Let Us Now Praise Shamus Men

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.

Detective in Film

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.

27 Responses Let Us Now Praise Shamus Men
Posted By Dave Kehr : November 20, 2013 2:43 pm

Great column, Gregg, but I can’t agree with you that “the kind of hunting, exploring, collecting and curating that Everson did is no longer necessary.” There are still vast areas of the American cinema that remain unknown and inaccessible; even Everson’s own invaluable 16mm collection remains locked up in an archive, where only privileged scholars can explore it. We all love TCM, but there are a lot more movies out there than even that estimable channel has managed to license. We could use some detectives to investigate Republic, Paramount, Universal, Fox Film Corp and the many independent studios whose output has dropped out of distribution.

Posted By Doug : November 20, 2013 4:21 pm

“the ones that really interests me are the private eyes, extending out to lone wolf police detectives,”-the example that occurred to me was Jeff Bridges character in “8 Million Ways To Die”. An alcoholic cop fighting his weakness while trying to solve a murder.
‘I love a mystery’, love detectives detecting, the big reveal when a murderer is caught. My favorite detective, Nero Wolfe, hasn’t been on the big screen much,but he has many compatriots
up there.
Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” cracks me up when he goes into the bookstore pretending to be a nerdish bibliophile, then returns later as himself.
I think I will getting Mr. Everson’s book soon.

Posted By LD : November 20, 2013 6:11 pm

Thank you for this article about the shamus, the gumshoe, the P.I. Over the years I have enjoyed Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, Poirot, Miss Marple, Columbo, and many others on film and in print. Noir is a great showcase for these characters but what great fun MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and the other big budget mysteries. How great that we have such easy media access to these fascinating characters.

Posted By gregferrara : November 20, 2013 6:31 pm

Dave, I can’t disagree. I probably should have phrased that a lot differently. It certainly isn’t “no longer necessary” it’s more a receding world where most people rely on digital and don’t hunt around archives. But you’re right, we certainly still need it.

Posted By gregferrara : November 20, 2013 6:32 pm

Doug, I saw The Big Sleep on the big screen recently and that whole scene got big laughs from the audience. The whole movie still works on every level for a modern audience.

Posted By gregferrara : November 20, 2013 6:33 pm

LD, we need more of them, more of all the ones you mention! More of the old fashioned whodunnits that seem in short supply today.

Posted By gregferrara : November 20, 2013 8:00 pm

An FYI for everyone:

I felt my original statement was poorly stated enough that it needed a fix. I don’t do it often after I’ve written a piece (I prefer to let it stand and let the comments be the course correction, so to speak) but I went ahead and edited it to “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.”

Posted By Martha C : November 20, 2013 8:22 pm

Great post, Mr. Ferrara! I have a great love of books about films and look forward to trying to find/purchase William Everson’s book. Nice to know someone else appreciates these oft ignored heroes of the screen. :)

Wonder if The Late Show is available on Netflix, can’t believe I’ve never seen it.

Posted By Griffith Everson : November 20, 2013 8:29 pm

Great article, and thank you for insight and kind comments on my Dad, much appreciated!

Posted By DevlinCarnate : November 20, 2013 11:11 pm

i’m particular to a screen shamus that’s nearly forgotten,Michael Shayne,he was portrayed onscreen by a wise cracking Lloyd Nolan in a series of films for Fox,and later by America’s favorite dad Hugh Beaumont at PRC…i have seen a few of Nolan’s films when i had the Fox Movie Channel,and his portrayal is whip smart,a gritty regular guy that just happens to be a PI to pay his rent…never seen the Beaumont versions,i’m sure they’re “lost” because even the Nolan titles are two movies short on DVD…one of which is an adaptation of a Chandler story The High Window…just guessing from Beaumont’s roles in the Blue Dahlia and the Seventh Victim that he played it straighter than Nolan did

Posted By gregferrara : November 21, 2013 3:03 am

Martha, I love The Late Show! It’s not on DVD on Netflix but you can rent or buy it streaming on Amazon. And Everson is a great read, one of the best movie historians ever.

Posted By gregferrara : November 21, 2013 3:06 am

Griffith, I saw that Frank linked it on Facebook for you and your sister to see which made me very happy. Your dad was an incredible archivist/researcher, who did important, lasting work. It’s my pleasure to write about his work on these pages.

Posted By gregferrara : November 21, 2013 3:15 am

Devlin, I’ve never seen the Michael Shayne movies. Everson writes about him in a few places in the book (because he covers everything). Early on, he writes, “In direct competition with the rather bloodless Saints and Falcons, [Shayne] was a refreshingly realistic type, played with self-confidence and good humor by Lloyd Nolan in a series of seven for Fox.”

Of Beaumont, Everson writes, “Hugh Beaumont – a Lloyd Nolan type, but a duller personality with little humor – also made five (cheaper and much inferior) Shayne mysteries in the later forties.”

Doesn’t sound like you’re missing too much not seeing the Beaumont versions. But now I must see some of the Nolan versions.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 21, 2013 8:30 am

Lloyd Nolan’s Michael Shayne movies air frequently on Fox Movie Channel. The Beaumont quickies are each about an hour crammed absolutely chock-full of hardboiled wisecracks flying fast and furious; Edward Brophy plays his associate.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 21, 2013 8:31 am

Oh, I saw the Beaumont Michael Shaynes on an LA tv station back in my college years, so they must be out there somewhere.

Posted By Doug : November 21, 2013 9:10 am

So, that fine word that is being used-where does the term “Shamus” come from?
Tonight I watched “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” with Jean Arthur and William Powell and, though I liked the principals just fine, it was a bit of a confusing mess. I didn’t see much chemistry between Powell and Arthur but they did all right.
Eric Blore could buttle in his sleep, and I think he did in a few scenes. He was/had more fun in the “Lone Wolf” series.

Posted By robbushblog : November 21, 2013 4:07 pm

Once I began reading this article I also thought immediately of Bogie as Marlow going into that bookstore.

It seems Hollywood is incapable of making good detective or amateur detective movies these days. There are a few made in the last 20 years that are good, but that’s about it: Devil in a Blue Dress, Brick, Twilight (with Paul Newman, not twinkling vampires) and Zero Effect are exceptions and unfortunately not the norm.

Posted By Jenni : November 21, 2013 4:51 pm

The section you mentioned about the Alfred Hitchcock “detectives”, characters who have detecting thrust upon them due to bad circumstances, made me think of a movie that starred Ray Milland, in a similar situation: Ministry of Fear, directed by Fritz Lang.

Posted By george : November 21, 2013 11:45 pm

“For instance, I have a book on the silent period, Classics of the Silent Screen, written in 1959 by Joe Franklin.”

It has long been assumed that Everson was the ghost writer for Franklin’s book.

Lately I’ve discovered the Boston Blackie and Whistler movies. (You can see most of them on YouTube.) These are B movies from the ’40s that never turned up on the local TV channels when I was growing up. The directors include Robert Florey and William Castle.

The films are great fun, done in a noir style, and remind us that low-budget mysteries provided a home for formerly major stars who still had something to offer — stars like Chester Morris (Boston Blackie) and Richard Dix (The Whistler). And there was Warner Baxter in the Crime Doctor films, none of which I’ve seen yet. but they’re on my list.

Posted By gregferrara : November 22, 2013 4:16 am

Richard, I should watch the Fox Movie Channel more, it’s only one station down from TCM on my cable.

Rob – I forgot about Zero Effect. I remember liking it but can’t honestly remember much else.

Posted By gregferrara : November 22, 2013 4:17 am

Jenni, another great one where Milland has to figure out the case is The Big Clock, a great thriller.

Posted By gregferrara : November 22, 2013 4:19 am

George, if he did ghost write it, it may have been only sections. I’ve read through it and there’s a lot of stuff there along the lines of “I don’t remember the plot anymore but Joan was great!” It seems if Everson ghost wrote all of it, Franklin would come off as a little more authoritative about the movies he’s touting.

Posted By Calev Ben-David : November 22, 2013 5:28 pm

Nice tribute to Bill Everson. I was among the fortunate ones to take a class with him at NYU Film School 30 years ago – “French Films of the ’30s and ’40s – and the scope and depth of his cinematic knowledge was astounding. Doubt that anyone living today can match it.

Posted By Doug : November 22, 2013 6:10 pm

Slightly off topic, but I can tie this in with Ben-David’s mention of NYU Film School.
Just last night I watched Joss Whedon’s staging of “Much Ado About Nothing”.
It was amazing, everyone was on their game, and they filmed it in 12 days.
12 days-possible only because Whedon is a skilled artist able to bring out the best in those who work with him.
I prefer reading the “No Fear Shakespeare” translations, but this film worked because the actors were able to convey the story and emotions well. Film schools should use this film as an example of Shakespeare done right.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 22, 2013 6:29 pm

I have Everson’s book on horror. It’s beat up, but I wouldn’t part with it for the world .

Posted By Heidi : November 25, 2013 5:04 pm

Awesome post! My husband will be getting Everson’s book title as a Christmas request for me! I love the Shamus. William Powell and all the Thin Man movies, Marlow in all incarnations, Sam Spade. I never really thought about the Hitchcock characters that way…but so true! This sounds like a must have book. thanks!

Posted By swac44 : November 26, 2013 6:12 pm

FYI, The Late Show actually is available on DVD, you can easily find it for $10 or so online and elsewhere (I found mine in a local bargain bin). I used to have it on laserdisc, but I get the urge to watch it every couple of years, so I might as well have a permanent copy.

Really enjoyed the Mike Shayne movies when I got to watch them in 20th Century Fox home video’s four-title set “Michael Shayne Mysteries, Vol. 1″ Too bad they never got around to a volume 2, although they did issue one more title in the series, Dressed to Kill as a stand-alone DVD. I think at that point I remembered Lloyd Nolan best from his Polident Denture Cream TV ads (“Ouch!”), but those titles set me straight to his wisecracking ways.

Sadly, I only got to meet Everson once, over lunch with some mutual friends during my first visit to Cinefest in Syracuse nearly 20 years ago, but he couldn’t have been more gracious with his time or his stories. An incredible treat for me (and a weird coincidence that years later I’d find out that a friend of mine was married to his daughter). I don’t have this particular book, but I have a couple of others, and I don’t think I’ve found the words “diegesis” or “trope” in them anywhere, which is always a relief.

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