Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A defense attorney & PI who also happen to be writers

Has the Private Eye in Movies Lost Its Myth?

Posted by Writing PIs on January 18, 2013

This morning we were amused, surprised and even a bit intrigued after reading several crime fiction articles.  One claimed that the “myth” of the private eye in movies, a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, is not a “renewable source.”  Another shook its figurative finger at publishers for their lack of “gritty” credibility.

We needed an extra cup of coffee–black like our noir-loving hearts–to digest these cynical tid-bits.

Below are links to these articles, with a few of our notes.  We wish we could added more, but we have work to do.  Investigating a case, interviewing witnesses, dragging a reluctant client to his probation.  The real-life stuff of a criminal defense attorney and a PI–funny how some people, non-PIs, think all we do is sit at computers and search databases.  Kinda like how some critics proclaim the private eye genre has gone flabby.  You get our drift.

The Private Eye Movie=Not a Renewable Resource

It's Only ChinatownForget It, Marlowe–It’s Chinatown. Subtitle: “How Roman Polanski‘s masterpiece demythologised the hard-boiled private eye” by  Graham Fuller, theartsdesk.com

The writer starts out saying that the “movie version of the hardboiled private eye…was never as enduring as his literary original.”  He goes on to say that the re-release of Polanski’s Chinatown reminds us that the myth consecrated by Spade and Marlowe is not a renewable resource.

Don’t get us wrong–we thoroughly enjoyed this article, which is noir-ly despairing of the “knight errant” role of the private eye as epitomized by Bogart as first Spade in The Maltese Falcon, then as Marlowe in The Big Sleep.  But we had trouble buying that this character’s heydey was during and after World War II.  We were also a bit confused with the analysis that the obese police captain character (who plants evidence and stoops to murder) in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil had the “aura of a private eye.”  Uh, what happened to the epitomized knight errant model?

The writer devoted several paragraphs about Altman’s 1973 The Long Good-bye with Elliot Gould as Marlowe, a film we both love.  Some believe Altman’s movie version is more Chandler in spirit than, say, Hawks’s The Big Sleep. In this article, the writer believes it was private eye Jake Gittes in Chinatown, made a year or so after Altman’s The Long Good-bye, that restored the knightly myth.  Restored?  Did it really go away?  To our mind, Gould’s Marlowe held onto that tarnished knightly myth as a PI steeped in cynicism and shady deeds, yet we, the viewer, still got glimpses of a deeply personal involvement that sometimes errs on the side of morality. That’s the gumshoe myth that still appears in films, too.  We’re not saying all the time, but we certainly don’t think it stumbled off its cracked pedestal after WWII.  Anybody see Michael Shannon in the 2009 Australian film The Missing Person?

Bought off: how crime fiction lost the plot.  Subtitle “Thriller writing was once a British strength, but publishers are reducing it to a formulaic genre. Time, maybe, for murder most foul…” by Christopher Fowler, the Independent

We’re not British, but we found it interesting that the writer encourages readers to “step away” from crime fiction publishers’ current offerings because the “genre has backed itself into a dead end.”  His view is that publishers are falsely advertising their latest murder mysteries to be grittily realistic.

They aren’t grittily real?

May we take this to a bigger view of crime fiction?  One of us has been privileged to be a judge for the Private Eye Writers of America bad private eye with gunthree times (2013 will be her fourth stint).  In this capacity, she has read several hundred private eye-crime novels, and many (she lost count) short stories in the genre as well.  And sometimes she agrees that the crimes portrayed aren’t realistic, gritty or otherwise, but just as often they are dead-on correct.  One way she knows this is she has investigated certain types of crimes, and other times she has analyzed the crimes with her once-PI-partner who is now a criminal defense attorney (with nearly 30 years in the criminal justice field), as well as with a good pal, a local homicide detective, who has been walking some very real, very mean streets for several decades.

Yet in a recent book she wrote, which she researched based on several real, gritty crimes, then followed up by having several experts in the field check the book for legal veracity and crime accuracy, one Amazon reviewer sniffed that one crime in particular was “implausible.”

Let’s go back to this article.  At the end, the writer makes a pitch for publishers to let readers discover other crime tales that lay outside of those that lean on gritty realism.  Tales that are farcical, tragic, even strange.  Sure, why not?

Both articles are fun, well written, educational reads.  We just disagree with grand, sweeping statements–be it the dying myth of a character or the honesty of crimes in fiction.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

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