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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Gumshoes (originally published 9/95)

Few characters in the movies, and in fiction as a whole, are more durable than the private investigator. He's a fascinating, solitary figure, serving the ends of justice like a policeman, and yet largely free of the constraints that society places on its law enforcement officers. The writers who have given us the most enduring private eye characters tend to play on the lone wolf aspect of the profession to give us a romanticized vision of a man whose personal code of ethics takes precedence over a corrupt society's rules.

The golden era of such private eye tales was the 1930s and 40s, when Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were at their peak. The new Denzel Washington film, "Devil in a Blue Dress," returns to that period as the setting for its story. By setting up shop on such classic turf, both generically and chronologically, the filmmakers invite comparison, as did Walter Mosley, the author of the novel on which the film is based. Mosley's novel stood up very well under the comparison, leading to a successful series of novels featuring the character of Easy Rawlins. If you want to see if the movie compares as well with its classic counterparts, you'll want to seek out the movie incarnations of Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Between them, these two characters constitute the absolute prototype of the hard-boiled gumshoe. Look for these titles on home video.

"The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Sam Spade appeared in print in only a single novel and a handful of short stories, but the mark he left on the detective genre is profound and indelible. The novel, "The Maltese Falcon," has been adapted for the screen several times, and the character of Spade became the basis for a popular radio drama series starring Howard Duff. The Sam Spade who will endure, however, is the 1941 movie portrayal by Humphrey Bogart. He embodied the essence of the wisecracking private eye who plays strictly by his own rules and always manages to one-up his antagonists. In this classic film, Spade encounters a group of shady characters who are obsessed with the pursuit of an artifact of incalculable value -- the statue of a falcon, embedded with precious stones. The supporting cast is impressive, including Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor, but it is Bogart's performance and the fascinating character of Spade himself that make the film work.

"Murder, My Sweet" (1944). Even more intriguing than Sam Spade is Raymond Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe. Whereas Spade is a pragmatist, Marlowe is more of an idealist. Both have adapted to the underbelly of urban life, but Marlowe remains perpetually disappointed by it. Both are hard-bitten cynics, but Spade's cynicism goes right to the bone, while Marlowe's is nothing more than a surface armor, a carapace that defends him against a hard and brutal world. Marlowe, in short, is a contradiction, which makes him more complex, and therefore more interesting, than Spade. In "Murder, My Sweet," director Edward Dmytryk exploited the contradictions at the heart of Marlowe's character by casting against type. Dick Powell had been known primarily as a singer, having starred in a string of light musicals. With this film he sharply changed that image, giving a memorable performance as the hard-nosed Marlowe. Hired by a thug to trace his missing girlfriend and simultaneously hired by a society matron to investigate a murder, Marlowe learns that the upper crust and the dregs of society aren't all that different when you start digging into their secrets.

"Farewell, My Lovely" (1975). Some 30 years later, this same story was remade, restoring Chandler's original title and featuring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. Mitchum is absolutely brilliant in the role, creating the most achingly world-weary Marlowe of all. This is a man who has seen it all. And most of what he's seen, he hasn't liked.

The real fruition of the hard-boiled private eye film occurred during and immediately following World War II, as many Americans returned from the battlefields of Europe and Asia having seen a side of humanity that they didn't like. We had lost our collective innocence at Buchenwald and Dresden, and our movies turned dark to reflect that fact.

By now, however, we have become more hardened, more like Sam Spade and less like Marlowe as a society. It will be interesting to see what sort of societal mood "Devil in a Blue Dress" reflects.

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