Snoops: The Private Eye in American Cinema

by Charles L.P. Silet

Private eyes, P.I.s, gumshoes, sleuths, shamuses, and private dicks of various stripes are a staple of American films. They have come in so many guises–the Chinese Charlie Chan; tough guys Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Lew Archer, and Spenser; African-American Easy Rawlins; the effete Philo Vance; the little Belgian Hercule Poirot; couples like Mr. and Mrs. North; and female detectives from the valiant Miss Marple to the more recent and tougher, V. I. Warshawski–that it is almost impossible to generalize about them, except that they are detectives operating outside the official organizations of law-enforcement.

The private detective first appeared in fiction as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, but the most famous became Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. Watson), who set the standard for the eccentric, self-employed private investigator. The American Philo Vance, who collected Chinese porcelain, and the Harvard-educated Ellery Queen extended the tradition. The erudite, oddball independent investigator reached its peak of popularity with Rex Stout’s gourmandizing, orchid-growing Nero Wolfe. However, during the Depression, a second kind of detective figure, more emphatically American, grew in popularity.

Preceded by the two-fisted Nick Carter and then Carroll John Daly’s truly hard-boiled Race Williams, there emerged during the 1920s and 1930s a whole host of hard-drinking, womanizing, wise-cracking P.I.’s like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and, after World War II, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. So when the private eyes first began appearing in films during the ’30s, there was rich tradition and lots of types of private investigators to draw upon. Although the most famous movie sleuths remain Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and their many offspring, the film series featuring Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, the Thin Man, and the Falcon have been more numerous.

The P.I. combined the investigating qualities of the police detective without the restraints of the official force: A private detective can do things that a regular cop cannot, go where police officers are forbidden to go, and otherwise behave in ways that would often be unbecoming for an officer of the law. Americans have always loved the iconoclast, the outsider hero working the edges of conventional society who takes risks to buck the system and still comes out on top, which may help to explain the lasting power of the P.I. Perhaps less popular now, the appeal of the private eye endures in film to this day, even though he or she may drink a little less, not smoke at all, and be more sensitive to issues of race and gender. But whenever a dark, rain-slicked alley appears on the screen, we still look for the character in the trench coat and the beat-up fedora who walks the mean streets in the never-ending pursuit of truth and justice.

MysteryNet recommends:

The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring William Powell, Mary Astor, and Eugene Pallette. 3 1/2 stars.

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) Directed by Bruce Humberstone, starring Warner Oland, Keye Luke, and Francis Ford. 3 stars.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) Directed by Sidney Lanfield. Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene, and Wendy Barrie. 3 stars.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Steward, and Cloris Leachman. 3 1/2 stars.

Harper (1966) Directed by Jack Smight. Starring Paul Newman, Lauren Becall, Julie Harris, and Shelley Winters. 3 1/2 stars.

Night Moves (1975) Directed by Arthur Penn. Starring Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, and Melanie Griffith. 3 1/2 stars.

Twilight (1998) Directed by Robert Benton. Starring Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Saradon, and James Garner. 2 1/2 stars.


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