Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How Hollywood Never Gave Up On The Detective Story by Channing Kapin

So I read this article in the New Republic called "How Hollywood Gave Up On The Detective Story." It's an article waxing nostalgic for detective movies and griping about the lack of detective movies in the theaters. The author of the article, Peter Gerstenzang says that Chinatown was the last hurrah for detective movies, and he quotes Carl Franklin, the director of a very good detective movie, Devil in the Blue Dress complaining that the movies don't make much money so that Hollywood studios don't make them any more. And then Gerstenzang ends the article on a nostalgic sniff about hoping they make more detective movies. The point of the article seems to be the worn out and oft-repeated lament, "They just don't make 'em like they used to." Gerstenzang is suggesting that on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Chinatown, that "Hollywood" has given up on the Hard-boiled Detective genre. Except that he's wrong. He's wrong that they don't make them any more. He's wrong that they don't make them because they lose money, and he's wrong that Chinatown caused this had-boiled movie vacuum.

The problem with the central premise of the article is that in 1974, the year of my birth, and the year Chinatown came out, they didn't really make those kinds of movies any more, either. The trench coat and fedora wearing, flask of rye in the pocket and an ever lit cigarette detective archetype was created and popularized by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the '30s and '40s. There's some argument on who created the archetype exactly, but it's inarguable that these two writers mastered the detective story, that their stories were turned into very popular movies (starring Humphrey Bogart, of course) and they spawned countless imitators.

But that character is a completely fictional construct. There really are criminals, so it makes sense to make crime movies. There really are cops, so it makes sense to make cop movies. There really were cowboys, so it makes sense to make cowboy movies. There never was a hard-boiled detective. He's wholly invented in the pages of Black Mask by a handful of pulp writers. He belongs to a particular era, specifically the 1930's and '40s. And he belongs to a particular place: The Dark City, usually New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. And the farther we get away from that time and place, the more the hard-boiled detective becomes an anachronism and unrecognizable to a modern audience. Chandler and Hammett knew their time and place thoroughly. They didn't need to research the cost of a cup of coffee in 1945. So anything a modern author is going to add will just be researched details and supposition based on a cleverly imagined construct. Their versions will be a xerox copy (already an out of date technology) of a fictional character.

So not only is Gerstenzang waxing nostalgic for an anachronistic, fictionalized cartoon character, he's getting misty-eyed for a very specific kind of movie, the hard-boiled private eye film. He's willingly ignoring the police procedural, the heist film, the crime story from the criminal's perspective, the action movie, the historical underworld biography, the sports movie (usually boxing, but any activity in a sleazy milieu) and the gangster film which were all popular and integral variations that made up the majority of the noir film genre. And all of them have continued to be popular kinds of movies over the years. Gerstenzang just misses movies about those damn fedora-wearing detectives.

The film noir era of Hollywood ran through the '40s and '50s and pretty much had petered out by 1960, with Orson Welles delivering the nail in the coffin to the genre with Touch of Evil, in 1958. Welles plays the logical extension of the hard-drinking, dangerous P.I. life: a bloated, bleary-eyed, thoroughly corrupt detective who's fallen so far he's barely scraping up drinking money by taking bribes and selling drugs in Tijuana.

Welles takes everything from the genre to its natural conclusion. Not just the hard-boiled detective character, but also the femme fatale archetype as well as all the noir film trappings, the moody black and white cinematography, German expressionistic lighting, and the sleazy crime and corruption-ridden stories all go out with a big bang in this movie. Literally and figuratively. There was nowhere left to go.   

The next generation of filmmakers were inspired by the noir era and so Chinatown was one of several hard-boiled movies that came out in the late '60s and early 1970s like BullittPoint Blank and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. But those protagonists don't wear fedoras, so I don't think Gestenzang counts them as being part of the hard-boiled detective film cannon.

I would like to know what Gerstenzang thinks of The Sting (1973). Those guys wear fedoras, but they don't solve mysteries. The movie is nostalgic of a bygone era, set in the city, and features crime, though.

What about Dirty Harry? He's a detective. He's definitely hard-boiled. He goes snooping in back alleys and shoots bad guys. He doesn't wear a hat, however. Dirty Harry inspired the modern action movie, which grew to include Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis as hard-boiled detectives. But for some reason none of their movies qualify for Gerstenzang's definition of what a hard-boiled film should be like. Nope, Gerstenzang is longing for the good old days of the movies set in the 1930s and '40s where a detective wears a hat in the rain. And even if we restrict ourselves to that tiny subset of movies, Gerstenzang is wrong.

When Gerstenzang suggests Chinatown caused the "death of the Hollywood detective movie" he's ignoring other modern crime and detective movies that came out around the same time as Chinatown featuring characters not wearing fedorasand even if we discount those movies, he's STILL completely wrong. If anything Chinatown injected new life into the fedora-wearing genre BECAUSE of it's success and popularity. It inspired a resurgence of old-school detective movies.

In the years immediately after Chinatown you have, Night Moves with Gene Hackman (I know, modern story, no fedora, but he's still a hard-boiled detective.) The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, Shaft (I know, no fedora, but most-definitely a Private Dick. It says so in the theme song.) Thieves Like Us (they got fedoras, based on a crime novel, not private eyes though.) Drowning Pool (classic modern Private Eye story with Paul Newman, no fedora though.) Peeper (a send up of 1940's private eye movies, starring Michael Caine, and yes he wears a fedora.)

The neo-noir thriller was popular in the '80s with Body HeatAgainst All Odds(Out of the Past remake), Jagged EdgeThe Big Easy, The Postman Always Rings Twice remake, DOA remake. Throwback detective stories include I, The Jury, Angel Heart, Trouble in Mind (hey, fedoras) and Hammett, as well as the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes. And fedoras also play a pivotal role in the Coen Brothers' clasic crime story Miller's Crossing.

So even though I've cherry-picked some titles to try and include private detectives, fedoras and stories that take place in the '30s or '40s or or at least are updates of movies from that era, there are quite a few that Gerstenzang chose not to mention. There are hundreds more neo-noir thrillers, cop movies, crime thrillers, heist films, gangster films and erotic thrillers from this period that should be included as descendents of Chinatown and classic noir films.

Also, Gerstenzang claims the lack of profitability of the genre as a reason we don't see too many of this really small subset of crime movies. But in the last few years we've had Black Dahlia, Public Enemies, and Gangster Squad all tank horribly at the box office, and Hollywood STILL keeps making these movies. Sin City 2: A Dame to Die For is coming out later this summer. And although I don't have high hopes for it's quality, based on my opinion of Sin City 1, this movie still hits squarely in the black and white period films featuring private dicks wearing fedoras genre that Gerstenzang nostalgically pines for.

Finally, to make his point Gerstenzang glosses over the big elephant sitting smack dab in the middle of the room, which is that for the past 30 years detective stories have dominated television. The last time I checked "Hollywood" INCLUDES TV shows.  So you'd have to ignore the last three decade of detective shows on TV... from NYPD Blue, CSI, NCIS, Law And Order to modern Sherlock Holmes stories, and your various Castles, Lie to Me's and Justified, not to mention fedora-wearing shows like Mike Hammer, Crime Story, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. How did Gerstenzeng not get enough dudes in fedoras on Breaking Bad?!?   Also, 2014 promises to be a banner year for throwback detective stories with series based on Michael Connelly and Charles Willeford hard-boiled detective heroes.

I guess Gerstenzang didn't bother seeing "True Detective", an amazing modern crime story (it's got the word "Detective" right in the title), which runs 8 hours on HBO.  No $80+ million movie can tell one story as in depth, with so many hours spent on character development, with little action, with vivid characters, plot twists and a nuanced mystery.  It's hugely popular and profitable, already has a second season in development, and will probably inspire more detective TV shows and movies. Sorry, no fedoras though.


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