1) The Long Goodbye (1973)
In certain respects Robert Altman’s neo-noir The Long Goodbye is an extremely faithful screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel. There’s the creepy, brooding sense of melancholia and doom, sadistic bad guys, sudden, shocking violence and a serpentine plot steeped in seediness, corruption, paranoia and betrayal.
But then Altman chose to unfaithfully set the story in modern day Los Angles and cast Elliot Gould as the iconic Phillip Marlowe, a role mostly associated with Humphrey Bogart. Laid back, unconventional and quick-witted, Gould’s Marlowe is a cat lover in a world of dog owners, and amongst the deaths and the missing money the biggest mystery is how the film works so damn well.
Hollywood veteran Sterling Hayden also brings as unforgettable presence as washed up alcoholic writer Roger Wade. Hayden is so convincing as a mentally unhinged man on the edge of sanity it’s occasionally terrifying to watch. The Long Goodbye isn’t just a film that I enjoy and admire it’s a film I would find hard to live without.
2) To Sleep So As To Dream (1986)
In Kaizo Hayashi’s first film as director an eccentric private eye and his equally idiosyncratic partner are hired to find the whereabouts of a kidnapped actress. It’s a journey that soon leads them into dreamlike netherworld where the missing actress may well be trapped inside an unfinished silent movie. What begins with a procedural deciphering of bizarre clues gradually evolves into a surreal and evocative meditation of time, loss, and resolution
I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this beguiling mid-eighties obscurity at London’s Zipangu Fest Japanese Film Festival last year and I’m glad I did as it’s an incredibly elusive film to track down, which some would say adds to its charm and mystery, undoubtedly reflecting the film’s content.
A deeply magical, humorous and visually masterful low budget homage to Japanese cinema’s silent era, To Sleep So As To Dream is also one of the most imaginative and playful reinventions of the detective thriller.
3) Gumshoe (1971)
Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley a delusional bingo caller whose crappy jokes and casual racism are as dated as his haircut. On his 31st birthday, after a session with his psychoanalyst, Ginley decides to puts an advert in the local paper offering his services as a private eye.
Almost immediately he’s summoned to the Plaza hotel to pick up a mysterious package from the Fat Man. Inside the parcel is a photo of a girl, a thousands pounds in cold hard cash and a gun. Dressed in the obligatory trench coat and trilby, Ginley’s gumshoe fantasies gradually become a hazardous reality.
Stephen Frears’ directorial debut relishes the odd paradox of 1940’s hard-boiled American crime fiction and the kitchen sink naturalism of 1970’s Liverpool. Ginley’s noir narration constantly contradicts his mundane surroundings of bingo halls, the labour exchange, terrace houses, greasy spoons, grotty flats and their less than spectacular inhabitants. That is until both worlds coalesce into a feasible plot that’s ripe with authenticity. It’s a shame Ginley was never given another case to crack.
4) They Might Be Giants (1971)
Definitely one of the oddest cinematic appropriations of Sherlock Holmes and a distinctly unique interpretation of Don Quixote, They Might Be Giants fights the age-old universal battle between the heart and the mind across a cold, uncaring and money hungry early 70’s New York.
Ever since his wife passed away millionaire Justin Playfair has believed he’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary fictional detective. Whilst his brother attempts to have him committed in order to retrieve his estate, psychoanalyst Dr Mildrid Watson (Joanne Woodward) comes to the rescue. Gradually forming a bond with Playfair they both go in search of his arch nemesis Moriarty.
Although flawed and uneven, with shared themes and ideas that would eventually be more successfully fleshed out in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), it has an infectious lunacy and solid central performances from the eccentric and likable pairing of Scott and Woodward.
5) Compromising Positions (1985)
The first subversion of the detective genre within Compromising Positions is that the actual police detective – played by Raul Julia – is a secondary character with most of the sleuthing being taken care of by frustrated housewife and former journalist Judith Singer, played by Susan Sarandon in one of her best roles.
Director Frank Perry once again delves into the dark under current beneath the seemingly comfortable surface of an affluent American suburb, a subject he’d previously addressed with bleak symbolism in the unique and unforgettable cult favourite The Swimmer (1968).
In unravelling the mystery behind the murder of a philandering local dentist, Judith Singer slowly unveils the hollow aspirations of upper middle-class suburbia and the jaded boredom it creates, which in this case has deadly repercussions.
Infused with sharp, daringly raunchy and sardonic dialogue, Compromising Positions irreverently mocks both the materialistic values of modern America as well the well-worn tropes of predominately male detective fiction. Holding it all together is the endearing comedy rapport between Julia and Sarandon, although most of the best lines come from Judith Ivey as a promiscuous and unrepentant neighbour.