The ten best detectives in classic film noir
With the classic noir flick The Maltese Falcon screening at the Esquire this weekend for Midnight Madness, we've been thinking a lot about our favorite noir films, from the classic era to the modern. While there are a few archetypes in the genre, many think it always stars a detective, which isn't the case, as it turns out -- even as we were tallying up our favorites, we realized a few weren't detectives at all, but drug enforcement agents, newspaper men or just guys caught in a bad spot. But in honor of the film, we decided we'd look at our favorites from the classic period of noir, skipping over some of our favorite modern detectives like J.J. Gittes, Lemmy Caution and Marge Olmstead Gunderson.
10. Johnny Kelly (The City That Never Sleeps) It's not always about a mystery or a good detective. Sometimes it's just about a disgruntled cop who decides to escort a magician across the border. Thankfully, it's not as simple as that -- and as Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) digs a little deeper, things start to reveal themselves.
9. Dave Bannion (The Big Heat) Fritz Lang's classic film is a twisty, brutal portrait of a homicide detective taking on a crime syndicate. The film starts with Bannion's (Glenn Ford) friend and fellow cop supposedly committing suicide, but as tends to happen, all is not as it seems. Bannion's one of a few honest cops left on the force, and as he starts to unravel the mystery of his friend's death, things start getting seriously out of hand.
8. Mr. Wilson (The Stranger) Mr. Wilson (played by Edward G. Robinson) is an officer in the United Nations War Crimes Commission who is hunting down a Nazi fugitive named Franz Kidler (Orson Welles). While he's not technically a detective, it's close enough for our purposes, as Wilson has to untangle Kindler's new identity to figure out exactly who he really is.
7. Mark McPherson (Laura) Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) starts the film by investigating the death of Laura Hunt, but as he gets closer to solving the case, he becomes more and more obsessed with the dead woman, eventually sleeping underneath her portrait. But all isn't (you know) as it seems ,and just as McPherson begins to think he's reached a dead end, something incredible happens.
6. Lt. Dan Muldoon (Naked City) Directed by Jules Dassin, Naked City is one of our favorite films of all time -- starring Barry Fitzgerald as Lt. Dan Muldoon, the film revolves around the murder of an ex-model drowned in a bathtub. A whole web of lies and deceit start unfolding as Muldoon and his partner Halloran investigate the murder, but Muldoon's trap to catch the killer near the end of the film is one of the classic captures in history.
5. Mike Hammer (Kiss Me Deadly) Mike Hammer is a classic in a lot of respects, from both fiction and film. Unlike a lot of noir detectives, Hammer is nearly as brutal and crooked as the bad guys he chases. In this particular instance Hammer ends up locating and finding a mystery box with strange, glowing substance inside.
4. Miguel Vargas (Touch of Evil) Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is actually a drug enforcement officer, not a detective, but considering he does the same type of work, we figured he deserved a mention here. While it's a tad off that Charlton Heston is playing a Mexican, this particular story of a lying police captain, drugs and explosives is hard not to love.
3. Jeff Bailey (Out of the Past) At first, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) appears to be a simple gas station owner in a small town in California, but when a mysterious visitor comes into town, it's revealed his real name is actually Jeff Markham and that he was a private investigator in New York. The film bounces back and forth in time to reveal a story of blackmail, theft, murder and plenty more. It's never totally clear what exactly Bailey's motives were or are.
2. Sam Spade (Maltese Falcon) Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is the quintessential noir private detective. He has seen the world for the wretched, awful, corrupt place that is, but still remains positive and idealistic. The Maltese Falcon has far too many twists to describe here, but if you haven't seen the film and decide to watch it tonight, we guarantee you won't know exactly what to expect.
1. Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet, Lady in the Lake) To put it bluntly, there is no better example of the noir detective than Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Played on the screen by a variety of actors, Marlowe was cool, calm and collected in the most egregious of situations and, most importantly, never faltered in his resolve. He would not fall for the femme fatale, would not double cross a good cop and worked on his own all the time. Technically Marlowe was influenced by Sam Spade, but since he appeared in far more works, he's more well-known.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.