There will always be a crime to solve. For as long as films have existed, people have been murdered, love affairs have been blooming, and clues have been hidden. And for as long as criminals have run amok, there have also been the people who go after them: the fedora-wearing men hiding in the shadows, or twirling their mustaches with a thick accent, looking for the solution to cases that the law itself often cannot untangle. With Kenneth Branagh’s new Hercule Poirot detective thriller, A Haunting In Venice, upon us, here is a roughly chronological rundown of cinema’s most iconic detectives—the big screen sleuths who have kept us on the edge of our seats through more than a century of mystery, crime, and whodunits.
1. Sherlock Holmes
Perhaps the most iconic (or elementary?) detective of all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking protagonist holds the record as the character who has been portrayed on screen the most, with over 250 appearances by more than 300 actors. Between classic films like The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and actors like Robert Downey Jr., Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellen, Johnny Depp, Henry Cavill, and Will Ferrell taking on the role (and that’s not even counting the TV adaptations), there seems to be an endless appetite for the world’s most famous detective.
2. Hercule Poirot
Whodunit maestro Agatha Christie’s short, round-faced Belgian detective has been solving murder after murder since his first literary appearance in 1920, and almost just as long on the big screen. Whether it’s Albert Finney or Kenneth Branagh stranded on a train with a dozen suspects, all with equal motives for murder; Peter Ustinov (or Kenneth Branagh again) navigating the deadly waters of the Nile, or David Suchet’s unforgettable (and for many, defining) take on the character in the long-running TV series, nothing seems to escape the intelligent mind behind the world’s tidiest mustache. Solving mysteries is all about the little gray cells, mon ami!
3. Jane Marple
Agatha Christie’s other big detective creation, Miss Marple, stands out on this list because she’s not a detective by profession, but rather by hobby. A stand-in for all the kind, neighborly ladies who somehow know everybody’s business in quaint English villages, Miss Marple’s weapons are her keen ears and fast mouth. Portrayed in film most famously by Margaret Rutherford in four movies produced by MGM in the 1950s, and by Angela Lansbury (playing a spiritual precursor to her other iconic detective, Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote) in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d, Miss Marple is the kind of detective that disarms a criminal with her charm, and makes them open up much more than they should have.
4. Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
Widely considered one of the best films of all time, and credited with creating a lot of the tropes that make up the film noir genre, it’s not surprising that 1941’s The Maltese Falcon also features one of pop culture’s most memorable fictional detectives. In the film, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in a career-defining role) is hired to protect a mysterious woman who seems to be the target of three criminals looking for a priceless statue of the titular falcon. What follows is a game of intrigue, persecution, mistaken identities, and hiding in the shadows. Bogart’s portrayal of Spade as a cynical, sarcastic man that only sees the worst in people became entrenched within the detective archetype, and can be still felt today.
5. Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man series
The only couple on this list where the detectives are also lovers, Nick and Nora Charles solidified comedy-mystery as its own cinematic genre. The Thin Man is based on the book series by Dashiell Hammett (his second appearance on this list!), and follows a fun-loving couple hired by a woman to look into the death of her father. Known best for the blazing chemistry and witty patter between William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Thin Man became an unexpected box office hit with glowing reviews. It spawned five sequels, all starring Powell and Loy, and Hammett himself oversaw the screenplay for each of the films.
6. Philip Marlowe
Raymond Chandler’s famous detective was most recently played by Liam Neeson in 2023's Marlowe. But it’s far from Marlowe’s first foray to the big screen. A seemingly tough, alcohol-loving, misanthropic private investigator that is much more introspective on the inside, he was famously portrayed by Humphrey Bogart (playing another side of his iconic Sam Spade archetype) in the 1944 adaptation of The Big Sleep alongside Lauren Bacall, by James Garner in the 1969 film Marlowe, and by Elliot Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, which moved the setting from the ’40s to the ’70s. Eighty years between the first and latest film incarnations of Philip Marlowe show that his cynical yet weirdly hopeful worldview remains as relevant as ever.
7. John “Scottie” Ferguson, Vertigo
A lot of the movies on this list dive deep into the step-by-step process of investigating, and the painstaking detail that detectives sift through to crack a case. Vertigo takes things even further, enveloping viewers in the detective’s psychological state, one that seems to be cracking by the minute. Jimmy Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired detective that developed an acute fear of heights and vertigo after an injury in the field. When he’s hired by a friend to follow the man’s wife, Scottie enters a world of strange behaviors and obsessions, masterfully portrayed by director Alfred Hitchcock’s use of colors and his now-famous camera zooms and pans. It’s simply dizzying, literally and figuratively.
8. Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the Pink Panther series
No one said that all detectives had to be competent. Inspector Jacques Clouseau is a clumsy, bumbling French police detective who’s more skilled at falls, tumbles, and destruction than he is at solving cases, especially those involving a big, pink diamond. Portrayed most famously by Peter Sellers in the original series by Blake Edwards, and subsequently by Alan Arkin and Steve Martin, Inspector Clouseau may not have the skill, brainpower, and physical agility of others in this list. Yet the criminal still always gets caught. And he does have that catchy theme song …
9. Harry Callahan, the Dirty Harry series
Sometimes you have to break the rules in order to bring justice. Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, perhaps his most iconic role, is an inspector with the San Francisco police department. Rather than working within the endless bureaucracy and corruption of a crooked internal system, he follows his own moral code and rules. Legal boundaries are mere suggestions to him. Callahan is the protagonist in a series of five films, and the character was groundbreaking in its depiction of the detective (which was supposed to stand for the moral guide) as an anti-hero, a trope that still endures today. Just look at any HBO show.
10. John Shaft, the Shaft series
Perhaps the biggest of the Blaxploitation films that boomed during the 1970s, Shaft was groundbreaking on many levels. There had been few detectives who looked or acted like John Shaft before then. By the ’70s, detective tropes that had been established with The Maltese Falcon had been heavily ingrained in film culture. John Shaft not only upended these expectations, but incorporated issues like the Black Power movement, racism, and sexuality into the genre. Portrayed by Richard Roundtree in the first run of films from 1971 to 1973, later on by Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew in the 2000s, and most recently by Jesse Usher as the third link in the generation, Shaft brought on the idea that detective films can (and should) reflect a changing world and society.
11. Jake Gittes, Chinatown
Speaking of upending tropes about detectives and detective films, none have done so as masterfully as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Using the look, sound, and structure of classic detective films, the film sees Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes and his journey through the corruption of 1930s Los Angeles as the ultimate embodiment of cynicism, power, and hopelessness. Nicholson reprised the role in the 1990 sequel The Two Jakes (which he also directed), and even though that one didn’t have the same cultural resonance and hold as the first film, it further cemented Gittes as one of cinema’s most emblematic detectives. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.
12. Eddie Valiant, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
There’s a direct line between the corrupt Los Angeles in Chinatown and the corrupt Toontown of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and that same line connects Jake Gittes and Eddie Valiant. The 1988 Robert Zemeckis comedy serves as both an homage to and a parody of classic noir detectives, with Bob Hoskins playing a detective who’s hired to answer the titular question. When a beloved cartoon character has been framed for a horrific murder, Valiant must go into the underbelly of a Los Angeles where toons and humans begrudgingly live together. The award-winning film blends animation and live action with a wit and cleverness that has seldom been replicated since, and the charming Hoskins is able to transform from a toon-hating, down-on-his-luck man to a hero to the stars of your favorite Saturday morning cartoons.
13. Dick Tracy
Based on an iconic comic strip created by Chester Gould that started in the 1930s and is still running to this day, Dick Tracy is a tough, no-nonsense police detective known for using tech gadgets and science know-how to outsmart local criminals—and for his iconic yellow trench coat. Although the character was portrayed in the ’30s and ’40s in a series of films by Ralph Byrd, the most famous incarnation of the detective is the 1990 film. Starring and directed by Warren Beatty, and with supporting performances by Al Pacino and (most notably) Madonna as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney, Dick Tracy is better remembered for its slick style, technical achievement, and arresting visuals, just like the detective itself.
14. Clarice Starling, The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal
“Have the lambs stopped screaming, Clarice?” Few pairings of detective and criminal are more iconic than Doctor Hannibal Lecter and the FBI’s Clarice Starling. Played by Anthony Hopkins (in his career-defining role) and Jodie Foster, respectively, the stars anchored 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, which went on to dominate the Academy Awards. Julianne Moore took over for Foster in the 2001 sequel Hannibal. Clarice is perhaps the best embodiment of the detective who gets too close to their subject, initially approaching Dr. Lecter for input on how to track another killer, before getting sucked into his mind games and delicious, fava bean-loving personality. Finding the perfect balance between Clarice’s fascination and fear when it comes to Lecter, the relationship features one of the most complex dynamics in film.
15. Easy Rawlins, Devil In A Blue Dress
While on the surface Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins may look like just another character in a long line of detectives inspired by Sam Spade and his noir aesthetics, Rawlins’ background and methods distinctly stand apart. Easy is not a licensed detective, nor does he work for any law enforcement organization. He has no training, no background, and up to a point, no desire to take on detective work. He’s just a World War II veteran trying to get by, who’s cornered into finding a missing woman. Similar to the Shaft series, the novels also incorporate elements of social and racial justice. Rawlins was played by Denzel Washington in 1995’s Devil In A Blue Dress, even though the film is better remembered for Don Cheadle’s scene-stealing performance.
16. David Mills and William Somerset, Se7en
A detective is right at the brink of retirement, taking on his final case; one that has haunted him for years. His partner, a new recruit, is eager to make his mark, still hopeful about the future and his role in justice. This dynamic has been replicated to the point of cliché, but it began with David Fincher’s haunting 1995 thriller Se7en. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play David Mills and William Somerset, respectively, two detectives investigating a serial killer who murders his victims according to the seven deadly sins. Both are consumed by the case in different ways, and the investigation takes over their lives, up until the reveal of a special gift inside a box.
17. Marge Gunderson, Fargo
Who said you can’t catch a criminal with pure optimism and good old Midwestern kindness? The Coen Brothers’ 1996 crime comedy Fargo has become one of the most acclaimed movies in history for many reasons. For one thing, it subverts typical crime narratives by having incredibly incompetent people at the source of the violence. It also features an ingenious script, thoughtful direction, and of course, Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance as Marge Gunderson, the very kind (and very pregnant) officer investigating a triple homicide and the strange circumstances behind it. McDormand is able to infuse Marge with the right amount of empathy, confidence, and mystery, creating one of cinema’s most engaging and unexpected portrayals of a screen detective.
18. Alex Cross, the Alex Cross series
It’s surprising that more detective fiction isn’t based around Washington, D.C. After all, so much of the criminal rot of the country seems to be concentrated in that city. Based on James Patterson’s hugely successful series of novels, the three film adaptations feature Alex Cross bringing his background as a psychologist into his field work at the nation’s capital. 1997’s Kiss The Girls and 2001’s Along Came A Spider saw Morgan Freeman in the lead role, while 2012’s Alex Cross reboot starred Tyler Perry. A fourth installment was planned but never completed, but a television series starring Aldis Hodge is currently in the works.
19. Lisbeth Salander, the Millennium series
There’s nothing more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose. In Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium series, Lisbeth Salander is an introverted hacker with a past full of trauma and abuse who gets roped into a murder investigation that hits too close to home. She has been portrayed in film by Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish adaptation of the book series, by Rooney Mara in an Academy Award-nominated performance in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and by Claire Foy in the decidedly less-successful follow-up The Girl In The Spider’s Web. What sets Lisbeth apart is that, underneath her tough appearance, aggressive demeanor, and that giant dragon tattoo, there’s a deep desire to make things right in the world. And that is her driving force.
20. Benoit Blanc, Knives Out and Glass Onion
The latest entry into the canon of famous detectives, Daniel Craig’s performance as world-famous detective Benoit Blanc in both of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out whodunits has become an instant touchstone of his career. With a delicious Southern accent, an impeccable sense of fashion, and a keen eye for detail (and bullshit), Benoit is the clear heir to Hercule Poirot. There’ve only been two films in the franchise so far, but with its self-contained narratives and rotating all-star casts, a world can easily exist in which Benoit Blanc films are as prominent and wide-reaching as your yearly Marvel flick. (If only.)