Monday, 3 October 2011

Finding our Detective

To find our “hero”, or protagonist; our shallow, deluded detective, we must find out what kind of man our character wants to be. From there we can discover his corruption and self-deceit. So, here are some notes on the kinds of characters our man may attempt to emulate...

Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Notes taken from John J. Blaser and Stephanie L.M. Blase (2008) Film Noir and the Hard-boiled Detective Hero

...Huston decided to play it straight, and in the process created a new kind of detective hero for a new kind of film. The Maltese Falcon immediately became the archetypal hard-boiled detective film, and Sam Spade immediately became the archetypal hard-boiled detective. It may even be fair to say that every detective in later film noir was in some way a departure from Sam Spade.”

...Spade is a tarnished hero, at best. When he learns that his partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered, he shows no sign of shock or sadness ... Spade's lack of compassion and indeed his cruelty are further revealed in two scenes later in the movie. When Archer's widow, Iva, comes to see him, Spade appears to comfort her, but as the camera reveals the look on his face … the audience is allowed to see his insincerity.”

Spade's heroism, therefore, lies not in any innate goodness or compassion or concern for justice — such qualities would be liabilities in Spade's environment — but in his personal code of loyalty, professional responsibility, and integrity.”

This last quote makes an interesting point. Spade is not a hero by any conventional set of rules or laws, but rather by personal values that we as an audience admire. If our detective had taken this on board, dismissing external laws and morals and instead decided to follow a personal code he believes is honourable, we find a starting block for his delusion. It is perhaps a question to the post-modern idea that everyone's opinions and values are equal and who is to tell him he is corrupt?

Philip Marlowe, Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Notes taken from Clay and Susan Griffith (2011) Marlowe Never Sleeps

Many people rank The Big Sleep (1946) as the best Philip Marlowe movie, but those people are wrong. The best is Murder, My Sweet (1944) starring Dick Powell.”

Powell’s interpretation of Marlowe is great because he and genius director Edward Dmytryk understand that Marlowe is not a brute or a thug. He is a thoughtful, even intellectual man, who is bemused and disappointed by the seedy workings of his underworld rather than outraged or driven to violence. Powell brings a wonderful blend of tough and vulnerable, confused and smug, and the movie is great film noir.”

Notes taken from Bosley Crowther (1945) Murder, My Sweet

This is the story of a private detective who would take a dollar from anyone, with no questions asked. Phillip Marlowe is just a shade above his clients, who might be politely called questionable characters. He is not a particularly shrewd operator as Dick Powell draws him, but he has a persistence and capacity for taking a beating that is downright admirable. This is a new type of character for Mr. Powell. And while he may lack the steely coldness and cynicism of a Humphrey Bogart, Mr. Powell need not offer any apologies.”

Marlowe differs then from Spade in the sense that he distances himself from external morals; not out of personal coldness, but rather because the conventions of his environment are debased and immoral. He is a private detective “disappointed by the seedy working of his underworld”, meaning that he must stand as an bastion of honour. Does our character believe he is as such? Does he exist in a perpetual state of frustration at a world he sees as disappointing, and therefore must rise above it?

Mark McPherson, Laura (1944)

Notes taken from Tony McRae, Laura, Observation by Tony McRae

...we know only that he's a good cop, he likes his liquor, and has had spotty relationships with women. We will soon learn that his is obsessed with the dead Laura Hunt, mesmerized by her portrait which hangs over the fireplace in her apartment where she has been killed.”

Notes taken from Catherine Savard (2007) Midnight Oil: Movies and More

...a tight-lipped police detective who also knows his own mind, although he is perhaps less hasty in forming and reforming his opinions about a situation. Andrews plays the part of the detective as holding things very close to his chest, with hardly a ripple of emotion permitted to escape. He keeps himself calm by playing a little handheld pinball game. McPherson says that it helps him to keep his mind clear.”

Here we're given a slightly more unstable figure. Rather than the stalwart champion of personal honour, we have a somewhat shakier figure. He appears controlled, incredibly so, keeping his thoughts very much to himself. The view he presents to the world is one of calm and collected, smart and knowing. But lying underneath that is an obsessive personality, an emotional side he keeps under lock and key. This is self-control is perhaps something her character seeks to emulate? Yet is he strong enough to keep his emotions or obsessions from tumbling into his work?

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