Top 10 detectives: Maigret, Poirot, Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes et al!
From the genteel world of the English murder mystery to the more rough and tumble American investigations, the detective is a cinematic staple.
The arrival in cinemas of Mr. Holmes – with Ian McKellen as a late-period Sherlock – is an excellent reason to break out the magnifying glass and take a closer look at movie 'tecs: here we present ten of the best big screen sleuths...
Let's start with the most celebrated of fictional detectives, Georges Simenon's Parisian plod, Jules Maigret. For all his adventures were written in French, they have become the basis of films (and television series) made around the world, played by actors as diverse as Jean Gabin, Richard Harris and Michael Gambon. Irritatingly, few of of those mysteries are available on DVD – but at least The Man on the Eiffel Tower is.
This is maybe the best Maigret of all the adaptations which takes Simenon's meticulous clockwork plotting and embellishes it with a cast of Hollywood stalwarts, including Burgess Meredith and Franchot Tone. Best of all, it's got Charles Laughton as Maigret and it's tempting to say he's definitive. It's a shame he only played Maigret once. At least he made it count.
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Nick & Nora Charles
Dashiell Hammett was one of the great architects of hardboiled crime fiction with his character Sam Spade (of The Maltese Falcon fame) but let's go with one of his more elegant creations. Based, in part, on Hammett himself and his lover Lillian Hellman, Nick and Nora Charles are the most stylish shamuses on this list, immaculately dressed, fond of a cocktail (or two...) and possessed of a splendid dog called Asta. They were played on screen by that sophisticated pair William Powell and Myrna Loy.
'The Thin Man' was actually a character in the first case they investigated but once that movie became a huge hit – and audiences demanded more – it was taken to be Nick's nickname, even though William Powell is not especially svelte. No matter: there are six films in the series and all of them are a great deal of fun.
Sometimes, as we've just seen with The Thin Man, detectives can inspire a whole series of films. Sometimes, as in the case of Marge Gunderson, they should have done. Marge is the heroine of Fargo, although it's likely she'd reject such a hifalutin' label: good natured, down to earth (not to mention heavily pregnant), she takes charge of an investigation into a triple homicide, and manages to solve another couple of murders, a kidnapping and a spot of fraud along the way. Attagirl!
What's the very greatest detective film? Well, everyone's going to have their own favourites but it's likely Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, would figure highly on any list. The private eye is Jake Gittes, a smart, tenacious fellow created by writer Robert Towne as a conscious throwback to the classic investigators as a means of exploring America's secret history of graft and corruption.
He envisaged a trilogy, but only one sequel would be made, The Two Jakes, directed by its star, Jack Nicholson. Even if it doesn't reach the heights of Chinatown – how could it? – it's still well-worth seeing.
Over the years, Hollywood have adapted many of Raymond Chandler's books but they've never quite known what to do with his detective, Philip Marlowe. The most straightforward is Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell heading down the mean streets.
And Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye is even less scrupulous. Masterpiece it might be, but Chandler purists were outraged by the liberties that Altman took – Elliot Gould was NOT their idea of what Philip Marlowe should look like, thank you very much.
The most satisfying adaptation is likely 1975's Farewell My Lovely, with Robert Mitchum on the hunt of a runaway dame. It relies much on Mitchum's charisma, but since he was one of the all time greats, that means it works very well indeed.
This list has been light on British detectives so far; let us remedying that by welcoming the arrival of Inspector Cockrill. He is the policeman charged with solving the murder in Green For Danger, investigating the rum goings on in a hospital during wartime. It's a lovely little film, smart and witty and, best of all, it features Alastair Sim as Cockrill.
The presence of the blessed Sim in any role is always cause for celebration, and when I tell you that this is one of his best roles, you'll have a rough idea of how wonderful his Inspector Cockrill is. A rare treat – and a fine illustration of what British policemen should be like.
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Now, first things first. Charlie Chan is an Asian character but was usually played by white folks in make up. That might be a problem for some people, even though the character is treated with huge respect – seriously, he's just about the most competent character in movie history. But if you can look beyond such things, you'll find that these are superbly entertaining mysteries.
The films evolved a winning formula: Charlie Chan pitches up at an exotic location, far away from his native Honolulu – he visits London, Egypt, the Olympics and many other places. There, a murder would be committed and the local law enforcement would be baffled. Only honourable Chan sees through the red herrings, reversals and machinations to bring the miscreant to justice.
There had been other films featuring Hercule Poirot but it wasn't until Murder on the Orient Express that justice was done to Agatha Christie's little Belgian sleuth. Albert Finney set his little grey cells to work as Poirot, trying to decide which of the all star cast had committed the titular crime. Was it Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall or Ingrid Bergman?
Peter Ustinov took over to solve the murders in Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun; with scripts by playwright Anthony Shaffer, they're even better than the first – witty, playful and thoroughly devious. Oh, and they look utterly gorgeous too, never more so than on Studio Canal's recent blu-ray release: never have the exotic locations have looked so enticing. For the serious armchair detective it gets no better.
No other fictional figure has appeared in as many films as Sherlock Holmes. Even a bald list of notable films would take ages: you'd have to include the exploits of Basil Rathbone as Baker Street's most famous tenant – that film series is hardly faithful the books but great fun.
Then there is Peter Cushing, who faced down The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Michael Caine's more comedic turn in Without A Clue. And that's even before we turn to television, where the likes of Jeremy Brett and 'Bendy' Cumberbatch have donned the deerstalker.
Many Holmesians, though, cite Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as the most memorable of the consulting detective's excursions on to the big screen. It's not to every taste – Wilder couldn't quite keep his comedic impulses in check – but it is a haunting and poignant film, and our hero has never seemed so human.
So you've got a mystery to solve – and Sherlock Holmes is busy? Who can you trust to track down the stolen goods, round up the bad guys AND get the girl? Why, who else but Sherlock Jr.... OK, so if you want to split hairs, it doesn't take its mystery as seriously as most detective movies. But when something is as entertaining as this Buster Keaton feature, do such things really matter?
Post-modern long before such things were dreamt of – Buster plays a film projectionist who manages to enter the screen, where he learns how to be the hero he's always dreamt of being – it is cleverer, funnier and just plain better than most other movies.
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