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You Can't Spell Private Without I
by Simon Smithson

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Bogart was known to leave only the hat on when visting Lauren Bacall

Bogart was known to leave only the hat on when visting Lauren Bacall
The sad truth of the matter is that the private eye movie is an exaggeration of real private eye work. Real private eyes might sometimes go as long as a whole month without shooting a guy, sleeping with his wife, and discovering that she was the brains behind the whole thing. And then shooting some more guys.

The genesis of the private eye genre in film came about through the rise of the noir style of writing- the great writers of hardboiled fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, etc.) wrote books that were easily adaptable to the screen. And they struck a chord with audiences. The only thing better than a good mystery (THE MALTESE FALCON. THE BIG SLEEP, why Weird Al Yankovic doesn't age like the rest of us) is the solving of a good mystery (the butler did it. Two butlers did it. If the butler HAD done it- not that he's saying he did- then here's how he would have done it.)

The character of the private eye himself is a curious one- it's written somewhere in the contract that they have to drink straight Scotch at nine in the morning, smoke more cigarettes than the entire population of a small Eastern European nation, and generally be irresistible to any and all women that cross their paths, despite the fact that all the drinking and smoking would do anything for their abs. A good private eye is down and out and angry at the world for being such a dark and cruel place- nonetheless, he's a man who still believes in the importance of law and order and the protection of the innocent. Like the guy who cleans out the elephant cages at the circus, the private eye knows he's in a dirty world, but he still does his part to make it all right.

The earlier detective films belonged entirely to Humphrey Bogart. Back when men were men, women were secretaries, and fedoras could be worn without fear of reprisals, Bogart took his usual performance of a man who was always cool, calm and collected under any circumstances and married it to the idea of the private eye. As Philip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP and Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON, Bogart forged a characterisation so strong that it would last longer then he himself would. The idea of Bogart's kind of private eye has seen countless reproductions, both in homage and pastiche.

THE MALTESE FALCON was the film that really introduced the idea of the noir private eye as played by Bogart to the wider public. Tough but honourable, cynical but moral, and constantly in danger but fearless, Bogart's character of Sam Spade found himself caught up in a maze of deception, gangsters, seduction and money. Given that Bogart was a founding member of the Rat Pack, these kinds of ideas were probably new to him. The plot of the movie starts with Sam Spade, PI, being hired to track down a woman's missing sister. As any good private eye knows,
If you're talking about Shaft, then I can dig it.

If you're talking about Shaft, then I can dig it.
any and all jobs that come across their desk are always more complicated than they seem and will always involve an international syndicate of criminals- and THE MALTESE FALCON is no exception.

The circumstances of the film aren't as important as the character of Spade himself. Bogart portrayed him as a man who wasn't afraid to use his fists, who wasn't overly concerned about an adulterous relationship with his partner's wife, and who wouldn't hesitate to see the law carried out, no matter what the consequences to himself. It wasn't self-sacrifice as such, simply a belief that the law should never be broken.

The tough-as-nails-private-eye persona continued in the 1971 hit SHAFT. More famous now for later claims of boosting the blaxploitation genre and wreaking havoc wherever the theme song is installed on karaoke booths, SHAFT's title character was from the same school as the classical noir period's detectives- a man who would clean up the streets with his brains as well as his gun (even though neither object would get the streets as clean as, say, a mop and bucket). Richard Roundtree's Detective John Shaft was just as verbally cutting as Bogart ever was, and just as ready to go toe to toe with the bad guys.

Later audiences would be re-introduced to the Shaft clan via the 2000 sequel starring Samuel L. Jackson. While the movie was less successful commercially and critically than its predecessor, the idea of the main character was the same, and took a further stand on the idea of a detective who had nothing but contempt for the system with Jackson's resignation from the police force at the start of the movie (whether a police badge will stick into a wall when thrown with enough force is, like the character of the private eye himself, unfortunately just another Hollywood invention).

It seems that Hollywood's toughest have what it takes to play a private eye convincingly. Jack Nicholson put his smirk to work with 1974's CHINATOWN, a film that took the term ‘happy ending' (the movie sort of happy ending, not the massage parlour sort of happy ending although, with Nicholson starring, both are equally possible) and cut up its nose with a knife. CHINATOWN was bleak, and gritty, and the assorted demons of the main characters could have filled an Olympic Stadium. Nicholson's J. J. Gittes adhered to the noir mould in every way, shape and form- surrounded by corruption and unable to trust his employers, he nevertheless continues implacably on in the pursuit of justice. .

The ending of CHINATOWN shares similarities with the earliest classic noir films- by the end of the film, the world has not been saved; it simply keeps on turning in exactly the same way that it did before. Despite the best intentions of the hero, not everyone has been saved, and he has paid a heavy price for his
Later, the 'Batman vs Iron Man in a fight argument' would erupt.

Later, the 'Batman vs Iron Man in a fight argument' would erupt.
adherence to a moral code. A new element in CHINATOWN was the utter hopelessness with which the film closed. For once, the detective's brighter ideals didn't win the day.

A similarly downbeat ending was the closer for 1999's Nicholas Cage movie 8MM. Dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances than private eye movies that had gone before it (the 1930's didn't see a lot of movie made about snuff films) 8MM was a return to form for both Cage and Joel Schumacher, the latter of whom will never be forgiven for this columnist for BATMAN AND ROBIN, no matter how many TIGERLANDs or PHONEBOOTHs he releases. LOST BOYS 2 might do the trick.

Cage moved through 8MM like a heat-seeking missile, delving into the deepest recesses of perversion in order to discover the identity of a girl and bring her killers to justice. As various truths are brought to light his own beliefs are stripped back until his innate moral beliefs demand only one end. Cage and Joaquin Phoenix were the only real heroic characters in a world populated by the likes of Peter Stormare's pornographer, Dino Velvet.

The true darkness of the movie, and, by contrast, the heroic status of Cage's character, comes in during the final, climactic fight between Cage's Tom Welles and the hulking porn actor, Machine. The revelations surrounding Machine's identity point out that just as a man can choose to sin, so too can he choose to fight against it.

An altogether lighter tale of detection was KISS KISS BANG BANG, the Robert Downey Jnr/Val Kilmer buddy flick that took all of the traditions of a noir film and stood them on their head. Downey Jnr wasn't a private eye per se, but Kilmer's Gay Perry, hired to take Downey Jnr under his wing and give him detective lessons was one of Kilmer's best roles to date. There were just as many lies in the Hollywood penthouses they found themselves in (funny, that) and just as much murder on the agenda, Downey Jnr and Kilmer just made more jokes as they dealt with it.

The dialogue of the two, in particular Downey Jnr, was what gave the film its punchiness. Often bickering like a pair of old women, the two of them, with a little help from Michelle Monaghan along the way, solved not one, but two cases. As the film unfolded it became apparent that Downey Jnr and Kilmer, despite being a petty thief and a self-proclaimed ‘not a nice man' respectively, kept to the private detective code. Especially the parts about drinking and smoking.

The lesson of the private detective is a fairly simple one- smoking and drinking aren't really a big deal. Breaking the law is. No matter how wretched your life or your surroundings may be, if you keep an eye on the law and try to do what's right, you'll hopefully get laid.



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An in-depth look at the different kinds of characters that make the movies, how they've changed over time, and how they reflect the best and worst of us.


Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

All Columns


Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.


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