British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Private Eye

The volume’s second half considers the private eye’s relationship with ‘work’ and ‘home’ in more detail, discussing the ways in which the relationship of the personal and professional is central in understanding his flawed embodiment of masculine ideals. Recalling some of the tropes common to classic noir, the detective film frequently eschews a conventional vision of family life for a disconnected, fragmentary image of community relationships where ‘home’ only really exists through a network of professional contacts and casual acquaintances – a moveable concept subservient to the detective’s indefatigable work ethic. Although this tireless search for truth may promise advances in understanding, Nicol demonstrates that the eye’s all-consuming approach to detection can often lead to poor judgement and obscured ‘vision’ – a subjectivity that is often stressed in the detective film’s use of point of view camerawork and voiceover narration. In turning his eye upon the people, objects, and spaces of investigation, the detective also reveals the ways in which his gaze provides voyeuristic satisfaction that goes beyond the professional acquisition of knowledge to incorporate personal, private pleasure in the act of looking itself. The investigator’s gaze is therefore never truly impartial, further compromising any attempt to separate the professional from the private – something that becomes particularly obvious when the object of the investigative gaze is a woman (for example, Blue Velvet’s Dorothy or Vertigo’s ‘Madeleine’). The eye’s single-minded dedication to his profession therefore simultaneously undermines his ability to perform both at work and in private, often exposing his initial air of independence and self-awareness as a sham – albeit a sham that continues to exude a strangely fascinating mixture of power and vulnerability.

… an ideal introduction to the cinematic sleuth

Throughout, Nicol takes a left-field approach to the history and cultural life of a familiar figure, examining the tensions between public and private that make the detective’s particular brand of masculinity so problematic and so enduring. Full of stills, The Private Eye provides an ideal introduction to the cinematic sleuth, working particularly well as a counterpart to more stylistically focused analyses of film noir and neo-noir. The volume complements and extends other work on gender and sexuality in the crime film, and unearths new ways to think about the simultaneous quests for personal, romantic, and investigative fulfilment that characterise the detective film.

Dr Catherine Haworth

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