A detective movie can be a lot of things: a moody noir, a screwball comedy, a sci-fi thriller. Any of these genres can follow one protagonist trying to answer a question. Detective movies follow searchers– people are not satisfied until they get to the bottom of it all. Often, the answer isn’t as simple as they’d like, instead raising more questions about the world around us. Here are the best detective movies ever.

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Best Detective Movies

12. Sherlock Jr. (1924)

All of Sherlock Jr.

The mystery at the core of Sherlock Jr. is straightforward. What makes Buster Keaton’s film great is the comedy around it, along with his pioneering use of the cinematic medium. 

Through hilarious slapstick and incredible moments like the dream sequence, Keaton creates a movie that looks at the power of ambition, as well as the power of movies.

Sherlock Jr. is Keaton at his finest. His deadpan facial expressions and perfectly-executed stunts throughout the film highlight what made him a generational talent.

Movie Detectives


Sure, the detective work in Sherlock Jr. isn’t anything to write home about, but the movie tackles so much more. There’s a reason it’s considered one of the greatest comedies ever.

Best Detective Movies

11. Inherent Vice (2014)

Confusing, weird, and, above all, funny

It’s not exactly clear what the mystery is in Inherent Vice, nor is it very clear what the answer is. Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoned noir follows Doc, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he meanders across 1970 Los Angeles.

The confusion is a function of the film, not a flaw. The haziness of the plot creates an ineffable vibe that perfectly captures the slow-motion implosion of the counterculture movement as it entered a new decade. Characters disappear and reappear without any apparent logic and larger forces move in the background without any accountability.

Put all this together with an immaculate soundtrack and evocative cinematography and you’ve got yourself a defining neo-noir of the 2010s.

Movie Detectives


Inherent Vice is a throwback to the great neo-noirs of the 1970s– a few of which we’ll mention later. Don’t let the comically complex mystery bog you down, just let the mood of the film wash over you.

Best Detective Movies

10. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Silence of the Lambs scene

What can be said about Silence of the Lambs that hasn’t already been spoken into the ground? The expertly crafted screenplay, the stellar performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and the unnerving direction by Jonathan Demme– all seem like trite points.

Silence of the Lambs’ power can be seen in its countless imitators which followed. The movie’s critical and commercial success made it the most influential thriller since Fritz Lang’s M.

Yes, some of Demme’s masterpiece hasn’t aged well (Buffalo Bill), but its overall impact has not waned in the decades that have passed since its release.

Movie Detectives


Silence of the Lambs is a certified classic. If you’re a fan of any serial killer detective movies that have come out in its wake, then this is definitely a film to put on your watchlist.

Best Detective Movies

9. The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye scene

It’s safe to say there would be no Inherent Vice without Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (would there be a PTA without Altman?). The Long Goodbye is the quintessence of the cynical detective who has no idea what’s going on.

Frequent Altman collaborator Elliott Gould plays Philip Marlowe, a lonesome sleuth who accidentally gets wrapped up in a mystery inside of a mystery. It’s Gould at his coolest, and Altman at his finest.

Like Silence of the Lambs, this is a picture that spawned a lot of copies, albeit a bit more niche. Returning back to the source, you’ll see why so many filmmakers have been profoundly affected by this wandering classic.

Good Detective Movies


If you like your detectives to be just as confused as you are, The Long Goodbye is the movie for you. It’s an impeccable mood piece that you’ll want to stretch on far beyond its runtime.

Best Detective Movies

8. Seven (1995)

Great performances in Seven

Seven is filled with memorable moments. That hair-raising gluttony scene, the reveal of John Doe’s apartment, and, who could forget, “What’s in the box?”. All these unforgettable scenes add up to a horribly bleak movie that seems to take place in one of the rings of Hell. 

Although David Fincher had already directed Alien 3 (and a lot of music videos), Seven is the first movie that really introduced the public to his sensibilities. The green-yellow color palette, high contrast, exacting coverage, dark outlook– it’s all here.

Seven is a magic trick, at once viscerally disgusting and endlessly rewatchable. How many times have we heard Detective Mills’ final lament?

Good Detective Movies


Seven’s not for the faint of heart, but if you give it a watch, you may just get to the bottom of the tantalizing mystery at the center of the film: is it Seven or Se7en?

Best Detective Movies

7. Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles in control

The title Touch of Evil is a bit misleading. There is a lot of evil in Orson Welles’ definitive noir, which would be the crowning achievement of nearly any other director’s career.

Like with Citizen Kane, Welles pulls off both an incredible performance in front of the camera while also directing like no one else could. The famous opening scene of the film is the most flashy piece of direction, but the entire movie is filled with moments of brilliant blocking and lighting.

This is not to mention Evil’s subject matter, dealing with the complex border politics between the US and Mexico, as well as the cancerous racism plaguing American law enforcement. It’s a film as relevant today as it was in the 50s.

Good Detective Movies


It’s best to make it a general rule never to pass up an Orson Welles movie. Touch of Evil is no exception.

Best Detective Movies

6. Blade Runner (1982)

She’s a Replicant

There’s never been another neo-noir like Blade Runner. The neon-drenched streets mixed with the ageless architecture of the Tyrell corporation, Harrison Ford’s icy performance mixed with Rutger Hauer’s humanistic tour-de-force: it’s a movie filled with seeming contradictions that complement each other perfectly.

Detective movies always wrestle with questions much larger than the mystery at hand, and this is especially true for Blade Runner, which asks nothing less than, “What does it mean to be human?”

After an unforgettable monologue from Hauer and a stirring final shot, the question feels all the more urgent and unanswered.

Top Detective Movies


Few would disagree that Blade Runner is a certified classic. To watch the movie is to be transported to a richly realized world filled with complex characters. 

Best Detective Movies

5. Chinatown (1974)

A respectable man?

After the first golden age of noirs in the 1940s and 50s, the 70s saw a new resurgence for the genre, and Chinatown is the crown jewel of the era.

Perhaps no other noir better encapsulated the disillusioned zeitgeist of 1970s America. As Jake Gittes digs deeper into the mystery presented to him, threads begin to unravel into uncomfortable truths.

Chinatown has been analyzed by critics for half a century; as a parable of the dark history behind LA’s urban planning, a modern interpretation of Oedipus Rex, and a larger metaphor for the power dynamics in America. It’s a layered and complex work worthy of re-watching.

Great Detective Movies


Chinatown has long been heralded as one of the greatest movies of all time, and there’s no mystery as to why. As a cherry on top, it also boasts Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance.

Best Detective Movies

4. Heat (1995)

Does it get any better than this?

Heat splits its time between detective and criminal, drawing parallels between the two professions. Both McCauley and Hanna are men addicted to their work, striving for perfection at the cost of having a personal life.

But beyond its investigation of destructive masculinities, Heat is simply a fun watch. The heist scene is one of the greatest shootouts of all time, the diner scene is one of the most thrilling acting showdowns ever, and the final scene is as gripping as it is devastating.

Michael Mann continues to return to Heat, writing a book which takes place in its world and working on a sequel. Watching the film, it’s hard to blame him.

Best Detective Movies of All Time


Heat has everything you could want from a heist movie and a detective movie. It’s an epic work by one of Hollywood’s great directors.

Best Detective Movies

3. Cure (1997)

Cure in all its dark glory

Cure is a masterclass in the atmosphere. All of its elements— production design, score, cinematography, and performances— meld together seamlessly to create an undercurrent of amorphic dread.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s greatest film is a juggling act: a captivating mystery, powerful domestic drama, and science-fiction curiosity all at once. Koji Yakusho plays a haunted detective searching for a culprit for a series of nearly identical grisly deaths, and as he gets closer to an answer, he strays farther from an understanding of what is and isn’t real.

Cure is a psychological thriller like no other, and remains a towering achievement in the wave of Japanese horror from the late 90s.

Best Detective Movies of All Time


Cure manages to be as captivating as a Hitchcock movie while as meditative as a Tarkofsky. You have to see it to believe it.

Detective Films

2. Memories of Murder (2003)

The chase

Memories of Murder is a detective movie that only Bong Joon-ho could make. The writer/director’s calling cards are all here– genre-bending, flawless high-wire performance from Song Kang-ho, patient and ingenious direction.

Memories of Murder’s power lie in its characters, particularly Park Doo-man. Park is simply not a good detective; he’s barely a good guy. And yet he wants to solve these murders more than anyone else. So the question is: how far can sheer force of will take you?

The film is based on a true story, and Bong Joon-ho manages to make it both an entertaining thriller while also being respectful towards the real-world victims of the horrific crimes.

In the end, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a broken system made up of broken people.

Detective Films


Memories of Murder is Bong Joon-ho’s greatest achievement (there, we said it). If you’re a fan of Zodiac, this is a must-watch– Fincher’s work is essentially an adaptation of this.

Old Detective Movies

1. Vertigo (1958)

Hitchcock experimenting

How can you have a list of detective movies without Hitchcock? Vertigo is arguably the Master of Suspense’s best work and is often in the conversation for the greatest movie of all time.

That’s because Vertigo is evergreen– it feels as groundbreaking today as it was in 1958. Like a lot of entries on this list, Vertigo is hugely influential, and yet no one has come close to replicating its power.

Hitchcock’s film is chameleonic; it shifts in meaning and effect depending on how you approach it. It’s a bedeviling mystery, yes, but it’s also a moving love story, one which unflinchingly depicts the destruction wrought by the search for perfection.

As such, Hitchcock has never been more self-reflexive, implicitly commenting on his own controlling nature. On its face, Vertigo is a stirring caper, but the more time you spend with it, the more it unfurls, spinning out like Saul Bass’s opening credits.

Old Detective Movies


No one made mysteries like Hitchcock, and the director reached the peak of his powers with Vertigo. The film shows us a maestro firing on all cylinders, and it’s a privilege to watch.

Up Next

100 Best Horror Movies

Have you gotten your fill of famous detective movies? Well, then, it’s time to pivot to an adjacent genre: horror. Get your thrills and chills from our list of the best scary movies.

Up Next: Best Horror Movies →
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