For nearly as long as films have been made, cinema-goers have been engrossed by detective movies. From noir classics to modern day mystery-thrillers, the love for these movies has only grown over time. The following 17 films vary vastly in era, place, and subject matter, but stand as some of the best detective movies ever made.
The Thin Man (1934)
Dashiell Hammett’s books proved fertile ground for early detective movies. Retired detective Nick Charles just wants to have a relaxing vacation in New York City with his wife, Nora. Of course, a young woman manages to find him there and entice him to solve the mysterious disappearance of her wealthy father.
Related: The Thin Man: How Dashiell Hammett’s Life as a Private Eye Inspired his Crime Fiction Classics
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Another Dashiell Hammett adaptation, Humphrey Bogart plays the iconic Detective Sam Spade in this noir classic. Spade is approached by a beautiful but mysterious woman offering a case that seems simple at first glance. But soon after she vanishes, a spell of discouragements befall Spade—his partner is murdered, he’s manipulated into a hunt for a valuable statuette, and someone is following him. Little does he know, Spade has just been sent on a chase to find the Maltese Falcon. The deeper he falls into the chase, the more secrets are revealed to him. Soon, Spade begins to question if what this mysterious woman told him is entirely true. Even 75 years later, The Maltese Falcon is still regarded as Hollywood at its best.
The charismatic eponymous character of this film barely appears within its frames but manages to guide all the action. Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been killed in her own apartment, and NYPD Detective Mark McPherson is on the case. Seemingly every man in Laura’s life became obsessed with her—and now McPherson is falling prey to the same sway. Can he solve her murder even as he falls in love with a dead woman?
The Big Sleep (1946)
Playing the brilliant but cynical private eye Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart once again takes the lead, this time bringing one of Raymond Chandler’s most famous detectives to life. Marlowe is hired to discharge the gambling debts of a wealthy general’s youngest daughter. But after getting some helpful hints from her older sister, Marlowe realizes the situation is more complex than he previously thought. In fact, it eventually becomes so complicated and convoluted that while filming even screenwriters had to consult Chandler for advice. The Big Sleep is a must-see for any detective fan, as well as anyone interested in the intense chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who married the year the movie was filmed.
Alfred Hitchcock at his finest, romantic obsession, intrigue, manipulation, and fear: Vertigo is a film for the ages. When Detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson is forced to retire after his debilitating case of vertigo hinders him from preventing the deaths of two people, including another officer. Soon, the girl that Scottie watched die has enthralled his mind. The supposedly deceased girl begins making appearances, causing our detective’s grief-riddled mind to transfer her image onto a dead body. John spirals into a web of madness and lies which threaten to completely unravel his sanity.
The French Connection (1971)
The recipient of five Academy Awards, it should come as no surprise that The French Connection makes our list. This gritty and fast-paced police drama follows Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) as they uncover a lucrative narcotics deal. Their mission is to take down the French drug dealer notorious for supplying the city’s dope. It’s a classic tale filled with grimy realism set on the streets of New York City where cops and drug dealers come together to battle for power. The car chase scene alone is worth the price of admission (or rental).
A film inspired by the California Water Wars, one wouldn’t think Chinatown would pack a suspenseful punch. Well, we’re here to tell you that’s not the case. So much so that the Library of Congress has archived it in the United States National Film Registry, labeling it a film that captures the culture of a time and place. The film follows L.A. detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) as he’s hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s activities. What he believes to be a routine case of infidelity gets tricky when the woman who hired him is revealed to be an imposter.
Related: What Is Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction?
Blade Runner (1982)
This film from the '80s meshes the worlds of sci-fi and mystery to create a thrilling manhunt for robots known as replicants. Deckard (Harrison Ford) has a dual career as a LAPD detective and a blade runner—a robot bounty hunter. His assignment is to track down four replicants who have escaped to Earth and are hiding among the population in disguise. As Deckard digs deeper into the case, he begins to discover there’s more to the mystery of the replicants than he had initially thought. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film is based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and received a sequel, Blade Runner 2049—starring Ford and Ryan Gosling, in 2017.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
This animated classic is a wacky and fun detective film filled with goofy characters, exaggerated special effects, and everything that makes a cartoon enjoyable. After Acme Corporation owner Marvin Acme is murdered, the cartoon-hating detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired to solve the mystery. But to everyone’s surprise, the culprit appears to be the spastic, yet kind-hearted Roger Rabbit. Faced with the threat of death, Eddie becomes Roger’s only hope to help him get out of this sticky situation.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is a classic. The first horror film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs also functions as one of the best detective films of all time. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) are hunting a vicious serial killer known as ‘Buffalo Bill.’ Each time they get close, he manages to escape their grasp. Their only hope of catching the murderer involves enlisting the help of a violent psychopath (Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal) who is currently serving a life sentence behind bars.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Unemployed and with few job prospects, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is at a loss. So when he’s approached by DeWitt Albright with an under-the-table offer, he’s in no place to refuse. His job: Find the missing Daphne Monet who’s suspected of hiding out in one of the city’s jazz clubs. Easy recruits his trigger-happy friend Mouse to help locate the woman, but when they do, they find there’s more to this story than they anticipated.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
In the early 1950s, a murder in a downtown Los Angeles went unsolved. Now, three policemen—one strict, one brutal, one sleazy—are on the case, but each with their own motives and obsessions. Based on the bestselling novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential delves into the dark underbelly of Hollywood when it was still seen as the pinnacle of sophistication and glamour.
Lonely teen Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigates a mysterious phone call made by his ex-girlfriend, Emily, in this neo-noir high school-set mystery directed by Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi). Along with his friend Brain, Brendan grills the jocks, stoners, and other social circles in their high school for any possible leads regarding the four words—now clues—Emily left him: "brick," "poor Frisco," "tug," and "the Pin." While looking into the case, Brendan begins to learn that this mystery is linked to something else far more sinister.
Based on actual events that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s San Francisco, Zodiac follows the murder spree by a killer of the same name. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) are determined to unveil the killer’s identity and put him behind bars. The film steps out from the traditional serial killer detective story by following one comic artist's obsession with the Zodiac killer.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck's directorial debut, based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, follows two private investigators, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who are tasked with finding Amanda McCready—a four-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her neighborhood in Boston. After she goes missing for three days, Amanda’s aunt Beatrice hires the duo to expose the underbelly of their local neighborhood in order to get leads on Amanda’s whereabouts. Since Patrick has grown up in the same Boston neighborhood as Amanda, his knowledge of the area becomes the team’s greatest asset during the investigation. However, Angie, who is also Patrick’s girlfriend, begins to question Patrick’s motives as he goes to drastic lengths to find Amanda in this thrilling detective movie, which also stars Morgan Freeman as Police Captain Jack Doyle.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Based on the bestselling novel by Steig Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo took the cinema by storm upon its release in 2011. Disgruntled financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist catches his chance at resurgence when he’s hired by Swedish Henrik Vanger. Forty years ago, Vanger’s niece, Harriet, was murdered. Vanger believes someone in his family did it, and he wants Blomkvist to find proof. Joining him is Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but strange young investigator whose trust is not easily won. Equal parts haunting and exciting, the film will keep you guessing until the credits roll.
When six-year-old Anna and her best friend Joy go missing on Thanksgiving Day, their fathers Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are determined to bring them home...no matter the means. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case, and discovers a rundown RV that was in the area around the time Anna and Joy went missing. He proceeds to arrest the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but due to a lack of evidence Alex is released almost immediately, which infuriates Dover. While the police are stumped, Dover decides to take matters into his own hands, and pursues any leads that he can find. As the desperate search begins to unfold, Dover is faced with life-altering decisions that show just how far he’ll go to save his family.
Featured still from "The Big Sleep" via Warner Bros.