Posted by gregferrara on November 20, 2013
In 1972, the legendary film historian and archivist William K. Everson released his seminal book, The Detective in Film, of which I proudly have a first edition copy with its slip cover still in good condition. When The Maltese Falcon aired on TCM last night, I thought of it again. Everson is the kind of film historian that simply cannot exist anymore. His type of film historian cannot exist because with the modern day availability of movies, stills and back story, the kind of hunting, exploring, collecting and curating that Everson did is no longer as in demand as it once was, though still clearly needed. For instance, I have a book on the silent period, Classics of the Silent Screen, written in 1959 by Joe Franklin. In the acknowledgements, it lists Everson as the person who acquired the stills for the book and the prints for Joe to watch. Back in his day, Everson was a walking, talking movie database, a man who could find a lost film and lend it to you to view or copy, even if it meant flying halfway around the world to get it to you. It was all about the details, saving and preserving all the pieces of film history that might otherwise get lost. And when he wrote about movies, he preferred a specific approach over a general one. He wrote about W.C. Fields, bad guys, and the history of the western, so it should come as no surprise that in the early seventies he felt it necessary to explore the themes surrounding the private detective, at a time when neo-noir was finding its way to cinema screens and the anti-hero was making a comeback.
Everson’s book is an all-encompassing look at the detective in film specifically, not a look at film noir. It’s not about genre, it’s about the specific characters solving the crimes, figuring out the mysteries and defeating the bad guys. Of course, once people see Sam Spade’s name mentioned, they tend to veer mentally into noir territory and certainly there’s lots of overlap but Everson sticks to the person solving the mystery, from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple. Of course, the ones that really interests me are the private eyes, extending out to lone wolf police detectives, and it interests Everson too because he devotes three chapters to them, even dividing them up into categories of gentleman private eyes as opposed to the more rough and tumble types. A third type he lists is the Hitchcock detective, based on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In Hitchcock’s films, detectives are essentially worthless (except, notably, Dial M for Murder) and it’s the protagonist, whether that be Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt), Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent) or Jimmy Stewart (The Man Who Knew Too Much), who must do all the detecting.
But back to why the private eye/detective interests me. The private eye, as exemplified by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, isn’t an intellectually astonishing character, like Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin, nor is he possessing of any pure form of moral clarity and wouldn’t mix well in the company of more dignified types as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. No, the private eye, and by extension, the Hitchcock detective, looks at the world with a cocked eye but only because it’s been forced on him, or her, by a neverending storm of bad luck, double crosses, and stabs in the back. The private eye knows this world doesn’t owe you a damn thing but that still doesn’t mean the guilty should go free. In short, the private eye is a character that rests easy in the ethical mindset of a modern world that knows enough to be cynical about what can get done but also practical enough to seek out justice, even if it seems impossible.
Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, feels different. He feels above us. Outside our experiences. A little too smart, a little too aloof. He’s more of the kind of character you can aspire to because you admire his wit and intellect. And there’s nothing wrong with a character you can aspire to but the private eye is like you and me. The private eye is a character you can connect to, understand, engage. And beyond that, he’s also a character you can trust. For all the private eye’s cynicism, he lives by a code and when the authorities fail, he will come through. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon epitomizes this and is certainly one of my all time favorites. The authorities do their best but only Sam puts it all together by getting under the skin of all involved. In the end, Sam defers to the authorities because he’s not about usurping their power, just helping them by doing things he knows they can’t.
One thing Sam does is play dumb when he needs to, play rattled when he needs to and play nervous when he needs to. Sam knows that the people he’s up against want to think they’re smarter than him, more composed, more reasonable. By playing to their egos, he defeats them even if the only thing he gets out of it is the satisfaction of fulfilling a partner’s code that he’s not even sure he believes in.
Police detectives in film can work much the same way. Since they’re already cops, the authority they exist outside of becomes the hierarchical structure of the city government. Their chief is always fed up with them and threatens to put them on suspension because the commissioner or the mayor’s coming down on him. They get taken off the case while a couple of flat foots with no imagination take over, forcing the detective to work without his badge. And so on. There have been great examples of this (Dirty Harry immediately springs to mind) but my personal favorite will always be Columbo, brought to life on television first by Bert Freed and on stage by Thomas Mitchell, then brought to breathtaking perfection by Peter Falk. Columbo played dumb for the bad guys egos time and time again and every time came out on top. Everson doesn’t mention Columbo, at least not that I could find, because the book deals exclusively with film, but I’d like to think Everson thought highly of him all the same.
Everson’s book ends in 1971 so he missed out on the chance to include another personal favorite of mine, The Late Show, which I wrote up here last December (Since I have my full review linked to its title, I won’t elaborate on it too much except to say that Art Carney gives one of the best private detective performances ever in one of the best detective mysteries ever). But despite missing out on some great revivals of the private dick on film, Everson’s book covers the topic with both a passion for and a knowledge of the detective film like few other writers, then or now. He mentions and analyzes more detectives than most people even know exist and gives high praise to such classic film gumshoes as Philo Vance, Inspector Cockrill and Bulldog Drummond. The bulk of his praise falls to The Maltese Falcon (“… it seems unlikely that there can ever again be such a fortuitous convergence of directorial, writing, photographic, and acting talent under such ideal studio conditions…”) which, admittedly is a part of the book’s appeal. It’s a great book and satisfies my love for the private eye on film, brought back in full bloom last night as I watched The Maltese Falcon yet again and then, later, nodding my head in agreement when I read Everson’s words, “Once the mystery is solved, its excitement should theoretically vanish – and yet it doesn’t. If anything, the film gains with repeated viewings.” It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Movie dreams.
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