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The best movie detectives of all time

This one's not so elementary...

The best movie detectives of all time
Andrew Williams
17 September 2023

Hercule Poirot has returned to the big screen once more in A Haunting in Venice, the third of Kenneth Branagh's Poirot flicks.

This time the moustachioed detective's adventures get more of a horror bent. But don't worry, this is a 12A-rated film so you can still take the kids. If they can handle the odd scare.

A Haunting in Venice also might just be the strongest of Kenneth Branagh's Poirot trio. There's no arguing against the ensemble, which includes Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Dornan.

But does Poirot sit at the top of your own personal shortlist of movie detectives? We've dug deep into the case files of cinema's past to uncover the greatest detectives of the silver screen.

We're not so much interested in whether a detective is a grade-A crime-solving genius here. Many of them are, but we're looking for that magnetic on-screen impact of a truly mesmerising detective character. And, sure, if that helps them solve the odd murder, all the better.

Get involved and vote for your favourite below.

Best movie detectives

Best movie detectives

1. Eddie Valiant, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit is notable for a whole bunch of reasons, from its incredibly stylish merging of animated and live action content to a truly terrifying performance by Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. That Bob Hoskins manages to stand out at all as Eddie Valiant in such a festival of larger-than-life elements is testament to the power of this character, and Hoskins’s acting. He’s a noir gumshoe, forced to work with toon characters he can barely stand. A remarkable technical achievement for 1988, and a great film to boot.

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Best movie detectives

2. Marge Gunderson, Fargo

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Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her performance as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief on the trail of kidnapping gone wrong in Fargo. Just as you’d expect from the Coen brothers, Gunderson is a detective with a difference. Her “Minnesota nice” accent an demeanour make her one of the most memorable characters from the Coen brothers’ movie line-up. And that’s saying something.

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Best movie detectives

3. Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep

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Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe duke it out for the title of best classic movie detective. But does it really matter who wins? Both were played by the inimitable Humphrey Bogart, most notably in The Big Sleep (Marlowe) and The Maltese Falcon (Spade). Marlowe is the hard-drinking, bedraggled detective of Raymon Chandler’s novels. Through the years he’s also been played by Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell. And, in a new generation of interpretation, Liam Neeson just recently in 2022’s Marlowe.

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Best movie detectives

4. Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express

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Kenneth Branagh has a solid stab at playing Poirot in his now three-film series. But we all know there’s only one true GOAT of the game here, David Suchet. However, Suchet only ever played Poirot in the TV 1980/90s series, which ended just a decade ago. There was no movie of his take on Poirot, or he’d be right here. Albert Finney’s version takes second place, from 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. Finney was only 38 when he played Poirot, a character generally considered to be around 50 in the Orient Express here. But Finney pulls it off with this larger-than-life performance.

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Best movie detectives

5. Columbo, Columbo goes to College

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You may think of Columbo as TV fodder, the kind of show that just happens to be broadcast seemingly 24/7 on some channel you rarely watch. However, his investigations also led to 24 made-for-TV movies. The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show, played by Bert Freed. But the true Columbo, Peter Falk, enters the scene in 1969 with TV movie Prescription: Murder. A detective of the sharp mind and shabby outfit, Columbo would go on solving crimes until 2003 with Columbo Likes the Nightlife.

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Best movie detectives

6. Benoit Blanc, Knives Out

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Daniel Craig’s ripe portrayal of detective Benoit Blanc in Knives Out may come across a parody at first glance. There’s the southern states drawl, peppered with strange accents and pronunciations. But there’s real meat to it, and you can’t help but beam whenever Blanc comes on-screen. The character was reportedly inspired by Hercule Poirot, while Craig studied Ustinov’s performance as the character when working out how to portray the detective.

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Best movie detectives

7. Rick Deckard, Blade Runner

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Deckard may not be your average detective, but this entire movie is a detective film of sorts. Deckard has to identify and hunt down replicants. The film itself is named after the profession — blade runner. Deckard works for the Los Angeles Police Department, charged with hunting down four illegal replicants who crash land on Earth. Strip off all the sci-fi gloss and you find a hardboiled detective story at the heart of Blade Runner.

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Best movie detectives

8. Nicholas Angel, Hot Fuzz

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The greatest UK comedy detective gong surely has to go to Nicholas Angel, lead in part two of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, Hot Fuzz. Angel is relocated from the Met to the middle of nowhere, Sandford. But when mysterious murders start occurring in the supposedly sleepy town, Angel’s finely honed detective skills kick in. In classic buddy cop style, 90% of the appeal here is actually the relationship between Angel and his inept sidekick Danny Butterman.

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Best movie detectives

9. Axel Foley, Beverley Hills Cop

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Detective Axel Foley doesn’t often trouble too many “best fictional detective” lists, but shouldn’t he? Fair enough, he’s the opposite of the classic gumshoe. He’s not ground down by life. His investigative work is off the cuff, quick-fire and based on instinct, the precinct be damned. It’s also one of Eddie Murphy’s most charming performances, even if some of the comedy raises an eyebrow in 2023. But for an almost 40-year-old movie, this one holds up.

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Best movie detectives

10. Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four

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If you’re not part of the brigade that thinks Batman is the world’s greatest detective, you’d probably hand that accolade to Sherlock Holmes. While Robert Downey Junior had a great stab at bringing him back to the big screen in 2009, just after taking on the role of Iron Man, Jeremy Brett is our definitive screen version of the detective. Brett mostly played Holmes in a long-running TV show, from 1984-1994, there was also a handful of TV movies based the same character. The Sign of Four is our pick of the bunch.

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