Welcome back to the second part of Watching The Detectives, if you missed the first part, catch up by clicking here
As the decades rolled on, the P.I.s appearances remained relatively infrequent. When he did appear, the elements of the classic era film noir hero were there to be found, whether it was drowned in 90s excess (The Last Boyscout) or subverted by the need for the hero to conform to the 90s idea of what a man should be (8MM) or even coated in silliness (Ace Ventura) he was there.
Before we get into the 90s P.I. there is one entry in the genre that I would be remiss not to include, and that is Angel Heart (Dir, Alan Parker, 1987) which features Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, it splices the film noir genre with horror and is a wonderful, if slightly uncomfortable watch. Featuring Rourke as P.I. Harry Angel, who becomes embroiled in voodoo and the dark arts as he searches for a missing musician.
Written by Shane Black and directed by Tony Scott, this is an exercise in 90s excess. Bruce Willis plays Joe Hallenbeck, the 90s version of the hard-boiled private investigator.
Hallenbeck is a former secret service agent who has taken to alcohol after being fired for standing up for what is right. His path of self destruction has not only cost him his job, but he is on the verge of losing his family. All the elements of the 40s era P.I. are there, tough, hard-drinking, uncompromising, with a soild moral compass and a desire to do what is right, but this is the 90s, he is also a family man (albeit a destructive one).
The film opens with a massacre on the field during an American Football game, then we cut to Joe Hallenbeck. Hung over after a trip to Vegas, he is handed a job to protect a
stripper, exotic dancer when she is threatened. After she is killed in an ambush, Hallenbeck teams with a disgraced American Footballer to avenge her death and uncover a conspiracy at the very heart of America’s game that features a scheming millionaire and a corrupt senator. It is big, violent and brilliant.
While Hallenbeck conforms to the characteristics of the classic P.I., the fact that he is married with a family brings him up to date, he is also given a partner, which is something different again.
Once his client is killed, his job is technically over, but it is his unrelenting sense of justice that drives him, he just cant stand that rich and influential can get away with anything. He will follow the case to the end, regardless of the danger or the cost.
The production was not without its problems, the scripts was one of the most expensive ever commissioned and the returns were less than favourable, which is a shame, as I would like to have seen more of Joe Hallenbeck/Jimmy Dix on the big screen.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, this was his first film after the disaster that was Batman and Robin and he couldn’t have picked a more dark departure. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker (who would go on to write Seven for David Fincher) and stars Nicolas Cage in one of his darkest roles as a Private Investigator who delves into the world of snuff movies as he searches for a missing actress.
This is a tough watch, considering the subject matter that is hardly a surprise and the rumour is that Walker’s script was toned done too, but what is most interesting is just how the Private Investigator character is subverted, changing the rough edged PI into the idealised 90s family man. Nicolas Cage is great (of course), if slightly miscast in the role of the devoted family man, he is straight-laced and has a devoted wife and baby daughter, a long way from Bogart’s chain-smoking loner, or even Hallenbecks’s family man on a downward spiral.
Cage plays Tom Welles, a Private Investigator contacted by the lawyer of a rich widow who found among her dead husbands possessions an 8mm film which appears to depict a real life murder, as he delves into the world of illegal pornography and the closer he gets to the truth, the more danger he finds himself in.
What Welles does share with his predecessors is a sense of justice. From his first meeting with the dead girls mother, he is determined to find her killers. Even after he is almost killed and his whole world is threatened, his internal sense of right and wrong and his devotion to see the case through drives him, even at the risk of losing everything.
It is quite well documented that I am a Nicolas Cage fan, and this is nowhere near a vintage Cage film, but it is also nowhere near the drivel he has become involved in recently, a decent, if slightly disturbing watch and a very interesting take on the P.I. character.
Based on the 1990 novel by Walter Mosley, Devil In A Blue Dress was his first novel to feature the hard-boiled detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. This is set in 1948 and while Easy is a character in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, there are differences. He is unlicensed and has no background or connection to law enforcement, he was a soldier and served in WWII. The driving sense of right and wrong is something he grows into rather than what drives him in the first place.
Easy Rawlins as just been made redundant from his job at an aircraft plant, he is down on his luck and needs a job. His friend and bar man introduces him to a man who is looking to track down a white woman called Daphne Monet. Desperate, he takes the job and soon finds himself up to his neck in murder, gangsters, politicians and corruption.
Easy is the protagonist in nearly a dozen novels, but so far this is the only one that has made it to the big screen, it is ok, Denzel Washington plays Easy and his narration is good and harks back to the noir films of the 40s, but the story is a bit too convoluted and while it looks great, it looks like film noir, it sounds like film noir…it’s just a bit dull
Before we move on from the 90s, I want to give an honourable mention to a film called Zero Effect (Dir, Jake Kasdan, 1998). This is (very) loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia and stars Bull Pullman as Daryl Zero, the world’s most private detective. He never has any direct contact with his clients, until he gets involved in a tricky blackmail case. Low key and brilliant, this would probably have benefited from being on TV rather than on film, but brilliant all the same. Also, The Big Lebowski (Dir, The Coen Brothers, 1998) where The Coens completely subvert the genre by casting a ten pin bowling stoner in the Philip Marlowe role (more on that here).
As we moved out of the 90s, a relatively fruitful period for the P.I. the last 15 years or so have been slim pickings, but the times that they have appeared have proved to be worth the wait (mostly). In this section, I will look at 3 very different types of film. All with a different approach to the character.
Hollywoodland is a fiction story based around the death of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the popular 50s tv series The Adventures of Superman. The protagonist is a fictional Private Investigator, who is drawn into Reeves’ life as he searches for the truth.
Adrian Brody plays Louis Simo, a sleazy private investigator who has become more interested in making money than he is in devotion to his clients. He goes to visit his estranged son is upset over the death of George Reeves, after a discussion with a policeman friend of his, he sees the opportunity to make a name for himself. His investigation is shown side by side with flashbacks depicting Reeves rise to stardom and his affair with a studio execs wife.
Here the PI character is shown as a man motivated by greed and fame and after seeing how the pursuit of those things destroyed the man’s life who he is investigating. When he is unable to prove his case, he driven to find redemption by reconciling with his family.
Here Rian Johnson expertly updates the hardboiled detective story, with all the elements of the 1940s classics and influenced by Hammett and Chandler. The action takes place in a modern-day suburb in California and most of the characters are high school students. A fresh take on a classic genre.
While The Coens subverted the genre with their tongue firmly in their cheeks with The Big Lebowski, Johnson plays this straight and it works in spades.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as loner Brendan, who following his break up with Emily retreats into himself, following a panicked phone call from Emily, he does his best to track her down, only to find her dead. His relentless search for her killer leads him to The Pin and a dangerous drug ring.
This is a brilliant film, the high school loner is a perfect stand in for the PI and the unique dialogue and terminology works to isolate the viewer and help us relate to Brendan as he tries to piece together what happened to Emily. There is also a nice cameo from Richard Rowntree in a knowing nod to the genre.
Levitt is excellent and this was an early indication of what was to lie ahead in this young man’s career. Johnson too, in his directorial debut keeps the action moving. A brilliant film and a total credit to the genre.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone focuses on a duo of Private Detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennero, who operate in the neighbourhoods of South Boston. Kenzie is the lead character and narrator and it is he who conforms to the P.I. characteristics.
He is loyal, driven and has a strong moral centre and will do what he perceives to be right, no matter what the cost to himself and those around him.
After a small girl goes missing and the Boston PD struggling to find her, the girls aunt calls in Kenzie and Gennero to help with the neighbourhood aspects of the case. As the pair delve deeper into the girls disappearance, they are faced with drug lords, pedophiles and corrupt cops.
This was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut and he proves here that he has a real eye and has backed up the early promise shown here with his later efforts. He casts his brother Casey in the lead role and he doesn’t let him down.
Kenzie is damaged and noble. By the time we reach the film’s conclusion and the choice he is faced with, is his sense of justice and what is right in conflict with what is right for those around him?
The films final scene, the girl has been reunited with her mother, Kenzie has lost everything. The mother leaves on a date and Kenzie is left with the little girl pondering if he has made the right decision is a powerful one.
This is a brilliant film, a cracking modern detective story tinged with both sadness and hope. If you haven’t seen it, please give it a look.
Ok, well, that is that. I hope you enjoyed my journey as much as I have. Revisiting some of these classic films has been an absolute delight.
If I have missed anything then please let me know, all feedback and comments are most welcome!
Thanks for reading folks x