Along with my good friend and fellow usher Dan Lauder I host a film quiz at The Odeon Metrocentre. The latest installment featured a round on Private Investigators in the movies. As I was compiling the questions I noticed that there are actually very few films to feature the P.I. as the lead character. Why?
Fedora, overcoat, cigarette, hard-drinking, dingy office, dislike of authority, strong moral centre, weakness for women in trouble. These are the traits that make the Private Investigator a character that should have been a mainstay of the film noir genre in the mid 20th century, his big screen appearances have been few and far between. Could it be that audiences are more comfortable with the cop as the hero? Maybe the P.I. works better when he is left on the page? Do detective stories work better on episodic television than they do on the big screen?
I will look at how the movie P.I., the cinema gumshoe, downtrodden detective has been portrayed through out the decades and highlight and revisit some of my favourite films along the way.
The early 1940s saw the rise of the hard-boiled detective film, providing an alternative to the more traditional murder mystery stories that dominated the silent era and most of the 1930s. They heralded a stylistic shift from the traditional formats laid out by films featuring Sherlock Holmes and then popular Thin Man series.
With this new style of film, there needed to be a new type of hero and the down trodden Private Detective seemed to fit into the new film noir genre perfectly.
The private investigator was already a mainstay of american literary fiction in the 1930s and it seemed natural that he would make the transition to the big screen. Two authors in particular were responsible for creating the 2 most iconic P.I’s of all time. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I have chosen an example of each, both are amongst my favourite films of all time.
Based on the 1929 novel by Dashiell Hammett and featuring the character of Sam Spade, who appears only in this novel and a few short stories, but he widely considered as a defining figure in the creation of the hard-boiled detective hero and directly influenced Raymond Chandler in his creation of Philip Marlowe.
Spade was a departure from Hammett’s other characters, like the nameless master of deceit, The Continental Op, or the reformed alcoholic Nick Charles. He was cold, detached, driven with a keen eye for detail and an unflinching determination to achieve (what he perceives to be) justice.
The Maltese Falcon, set in San Fransisco in 1941, sees Private Investigators Sam Spade and Miles Archer hired by the mysterious Ruth Wonderly to find her missing sister. Following Archer’s death Spade finds himself caught up with a deadly femme fatale and a trio of unscrupulous treasure hunters who are competing to secure a jewel encrusted falcon statue.
Meticulously planned and shot by then first time director John Huston, the film was a huge success and a new breed of hero was born. The film not only launched Huston’s career, but moved Humphrey Bogart from supporting player to leading man. Bogart wasnt the first choice for the role that would go on to define not only his career direction but become the template for an entire genre. He was delighted to play such a morally ambiguous character who is both honourable and greedy.
Although I prefer The Big Sleep (more on that in a minute) this film holds a special place in heart, it started everything that makes this genre what it is. Bogart is beyond cool, the first time I had come across the notion of a femme fatale and it was the first of five collaborations between him and director John Huston.
The Big Sleep was the 4th film adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, but was the first novel to feature the character. It is noted for the complexity of its plot. The characters are constantly double-crossing each other and the narrative is littered with revelations and secrets.
Private Detective Philip Marlowe is called in by an elderly general to look into a blackmail case concerning his wild young daughter. He becomes involved with the generals older daughter and the double crossing begins.
As I mentioned, the plot itself was very complex, in fact during filming, the death of the chauffeur character caused too much confusion amongst the crew that they wrote to Chandler himself to find out the culprit to which he replied..”They sent me a wire asking me……and dammit, I don’t know either,,”
The character of Philip Marlowe is, on the surface, like any other noir hero. Wise Cracking, hard-drinking and tough but is more contemplative than his contemporaries. He has a real moral centre and isn’t as fooled by the femme fatale character. He is expertly played by Bogart here drawing from his portrayal of Sam Spade 5 years earlier. This, along with Rick Blaine in Casablanca (Dir Michael Curitz, 1942) is his best turn in my opinion.
Effortlessly cool and tough as they come, you are with him for the whole film as he weaves his way in and out of the intricate plot. It also features him playing alongside Lauren Bacall. Their chemistry is incredible, Bacall oozes sexuality in a way modern actresses struggle to exude.
Arguably, Farewell, My Lovely (Dir Edward Dmytyrk, 1944) with Dick Powell as Marlowe is a better film, but as far as this writer is concerned there are few actors cooler than Bogart, so he remains the definitive Marlowe for me.
The 70s Revival
Despite being a perfect fit for the film noir genre, very little films featured the private eye following the conclusion of the 1940s. It wasnt until the 1970s that he began to emerge again.
For this time period, I am going to look at 3 very different types of P.I. Chinatown (Dir Roman Polanski, 1974), which sets the action in the late 30s, The Long Goodbye (Dir, Robert Altman, 1973) which takes the Philip Marlowe character and updates him and puts him in 70s Hollywood and the blaxploitation classic Shaft (Dir Gordon Parks, 1971), which splices the film noir genre with an action film.
Following on from The Big Sleep, this seems like the perfect place to start. The updated Philip Marlowe. Although the films screen play is written by Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye takes a few liberties with the text. None more so than updating the action from 1949 to, then, modern-day 1970s Hollywood. Some characters are omitted and the ending deviates drastically. The films plays like a social satire, contrasting Marlowe’s 1940s character with the modern setting. A decent moralistic man caught up in a self obsessed society, the chain-smoking private eye is out-of-place in the health conscious 70s Hollywood. Director Altman went as far as to call the character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he has been asleep for 20 years and bound to end up a loser.
Here, Marlowe is hired by the young wife an alcoholic novelist to find her husband, while at the same time being tied up in the murder of his best friends wife.
Gould is brilliant in the role, with Marlowe here cast a down trodden loser rather than the slick cool private eye of the 40s. The film performed poorly on its release, maybe the drastic changes to the text were to blame or maybe the down-trodden Marlowe was too much of a departure for genre fans. I, for one loved this. Like any literary character, they need to be updated and changed for a modern audience and I think Altman nails it here. For an example of a total mis-step would be the ill-advised re-make of The Big Sleep (Dir, Michael Winner, 1978), which casts Robert Mitchum as Marlowe and switches the action to England, with Oliver Reed and erm, Joan Collins in supporting roles. Awful
This neo-noir thriller was Polanski’s last film in the US and features a screenplay by Robert Towne, which is considered to be one of the finest ever written.
Jack Nicolson plays J.J. (Jake) Gitttes, a down at heel L.A. private investigator with dealing with a past tied up in an unknown event occurring in Chinatown.
He is approached by Evelyn Mulwray, and hired to tail her husband Hollis as he begins to look into the man and is then confronted by a beautiful woman who claims to be the real Mrs Mulwray. The next day Hollis is found dead and Gittes finds him self caught up in a dispute over water rights and a deep held family secret, all heading to a tragic conclusion in Chinatown.
This is a wonderful film and stands firmly beside The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon as classics of the genre. Nicolson is great as the lead fighting his past and his growing attraction to a dangerous woman in his search for the truth. In a great nod to the classic period John Huston appears as the villainous Noah Cross and there is a wonderful scene where Gittes is confronted by two henchman in a reservoir and has his nose slashed, one of the henchman is played by director Roman Polanski.
The film was nominated for 11 academy awards, but only won for Original Screenplay. An interesting note on that is that the films tragic ending was actually written by Polanski, as he felt that for Chinatown to be a classic, it would need to end on a down note. He was right, the ending fits the film perfectly. As Gittes stands devastated by events, the only comfort his colleague can offer him is simply… “Forget it Jake, It’s Chinatown”
Jack Nicolson and Robert Towne would return to the character in 1990 with The Two Jakes (Dir Jack Nicolson, 1990), as Jake is drawn back into the world of the Mulwray family, but failed to reach the heights of it predecessor and was a critical and commercial failure.
With only fleeting elements of film noir, I couldn’t do a piece on Private Investigators and not mention John Shaft, created by novelist Ernest Tidyman and conceived as a sort of African-American James Bond.
Considered as a prime example of the blaxploitation genre, it features Richard Rowntree as Shaft, an ultra cool New York PI who is hired by a Harlem crime boss to ensure the safe return of his daughter. Shaft finds that the Italian mob are involved and he uses all his streetwise knowledge to solve the case.
More of an action film than anything else, it is great fun, with an unforgettable soundtrack. The film has dated considerably in terms of style and social attitudes. The character would recur twice in the 70s with Shaft’s Big Score (Dir, Gordon Parks, 1972) and Shaft In Africa (John Guillermin, 1973) and in a short-lived TV series. A remake in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s cop nephew was a big disappointment, proving that lines that worked in 1972, just don’t in 2000. “It’s my duty, to please that booty” comes across as cringy rather than the affectionate nod like intended.
It wont surprise you all to hear that a reboot is in the works…
Well, that is all for now, join me here for part II as I will look at the 90s and beyond