The Best Private Eye Movies You’ve Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week sees us dig into the gumshoe game with a look at some private eye flicks worth seeking out.)

A new Sherlock Holmes film opens later this month, and while it’s one played almost exclusively for laughs its core element — a private detective solves a mystery! — remains intact. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 creation is probably the most famous such character, but his (probable) inspiration and “American” private eye type as we know and love it actually arrived three decades earlier from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s true! His amateur crime-solver has inspired numerous others in the many decades since, and while C. Auguste Dupin has a very limited presence on the big screen others have made the leap and gifted viewers with some truly incredible films ranging from suspense to comedies to dramatic thrillers.

Harper (1966), Klute (1971), Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) are some of the best there are, and if you’ve yet to see any of them I suggest you make it a priority to fix that sooner rather than later. For now, though, I want to recommend a few that aren’t considered classics and deserve to be a bit more popular.

Keep reading for a look at six very good to great movies about private eyes that you’ve probably never seen.

The Big Fix (1978)

Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss) was mildly rebellious back in college, but these days he’s a divorced private eye with two kids, outstanding bills, and the need for a job. One comes knocking in the form of an old flame who wants his help finding an ex-classmate turned convicted radical who’s currently part of an effort to disrupt a state-wide election. Or is he?

Roger L. Simon’s novel comes to the screen with a tone that shifts pretty succinctly nearly halfway through the film. It starts as a casually comedic character piece where the plot feels almost secondary, and while it’s not to the same degree as something like The Long Goodbye it still doesn’t quite feel weighty at first. It’s loose and funny, and Moses is anything but hardcore — he keeps his gun in the glove compartment of his car with the cylinder removed and a crayon stuffed in the barrel. Things get serious quickly, though, and soon Moses isn’t laughing much at all. Bomb threats, murder, and betrayal all rear their heads in a satisfying story of a little investigator on a big case.

A major part of the film’s enjoyment comes in its casting starting with Dreyfuss as something of an atypical P.I. He’s a short wise-ass who handles the aforementioned tone shifts perfectly — he’s asked repeatedly about his bandaged hand, something he has in the very first scene, and his answer evolves humorously until the final reveal. It’s always great seeing Bonnie Bedelia, and while her role is small she makes her mark. John Lithgow is equally compelling as a guy who probably knows more than he’s letting on, and F. Murray Abraham shows up as the radical everyone’s searching for. Sharp-eyed viewers will also notice John Carpenter-regular Frank Doubleday as a gun-toting thug and Mandy Patinkin as “Pool Man.”

The Big Fix is not currently available.

Cutter’s Way (1981)

Bone (Jeff Bridges) sees something dumped in an alleyway and learns the next day that it was a body. He tells his friend Cutter (John Heard) that he thinks a local and highly connected businessman is the man who did the dumping, and soon the pair of amateur sleuths are connecting the dots behind a murder conspiracy.

This might be a slight cheat as neither Cutter nor Bone are officially private eyes, but like the Hardy Boys before them they do take naturally to the art of the investigation. There are some bumps along the way, of course, as Cutter’s anger over all he lost in Vietnam — an eye, a hand, a leg — fuels some poor decisions and a misguided attempt at blackmail, but their dogged determination leads to some dark revelations and turns.

No film from outside of the 1970s has ever felt more like a 70s film. It’s beautifully made, terrifically acted, and cynical as hell, and its ending is guaranteed to leave some in awe and others frustrated. There are brutal truths at its core, an inescapable honesty about the United States most of us live in, and it forces us to root for characters we hold little hope for. Bridges and Heard are both damn good here with performances both subtle and raw, but it’s Lisa Eichhorn as Cutter’s wife who captures our hearts before crushing them. Who knew searching for a killer could be so damn devastating.

Cutter’s Way is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming.

Zero Effect (1998)

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world’s greatest detective if he does say so himself, and his idiosyncratic behaviors don’t change that. He doesn’t like to meet his clients, he loves Tab, and he essentially solves his cases through his assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). His isolated and observant world is about to be shaken, though, when a blackmailing case reveals some dark truths about others while shedding new light on himself.

Writer/director Jake Kasdan’s debut disappeared quickly in theaters but has gone on to find a kind of cult success in the past decade. And deservingly so, too, as it’s a funny riff on the Sherlock Holmes formula that adds big laughs and an engaging mystery to a sharp character study. Zero is a genius and something of a prick at the same time, but while the case at hand unfolds it’s the peeling back of his own layers that holds our attention.

Both Pullman and Stiller have shown strong comedic chops throughout their career, and while the film brings the funny both actors also get to flex their dramatic muscles with characters who feel more human in their arcs than the genre typically allows. Both characters grow in satisfying ways without getting in the way of story, humor, or thrills. It a better world it would have gotten a sequel by now, but in this world, we got follow-ups to both Independence Day and Zoolander instead.

Zero Effect is available on DVD and streaming.

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