We’re all familiar with the film noir style. Even if you don’t know what the film noir style is, you’re familiar with its primary themes. Detectives in fedoras, smoked glass windowed doors, cigarette smoke, and the distressed dame: all parts of the whole that is film noir. It is an intriguing genre, as it relies on twists and a lot of drama. While the true noir style remains a staple of the films of the 1940s and 1950s, the detective protagonists have made their way out of film noir and into many other movies set in later times. Generally, the private investigator and the police detective have similar jobs, but very different motives. One feels they are above the law and the other works for the law. This week we will examine the two types of detectives and how their views of the world shape their approach to solving mysteries.
Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours
More often than not, the private investigator is tasked by someone to solve a mystery or crime when the law cannot or will not intervene. Fortunately for the private investigator’s clientele, most P.I.s feel they are above the law: vigilantes enacting justice where the system cannot reach. Unfortunately, this often means the police and the private investigator are often on opposing sides, especially if the police are corrupt. But, even when the police are not corrupt, these two detectives can sometimes get in each other’s way, sometimes hindering the solving of a case. Of course, sometimes the private investigator is hired to get deeper into the case since there are occasionally times when Occam’s razor cannot cut to the root of the crime and an innocent person is instead convicted of something they didn’t actually do.
If someone were to give a synopsis of Chinatown (1974) by saying that it is a movie about Jack Nicholson investigating the privatization of water in California, no one would ever want to see this film. However, if you add in murder and incest, Chinatown becomes much more intriguing. In this film, Nicholson portrays Jake Gittes, a private investigator who is charged with following the chief engineer for Los Angeles’ water department. The woman who has hired Gittes, Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), hired him under the guise of the engineer’s wife, of which she is not. As Gittes investigates the matter, he finds much more is going on than the standard extra-marital affair. In the end, he can’t really do anything to change the situation, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The American Film Institute (AFI) has placed Chinatown at #21 on its Top 100 list.
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours
Even though many private investigators used to be part of the police force, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any committed detectives still on the force. In fact, we often see private investigators born from not being able to do their jobs in the bureaucracy of the police department. That is unless you don’t care if you’re written up for just doing your job, in which case you can be a detective and still have that shiny badge to use when you need it. Part of the reason some of these detectives stay on the force is that, even if they go against a lot of police protocols, they get results. The best detectives aren’t going to accept the obvious answer and will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth of a crime, even if it means putting their lives on the line to prove their hunch. The Dirty Harry series highlights the exploits of just such a detective.
Most everyone is familiar with this film in some form. Be it Clint Eastwood as the gritty Inspector Harry Callahan, the 44-magnum he uses throughout the film, or the use of the word “Punk,” there are many aspects of Dirty Harry (1971) that have been ingrained into popular culture. Yet another film set in California (this time it’s San Francisco), Dirty Harry examines the tactics of a cop who doesn’t play by the regular rules. A serial sniper has been killing innocent people, and Harry has been assigned to the case. The sniper, who goes by the name “Scorpio,” toys with Harry in a cat-and-mouse game that would make any ordinary cop quit. However, since Harry didn’t get his nickname from not bathing (but rather for some questionable practices), Scorpio is eventually taken care of by a simple counting game.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 different detectives