10 Best Movie Private Detectives

“Listen, pal. I make an honest living. People only come to me when they’re in a desperate situation. I help ’em out. I don’t kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do.” – Jake Gittes, Chinatown.

Andrew Sheldon


Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In a world of cop shows and crime procedurals, is there anything more refreshing than a great private detective story? Seemingly out of fashion since their 1940s hay-day, every once in a while, a story comes along to remind us just how exciting a good mystery can be. Sometimes these stories are nostalgic odes to the original genre; other times they’re a witty deconstruction of the tropes that have been rearranged into something new.

This list is a collection of a few of the characters that make their stories work, whether they be classical in form or innovative re-imaginings. While some that made this list might not be Private Eyes in the strictest of senses, they all embody – or play off of – the classic archetypes of the genre.

Of course, if you have any favorite private investigators that I happened to have left off of this list, feel free to start a discussion in the comments section…


10. Philip Marlowe – Murder, My Sweet

Murder my sweet
RKO Pictures

Murder, My Sweet might not have aged the best of all the classic Film Noir films, but it’s strength is in just how classical of a Noir mystery it really is. Based on pulp mastermind Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, film executives changed the name to punch it up, hoping to draw in box-office business.┬áIt might not have aged as well as some of the others, but that’s because this film is concentrated Chandler.

Marlowe has had many incantations, most notably Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, but there’s something particularly enjoyable about this performance. Dick Powell takes on the role of Marlowe, playing very much against type, which was a big selling point. It was a successful turn and launched the next stage in Powell’s career as a dramatic actor.