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Best Detective Movies of All Time

You don't need to hire a private eye to investigate. These films are the definitive best detective movies of all time.

By Ryan EppsPublished 5 years ago 8 min read

It's becoming increasingly difficult for mystery fans to find their beloved detective films. Even if we may love the art of investigation, there are so few modern detective and noir films that provide any worthiness to the genre that it's pretty much impossible finding quality contemporary noir. Whether it's serial killers, a masked organization, or the familiar one man job, murder mysteries are oftentimes packed with a multitude of real life concepts and tell stories of wild imagination. Some of the most legendary titles are inherently mysteries at their core and identify with detective tropes on some levels, but most of them could not be considered the best detective movies of all time.

Rated in order of most iconic to average mystery flicks, these detective movies have all the witnesses and evidence lined up against them, which makes them the perfect suspects. They have not only bolstered detective movies, but have forever adapted the genre itself through a number of varied capacities. Watch any of the best detective movies of all time to see just how deadly these villains can be, and just how deep their detective's must delve to catch their particular criminal.

Humphery Bogart's acclaimed role as the down-on-his-luck detective Sam Spade will forever remain in film history as a powerful character with stunning realism. A quintessential and classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon first unfolds with Spade receiving a briefcase from a mysterious woman named Miss Wonderly, followed by a spinning cyclone of an investigation.

Spade spirals into this web of criminality, which sees the murder of his partner at the behest of one dangerous man's hunt for a bejeweled statuette. Filled with a myriad of twists, awesome characters, and the classic black and white color, The Maltese Falcon is one of the best detective movies of all time, simply because it serves as the basis for many of the genre's future greatest.

Hired by General Sternwood to clean up his daughter, Carmen's, gambling mess, private investigator Philip Marlowe descends into a murder case that only grows, both in proportion and in overall density, the deeper he traverses for the truth.

When more and more people connected to the Sternwoods start dying, Marlowe and Vivian, Carmen's sisters, examine the complexities of certain disappearances, as well as actively engage in the inner workings of the casino. As a marvel in filmography, embodying the very identity of an investigating mystery, The Big Sleep proves to be on the best detective movies of all time.

Roman Polanski's Chinatown blends tropes of film noir with the vestige of a growing Los Angeles metropolis. He encapsulates the detective movie in modern format, yet still adheres to the staples of past classic mysteries, therefore, crafting an admirable neo noir and producing one of the best detective movies of all time.

Telling the story of private eye J. J. Gittes as he's hired by Evelyn Murray to tail her husband, Chinatown makes good use of the setting and nature of the late 1930s Los Angeles. Add that to Jack Nicholson's extraordinary performances, and you've got a mystery film that most other detective films can't even touch.

This incredibly dark and powerful installation by David Fincher highlights the premise of religion in conjunction with a mass murderer's revengeful protest against man's daily sinful decision making. With one of the scariest villains, who seems to pull off a string of perfect murders, Seven follows a prolonged and eerie investigation made by newly-partnered detectives Somerset and Mills as they try to unravel the meaning behind the murders and their connection to the seven deadly sins.

One of the most dark and unforgiving of all detective movies, including a breakout cast with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey, this film never disappoints. As one of the best detective movies of all time, Seven leaves you glued to your seat, spellbound by its closing action, in which the iconic phrase, "What's in the box?" echoes with a powerful, awe-striking emotion.

Top student at the FBI's training academy, Clarice Starling is sent to speak with and question the infamous psychiatrist and cannibalistic psychopath Hannibal Lecter, whose infamy seems to have missed her. Though she is a mere pawn for the FBI, Starling soon unearths a multitude of discoveries through the help of her new pen pal, but even worse dangers linger on the horizon.

The Silence of the Lambs is another classic investigation story that brings out the brilliance of a sadistic villain, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, alongside a young female protagonist, played by Jodie Foster, as they work together in unraveling the truth, despite that virtue being misconstrued by every single character in the film. It's one of the best detective movies of all time, because it draws out both a mixture of noir and horror in one exciting breath, while having you watch in anger and listen in horror from start to finish.

Take a trip through the futuristic sci-fi realm in the cult classic Blade Runner. Harrison Ford stars in this neo-noir as a 'detective,' or blade runner, who hunts four malfunctioning Nexus replicants, which are sophisticated human-like cyborgs, as they begin terrorizing 2019 Los Angeles.

With a mega-company coverup, like Tyrell Corp's involvement in the lost robots, a sexy android with her own emotions, seen in the delightful Rachel (played by Sean Young), and a monologue that still seems to make us weep uncontrollably in the rain, Blade Runner gives every kind of audience something to adore and appreciate by way of analyzing their own humanity.

Private eye Harry Moseby, whose struggling marriage and present life choices have made him hard-nosed, tries to find distraction in a newly acquired case, given to him by the mother of a run-away named Delly.

Soon uncovering a major operation of artifact smuggling in the Florida Keys, alongside mixing relations within the case, Harry has to survive long enough to make the truth known, as well as meaningful. With its own sense and flavor on the classic noir, Night Moves entrances the audience with Gene Hackman's spellbinding performance, in addition to the dark and twisted realities the story itself presents.

With another breakout cast, with names such as Russel Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Guy Pierce, it's not hard to see how L.A. Confidential made it on this list of the best detective movies of all time. Not only does the all-star characters make the movie that much better, but the story in itself and how the characters are all drawn together are really unheard of in many noir films.

Telling the interconnected tales of three LA detectives, all of whom individually get tied up in a 50s unsolved murder case riddled with corruption, L.A. Confidential is full of its own action sequences, plot twists, and magnificently evil villains, all of which only make the film that much more viewable.

Based on the true events surrounding San Francisco's most iconic string of murders, Zodiac follows both investigators and journalists on their hunt for a ruthless serial killer known only as 'the Zodiac.' Sending cryptic letters to the newspaper, as well as leaving a string of clues at every murder scene, the Zodiac killer not only continues to murder victims, but relentlessly taunts his pursuers without end. It's one of the best detective movies of all time, because it showcases the brilliance of historical crime placed on the big screen.

Head twistingly terrifying, both for its realistic qualities as well as its factual background, Zodiac puts you right into every character's senses, especially Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith, whose obsession with the case becomes one of the film's most iconic themes: the duality of completely letting go (as seen in the Zodiac's killing spree) with that of never accepting defeat (Robert Graysmith and company's prolonged investigation into the 1970s).

The ultimate cult classic, The Big Lebowski is oftentimes misconstrued as being solely satire and comedic in nature, however it delves much deeper. Jeff Bridges' most iconic role as the ultimate 'dude,' Jeff Lebowski, is not only downright hilarious, but it also offers a glimpse into the 90s era of Los Angeles, where a seedy criminalistic underworld seemed to permeate under the streets.

In this cult classic, one of the best detective movies of all time, Jeff Lebowski searches for the people who ruined his home rug and why, only to stumble upon a millionaire who shares the same name, though his wife owes dangerous people a lot of money. Packed with its own sense of noir and comedic archetypes, The Big Lebowski will always remain a top tier film, offering realistic insight into the nature of LA's criminal underworld at that time.

Employing one of DC Comic's most celebrated characters, oftentimes coined "the greatest detective of all time," The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second adaptation in the Batman series, could not be left off this list of the best detective movies of all time.

While it may lean more closely to the action-packed thrill rides most often associated with the contemporary superhero film genre, The Dark Knight is far more superior, because it has one of the most menacing on-screen representations of the Batman's archenemy, the Joker, whose portraying actor, Heath Ledger, even passed away shortly after filming.

Insomnia puts a whole new face on the archetypal death in the cold by bringing the audience to Alaska, where sunlight can last longer than 80 days in the summer. Toss in Al Pacino as an extremely well-decorated detective, with Robin Williams as the potential suspect of a teenage murder, and it becomes clear how Insomnia is one of the best detective movies of all time.

Bringing out the very best of Christopher Nolan's mystery filmography, this title showcases the dismantling of the mind and the destruction of the self in Pacino's downward spiral, which is only made the more realistic in the superseding dangers that continue to threaten his life throughout the film.

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About the Creator

Ryan Epps

A cosmic adventurer rendering wayward letters into infinite lengths of conception and prose, like quantum streams of pneumatic information

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