THE TEN BEST PRIVATE EYE MOVIES
Ten rainy day whodunits that have stood the test of time.
By Shaun Costello
Just exactly who was the best cinematic Private Eye, anyway? For my money, Phillip Marlowe is tough to beat, even though he was beaten up fairly often, staggering to his feet after being cold-cocked with a heavy object (usually a gun butt) held in the hand of a beguiling femme fatale who had gotten the drop on him. Marlowe leads the chase in three of the titles I’m listing here, and is played by three different actors. Two of these films were adapted from the same book, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The first, Murder My Sweet (1944) was renamed as box office strategy, which I suppose worked, to a degree. And, the 1975 remake with the original Farewell My Lovely title intact. The third Marlowe caper, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, had maybe the greatest writing team ever assembled, even though the audience had a tough time figuring out what, in God’s name, this movie was about. Sam Spade, a Dashiell Hammett creation, and a Marlowe contemporary is of course, the chief sleuth in The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogie and Huston and the fabulous Warner Bothers repertory company, and lines like, “You’re good. You’re very good”.
But, what about Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and their clue-finding pup Asta, Mike Hammer, Jake Gittes – snappy snoops all; tough, relentless, with a curiosity that won’t quit. These guys will stop at nothing in getting to the bottom of things, sorting out the details, finding out exactly who killed whom, and why.
In alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Alfred L. Werker 1939
The best of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes/Watson capers, from Fox and Darryl Zanuck. Holmes and Watson again do battle with that criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, nicely played here by George Zucco. And, this one’s got the fabulous Ida Lupino to add a bit of heat.
Moriarty has a plan to make off with the Crown Jewels, but Holmes stands in his way. Juicy Holmesian dialogue like:
Holmes, “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Moriarty, “That would make an interesting exhibit. Holmes, you’ve only now barely missed sending me to the gallows. You’re the one man in England clever enough to defeat me. The situation has become impossible.”
Holmes, “Have you any suggestions?”
Moriarty, “I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.”
Crafty direction by Alfred Werker, and a solid screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake. And, lovely black and white cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks 1946
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe finds himself in a nest of vipers, as usual, in this brilliant, if a bit confusing, film noir. Howard Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, has
a field day, juggling juicy lingo penned by an incredible writing team that included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and Hawks himself. The problem is, the story makes no sense. But, who cares, with Bogie as Marlowe, and Betty Bacall as a devious femme fatale. The now-famous jockey/horse-Bogie/Betty scene, filled with hilarious sexual innuendo, was added to the troubled production over a year later to spice things up. A solid cast, including a surprisingly sprite Dorothy Malone, makes this movie work, even if you may have trouble understanding what’s going on. Nice black and white lensing by Sidney Hickox, and a haunting, if sometimes abrupt, musical score by Max Steiner. I’ve seen this picture an embarrassing number of times, but for you, once should be enough – but see it!
Best scene: Bogie and Malone in the book store.
Roman Polanski 1974
“C’mon Jake, it’s Chinatown”, pleads Gittes’s friend, attempting to drag him away from the horrific car scene at the very end of the film. “Chinatown” means what you think, but it’s also an old expression meaning crazy, upside-down, or meshuganah – something best left alone. This is may be the best period film ever
made, and Polanski does it without the usual cheap tricks like historical references. He does it instead, with a fabulous cast, John Alonzo’s scorched cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s luscious score, Anthea Sylbert’s glamorous costumes, and Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay. It’s all about water – Los Angeles doesn’t have any. And the Hollis Mulwray character is based on William Mulholland, the brilliant head of LA’s water department, who turned this parched patch of Southern California into the metropolis it was to become.
Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, a private eye who makes a living on matrimonial cases, is sucked into a noirish whirlpool, where virtually nothing is as it seems. Polanski does a masterful job of slowing down Nicholson’s usually manic delivery, turning the performance into something more sensual and cunning. Faye Dunawaye is elegantly deceitful, and Polanski himself, plays a murderous knife wielding midget. But it’s John Huston’s Noah Cross that steals the show.
One of my all-time fave films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably find a disc at your local library. Delicious sleuthing.
Best scene: Anything with John Huston, and “My sister – my daughter, my sister-my daughter, my sister AND my daughter.”
Farewell My Lovely
Dick Richards 1975
This is the third and, in my opinion, best movie made from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel. As I’ve previously stated, Philip Marlowe is my favorite Private Eye and, although Bogie was near-perfect in The Big Sleep, Robert Mitchum is even better, as a big, hulking Marlowe, who seems constantly recovering from a whack on the noggin, or the woozy effect of the knock-out drops that some swell dame slipped in his drink. Unlike Polanski’s Chinatown, director Dick Richards uses the historical reference of Joe Dimaggio’s 57 game hitting streak throughout the movie to maintain a feel for 1940 period. OK, so it’s a gimmick, but a forgivable one – it works. Come to think of it, just about everything in this movie works. Great Chandler narration like, “I’d hardly reached the corner, when a hand so big I could of sat in it, landed on my shoulder”. Besides a wonderfully effective Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling provides the heat in a cast rounded out by John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. There’s even a quick glimpse of Sly Stallone in one of his first movie roles. Dark and sultry lensing, once again by John Alonzo, and a delicious musical score by David Shire make this recreation of 1940 Los Angeles believable. If you can find a DVD of this – pounce.
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
No more Mr. Nice Guy – not with Mickey Spillane’s brutal, tough, take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer on the case, and in this case, the case is a box – Pandora’s Box, filled with nuclear material ready to go off. Ah, the Fifties, when every right-thinking American had the A-Bomb on his mind, 24 hours a day. An apocalyptic murder mystery? You bet, and Mike Hammer’s the right guy to put the pieces together. A nice turn here by Ralph Meeker, as the Private Eye with an attitude problem. And the movie debuts of Cloris Leachman, and Maxine Cooper
On a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Copper) at his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big”.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest, is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It represents, of course, the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that was all the rage back then.
A dark, noirish nightmare, deftly handled by director Aldrich. Murky, night time Los Angeles locations, made to shine by cinematographer Ernst Laszlo. This is a low budget ($400,000), no nonsense, first rate film noir, with a game cast, and a savvy director. A film not to miss.
Otto Preminger 1944
OK, I know, I know – it’s not a private eye movie, it’s a cop caper, but it’s Laura, the one and only, and this is MY list so it’s just tough. We have to get past this. Good.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the grisly murder of a famous actress (Gene Tierney) falls in love with her painting. The more he hears about her, the deeper his spell. (I’d do the same thing if that music followed me around all the time) Everyone Andrews interviews seem to be in love with her too. Venomous gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) seems to be the late Laura’s biggest booster. Her grief stricken fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price) is beside himself. Just who would kill such a beloved creature? Just when the audience settles in to accepting lovely Laura’s demise, plot twist of plot twists, the door to her apartment opens, and in walks, you guessed it, Laura, live and lovelier than ever. Andrews, who had fallen asleep on the couch under Laura’s portrait, is awaked to find his obsession, alive and kicking, and wondering what this stranger is doing in her apartment. As Andrews adjusts to this new situation, he finds the living Laura to be everything he’d hoped. But, who was the disfigured corpse, who everyone mistook for Laura? It turns out that Lydecker’s obsession with our leading lady got the better of him. If he couldn’t have her, he’d kill her instead. But he shot the wrong woman, and she was too disfigured to identify, so everyone assumed it was Laura’s body. A living Laura is just too much for Lydecker to accept, so he tries once again to kill her. Andrews intercedes, shooting the murderous Lydecker in the knick of time. As Waldo lies dying on Laura’s carpet, and of course under the portrait, his last words are, “Goodbye. Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
It sounds pretty silly, but it works. Tierney is simply too beautiful to believe, and a game cast does wonders with this material. But, maybe the most important element, the glue that binds this classic together, is David Raskin’s haunting, memorable musical score – one of the real champs. I wonder what happened to the portrait?
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston 1941
This 1941 Warner Brothers release is the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that was a bit more comedic. It was released in 1936, with Warren William, and a very young Bette Davis in the leading roles. Warner Brothers had been prevented from re-releasing the 1931 version by the Hays Office censors, because of its “lewd” content, so they went into production in 1941, on a new, cleaned up version, which is the beauty we all know and love.
First-time director John Huston wanted Bogie to play Sam Spade, but producer Hal Wallis wanted veteran leading man George Raft, who rejected it because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”, the film that launched Bogie’s career as a leading man.
So, is The Maltese Falcon the ultimate private eye caper? You be the judge, but if it’s not, then it’s certainly close. Warner’s had the best ensemble of character actors in Hollywood, and most of them strut their stuff here. Beyond Bogey and Mary Astor, there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Barton MacClane and Ward Bond as Spade’s detective buddies, and Lee Patrick as Effie, who Spade addresses as “Precious” and “Darlin”. Huston even hired his father Walter, to play the ship’s Captain.
Whose got the bird, is the game played here. What exactly IS this Maltese Falcon, anyway? And why is it worth so many murders? Astor wants it, Greenstreet wants it, Lorre wants it, and the body count is mounting. Juicy, nest of vipers stuff here, and Huston is up to the task of getting the most out of this remarkable cast. A solid, tangy screenplay, written by the first-time director, nice dark lensing by Arthur Edeson, and a warm musical score by Arthur Deutsch. A bird for all seasons.
“You’re good. You’re very good”, say’s Bogie to Astor, and who among us could argue?
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk 1944
This is the second movie made from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely novel, and has a very different feel from the 1975, and third remake, above. The powers that be at RKO thought that changing the title to Murder, My Sweet would add some zip the film’s box office. Who knows, but the film did well.
Casting crooner Dick Powell in the Marlowe role was a gamble, but he’s an effective, if different gumshoe. With a small budget to work with, and 1944’s censorship problems to overcome, Dmytryk does an admirable job creating a dark, violent world for Marlowe and his cronies to inhabit. Nice turns by Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger. And, solid black and white camerawork by Harry Wild, plus a low-key musical score by Roy Webb rounds out the production. Powell is surprising here, and worth a look. Like Alec Guinness as George Smiley, when I read Chandler, I hear Mitchum’s voice, but Powell gives us an alternative.
Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet 1974
Agatha Chistie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly, was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne’s father-in-law) help them broach the subject.
In the end, according to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, “Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one.” Christie’s biographer, Gwen Robyns, quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”
Hey, Finney’s waxed lip-rug worked for me, but so did everything else in this dazzling film. I’m not the biggest fan of star vehicles, but Sidney Lumet somehow coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, and probably black-mailed this extraordinary ensemble of show business luminaries into one remarkable performance after another. Finney is a fastidious, almost effeminate Poirot, surrounded by a passenger list that includes (I’m going to name them all because it’s just such an amazing group) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris. And, their performances are all uniquely effective, and totally entertaining.
A complex Agatha Christie mystery, in the hands of a neurotic, self-involved detective, on the world’s greatest train, with a trainload of odd characters as suspects. Top notch lensing here by the masterful Geoffrey Unsworth, a lovely, waltzy score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Lumet’s crafty direction make this memorable.
A throaty Finney, “Touch notheeeeeeng”
John Gielgud as a British valet, “It all started in a fracas in the mess, over a desert called “Spotted Dick”
Igrid Bergman as a Swedish missionary to Africa, “I vont to, um, help little brown babies, who, um, are less fortunate than, um, myself”
The Thin Man
W. S. Van Dyke 1934
Dashiell Hammett’s crafty couple Nick and Nora Charles are on the case here, in the original of, what would become, a series of detective capers. They’ve even got a snoopy, clue-fetching dog, Asta – played by a wire haired fox terrier named Skippy. Nick (William Powell), a retired detective, and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are attempting to settle in to retirement when the disappearance of a friend pulls him back into professional snooping. Nick decides he’ll solve the case, much to the amusement of his socialite wife. The dead bodies, and empty martini glasses pile up, as an ever-tipsy Nick and Nora, endlessly clever banter at the ready, roll up their sleeves, along with their pup, and do some slippery sleuthing.
All of the suspects are invited to a hilarious dinner party, where Nick and Nora, in a series of brilliant, if tipsy, deductions, solve the mystery. Clever dialogue, written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and deftly delivered by two pros, drives this unique, comedic mystery. Sparkling black and white lensing by James Wong Howe, and strong ensemble work by Metro’s talent pool make this a movie not to miss. Funny doings.
© 2011 Shaun Costello