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The Evolving Eye: Big Screen Private Eyes by Joe Posner
Gumshoe Review *Essay  
Date: 22 May 2010

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The Evolving Eye: Big Screen Private Eyes

by Joe Posner
Shamus. Gumshoe. P.I. Bogart. Newman. Garner. Movie private eyes have gone by many names, and many big names have played them on the big screen.

American life and culture have gone through many changes in the last half century. As the culture has morphed, so has the character of the American movie private eye.

For the sake of this article, we will look at eight films, covering over 50 years of private eye films: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Harper, Marlowe, The Long Goodbye, Night Moves, The Big Fix and Twilight.

In 1941, with The Maltese Falcon, Hollywood superstar Humphrey Bogart set the private eye bar pretty high: He is tough, loyal to friends, and no sucker for a pretty dame. America was at war and the American gumshoe wasn't taking any crap!

Bogart's classic line near the end of the film has him offering up his take on the Maltese Falcon: "The stuff that dreams are made of."

Five years later, when The Big Sleep debuted, times had changed. The involvement of women in the war effort, with grudging respect won from men, seems to have spilled over over into U.S. P.I. flicks. Unlike Sam Spade, Bogart's Marlowe forms an alliance with a woman he must trust, to their mutual benefit.

By 1966, with Paul Newman's insolent, gum chewing P.I. in Harper, the American private eye shows some signs of losing the battle of the sexes. As opposed to the near knighthood of Spade and Marlowe, Harper's personal life is a disaster.

Divorced, he lives in his office, drinking coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds. Ugh! His work, such as it is, provides him with a temporary distraction from the shipwreck his life has become.

In an interview, Newman said his gum chewing, somewhat remote character was based on Robert Kennedy. Newman's most memorable line from the movie is: "Only cream and bastards rise."

In 1969, years before Jim Rockford, James Garner was private detective Philip Marlowe in Marlowe. Author Raymond Chandler's classic '40s private eye was dropped into the cynical '60s. Somehow, it worked.

Garner's grumpy but charming Marlowe can't help but remind you of his later, Rockford Files TV success.

Things are looking up. Marlowe has an office, an apartment and some clients. In keeping with the swinging '60s, Marlowe is chummy with a stripper. The times, they were a changing.

By 1973, with The Long Goodbye, the swinging '60s were definitely over. Unshaven and rumpled, Gould looks unappealing, even by the '70s relaxed grooming standards. Elliot Gould's Marlowe doesn't have a girlfriend; his roommate is a cat.

Co-star Sterling Hayden later revealed, to talk show host Tom Snyder, that he was high on pot during the filming of Goodbye. As a result, Hayden probably enjoyed making the film more than you will watching it.

By 1975, things had changed for the better for the working P.I., sort of. In Night Moves, with Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby, the private eye is married with problems. Moseby's detective skills are about as fuzzy as his morality. He turns down Melanie Griffith's jailbait come on, but isn't adverse to taking an extramarital roll-around with Jennifer Warren, a woman closer to his age.

Night Moves has some memorable dialogue:

Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

Which Kennedy?

Any Kennedy.

Oddly enough, the popular Bob Seger tune from the era, "Night Moves", wasn't included in the movie's soundtrack. Go figure.

By 1978, with The Big Fix, things had changed once again. Dreyfuss' divorced P.I. Moses Wine seems to have transferred his love for his ex-wife to his kids. He may not be a great private eye, but he's a great father, which met a '70s ideal.

Dreyfuss' faded but intact idealism offers an echo of classic private eyes of yesteryear. The fact that Dreyfuss/Wine smoked pot was considered a bit revolutionary at the time.

Dreyfuss broke his arm just before filming was to begin. As a result, the filmmakers wrote it into the film. In the course of The Big Fix, Dreyfuss/Wine offers a variety of funny replies to inquiries as to how he broke it.

Not many P.I. flics have popped up since then. The reasons might be worthy of further pondering elsewhere.

Nonetheless, in 1998, veteran P.I. (Harper) Paul Newman turned to that sub-genre of movies for a third time in Twilight. Newman's Harry Golden is broke and homeless, which forces him to stay with old friends. On top of that, his private detective license has expired. Yikes!

While Twilight is not great by any standards, it certainly is great to see three classic private eye actors in one film: Newman (Harper, Drowning Pool), James Garner (Marlowe) and Gene Hackman (Night Moves).

While the story meanders a bit, Newman's charm still goes a long way. A climactic showdown between Newman and Garner is well staged.

When you contrast The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Twilight (1998), the true changes in the movie private eye character become clearer. Sam Spade has an apartment and an office. He is loyal to his friends. He has clients. Newman's Harry Golden is homeless, has no office and has run out of clients. Disloyal to his friends, he sleeps with his best friend's wife.

By 1998, it seemed necessary to deconstruct the private eye character. Perhaps it's time, now, to put the P.I. back together again.

About the Author:

Joe Posner decided he wanted to be a writer as a boy. He had his first film review published at age 16 and his first short story at 19. Joe made his first professional sale at age 29 and never looked back. A fan of both the mystery genre and science fiction, he's a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Joe's collection of science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural stories, entitled Joe Posner's Pipe Dreams, debuts on in June. He is married with fur children.

The Evolving Eye: Big Screen Private Eyes Joe Posner, June 2010.

Our Readers Respond

From Walt Giersbach:
Joe, thanks for your deconstruction of P.I.s, both male and female. I believe the genre still has many more novels, stories and films to go before peaking, as have the mobster and Western genres. Partly, the P.I. is an iconic American character who solves problems independent of big institutions. Or maybe I'm biased in favor of crime-stoppers because I'm a sometime writer of detective stories. Keep up the good work.

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