The Private Detective: A Beginner’s Guide

1. THE BIG SLEEP (1946).

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is summoned to the house of General Sternwood. The general, retired and wealthy, asks Marlowe to investigate a blackmail scheme targeting Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Soon enough, Marlowe finds himself embroiled in a seedy Los Angeles underworld steeped in gambling and pornography. Playing host to one of the greatest romances — Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall — in cinematic history, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is the quintessential film noir, tackling the unsavoury, real-world issues which were atypical of cinema at that time and featuring an unfazed, irrepressible Bogart.

Chinatown Film 2. CHINATOWN (1974).

What begins as a routine infidelity case for Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired to expose an adulterer in Los Angeles, soon becomes an uncompromising entanglement of deceit, corruption, murder, and sordid family affairs. Directed by Roman Polanski, a master of the suspenseful, psychological horror, and featuring the likes of Faye Dunaway and John Huston (himself a mainstay in the film-noir genre), Chinatown is a neo-noir which is sure to puzzle, enthrall and disturb, not least for its intricate, multi-layered narrative and underlying elements of incest and sleaze.

Night Moves Film 3. NIGHT MOVES (1975).

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), stubborn and tough-minded, is hired by an over-the-hill, ageing B-movie actress to track down her runaway daughter; meanwhile, he tries to come to terms with a fast-failing marriage. Despite not being a commercial success upon release, Night Moves — directed by Bonnie and Clyde‘s Arthur Penn — is a film which sits deservedly among Hackman’s best work. As with the formidable The French Connection, we are introduced to a brash, cocksure Hackman who is relentless in his pursuit of the moral good.

 The Maltese Falcon 4. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941).

Having taken on a case brought to him by an unforthcoming, mysterious woman, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) soon finds himself knee-deep in trouble as his partner is murdered and he is approached by a man demanding he track down a valuable statuette: the Maltese falcon. John Huston’s film-noir classic finds Bogart, once again, in a genre to which he undoubtedly belongs. His coolness, calmness and self-assurance in the face of precariousness, not to mention Huston’s mastery and craftsmanship while tackling tough issues head on, were what set Bogart apart from the rough-housing, brutish protagonists which followed. Huston and Bogart made a total of five films together, four of which are considered classics.

The Long Goodbye 5. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is asked to drive his long-term friend to Mexico, all the while unaware that his return to Los Angeles will see him questioned about the death of his friend’s wife. Marlowe remains a prime suspect until his friend turns up dead in Mexico from an apparent suicide — his suspicions start to burgeon that his friend didn’t kill himself. Directed by Robert Altman and based upon Raymond Chandler’s eponymous novel of 1953, The Long Goodbye, as with Chandler’s The Big Sleep, sees Marlowe, a morally decent detective, caught up in a morally indecent, smutty Los Angeles.

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