Sunday, March 20, 2011
Gumshoe In Abeyance
The private eye was always a fiction. Sure, he had his real life counterpart, but the average working investigator had about as much in common with Bogart's trenchcoat-wearing hero as actual smelly herd-riding cowhands had with John Wayne. I don't make the comparison offhandedly. In the fiction of Hammett (who had been a Pinkerton detective) and Chandler (who had been...a mid-level oil executive), the private eye became a modern day equivalent of the heroic cowboy: stationed out west, lonely and honest, grudgingly brave, squinting into the California sun and trying to see his way to moral clarity.
Of course, the PI was always a darker figure. Onscreen, he was epitomized by Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, two full-tilt masterpieces with distinct tones and character. Bogie is slightly sinister in the first--befitting the combination of Hammett's character and John Huston's direction. In the second he strikes a far more heroic pose--which, again, results from the combination of talents behind the camera, in this case novelist Chandler and director Howard Hawks.
But the PI didn't live and die with Bogart. Actor Dick Powell and director Edward Dmytryk actually got to Chander ahead of Bogie and Hawks with their excellent adaptation of FAREWELL MY LOVELY, retitled MURDER MY SWEET.
OUT OF THE PAST cast Robert Mitchum as a PI in love with the wrong woman (but ill-advised love affairs were pretty much Mitchum's rasion d'etre in the forties and fifties). The film marked the romantic high point of the fedora-wearing hero. After this, things got nastier, even more confusing.
As the old boys began to die off and retire in the fifties, the private eye changed. This was inevitable: since he'd always been an urban cowboy, he would change with the times. Paul Newman played a gum-smacking version of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer in 1966's HARPER (opposite Lauren Bacall, for good measure), and he reprised the role in 1975's THE DROWNING POOL. The tangle that our hero must cut through may have altered, but Newman's Harper is very much of a piece with Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum. If anything, he may be the loneliest of the four.
By the seventies, of course, the private eye was operating in a California that was known for the Manson family and Jim Jones, civil unrest and drugged out teenagers, and--not incidentally-- the reactionary rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The moral thicket that Bogart hacked through in the forties had never stopped growing.
Into this mess came a new kind of PI. He was less assured, more likely to lose, and lose big. CHINATOWN might be set in 1937, but it's every bit the seventies film, its ending mandated by a director who'd lost his wife to Charles Manson's acid-fueled insanity. Jack Nicholson is terrific as private eye JJ Gittes, but he's about as 1937 as a pair of bell-bottoms.
Writer Keith Phillips has nice piece over at the AVClub CALLED "New Hollywood Gumshoes" about three other seventies private eye flicks: THE LONG GOODBYE, THE LATE SHOW, and NIGHT MOVES. Of the three films, THE LATE SHOW is the most entertaining. Color me a classicist, but I've always hated Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE--I get that it's deconstructing the genre but, yawn, wake me when it's over--and NIGHT MOVES indulges Arthur Penn's tendency toward joylessness. THE LATE SHOW strikes me as the best example of the private eye genre in abeyance, hanging in the balance, as it were, waiting to be claimed by the next generation. (Director Robert Benton would later make the 1998 private eye flick TWILIGHT starring Paul Newman and Gene Hackman). As goes the culture, so goes the lonely private eye. In fact, it's not surprising given our youth-obsessed culture that the most notable private eye flick of the last few years was the 2005 BRICK which relocated the action of a private eye plot...to a California high school. Hey, a PI just follows the trouble where it leads, and trouble never sleeps.
To check out Phillip's piece, click here.