DVD Article

Private Eyes

Five classic detective movies you can't miss -- We look back at the films that defined the genre, including ''The Maltese Falcon'' and ''The Big Sleep''

Five classic detective movies you can't miss

The hard-boiled detective, a lonely guy walking the tough streets of the city with nothing more than a hat, a coat, and a gun: His story has been a staple of literature and film ever since Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created the prototypes in the '20s and '30s. The latest example, Jack Nicholson's Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, is a critical and commercial miss. So if you too feel the first Jake was enough, stay home and watch the form at its best in these detective movies.

The Maltese Falcon
(MGM/UA, 1941)
Though Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before John Huston got to it (in 1931 and 1936), neither version really caught the Hammett essence. But the 1941 Falcon is one of the most accomplished screen adaptations of a literary work ever made. Huston, in his debut as a writer-director, finds the perfect visual equivalent for Hammett's tangy prose in almost every frame. And his cast couldn't be better, with Humphrey Bogart the embodiment of the cynical but honest detective hero Sam Spade. A+

Murder, My Sweet
(Fox Hills, 1944)
Farewell, My Lovely (Nelson, 1975)
Murder, My Sweet was the first significant screen adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels and, though nobody realized it at the time, a ground-breaking work. As Marlowe, Dick Powell shed his male ingenue image and assumed a new identity as a Tough Guy in a Trench Coat. But more important, Murder's doomy fatalism and highly stylized look — quirky camera angles, exaggerated shadows — virtually defined the film noir genre. Though Murder has considerable virtues, Dick Richards' Farewell, My Lovely (a remake using Chandler's original title) is even better. Star Robert Mitchum, with his trademark world-weariness, makes a perfect Marlowe, and his costar, green-eyed Charlotte Rampling, is the ultimate Chandleresque femme fatale. Richards has an impeccable touch with the period atmosphere, and he doesn't have to pussyfoot around some of the sex- and-drugs story elements that the '40s censors ouldn't handle. Both pictures: A-

The Big Sleep
(MGM/ UA, 1946)
Humphrey Bogart wasn't Chandler's ideal Philip Marlowe — the author's choice was Cary Grant. But Bogart's portrayal of the detective as wisecracking moralist now seems to be what makes The Big Sleep the best of the eight Philip Marlowe pictures made to date. Of course, the plot is so confusing that nobody — not director Howard Hawks, coscreenwriters Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and William Faulkner, or even Chandler himself — has ever been able to make complete sense of it. But thanks to a superb ensemble (including Lauren Bacall and cowboy actor Bob Steele as a murderous thug), a poisonous Los Angeles atmosphere you can cut with a knife, and typically high-powered direction by Hawks, the whole thing is so engrossing you're not likely to notice. Coolest scene: Bogey and bookstore clerk Dorothy Malone trading double entendres over a bottle of bourbon. A

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
(MCA/Universal, 1982)
The detective spoof to end all detective spoofs. Steve Martin, as L.A. gumshoe Rigby Reardon, gets involved with one of the most confusing cases in screen history — not to mention a who's who of '40s stars (Bogart, James Cagney, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Laughton) wandering in from their old movies through the miracle of sophisticated film editing. Dead Men, like Woody Allen's Zelig, is essentially a stunt, but it's a terrific stunt. The vintage footage is seamlessly integrated into the action, and the end result is both very funny and very true to the conventions of the detective movie. Great detail: Miklos Rozsa's film noir score. Great running gag: Rachel Ward sucking bullets out of Martin's gunshot wounds. A-

Originally posted Sep 14, 1990 Published in issue #31 Sep 14, 1990 Order article reprints
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