Here we have my top ten, plus six HM’s, of my own personal faovorite P.I. eyes. I’ve always had a soft spot for the anti-hero types, though you will find Nick and Nora Charles on the list. It was Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe who cemented my love for the mean dark streets of film noir where many of the best P.I. films are set. Please share you own favorites if you so desire.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
There are lies, deceit, sex, betrayal, murder, a stay true to the source screenplay by John Huston, a supporting cast that includes Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorr, Elisa Cook, and of course Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade all add up to make this film the epitome of Private Eye films.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
A multi layered, satirical, witty send up, and as you would expect from Robert Altman, a breakdown of genre conventions. Still the film keeps many of Chandler’s archetypal characters (wives stuck in loveless relationships, low-rent hoods, and cops too bored to do the job right) but he does it with a twist. Altman’s Marlowe is not the hard boiled knight in 1940’s armor living by his own moral code. In fact, this Marlowe seems to lack a moral center. Altman, along with screenwriter Leigh Brackett, turned our anti-hero into a man who is out of his time. He is the complete outsider; from the law, the hoods, even to his neighbors..
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was never better served than in Kiss Me Deadly. Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer is a cold, brutal, sneering, amoral, narcissistic, and sullen dark knight dealing out revenge as his own form of hard-nosed justice. He’s a “bedroom dick” who easily confesses to some irksome cops to his own repugnance (you’ve convinced me, I’m a stinker). After giving a lift to a psychiatric ward escapee (Cloris Leachman) Hammer finds himself involved in a mystery where radioactive material is the prize. Director Robert Aldrich has delivered a cynical, fatalistic, and apocalyptic noir masterpiece.
The Big Sleep (1946)
With the making of Harper, based on Ross MacDonald’s first novel there was a definite connection to the past. First, there’s author MacDonald who writer Michael Avallone once wrote that Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald were the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of the hard-boiled school of fiction. MacDonald himself was a major influence on many of the mystery writers we read today including Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Robert Crias. Next was Warner Brothers, the same studio that brought you The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, released the film. Finally, there is Lauren Bacall. Bogie’s Baby herself who taught Bogart how to whistle. Paul Newman’s Harper is cynical and quick with the wise cracking, snappy comebacks. Like many classic P.I. films, it all takes place in California, land of off-beat cults represented here in the face of Strother Martin as a phony guru who runs a cult called Temple in the Clouds.
The Thin Man (1934)
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
I always ranked Humphrey Bogart as my favorite screen version of Philip Marlowe with Robert Mitchum a solid number two. Mitchum plays an older version of the P.I., but just as cynical. He’s backed up by a nice group of supporting actors including the beautiful Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Miles, John Ireland, Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, Jack O’Halloran with a minor role by still unknown Sylvester Stallone. Look for the great hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson in a small role.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetically order)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
Night Moves (1975)