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Private Detective Investigator films: Five Overlooked Classics

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by MacQ


Build My Gallows High (Out of the Past)

This superb example of classic noir comes straight from the golden-era of the genre.  Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a private investigator turned small-time garage owner, whose shady past  comes back to haunt him with a vengeance.

A visit from an old acquaintance causes Bailey’s idyllic life to unravel dramatically as he’s caught up in a tightly plotted tale of blackmail, set ups and double crossing.

The sense of dark claustrophobia reaches critical mass thanks to the underhand dealings of femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who sits at the centre of the complex web of intrigue like a deadly black widow. 

Quote:  “You’re going to take the rap and play along.  You’re going to make every exact move I tell you. If you don’t, I’ll kill you.  And I’ll promise you one thing: it won’t be quick.  I’ll break you first.  You won’t be able to answer a telephone or open a door without thinking, ‘This is it.’  And it when it comes, it still won’t be quick.  And it won’t be pretty.  You can take your choice. “

Alphaville (The Strange Tale of Lemmy Caution)

Purists might argue that Lemmy caution – the tough talking, chain smoking figure at the centre of Jean Luc Goddard’s 1965 masterpiece Alphaville – is more secret agent than private investigator.

But the argument is purely academic.  From the film’s opening scenes Caution (Eddie Constantine) establishes himself as the quintessential tough-talking gumshoe of noir, with lashings of existential angst thrown in for good measure.  Never has a private investigator smoked more prolifically on screen and the hotel fight scene – just minutes into the film is one of my favourite in cinema.

Caution had been a successful private investigator on French TV before featuring in Alphaville.  The choice to cast him as the central character in Alphaville is genius, (possibly akin to placing Taggart or Magnum PI at the centre of Blade Runner.)  We shouldn’t forget either, the huge debt owed to Alphaville by Blade runner for paving the way for moody noir/sci fi mashups.

 Goddard’s genre-bending film pokes gentle fun at the noir genre, whilst still managing to become a treasured – if a little weird – classic in its own right. 

Quote:  “Something’s not in orbit in the capital of this galaxy.”


Roman Polanski’s take on film noir was voted best film ever by the Independent and Guardian’s expert board of film critics.

That’s best film ever. It could be due to Jack Nicholson’s superb performance as JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, a private investigator specialising in matrimonial investigations whose nose is literally put out of joint as he fights to repair his tattered reputation.

 Of course, it could also be down to Polanski’s superb, taught direction or Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay.  More probably it’s the magical mix of all three of these ingredients that sees the film so often cited as among the best ever.

Quote:  “How do you like them apples?”

Blood Simple

“When blood is involved, nothing is simple.”  So reads the strap-line of the Cohen Brothers’ 1988 brooding neo-noir Blood Simple.  Fans of the directors will know that when the Cohen brothers are involved, nothing is simple either.  Things are anything but simple for private investigator Loren Visser (M Emmet Walsh) when he’s employed by bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) to bump off his cheating girlfriend and her lover.

But Visser isn’t the most morally grounded character.  In fact you could say, he goes way beyond the anti hero archetype, emerging at the other side as an out and out villain.  The Cohen brothers ratchet the tension to near-unwatchable levels, with a series of their trademark plot twists and turns.  Be warned, Blood Simple is definitely not for the squeamish.

Quote:  “Give me a call whenever you want to cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” 

The Missing Person

Inde director Director Noel Buschel brings the noir genre bang up to date with the tale of private investigator John Rosow (Michael Shannon) as he is hired to trace a man who used the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre to fake his own death and begin a new life.

But Rosow has problems of his own.  His fondness for vast quantities of hard liquor is extreme compared to even the most gin-soaked of private investigator, putting him firmly in the bracket of fully-fledged alcoholic.

Despite his state of permanent inebriation, Rosow uses some clever tactics to follow his man to Mexico, where he uncovers some unsavoury goings-on.

Despite the 9/11 motif running throughout, you’d be forgiven for thinking this overlooked film was set in the 1940s.  Rosow’s struggle to get to grips with mobile phones and is accosted for jay-walking by Segway-riding cops are among the few clues of The Missing Person’s present day setting.  Rosow’s crisis of conscience on reuniting his man with the femme fatale of the piece makes for compelling viewing.

Quote:  “Please stop calling me boss, I’m not Bruce Springsteen.”


Billy Collage is a copywriter with www.privatedetective.co.uk, a private detective agency with more than 40 years experience, based in Manchester, UK.

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