The Five Detective Movies That Tug at Your Heartstrings

DISCLAIMER: This is not a series dedicated to proving men shouldn’t cry, or to suggest ONLY women cry and are therefore inferior. The goal of this series is to dispel the pre-established (yet flawed) notion that being “manly” and being disconnected from your emotions go hand-in-hand. Even the most macho of men enjoy and even shed a tear at films, and the sooner we can admit that the sooner the concept that one sex is better than the other can go away. While the approach to these articles is one of light-hearted comedy, the emotional core is valid. While men might be more hesitant to admit it, movies often times have the potential to make us cry, for example:

“Detective Movies”

Everyone loves a good mystery, except those who like M. Night Shyamalan’s more recent work. For the rest of us with good taste, a detective movie is like an amusement park ride. We’re strapped in and have no control over where we’re going, yet we strive to look around corners and figure out where the cart will take us before it does. Sometimes even being fully aware of the impending sudden drop doesn’t detract from our thrill as we go along for the ride. Detectives can be hardboiled or neurotic, suave or disheveled. Their movies can be noir or modern, serious or comedic. Yet for all the variety that detective movies offer, a film that says upfront that there’s a mystery and dares the audience to figure it out before the protagonist does makes this genre uniquely suited for audience participation. It’s no wonder with such a relationship between audience and film, there’s opportunities for emotional connection as well.

1. Chinatown
For those young’uns that aren’t aware, this is a move from the mid-1970s and the main private eye is played by Jack “Joker” Nicholson back when that was a genius idea and not a recipe for crazy. Like most detective stories, it would take several paragraphs to recount the plot, but we’re dealing with the classic trope of a dame hiring a detective to spy on someone, then turns out not to be who she claims to be and that someone ends up dead. That’s a trope, deal with it.

What really sets this movie out as sad is a particular scene with Jack and the main love interest. As often happens in these films, the dame became hysterical and Jack had to slap some sense into her. In doing so, it’s revealed that the girl’s sister is also her daughter, and the implications of how that would work are just horrifying. This reveal, and then the retroactive context to her sleeping with Jack and him having to slap the truth out of her both make for a very tough moment in cinematic history. Faye Dunaway’s performance is completely arresting.

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2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
For those of you crying out that this isn’t a detective movie, the mystery is in the freaking title! The late great Bob Hoskins earns so much goodwill from this film, we allowed him to make Super Mario Brothers and still consider him a bankable actor. Just the concept of a Toontown existing simultaneously to live-action golden age Hollywood is still genius, and to see Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on the same film frame will never not make me smile. All that aside, it’s actually a fairly decent detective story. Again, a private eye is hired to spy on someone and then that someone ends up dead. See, told you it was a trope. Who would want that man dead? Why even care about what happens to toons?

I’ll F-ing tell you who cares…we all care. The most horrific death of a cartoon character in any movie ever made is contained within this “family” movie, and it’s an anthropomorphic animated shoe being lowered into “the Dip” by Christopher F-ing Lloyd. The movie goes through great length to explain that nothing can kill a toon, so they don’t even have a concept of real pain or loss. Then to see this shoe realize it’s immortal existence is ending, slowly, painfully, while everyone watches and does nothing…HOW THE HELL IS THIS A CHILDREN’S MOVIE?!

3. Brick
A detective story with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a.k.a Nightwing. This film doesn’t have a professional detective, yet in it’s place is a mysterious scavenger hunt for meaning. Which is to say we as the audience as well as the protagonist are given several words and have the run time to decipher what they mean. People’s names, places, and even the title of the film plays in. The film may only be a decade old, but it’s surprisingly engaging and gripping.

The entire film is about Nightwing trying to find out what happened to his dead girlfriend and why. He finds out, and really that should be enough but the filmmakers decided they hate Joseph Gordon-Levitt and threw in an extra heartstring to tug. The girl was carrying his baby when she died. Oof. Oh wait, you weren’t done? Boy you must really hate Joseph! She admitted she didn’t love the father (Joseph) before dying. WHY WOULD YOU ADD THAT?! WE WERE ALREADY SAD!

4. Se7en
You’ve seen this movie, and you’ve repressed the nightmares that it caused. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are detectives investigating a serial killer, and the murders are tailored around the seven deadly sins. Each victim they find could claim responsibility for inspiring the Saw franchise for how gruesome they were. The man who was forced to eat canned spaghetti sauce until his stomach ruptured, the lawyer who had a pound of flesh removed… All set in a creepy atmosphere that is so oppressive and pervasive you almost stop trying to figure out the mystery and just close your eyes.

For me, the worst point was a victim that didn’t actually suffer physical harm, but was forced to inflict it on others. The “lust” victim was outfitted with a bladed condom and forced to murder/rape a prostitute. To see his mental destruction after what he did was worse than the torture porn of the other kills.

Also Pepper Potts was in the box, so there’s that.

5. Rear Window
Come over to the window! The James Stewart version, not the Christopher Reeves version, this classic Hitchcock film about a nosy neighbor who starts to suspect a murder has taken place is an oldie/goodie. Once again no official detective is present yet a common Joe takes it upon himself to fill the role, Partially because he’s temporarily wheelchair-ridden and has nothing else to do, and partially because he can’t convince anyone else of the suspicious activities he’s witnessed.

Now, obviously the major theme of the film is voyeurism and the thrill of watching and being watched. But another theme that gets short shrift is that of community. At one point, when our hero is questioning his spying on the other tenants, his girlfriend remarks “Whatever happened to that old saying of ‘love thy neighbor’?” Shortly thereafter, another tenant’s dog is killed by snapped neck, and the lady takes everyone to task in the building’s courtyard. She screams that none of them know the meaning of being neighbors, and that “Neighbors like each other! Speak to each other! Care if anybody lives or dies!” Granted, this is grief for a dog, but it says something about how meaningless communities have become. I don’t even know my neighbors’ names, or even if their dog is okay.

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Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.