For whatever reason, the detective saga is now seen as largely the preserve of TV. From Line of Duty to The Bridge, via any number of other programmes, there seems to be a consensus that it is the long-form nature of episodic storytelling is one that best mirrors the slow, deliberate accruing of evidence that a saga of this nature seems to demand, delivered via the wonders of a boxset format that can be either savoured on a nightly basis, or binged greedily in one go.
However, there are also many films that offer something rather different. For a start, the plot has to be wrapped up in two or so hours, meaning that there is often a fast-paced concision that can be absent from more expansive television shows. And cinema has often been a very happy medium for the detective saga, whether it’s classics of film noir such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon to more contemporary interpretations of the genre. As we look forward to Kenneth Branagh’s new film of Death on the Nile, with Branagh himself returning in the role of Hercule Poirot, here are six of the best examples, all of which do something new and hugely entertaining with the medium.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Whether you know the central twist in Agatha Christie’s legendary murder mystery or not, it was interpreted with surprising brio and energy by Kenneth Branagh in his 2017 sleeper hit. As Poirot, he followed in the footsteps of both David Suchet and Albert Finney, who played the role in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film, but managed to make the role his own, complete with a truly luxuriant and oversized moustache.
The all-star cast included actors whose reputation was somewhat on the wane at the time of filming (Johnny Depp), those who would shortly become megastars (Olivia Colman) and some of the great character actors of our time: Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench et al. Branagh also deserves credit for casting the young actor Tom Bateman as Poirot’s sidekick Bouc, a role that he will reprise in Death on the Nile.
Knives Out (2019)
While we wait for No Time To Die to be released, those who are missing Daniel Craig should watch his excellent performance in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a murder mystery with a distinctly comic bite. Craig plays the private detective Benoit Blanc, who is hired by a wealthy Massachusetts family to investigate the murder of the patriarch Harlan, who made his money from writing a series of bestselling crime novels.
Johnson, whose films have ranged from the sublime (Looper) to the ridiculous (The Last Jedi), made an auspicious debut with his high school-set film noir Brick, and this revisits the knowingly arch tone of that film, with Craig an especially fruity presence as Blanc, complete with delicious drawl. The sublime cast includes the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Christopher Plummer, but the film is all but stolen by Ana de Armas as Harlan’s nurse, seeing through the whole ridiculous edifice for what it is.
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is one of the comparatively few detective films that successfully manages to exist in the science-fiction genre, although as the years go back, its vision of a decaying and corrupt world divided between rich and poor seems ever-less fantastical and more prophetic.
As the cynical, world-weary Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford, who apparently loathed playing the character, delivers one of his best and most nuanced performances, and the central romance between him and Sean Young as the replicant Rachael is both affecting and vaguely sinister. The question as to whether Deckard himself is a replicant aroused much controversy (Ford and Scott disagree), but this remains one of the most influential and much-imitated films of its kind ever made. The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is also excellent.
David Fincher has always been drawn to the dark side of the human experience in his films, and his serial killer film Se7en is one of the finest examples of the genre. With Zodiac, however, he tackled the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer, a maniac who attacked people in San Francisco and the surrounding areas in the late 60s and early 70s, and delivered a gripping and entirely chilling police procedural.
He focuses on a trio of protagonists, political cartoonist Jake Gyllenhaal, cynical crime reporter Robert Downey Jnr and perpetually frustrated detective Mark Ruffalo, as he explores their fruitless efforts to discover the identity of the killer, as they go on endless wild goose chases and their minds threaten to snap with the pressure. Fincher plays fair with the audience – one leaves with a good idea of who the Zodiac killer probably was – but it’s the intense focus on the nuts and bolts of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to solve a case that lingers in the mind.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Downey Jnr also appeared in a considerably lighter and more riotous role in Shane Black’s sublime 2005 black comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which he plays a petty criminal who is thrown together with Val Kilmer’s magnificently contemptuous detective ‘Gay’ Perry in order to solve a series of convoluted crimes in Los Angeles.
As so often in this genre, the plot verges on the incomprehensible, but any aficionado of Black’s writing will know that he excels at the back-and-forth badinage between his characters, and so the dynamic between Kilmer and Downey Jnr remains one of the highlights of either man’s career. Throw in some marvellously deranged moments, such as a demonstration of the perils of a game of Russian roulette, and you have one of the most endlessly entertaining detective films ever made.
LA Confidential (1998)
At the 1998 Oscars, Titanic dominated, which was a snub to a far better, richer film. Curtis Hanson’s panoramic epic of crime and corruption followed three very different detectives, as played by Guy Pearce, a pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe and a pre-downfall Kevin Spacey, as they investigate the aftermath of a massacre in a coffee shop, and find themselves mired in the depths of both police corruption and a prostitution scandal.
The appeal of LA Confidential is its sublime confidence and effortless evocation of Fifties Los Angeles, but with a grittiness and nastiness that would never have been depicted in the cinema of the era. The supporting cast, especially an Oscar-winning Kim Basinger, is wonderful, the dialogue snappy (as you would expect from an adaptation of James Ellroy’s magnificent novel) and it all ends in a brilliantly staged shoot-out, followed by a splendidly cynical coda.