In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Detective Films

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedias
  • Filmographies
  • Journals
  • Genre Criticism
  • Villains
  • Non-US Film

Cinema and Media Studies Detective Films
Philippa Gates
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0024


The “detective film” can be defined as a film that focuses on a detective-hero’s investigation into the mystery surrounding a crime; however, detective films vary in terms of content and themes, and often cross over into other genres, including science fiction (e.g., Blade Runner [1982]), the western (e.g., Tall in the Saddle [1944]), and even the musical (e.g., The Singing Detective [2003]). This makes defining the genre difficult, and, in fact, many scholars and critics place the “detective film” into the broader category of “film noir” (along with criminal-heroes) or the “crime film” (along with the gangster). This tendency to generalize is reflected in the sources listed in this article: while there will be some books and articles devoted solely to the detective film, many—even influential sources—may only discuss the genre specifically in a brief section. The majority of scholarship in English that addresses the genre tends to focus on American—specifically Hollywood—films. The term “detective film” often conjures up notions of overly complicated plots, a reliance on dialogue, and old-fashioned characters sporting deerstalkers—in other words, the classical detective story—and this has led to the genre being ignored or derided in terms of scholarly attention. However, in its broadest definition—that is, a narrative that follows an investigation by the protagonist—the detective film can include a wide range of films in every decade of film’s history. The detective film remains popular with audiences because the issues and themes it explores are continually relevant to American society, and the genre is able to adapt to changing sociocultural conditions. It is also the very nature of the detective narrative that is appealing. The genre offers the audience a high degree of participation in terms of the construction of the story by presenting a mystery—or puzzle—that must be solved; the audience, then, is encouraged to figure out the mystery’s solution before the detective presents it in the “scene of revelation” at the film’s climax. The founding scholarship on the detective film in the 1970s tended to offer historical overviews and production information on classical detective films of the 1930s, classic film noir of the 1940s, and revisionist neo-noir of the 1970s. By the 1980s, scholars’ approaches were informed by questions of formalism, auteurism, and adaptation and, by the 1990s, psychoanalysis, sociology, feminism, and race.

General Overviews

Early books on the detective genre were less in-depth film analyses or theoretically informed critiques and more historical overviews, listing film titles, actors, plot summaries, production information of the films, and some key themes—notably Everson 1972 and Tuska 1988 (originally published in 1978). These books are useful especially as the films and series of the 1930s and 1940s they discuss are not always readily available to view, and they also help to pin down the level of popularity of different characters, films, and subgenres—trends that may not be so readily apparent to us today. The 1990s and 2000s have seen scholars approach this popular genre with a more critical lens. Rubin 1999, Leitch 2002, Rafter 2000, and Thompson 2007 all offer excellent perspectives on the detective genre in broader discussions of the crime film; Gates 2006 is dedicated solely to the detective film.

  • Everson, William K. The Detective in Film: A Pictorial Treasury of the Screen Sleuth from 1903 to the Present. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1972.

    The first book devoted to the detective film. An historical overview of the genre with chapters dedicated to key detective figures (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond), types (e.g., the “Oriental” detective), and subgenres (e.g., the mystery-comedy).

  • Gates, Philippa. Detecting Men: Investigating Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

    The book’s strengths are its focus on the detective film and its breadth—from the mystery-comedies of the 1930s and police procedural of the 1950s to the cop-action heroes of the 1980s and criminalist of the 1990s. Gates explores how the portrayal of masculinity and the hero’s skills as a detective shift over time in a reflection of social attitudes.

  • Leitch, Thomas. Crime Films. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511606458

    Leitch discusses the detective film as part of the overarching genre of the crime film but also offers chapters on individual examples of the private eye, amateur, lawyer, and police detective. What distinguishes this book are the early chapters offering an historical overview of the genre and a critical overview, making it especially useful for scholars new to the genre.

  • Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Insightful discussions of the detective film from Dirty Harry (1971) onward within the broader category of the crime film and from the point of view of criminology (versus film studies). While many chapters explore criminal heroes, the two on cop films and courtroom films consider the detective.

  • Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Similar to Leitch 2002 and in the same series, Rubin offers a critical overview and three chapters on the main historical periods of the thriller genre. Rubin discusses the detective film specifically as part of the classical period and also in his chapter-long analyses of the detective thriller of the 1930s and 1940s and the police thriller of the 1970s.

  • Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Crime Films: Investigating the Scene. London: Wallflower, 2007.

    A thoughtful and concise overview of the key trends in the crime genre, with half of the chapters devoted to sleuths, hard-boiled, and police detectives. The introduction is especially interesting with brief sections on the origins of the genre, real-life criminal justice and investigation, and social context.

  • Tuska, Jon. In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

    A revised version of The Detective in Hollywood (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978). One of the few comprehensive genre histories dedicated strictly to the detective film, with some chapters devoted to key figures (e.g., Sherlock Holmes) and others offering a survey of 1930s and 1940s series, hard-boiled fiction adaptations, and film noir. An exhaustive and comprehensive history of the genre up to 1988.

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