Detective Films

A Brief History of the Detective Film

Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University


The detective genre in film is difficult to define because the content and conventions of the detective film can be seen as crossing over into other genres, and it can be regarded as a subcategory of the overarching genre of the crime film (along with the gangster film, the thriller, and the social-problem film). For a film to belong to the detective genre, it requires two features: a narrative that follows an investigation, and a protagonist that functions as a detective-figure. If the detective film is defined by having a protagonist who functions as a detective-figure, then the detective genre itself can be more readily separated into subgenres defined by the type of detective-figure who fulfils the role of the investigating protagonist. The following is a brief outline of some of the major subgenres of the detective film as defined by their investigating heroes.

The detective film has proven popular and pervasive, offering movie-going audiences a specific kind of image of American masculinity: one defined by manliness, perseverance, and heroism. Despite the proliferation of female detectives, especially in the last decade, the detective hero is most often male. The narrative of the detective film follows the hero’s investigation of a crime; however, it also offers an investigation of the detective as his masculinity is tested and proven through his success in solving the case. The detective genre has remained popular because of its ability to adapt with social change thereby offering new images and debates of law and order and new images of American masculinity. The genre has seen a distinct evolution from the classical detective to the hard-boiled, to the cop who follows procedure to the one that throws the book away, and, lastly, to a new kind of sleuth – the criminalist.

The Classical Detective

HolmesEdgar Allan Poe is generally regarded as the creator of the fictional detective with the introduction of his sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in 1841; however, it was not until Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that the classical detective, or sleuth, achieved widespread popularity. As the definitive sleuth, Holmes remains the greatest and most famous fictional detective and also one of the most recognised names, real or fictional, in the world. With his international appeal as a character, it is not surprising that Sherlock Holmes has proven to be one of the most popular detectives on the big screen with over 200 films and television shows being centred on his character: he has been portrayed by more actors than any other character in the history of cinema. Holmes made his debut in film in 1900 but is most closely associated with actor Basil Rathbone who starred opposite Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson on the big screen from 1939 to 1946. Like Poe’s Dupin, Holmes solved mysteries through observation and logical deduction in a reflection of Victorian ideals of manhood.

The Transitional Detective

Philo VanceIn the 1920s and 1930s, American detective fiction saw a shift from the gentleman sleuth to the hard-boiled private eye. Conceptions of masculinity in American society at this time came to have an increasing emphasis on physicality, independence, and sexuality and a corresponding shift can be seen in the fictional representations of masculinity. With Prohibition and the spread of organised crime in society, the classical detective was no longer seen as an effective solution to fictional crime. The sleuth with his superior skills of deduction was replaced by the tough but troubled hard-boiled detective with his tendency to use violence to get the job done. The hard-boiled detective is, in many ways, an adaptation of the British sleuth to an urban American environment. Brawn came to be seen as necessary to fight the heavies of the American city rather than ratiocination and observation, and the sleuth’s magnifying glass was replaced by the gun. The hard-boiled private eye was popularized by writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the 1930s.

Many hard-boiled novels were adapted to the screen in the 1930s; however, the heroes of Hollywood’s detective series were less violent and troubled than their literary counterparts. These screen detectives were transitional figures – the protagonists of the American hard-boiled stories but not presented as hard-boiled as they would be in the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. Instead they were most often portrayed as suave, sophisticated, and erudite gentlemen: Americans made somewhat anglicised; sleuths made somewhat streetwise. Their appeal is that they can be imagined to exist in reality as a somewhat average person, allowing the filmgoer a greater sense of identification with the protagonist. These popular detectives included Philo Vance, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, The Falcon, The Crime Doctor, Michael Shayne, Dick Tracy, Boston Blackie, and Perry Mason. Female amateur sleuths like Hildegarde Withers and Nancy Drew, and the Asian detectives like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong, also appeared in detective series in the 1930s.

The Noir Detective

BogartIn the 1940s and 1950s, the hard-boiled detective came to the screen as the hero of film noirFilm noir is generally regarded as genre or film style that began with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Touch of Evil (1958), a group of films that were visually, as well as morally, dark. The films were set in the seedy underbelly of American society and followed a general progression from protagonists with questionable morals like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) to detectives who were borderline criminals themselves like Mike Hammer in Kiss me Deadly (1955). Film noir seem to have resonance for the veterans returning from World War II who struggled with feelings of displacement. American society had changed in their absence and upon their return they faced unemployment, changing gender roles, alienation, and often disablement. These films, with their hard-boiled heroes and anti-heroes, presented audiences with traumatized but tough men that could express and work through America’s postwar disillusionment.

The Police and Procedure

DragnetUntil the 1940s the policeman tended to be portrayed as a bumbling or inefficient figure who stood at the sidelines while the amateur sleuth or private eye solved the case. The police detective emerged as a detective-hero in the mid 1940s in a reflection of the professionalisation of real-life law enforcement and of national security concerns incited by the Cold War. The police procedural, most notably the radio and television series Dragnet, presented audiences with detailed scenes of the methods employed by the law to combat crime including ballistics tests, tracking, surveillance, and forensic technologies. The police detective represented an idealised image of masculinity as organized, methodical, and driven by duty.

The procedural ignored the disillusionment and paranoia of the Cold War period and instead offered a hero that was effective and committed to eradicating crime; however, he was also a rather sterile and conservative representation of masculinity. The procedural in its original form all but disappeared by the late 1950s (the exception being the long-running television show Columbo [1967 to present]); however, its legacy is introducing the cop as an American hero, a trend that continues today.

The Vigilante Cop

True CrimeThe conservative image of masculinity and law-enforcement embodied by the procedural detective was eradicated by the arrival of the vigilante cop film in the late 1960s. Changes in the American film industry allowed for developments in the detective genre. The Production Code, instituted in the 1930s, had been an internal, self-regulatory system of censorship; by the mid-1960s shifts in American cultural values had undermined the credibility of the Code, and by 1968 it was replaced with the ratings system. Under the ratings system, a film with excessive sexual or violent content could be released to an adult audience rather than being banned completely. The restriction of the high rating thus still prevented young people from being exposed to this ‘ adult’ material. The move from censorship to a ratings system allowed for more violent and controversial heroes, for example in films like Bullitt (1968),Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The French Connection (1971), and Dirty Harry (1971). These films introduced a tough and often angry hero who annihilated crime at any cost; he would go so far as to ignore or even break the law to get the job done. In a period when Nixon’s hard-line politics on crime and a widespread loss of confidence in law-enforcement were dominating the American psyche, the vigilante cop offered an image of masculinity that was tough, independent, violent, and successful in the war against crime.

The Cop as Action Hero 

48 hrsThe aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism saw the dominance of white, middle-class, middle-aged masculinity being called into question and, by the 1980s, hegemonic masculinity found its position in society challenged. The cop action film became a central genre of the 1980s and early 1990s as a backlash to this challenging of white male dominance. The films and their cop action-heroes offered a space for the expression, working through, and often resolution of the problems of race, class, gender, and crime that seemed to overwhelm American masculinity at the time.  The biracial cop film of the 1980s explored and negated the threat of African-American empowerment with the black ‘ buddy’ being placed in a subordinate role to the white hero. He offered his black energy to the fight against crime that threatened white America, for example 48 Hrs (1982) starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.

However, the cop action-hero offered not only a resistance to the perceived threat of the empowered black man but also to that posed by the emerging equality of women. The male body as hypermasculine – manly, muscular, and spectacular – became the hero’s most effective weapon in the fight against crime and injustice and, thus, compounded issues of sexual difference. Cop action films revelled in scenes of action and violence with the male body at the centre engaged in fistfights, kickboxing, car chases, and gunplay. The cop action-hero, like John McClane in Die Hard (1988) and Martin Riggs Lethal Weapon (1987), followed in the tradition of the vigilante cop but also the male rampage hero like Rambo, offering an idealized image of American masculinity as violent, independent, muscular, and victorious. The cop action-hero as an icon of American masculinity did not allow himself to betray his emotions – an emasculating and effeminate weakness. Instead he expressed himself through wisecracking quips and physical violence and it was his body that became the site upon which masculine crisis could be expressed and resolved.

The Criminalist

Silence of the LambsFrom the early 1990s to the present, the type of masculinity that society deems admirable has changed. There has been a shift from the appreciation of physical masculinity to that of masculinity defined as intellectual and vulnerable and has prompted a similar shift in the representation of masculinity in the media. In the early 1990s a new sensitive type of masculinity emerged on-screen to replace the retributive masculinity of the 1980s as an ideal. The working-class cop as action hero came to be replaced by a new kind of police detective that was a middle-class, educated professional and employed his/her skills of observation and deduction to solve the crime rather than firepower. This shift from violent to vulnerable masculinities is evident with the new roles that former action stars began to portray. Bruce Willis abandoned guns and wisecracks in favour of more sensitive men in film like Mercury Rising (1998) and The Sixth Sense (1999), and Clint Eastwood has given up his vigilante roles to play a more mature and intellectual kind of hero in films like In the Line of Fire (1993), True Crime (1999), and Bloodwork (2002).

This shift has also seen a return to a thinking detective – a criminalist – not dissimilar to the first sleuth detectives. Originating in the fiction of authors such as Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell, the criminalist, or forensic detective, has flourished on the big and small screens. Criminalists such as Detective Somerset of Seven (1995) and Agent Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs (1991) have thrived in film while Gil Grissom of America’s C.S.I.: Criminal Scene Investigation, Sam Ryan of the Britain’s Silent Witness, and Dominic DaVinci of Canada’s DaVinci’s Inquest are evidence to the criminalist’s success on television. Criminalists employ observation, forensic science, and profiling to solve cases and often find themselves tracking serial killers. With this emphasis on intelligence over muscularity and the reliance of weapons, new kinds of detective-heroes have emerged, including women, older, and ethnic detectives. Thus, the detective and shifts in the representation of the masculinity of the hero can be seen as occurring in conjunction with broader social change. The icon of the detective has begun, and will continue, to evolve beyond the traditional white male action hero and offers audiences assuring images of masculinity, and more recently femininity, that can bring crime to halt to crime.

Copyright © 2004 Philippa Gates

Bibliography and Further Reading

Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1994.

DeAndrea, William L. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television. Paperback ed. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Everson, William K. The Detective in Film. Third Paperbound Ed. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1980.

Hawkins, Harriet. Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

King, Neal. Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. London: Routledge, 1991.

Mandel, Ernest. Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story. London: Pluto Press, 1984.

Mellen, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinization in the American Film. London: Elm Tree Books, 1977.

Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. The Great Detective Pictures. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1990.

Reiner, Robert. ‘ Keystone to Kojak: The Hollywood Cop.’ Cinema, Politics, and Society in America. Eds. Philip Davies and Brian Neve. Paperback reprint, 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985, 195-220.

_____. The Politics of the Police. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books Ltd., 1985.

Rimoldi, Oscar. ‘ The Detective Movies of the 30s and 40s: Part I.’ Films in Review 44:5/6 (June 1993): 164-73.

_____. ‘ Part II.’ Films in Review 44:7/8 (July/August 1993): 204-33.

_____. ‘ Part III.’ Films in Review 44:9/10 (September/October 1993): 308-313.

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