High and Low (1963): True snooping isn’t the stuff of traditional movies or TV shows. It’s frustrating, tedious and largely spent trailing false leads, running into dead ends and drinking bad coffee while sitting around miserable rooms. Few dramatists would touch the real deal. Luckily, a few have. Akira Kurosawa’s kidnapping saga is divided into two halves: The first follows wealthy executive Toshiro Mifune as he gradually agrees to pay ransom to a man who accidentally nabbed his chauffeur’s son. The second abandons our lead to follow the police as they descend into the ghetto to find the crook, soaking up both the busy work and the disparity between classes in urban environs.
The Day of the Jackal (1973): Late ‘60s and ‘70s cinema teems with passionately dispassionate looks at process. In the wake of The Boston Strangler, Z and The French Connection, aging prestige director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) crafted this relentlessly calm and methodical adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s bestseller, in which the French ministry tries to thwart a crafty assassin (a Dirk Bogarde-ian Edward Fox) hired to snipe Charles De Gaulle. The film toggles between killer and his pursuers, showing both sides as mired in endless, irritating grunt work.
All the President’s Men (1976): How to make a major event that just happened suspenseful? Submerge viewers in an avalanche of details.
Zodiac (2007): The fruitless hunt to ID a psychopath who probably only killed five people yields an epic simulation of OCD, all adding up to nothing. Major characters drift in and out of the narrative, eventually leaving one amateur sleuth (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, plagued by the all-too-human need for closure even amidst the unknowable, eventually settles on a suspect whose DNA doesn’t even match.
Police, Adjective (2009): The unfailingly austere Romanian New Wave has birthed cryptically funny dramas about health care (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and about a bored detective who spends the entire film spying, tediously, on a pothead, as though this was a major bust. The cops still have to work when there’s no Jackal or Zodiac Killer to be found.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012): All the presidents’ men and women, tapped to empty their lives of everything in the pursuit of vengeance, even if that means destroying the nation’s soul—or their own.