The murky, masculine, sex-suffused world of the movie detectiveby Josephine Livingstone / August 9, 2013 / Leave a comment
(Above) The PI doesn’t solve mysteries with armchair deduction but by invading the private spaces of others
Often responding to Philip or Sam, the private investigator (PI) may be identified by his coat and hat. His natural habitat: the wet street corner or, unauthorised, another person’s home. He is commonly accused of committing the very crime under his investigation. You will find him lit starkly, from the side. He is good at getting women into bed, but they often turn out to be malevolent villainesses. He is American.
The PI’s bloodlines flow deeply into the tradition of masculine heroes. His characteristics loom so large over Western popular culture that it can be hard to make him out. This is the problem facing any book on the film noir detective: being a chap, in a movie, trying to solve a problem, he is as inscrutably general a cultural trope as the femme fatale. What makes a PI a PI, and not just some other kind of leading man? You can’t even really chalk him up to an era, since he has existed since the early days of film.
Bran Nicol’s new book,The Private Eye: Detectives in the Movies (Reaktion) gets some real purchase on our man. For a start, Nicol clears away the generic red herring of noir. Although many of the greatest PI movies are films noirs—The Big Sleep (1946), say—the PI is not a simple stand-in for this difficult genre, first formalised by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their classic 1955 study Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953. Even Borde and Chaumeton acknowledged that their famous five film noir traits—oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel—were neither clear cut nor all strictly necessary in order for a film to be noir. This genre is yoked together by a general ambience—an aura of darkness—rather than any true collective character. If the film noir is about one particular thing, I’d say it was about bad people. It is therefore about crime, and the investigators of those crimes. Enter the PI.
Nicol’s book begins with a solid history of the origins of the private eye. PI movies include some of the classic American themes; the lone wolf, the suave seducer, the crusader after justice. As Nicol points out, however, the PI’s roots go deeper. Although Nicol’s references are…