The Blue Murder List
Twenty Other Great P.I. Flicks
Anyone reading this can probably come up with their own favorite Top Ten P.I. flicks. And all the usual suspects will be trotted out: Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Harper, The Thin Man, Murder, My Sweet. Various combinations of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, coupled with performances by Nicholson, Bogart, Mitchum, various Powells. You know. The usual.
But what about the flicks that nobody thinks of, right off the bat, the ones that will never make anyone's Top Ten List? Sure, they may not be instant classics, and they may even be a bit obscure or off beat. They're just personal favorites, oddball choices, or just those for which I have an inexplicable fondness. But you could do a lot worse than these....
- The Dark Corner (1946, 20th Century Fox) ...Buy this video....Buy this DVD
A dark little noir gem, about a gumshoe (Mark Stevens), recently sprung from prison (framed, of course) who finds he's once again being jammed into a "dark corner," with only his faithful secretary (Lucille Ball) willing to stand by her man.
- Out of the Past (1947, RKO) ..Buy this video.. Buy on DVD
A stone-cold noir classic, but one distinctly out of the Hammett/Chandler loop. Former gumshoe Robert Mitchum's not out to crack the case--he just wants out. He just wants to go fishin' with his gal. But his P.I. past, and some nasty unfinished business, seems to have tracked him down. Relentless.
- My Favorite Brunette (1947)...Buy this video...Buy this DVD
Who would think hambone Bob Hope could ever star in something this cutting and funny? As Ken Hanke in Scarlet Street put it, "A devastating parody of the hard-boiled detective, neatly puncturing every tried-and-true aspect of the genre before the corpse is even cold."
- Shaft (1971, MGM) ... Buy this video.....Buy this DVD
It's camp value as a blaxploitation film is solid, but this is still one enjoyable, energetic, struttin' mother that fairly bounces with its own pulpy, in-yer-face energy. Can you dig it?
- Hickey and Boggs (1972, United Artists)....Buy this video
Nasty, nasty, nasty. LA as a bleak, lawless hellhole populated by various trigger-happy factions all after some stolen loot. Caught up in the action are disillusioned, alienated P.I.'s Bill Cosby and Robert Culp (who also directed!) who ultimately can do little more than watch the bodies fall.
- Gumshoe (1972, Memorial Enterprises)....Buy this video
Stephen Frears' served notice with his directorial debut, a slice of BritWit about Liverpudlian down-but-not-quite-out bingo caller and P.I. wanna-be (Albert Finney) who decides to play detective. Then someone hires him to solve a real case. Neville Smith adapted the screenplay from his own novel.
- The Conversation (1974, Paramount) ..Buy the DVD
Gene Hackman is a surveillance expert hired to do a little wiretapping in Francis Ford Coppola's explosive and disturbing Watergate-era morality tale of slimy corporate treachery and dirty little secrets. You'll feel like taking a shower after this one.
- Night Moves (1975, Warner Brothers)....Buy this video....Buy this DVD
"Ain't it funny how the night moves, When you just don't seem to have that much to lose?" asked Bob Seger, who claims he'd never heard of this film when he wrote the song. Everyone's doomed here, even P.I. Gene Hackman, who can't even solve the case of his own life.
- The Yakuza (1975, Warner Brothers)....Buy this video....Buy this DVD
Robert Mitchum set loose in modern day Japan, to rescue an old Army buddy's daughter, and finding himself awash in a bloody mess of betrayal and questions of honour. People who live in paper houses shouldn't play with swords.
- The Late Show (1977, Warner Brothers)... Buy this video... Buy this DVD
Art Carney is the cranky, over-the-hill gumshoe with nothing much left, and Lily Tomlin is the flaky hippie lady with a cat problem, in Robert Benton's witty and moving homage to old detective films and the power of love. No, really. This one will break your heart, and make you laugh at the same time.
- The Big Fix (1978, Universal)... Buy this video
Shoulda been called The Big Bummer, man. Roger Simon's screenplay, adapted from his own novel, drags the P.I. ethos kicking and screaming into the counterculture, as a pot-smoking eye (Richard Dreyfuss) comes face to face with post-sixties disillusionment and late-'70s malaise, a theme that has since popped up in films as varied as The Big Chill and The Big Lebowski.
- Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982, Universal)... Buy this video... Buy this DVD
Steve Martin is the doofus P.I. who gets by with a little help from his friends, in this case, Bogart, Peter Lorre, Barbara Stanwyck and the cast of about a zillion old detective and crime flicks from the forties and fifties, in Carl Reiner's off-the-wall tip of the fedora, and squirt of the seltzer bottle, to the genre. Old clips are seamlessly worked into the mix, a cinematic gimmick that really works, as opposed to the soggy mess that Robert Montgomery made of Chandler's The Lady in the Lake.
- Hammett (1983, Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers).. Buy this video.. Buy this DVD
Production problems, a screenplay reportedly written by a cast of thousands, and a less-than-clear sense of direction by Wim Wenders, failed to stop this quirky, affectionate fantasy of former-Pinkerton man turned pulp writer Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) pushing aside the typewriter and getting "back on the game", as a favor for a pal. An "entirely imaginary story", yes, but far more "truth" than in the recent disappointing A&E TV biopic Dash and Lilly.
- The Empty Beach (1985, Jethro Films)... Buy this video
An entertaining, enjoyable low-key Aussie film. Bryan Brown IS Cliff Hardy, a sardonic, battered Sydney eye on the trail of a missing millionaire. Peter Corris, who wrote a series of books featuring Hardy, lent his leather jacket to Brown for the film.
- Everybody Wins (1990, Orion Pictures)...Buy this video...Buy this DVD
Another personal fave. It's meandering, overly talky and flawed-as-hell, but Nick Nolte's rumpled, vulnerable small-town dick and Debra Winger's over-the-top hooker/headcase who hires him to look into a murder make this 1990 flick compelling viewing that just sucks you right in. And Judith Ivey is supreme as the long-suffering big sister who wishes her brother would wise up. Written by Arthur "Death of a Salesman" Miller.
- Love at Large (1990, Orion)....Buy this video....Buy this DVD
Alan Rudolph's quirky, sexy Valentine to, and gentle parody of, the private eye genre, and a look at those who look for love in all the wrong places. There ain't no cure for love.
- The Two Jakes (1990, Paramount) ..Buy the video ..Buy the DVD
Trashed for not being Chinatown. Well, duh! But if you cared about the Polanski classic at all, you just have to see this masterful coda, as the sins of the past come back to haunt Jack Nicholson, now grown rich and fat. It's still Chinatown, Jake.
- Dead Again (1991, Paramount)...Buy this video....Buy this DVD
What's with all the scissors? This is a broad, generous serving of old-fashioned movie enjoyment, part ghost story, part detective story, about a gumshoe hired by a priest to discover the true identity of a young woman suffering from amnesia. Turns out she may have killed the detective in another life. And then it gets weird ...
- Happy Birthday, Turke! (1992)
Doris Dörrie directed this depressing but powerful adaptation of Jakob Arjouni's novel, about Kemal Kayankaya, a German-speaking Turkish private eye working the mean streets of Frankfurt, where anti-Turk racism runs rampant. In German, with sub-titles, if you're lucky. My friend Dieter swears this is the best P.I. film ever made.
- Twilight (1998, Paramount).. Buy this video... Buy this DVD
Could almost be seen as the long-awaited third Paul Newman/Lew Archer film (following Harper and The Drowning Pool) and once again, Ol' Blue Eyes (and writers Robert Benton and Richard Russo) has poor Lew travelling under an assumed name, and once again he's digging up long-buried family dirt, but this time, it's hitting a lot closer to home.
* This list originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May-June and July-August 1999 issues of the late, great Blue Murder Magazine, as part of Kevin Burton Smith's regular Private Eye column.
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