Moment of Sleuth
This is Sherlock Holmes Weekend, a time when amateur sleuths from far and wide come to Cape May, New Jersey, to search for clues in the spirit of the fabled detective and his partner, Dr, Watson. Here, to mark the occasion, are 20 outstanding detectives seen in movies and on television. Where to start? It's elementary.
No one so completely embodied Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant, eccentric detective like Basil Rathbone, who starred as Sherlock Holmes in 14 movies between 1939 and 1946. With his aquiline nose and crisp British accent, Rathbone became synonymous with a role now listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most portrayed literary character in movie and TV history. Not all of Rathbone's Holmes movies are great, but check out 1939's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." When he exclaims "Hurry, Watson, the game is afoot!" you'll want to put on your deerstalker cap, grab your magnifying glass and start hunting clues, too.
Author Raymond Chandler once described his hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe as "a white knight in a trench coat." While there have been numerous excellent screen Marlowes—including Humphrey Bogart ("The Big Sleep"), Dick Powell ("Murder, My Sweet"), Robert Mitchum ("Farewell, My Lovely") and James Garner ("Marlowe")—Elliott Gould best captured Marlowe's chivalry in Robert Altman's 1973 movie "The Long Goodbye." Transported from the noirish 1940s to the hazy sunlight of 1970s Hollywood, Gould's Marlowe is a bit out of step, a little gullible and kind of a loser. It's one of Gould's best-ever performances in one of Altman's very best films.
With his jet-black hair and penchant for checkered sport jackets, Mike Connors played it cool on CBS' "Mannix" from 1967 to 1975. (Check out the 1967 episode "Warning: Live Blueberries," featuring a nightclub appearance by Buffalo Springfield.) But not even his smart, beautiful secretary, Peggy—played by Gail Fisher, one of the first black women to win a prominent role on TV—could save Joe Mannix from bodily harm week after week. During the course of the series, the private eye was shot and wounded over a dozen times and knocked unconscious an estimated 55 times. But Mannix somehow always came out in one piece, ready to fight another day.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau
Peter Sellers' gloriously incompetent Inspector Clouseau debuted in the 1963 Blake Edwards comedy "The Pink Panther" and continued to wreak bumbling havoc on everything in his path in five more films. With his indecipherable accent, which even fellow Frenchmen couldn't understand, Clouseau was the ultimate gummed-up gumshoe. Others took on the role in later films—most notably Steve Martin in a 2006 remake— but no one could mispronounce "bomb" with quite the same aplomb as Sellers.
Author Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer was the epitome of the hard-boiled private eye of the 1950s. Cynical, violent, sexist and anti-intellectual, he lived up to his name by bashing his way to the truth, usually leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Then along came one of the smartest detective movies of all time, 1955's "Kiss Me Deadly," directed by Robert Aldrich. (It marked the movie debut of Cloris Leachman.) Charismatic tough guy Ralph Meeker starred as Hammer in a sci-fi film noir that a Congressional committee claimed was "designed to ruin young viewers." Times change. In 1999, the Library of Congress preserved "Kiss Me Deadly" in the National Film Registry, deeming the movie "culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant."
More like "Mad Men" than your typical shopworn crime series, "Peter Gunn" premiered on NBC in 1958 and moved to ABC for its third and final season in 1960. Craig Stevens' Gunn was suave as hell, a sharp dresser with perfect hair, expensive taste and an enviably rare luxury back in the '50s: a car phone. The private eye loved cool jazz and his girlfriend (Lola Albright), a lounge singer at the nightclub he used as an office. The swinging scene was epitomized by Henry Mancini's surprisingly rocking theme song, a strutting electric guitar lick that's quickly capped off by a brassy swagger. You'd recognize it in a heartbeat. Best. TV Theme. Ever.
No, Kolchak wasn't exactly a private eye. He was a Chicago newspaper reporter played on TV by the great Darren McGavin. But long before Mulder, Scully and "The X Files," Kolchak investigated the supernatural, the bizarre, and the really creepy in "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," the ABC series that aired 20 episodes in 1974-75. Kolchak wore a rumpled seersucker suit and a porkpie hat that he would toss at a hat stand across the newsroom in every episode before he sat down to write about crimes committed by vampires, zombies and society's other bloodsuckers. A throwback to the glory days of newspapers, he talked to himself, smoked, drank and wrote his stories on a manual typewriter. His editor hated him.
Nick & Nora Charles
Nick and Nora Charles were smart, wealthy, sexy and a helluva lot of fun—they knew how to tie one on with the best of 'em. In 1934's "The Thin Man" and five movie sequels, they solved more crimes with a hangover than Dirty Harry Callahan ever did with his .44 Magnum. Technically, Nick (William Powell) was the couple's only licensed private investigator, but his thrill-seeking wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), matched him every sleuthing step of the way. Author Dashiell Hammett based the couple's relationship on his own 30-year romance with playwright Lillian Hellman.
Most private eyes are loners—that's part of the game. But in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 gem "The Conversation," Gene Hackman's surveillance expert Harry Caul barely has a shadow. Obsessively attempting to decipher a wiretapped conversation that includes a possible threat to his client, Caul dives deep into the rabbit hole, never fully to emerge. His existential loneliness is highlighted in the film by a moody, masterful piano score by David Shire. "The Conversation" is a classic of the Watergate era and Harry Caul is one of its noble casualties.
In the 1946 Looney Tunes adventure "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," Daffy Duck imagines himself as "Duck Twacy, the famous duck-tec-a-tive." Demolishing every hackneyed cliché in the crime-stoppers textbook in less than 10 minutes—7:35, to be exact—the Dick Tracy parody is widely considered the highlight of Daffy's distinguished cartoon career and is seared into the brain of every kid who grew up watching Looney Tunes. "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" was later awarded the honor of being the first cartoon to air when the Cartoon Network launched in 1992.
Never, ever be fooled by Marge Gunderson's Minnesota-nice demeanor, her "you betcha" colloquialisms or her pregnant-mom status. The chief of the Brainerd, Minnesota, police department is as smart and dogged as they come. Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in 1996's "Fargo." Gunderson, like the Canadian Mounties just to the north, always gets her man, even if one of them is stuffed into a wood chipper.
For a detective to rise to the level of true greatness, he or she must have a great adversary. In 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade confronts four of them—Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr. and femme fatale Mary Astor. Their pursuit of the title character proves to be their downfall. "What is it?" a cop asks Spade, referring to the priceless statue in the final scene. "The stuff that dreams are made of," Spade responds, revealing that one of the screen's great detectives was also a bit of a poet.
J.J. "Jake" Gittes
Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes is everything a great screen detective should be, though his adventures lead only to tragedy and death in Los Angeles' unholy Chinatown in this 1974 Best Picture nominee directed by Roman Polanski. Nicholson embodies the grizzled character with panache, wearing a 1930s fedora and three-piece sandy suit. "I just let the wardrobe do the acting," he explained.
Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins
"In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line." So went the tagline for "Devil in a Blue Dress," starring Denzel Washington as the recent World War II veteran who became a private eye so he could make mortgage payments on his home in Los Angeles' gritty Watts neighborhood. The 1995 neo-noir mystery movie was based on a 1990 novel by Walter Mosley, who reportedly envisioned Danny Glover as Rawlins. The author, now 66, has written 14 books starring Rawlins, but his first—"Blue Dress"—is the only one that's been made into a movie. Now, that's a crime!
Lt. Frank Columbo
Bing Crosby was originally considered for the title role of the rumpled, razor-sharp LAPD homicide detective on "Columbo," which first aired on NBC from 1971-78. Instead, thank God, the part went to Peter Falk, who inhabited Columbo with a million idiosyncrasies and outfitted him with his own shabby raincoat. Toward the end of each episode, as Columbo zeroed in on his criminal prey, he would tilt his head, give a one-eyed squint and deliver the signature line that let everyone know he had his man. "Just one more thing …" Case closed.
With grit, skill and no-nonsense smarts, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of the London Metropolitan Police Service rose to the top in a male-dominated profession determined to see her fail in the British series "Prime Suspect." Helen Mirren's Tennison battled the boys, the bad guys and alcohol over the course of the series' seven seasons, which aired intermittently from 1991 to 2006. "The whole interest in doing something like this lies in watching a character who develops," said Mirren. "You're almost watching her life as much as you are the intricacies of the police drama."
David Caruso, Jimmy Smits and Rick Schroder came and went. But "NYPD Blue" detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, appeared in every episode of the drama's 12-year run on ABC from1993-2005. Sipowicz was a cops' cop, with an old-school approach and a penchant for short-sleeved dress shirts and ties. The supposedly Brooklyn-born Sipowicz also sported the most authentic "Chicawgo" accent ever onscreen. Real-life Chicagoan Franz is a wonderful actor, but asking him to drop his accent would've been like telling Bogart to lose his lisp.
"This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I'll get back to you. [Beep.]" So began all 123 episodes of NBC's "The Rockford Files" (1974-80), starring James Garner as the shamus who lived in a mobile home at the beach and charged a flat rate of $200 a day, plus expenses— which, in a running gag, he seldom received. Unlike every other TV detective, Rockford rarely carried a gun, avoided fistfights whenever possible and made it clear he'd rather be fishing. But, man, he handled his Pontiac Firebird like "Bullitt" on speed.
Angela Lansbury was nominated for a record 12 Emmy Awards—one for each season—for playing the hometown hero of Cabot Cove, Maine, on CBS' "Murder, She Wrote" from 1984-96. The only thing she won, however, was the hearts of audiences enamored with Jessica Fletcher's adventures as a best-selling mystery writer and amateur detective. No one even seemed to mind that tiny Cabot Cove had an extraordinarily high murder rate.
Silent film genius Buster Keaton out-Sherlocks Sherlock Holmes in a way that even the master sleuth himself would admire. In the brilliant 1924 comedy "Sherlock Jr." Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who dreams of being a master detective. After falling asleep during a caper flick, he enters the movie onscreen to become a crime-solving hero. It's an astonishing film filled with innovative technical accomplishments decades before CGI was even a glimmer in George Lucas' eye.
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