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Out of the Past: The Greatest 1970s Detective Movies

Written by on May 20, 2016 

The Nice Guys 8

Whether they’re peeping on cheating husbands or reeling in runaway daughters, the cinematic detective, popularized in the ’30s and ’40s, can always be relied upon for a witty line or a sock in the jaw. Often, the detective is a man alone, searching through dark alleys for invaluable clues to some labyrinthine mystery. The detective is often the only soul who will do whatever it takes, no matter how hopeless the circumstances may seem. As Raymond Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” In the ’70s, the culture irrevocably changed, but the detective’s job stayed the same — if not perhaps a bit more complex.

The Nice Guys, the newest film from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer-director Shane Blackis out in theaters this week. In the film, a luckless private eye and a grumpy hired thug find themselves an unlikely team as they attempt to investigate the death of a former porn star against the backdrop of ’70s Los Angeles. To prepare, we decided to take a look back through the finest ’70s-set detective movies the “Me” decade has to offer. Forgive us for failing to include Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a masterpiece disqualified by its ’30s setting.

As this list will confirm, detectives may run the gamut from honest and noble to sinister and downright evil. But, no matter what, they still charge at least $50 a day, plus expenses.

Please enjoy, and include your own favorites in the comments.

Shaft (Gordon Parks)


Whatever Gordon Parks‘ seminal blaxploitation hit lacks in technical quality is more than compensated for in style and personality. Structured as a classic private-detective film noir, Shaft is hired to find the daughter of a Harlem mob boss, who’s been kidnapped without a ransom note. Despite Parks’ wonky camerawork and some carelessly employed A.D.R., the unique nuances of this world feel slyly vivid. Star Richard Roundtree brings rugged grace to his role as the titular black private dick, as mentally adept at thwarting his foes as he is physically. Admittedly, the elements endowing Shaft with a dated feel are the same ones that evoke a sense of period and character. It’s refreshing to recall that John Shaft is a totally non-prejudicial detective, aware that the streets of New York City are the true equalizer of men.

The French Connection (William Friedkin)

The French Connection

Somehow the passage of time allowed me to forget The French Connection‘s most essential scene, its final moments when Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) accidentally kills a fellow officer in the line of duty. His partner, Cloudy (Roy Schieder), is shocked, unable to process this tragedy. Doyle simply reloads his gun, growling of the criminal they’re hunting, “That son of a bitch is here, I saw him, and I’m gonna get him.” He charges on, continuing his hopeless search for a man who’ll never be caught. (The film’s forgettable sequel notwithstanding, this ending is utterly searing in its frigidity.) They only stumbled onto this case as a joke after deciding to tail an anonymous couple while off-duty. Before that joke, Popeye and Cloudy had just made a successful, if not small-time, bust that very night. Still, Doyle isn’t satisfied, continuing to prowl the streets when he should be at home. What began as a joke in a bar ends with a half-million-dollar heroin bust, but for Hackman’s hellbent police detective, the accomplishment will not be enough. Kinetically composed and intensely riveting, William Friedkin‘s The French Connection is a severe cautionary warning of the unquenchable thirst for the chase.

Dirty Harry (Don Siegel)

Dirty Harry

A charmingly over-the-top throwback to the days when a detective could bust down doors and beat confessions out of suspects without fear of moral repercussions, Don Siegel‘s Dirty Harry, a brash portrait of a ruthless police inspector, is as iconic a film as anything on this list. Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is disgusted by the criminal subculture in his fair city, grumbling like a second-rate Travis Bickle, “These loonies! They ought to throw a net over the whole bunch.” After his partner quits the force, Callahan is asked why he remains working to defend a city whose citizens call him a pig. Harry shakes his head. “I don’t know.” The trite notion of Callahan throwing his badge away at the end would be laughable and clichéd without Eastwood’s world-weary gaze as he decides this is no way for him to live. As with The French Connection, Dirty Harry builds to a powerful climax squandered in the film’s unnecessary sequels. Even after Callahan is admonished by his superiors for excessive use of violence, he’s asked to play bag-man in the delivery of the ransom one last time. Despite all their high-minded scolding, they still need Dirty Harry to clean up the mess.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

The Long Goodbye

Halfway through Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye, detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is told by the L.A.P.D. that a case involving the deaths of his friend, Terry Lennox, and a writer named Roger Wade have been solved, both apparent suicides: “Marlowe, go back to your gumshoes and your transom peeping, and let us alone.” Like any detective worth his weight in aquavit, Marlowe ignores these words and continues his investigation, undeterred by the lingering seeds of doubt. Time and again, our hero is reminded that Terry Lennox is dead. Or is he? The police seem satisfied. What more does Marlowe want? Making what is unquestionably cinema’s most unique take on Raymond Chandler‘s literary private eye, Robert Altman paints the character as a laid-back, chain-smoking Rip Van Winkle, a man whose old-school values (such as loyalty and friendship) just don’t jive in the free-love ’70s. He’s the same man Chandler wrote about in 1953, flung headfirst into 1973. Even under interrogation, Marlowe is asked, “Where the hell are you from, an exodus?” He replies, “Yeah, I’m from a long time ago.”

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