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7 Sharpest Detectives on DVD

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

It was all so simple. Some sassy sociopath would commit a fiendishly complex murder, and before the final fade-out an even smarter detective would figure it out and cuff the malefactor. Gumshoe films are out of favor now, but here are some sleuths who can solve the mystery of what to watch on a summer night.

NICK CHARLES THE THIN MAN

This Debonair, martini-swilling socialite wasn’t “the thin man.” (That guy was a victim in the original Dashiell Hammett novel.) But Nick was the cool socialite, solving homicides as if they were Times crosswords. Nick and his wife Nora (and their terrier Asta) were a dream family to a Depression audience in need of blithe fantasy. In six movies from 1934 to ’47 (out on DVD next month), William Powell was a kind of F.D.R. of crime fiction and Myrna Loy was the suavest, most gracious wife ever.

PHILIP MARLOWE THE BIG SLEEP

Patrolling the mean streets and manicured lawns of Southern California, Raymond Chandler’s tough, noble P.I. was a natural for Hollywood. He has been played by Robert and George Montgomery, by James Garner and James Caan, but Bogie did it best in Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of a novel whose plot was so labyrinthine, even Chandler couldn’t say who killed the chauffeur. There’s also Bogie’s Baby, Lauren Bacall, as the distressing damsel, and a trunkload of noir atmospherics.

PHILIP MARLOW THE SINGING DETECTIVE

The bedridden hero of Dennis Potter’s superb 1986 BBC mini-series shares the name (minus an e) of a top private eye and applies his own daft deductive powers to solving the mystery of his own sad life. Michael Gambon is laceratingly magnificent.

SHERLOCK HOLMES THE COLLECTION

Hawk-visaged Basil Rathbone embodied Conan Doyle’s detective in 14 B movies, some transporting him from Victorian to modern London to outwit the Nazis. As Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce was an ideal foil for the great man.

HERCULE POIROT DEATH ON THE NILE

Agatha Christie created Poirot in her first novel, the 1920 The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he was in movies by 1931. This mustachioed dandy with a French accent as hokey as Inspector Clouseau’s was a perfect fit for Peter Ustinov, who gave Poirot heft and a subversive slyness in three features (including this 1978 caper with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith) and then three spiffy TV films.

CHARLIE CHAN CHANTHOLOGY

The movie version of Earl Derr Biggers’ Confucian detective stories had something to offend everyone. Played by the Swedish actor Warner Oland (16 films), then by Missouri’s Sidney Toler (22), Charlie spouted fortune-cookie aphorisms and lorded it over his No. 1 son. Toler, shown at right, even had a black man (the gifted Mantan Moreland) for comic relief. Yet there’s a pinchpenny gusto and some nifty plot twists to these Monogram studio marvels.

RICK DECKARD BLADE RUNNER

A futurist Philip Marlowe, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to round up some replicants–superrobots who can feel as well as think–in Ridley Scott’s brilliant 1982 visualization of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Set in 2019, the film doesn’t allow Deckard the brains or heroism of the traditional detective, but it does let him fall in love with a beautiful female robot (Sean Young). Neo-Nick, meet android Nora. –By Richard Corliss

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