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The Detective in Film

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Everson, William K. - The Detective in Film (1972)


Review by Mike


The film industry, despite its sometimes extensive technical resources, by and large has failed to do justice to the detective story. So says William K. Everson in his survey book THE DETECTIVE IN FILM (1972).


Unlike many "coffee table"-sized books (in this case, 8 3/4 x 11 1/4 inches) in which the illustrations predominate (over 400 are here), Everson's text is just as good, revealing his extensive knowledge of films and cinematic techniques. He tells us his aim in the Introduction:


"...this volume is intended as an affectionate and, I hope, reliable, but certainly not comprehensive, introduction to the field, done with an admitted bias in favor of the film and a merely casual familiarity with the untold volume of novels and short stories from which they derive." (page 3)


All of which is borne out in the book. ("reliable"? --Certainly LADY IN CEMENT, with Frank Sinatra and Raquel Welch, was NOT released in 1948; beware of several such inconsequential errors in the text.) Apart from the typos, the book's only other shortcoming is its age: Thirty-five years have elapsed, and in the interval we have seen something of a renaissance of the classic detective story in film (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, EVIL UNDER THE SUN, and the period renditions of Sayers and Christie and Marsh on television); so Everson's rather wistful hope may have already been fulfilled: "...when the current stress on ugliness, sex, and violence abates--as it has to, in time--we shall have an extra bonus perhaps in a return to the CIVILIZED mystery in which once more the only major question of importance will be 'Who Done It?'." Spoken--or, rather, written--like a true English gentleman.


So, if you like Golden Age detective movies, crime films of any era, or just old movies in general, THE DETECTIVE IN FILM just might be what you need.


(Note: The "Photo Selections"--see below--are by no means complete summaries of the rich and varied black-and-white illustrations in the text.) (Further note: A recent check at Amazon.com showed that about a dozen used copies are available.)






by William K. Everson (born 1929)

The Citadel Press

Hardcover (1st Edition)

Film Criticism and History

247 pages




1. Introduction (pages 1-3): Everson places the filmed detective story in the context of Hollywood's other genres -- westerns, horror/sci-fi, comedies, musicals, love stories -- and observes how it overlaps them: "Since crime, in one form or another, is a more constant motivating factor in movies than any other, and since it has to be opposed and defeated by an amateur or professional detective, it is not surprising that the detective film has thus spilled over into virtually every OTHER genre....What IS surprising, however, is that so few really classic detective movies have resulted. Perhaps the two arts are too far apart. The detective story is essentially a contemplative and nonvisual art. The good ones are so structured that the reader can go back and restudy the case in light of later knowledge. The essential information is conveyed not by action, but by extended dialogue conversations, and by meticulous description....The film, of course, does not allow for the luxury of either extended detail or protracted examination; at best, it occasionally allows, via flashbacks or other devices, for the rescrutiny of important sequences. And the viewer has no option: he is reshown only what the writer or director chooses." (page 2)


Everyone is familiar with most cinematic formulas by now, yet: "Curiously, the movies have seldom exploited the public's familiarity with the cliches of the detective formula. Anticipating the audience reaction to a given set of circumstances--leading them astray--giving them credit for tumbling to the deception and carrying it a step further--this is the kind of gambit thinking that COULD have made the movie mystery an entertainment form quite separate from the detective STORY. But few directors (or writers) have ever chosen to play with their audiences like that. Alfred Hitchcock is a notable exception, and that is not the least of the reasons why his movie mysteries are so engrossing....Hitchcock excepted, however, the movies on the whole have not done well by the detective story IF one accepts the literary form as the original and the model....Despite the admitted entertainment value of literally thousands of movie mysteries, barely a handful have really matched the skill, cunning, and meticulous construction of their source novels. The British GREEN FOR DANGER was one that did; so did an early Philo Vance talkie, THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, a model of its kind, and the best of the Philip Marlowe mysteries, MURDER MY SWEET. The rest have entertained us, excited us--but rarely fooled us." (pages 2-3)


2. "The Master" (pages 4-22) "Perhaps it is only appropriate that this survey should begin with Sherlock Holmes, not only because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is vitually the prototype of the investigator involved in the art of detection for its own sake, but also because Holmes was the FIRST detective to be transferred to the screen (as early as 1903).”


(page 4) Photo Selections (24): --Stills from three Danish Sherlock Holmes films of 1908 and 1910 --John Barrymore as Holmes and Gustav von Seyffertitz as Moriarty --Eille Norwood as Holmes (star of nearly fifty ! Sherlock films made in a three-year period) --Arthur Wontner ("best of the British Holmes interpreters") --Raymond Massey as S.H. (THE SPECKLED BAND--1931) --Robert Rendell (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES--1931) --Clive Brook as Holmes and H. Reeves Smith as Watson (1929) --Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (BASKERVILLES and THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES--both 1939) --George Zucco as Moriarty --Rathbone and Henry Daniell as Moriarty (THE WOMAN IN GREEN--1945) --Peter Cushing (HOUND --1958) --and Ronald Stephens (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES--1970).


3. "The Silent Period" (pages 23-36) "During the screen's silent years--roughly speaking, the first twenty-eight years of the twentieth century -- the detective was a familiar enough figure in film, but never really entrenched himself as a genre hero as did the cowboy. The whole language and construction of the silent film worked against a figure who needed conversation and interrogation. In the earlier days of film, the stress was on action or at least physical MOVEMENT, often backed up by lengthy explanatory subtitles. In the twenties, when the movies rapidly achieved increasing sophistication, the pace slowed, meaning was expressed via visual subtleties, and the title was used less and less. Neither period made the detective an easy character to handle." (page 23)


Photo Selections (15): --Still from THE MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY (1914; inevitably someone's helpless before an on-rushing train) --a lobby card advertising a $10,000 contest for THE MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY --a still from an unidentified Edison film (1915) --THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1915; Craig Kennedy gets bussed) --John Barrymore as RAFFLES (1917) --Henry B. Walthall in FALSE FACES (1919; choking Lon Chaney, Sr.) --still from Fritz Lang's DR. MABUSE (1922) --Lon Chaney disguised as a vampire in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) --master criminal Lionel Barrymore in THE THIRTEENTH HOUR (1927) --George Bancroft in DRAGNET (1928) --and two stills from ROMANCE OF THE UNDERWORLD (1928; with Mary Astor, Robert Elliot, and Ben Bard).


4. "Three Classics" (pages 37-49) "Since a great deal of crime and detection is going to be discussed in this book, it might be as well to pause for a moment and consider the standards by which movie mysteries are judged. It would seem that there are three basic and not necessarily interrelated yardsticks: (1) How faithful is the movie to its source material? (2) How successful is it as a mystery, in successfully diverting the audience up the proverbial garden path without cheating in the denouement? (3) Can it possibly transcend the realm of mystery and detection to become a separate classic in its own right?....I am going to go out on a gigantic limb and select three films which seem to uphold the highest traditions of the movie detective film, particularly in relation to the three questions posed." (pages 37-39)


Photo Selections (31): --William Powell, Alastair Sim, Humphrey Bogart --still from THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933; Philo Vance, et al, inspect the crime scene) --scene from KENNEL (Vance with model of town house) --Alastair Sim and Trevor Howard (plus other suspects) in GREEN FOR DANGER (1947) --two-page montage of stills from the 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON (with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade) --two stills from SATAN MET A LADY (1936; remake of MALTESE with Bette Davis, Warren William, and Alison Skipworth) --and seven stills from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941; with Bogie, Peter Lorre, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Barton MacLane, and Ward Bond).


5. "The Early Talkies" (pages 50-60) "Separately and together, the mystery and detective film enjoyed a tremendous boom when sound came in, and for a number of reasons which happily coincided in their appeal to the boxoffice. Initially, of course, it was enough that movies just talk, so it is not surprising that there was a great emphasis on the kind of movie in which the story HAD to be told by prolonged dialogue exchanges: the detective thriller and the 'confession' and marital dramas....The detective novel itself had attained new heights of popularity in recent years; since 1925 such sleuths as Hercule Poirot, Philo Vance, Sam Spade, The Saint, Mr. Reeder, Dr. Priestley, Charlie Chan, and Ellery Queen had made their publication debuts....A detective role was a logical way of introducing an actor to sound films, for it provided a perfectly legitimate excuse for him to do virtually nothing but talk." (pages 50-51)


Photo Selections (22): -- Stills and behind-the-scenes shots from various early talkie mysteries, including: CURTAIN AT EIGHT (1934) --VOICE OF THE CITY (1929) --BROADWAY (1929; remade in 1942) --THRU DIFFERENT EYES (1929) --SCOTLAND YARD (1930) --THE BAT WHISPERS (1931) --SCANDAL SHEET (1931) --BEHIND THE MASK (1932) --THE THIRTEENTH GUEST (1932; with Ginger Rogers) --ARSENE LUPIN (1932; with John Barrymore as the thief versus Lionel Barrymore as a detective) --SINISTER HANDS (1932) --MURDER IN TRINIDAD (1934; with Nigel Bruce as "one of the most off-beat of movie detectives") --BOMBAY MAIL and MURDER IN THE MUSEUM (both 1934) and ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT (1935).


6. "Bulldog Drummond" (pages 61-71) "Captain Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond was created by H. C. McNeile and introduced to detective fiction fans in 1920. As his rank and the date suggest, he was a World War I veteran. He was also something of a Fascist and a thug, looking for an outlet for violence and finding it in a kind of moralistic crusade against crime. He was in his own way a forerunner of America's Mike Hammer, who was always so delighted when the criminals he dispatched or at least beat up unmercifully also turned out to be Communists." (page 61)


Photo Selections (21): -- Stills and behind-the-scenes snaps of various screen incarnations of Drummond: Carlyle Blackwell (1922) --Ronald Colman (1929; "the first and best talkie Drummond") --Atholl Fleming (1935) --John Lodge and Ray Milland (1937) --Walter Pidgeon (1951) --and Richard Johnson (1971).


7. "The Oriental Detectives" (pages 72-85) "The Oriental sleuth was virtually ignored by the silent film, and the fact that the most famous fictional one of them all, Charlie Chan, was not created by Earl Derr Biggers until 1925 is only partially a contributing factor. During the teens and twenties, the height of 'Yellow Peril' concern, the Oriental was almost invariably depicted on the screen as either a subhuman menial or as a cunning villain....So it's not surprising that, even after the success of the first Charlie Chan books in the late twenties, producers were cautious in springing an Oriental 'good guy' on audiences in large doses and introduced Charlie only casually." (pages 72-73)


Photo Selections (27): -- Images of Charlie Chan (played variously by Orientals and Caucasians, including George Kuwa, SoJin, E. L. Park, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters) --Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre in the 30s and Henry Silva in 1965) --and Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff and Keye Luke).

(Everson also has high praise for a Japanese detective film based on an Ed McBain novel, HIGH AND LOW--1963.)


8. "The Private Eyes: 1. The Gentlemen" (pages 86-108) Everson notes that "one can take all of the titles of mystery movies (at least from 1929 on) and find a surprisingly consistent reliance on certain words. For example, up to the mid-forties, the words 'murder' and 'mystery' recur most frequently in titles. After about 1947 there is a shift and, strangely enough, among the oft-used words now are 'street' and 'city'....The word 'night' (in titles) connotes fear more than any other single word except possibly 'death,' usually considered by Hollywood too morbid and 'uncommercial' a word to be used in a title except when absolutely necessary. 'Murder,' 'mystery,' and a related phrase 'murder case' all predominate in the thirties, and they rightly suggest that the detective film THEN, a far cry from today's KLUTE, was essentially a polished light entertainment, usually based on a novel, or at least built around a detective who originated in a novel. It was in fact the heyday of the debonair private detective, and no player essayed the role as well (or with so many variations) as William Powell." (pages 86-87)


Photo Selections (35): --PRIVATE DETECTIVE 62 (1933; with Powell) --Philo Vance films (played by Powell, Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, James Stephenson, William Wright, and Alan Curtis) --Perry Mason films (played by Warren William, Ricardo Cortez, and Donald Woods) --William Powell in THE THIN MAN series, STAR OF MIDNIGHT (1935), and THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD (1936) --The Lone Wolf and Falcon series --two FATHER BROWNs (1935 and 1954, the latter with Alec Guinness) --and Nick Carter (Walter Pidgeon).


9. "The FBI and the Law" (pages 109-167) The advent of sound was revolutionary in many ways: "In 1929-30 the picture changed radically with the coming of sound. Initially, as in films like THE RACKETEER, the emphasis remained on both talk (for its own sake) and on a sentimentalized picture of the gangster himself. But as soon as writers and directors learned how much sound could benefit the gangster film and give it pace and excitement: the sheer noise of machine gun bullets and explosions; screeching tires and police sirens; the menace--and wit--of underworld repartee; the films took on a vivid, staccato style of their own." (page 110)


Photo Selections (110): -- The Hollywood/European gangster film cycle from the thirties through the sixties, including: SCARFACE (1932) --THE WET PARADE (1932) --MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD (1934) --G-MEN (1935) --PAROLE FIXER (1939) --Nancy Drew --I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941) --LAURA (1944) --THE KILLERS (1946) --HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) --THE NAKED CITY (1948) --TOUCH OF EVIL (1958; with Orson Welles) --and BULLITT (1968; with Steve McQueen).


10. "The British" (pages 168-202) "The British love detective stories. They read them voraciously, the American ones because they are an exciting escape from the well- ordered (and, to be honest, well-liked) tedium of British life, the British ones because, despite their civilized gentility, they show that murder and intrigue can exist quite comfortably within that rather proper environment. British detective novels tend to make the murder the be-all and end-all of their plots, whereas in the American equivalents, murder is often merely a launching pad to the revelation of much more ambition and far-reaching crime. Most British households maintain some kind of a library, and Agatha Christie and John Rhode can always be found rubbing shoulders with such nondetective reliables as Ruby M. Ayres, Horace A. Vachell, and Warwick Deeping. Remember the film of H. G. Wells, THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, in which Ann Todd, trying desperately to conceal her emotions at a moment of extreme marital crisis, turns to the bookshelves and remarks distractedly, 'Oh dear, you've got Aristotle in with Sherlock Holmes again'?" (page 168)


Photo Selections (42): --Ralph Richardson ("the whimsical detective") in Q PLANES (1942) --Stanley Holloway, Ronald Howard (TV's first Sherlock), John Mills, et al --Edgar Wallace on screen --Barrie K. Barnes and Valerie Hobson, "Britain's closest equivalent to Nick and Nora Charles”

--ESCAPE (1948; "A good and literate thriller") --CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951; "An excellent Hitchcockian thriller") --BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, FUNERAL IN BERLIN, MODESTY BLAISE, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (with Karloff), and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (all from the sixties) --and a collection entitled "The British Detective--Through Hollywood Eyes,” including THE SUSPECT and THE LODGER (both 1944), THE VERDICT (1946), and LURED (1947; with Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Cedric Hardwicke, and the never-dull George Zucco).


11. "The Detective and Alfred Hitchcock" (pages 203-209) "For a man who has made as many great thrillers as Alfred Hitchcock, it is surprising that he has made few mysteries and has also made such little use of the detective figure, a FAMILIAR figure in many of his movies, but rarely an active participant. However, it makes a kind of sense when one accepts Hitchcock's credo of film making. He doesn't LIKE mysteries, particularly those in which the audience has to wait to find out what is going on. He has no objection to the characters in the film being kept in a state of ignorance, but he likes to tip his hand in one way or another so that fairly early in the film the audience -- probably ahead of the hero--is in possession of most of the facts. Given that, it is a waste of time and a draining of suspense to have a detective methodically seek out clues. In any event, there is little logic in the average Hitchcock thriller; to allow the detective (and thus the audience) to examine details would merely emphasize that lack of logic which speed or Hitchcock's own magic has succeeded in covering up." (page 203)


Photo Selections (15): -- The usual suspects: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934; remade by Hitch in 1956) --THE 39 STEPS (1935) --SABOTAGE (1936) --SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) --STAGE FRIGHT (1950) --DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954; with Grace Kelly) --NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959; pretty much a remake of 39 STEPS) --and FRENZY (1972).


12. "Comedy and Camp" (pages 210-220) "The detective film has never lent itself too readily to satirization or to utilization by established comedians. With its direct-line development and its emphasis on dialogue, it is the antithesis of the average comedy, which needs both speed and visual sight gags. Other genres have generally proven much more adaptable to the comedy treatment....The genuine satire has to succeed on two levels: it has to be subtly funny, without ridiculing its inspiration, and it also has to be a good enough example of the genre it is kidding to stand up to the particular demands of that kind of film." (pages 210-211)


Photo Selections (27): --Laurel and Hardy in deerstalkers --Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK, JR. (1924) --THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (1939; with Gracie as a "dumb amateur detective" and "equally dumb professionals Donald McBride and William Demarest") --W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, the Bowery Boys, Zasu Pitts (SO'S YOUR AUNT EMMA--1942), and Richard Cromwell (COSMO JONES, CRIME SMASHER--1943) --the Dick Tracy series --and the superhero serials: SPY SMASHER (1942), THE GREEN HORNET (1940), CAPTAIN AMERICA (1943), and THE SHADOW (1946).


13. "The Private Eyes: 2. Marlowe to Klute" (pages 221-242) "Although the term 'private eye' was absorbed into common usage by the moviegoing fan primarily from the early forties, and is thus associated mainly with the Philip Marlowe school, it was used casually in movies throughout the thirties--often in a derogatory sense. The tough private detective in fiction effectively dates from Sam Spade of 1930, although there are certainly earlier examples: done not so much in the hope of instigating new trends, as a kind of protest by the individual author against the basically artificial form of detection practiced by the dilettante intellectuals.” (page 221)


Photo Selections (54): --REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? (1935; Robert Young, Constance Cummings, and Edward Arnold in "another Nick and Nora derivation") --Nero Wolfe (in two incarnations, Edward Arnold and Walter Connolly) --DEATH OF A CHAMPION (1939; "One of the most enjoyable mystery 'sleepers' of the period") --Ellery Queen (Ralph Bellamy, William Gargan) --Michael Shayne (Lloyd Nolan, Hugh Beaumont) --MURDER MY SWEET (1944; "second only to THE MALTESE FALCON, the best of the private eye films") and THE BIG SLEEP (1946; Bogie and Bacall) --some little-known one-shots: THE HIDDEN EYE, THE BLUE DAHLIA, CRACK UP, THE DARK CORNER, THE RUNAROUND, ACCOMPLICE, THE DEVIL'S MASK (all 1946); JOHNNY ALLEGRO, THE BIG STEAL, and MANHANDLED (all 1949) --Paul Newman "as" HARPER (1966) --Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) --and Albert Finney in GUMSHOE (1971).


14. Index (5 pages)


Comments (1)

Jon said

at 1:08 pm on Feb 18, 2010

I just acquired this and I concur that it is an excellent reference. The pictures are superb; at last I can put faces to the names from various private eye radio shows of the 40s and 50s.


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