The Evolving Eye 2: Female Movie Investigators
by Joe Posner
Gumshoe Review *Essay
Date: 01 November 2010
Links: Male Movie Investigators /
The Evolving Eye 2: Female Movie Investigators
The role of women has changed a great deal over the decades, from marching to get the right to vote, in the early 20th century, to burning bras, to express personal and sexual freedom, in the '60s. Therefore, it's not surprising that the role of the female movie investigator has changed as well over the years.
For the sake of this article, we will look at four films, covering over 60 years of female cinema sleuths: Nancy Drew, Detective, Murder, She Said, V.I. Warshawski and >Nancy Drew.
In the 1930s, grown women were amateur sleuths in popular books of the era. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple appeared in a series of mystery book adventures. On the big screen, however, screen sleuths were usually pint-sized!
A possible exception was Nora Charles, who solved crimes with her husband Nick in the book, The Thin Man, by mystery great Dashiell Hammett. She appeared in a series of movies, beginning with The Thin Man in 1934. Myrna Loy played Nora, opposite William Powell as Nick. Because Nick frequently took the lead in their amateur investigations, I've chosen not to include her character's films.
Maybe it was because Shirley Temple and Judy Garland were such '30s box office magic. Or maybe it was because adolescent and teenage girls were such a significant portion of the movie audience and the studios were simply pandering to them.
For what ever reason, the dominant screen investigator of the 1930s was a girl not a woman. Although created by Edward Stratemeyer, many of the books were written by a series of writers, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Her name? Nancy Drew!
The Nancy Drew book series, detailing the adventures of a smart, brave American girl, were an instant hit. By 1938, Nancy Drew hit the big screen. Nancy Drew, Detective starred Bonita Granville. Her co-star was John Litel, as her father.
The story: When a rich woman disappears, Nancy Drew brings her amateur sleuthing skills to the rescue.
Nancy Drew, Detective was a hit with the young set. Since the books were so popular with young girls, it's not surprising the movie was based on an actual Nancy Drew book: The Password of Larkspur Lane.
A key catch phrase from the film was, "I'll bet you $23.80," a reference to the weekly pay for government-funded workers during the depression.
Although the film was officially the second half of a double feature, the film did well enough to spawn three sequels: Nancy Drew, Reporter (1938), Nancy Drew, Troubleshooter (1939) and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939).
Few female crime investigators made it to the big screen for several decades. That all changed in the '60s. For movies fans, Margaret Rutherford, 70 at the time of the making of her first Miss Marple film, was the perfect embodiment of the sleuthing spinster, a tweedy counterpoint to the Swinging Sixties.
Rutherford's first turn as Miss Marple was in Murder, She Said (1961). Her co-stars included her own husband, Stringer Davis, who played the character of “Stringer.”
The story: When Miss Marple is on a train trip, she witnesses a murder taking place on a train passing hers. Needless to say, Marple investigates. Rutherford's Marple was seen as much bolder than Agatha Chrisite's bird-like character. Hard-core fans of the Miss Marple books, and Agatha Christie herself, did not share the enthusiasm of the films' fans. Christie, eventually, came around.
The film developed quite a following both overseas and in America. Three more Rutherford/Marple films were released: Murder at the Gallop (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964) and Murder Ahoy! (1964).
In the early '80s, two books debuted with female private investigators: A is for Alibi, by Sue Grafton, and V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Parestsky. They were hard-boiled, two fisted and popular. As usual, Hollywood was slow to respond.
In 1991, V.I. Warshawski debuted, starring Kathleen Turner as a tough female P.I. Co-stars included Jay O. Sanders, Charles Durning and Angela Goethals.
The story: V.I., a female Chicago private eye, investigates the case of a murdered hockey player.
Kathleen Turner was near the height of her screen popularity when she appeared as the title role in V.I. Warshawski. Neither her movie star magic, nor her well displayed limbs, were enough to make this film a hit.
The failure of Warshawski may have discouraged filmmakers from tackling Sue Grafton on the big screen. For whatever reason, Kinsey Milhone films have not yet hit the movie theaters.
Although Nancy Drew did make it to the small screen in the '70s, it took over 60 years for the amateur female sleuth to make it back to the big screen.
In 2007, after years of female screen sleuths being mostly AWOL, Nancy Drew hit the big screen. Based on the modest audience response, the screen apparently hit back! The film starred Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew. Co-stars included Josh Flitter, Max Thieriot and Rachael Leigh Cook.
The story: When Nancy Drew and her father move to California, Nancy can't help but look into a cold case involving a murdered movie star.
Whether tween and teen girls didn't know who the character of Nancy Drew was, or didn't care, is simply not clear. What IS known, however, is that the film's so-called target audience didn't exactly race to movie theaters to see this film.
The releasing studio's plan was apparently to make a series of film adventures starring the girl detective. The modest box office results for Nancy Drew killed that plan.
I see both Nancy Drew AND Miss Marple returning to the big screen ... someday. Today, while female investigators (Rizzoli & Isles, Castle) are big on the small screen, their big screen sisters are currently MIA. Perhaps that will change in the NEXT decade.
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, now available on Amazon.com. He is married with fur children.