Best Private Investigator Movies

I’m a movie buff as well as a private investigator. Now that I (and the rest of the world) have been trapped at home for over a month, I thought it would be a good idea to unveil the list of my favorite private investigator movies.

While there are well-known classics on the list, such as the  noir classic Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson, it also contains a couple of fresh takes on the classic genre and its tropes, such as the grim Angel Heart.

Let’s dive right in. Here is my list:

10The Nice Guys (2016)

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling star as a tough guy “enforcer” and a flighty private investigator who team up to find a missing girl in 1977 Los Angeles. Along the way, the pair uncover a plot involving politically-driven porno movies, a villainous auto industry, and a corrupt United States Department of Justice. The chemistry between Crowe and Gosling elevates the fun to the next level.

9Who’s Harry Crumb (1989)

John Candy stars as Harry Crumb, the last descendant, and least apt, of a long line of successful private investigators. When Harry is assigned a kidnapping case, it is clear that he was not meant to find the truth, but you can never underestimate dumb luck. Yes, this is primarily a comedy; and yes, it is goofy. That being said, watching Candy stumble his way to the truth using an array of outrageous disguises and accents is pure entertainment.

8Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

This film stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy Rawlins, an unemployed WWII vet in 1948 Los Angeles, who we follow through his first case as a private investigator, after he is hired to find a missing girl. Of course, things are not what they seem, and Easy soon finds himself caught up in a web of dirty cops, corrupt politicians, and, of course, murder. Don Cheadle stands out as Easy’s loyal, yet violent friend Mouse, who’s always there in a pinch.

7The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(2011)

The American adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is definitely a slow burn. Rooney Mara is excellent as the tortured and eccentric investigator/hacker Lisbeth Salander. When a disgraced Swedish journalist, played by Daniel Craig, is tasked with solving the 40-year-old disappearance of a young girl, he enlists Salander to assist him in the investigation. The deeper the pair look into the missing girl’s family, the darker the secrets they find.

6Angel Heart (1987)

Every list has one unorthodox entry, and this is mine. Definitely a grim and gritty take on the genre, this movie goes to some very dark places. Mickey Rourke stars as a 1950s New York private investigator named Harry Angel, who is hired by Robert De Niro’s cryptic character, Louis Cyphre, to find a missing musician who owes him a mysterious debt. The case leads Harry on a trail of murder, voodoo, and the darkest parts of the human soul. Things aren’t always as they seem; and in this case, neither are people.

5Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

The dialogue in this buddy movie is worth the price of admission. When Robert Downey Jr.’s character, a New York-based criminal, is mistaken for an aspiring actor, he is whisked off to Los Angeles and teamed up with Val Kilmer’s character, a private investigator, to research a role. After Downey also reconnects with a childhood friend who has her own agenda, the trio dives deep into the seedy underbelly of Hollywood to solve two intertwining cases.

4Harper (1966)

From the opening frames of the film, Paul Newman’s character, gum-chewing private investigator Lew Harper, is clearly down on his luck. Out of fresh coffee filters and in the midst of a separation from his long-suffering wife, Harper is hired by a rich socialite to find her missing husband, who he quickly deduces has been kidnapped. Harper uncovers everything from the convoluted kidnapping plot to the smuggling of illegal immigrant workers, all the while pouring on the Paul Newman charm.

3Knives Out (2019)

This is the most recently released film on the list, and it is a great throwback to the long-lost genre of the whodunit. It stars Daniel Craig as “gentleman sleuth” Benoit Blanc, an homage to Agatha Christie’s eccentric Hercule Poirot—both seemingly aloof, but always listening with a truth-seeking ear. In this cleverly written masterpiece, which turns the genre on its ear, Blanc battles wits with a family full of suspects to discover the truth behind the apparent suicide of the family patriarch.

2The Long Goodbye (1973)

This is one of the two quintessential private investigator movies on this list, along with Chinatown. Elliot Gould brings a dry, disheveled wit to the role of Raymond Chandler’s famed private investigator, Philip Marlowe; he is in no way a tough guy. Shortly after his best friend is found dead in Mexico of an apparent suicide, Marlowe is hired to investigate the disappearance of a self-destructive, alcoholic writer. As he peels back the layers of the case, it quickly reveals itself to be connected with Marlowe’s dead best friend.

1Chinatown (1974)

This is the gold standard for private investigator movies. In 1937 Los Angeles, private investigator Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is hired by a woman named Evelyn to follow her husband. When the husband turns up dead, and the real Evelyn shows up threatening to sue him, Jake begins investigating, and he uncovers shady land deals involving the Los Angeles Water Department, who are intent on keeping them quiet. He also finds himself in the middle of a very unique love triangle, which is revealed in a legendary movie plot twist.

Bonus Movie — The Big Lebowski (1998)

The list wouldn’t be complete without recognizing this Coen Brothers classic. While not technically a private investigator, “The Dude,” as played by Jeff Bridges, acts the part in this Raymond Chandler-inspired comedic crime tale. After a case of mistaken identity, middle-aged stoner The Dude is hired by a disabled millionaire to handle the ransom delivery for his kidnapped trophy wife. What follows is an absurd oddball odyssey, as The Dude tries to navigate the case and discover the truth. John Goodman shines as the Dude’s Vietnam-obsessed best friend, Walter.

OK—there you have it. Did I fail to mention your favorite movie? Let me know in the comments, as your taste may differ.

One thing will always remain true for me: nothing is as exciting to watch as a private investigator unraveling a case and uncovering the truth.

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8 replies
    • Brian Sabol
      Brian Sabol says:

      Yes I agree. Definitely dropped the ball on this one lol Great movie, and also deals with the “how far would you go” question private investigators often ask themselves.

  1. Louis Burklow
    Louis Burklow says:

    Nice list but I would put a lot more Philip Marlowe on mine. Dick Powell in “Murder My Sweet,” Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” and Robert Mitchum in “Farewell My Lovely.” Bogart needs to be on this list for “The Maltese Falcon” as well; his Sam Spade is the archtype for private eyes on film. Plus, it has that memorable line: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.”

    • Brian Sabol
      Brian Sabol says:

      Thanks for the feedback! The title of the list was originally “over the last 50 years.” When we changed the title, I did not adjust the list, otherwise Maltese Falcon would have definitely been included.

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