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Gumshoes, Shamuses, and Private Dicks



Rob Hardy


Picture this: a guy in a fedora and a trenchcoat who drinks, womanizes, and dislikes authority figures. He's easy to see, he is such an American icon. It is a surprise to learn that this iconic figure shows up in only a few film noir pictures, one of the findings in The Private Eye: Detectives in the Movies (Reaktion Books) by Bran Nicol. The author is a professor of English literature, and obviously loves movies. He has given an insightful volume to show the history of the private eye as a small facet of film noir, and the function of the private eye in films and as a cultural archetype. It is fun to read this somewhat academic work and absorb Nicol's thoughtful ideas about films, heroes, and society. 




Private eyes in the movies are heroes, but Nicol points out that they are seldom seen that way by their on-screen companions. "In the film Harper (1966), for example, the private eye is summed up as being 'hired by a bitch to find scum.' In The Long Goodbye (1973), Philip Marlowe is told to 'Go back to your gumshoes and your peeping and let us alone.' In Chinatown (1974) Jake Gittes is confronted by a disgusted man who has seen his picture in the paper and tells him, 'You got a hell of a way to make a living!'" These lone masculine protagonists do not participate in the sort of epic plots that, say, their cowboy counterparts shoot their way through. These guys are not like the other version of the detective found in books and films, the "gentleman detective." Holmes and Poirot (and though she is no gentleman, Miss Marple), didn't get hired by louche clients to get dirt on their spouses. Nicol assures us that the world of the armchair detective is as heavily stylized in the movies as that of the noir detective, but they are indeed two different worlds. The armchair detectives are strictly upper class, and they solve crimes in their own strata. They generally do not have to face physical danger, and if they do, they don't get beat up too badly. They do not sleep with clients.  




Nicol points out that the work of the armchair detective, like Holmes pondering in his study, is simply less cinematic than the work of the private eye as he goes about to clubs, gambling dens, bars, and ostensibly empty houses. The private eye is on camera almost all the picture, and he tends to get into dark and private spaces. He is not detached; he is in this dark world and seeing it for us. The armchair detective may be better at explaining a crime, but the private eye excels in exposing it. Again, this is largely because of the medium of cinema; the eye of the camera and the eye of the private eye probe together. He looks into private matters, usually not investigating a murder to start off with (although murder will play a role by the second reel); he investigates failing marriages, family transgressions, sexual scandal, and backstreet deals. Nicol reels off print predecessors, like the writings of Poe or even Conrad, but asserts that even with the famous novels that were turned into movies, it is the movies that have given the private eye his cultural significance.  




The detective has been a staple of movies since there were movies, but Nicol gives a useful breakdown of the chronology of the private eye film, concentrating on two particular times. There was a classic noir era, from about 1940 to 1959, and while relatively few noir movies of the time have certified private eyes in them, this is the era in which Bogart was Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). While these are two of the best private eye films, there are lesser-known films Nicol reviews, like The Narrow Margin (1952) or many films like Scarlet Street (1945) which have detectives as minor characters. The traits of the noir films from these private eye classics are clear; not only are they dark, figuratively and photographically, but they deal in a gritty environment with a lot of characters being bad or cruel to each other. The second wave, neo-noir films from the 1960s and 1970s, revised and updated the same sorts of themes (but usually did it without the evocative black and white photography). Robert Altman brought Philip Marlowe up to date in The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliot Gould playing the detective as laid-back, shuffling, and devoted to his cat. Then there is the brilliant Chinatown, one of Jack Nicholson's greatest roles, in which he is far darker but just as baffled and almost as disastrously ineffective as Gould. Nicol's review of films in both eras is fine, but also he takes in outliers, like Vertigo (1958) or Rear Window (1954) which do not actually have private detectives, but have main characters that are bent on sleuthing out a particular case. Then there are the most recent updates like Blade Runner (1982), Blue Velvet (1986), and Angel Heart (1987), as well as the strange and wonderful noir set in a high school, Brick (2005). 




Uniting many of these movies, especially the new wave, is a California locale, particularly Los Angeles. Even Blade Runner is in the Los Angeles of 2019. California was the home of the original Chandler and Marlowe, after all, and the second wave movies showed an interest in the wealthy scoundrels that California had in profusion. (It could not have hurt that making movies in California had a particular facility to it.) Prosperity meant corruption, and corruption was the private eye's bread and butter. There was also a sense of homelessness and dislocation in the state, perfect for noir unease. Nicol shows that the new wave movies more than the originals tended to emphasize the untrustworthiness or malice of those in power, a response to Watergate or the Vietnam War. 




Uniting the detectives in these movies also is their lack of home life. They have their offices, which may be shabby but a lot of work does get done (another uniting characteristic is that these guys do work hard). We infrequently get to see where a private eye lives, and when we do, the place is barely a bed and a chair. Even Sam Spade, who is smart, well-read, and (naturally) curious has a forgettable little apartment. The detectives do not have families. In a rare exception, the detective Bannion in The Big Heat (1953) returns from a hard day of investigations, and sits in an armchair reading his paper and asking his wife what's for dinner. It must mean something that before long a bomb goes off at the Bannion's, ruining any continued domesticity. 




One other thing that unites these guys is that they are promoting the public good. They are representing us in keeping society going. They may not do it the way the supposedly competent public police do, and the detective may have to try to sacrifice his own desires in order to close a case (with variable results). Each may be an individualist, and each may have succeeded in achieving the goal we Americans admire of being his own boss. Overall, though, they are correcting society to stay as it is. Nicol writes, "The 'romantic individualist' ethos which hangs over cultural depictions of the private eye is misleading, for the private eye film is inherently conformist and conservative." As he does for the other sometimes surprising assertions in this book, Nicol makes a good case by citing particular films as evidence. I have seen The Maltese Falcon I guess more than twenty times, and I'll see it again soon in a new way courtesy of Nicol's book. I also have plenty of titles I didn't know that are now on my Netflix list. 




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