steiger is great as the racist, gum-chewing Mississippi Sheriff, Bill Gillespie (he scooped the Academy Award for Best Actor that year).
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However, the film belongs to Sidney Poitier, who, as the smooth, self-possessed Philadelphia cop Virgil Tibbs, gets to utter one of cinema’s most immortal lines – “They call me **Mister** Tibbs!” Though he missed out on an Oscar, Poitier did end up reprising his role in two largely forgotten sequels.