So, It's Come to This...
The Film Geeks' Top Ten P.I. Films

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Okay, it may be hard to believe, but the entire world does not revolve around private eyes...

Shocking, innit?

Some people, even people who "love" mysteries and detective and crime fiction, aren't quite clear on exactly what defines a private eye, or in many cases even care.

That's been proven to me time and time again, from some of the mail I've received over the years.

"Why don't you have Charlie Chan on your site? Is it because he's Asian? Are you racist?"

"Where's Jessica Fletcher?"

"How come no James Bond?"

This was really brought home ot me a few months ago when discussing movies with Gustavo Martinez and James R. Baker, two regular customers at the Barnes & Noble where I work, and two unabashed film geeks. (They're also annoyingly young, but I try not to hold that against them).

Make no mistake -- these two twenty-something dudes know their stuff. James, a painter of the Post-abstract Expressionist school, and Gustavo, an aspiring filmmaker, can wax poetic about film theory and history like there's no tomorrow. These guys get all excited over new Criterion releases, and speak fondly -- and at length -- of the works of directors I've never even heard of. Hell, they even toss around words like "auteur" and "oeuvre" when they think nobody's listening.

But I digress. One dead Sunday night, bored out of my skull in the music and movie department at ther back of the store, I went over to them, as usual casing the Criterion and foreign film sections, and put it to them: "What are your favourite private eye flicks?"

I figured I'd either get a rerun of all the usual suspects, or -- even better -- an edgy, avant-garde list of art house obscurites I'd never even heard of.

But I was shocked -- I tell you, shocked -- a the blank looks I received. This can't be. I tried prompting them.

"The Maltese Falcon?"

"Haven't seen it."

"Chinatown?"

"Polanksi, right?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Never saw it."

And finally, "Well, what's a private eye, exactly?"

I explained, as best I could, trying to convey the nuances of a sub-genre they'd never really considered. To their credit, they got it. And they started naming names. Parasite that I am, I asked them to compile a Top Ten list for the site.

They disappeared for a while, vanishing into wherever it is that twenty-somethings go, and eventually e-mailed me their lists.

The results were sort of disheartening, on the one hand. Most of the films they chose were, in one way or another, spoofs, parodies or self-conscious, ironic post-Modern reimagingings of the genre, in many cases reducung the trope of the private eye film to easy targets rich for satire. But the list is also, on the other hand, sort of revealing and sort of fun. I hope they had fun doing it; I hope you have fun reading it.

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Gustavo's List

I decided to pick contemporary and modern films as opposed to the traditional. Here they are:

  • Pulp.. Buy this DVD
    (1972)
    Directed by Mike Hodges

    In this comedic tale, seedy paperback writer Mickey King is churning one hardboiled fiction book after another until he lands the job of a lifetime, ghostwriting for a famous actor who has connections to the mob, 30 minutes into it King finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that involves the murder of his employer and an assassin trying to waste him before he even finds out the truth. Pulp is a tribute to the genre it satirizes; an inspired piece of film that lovingly takes its cues from Sam Spade to Mickey Spillane. And it doesn't hurt that it has a young Michael Caine at his peak.

  • Brick.. Buy this DVD.. Buy this Blu-Ray
    (2006)
    Directed by Rian Johnson

    A P.I. story set in a high school in SoCal? Rian Johnson makes his argument with a deftly written script, and a strong cast led by Joseph Gordon Levitt before he hit it big as an adult with "500 Days of Summer."Taking his cue from Dashiell Hammett, Johnson gives us a love letter to the P.I. genre.

  • Chan is Missing.. Buy this DVD
    (1982)
    Directed by Wayne Wang

    Two Asian-American cabbies in San Francisco search for a mysterious figure who has vanished with their four grand, which leads to a humorous, yet murky journey through Chinatown. Chan is Missing never stoops to parody, nor does it resort to Asian stereotypes. What it does do and does masterfully is to re-create the detective genre with razor sharp dialogue inspired by the pulp magazines of yesteryear and the voice-over narration from P.I fiction. It's a fusion that could have easily failed or bordered on parody, but it avoids such pitfalls thanks to Wang's skillful direction of his cast and mise en scene.

  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang....Buy on DVD...Buy on Blu-Ray
    (2005)
    Directed by Shane Black

    Booze, Broads, and Bullets and not in the same order, Shane Black's ode to the P.I genre is hilarious yet razor sharp in its witty dialogue banter between lead costars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, but more importantly the movie serves as a redemption piece for Black, who hasn't been in form since Last Boy Scout and for its lead co-stars who have been plagued with vices and bad choices (in life and on the screen).

  • Red Riding Trilogy: 1974....Buy on DVD...Buy on Blu-Ray
    (2009)
    Directed by Julian Jarrold

    Picking from a trilogy is only hard when all films are equally strong, and that's a extremely rare in most cases, and the Red Riding Trilogy is that special case. Set in Yorkshire -- no one expects an English town to be infested with so much evil and corruption as New York, LA and any other classic setting for a P.I. novel -- what the first installment, 1974, has over the rest of its sequels is its establishment of a relentlessly gritty, cynical, and dark world that will serve as the backdrop for the entire series; a nightmare world that offers little escape to characters once they set their foot in there. 1974 takes all the archetypes of a P.I. fiction (its protagonist, Eddie Dunford, is a young journalist looking into the disappearance of several young girls) but does everything to not look like one on the screen. It is a tragic prelude to a series that is as equally inescapable for its viewers as its characters -- like them, we can only hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

    Editor's Note: Yes, I know these films, adapted from English author David Peace's Red Riding Quartet, were originally produced for British television, making their debut in the UK on Channel 4 in March 2009, but they were released theatrically in the US in February 2010.

James' List

  • The Big Lebowski....Buy on DVD...Buy on Blu-Ray
    (1998)
    Directed by the Coen Brothers

    A man gets in over his head when his friend pressures him to seek retribution for a soiled rug. Things go from bad to worse after he is hired on to deliver a ransom for a rich man's kidnapped wife. He quickly sinks into a quagmire of white collar crime, pornography, and bowling, ending in a fantastic standoff against a group of Neo-Nazis.

  • Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid... Buy this video... Buy this DVD
    (1982)
    Directed by Carl Reiner

    Private Detective, Rigby Reardon, is hired by a rich socialite to investigate the mysterious death of her father, a cheese scientist. He soon uncovers a plot by Nazis to restore the third reich, by first destroying The United States using special cheese bombs planted strategically all over the country.

  • Blade Runner...Buy on DVD...Buy on Blu-Ray
    (1982)
    Directed by Ridley Scott

    Retired LAPD officer is hired as a private consultant to investigate, hunt, and destroy four replicants that have returned to Earth.

  • The Maltese Falcon ..Buy the DVD...Buy the 3-disc Special Edition ..Buy the Blu-Ray
    (1941)
    Directed by John Huston

    Adaptation of the classic Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name.

  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ..Buy this video ..Buy this DVD
    (1988)
    Directed by Robert Zemeckis

    Private Detective, Eddie Valiant, a toon hating detective, is hired to prove the innocence of famous toon Roger Rabbit, who was framed for murder. He uncovers a plot that involves the president of a major animation studio, a land tycoon, a mysterious construction company, and a corrupt judge.

List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. James and Gustavo have spoken...


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