The 13 Best Detectives In Film History

The premiere of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, a new adaptation of the mythical novel by the great queen of suspense literature, Agatha Christie, is a pleasant return to the classic stories of whodunit, or who-did-it. That is, the traditional police narratives in which there are one or several crimes that are investigated among many suspects, and whose responsibility ends up being revealed in a final turn that (if there is luck) will catch the reader by surprise.

In these stories, there are two essential elements: a minimum of a corpse, and a detective. A researcher shrewd and intellectually superior to the rest of the characters in the story, who sniffs, interrogates and searches for clues through the crime scene (often, as in ‘Orient Express’, limited in space). These characters, professional or amateur detectives, are one of the great tropes of police fictions, and their presence goes back to the literary origins of the genre.

Or even more behind. Some say that the first detective story is nothing less than in the Bible, in the story of the Susana Caste, which was accused by two old greens of seducing them by a lake. The very young prophet Daniel had to come (that is, he did not go ahead of Sherlock Holmes, but directly to the Five) to interrogate them separately and locate inconsistencies in their stories to detect their falsity. What an eagle!

Best Detectives In Film History
Illustration by Harry Clarke for ‘Assassination on Morgue Street’ by Edgar Allan Poe

In any case, before the arrival of Auguste Dupin to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, considered the first detective stories more or less canonical, there are precedents in the ‘Arabian Nights’, in Chinese narrations of the XVII century that describe supposed judicial cases in imperial context (often with supernatural elements).

Auguste Dupin, creation of Edgar Allan Poe and protagonist of essential works of the detective narrative like ‘The gold beetle’, lays the foundations of the icon of the astute investigator.

In it, he introduced himself to C. Auguste Dupin, a clear precedent of Sherlock Holmes who already had the characteristics of so many later detectives (in fact, the word “detective” was invented by him). Mainly, that the mystery must be solved at the stroke of reason and with elements that the reader has also had before him. The next great milestone of the genre was Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation that would definitively fix the characteristics of so many later detectives: observation capacity so extreme that it even incapacitates him socially, awkwardness to behave in society, deep and compartmentalized knowledge, total abstraction of everything that is not “the case”, contempt for the material and various minor vices (pipe smoking, heroin).

These are the wicks on which the modern detective is based, although there were mutations of the concept. For example, in the twenties and thirties (the Golden Age of Detective Fiction), the whodunit took shape thanks to authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr (master of another detective variant, the mysteries of room closed), or Ellery Queen. Also at the beginning of the twentieth century, the detective was contaminated by the uses of pulp fiction, and became an ill-advised investigator, harsh and accustomed to the underworld: Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler thus created detectives so celebrities such as Mike Hammer, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

All of them (and their heirs, who derived the whodunit towards the procedural fictions so fashionable today) have had abundant translations to the big screen. We have selected some -only some- of the most famous detectives in the cinema, leaving aside the police detectives, who have their own mythology. Some have literary equivalents, others have been born directly on celluloid, but their literary ancestors are obvious. These are the most impertinently implacable bloodhounds in the history of cinema.

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William of Baskerville

Okay, he is not a detective to use, how he will be in the fourteenth century, but the trailer says: “a man of reason in a world of blind faith.” That may well be the definition of any self-respecting detective: this monk played by Sean Connery has even his own Watson in the form of Adso (Christian Slater) and his tirades in favor of scientific thinking to discover the truth make him a venerable predecessor of Sherlock Holmes.

Follow the clue in: ‘The name of the rose’, the unconventional adaptation of the novel by Umberto Eco that, certainly, is not a conventional whodunit either. Although, playful and postmodern, it disguises itself perfectly as one: corpses in strange circumstances, classic mysteries of closed rooms and non-existent weapons …

Nick and Nora Charles

A marriage of delicious amateur detectives who come from a novel by Dashiel Hammett and who seek, in their first adventure together, the thin man of the original title of novel and film. It was the pre-Hays Code times, so we magnificent William Powell and Myrna Loy spend all their movies as vats and fooling around, between mystery and mystery.

Follow the clue in: ‘The dinner of the accused’ is the movie that united them in 1934, and the success was so huge that generated a few sequels, with thin man in the title but other cases to solve. None like the first, but all have sparkling dialogues and an absolutely captivating lightness.

JJ Gittes

Perhaps the most perfect classic black film detective … without being classic black cinema. In the impressive ”Chinatown” (1974), an incredible Jack Nicholson composed an unfriendly detective, sarcastic, sarcastic and a real magnet for punching, inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s detectives (of which Polanski copied, according to his own confession, the idea of that the viewer has at all times the same perspective of the researcher). And yet, and in spite of everything, it is not contaminated by low passions or by money. A full uncle.

Follow the track in: ‘Chinatown’ and, in addition, ‘The two faces’, directed this time by Jack Nicholson and with a new and great screenplay by Robert Towne. A third installment was planned, but it never arrived due to the terrible box office failure of ‘The Two Faces’

Sherlock Holmes

What can be said about the master of detectives at this point? We know their typical features so thoroughly that the parodies and imitators are confused with the canonical character, who already had a satirical point of typical detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes, despite appearances, is not a regular detective, and we invite the curious spectator to detoxify from so many topical adaptations by plunging into the original stories.

Follow the clue in: Crowd of sources. From the delightful animated version of Miyazaki to the two superb films starring Robert Downey Jr, going through the recent BBC series or what for many is the definitive blow to the Holmesian icon: the impressive ‘Sherlock Holmes’ private life’ Billy Wilder, maybe his director’s best movie.

Holland March and Jackson Healy

The great Shane Black has filled his films with memorable detectives, perhaps the best of modern cinema, heirs to the hard-boiled tradition of Hammet and Spillane, postmodern but at the same time endearing. From the magical “Gay” Perry van Shrike of Val Kilmer in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ to the demolisher Joseph “Joe” Cornelius Hallenbeck played by Bruce Willis in ‘The Last Boy Scout’. But the palm is March and Healy, two complementary and contradictory detectives embarked on a case that is pure seventies.

Follow them on: ‘Two good guys’, absolute masterpiece of accurate dialogues, unsurpassed plot and interpretations of anthology by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who investigate the mysterious death of a porn star and the disappearance of a girl. Abusive and uncontrolled one, unfortunate father who gets dizzy when seeing the other’s blood, the mystery that surrounds them is as solid as hilarious, in one of the best detective films of recent times.

Phillip Marlowe

Another mythical, this one created by the great Raymond Chandler in ‘The eternal dream’. It appeared in eight novels and works as a kind of aggressive version of Sam Spade: more stubborn, more punching bag, but at the same time more intellectual and less prone to violence. He never lets himself be conquered by low passions (read femme fatal) and drinks in a way that would knock you down in three minutes.

Follow him in: Many and varied incarnations (from Robert Montgomery to James Garner, passing through Robert Mitchum), more diverse than those enjoyed by other popular detectives like Poirot. They highlight, without a doubt, the Bogart of ‘The eternal dream’ and the semipared version of Elliot Gould that Robert Altman directed in ‘Un largo adiós’, in 1973.

Miss Marple

The other great detective creation of Agatha Christie, together with Hercules Poirot, is this pleasant old lady, amateur detective, who takes to the limit that of the lion with the skin of a lamb. Her calm appearance is capable of disarming the most meticulous criminal plan, to which his deductive skills and his sharp tongue, camouflaged with sexagenarian innocence, help.

Follow her on: Miss Marple lacks such iconic films as ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ or ‘Death on the Nile’, although things like ‘The Train at 4:50’ or ‘The Broken Mirror’ are very remarkable. Although for something we remember Miss Marple is for being the inspiration base of one of our favorite amateur detectives, the unbeatable Jessica Fletcher of ‘A crime has been written, also inspired in large part, of course, by Agatha Christie herself. Great ladies of crime!

Mystery, Inc.

But of course Daphne, Velma, Fred, Shaggy and Scooby are detectives! And of the best! Mystery after mystery showed that there is no monster or specter that is worth when there is an old owner of an amusement park to blame for a take away that gentrification of a coastal ghost town that did not seem to interest anyone.

Follow them in: Of course, in the original series of ‘Scooby-Doo’ and its many mutations, but in the cinema you find them in two feature films scripted by the infallible James Gunn. The first of them, especially, has a villain to wash children’s traumas in a stroke.

Hercules Poirot

The legendary Belgian detective created by Agatha Christie has had a series of incarnations on the big screen with which only the great Sherlock Holmes can rival. Accompanied by his own Watson-Captain Hastings-plump and possessed of a mustache that his owner presumes to be the best in England, Poirot solves all his cases (often in exotic environments or on trips carried out by British royalty) with intelligence and deductive power. It is gray matter in its purest form and anticipates more modern detectives, like Colombo, in the use of his personal charm to make the suspects lower their guard.

Follow the clue in: With 41 original books, some of them adapted in several occasions, the films in which it appears rub against the ten, to which a series of own television and innumerable plays adds. Highlight the incarnations of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, to whom we can add the brand new Kenneth Branagh and his new ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.

Sam Spade

Another creation of Dashiell Hammett, primorcial inspiration for the later Phillip Marlowe and who, despite his fame, only figured in a novel (‘The Maltese Falcon’) and several stories. Darker than the classical detectives, his tendency to use his fists whenever necessary to solve cases distances him from a Sherlock Holmes who finds pleasure in the intellectual challenge. Spade wants to solve injustices … whatever.

Follow him in: Humphrey Bogart’s Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (the one in 1941, the second time the novel was adapted) not only marked the image of Hammett’s detective forever, but that of all black film detectives coming, as he put the accent on the dark part of the character, more expeditious, dry and sarcastic than the original.

Eddie Valiant

This beloved classic detective of the America of the most topical black series loads with all the tropes of the genre: alcoholic, with a traumatic past, of good heart, irresistible for the ladies, extremely shrewd and disenchanted with the human race. He gave an unbeatable Bob Hoskins unparalleled presence, able to keep the detective tone finished in the midst of the greatest of follies.

Follow the clue in: ‘Who cheated Roger Rabbit?’, The most perfect mix of cartoons and real actors ever shot, and that is not only a technical portent, but a tribute to classic Hollywood and its narrative springs (among them, the detective) that never runs out.

Ace Ventura

‘Ace Ventura, pet detective’ is the film that, almost simultaneously with ‘The mask’ and ‘Two silly fools’ catapulted Jim Carrey to fame in 1994. Eccentric, devoted to animals and much more intelligent than the police have an even stranger honor to their credit: to give us a whodunit in a more or less pure state in the mid-nineties.

Follow the clue in: ‘Ace Ventura, pet detective’ and ‘Ace Ventura: Operation Africa’ are not just two treasures for lovers of excessive comedy. As mystery comedies work perfectly, and that curious spirit of old-fashioned whodunit has been preserved in the other incarnations of the character, from cartoons to video games.

Daryl Zero

The best detective in the world, played by Bill Pullman, is a (more) neurotic version of Sherlock Holmes: completely misanthropic, with a huge ego, he even has his own Watson, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), with whom he initiates an investigation about of a blackmail that has much in common with one of the most celebrated stories of Holmes, ‘A scandal in Bohemia’

Follow the clue in: ‘The zero effect’ (1998) was the only adventure of Daryl Zero on the screen, and is one of the detective films of cult par excellence of the nineties thanks to its humor corner and the chemistry between the protagonists. In 2002, there was talk of a television series starring Alan Cumming, but it did not come to fruition.

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