Private investigators prove to be some of the most colorful characters in movie history. They make for great leads because of their unique techniques of collecting information, figuring out clues, and solving the mysteries. Aside from their fascinating methods, the audience is drawn to the investigator’s intriguing past. A captivating history fused with the lead’s brooding attitude and mysterious charm all add up to create the modern day out-of-the-box hero. We list down 7 of the most unforgettable private eyes in films.
1. Sam Spade (Maltese Falcon)
This private investigator first made his debut in Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Maltese Falcon.” The author created perhaps the most iconic prototype of private investigators with Sam Spade: a trench coat wearing, handsome man with a fedora hat and a cigarette in hand. He was mean, cynical, cold, and sometimes violent, yet viewers loved him because he did everything to solve the mystery of his slain partner. Humphrey Bogart’s memorable portrayal of Sam Spade in 1941 helped seal his status as a premiere actor. The film even made it to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series and was considered by the Panorama du Film Noir Americain as the first major film noir.
2. Philip Marlowe (Murder My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye)
A creation of author Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe was played on the big screen by several actors including Humphrey Bogart, Elliot Gould and, arguably the best portrayal of all, Dick Powell. This private eye is best remembered for his wisecracking insults and his love for chess and poetry.
3. Harry Angel (Angel Heart)
During his early days as an actor, Mickey Rourke proved to be a good choice for this private investigator. The disheveled, brooding, loner look set the tone for his character’s situation. Harry Angel was down on his luck and, just when he thought his destiny’s about to change, he meets an eccentric client who sends him on a weird and crazy journey towards the unexpected. This character goes to show just how far a private investigator would go to help his client.
4. Jake “J.J” Gittes (Chinatown, The Two Jakes)
This is a private eye whose cases usually revolve around marital problems and alleged infidelities. Played by Hollywood’s original bad boy, Jack Nicholson, Jake is a walking contradiction. He has a nasty reputation and is popular for his unorthodox methods, but he’s also known for never betraying his friends or extorting confidantes. His weakness, just like James Bond, lies in his need to always save a damsel in distress.
5. Mike Hammer (Kiss Me Deadly, I the Jury)
Deviating from the “tough but sensitive on the inside” type of private investigators, Mike Hammer is as brutal and cruel as any villain can be. Ralph Meeker breathes life into Mike’s character and portrays him as a borderline psychopath. Although he possesses enough street-smart, his womanizing tendencies often land him in difficult and dangerous situations. Unwilling to leave mysteries unsolved, he will also go to great lengths, even sacrificing his life for the truth, in order to discover cold hard facts
6. Lew Harper (Harper, The Drowning Pool)
From the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, came the Polaroid make-over for the PI genre in the 1960s with the movie Harper. Similar to other private eyes that came before him, Paul Newman plays Lew Harper, a down on his luck PI. Despite being dumped by his wife and being thrown out of their house, Lew gets to work on an interesting case brought by an equally interesting and beautiful client. The character tackled another case in the second film that also involved helping a beautiful woman. Both cases showed Lew getting to the bottom of the mystery and meeting colorful characters along the way.
7. Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, A Game of Shadows, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Young Sherlock Holmes)
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this fictional private detective has been proclaimed by the Guinness World Records as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television. Having appeared on screen over 250 times, this character has been portrayed by over 75 actors including Christopher Lee, Charles Heston, Peter O’Toole, Christoper Plummer, Peter Cook, Roger Moore, John Cleese, Jonny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. Though each artist’s portrayal differs, several of Sherlock’s signature traits remain, including his tenacity in his research, keen observation, interest in forensics, and his unmatched logical reasoning.
Private investigators are among cinema’s most popular protagonists because of their ability to seduce the audience with their enigmatic brand and unique personality. Viewers can’t help but be drawn to them because, even though they present a tough exterior, they sometimes present a vulnerable and emphatic side, especially when trying to solve the cases brought to them.
Private investigators are considered a different kind of hero, in that they are willing to sacrifice a lot in the name of truth and justice. Their methods may be unruly, and sometimes border on the illegal, but in the end, their intentions are pure and relatable. This romanticized idea of private investigators sets the tone for moviegoers to fall in love with them time and again.