Features

5 Best movie private investigators

Writer: Casey Chong


Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a dynamic duo in "The Nice Guys".

From the gumshoes in the classic black-and-white 1940s film noir to the private eyes of the contemporary era, private investigators are one of the most recognisable roles in Hollywood cinema.

Although it was not as widely popular as law-enforcing characters such as a cop and federal agent, the role of a private investigator remains as relevant till today. Case in point here is the upcoming 1970s-set crime dramedy of "The Nice Guys" starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as two unlikely partners investigating the case of a missing girl. At the heart of this picture is writer-director Shane Black, who is no stranger in exploring the genre as seen with "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang".

To coincide with "The Nice Guys" arriving this 26 May 2016, let's take a few steps back into the past as we revisit the five best movie private investigators we've ever seen.

1. Sam Spade, "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)


Humphrey Bogart (right) in a scene from "The Maltese Falcon".

Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name has been adapted for big screen in 1931 and again in 1936. But it wasn't until 1941 when screenwriter-turned-director John Huston made his tour de force directorial debut with "The Maltese Falcon". Highly regarded as the landmark cinema of film noir, the movie was best known for Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough performance as Sam Spade. With a tall and well-built body structure, Sam Spade was a classic hard-nosed private detective and a cynical anti-hero who lived by his own code of ethics. Although his character wasn't the kind of traditional good guy that's easy to root for, his cold yet calculated performance remains as the heart and soul of this critically-acclaimed motion picture.

2. Jake Gittes, "Chinatown" (1974)


Jack Nicholson and his broken nose in "Chinatown".

Nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture and also the Best Original Screenplay award, "Chinatown" was highly regarded as the quintessential neo-noir movie that turned the genre inside out by eschewing the obligatory shooting style often seen in the 1940s and 1950s black-and-white film noir. Instead of your usual stark contrast of dramatic shadows, this cinematic masterpiece was mostly shot in broad daylight with the help of the legendary cinematographer John A. Alonzo. Not to mention the movie was also best remembered as one of Roman Polanski's ("Rosemary's Baby", "The Pianist") finest direction to date in his illustrious directing career.

At the center of "Chinatown" was Jack Nicholson, who played Jake Gittes. A private investigator specialising in matrimonial cases, Gittes was a classic character who just wouldn't give up until he found out the truth. Whether he got his nose badly injured for snooping around a thug played by none other than Roman Polanski himself, or ended up slapping Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) during the controversial "sister/daughter" scene, Jack Nicholson's memorable role as Jake Gittes was truly a force to be reckoned with.

3. Harry Angel, "Angel Heart" (1987)


Mickey Rourke in "Angel Heart".

"Angel Heart" may have been best remembered for its infamous controversial sex scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet of TV's "The Cosby Show", but this big screen adaptation of William Hjortsberg's novel "Falling Angel" deserves more kudos than it is known for. First of all, "Angel Heart" was a violent but mesmerising genre picture that mixes the 1940s film noir style with a supernatural horror element. The cast was nothing but extraordinary. Although only appearing in a brief role, Robert De Niro was compelling enough as the mysterious Louis Cyphre.

Then, there was Mickey Rourke who played the central role as Harry Angel. A Brooklyn-based private eye specialising in divorce and insurance claims, Harry was hired to locate a missing 1940s crooner named Johnny Favorite. Over the course of his investigation, he finds himself sinking deep into a web of danger filled with Satanism, Voodoo and all things supernatural. As an increasingly desperate man caught in a purgatory surrounding by an unexplained supernatural phenomena and eventually losing his own sanity, Rourke's captivating performance as Harry Angel was one of his finest roles during the heyday of his acting career.

4. Joe Hallenbeck, "The Last Boy Scout" (1991)


Bruce Willis fooling around with an animal puppet in "The Last Boy Scout".

Shane Black first explored the crime genre that featured the central role of a private investigator twenty-five years ago in "The Last Boy Scout". Back then, "The Last Boy Scout" was a high-profile studio picture filled with A-list talents including Bruce Willis, who already had back-to-back success with "Die Hard" (1988) and "Die Hard 2" (1990) and director Tony Scott, who was best known for his commercially successful blockbusters during the '80s and '90s ("Top Gun", "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "Days Of Thunder"). Of course, the movie was also best remembered for Shane Black's then-expensive spec script which cost an astonishing US$1.75 million.

Despite all the talents involved, "The Last Boy Scout" wasn't much of a big hit as expected. Still, the movie contained some of Black's signature elements of hardboiled characters, crisp dialogue and unflinching violence found within his script. Let's not forget that Bruce Willis actually made a good impression playing a former disgraced Secret Service agent-turned-lowly private investigator, Joe Hallenbeck. Likewise, he was spot-on perfect in portraying a cynical and wisecracking character with a penchant for violence.

5. Leonard Shelby, "Memento" (2000)


Guy Pearce shows off his Polaroid photo in "Memento".

Christopher Nolan may have been riding high with successful big-studio pictures including "The Dark Knight" trilogy, "Inception" and "Interstellar", but his directorial effort in a small-scale production still remained his finest to date. That movie in question was "Memento", a breakthrough motion picture famous for its complex narrative structure told in a reverse order. The movie was also blessed with a strong cast ranging from Carrie-Anne Moss to Joe Pantoliano. But the real deal here was Guy Pearce playing an amnesiac ex-insurance investigator suffering from a short-term memory. As Leonard Shelby, he had to rely heavily on his Polaroid camera, notes and body tattoos while investigating the murder of his wife (Jorja Fox of TV's "CSI"). It was one of Pearce's best roles ever played in his acting career.

"The Nice Guys" opens in cinemas nationwide on 26 May 2016.

Cinema Online, 15 May 2016


Related Movies:
The Nice Guys (19 May 2016)

Jwplayer article page COSG
Showtimes