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 Black, is 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)
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)
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)
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.”
Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush)
They don’t make car chases like this anymore because they simply don’t make cars like this anymore. Big steel behemoths careering into each other, leaving gloriously crumpled dents in their wake. Indeed, Freebie and the Bean contains some of the finest analog car chase sequences of the decade (no small feat) as the two worst detectives in California attempt to play bodyguard to an organized-crime boss. “You two aren’t fit to guard the fish at the aquarium,” the D.A. (Alex Rocco) sneers at them, giving them a charmingly formulaic “one last chance.” Early on, Freebie (James Caan) and the Bean (Alan Arkin) are tailing their man when they notice a car with hot plates. Distracted from their duties, the boys decide to instead follow the stolen vehicle. What ensues is one of the most ridiculous and astounding car chases ever filmed, despite its seeming lack of relation to the plot. Bursts of sudden violence explode without warning as these two detectives deliver some of the finest mayhem to hit the streets of San Francisco since What’s Up, Doc? This madcap cult gem also has the rare distinction of being Stanley Kubrick’s favorite film of 1974, as peculiar as that claim may sound.
Night Moves (Arthur Penn)
Although perhaps a good man, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is just one of a handful of lousy detectives on this list. He can figure out the players, but the opposite sex continually confounds him — until tragedy strikes and it’s far too late. Moseby is hired to locate the missing daughter of an aging B-movie starlet, just as he learns that his own wife is having an affair. His wife begs him to stay, not to take the case, as their marriage teeters on the verge of collapse, hoping they can put the pieces back together. Instead, Moseby drives away, vainly hoping to solve a mystery that he can barely understand. Nearly every character in the film will lie to Moseby at some point, and he believes each and every one. Even after he’s apparently solved the case, take note of the joyless family reunion, which he helped orchestrate. This is no happy ending, and Moseby simply drives away as he does from all of his problems, putting them in his rear view. Sadly, the film ends with Moseby alone on a speedboat in the Florida Keys, endlessly and pointlessly circling a tragedy he’s unable to turn his back on any longer.
The Driver (Walter Hill)
To those who’ve seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the set-up for The Driver will seem familiar. The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), as he’s referred to, is a whee-man, working for hire as a getaway driver. He never makes small talk, he refuses to carry a gun, and he’s the best in the business. The similarities end there. The Detective (Bruce Dern), a man on a mission, wants the Driver behind bars, working day and night in his pursuit. “I respect a man who’s good at what he does,” the detective snarls at the Driver. “Let me tell you something else. I’m very good at what I do.” These are characters without names or backstories, unnecessary and trivial baggage. They know the rules. They’ve been playing this game for years, and will continue for many more. Walter Hill‘s The Driver is a high watermark exercise in action filmmaking, a work forceful and single-minded in its precision. It’s all muscle, no fat. After so many bloated, messy action epics, you half-expect this type of film to continue for an additional twenty minutes beyond its running time. But The Driver has no time for such indulgences. The film is only interested in getting in and out in a stylish and timely fashion. No small talk. It’s almost as if the film were written and directed by the Driver himself.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri)
The same day an arrogant homicide chief (Gian Maria Volontè in one of two stunning turns on this list) murders his lover, he’s promoted to head of the Police Department’s Political Division. Intoxicated with power, he forces himself into the murder investigation, leaving behind clues and slowly lining up a patsy to take the fall. Other officers mumble behind his back that he’s impeding the investigation, but they’re too cowardly to intervene. This heartless murderer succeeds for as long as he does because he’s a natural-born detective, able to reverse-engineer an entire investigation from scratch. Slyly, when looking at a photo of the innocent man he’ll frame for the murder, the chief exclaims, “The face of a criminal,” yet as he says this, he gestures to his own face. Later, he goes to kiss the ring of a priest, only to be rebuffed by the holy man, as if his sinful nature can be read on his face. As the clues mount, his fellow officers look the other way, too cowardly to cross the thin blue line. Surely the most subversive entry on this list, Elio Petri‘s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion remains a mournfully little-known Italian crime classic, but can be found through Criterion.
Hardcore (Paul Schrader)
The first pornographic film that Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) ever saw featured his own daughter in her big-screen debut. To explain: the daughter of this devoutly religious man vanishes during a church trip to California, leaving police without any leads. As the bus pulls away, the teenagers clap with gleeful excitement. These are small-town people, still endearingly awestruck at the notion of visiting a large city. When the girl vanishes, the police go through the predictable motions, but Van Dorn isn’t satisfied. His only recourse is to hire a private detective (Peter Boyle), a crude slob who offends this pious man’s prudish tastes, to find the girl. Soon enough, he invites Van Dorn to that fateful film screening. This heartbroken father is left to become a detective himself, going undercover to immerse himself in the world of hardcore porn, throwing away his life in the hope of saving his only daughter. Writer-director Paul Schrader has stated that John Ford’s The Searchers was as much of an influence on Hardcore as it was on Taxi Driver: the story a broken man searching for a lost girl, risking everything — including his own life — in a quest to find her.
Klute (Alan J. Pakula)
A small-town detective (Donald Sutherland) with zero missing-persons experience agrees to help locate a friend who’s vanished, leaving behind a sexually disturbing letter to a Manhattan call-girl (Jane Fonda). The detective stands outside the call-girl’s front door, announcing that his name is John Klute. She yells back, through the locked door, “What do you want?” He replies, slower this time, “My name… is John… Klute,” as if his name contains some explanation for his presence. She can’t remember the friend, a former john, but she’ll never forget those disturbing letters — in addition to the unsettling, cryptic phone calls that come in the middle of the night. Someone is watching her, so he moves in downstairs. She asks Klute, disapprovingly, “You’re not gonna get hung up on me, are you?” Yet it’s her who seems to be falling in love with him, this politely drab man whose job contains little of the glamor we’ve come to expect of private eyes. The film marks the first entry in director Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, followed by The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. Appropriately, every frame is endowed with a tense, icy energy, like a cloud of impending doom hanging over the film from its opening shot. Critically acclaimed at the time of its release, but rarely discussed today, Klute is true suspense at its most coldly calculated.
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg)
At first, Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) doesn’t have much use for words. His new partner, Leo (Bruce Dern again), jokes: “You ever think of getting your own talk show?” Jake fails to see the humor in the line, as his former partner has just been discovered dead, one of many victims of an apparently random shooting on a public bus. Pornographic photos are found in the dead cop’s office, including snapshots of a hooker whose murder several years earlier remains unsolved. Jake remembers the girl, whose case he was unable to crack — a failure which still haunts him. As Jake and Leo hit the streets, shaking up the criminal underbelly of San Francisco, they find the two cases are indeed connected. In this investigation, Jake suddenly sees a chance to make up for his past mistakes, busting open the case he was never able to solve. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) brings a solid, everything-in-its-right-place craftsmanship to the film, allowing its procedural aspects to move at a measured, thoughtful pace. Skirting the formula with a compelling attention to the minutia of detective work, The Laughing Policeman is a decidedly refreshing genre entry.
Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville)
A police detective (André Bourvil) accidentally allows a dangerous prisoner (Gian Maria Volontè) to escape a moving train, and a massive manhunt ensues. The detective is dressed-down by his superior, who reminds him that indeed all men possess the heart of a criminal. The detective isn’t so sure. Meanwhile, Cory (Alain Delon), a gangster recently released from prison, coincidentally encounters the escapee, Vogel, and saves his life. Vogel hides in the trunk, lighting a cigarette as he gets inside. (Only in French cinema would a man light a cigarette as he climbs into the trunk of a car.) These two men will become key players in a monumental jewelry heist as, all the while, the detective pushes forward, never giving up his search. A pained sense of loneliness can be felt in every scene and character, the stillness exposing a vast emptiness inside these taciturn men. Early on, Cory sullenly throws away old photos of his ex-girlfriend while, across town, the detective dotes on pet cats who barely bat an eye when he comes home. As mesmerizing as anything Jean-Pierre Melville ever made, Le Cercle Rouge is a wicked game of cat-and-mouse between dangerously skilled criminals and an equally canny detective, all of whom have abandoned any hope of a normal life.
The Nice Guys is now in wide release.
What are your favorite period-contemporary detective films of the 1970s?