Movies and television have seen the rise and fall and subsequent rise of of countless genre fads– most recently: vampires, YA dystopian fantasies, and superheroes. But one formula that has always stood the test of time (pre-dating moving pictures actually) is the mystery detective genre. Television has never had any shortage of whodunit thrillers or case-of-the-week procedurals. In fact, the TV detective genre is stronger than ever thanks to the recent critical success of shows like HBO’s True Detective and NBC’s Hannibal. And the usual suspects, such as the various branches of CSI and Law and Order, still continue to crank out the ratings dependably. Audiences enjoy the suspense and the game of guessing, and they’re drawn toward the dependable combination of knowing what to expect and being surprised. So if no one seems to be losing interest, why has Hollywood put a halt on detective movies? Sure, cops make their fair share of features and cameos in buddy comedies and the occasional thriller, but I’m talking about the films that revolve around the mystery. There’s no shortage of fans for the genre, and they’re incredibly loyal. Vampires, zombies, and superheroes may be here to stay, but super-sleuths need their chance at a revival on the big screen. Hollywood detectives come in all shapes and sizes, using various methods to hunt down the bad guy. Although the best movie detectives exhibit a combination of the best sleuthing traits, let’s break down some of the most well known detective styles along with the reasons we need to see more of them.
The Female Detective
Also known as the she-tective, the female detective can be hard to come by, just like any other fully fleshed out, standalone female character. The attempt to revolve a mystery flick around a central female character has been made entirely too few times. Are movies still hesitant to gender bend and make waves in this predominantly male territory? Or is everyone just too damn afraid they won’t live up to Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs? Foster’s empowering performance inspired a slight surge in female detectives in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, with the likes of Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie taking their turns at living up to their predecessor. I’ll take a stand in defense of Jolie in The Bone Collector or Taking Lives any day, but none of these films showcased groundbreaking roles of the caliber of Foster. Isn’t it about time for someone else to give it a shot?
The Private Eye and The Hard-boiled Detective
The private investigator is a character that’s been around as long as the detective story itself. Most private eyes have the reputation for being wise cracking, whiskey drinking, hard asses who don’t play well with others, often turning to the investigation business after being booted from the police force for insubordination. Their flawed nature falls in line with the influence provided by the surge in the concept of the anti-hero during the period dominated by the film noir, and has become as much of a staple of the genre as the femme fatale. One of the most famous private eyes in television, literature, and film is Philip Marlowe, a character created by the legendary author Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe, who’s been portrayed by iconic actors such as Robert Montgomery and Humphrey Bogart, continues to influence the way audiences picture the typical traits of a private eye.
Although classic neo-noir crime films can translate as outdated character exaggerations now, it’s not impossible take these elements and inject them into something current and contemporary. 2005’s dark mystery comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang draws from almost every stereotypical aspect of some of the most famous noir films, all while injecting just enough sarcasm and comedy to make it feel like new. We get the over the top private eye, the overly ambitious companion, and even a femme fatale. Robert Downey Jr. (one of this first comeback roles pre-Iron Man) and Val Kilmer are both at their most enjoyable here, and the result is one of the most underrated movies of the last ten years. Why has nothing like this happened since?
Unfortunately, the private eye and the hard-boiled detective have largely faded into the background in the entertainment world in recent years. However, audiences were treated this year to a big screen resurgence of that cult favorite, Veronica Mars. The snarky, wisecracking teen private eye not only breathed new life into the genre for a new generation, and it’s no wonder, since she represents some of the best qualities of both the modern female detective and the private eye. Although the television series was cancelled after only three seasons, here’s to hoping its continuously growing popularity combined with the Kickstarter funded movie sparks a renewed demand for these kind of spunky characters.
The concept of the duo in movies transcends every genre. From best friends, to buddy cops, to angry neighbors, all great things come in pairs, and detective duo is no different. The reason why the duo has so much potential is the freedom of the dynamic. There are no concrete rules for creating the perfect balance between a pair of people who are working together to solve a crime as long as they have the chemistry to make it work. You can be grim and somber in your partnership, like Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as Detectives Mills and Somerset in 1995’s Se7en, or you can be playfully condescending, like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series. The key is balance. And always catching the bad guy. The last Sherlock Holmes movie was in 2011, and no memorable detective duos have been out cracking the case since. Rust and Marty showed us how powerful the duo can be this year on TV’s True Detective, so let’s take a page out of HBO’s book and demand that the formula be brought back to the silver screen.