British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The Private Eye

The Private Eye: Detectives in the Movies by Bran Nicol (Reaktion, 2013). 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1780231020 (paperback), £14.95

Catherine Haworth crop-101x155About the reviewer: Dr Catherine Haworth, Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI), University of Huddersfield. Catherine Haworth specialises in film music. Her doctoral research investigated the role of music and sound in Hollywood crime films, focusing on how the soundtrack engages with the construction of agency for female characters in films released by RKO Radio Pictures during the 1940s. She has taught at the Universities of Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, and joined the Huddersfield staff in 2011. Catherine has contributed papers at numerous conferences, published on gender and music in film noir, James Bond, and female detective films, and acted as guest editor to a 2012 gender and sexuality special edition of Music, Sound and the Moving Image. For a list of publications, click here.

F_ighting crime, seducing women, and pounding the ‘mean streets’ of the city, the private investigator is a staple of detective film and fiction and often heralded for his desirably detached masculinity. In The Private Eye, Bran Nicol argues that this viewpoint overemphasises the virile agency of the detective over his involvement with the interior, ‘private’ realm: a space with the potential to emasculate given its connections with feminising domesticity and morally ambiguous employment in personal investigation, surveillance, and undercover snooping. He traces the eye’s history from the 1930s to the present day, although the heftiest sections focus upon film noir, which provides the angst-ridden, existentialist, and shadowy urban landscapes where the private investigator comes closest to feeling at home. Although these sections cover some well-trodden ground, their focus on the investigator as protagonist as well as plot device offers interesting ways to conceptualise the links between literary and cinematic detectives, the various cycles of film noir, and the twists and turns of the crime, mystery, and thriller genres. This history is organised as a tripartite model: classic eyes of the 1940s and 50s  (The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; The Big Sleep); the ‘neo-modernist’ investigators of the 1970s who update the archetype to address new audiences and cultural shifts (Chinatown; Shaft; The Long Goodbye); and, from the 1980s onwards, the self-referential and often parodic detectives of the ‘postmodern’ school (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

The Private Eye situates the lone gumshoe as a key player and thematic motif in an evolving and frequently self-referential body of films where the lines between good and evil, them and us, and public and private are blurred both within and outside the diegesis. Given the puzzle-driven nature of mystery plots, the detective commonly acts as our guide to complex and confusing surroundings; not only giving him agency and authority over the unfolding text but also emphasising his own compromised nature (distinguishing the hardboiled eye from the tradition of cosy, intellectual ‘armchair’ investigators). Nicol usefully extends the boundaries of his study in places, including amateurs caught up in circumstances beyond their control and cops whose professional role is usurped by personal interest – but all of these protagonists, like the classic cinematic eye, are men. Whilst this gender imbalance is reflective of much hardboiled and crime fiction, it excludes female amateur or accidental sleuths (including those who provide investigative support in classic noirs such as Stranger on the Third Floor and Phantom Lady, as well as more familiar characters like Nancy Drew, Hildegarde Withers and Miss Marple). These women also disrupt the traditional conflation of manliness and investigative prowess that Nicol critiques elsewhere, and would provide an interesting addition to his arguments.

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

Delicious Save this on Delicious |