Guest Blog: P I Movies by Dana King

bogartPaul took a chance, asking an opinionated SOB for opinions on something said SOB thinks about a lot. Case in point, my thoughts on PI movies. This is not a comprehensive list, but each movie is one I feel strongly about. You want to argue? Bring it on.

The Best of the Best

ChinatownClose to a perfect movie. Jake Gittes is the ultimate 30s PI: sleazy, but tolerably honest. (As he says in The Two Jakes, he’s the leper with the most fingers.) Great story perfectly set in its period and operating on multiple levels, artfully directed and photographed, with superb acting. Not just possibly the greatest PI movie, among the greatest movies, period.

The Maltese Falcon – Possibly the most faithful successful screenplay adapted from a novel, tweaked to satisfy the Hayes Office. Virtually all dialog, but what dialog it is, perfectly delivered by a first-rate cast that hits all the notes. Rumor has it Ingrid Bergman was to be cast in the Mary Astor role. Could Spade have sent her over? I mean, come on, she’s Ingrid Bergman.

The Best

Angel Heart – Mickey Rourke at his disreputable best. Harry Angel has Jake Gittes’s sleaze, but lacks his inner core. Stylishly filmed to evoke post-World War II New York and Louisiana, with layers of symbolism, this is classic noir with supernatural overtones.

Blood Simple – Not really a private “investigator” movie, as there isn’t much to investigate. M. Emmett Walsh’s Loren Visser is less a PI than an amoral bastard who doesn’t know when to stop. A bad situation keeps getting worse. Another classic noir, flawed people doing what they shouldn’t, and paying for it.

HarperBased on Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target, Paul Newman plays Lew

Archer (here named Harper for legal reasons) with the right amount of 60s go-to-hell to keep his man with a mission from seeming archaic. William Goldman’s screenplay stays true to Macdonald’s (and Archer’s) sensitivities, and keeps the complicated plot on track.

Twilight – No, not those shitty vampire stories. Newman, again, with Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, and an all-star cast of character actors (if that’s not an oxymoron). Written by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, directed by Benton. The story of aging friends, impeccably acted, perfectly paced, low-key with a constant undercurrent of tension. We don’t make movies like this in the States anymore.


Hickey and Boggs ­– Bill Cosby and Robert Culp transfer their I Spy buddy chemistry as down-and-out private eyes who need a retainer to pay the phone bill. Bad things happen when your need for money overwhelms your judgment. Their chemistry is the thing here they get in deeper over their heads all the time.

The Two Jakes – Sequel to Chinatown. Never received the respect it deserved, as it always came off second best in the comparisons. That’s not fair; all but about two dozen of all the movies ever made come off second-best when compared to Chinatown. Harvey Keitel joins Nicholson this time, with another kick ass supporting cast.

A Small Sacrifice CoverAlmost as Good as People Say it Is

The Big Sleep – (The 1946 version with Bogart; the 1978 effort with Mitchum sucks.) I’m sure I’d like this more if I hadn’t read the book. Screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett worked around the Hayes Office as well as they could, but killing Eddie Mars at the end also kills half the point of the book. If I had a billion dollars I’d have this re-made as a period piece, with the original Chandler plot points. That movie would kick ass, even though we still wouldn’t know who killed the chauffer.


The Long Goodbye – Robert Altman tries to make a point by twisting Chandler’s story. If you’re going to use the title and the characters’ names, you owe them some respect; Altman shows none; the ending is so far from Marlowe’s character he might as well have grown wings. Altman should have written his own, similar, story, as the point he tried to make is well-taken, especially from a 70s perspective. That might have been a hell of a movie.


The Big Lebowski  – Yeah, I know. Its only PI is Jon Polito’s brief appearance. (Jeffrey Lebowski is not a private investigator.) Still, it’s a wandering daughter job. And The Dude abides.

Dana King‘s latest novel is A Small Sacrificethe story of a private investigator called in well after the fact to re-investigate that year’s Crime of the Century. Very loosely based on the Jon Benet Ramsey story, it deals with the dead child’s grandmother’s efforts to get her son’s and daughter-in-law’s names cleared. She essentially asks the detective to prove a negative. He plans to poke around and give her something palatable until he learns someone else is taking the whole thing a lot more seriously than he is.

His blog is One Bite at a Time.