The 8 Ball 3.18.14: The Top 8 Movie Private Detectives
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.18.2014
From Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes and Jake Gittes in Chinatown to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Angel Heart's Harry Angel and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 private detectives in movie history!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Movie Private Detectives
Welcome back to another edition of the 411 Movie Zone 8 Ball! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas, and this week our topic is in honor of the best film to come out last weekend. After a year of hype that began with a Kickstarter, the feature film for Veronica Mars was released in a limited run in theaters with a VOD supplement. I have been a huge fan of the show for years so I won't claim to be unbiased, but I really did love it. That got me thinking about the great private detectives on film, which brings us to this week's topic. Private investigators are a staple of fiction, not only in film but on television and in novels. This week I thought we could put on our fedoras and get wooed by a femme fatale (or homme fatale, depending on who you are) while we look at the greatest private eyes in cinematic history.
Caveat: There aren't a lot of caveats, but I should establish a couple small things. First off, I was looking for people who were legitimately private investigators in the career sense. There are many private eye-like characters out there; people who take on cases investigating this or that for a friend and find themselves working to untangle a mystery. I tried to keep it specifically to those who truly did private detective work for a living. This left off the likes of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's Harry Lockhart (actor), Brendan Frye from Brick (unemployed young adult) and Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (cop on leave doing favor for friend). I also tried to restrict to one portrayal of a character. Sherlock Holmes, for example, has been played by several actors and he could have dominated this list but I restrained myself to one each. And of course these are movie detectives, so ones that were known more for TV then their movie versions were off (sorry Veronica).
Just Missing The Cut
• John Klute (Klute)
• Tom Welles (8 MM)
• Ezekiel 'Easy' Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress)
• Loren Visser (Blood Simple)
• Philip Marlowe (Murder, My Sweet)
#8: Harry Angel (Angel Heart)
Taking the first spot on our list is Mickey Rourke's private detective from the underrated 1987 psychological horror film Angel Heart. Rourke has undergone a professional renaissance over the last five or six years, but in the late 1980s he was arguably at the height of his career at the time with roles in the likes of 9 1/2 Weeks, Year of the Dragon and this controversial flick. Rourke plays Harry Angel, a 1950s P.I. who is down on his luck when he is offered work for a client by the name of Louis Cypher. Cypher wants Harry to locate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favorite, which sends Harry on a spiraling path toward his own damnation. Rourke was notoriously difficult to work with on this film, with director Alan Parker later relaying several instances where he ran into conflict with the actor. However, the troubles paid off as Rourke's performance put him in the upper echelon of cinematic private eyes. The actor gives an appropriately mind-bending portrayal as he takes us deeper into the hellscape that is the film, heading inexorably to his own terrible fate. It's one of the better performances of the veteran actor's career and it outshines all the controversy of the graphic sex and behind-the-scenes drama.
#7: Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes)
This may be a controversial choice considering that Robert Downey Jr.'s take on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective is not exactly Holmes purists' definitive take on the character. And in truth, he's not even in the top two of Sherlock Holmes depictions over the last several years. Considering that the other two are TV versions though, Downey earns his spot because while Guy Ritchie's films have their problems, Downey's Holmes is my personal favorite film version of the character. Downey captures Holmes' weirdness and the negative ramifications of the attention to detail he needs in a way that really works. Certainly his eccentricities can be off-putting, his physical skills are not what most people expect and there are a lot of people who have a problem with an American actor taking on an iconic British role. But for my money the only Holy Grail in that latter half is Doctor Who; Downey isn't even the first American to tackle Holmes as a character and his first dramatic portrayal was by American William Gillette, who played the role on stage in 1899 and then on film in 1911. Downey's more flawed Holmes is more memorable to me than those of even Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone, who are revered for good reason but are more whitewashed versions of the character. Whether you like the films as a whole or not, you have to show respect for Downey's take on the role.
#6: Rigby Reardon (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid)
I've always felt that Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is an under-appreciated film no matter what genre you look for it. Film noir is a genre that is distinctly difficult to get right, and mixing it with parody makes it even harder. Somehow though, Carl Reiner's 1982 comedy makes it work. A lot of the film's credit comes from Steve Martin's work as gumshoe Rigby Reardon, who is hired by the lovely Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to find her father. Most of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid's attention gets focused on Reiner's use of footage from noir films like Double Indemnity, Notorious, The Big Sleep and Sorry, Wrong Number, but Martin has one of the more memorable and funny private eyes by taking what is most famous about the hard-boiled detectives of the 1930s and '40s and throwing it a little bit askew. Many of the characters on this very list are skewered (and in fact even appear) in this film, but the element that really makes this one work so well is how it makes fun of the noir elements without mocking them. Everything about Rigby Reardon works, right down to the narration that is a hallmark of hard-boiled private eyes. He's a standout P.I. even if he's not a serious one.
#5: Mitch Henessey (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Mitch Henessey's biggest problem is that he's paired up with such a badass that he doesn't quite look as awesome by comparison. But make no mistake: Samuel L. Jackson's hard-drinking private detective earns his spot on this list. Mitch is the disreputable man hired by amnesiac homemaker Samantha Caine to try to uncover her past. Her past, as they both come to discover, is that of hardened killer Charly Baltimore. What really makes Mitch on this list is his resilience. Private investigators find themselves in a difficult ethical position most of the time on film, and it's often easier for them to cut and run. Some of them do and turn into villains. But good old Mitch sticks with his case, even after his meek little housewife client becomes a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, stone cold killer. He does it because it's the right thing to do and when he's in way over his head--being tortured and beaten within an inch of his life, sits up covered in blood and drives a car out of the back of a truck screaming "That's right, motherf**kers! You can't kill me!" It's that level of resilience and the fact that he becomes Charlie's moral conscience during the film which push him up into the top eight.
#4: Hercule Poirot (Death on the Nile)
Next on our list is one of the true classics in detective fiction. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot ranks up there with Sherlock Holmes in terms of literary detectives, just as Christie herself ranks with Arthur Conan Doyle in terms of mystery fiction writers. Poirot appeared in over fifty short stories over a fifty-five year period beginning in 1920 and while some could make the argument that he was merely a Holmes clone, it belies the fact that Holmes himself was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories and the real-life Joseph Bell. Poirot of course made the transition to film and has been played by a number of cherished actors. Peter Ustinov's work in the role, however, is both the most famous and frankly the best work. Ustinov won awards across the spectrum, but it is his work as the Belgian detective for which he is perhaps best known. He played Poirot in 1978's Death on the Nile, 1982's Evil Under the Sun and 1988's Appointment with Death, along with three television films. Ustinov added a different sort of spin on the character (much to the consternation of Christie's daughter, who saw initial rehearsals and was shocked) and really made the character his own. Poirot would be an important movie private detective without Ustinov, but I don't think he would be as great of one.
#3: Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man)
We're into the real upper echelon private eyes here. Some might think that it's cheating to put two into one here, but there has never been a more inseparable private eye team than Nick and Nora Charles. Even Holmes and Watson pale next to this couple, created by Dashiell Hammett in the 1934 detective novel The Thin Man and brought to the silver screen by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick Charles is a former private detective with a fondness for drink and Nora is his wealthy heiress wife whom he retires after marrying. When an old friend (the titular "Thing Man") vanishes and is accused of murder, his daughter comes to Nick for help. The resulting film was so successful that five sequels followed, with Powell and Loy reprising their roles. The Thin Man films were more comedic than their hard-boiled counterparts and that allowed Powell and Loy's on-screen chemistry to really shine. The two had such an engaging dynamic that many assumed they were married in real life. Hammett himself was directly involved in two of the films and while the quality of the later ones suffered slightly they're all thoroughly enjoyable P.I. films. A remake is in the works starring Johnny Depp, though movement on it has stalled (and I can't say I'm horribly disappointed in that).
#2: Jake Gittes (Chinatown)
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." That's the kind of world that our penultimate private detective is up against, where the police just acknowledge the futility of trying to do their jobs. Chinatown is Roman Polanski's masterpiece, an example of neo-noir at its very best. Central to that, amidst all of the plots and schemes and land grabs and corruption, is Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes. Gittes is the modern version of what you think of when you think "private eye." He's tough, a little cynical, smart and resourceful, but he has a weakness for a beautiful woman. Nicholson has had a lot of roles in his career and Jake may not quite be his best, but it's certainly in the top three or four. Chinatown presents no small number of challenges to them and yet Jake navigates his way through and lives to tell the tale. We can't say he was successful, but then when you're dealing with a situation as stacked against you as he did even surviving is a huge win. And that's not to say he doesn't suffer. He gets beat up, he learns things that threaten to break his spirit and even his nose gets mutilated. But the image of Jake with that bandage on his face makes him appear even tougher and more dangerous. This is a man who can take anything that gets thrown at him. You can argue that the 1990 sequel The Two Jakes hurt the character but I consider it unfairly judged, even if it's not as good as the original. Either way, Jake is truly the man when it comes to private detectives (or the next best thing to the man).
#1: Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon)
There's not even debate for this one in my eyes. Sam Spade is the definitive private investigator, and it isn't remotely close. Humphrey Bogart made his career on playing tough guys, and he basically established the mold for the hardened private investigator. He played Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep to deserved acclaim, but it was as Sam Spade that he really created the archetype. The Maltese Falcon, some may not realize, is actually a remake. The original was made in 1931 before the Motion Picture Production Code established censorship guidelines and starred Ricardo Cortez in the role. There was also 1936's Satan Met a Lady starring Bette Davis and Warren William, which was loosely based on the same story. The role in the remake was offered to leading man George Raft but he refused because his contract with the studio allowed him to pass on remakes. (Yep, they hated remakes in the 1940s too!) The original story is based on another Dashiell Hammett work and established the character of Sam Spade. Bogart's star was set into orbit with this role, and the film stands up as amazing to this day thanks in huge part to the legendary actor's performance. Everything you think of when you consider the classic private detective basically comes from Sam Spade and it set Bogey on course for a legendary career. He's an easy number one for this list in my book.
Disguise of the Episode
Current Series/Season:Season One (2001 - 2002) Episodes Watched: 14 Last Serial Completed:The Coup - Sydney and Dixon are sent to Las Vegas to gather information from a K-Directorate agent who has ties to the group that attacked and nearly destroyed SD-6. Meanwhile, Sydney learns some shocking news about Francie's fiancé, Charlie, while Will begins his journey in discovering what SD-6 really is, and Jack continues to try to be more of a father to Sydney when he helps her decide whether or not to continue with graduate school. Episodes Remaining: 91
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.