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When you think of a private investigator, what do you think of? Someone who is a genius? Mysterious? Perhaps walks the line between good and bad?
While you may not know exactly what a private investigator does in reality (if you’re interested, you can check out our blog post What is a Private Investigator?), one thing is for sure — the private investigator archetype makes for a riveting character, which is exactly why PIs have been so heavily featured in film and television. In fact, your perception of a private investigator likely comes from one of the many infamous private investigators that have starred in film and television. While the list is nearly endless, we’ve decided to discuss 10 of the most famous and influential private investigators in film and television. These “skiptracers” didn’t have the benefit of using an investigative software like Tracers, but they did have a lasting impact on film and the modern perception of private investigation with their hard-nose, old-school tactics. Here is our list of the top 10 most famous private investigators in film and TV.
1. Sherlock Holmes
You simply can’t list out famous private investigators in film and television without talking about one of the most popular characters, not just in the mystery genre, but of all time — Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes was a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s. He first appeared in print in the 1887 detective novel A Study in Scarlet, and now holds the Guinness World Record for being the Most Portrayed Literary Human Character in Film & TV. A reasonable detective that relies on science, reasoning, and forensics, Sherlock Holmes has been played by more than 75 actors in over 250 screen adaptations. Some of the actors who have most famously played him include Jeremy Brett, who filmed 41 Conan Doyle stories across 10 years, Benedict Cumberbatch, who played him on the BBC series Sherlock, and most recently, Robert Downey Jr. in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes, for which he earned the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy. The film received two Academy Award nominations and was followed in 2011 by a sequel titled Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Robert Downey Jr. is set to star again as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes 3, coming out in December 2021. A truly prolific private detective, Sherlock Holmes has shaped literature and film for past decades, and likely will for the foreseeable future.
2. J.J. “Jake” Gittes
If we’re talking about famous detectives in film, we simply can’t forget private investigator J.J “Jake” Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, who starred in the iconic 1974 film noir Chinatown. In many ways, Jake Gittes is the quintessential PI — hard-boiled, intelligent, and courageous. The film, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, depicted Jake Gittes as an honest, private divorce investigator who uncovers deep on corruption in Los Angeles in the 1930s.
Interestingly enough, screenwriter Robert Towne was originally offered $125,000 to write The Great Gatsby adaptation. Believing he couldn’t top the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, he ended up accepting $25,000 to write his own story, Chinatown. That was perhaps the best choice of his career, because Chinatown is now considered one of the greatest screenplays ever written. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and Towne won best for Best Original Screenplay. The detective film was also selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry for its cultural significance.
Robert Towne wrote a sequel, The Two Jakes, which was released in 1990. Though the film was not as critically acclaimed as Chinatown, the influence of Jack Gittes and Chinatown continues. Ben Affleck is set to direct The Big Goodbye, a film adaptation of the book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, written by Sam Wasson, which discusses the story of how Chinatown was made and the men behind it.
3. Philip Marlowe
Philip Marlowe is a tough, philosophical private detective that lived in the 1930s and was created by author Raymond Chandler. After losing his job as an oil company executive, Raymond Chandler went on to create a plethora of short stories featuring Philip Marlowe. A few of these novels are considered some of the best mystery writing of all time, particularly The Long Goodbye, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely. However, Philip Marlowe was not only famous on pages, he was also famous in both film and TV. One of the most popular adaptations of the Philip Marlowe books is the 1980s HBO television drama Philip Marlow, Private Eye. He was also notably portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 American film noir The Big Sleep, which was co-written by William Faulkner and went on to be added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. All but one of Raymond Chandler’s books, Playback, have been made into screenplays, showing you just how important Philip Marlowe was (and is) to pop culture.
4. Nancy Drew
Nancy Drew, a smart, courageous, young amateur sleuth, was created by Edward Stratemeyer as a female counterpart to the equally famous Hardy Boys series, which also features young sleuths. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys aren’t all Edward Stratemeyer is known for, however. In fact, Edward Stratemeyer is considered one of the most prolific authors of all time, having written 1,300 books on his own and selling more than 500 million copies. While Edward Stratemeyer is credited with the creation of the infamous amateur sleuth Nancy Drew, many of the later Nancy drew books were ghostwritten by other authors under the pseudonym “Carolyne Keene.”
There are 613 Nancy Drew books in total, and her character was later adapted for a variety of television shows and movies. She was featured in four films from 1838 to 1939, as well as in a popular 2007 film starring Emma Roberts titled Nancy Drew. Most recently, Nancy Drew was played by Sophia Lillis in the 2019 film Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. Nancy Drew may not be as dark, mysterious, or professional as some of these other private investigators, but she certainly is as influential.
5. Hercule Poirot
Hercule Poirot is yet another detective whose influence has spanned decades. A cunning detective who uses psychology and logical reasoning as his main tools of investigation, Hercule Poirot first appeared in Agatha Christie’s 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and went on to appear in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories between 1920 and 1975. Agatha Christie was a detective writer who holds the Guinness World Record of Best-Selling Fiction Writer of All Time. Along with Hercule Poirot, she created the infamous detective Miss Marple, whose character was also adapted to movies and television. Hercule Poirot has been portrayed in a variety of different films.
The most notable Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, was first adapted to film in 1974. Hercule Poirot was played by Albert Finney, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the film and is the only actor to have received a nomination for a Poirot portrayal. Most recently, Hercule Poirot was played by Kenneth Branagh in another film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which came out in 2017. A sequel to the movie adapted from another book by Agatha Christie featuring Hercule Poirot, Death on the Nile, is set to be released in 2022.
6. Perry Mason
Perry Mason is one of the few detectives who is actually based on the author who created him, Erle Stanley Gardner. Like Gardner, who was an American lawyer and author, Perry Mason is a defense lawyer and detective known for solving the most difficult crimes and cases in Los Angeles. As with the other private investigators who have made it on to this list, Perry Mason’s influence extended beyond literature. He was featured in six Warner Bros. films in the 1930s, but was most famously portrayed by Raymond Burr in the CBS television series Perry Mason, which ran for nearly ten years from 1957 to 1966. Burr received two Emmy awards for his portrayal of Mason, and the TV show received its own Emmy nomination as well. Perry Mason’s legacy didn’t end with that show, however.
In 2020, HBO came out with its own TV series, Perry Mason, starring Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason. Matthew Rhys received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal, and the television show was so popular that it was renewed for a second season. In fact, the debut of Perry Mason on HBO had the highest viewers across all platforms of any HBO series for 2 years. Clearly, people can’t get enough of the part-private detective, part-lawyer.
7. Jessica Fletcher
Unlike other private detectives on this list, Jessica Fletcher lived only on television. Jessica Fletcher was a murder-mystery novelist played by Angela Lansbury on the hit CBS crime television series Murder, She Wrote. With 12 seasons, it was one of the most successful and longest-running television series of all time. The show was nominated for 5 Emmy awards and won 2, as well as 5 Golden Globe Awards, of which it won 5. The title of the show actually came from a film adaptation called Murder, Said, featuring detective Miss Marple, written by another detective author listed earlier on this list, Agatha Christie. Jessica Fletcher was chosen for the television series because she had previously acted in two film adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and caught the attention of the Murder, She Wrote producers. A powerhouse character, Jessica Fletcher received her own mention by the Guinness World Records, being called the Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth.
8. Benoit Blanc
Benoit Blanc is a rather new private detective to pop culture, but nonetheless an interesting one that deserves a spot on this list. Played by Daniel Craig of the James Bond films, Benoit Blanc is a private investigator in the 2019 American mystery film Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson and inspired by the mysteries of — you guessed it — Agatha Christie. The film in many ways resembles a game of clue, with Benoit Blanc as an incredibly clever and charming detective who navigates a web of family lies to uncover the truth about the death of rich mystery novelist Harlan Thombrey, the patriarch of a wealthy family.
The film was nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, as well as for three Golden Globes, including a nomination for Daniel Craig for Best Actor – Musical or Comedy. People are so intrigued by Benoit Blanc that Netflix has agreed to a $450 million deal to create two sequels to Knives Out that will feature Benoit Blanc, again played by Daniel Craig, as the protagonist detective. Though the release date has not been set for the first sequel, fans of private investigation can expect to see much more of Benoit Blanc.
9. Ace Ventura
While technically he’s not a private investigator, Ace Ventura, the star of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, makes our list of top 10 private investigators for his cultural significance as a detective. A so-called “pet detective,” Ace Ventura, played by Jim Carrey, investigates the mystery of the missing dolphin mascot of the Miami Dolphins football team. Unlike other private investigators, Ace Ventura is eccentric, quirky, and borderline insane — giving up police work to focus on animal crimes. However, he does possess the qualities of intelligence and devotion to the truth that are inherent to other private investigators on this list.
Though the comedy wasn’t critically acclaimed like other movies on this list, the character of Ace Ventura does leave a lasting legacy. A sequel, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, was released in 1995 and also starred Jim Carrey as the eccentric pet detective, and a third movie, Ace Ventura Jr.: Pet Detective, was released in 2009 and starred Josh Flitter as the son of pet detective Ace Ventura. These three movies make up the Ace Ventura franchise and solidify Ace Ventura as one of the most famous detectives in comedy.
10. Sam Spade
To end our list of 10 famous private investigators, we have private detective Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is a private detective who is handsome, cunning, smart, and has a deep commitment to justice and the truth. Sam Spade was created by Dashiell Hammett for the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, and his smart, hard-boiled character is considered to be incredibly influential on other private detectives that followed, including Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (see #3). Like other influential private detective novels, the character was adapted into a variety of films and television, most notably being a 1941 film adaptation of the same name, The Maltese Falcon, which follows the same film noir genre of other films on this list. Written and directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, who also played Philip Marlowe, as Sam Spade, the film went on to receive three Academy Award nominations.
Like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon was included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. See a pattern? Clearly, private detective films are loved by both the general public and film critics alike, and many of the private investigators in these films and TV shows might not exist if it weren’t for quintessential private detective Sam Spade.