The Case Of The Disappearing Private Eye

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I looked for him, but he was gone.  I checked the boozy dives and the greasy spoons and the street corners where the not-nice girls hang out.


He was gone.

Tall guy, fedora, trench coat.  You must’ve seen him.  Usually smoking.  He was always hanging around, poking his nose where it didn’t belong and usually getting it punched.

A real wisenheimer, too, always cracking wise.

You see him, you call.  And if I find out you’ve been holding back…

If you don’t miss that kind of patois, you’re either too young to remember it, or you’ve got a tin ear.  God knows, I miss it.

Back in May, some of you might remember I interviewed Road to Perdition author Max Allan Collins (  A lot of the discussion had to do with his connection with one of the giants of private eye fiction, Mickey Spillane.

In the course of the conversation, it was mentioned that Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels had hit their commercial peak during the early 1960s.  It was only days later it occurred to me why there had been something about that comment that kept it buzzing around in my head.  Then, like someone who buys a red car and suddenly notices how many other red cars there are on the road, it came to me:  it wasn’t just Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels which had slipped out of view.

In literature, private eye stories have been moneymakers for at least a century and a half.  The names of the authors are as legendary as their characters:  Poe, Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Macdonald, Spillane, Parker…

As soon as the movies learned to talk, the private eye story became a big screen staple as well:  The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Harper (1966)…  They ranged from the mass-produced private eyes series of the 1930s – like the Boston Blackie and Charlie Chan flicks – to the grim postwar noirs like Out of the Past (1947); from flyweight Abbott & Costello and Bowery Boys entries to the transcendence of Chinatown (1974).

Then came TV and by the end of the 1950s, the private eye was as much a boob tube regular as cowboys and cops.  One studio — Warner Bros., which took a deep jump into TV production in the ’50s — had found a successful formula with 77 Sunset Strip and was soon pumping out private eyes on a production line.  The formula:  one somewhat mature but good-looking snoop for dad, a younger, even better looking private investigator for mom, and a still-younger hepcat to bring in the kids.  Add a sexy address, stir, and 77 Sunset Strip begat Hawaiian Eye, Surfside Six (set in Miami Beach), Bourbon Street Beat (set in New Orleans), and The Roaring Twenties (set in Prohibition era New York).

They never stopped coming.  The 1960s gave us Mannix, the ’70s had The Rockford Files, and Magnum, P.I. surfed in on the ’80s.

And then…

If I’m not mistaken, there hasn’t been a private eye movie from a major studio since Paramount’s release of Robert Benton’s Twilight in 1998.  The police procedural seems to have monopolized the crime genre on TV, and even in the world of print, the private eye story has become more of a niche market offering rather than a mainstream regular.

Which raises the obvious question:  what happened?

What goes on in the entertainment arena to cause a once enormously popular genre to virtually evaporate all across the media spectrum?


As it happens, I’ve recently read an advance copy of Ariel S. Winter’s bravely ambitious debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death, which Titan Books is releasing this month.  Audaciously constructed, The Twenty-Year Death is actually three stand-alone mystery novels which combine to tell a greater, overarching story of violence and tragedy.  Set in three different decades – the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s – each echoes popular crime fiction from its time:  The Dain Curse-type mystery for the 1930s, the hard-boiled patter of Sam Spade for the 1940s, and the angst and cynicism of noir in the 1950s.  Winter’s assured command of each suggests a writer at home with much of the private eye canon (unsurprising, I guess, from a long-time bookseller), and a good guy to ask about what happened – and what’s happening – to the private eye genre in print…

Q:   In print, the private eye story dates at least to Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories in the 1840s. The genre seems to connect with American audiences in a truly American way with writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the first half of the 20th Century.  How do you see the evolution of the private eye story?  What was it about the genre that engaged you?

A:   The evolution of the private eye story proceeds from detectives in the 19th and early 20th Centuries like Dupin and Sherlock Holmes who prize deductive reasoning over action, to in-the-thick-of-the-action detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in the 1930s and 1940s.  The Marlowe model then dominates the next several decades, with the only significant development the introduction of the female private eye like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone in the 1980s. These women, however, were still modeled on the hardboiled detectives of the pulp era.  All of these detectives follow a strict moral code, whether that moral code coincides with the law or not.  Then, in recent years, there’s been something of a subversion or appropriation of the private detective in books like Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, Look at Me by Jenifer Egan, and Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon where the detective is flawed, and his code of honor is looser.

I would also argue that bounty hunters and superheroes often function like private detectives, so if you’re looking at current film, I wouldn’t discount the Batman — he is the world’s greatest detective after all — or Tarantino’s upcoming movie, Django Unchained.  And, of course, there’s the popular BBC show Sherlock, the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, and another network Sherlock Holmes show about to start.  Obviously, Holmes is a special subset on his own, but he is a private eye.

As to what attracted me to the genre, I’d probably say the attitude.  My favorite movie as a child (and possibly still today) was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which is a gateway movie in that it has the cartoons to draw a kid in, but it is solidly a hardboiled detective movie.  Around the same time, I began reading Paretsky and Grafton, and shortly after that I became a diehard comic book fan, especially Batman, so the lone, grim detective was something I’ve always liked. I like their fearlessness, their strong moral code, their steadfast determination.

Q: The glory days for the private eye story, in both print and film, seem to be from the 1930s into the 1960s, maybe 1970s.  Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

A:  I don’t know.  As I already said, the 1980s saw a pretty major development with the female detective.  I’d throw Murder, She Wrote in there too, even though she’s an amateur detective instead of a true private eye.  And comic books have never let the detective go, like Batman or Sin City, and the 1990s was a banner time for comic books.  So, I don’t know that I’d cut it off completely in the 1970s, even if there’s been some decline.

Q: There’s obviously still an audience for the private eye story in print, but it doesn’t seem to hold the same kind of stature it once did.  What changed in audience sensibilities? What changed in the market?

A:  One thing might be the public’s relationship to the police.  In the early part of the 20th Century, there was a lot more anti-police sentiment across all parts of society.  They were seen as tools of the system that was keeping everyone down, and their corruption was taken for granted, so outlaws and people working for a moral code instead of for the state were more acceptable heroes.  Even many of the police stories in the pulps have as their protagonist a police officer who doesn’t exactly follow orders, operating almost as a private detective within the system.  And while corruption is still taken for granted and there are segments of society that still hate the police, such as in impoverished urban environments, overall, the role of the police as protectors and a positive force has come to dominate public opinion, especially post-9/11 when the police were truly heroes.  People in real life are more inclined to go to the police with a problem than to a private detective now, so the kinds of cases real private detectives handle have become limited as well.  As a result, police drama in literature, television, and film has come to represent much of the detective drama.

My editor, Charles Ardai, also points out that the advancement of forensic science has made it almost impossible for a lone private investigator to run a successful investigation.  Crime detection relies heavily on fingerprinting, fiber analysis, DNA testing, and a private investigator just isn’t going to have the resources needed to do that kind of forensic work.  When Holmes was doing his own forensics, he was the only one doing it, so he could do it alone, but even in the BBC depiction of the character, he relies on the pathologist and other police resources.

Q: When one thinks of the iconic literary private eyes – Hammett’s Nick Charles and Sam Spade, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer – there doesn’t appear to have been a P.I. character with that kind of dramatic weight since.  Why do you think that is?

A:  Again, I’d really throw Batman out there as the exception to that, even if his first appearance predates all of those characters.  His current hold on the public is stronger than most of the other detectives have ever been.  But Batman and the continuation of other characters developed in the earlier period withstanding, I, again, would argue that the type hasn’t disappeared, just their profession. The same way the hardboiled figure appeared in Westerns before private eye books, and are now usually police officers or superheroes.  And perhaps, as people began to have greater trust in the police, the idea of someone who works outside of the law has become more suspect (this contradicts my Batman point, of course).  Instead of cheering on or wishing to be Mike Hammer, maybe now we see him as someone who’s out of control, a bad element in society.

Q: P.I. stories may be more of a niche genre these days, but they obviously still have their following. What is it about the private eye that still hooks a reader?

A:  Mysteries in general are popular because they pose a question with very high stakes, and then give a satisfying answer.  They horrify and reassure. So, regardless of who the detective is, whether private or public or military, people are attracted to mysteries.  And so, most mystery lovers won’t care whether the detective is private or public.  So, it might be hard to say whether there are any specifics unique to the private eye that draws people in.

Q: A lot of P.I. fiction being turned out today seems to echo the hardboiled, noirish style of an earlier literary age.  Why do you think that is?  Is it nostalgia for a certain kind of storytelling? Or is it that hard to find a contemporary voice that works for that kind of fiction?

A:  Some of it is definitely nostalgia.  Some of it is because people today are often more passive and equivocating than people were in the 1930s and 1940s.  A male twenty-five year old in the 1940s didn’t question whether he was a man or not, while many male twenty-five-year-olds today don’t feel that they are men at all.  So, it’s much harder to believe that a self-assured man of action could do the things we expect fictional detectives do without a lot of formal training as a police officer, in the military, or in martial arts.  That’s why so many of the lone vengeance movies are (about) former military trainees.

Q:  By and large, people are reading less for entertainment, the big movers are titles of the fantastic and supernatural which appeal to younger readers.  What’s the future for the literary private eye?

A:  First, from what I understand about the explosion of e-books, not to mention all of the reading that’s done online, I’m not sure that people are actually reading less for entertainment.  It’s true that fantasy sells big, and, as a result, you’ll find a lot detective stories written in fantasy worlds, like Jeff VanderMeer’s work, so perhaps the future is that kind of genre bending.  But just like Deadwood brought back the Western in Hollywood, I’m sure there will be a detective story that brings private eyes back as well.


David Breckman’s TV resume goes back to the late 1990s when he was a staff writer for Saturday Night Live.  Most recently – and one of the reasons I sought him out for this piece – he was one of the producers for USA Network’s long-running hit cop show, Monk.  This series, starring Tony Shalhoub as a detective afflicted with OCD, ran from 2002-2009, was nominated for 16 Emmys over the course of its run, winning seven of them including three for Shalhoub as “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.”  The mystery community showed Monk some love as well with four Edgar Award nominations during its time on the air.  When USA renewed the series in 2006, it was, according to them, the “…highest-rated series in cable history,” and, indeed, the series’ finale pulled an outstanding 9.4 million viewers making it the most-watched scripted drama episode in cable history up to that time.

Breckman is not just a respected industry vet with a braggable credit under his belt.  Get him talking and he has the same passion for TV and film as any other media geek.  He seems to never have forgotten a movie or TV show he saw, even as a child, and the years since have only allowed him to augment those memories with an insider’s insight, and a buff’s love of behind-the-scenes arcana…

Q:  It seems that almost as soon as TV transitioned from being dominated by live drama and variety programming to filmed programming, the private eye story became almost as much of a TV staple as Westerns and cop shows with offerings like Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond — Private Detective, and 77 Sunset Strip just to name a few.  What do you think it was about private eye shows that made them so popular?  And continued to keep them popular for the next twenty years or so?

A:  To me, the private eye’s chief appeal is a certain aspect of knight errantry.  The courtly knights of medieval romance (if not always in fact) were brave, noble, pure of heart, steadfast in love, meager of fortune, and committed to wandering the land rescuing fair maidens from the predations of fire-breathing dragons.  Classic TV gumshoes like Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond, and (perhaps especially) Mannix all embody this chivalric ideal.  They may be swooping to the rescue in a grey Plymouth Valiant instead of on horseback, and slaying the dragon with a snub-nosed .38 instead of a broadsword, but the tradition is the same.

Another attraction:  The classic private eye is a lone wolf, not a bureaucrat.  He’s not a “joiner.”  He doesn’t function well in groups.  This quality of rugged individualism used to hold tremendous appeal for many Americans, but, at a certain point, that changed.

But who knows why the genre started being popular… and eventually stopped being popular?  We need to put Joe Mannix on the case.

(On a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by the differences between what a private eye does in real life compared to his fictional counterparts.  From the very first appearance of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin in the mid-19th Century, fictional private eyes have been responsible for the unraveling of literally hundreds of thousands of homicides, but have any real life private detectives ever solved even one?  I’m curious.)

Q:  In your view, what were the best of the crop and what was it about them that still deserves critical respect?

 A:  Thanks to the digital miracle known as DVD, lately I’ve been catching up on Mannix.  Great stuff.   As played by the criminally underrated Mike Connors, Joe Mannix was tough but vulnerable (he seems to get bludgeoned unconscious almost every single week; in fact he really shouldn’t leave the office without a crash helmet!)… whipsmart but never infallible (often being duped for a good portion of each episode before unraveling the mystery du jour)… self-effacing, fast with a quip, and always ready to put himself on the line for a friend… or a stranger.  Mannix was the quintessential urban knight.

Producer Bruce Geller gave these shows a rich, cinematic quality missing from most of the TV of the time, and, thanks to executive producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, the storytelling – particularly from Season Two onward — was superb.  Are there a few clunkers in the bunch?  Naturally.  But in the main these are smart, violent, beautifully-crafted mysteries.  Any lover of classic hardboiled storytelling needs to make Mannix part of his Netflix queue.

Q:  At what point do you think TV became a less hospitable home for the private eye story?

A:  Hmm.  I guess the genre started petering out around the time The Rockford Files (in the 1970s) left the airwaves, and disappeared completely after Spenser:  For Hire (in the 1980s).

Q:  The crime genre has come to be dominated by procedurals like the various members of the CSI and Law & Order franchises, Criminal Minds, and others.  These seem more plot-driven than the old private eye stories which, in my view, hung a lot of their appeal on the central character.  Does it seem that way to you?  These procedurals almost seem interchangeable; what’s the attraction in them vs. the charm of a character-driven series like, say, The Rockford Files?

A:   Tastes change.  The archetypal “wise-cracking reporter” was the hero of countless A-pictures, B-movies, and radio shows in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s before eventually going the way of the Underwood.   In the 1950s, it was the cowboy who dominated primetime before riding off into the sunset.  P.I.s, as you indicated, were big in the 1960s, (it was)  maverick cops in the ’70s and ’80s, but at a certain point in the last twenty years or so, the public seemed to lose its appetite for Lone Wolf heroes in favor of — wait for it – The Group.

The Group — captured in ads and posters by a half dozen thin, beautiful, under-40 bureaucrats standing in bowling pin formation with arms folded, looking defiantly at the lens.

The Group — exemplified by a seemingly interchangeable array of forensic teams on NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds, Bones, and Without a Trace, and by the cops of Law & Order, Southland, and The Wire.

The Group.

One theory holds that the Lone Wolf hero held particular appeal for male viewers who have since turned their backs on TV in favor of their X-Boxes and laptop screens.  So it is now women who make up the majority of the prime time audience, and women, the theory holds, respond strongly to shows about families — both biological and surrogate.  Hence the popularity of The Group.

Like I said, it’s just a theory.  Who the hell knows if it’s true (but it certainly feels true)?

Q:  There are some cop shows which seem to sneak elements of the private eye tale into their formats.  The title character of Castle isn’t a cop, for example, although he works with them, and the lead character of The Mentalist is also a “consultant” rather than a member of the force.  The same could even be said of your own Monk.  Is that some vestige of the private eye genre?  Some desire to go outside the straight police procedural?

A:  To a degree, but the divergence is largely superficial, because like you say, while The Mentalist and Castle aren’t working for the cops in any “official” capacity, they may as well be.  They work with the authorities.  At the request of the authorities.  With the support and approval of the authorities.  They are de facto cops, if you will, and definitely part of The Group.

Monk, I grant you, did represent an exception.  Monk was a conscious throw-back to an era when the colorful “lone wolf detective” was a fixture in prime time.

Q:  Do you miss private eye shows?  And what do you think the chances are of the genre ever coming back on TV?

A:  Of course I miss them!  One problem with network (as opposed to pay-TV) crime drama is calcification.  When any of the Big Four stumbles upon a formula that seems to work for them, they tend to replicate it ad nauseum.  Then do it for seven more seasons.

But any genre is only ever one blockbuster away from revival (the sit-com was dead until The Cosby Show revived it).  So, yes, I think the networks will develop more private eye shows, and maybe even put some on the air.  And then it’s up to the audience.

All it takes is the report of one loud gunshot to start a landslide.  And I hope it comes from a .38.



Sonny Grosso is a garrulous bear of a guy, someone who, by his own admission, loves to talk, and especially loves to talk about cops and movies and, naturally enough, cop movies.  Asking him about the evolution of the private eye in movies and on TV pulls a cork which lets spill a flood of stories about Grosso’s adventures in the movie and TV biz, and in his years as a cop.  And, they are stories worth hearing (if not always on point).

His name is usually familiar to police buffs and cop movie aficionados.  In the early 1960s, as a narcotics detective with the New York City Police Department, Grosso and his partner, Eddie Egan, cracked the famous “French Connection” case – the largest heroin bust in U.S. history up to that time.  Writer Robin Moore later turned the case into a book which producer Philip D’Antoni, director William Friedkin, and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman turned into the Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971), starring Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle (a slightly fictionalized version of Egan which copped Hackman an Oscar), and Roy Scheider (in an equally dramatized rendering of Grosso which earned him an Oscar nomination).   Besides winning a total of five Academy Awards, The French Connection went on to become one of the biggest commercial successes of the 1970s as well as one of the acknowledged all-time great cop movies.

Grosso, along with Egan, was a consultant on the film, and that gig led to similar consulting stints on a host of cop and crime movies and TV shows, including The Godfather (1972 – that’s Grosso’s pistol Al Pacino uses on Sterling Hayden and Al Lettieri in the memorable restaurant assassination scene), and series like Kojack, The Rockford Files, and Wise Guy.  It then seemed natural that when Grosso retired from the force, he moved into film and TV production, kicking off a thirty-year second career.  While his producing credits range from Pee Wee’s Playhouse to Mary Higgins Clark adaptations, his acknowledged strong suit has always been cop stories.  To name just a few:   A Question of Honor (1982), Trackdown:  Finding the Goodbar Killer (1983), Kings of South Beach (2007), penning the story for Phil D’Antoni’s big screen feature, The Seven-Ups (1973).

I spoke with Grosso by phone, asking him if, during his cop days, he’d dealt with private investigators; what were they really like?

“I’m thinking about it and I’d say they came in two categories:

“One:  ex-cops.

“Two:  wannabes.  These were guys who wanted to be cops, but something kept them out.  Ya know, in those days, it didn’t take much for you to not make it.  You had a problem with a knee, you were color blind, you didn’t get in.  Maybe you think, it’s small — So what? — but there was a reason.  ‘What color were his eyes?’  “I dunno, I can’t see color.’”

There was a certain air of ruefulness to the cop-turned-private investigator.  Often, they made the change because they thought it would pay better, but they almost always regretted it.  “When they were gonna leave I’d try to talk ‘em out of it, and they’d go, no, no, I don’t wanna work for half-pay anymore, then later, they come back to you and say, ‘Remember when you told me not to leave?  You were right.”

It was psychological, says Grosso.  “Even if you worked a desk, somebody says to you, ‘What do you do?’ and you say, ‘I’m with the police force,’ there’s something to that you don’t get when you say, ‘I work in a grocery store.’”

One of the things about P.I.s Grosso says movies and TV never really caught was how symbiotic the relationship is between them and the police.  “We used each other,” he says.  “Every single P.I. I knew had a cop,” meaning a contact on the force.  “But, it was like a marriage.  If it’s gonna work, it’s gotta work for both sides.”

The cops provided P.I.s with information they could never get on their own:  running down license plates, access to wire taps, which subjects were still on parole, and so on.  “I even gave one guy the information he needed to catch a guy and get a reward!”  The P.I.s, on the other hand, could go places and do things the cops – restrained by protocols, regulations, and the law – couldn’t, and provide cops with information they might not have been able to get otherwise.

“In a way, we treated each other like informants.  We used them for information, and, I guess you’d say they used us the same way.  It was like we were each others’ stoolies.”

P.I.s didn’t suffer for stepping over legal lines the way cops did.  “We both had to worry about breaking the law, you had to be careful.  But if a private eye does something wrong, there’s a chance he’s gonna go free.  Me, I’m gonna lose my job.  You see it all the time; a cop might even get exonerated in court, but then he gets tried by The Department and he’s out of a job.”

Grosso says nothing prepared someone for work as a private investigator better than time on the force.  “You learn a lot as a cop:  how to get information, how to groom a ‘stool.’  That’s why P.I.s I knew who hadn’t been cops often teamed up with an ex-cop.  There’s just no way to learn that stuff on your own.”

Grosso thinks the great popularity for private eye stories in the movies and on TV in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s had a lot to do with the way cops were typically portrayed.  “There was a time when it seemed most movie cops were dumbos, stumbling, bumbling assholes.  A lot of cops on private detective shows were morons.  In their (P.I. series’) heyday, no cop could do what (private eyes) did.  Not only could he do things cops weren’t allowed to do, but he was smarter, too.”

Grosso believes that changed with the release of The French Connection.

One of the accolades Grosso most treasures came in a recent July piece written by The Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik saluting the passing of producer and one-time 20th Century Fox chief Richard Zanuck, the man who brought The French Connection into Fox.  The story was headlined, “Six Movies That Changed the World,” and one of them was French Connection. 

One might argue about whether or not any of those films actually changed the world, but they certainly had a massive impact on the movies.  Grosso thinks Connection’s portrait of cops had a lot to do with the fading popularity of TV and movie private eyes thereafter.  Hackman and Scheider played two smart, shrewd, forceful cops willing to bend the rules (or tiptoe around them) in ways that had previously been reserved for movie P.I.s.  “(The French Connection) showed real cops as dazzling.”  It was an idea reinforced by the movie’s true story nature, and the great effort D’Antoni and Friedkin & Co. put into the gritty, realistic feel of the movie.  “That movie showed that if you show it the way it happened, (cops) didn’t need private investigators.”

“This is a copycat business,” Grosso says, and the success of Connection spawned a flood of movies and TV shows about equally tough and smart cops, from Baretta and Kojack on the small screen, to Grosso’s own The Seven-Ups.  Cops didn’t need private eyes anymore; not in movies and TV shows, and not in the eyes of a now wised-up audience.

One measure of the effect of Connection:  “I’ve met guys who told me they became cops because they saw The French Connection.  I never heard anybody say they became a private eye because of a detective show.”

Asked if the genre can come back, Grosso is admirably optimistic, responding with an unhesitating, “Sure!”  The catch is getting the right actor and the right creative talent, and remembering that the best P.I. stories were always about creating a character an audience cared about and wanted to spend time with.

His thoughts pinball off to The Godfather as an example of the dynamic he’s talking about.  “The shooting and all that bullshit was window dressing.  What you cared about was that family, what Michael (Corleone) did for that family, and what the family did to him, his brother betraying him (in The Godfather:  Part II [1974]).  That’s the stuff you cared about.

“Don’t get me wrong.  You need the window dressing!  It’s great you got the goods in the store, but nobody comes in because you got Bon Ami on the window.  You gotta have the shooting and the good-looking guy and tits, but, in the end, does (the audience) want to spend time with this guy?  You could do a show about a dog catcher and make it work if you get the right guy.

“It’s like the Western,” he continues.  “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) brought back the Western.  The only reason you don’t have them now is, who’s gonna be John Wayne?”

Grosso’s conversation caroms, again, back to a time when he was in Los Angeles in the 1970s and he and his mother had occasion to meet Mike Connors, then star of the long-running CBS hit private eye series, Mannix.  “My mother loved Mike Connors.  You figure out why my mother loved Mike Connors, and you can figure out how to bring the private eye back to TV.”


Stephen Whitty has been the film critic for The Star-Ledger – New Jersey’s state paper and one of the largest papers in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area – for 14 years.  And that follows a 10-year stint at the San Jose Mercury News.  Having to sit through as many as 300 movies a year over nearly a quarter of a century is bound to give you a sense of the tidal flows of genres and trends over the long haul.

Whitty is more than a discriminating reviewer and a hell of a writer.  A graduate of NYU’s film program, he still has the young film geek’s passion for film history, for the evolution of form and content and of the movie industry itself.  My favorite pieces of his are his in-depth Sunday features where he parses a body of work:  a genre, a filmmaker’s canon, the roles of a particular actor.  Those pieces are Whitty at his insightful, analytical best, and qualification enough to invite him to this discussion.

And, if that’s not enough, more on point is Whitty’s win at the La Jolla Library Raymond Chandler Competition (although one wins by writing bad Chandler, so maybe we’ll just forget about that one)…

Q:  You don’t hear much about the private eye movie before the advent of sound, but the genre appears to have detonated in the 1930s.  By the end of the decade, most studios had at least one private eye franchise – The Saint, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, etc.  Is that an accurate picture?  How would you characterize that first generation of cinema private eye movies?

A:  I think it’s true that the private eye series took off in the ’30s, and I think there were a few reasons.  First, the pulp magazines — particularly Black Mask — that had started out in the ’20s had hit a real peak by then.  Second, the advent of sound made storytelling easier, particularly for the complicated plots of private eye stories.  And third, honestly, so many of the new screenwriters were ex-newspapermen; I think they identified with the character of the private eye — snooping around, not getting paid very much.  It struck a chord.    

Q:  It seems the genre hit some kind of threshold with The Maltese Falcon.  It begins to take on a dramatic heft the franchise P.I. series didn’t have.  Is that how you read the situation?

A:  The heft was there, of course, with Hammett’s original novel, which added the idea of the private eye as a courageous man with a private moral code that he adhered to — something Hammett came up with independently of Hemingway, but is very similar to his ideas of personal responsibility and “grace under pressure.”  But it took two versions before John Huston (not coincidentally a very similar character to Hammett and Hemingway) caught the flavor of it with his adaptation of the novel, its third.

Q:  The ’40s and especially the ’50s see a deepening noir sensibility.  How did that impact the private eye genre?

A:  I think it changed it, fundamentally.  The classic idea of the private eye is the hero who comes into a briefly disordered society and restores order.  But in noir, the hero enters an ordered society and uncovers disorder.  Even though the Production Code still insisted that evil be punished at the end of every movie, the stories of the private eyes we start to see in the ’40s — Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep (1946), and then Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly in the ’50s — don’t end as neatly as they had before.  The chief villain may be killed in the end, but he’s rarely captured and turned over to the cops in handcuffs, ready for trial.  And there’s a sense that the crimes he committed go very deep into the society (and very high into the power structure).

Q:  I’ve read where the P.I. genre seemed to be on the wane by the early 1960s, but then Harper comes along and jump starts the form.  Is that your take?

A:  I think Harper was successful for the same reasons that Ross Macdonald, who wrote the novel it was based on, was; he took the feeling, the style of Raymond Chandler, and then updated it to the way L.A. was now.  We see that continuing in the (bad) Marlowe (1969) update with James Garner, and to a certain extent with The Long Goodbye (1973).  But I don’t think the genre itself really came back to full strength; instead, it seemed to be replaced by cop movies.

Of course, we’re talking solely about theatrical motion pictures throughout, here — on TV, private-eye stories seemed to remain firmly popular for decades, from the ’50s right into Magnum, P.I. (in the ’80s).

Q:  The private eye movie of the 1960s/1970s seems a wholly different animal from what came before.  If you look at movies like The Long Goodbye, Night Moves (1975), The Conversation (1974), and especially Chinatown as symptomatic of the genre’s changes, how would you characterize that generation of private eye movie?

A:  There’s certainly a sexual frankness that wasn’t there before; if you look back at Chandler’s original novels, the man was a bit of a prude.  There’s also a willingness, in this Nixon era, to see that corruption stretches to the highest levels of power, that you don’t have to be paranoid to see conspiracies around you — and that even our best efforts aren’t going to bring people to justice.

Think of the end of The Conversation, and especially Chinatown — if anything, the people are even worse off because of the hero’s involvement. That’s something really new for the genre; the private eye, not as white knight, but as impotent bystander.

Q:  It almost seems that with Chinatown, the private eye story had reached some sort of creative zenith and it had no place left to go.  The genre appears to evaporate after that.  What happened?

A:  I really think the cop movie took over.  Partly that’s because of timeliness, I think — private eyes seem more and more like something out of the past, while police officers are characters we see every day in our real lives.  But you can’t deny the modern movie audience’s attention deficit disorder, their very real need for fast cuts and simple stories (or the fact that most Hollywood movies now make most of their money overseas, where English is probably not the audience’s first language).  Private eye stories have complicated plots that take a while to unfold; they tend to have a good deal of dialogue.  These are not things the mass audience has much patience for anymore.

Q:  Have the audience and the nature of the business changed too much to ever support a comeback for the genre?  Do you see a future for it?

A:  I think it will always be with us, but I think it is going to take different forms for awhile. I think particularly of the Coen Brothers — in interviews over the years, they told me that they saw Blood Simple (1984) as their Hammett film, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) as their James M. Cain film, and The Big Lebowski (1998) as their Chandler film.  I don’t know that many private eye fans from the ’40s would see that, but it’s true and all of those films work wonderfully on those terms.

There have also been indie films like Brick (2005), which moved the private eye genre into the world of high-school, or occasional attempts (like the Shaft [2000] remake, or the recent One For The Money [2012] flop) to move beyond white male heroes to African-Americans or women.

The classic private eye movie — the guy in the shabby office, with his name painted on the door and a willingness to do anything for ‘”25 dollars a day, plus expenses,” isn’t something I think we’re going to see again outside of period pieces (as Chinatown was).  But the character of the private detective himself will survive, and I hope in a way that Chandler would recognize — as a man who though he goes down these mean streets “is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… (who is,) to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”

Bill Mesce

  1. Staindslaved says

    I wrote an essay once in college about how some genre’s are popularized because of their time periods and that they eventually die off. The Western/Film-Noir are excellent examples of this and I feel WWII and Gangster films are starting to get there as well. Basically I can watch, appreciate and even greatly enjoy a Private Eye film, TV series or book but I’ll never have the same connection as say someone Bill’s age. Bill likely grew-up with these private-eye characters, watched/read both old and new films/books about them and greatly enjoyed them. For me they’re more a look in at the past, that private eye character has dissipated because…well so have actual private eyes.

    As generations come and go we lose our connection with real-life events and even with popularized entertainment (Film, TV, books, etc). WWII was huge for my grandfather because he lived it and because of that he loved WWII films. Because my mother grew-up around my grandfather’s generation so does she. A lot of that emotional connection is lost on me because my experience is third hand. I imagine my children will feel even further distanced from it. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were a major deal for my father because he was there when they first entered the world. It is lessened with me and, again, its impact will further be lessened down the genealogy.

    Not to over simplify Bill’s impressive article but in a nutshell Private Eye’s have gone the way of the dodo because society has distanced, and continues to distance itself from that character and the world/time-period he resides in. It’s sad to see him go but unfortunately such is life. He exists now only on the celluloid.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I hate being trumped by a comment but you’re exactly right. It’s depressing (well, to someone of my generation — “…someone Bill’s age…”? Oooo, how cruel! — but it happens. Believe me, you don’t WANT to sound like one of those old crabs sitting on his front porch screaming, “Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!” but no matter how open-minded and forward-looking you try to be, when you lose enough stuff you liked, it’s hard not to get a little down.
      I’m wondering what the signatures of this generation will be considered in future consideration? And what they’ll reflect?
      1930s: GONE WITH THE WIND — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
      1940s: 12 O’CLOCK HIGH — “Consider yourselves already dead.”
      1950s: ON THE WATERFRONT — “I’m glad what I done!”
      1960s: THE GRADUATE — “Plastics.”
      1970s: CHINATOWN — “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
      And then….

      1. Staindslaved says

        Oh man, that plastics line is dead among Generation Y. I always try to “force” some of my friends to watch some great older films. Me and three of my friends all watched The Graduate together and I told them there was a very famous line in the movie. Every one of them thought it was the exchange between Mr. Robertson and Ben “You don’t respect me very much do you?” “No, I guess I don’t”. They were all shocked to find out it was the plastics line. It made sense to them when I explained the significance of it but…yah…that is 100% a baby boomer thing.

  2. Deepayan Sengupta says

    Excellent article. I think some moves are already being made towards bringing private eyes back into public consciousness, be it in film or television. I’d put forward 2010’s Terriers as a great example of a modern-day PI television series, although it sadly only lasted one season. Likewise, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone is (was?) a great launching point for a movie franchise about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, the private eyes created by Dennis Lehane. I recently caught up with the first book in that series, A Drink Before the War, and it’s everything one can ask for in a hardboiled detective story, and with about six books so far, it has cinematic, or even television, potential.
    One could possibly throw Veronica Mars in that mix too, but you put them all together, and there’s a clear indication that detectives are slowly but surely crawling back; now all we need is that one breakout hit. Fingers crossed it’s already in the pipeline somewhere.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      That’s the problem, Deepayan; getting that hit. I remember an interview with the network boss where TERRIERS had its home and how frustrated and disappointed he was over the fate of the show. Qualitatively, it was everything they’d wanted, the reviews were good, but they couldn’t get anybody interested.
      The same thing happened with GONE BABY GONE: great reviews, but an underperformer at the box office. They obviously have fans: that’s what gets them made. Getting people to watch them, though, that’s been the hurdle.

      1. PB210 says

        For lists of attempts at franchises, some of them attempts at private eye film franchises such as V.I. Warshawski, etc.

        Lawrence Block noted (in the book The Fine Art of Murder) that crime/mystery readers tend to feel less passionately about the genre than fans of space adventure novels do about that genre. Block notes that crime/mystery readers have fewer conventions than fans of cosmic adventure novels do.

  3. PB210 says

    Finland seems to have a private eye series called Vares. The films do not seem to have reached US theaters, though. The series has about seven entries.

    Thanks to and Originalvidjunkieblog for the tip-off on Vares.

  4. PB210 says

    And perhaps, as people began to have greater trust in the police, the idea of someone who works outside of the law has become more suspect (this contradicts my Batman point, of course)”.

    Actually, “During the conference [in the 1966 Adam West film] Commissioner Gordon states that Batman and Robin are fully deputised agents of the law. Batman was deputised in the comics by Commissioner Gordon, way back in ‘The People vs. the Batman’ (Batman #7, November 1941). Throughout the remainder of the Pre-Crisis era [before 1985-1986]he was operating legally in collaboration with the GCPD”.

    (Quick sidebar: although Mr. Mesce once lumped the Green Hornet in with these spandex clad perverts with child sidekicks in pixie shoes, the Green Hornet, a radio originated property, does come closer to operating as just a masked private eye or sleuth, without spandex, Fu Manchu style foes, not summoned by the police with a spotlight, etc.] supports my assertion; search also for Count Karnstein’s posts on Yuku

  5. PB210 says

    Breaking this up due to length issues:

    They ranged from the mass-produced private eyes series of the 1930s – like the Boston Blackie and Charlie Chan flicks

    …………..Charlie Chan worked as a policeman, not a private investigator. Sorry for the pedantry. The Saint and the Falcon could fall into the category in a broader view, but not Charlie Chan.


    I would also argue that bounty hunters and superheroes often function like private detectives, so if you’re looking at current film, I wouldn’t discount the Batman — he is the world’s greatest detective after all

    and shortly after that I became a diehard comic book fan, especially Batman, so the lone, grim detective was something I’ve always liked.

    And comic books have never let the detective go, like Batman or Sin City, and the 1990s was a banner time for comic books.

    ………….The Nolan films have not emphasized or developed his investigative powers. They skipped over any training in criminology. They feature a Doctor Fu Manchu and Fah Lo Suee style duo (Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia). The recent comic books have tended not to handle this raticionation aspect very well either (other than Max Allan Collins’ tales in the late 1980’s). They have tended to emphasize gadgets (such as a device to summon bats in one’s boot-this in an story with prostitutes) and peculiar foes.

  6. PB210 says

    Two threads that tie right into this post, titled Disappearance of the Private Eye Movie

  7. Kathleen Kaska says

    I love the classic PI novels. I cut my teeth on them and when I started writing my own mysteries, writers like Hammett, Spillane, Chandler, and Stout were my greatest inspiration.

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