The Maltese Falcon (1941)—Spend two hours with Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade (and his quest for the titular bejeweled bird), and you’ll never read another Dashiell Hammett novel without hearing Bogey’s voice in your head.
The Big Sleep (1946)—In which Bogart proves he canown Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as well as he can Hammett’s Sam Spade. Featuring world-weary wisecracking to perfection, lightning-bolt chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, and spot-on screenplay co-written by William Faulkner. Yeah, that William Falukner.
Chinatown (1974)—In this noir film to end all noir films, water flows toward money, corruption and evil rule the day, and Chinatown stands as an unfathomable metaphor for good intentions that take a tragic turn. Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes tosses off many a quotable quote, but the best line isn’t his: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That pretty much sums it up.
The Long Goodbye (1973)—Altman upends the genre with this adaptation of the 1953 Chandler novel, by throwing his Marlowe into a 70s Hollywood corrupted by narcissism and greed. Marlowe’s PI code can’t find a foothold in these mean streets, because the world has become unrecognizable to a man of honor. Even his suits seem like anachronisms.
Brick (2006)—Extraordinary dialogue carries this quiet little mystery about a teenage loner-turned-detective, who’s determined to figure out who killed his ex-girlfriend and why.
Blade Runner (1982)—This dystopian adaptation of an amazingly titled Philip K. Dick novel features Harrison Ford as a ruthless bounty hunter of replicants—humanlike robots that are often (and wisely) shaped exactly like Daryl Hannah.
Fletch (1985)—OK, so Fletch is technically an investigative journalist, not a PI. But his love of the truth is unmatched, and his aliases are inspired…by famous people.
Touch of Evil (1958)—An Orson Welles classic from the end of the noir era, this looping, labyrinthine tale of rough justice in a corrupt border town sounds deep atmospheric notes. Not related to the Judas Priest song.
The Thin Man (1934)—Nick and Nora solve crimes for fun, and the cocktails never leave their hands.
8mm (1999)—Nicholas Cage! Snuff films! A combination that will live on in your nightmares!
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)—Poirot on a train. Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall. Need we say more?
Klute (1971)—Jane Fonda won an Oscar for playing this haunted call girl who’s being stalked by a client.
Serpico (1973)—Al Pacino finds out what happens to cops who blow the whistle on corrupt colleagues.
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)—Mitchum as Marlowe…he’s got a hat, a coat, and a gun. That’s it.
Twilight (1998)—There are no vampires in this movie. Paul Newman plays the beloved PI trope—an ex cop just tryin’ to do the right thing.
Angel Heart (1987)—Hard-boiled horror, with a side of voodoo.
Serpent and the Rainbow (1987)—An ethnobotanist (read “zombie investigator”) is advised to leave Haiti. He doesn’t. There are regrets…and more voodoo.
The Millenium Trilogy (2009)—The Swedish version of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster trilogy about a tattooed savant girl detective who kicks the a**es of all comers and forgets nothing.