The cast of Rian Johnson's Knives Out, including Daniel Craig, Christopher Plumber, Jaime Lee Curtis, and more.

The Best Detective Movies of All Time, Ranked

Enjoying the excitement of donning the proverbial deerstalker cap from the safety of your own home, far from the dangers of gun-toting criminals and mysterious femmes fatales—isn’t that what we all love about detective movies? There is also the aspect of intellectual prowess, where wit triumphs over physical might and the mind takes center stage. For me, indulging in detective movies is an absolute joy. 

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These films offer a guilt-free opportunity to embrace my inner Sherlock Holmes, casting suspicion on everyone, trusting absolutely no one, and occasionally unleashing a triumphant “Aha!” at my screen. Who could say no to a double feature that gives us the chance to play both the role of the audience and the role of the detective? That said, prepare to have your sleuthing skills tested with this ranking of the best detective movies that have graced the silver screen throughout the ages. 

10. Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig, LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in Knives Out

Director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is both nostalgic and novel, with an element of humor and a heaping dose of family dysfunction. Remember those old, dusty mystery novels your great-aunt used to read, reclining on her chaise lounge with a magnifying glass? Think of this as their spunky, 21st-century offspring rocking a leather jacket. 

The ensemble cast is a veritable potluck of Hollywood’s finest: Daniel Craig doing his best “Southern gentleman detective” impression, Ana de Armas as the moral compass amid the chaos, and Chris Evans swapping his Captain America shield for a more dastardly demeanor. In addition to its charming cast and surprising turns, the film also makes understated observations about privilege, riches, and the extent to which some would go to protect their position in society. 

9. Memories of Murder (2003)

Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung in 'Memories of Murder'
(CJ Entertainment)

Memories of Murder explores the darker layers of the criminal underworld and presents a story that is as clear-eyed as it is unsettling. Bong Joon-ho, the mastermind behind this gem, crafts a narrative that is part police procedural, part social commentary, and entirely captivating. Memories of Murder, set in the South Korean countryside of the 1980s, isn’t just about tracking down a serial killer; it’s also a wry look at the bumbling, stumbling nature of an ill-equipped police force that seems to have attended the “Keystone Cops School of Detection.” 

But Joon-ho doesn’t merely poke fun; he painstakingly builds a context in which comedy and tragedy coexist. As the local detective, Song Kang-ho delivers such a multifaceted portrayal that one can’t help but oscillate between wanting to give him a firm reprimand and a reassuring pat on the back. 

8. Zodiac (2007)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac
(Paramount Pictures)

Zodiac is David Fincher’s painstaking masterpiece into the world of cryptic ciphers, late-night typewriters, and the insane fixation with solving a mystery. If you’ve ever wanted to brave the murky streets of San Francisco in the 1970s with nothing but your wits (and perhaps a handy flashlight) against a terrifyingly elusive serial killer, then buckle up! Fincher doesn’t just take you on a murder mystery tour; he enrolls you in a masterclass of journalistic persistence and police procedural pitfalls.

The film, dripping with the ink of an old newsroom and the frustration of an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, showcases Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo in a trio act so riveting, it’s almost criminal. But here’s the twist: instead of your usual climactic Hollywood showdown, Zodiac leaves you with the haunting weight of ambiguity and the unsettling tick-tock of a clock that never stops. 

7. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Argentine film 'The Secret in Their Eyes'
(Distribution Company)

Argentine melodrama The Secret in Their Eyes teeters precariously on the razor’s edge between a passionate love story and a gritty crime thriller. Directed by Juan José Campanella, the movie meanders through the bustling offices of Buenos Aires’ judiciary in the 1970s, revealing not just the hunt for a brutal killer but also the elusive nature of memories and missed opportunities. 

Ricardo Darín plays a retired legal counselor who’s more haunted by lost love than unsolved crime. And while it would be all too easy for such a film to veer into the romance category, Campanella masterfully maintains its gravitas. There’s a stadium chase scene that’s so impeccably shot you’d forgive Messi for feeling a tinge of envy. 

6. Vertigo (1958)

Kim Novak and 	 James Stewart kissing in 'Vertigo'
(Paramount Pictures)

This cinematic classic by Alfred Hitchcock sent viewers on a dizzying ride long before spinning classes were all the rage. Set in San Francisco, James Stewart plays a detective grappling with a fear of heights and the even more treacherous descent into love’s madness. With her icy allure, Kim Novak is the epitome of a femme fatale—sometimes quite literally, given the film’s penchant for doppelgängers. 

But here’s the twist (and with Hitchcock, isn’t there always a twist?): Vertigo wasn’t an immediate hit. Audiences of 1958 weren’t ready for its vertiginous charm. But, like a fine wine or a well-crafted post on X (formerly Twitter), it aged brilliantly, ascending the heights of film history. 

5. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart Sam Spade Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon
(Warner Bros.)

The Maltese Falcon is a film noir where the shadows are as thick as the plot twists, and the fedoras tilt at just the right angle of mystery. Before every second movie had a “MacGuffin,” John Huston was crafting a compelling tale around a bejeweled bird that everyone seemed willing to double-cross their grandmother for. 

Enter Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade, the private detective who’s seen it all yet can’t resist one more dance with danger. Beneath the snappy dialogues and atmospheric smoke rings, The Maltese Falcon is a meditation on greed and loyalty. It’s also a reminder that in the noir world of 1941, not all that glitters is gold—sometimes, it’s just a lead bird coated in dreams and deceptions. 

4. L.A. Confidential (1997)

Kim Basinger in LA Confidential
(Warner Bros.)

In a noir-like style, director Curtis Hanson depicts a Los Angeles of the 1950s, where the boulevards sparkle, but the alleys hold dark secrets. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, two cops as different as chalk and cheese (if the chalk had anger issues and the cheese had an overdeveloped sense of righteousness), navigate this sultry maze. 

Add Kim Basinger’s Veronica Lake lookalike, exuding allure with every glance, and L.A. Confidential serves a heady cocktail of noir traditions with a 90s twist, reminding us that while the City of Angels might often wear a tiara, underneath, it’s all devilish horns and intoxicating mystery. 

3. Se7en (1995)

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman sitting in the police station in "Se7en"
(New Line Cinema)

With Se7en, David Fincher takes the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins and decides, “Let’s make a two-hour thriller that’s essentially an ominous weather forecast for the soul.” Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman roam through a city so perpetually rainy that you’d think Mother Nature herself was in on the grim plot. 

While one detective is as fresh-faced as a green apple in a noir fruit basket, the other wears his wisdom like a well-tailored coat of existential dread. Fincher’s knack for atmospheric intensity means every sin isn’t just portrayed; it’s felt—right in the gut. But here’s the wicked rub: in all its gloom, Se7en is a devilishly intelligent film with clever clues and chilling choices. 

2. Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen Brothers' film Blood Simple
(Focus Features)

With Blood Simple, the Coen brothers decided to not only say “hello” to the world of cinema but also deliver a grizzled, neon-lit hit. The film is a neo-noir thriller with all the makings of a pulpy crime story, complete with scheming lovers, wads of cash, and a dubious private eye. The film’s title, borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled terminology, describes the bewildering state one falls into after a bout of violence. 

And boy, does this film deliver on that front. Yet, for all its dark corners and blood-splattered alleys, the Coens can’t resist infusing their narrative with wicked humor, proving that even murder plots can have their lighter (or at least, darkly comedic) moments. In her first major role, Frances McDormand showcases the chops that would later make her a Coen regular, while M. Emmet Walsh plays a sleazy detective who seems to sweat guilt and cunning equally. 

1. Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson in 1974's 'Chinatown'
(Paramount Pictures)

Chinatown is Roman Polanski’s sunlit noir, where Los Angeles’ glitzy facade is peeled back to reveal the grime underneath, and where getting a nose job has never been quite so dramatic. Meet Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, a private eye with a penchant for snappy suits and snappier comebacks. 

He’s on the case of an adulterous water commissioner, but in true L.A. fashion, things get complicated faster than a Hollywood marriage. Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score serenades us through the grimy streets and deceptive cul-de-sacs. But let’s not forget that memorable mantra: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” 

(featured image: Lionsgate)

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Faith Katunga
Faith is a freelance journalist with an insatiable curiosity for all aspects of current events, from the global economy and fashion to pop culture and travel. She watches an absurd number of cat videos on Instagram when not reading or writing about what is going on in the world. Faith has written for several publications, including We Got This Covered, Italy Magazine, TheTravel, etc., and holds a master's degree in Fashion Culture and Management.