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Cinema and Media Studies Detective Films
by
Philippa Gates

Introduction

The “detective film” can be defined as a film that focuses on a detective-hero’s investigation into the mystery surrounding a crime; however, detective films vary in terms of content and themes, and often cross over into other genres, including science fiction (e.g., Blade Runner [1982]), the western (e.g., Tall in the Saddle [1944]), and even the musical (e.g., The Singing Detective [2003]). This makes defining the genre difficult, and, in fact, many scholars and critics place the “detective film” into the broader category of “film noir” (along with criminal-heroes) or the “crime film” (along with the gangster). This tendency to generalize is reflected in the sources listed in this article: while there will be some books and articles devoted solely to the detective film, many—even influential sources—may only discuss the genre specifically in a brief section. The majority of scholarship in English that addresses the genre tends to focus on American—specifically Hollywood—films. The term “detective film” often conjures up notions of overly complicated plots, a reliance on dialogue, and old-fashioned characters sporting deerstalkers—in other words, the classical detective story—and this has led to the genre being ignored or derided in terms of scholarly attention. However, in its broadest definition—that is, a narrative that follows an investigation by the protagonist—the detective film can include a wide range of films in every decade of film’s history. The detective film remains popular with audiences because the issues and themes it explores are continually relevant to American society, and the genre is able to adapt to changing sociocultural conditions. It is also the very nature of the detective narrative that is appealing. The genre offers the audience a high degree of participation in terms of the construction of the story by presenting a mystery—or puzzle—that must be solved; the audience, then, is encouraged to figure out the mystery’s solution before the detective presents it in the “scene of revelation” at the film’s climax. The founding scholarship on the detective film in the 1970s tended to offer historical overviews and production information on classical detective films of the 1930s, classic film noir of the 1940s, and revisionist neo-noir of the 1970s. By the 1980s, scholars’ approaches were informed by questions of formalism, auteurism, and adaptation and, by the 1990s, psychoanalysis, sociology, feminism, and race.

General Overviews

Early books on the detective genre were less in-depth film analyses or theoretically informed critiques and more historical overviews, listing film titles, actors, plot summaries, production information of the films, and some key themes—notably Everson 1972 and Tuska 1988 (originally published in 1978). These books are useful especially as the films and series of the 1930s and 1940s they discuss are not always readily available to view, and they also help to pin down the level of popularity of different characters, films, and subgenres—trends that may not be so readily apparent to us today. The 1990s and 2000s have seen scholars approach this popular genre with a more critical lens. Rubin 1999, Leitch 2002, Rafter 2000, and Thompson 2007 all offer excellent perspectives on the detective genre in broader discussions of the crime film; Gates 2006 is dedicated solely to the detective film.

  • Everson, William K. The Detective in Film: A Pictorial Treasury of the Screen Sleuth from 1903 to the Present. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1972.

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    The first book devoted to the detective film. An historical overview of the genre with chapters dedicated to key detective figures (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond), types (e.g., the “Oriental” detective), and subgenres (e.g., the mystery-comedy).

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  • Gates, Philippa. Detecting Men: Investigating Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

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    The book’s strengths are its focus on the detective film and its breadth—from the mystery-comedies of the 1930s and police procedural of the 1950s to the cop-action heroes of the 1980s and criminalist of the 1990s. Gates explores how the portrayal of masculinity and the hero’s skills as a detective shift over time in a reflection of social attitudes.

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  • Leitch, Thomas. Crime Films. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511606458Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Leitch discusses the detective film as part of the overarching genre of the crime film but also offers chapters on individual examples of the private eye, amateur, lawyer, and police detective. What distinguishes this book are the early chapters offering an historical overview of the genre and a critical overview, making it especially useful for scholars new to the genre.

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  • Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Insightful discussions of the detective film from Dirty Harry (1971) onward within the broader category of the crime film and from the point of view of criminology (versus film studies). While many chapters explore criminal heroes, the two on cop films and courtroom films consider the detective.

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  • Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    Similar to Leitch 2002 and in the same series, Rubin offers a critical overview and three chapters on the main historical periods of the thriller genre. Rubin discusses the detective film specifically as part of the classical period and also in his chapter-long analyses of the detective thriller of the 1930s and 1940s and the police thriller of the 1970s.

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  • Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Crime Films: Investigating the Scene. London: Wallflower, 2007.

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    A thoughtful and concise overview of the key trends in the crime genre, with half of the chapters devoted to sleuths, hard-boiled, and police detectives. The introduction is especially interesting with brief sections on the origins of the genre, real-life criminal justice and investigation, and social context.

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  • Tuska, Jon. In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

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    A revised version of The Detective in Hollywood (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978). One of the few comprehensive genre histories dedicated strictly to the detective film, with some chapters devoted to key figures (e.g., Sherlock Holmes) and others offering a survey of 1930s and 1940s series, hard-boiled fiction adaptations, and film noir. An exhaustive and comprehensive history of the genre up to 1988.

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Bibliographies

Most book-length bibliographies of critical writing focus on the detective genre in fiction, but Skene Melvin and Skene Melvin 1980 also includes the detective film. The UC Berkeley Library offers the best online list of critical sources on crime films in Gangster, Detective, Crime, and Mystery Films: A Bibliography of Materials in the UC Berkeley Library, and Crime Fiction Canada has an excellent searchable database.

Encyclopedias

Because the greatest number of encyclopedias are focused on either the larger topic of crime or on films among fiction, television, and radio, there are often not a great many entries on detective films in particular. DeAndrea 1997 is decidedly better on detective fiction entries than film; however, its focus on detective versus crime films makes it useful. Hardy 1997 has many entries on important detective film, but its broader concern with the crime film means that there are not as many as one would like.

  • DeAndrea, William L. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television. New York: Prentice Hall, 1997.

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    A good collection of topics on the detective genre; however, its broader focus on the genre in its various media (fiction, film, radio, and television) means that there are fewer entries on detective films. This encyclopedia’s strength is detective fiction rather than film, but it does offer a focus on “detection” versus the broader crime genre.

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  • Hardy, Phil, ed. The BFI Companion to Crime. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

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    An extensive and well-written collection on crime fiction and film, including key entries on the detective film. Offers a good coverage of topics from early sound films to films from the 1990s and includes non-US films. The drawback of the scope of the encyclopedia being so large is that there are not that many entries on the detective film.

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Filmographies

Given the difficulty of locating viewable copies of many of earlier detective films, filmographies offer an excellent alternative resource for scholars. The majority of the filmographies include plot summaries and important information regarding the production of the films, and most often they provide invaluable critical overviews of the genre. Cocchiarelli 1992 is more useful for its essays on sleuthing in specific detective films than for its broad filmography (although it does include some non-US films). Parish 1990 is strong on the cop films of the 1970s and 1980s, and Parish and Pitts 1990 is good for detective film series of the 1930s and 1940s. The Langman and Finn series (Langman and Finn 1994, Langman and Finn 1995a, and Langman and Finn 1995b) is the best resource for scholars interested in detective films from the silent era through 1959—especially for the plot summaries of hard-to-find films.

  • Cocchiarelli, Joseph J. Screen Sleuths: A Filmography. New York: Garland, 1992.

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    An annotated filmography of around 250 films from the 1930s to the late 1980s, including some UK and European films, but this breadth of coverage undermines a sense of cohesion. The twelve critical essays on individual films from Young and Innocent (1937) to The Name of the Rose (1986) are interesting as Cocchiarelli explores different processes of “sleuthing.”

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  • Langman, Larry, and Daniel Finn. A Guide to American Silent Crime Films. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

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    Perhaps the best of the series because this annotated filmography covers the hardest-to-find crime films. The book covers three thousand silent films produced between 1894 and 1915 and offers an excellent overview of the trends of the genre from the small-scale crime films to the rise of the feature film to the Jazz Age.

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  • Langman, Larry, and Daniel Finn. A Guide to American Crime Films of the Forties and Fifties. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995a.

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    An impressive and exhaustive annotated filmography covering 1,200 films released between 1940 and 1959. The introduction offers an excellent overview of the key trends of the genre, including the “old dark house” formula, the courtroom drama, the newspaper-crime film, and the police procedural.

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  • Langman, Larry, and Daniel Finn. A Guide to American Crime Films of the Thirties. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995b.

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    Another excellent annotated filmography by Langman and Finn covering 1,100 crime films released between 1928 and 1939. The introduction offers an excellent overview of the key trends, including the courtroom, newspaper-crime, cops-and-robbers, mystery, detective, and police procedural films.

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  • Parish, James Robert. The Great Cop Pictures. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990.

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    An extensive annotated filmography of over 250 cop films, including production information and plot summaries. The appendices include a listing radio and television programs. Although the book covers films from the mid-1920s on, it is most useful for those interested in the cop films of the 1970s and 1980s.

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  • Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. The Great Detective Pictures. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990.

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    An extensive annotated filmography of more than four hundred detective films, including production information and plot summaries. The appendices include a listing of radio and television programs. The filmography lists mainly pre-1950 films and is especially useful for those researchers interested in film series of the 1930s and 1940s.

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Journals

Journals devoted to the detective genre are few, and more common are fan magazines and trade journals. Armchair Detective was a respected crossover between magazine and scholarly journal, while Clues is the only fully academic journal. Both cover the detective genre in all its forms and include articles on detective films.

Genre Criticism

While other genres only occur in cycles, the detective genre is one that tends to be continuously present in American culture—whether in fiction or on the radio, on the small or the silver screen. Critical sources often discuss the “crime genre” or “film noir” rather than specifically the “detective film”—thus, including films that foreground criminal-heroes (e.g., in the heist or gangster film) and victim-heroes (e.g., film noir) as well as detective-heroes (e.g., in the murder-mystery or courtroom drama). Thus, in terms of the critical analysis and theorization of film genres, most scholars offer a section on the crime film or film noir rather than on the detective film by itself. Grant 1977 makes transparent how the detective film was classified in terms of other crime films; Schatz 1981 offers an early summing up of the hard-boiled detective film as film noir; and Cawelti 1986 explores how some films of the 1970s were revising the original noir-detective film. Bordwell 1985 was instrumental in developing an understanding of how the detective-film narrative operated. It was with Altman 2009 (first published in 1999) that a new era of genre criticism was born with Altman’s questioning of the theorization and understanding of genre’s relationship to audiences and the industry. Although Altman discusses detective films only in passing, Neale 2000 offers a section dedicated, and summing up of the key critical approaches, to the genre.

  • Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. Rev. ed. London: British Film Institute, 2009.

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    Although this book discusses the detective film only tangentially in relation to film noir or in terms of individual films, Altman 2009, first published in 1999, is a seminal study in the revision of film genre criticism and theory.

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  • Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Methuen, 1985.

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    Bordwell’s discussion of the detective film is foundational in terms of identifying the narrative structures and devices of the genre: there are two stories (the crime’s commission and its investigation), and that it is the “gaps” (withholding of crucial information) and “retardations” (information that may or may not be relevant) that promote curiosity, suspense, and surprise in the genre.

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  • Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film Genre Reader. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, 183–201. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

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    Cawelti’s chapter examines how 1970s detective and crime films, including Chinatown (1974), transformed the hard-boiled narrative popular in the 1940s in an attempt to update cultural myths to meet the needs of the contemporaneous audience. The essay is also reprinted in Cawelti’s Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), along with his other essays on detective fiction and film.

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  • Grant, Barry K. Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1977.

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    Although Grant does not devote a section to the detective film, his footnote on p. 215 is important in illustrating that the detective film was conceived of at the time as belonging to the “crime film” genre, along with police films, mystery films, and spy films. This classification still guides much critical work on the genre today.

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  • Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    One of the key sources in terms of current critical debates about genre, along with Altman 2009. Neale explores the detective film in a separate section, adeptly summing up the critical problems with previous definition of the genre (e.g., Schatz 1981) and key critical ideas associated with the genre (e.g., Bordwell 1985).

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  • Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

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    One of the earliest books to detail different major Hollywood genres, including the hard-boiled-detective film. More an overview than a critical interrogation, the chapter on detective films is more useful for summing up the critical thinking of the time in terms of the detective film and film genre more broadly than it is in offering a useful critical approach.

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Major Trends and Types

It was only with the coming of sound in the late 1920s that the convoluted and dialogue-heavy plots of the classical detective story made it on to the silver screen; however, this shift was also a result of Hollywood’s Production Code (its system of self-censorship). In part to address the violence and disregard for the law portrayed in the gangster films of the early 1930s, the Code as enforced by 1934 and the gangster was supplanted by the G-man and criminologist as the protagonist of the crime film—a shift from the glorification of criminality to that of law enforcement. Sherlock Holmes remains the most famous fictional detective and was defined by his superior intellectual capabilities and a desire to restore order to a world temporarily disrupted by murder. Mystery-comedy series featured British sleuths and American criminologists, including Philo Vance, Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, the Lone Wolf, the Crime Doctor, Michael Shayne, and Perry Mason, as well as the female sleuths Hildegarde Withers and Torchy Blane and the “Asian” detectives Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. Some of these series detectives were “soft-boiled” versions of their hard-boiled literary antecedents; the hard-boiled detective did not appear in Hollywood film until the 1940s in film noir. Noir detective films differed from the mystery-comedies in look and tone, with a chiaroscuro visual style and a critical interrogation of America’s wartime and postwar society. A major focus of much of the scholarship on the hard-boiled private eye in film, especially film noir, is on issues of the adaptation of these films from their literary sources. Dashiell Hammett is widely regarded as the first hard-boiled detective writer, and several of his novels, including The Maltese Falcon (1930), were adapted for the screen. Raymond Chandler wrote hard-boiled detective novels beginning with the Philip Marlowe story The Big Sleep (1939), but he also wrote original screenplays for Hollywood. In the late 1950s and 1960s, detectives disappeared in favor of criminal-heroes, but the hard-boiled private eye returned in the 1970s, along with a resurgence of noir in general. Classic noir appeared in reaction to World War II and its aftermath; similarly, noir’s return in the 1970s, in a new self-conscious form, appeared in reaction to the aftermath of Vietnam. Rather than the chiaroscuro contrast of light and dark in black and white, films such as The Long Goodbye (1973) dragged social problems and concerns into the light and color.

Silent Film

Detective films (along with other kinds of crime films) appeared early in film’s history, including shorts such as Thomas Edison’s Arrest in Chinatown, San Francisco, Cal. (1897) and Edwin S. Porter’s Getting Evidence, Showing the Trials and Tribulations of a Private Detective (1906). Around 1915, films increased in length to an hour or more, thus encouraging more complicated plots, better scripting, and fully rounded characters. In these feature-length films, police officers and detectives served as main characters in crime plots—even if sometimes only to be ridiculed. Perhaps the best known crime film of the 1910s was Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913–1914), following the exploits of the ingenious master-criminal Fantômas and the detectives who pursued him. Gunning 2005 offers a brief but illuminating entry on early detective films and series. Gunning 1995 discusses how early detective films reflected real-life concerns about identifying criminals in urban America; and Gunning 1996 explores how the pleasure offered by the detective series in the 1910s was not in the puzzle of the plot nor the alignment with the law enforcer (as it was from the 1930s on) but, instead, in the flamboyant disguises and elusiveness of the criminal. However, the screen detective of the Jazz Age in the 1920s was a justice-figure, pursuing criminals in the hopes of restoring social order, and many detective-heroes were drawn from popular literature, including Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and the ex-thieves-turned-detectives Boston Blackie and The Lone Wolf. Langman 1998 remains the definitive source for scholars interested in the detective genre in silent film, even though his chapter on detective films is brief.

  • Gunning, Tom. “Tracing the Individual: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema.” In Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Edited by Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, 15–45. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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    A fascinating study linking the early detective film to real-life policing at the time. Gunning explores the pervasive concern linked to the modern—especially the criminal or deviant—body in terms of it being identifiable, classifiable, and distinguishable from the masses.

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  • Gunning, Tom. “Detective Films.” In Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. Edited by Richard Abel, 178–181. London: Routledge, 2005.

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    Discusses many films and then series produced between 1900 and 1915 in European and American film, as well as the key themes and issues they explored.

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  • Gunning, Tom. “A Tale of Two Prologues: Actors and Roles, Detectives and Disguises in Fantômas, Film and Novel.” Velvet Light Trap (Spring 1996): 30–36.

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    An excellent article focused on the French series Fantômas but also offering an overview of some of the key features of silent crime films, including linear story lines, relying less on puzzle narratives and more on villains’ various disguises to surprise audiences, and capitalizing on social fears of degenerate criminals.

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  • Langman, Larry. American Film Cycles: The Silent Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

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    An overview of the major film cycles of the silent era, covering over one thousand films released before 1929. One section is dedicated to the detective film and covers early private eyes and the rise of the popular sleuth. Here, Langman offers the most comprehensive critical analysis of the detective genre in silent film.

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Classical Sleuth

The greatest number of critical sources on the detective series of the 1930s and 1940s tend, like many of the early genre overviews, to offer lists of titles, plot summaries, and production information rather than critical analyses of the films. Connor 1954 offers an historical overview of the sleuth series of the 1930s and 1940s, and Harmon and Glut 1973 an examination of film serials, including several detective serials. Haydock 1978 and Steinbrunner and Michaels 1978 are devoted to the British and American films featuring Sherlock Holmes. Barer 1993 offers a similar account of the history of the Saint in various media. Cocchi 1986 and Rimoldi 1993 offer article-length overviews of some of the key characters and series, while Pitts 1979–2004 is the best and most exhaustive source for individual detective series of the 1930s and 1940s, with a chapter devoted to each character.

  • Barer, Burl. The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film, and Television of Leslie Charteris’ Robin Hood of Modern Crime, Simon Templar, 1928–1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

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    Barer devotes two chapters of his history of the character the Saint to the film series of the 1940s and their relationship to the “multiplications” of the character in other media at the time.

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  • Cocchi, John. “The 2nd Feature: A History of the B Movies—Detectives and Mysteries.” Classic Images 132 (1986): 19–22, C13.

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    This article (in two parts) was, in some ways, ahead of its time with its focus on B-films, which did not come into scholarly vogue until a decade later. Cocchi presents a brief but thoughtful overview of some of the key detective series of the 1930s and 1940s, from Charlie Chan to Torchy Blane. The second part of the article can be found in Classic Images 133 (1986): 43–46, 63.

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  • Connor, Edward. “The Mystery Film: Its Neglect in a Time of Box Office Decline Is Itself a Mystery.” Films in Review 5.3 (March 1954): 120–123.

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    A precursor to scholarship such as Everson 1972 and Tuska 1988 (cited under General Overviews) as a brief historical overview of Hollywood’s “super-sleuths” of the mystery films and series of the 1930s and 1940s. Connor also comments on how Hollywood prefers to remake previous mysteries rather than tap new sources and discusses the issue raised in the title but only in the final paragraph.

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  • Harmon, Jim, and Donald F. Glut. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. London: Woburn, 1973.

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    This history of film serials of the 1930s and 1940s offers one chapter on the detective serial with discussions of Dick Tracy, Fu Manchu, Nick Carter, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, and the Spider. Useful to an extent because few sources mention film serials (versus individual films and series).

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  • Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1978.

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    Haydock offers a chronological overview of films and television series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson with chapters focused mainly on the key actors who played the British sleuth. The book is not dissimilar in its coverage to Steinbrunner and Michaels 1978 but has a less appealing design and fewer illustrations.

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  • Pitts, Michael R. Famous Movie Detectives. 3 vols. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1979–2004.

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    This series is by far the most extensive in terms of listing detectives and a must-read for scholars looking for those more minor figures that are excluded from other overviews (e.g., Everson 1972 and Tuska 1988, cited under General Overviews), including Tex, Elucidator of Mysteries, and the Great Merlini. Includes overviews of characters in advance of the annotated filmography of their films.

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  • Rimoldi, Oscar. “The Detective Movies of the 30s and 40s.” Films in Review 44.5–6 (1993): 164–173.

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    An article (in three parts) that offers good summaries of twenty key detective series of the 1930s and 1940s, including female detectives such as Hildegarde Withers and the lesser-known Kitty O’Day. The second part of the article is in Films in Review 44.7–8 (1993): 204–233; the third part can be found in Films in Review 44.9–10 (1993): 308–313.

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  • Steinbrunner, Chris, and Norman Michaels. The Films of Sherlock Holmes. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1978.

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    An exhaustive annotated filmography of films featuring Sherlock Holmes—from silent films to television series of the 1970s—as well as some critical overviews of the various trends. Each chapter is devoted to a single film or group of films arranged chronologically. The book is not dissimilar in its coverage to Haydock 1978 but has a more appealing layout.

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Hard-Boiled Private Eye

Since there is an Oxford Bibliographies Online article devoted to Film Noir, this section will only include entries that focus on sources that specifically discuss the hard-boiled detective in film. Many of the books listed include both classic and neo-noir in their discussions. The earlier examples of noir criticism from the late 1980s are still considered key sources today, notably Telotte 1989 on noir narration, Krutnik 1991 on masculinity in noir, and Schrader 1986, an early outlining of the influences and characteristics of classic noir. Cooper 1989 explores the shifts from classic to neo-noir. Palmer 1994 devotes a chapter to the classic noir detective film with analyses of key films, while Naremore 2008 (originally published in 1998) offers a critical overview of classic and neo-noir as well as generally neglected topics such as B-films and non-US noir. Dickenstein 1999 offers an overview of the key themes of hard-boiled fiction and their translation into film noir. Oliver and Trigo 2003 focuses on noir’s negotiation of postwar anxieties related to women and race, and Conard 2006 is an edited collection exploring philosophy in mainly classical noir.

  • Conard, Mark T., ed. The Philosophy of Film Noir. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006.

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    An interesting collection for its exploration of philosophy in mainly classic but also neo-noir. Includes a chapter by Jerold J. Abrams (pp. 69–88) on the shift from British classical sleuth to the American hard-boiled detective in terms of the idea of the labyrinth, and another by Deborah Knight (pp. 207–221) on the relationship between reason and passion in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

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  • Cooper, Stephen. “Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre.” Film Quarterly 42.3 (1989): 23–31.

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    An important article for exploring the shifts in the noir detective film from classic noir films, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Heat (1953), to neo-noir films, such as Chinatown (1974) and Angel Heart (1987). Cooper discusses the self-consciousness of the later films and how they perform an investigation of the genre’s own myths. Available online by subscription.

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  • Dickenstein, Morris. “The Hardboiled Imagination: From Detective Fiction to Film Noir.” Culturefront 8.3–4 (Fall 1999): 4–8, 69–75.

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    An excellent and concise overview of the translation of hard-boiled fiction into film noir and its shift in terms of social critique into the 1950s.

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  • Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. London: Routledge, 1991.

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    A seminal book in the scholarship on film noir, detective films, and masculinity in film that is still considered a key text for current scholars in these fields. Krutnik explores the representation of the male hero in film noir—including the hard-boiled detective-hero as well as the criminal- and victim-heroes—in terms of psychoanalytic theory and sociocultural context.

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  • Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    A revised version of the 1998 edition. An excellent critical overview of the key trends and films in the genre—from classic noir to neo-noir, including the often overlooked B-film. Many of the discussions of specific films focus on noir detective films. The new edition also includes a section on non-US noir, including films from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

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  • Oliver, Kelly, and Benigno Trigo. Noir Anxiety. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

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    The book offers chapters on individual films—including noir detective films such as Murder My Sweet (1944), Touch of Evil (1958), Chinatown (1971), and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)—with a focus on social fears of maternal sexuality and miscegenation through the lens of psychoanalytic theory.

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  • Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. New York: Twayne, 1994.

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    Palmer devotes a chapter to each type of classic noir film: the noir crime melodrama, the noir thriller, the noir woman’s picture, and the noir detective film. The detective film chapter offers analyses of films including Murder, My Sweet (1944), D.O.A. (1950), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

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  • Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” In Film Genre Reader. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, 169–182. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

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    Schrader’s article is still regarded as required reading for film noir, with its concise overview of the key influences (including hard-boiled fiction), themes, and phases (including the private-eye phase, 1941–1946) of classic noir.

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  • Telotte, J. P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

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    Important for its exploration of the experimentation of the genre at the level of the narrative rather than just in terms of visual style. Several noir detective films are used as case studies to illustrate his discussions of flashbacks and subjective narration.

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Adaptations

Article-length discussions of hard-boiled fiction’s influence on Hollywood film include Fox 1984 on Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Ross MacDonald, as well as Athanasourelis 2003 on Chandler. Copjec 1993 includes chapters on Chandler and Woolrich. Book-length studies include Luhr 1991 and Phillips 2000 on Chandler; Abbott 2002 on Cain, Chandler, and Chester Himes; Renzi 2006 on Woolrich; and Kiszely 2006 on Hammett, Chandler, and Mickey Spillane. Dickos 2002 offers an overview of the hard-boiled adaptations into film noir.

  • Abbott, Megan E. The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

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    Abbott looks at the heroes of the fiction of Cain, Chandler, and Himes as embodiments of post–World War II troubled masculinity, while their filmic adaptations attempt to consolidate a secure white masculinity. Abbott’s book is an important contribution to the theorizing of whiteness, offering a new lens through which to examine the hard-boiled hero.

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  • Athanasourelis, John Paul. “Film Adaptation and the Censors: 1940s Hollywood and Raymond Chandler.” Studies in the Novel 35.3 (Fall 2003): 325–339.

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    This issue of Studies in the Novel dedicated to Raymond Chandler’s legacy in fiction and film includes Athanasourelis’s article on the relationship between Chandler’s novels and their adaptation into Hollywood films during the era of Production Code censorship. Athanasourelis argues that the impact of adhering to the strictures of the Code was that the films deviated from Chandler’s worldview.

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  • Copjec, Joan, ed. Shades of Noir: A Reader. London: Verso, 1993.

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    A great collection of essays on classic and neo-noir, with some essays devoted to discussions of the hard-boiled detective in film, including Fredric Jameson (pp. 33–56) on the adaptation of Chandler’s stories and David Reid and Jayne L. Walker (pp. 57–96) on those of Woolrich’s.

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  • Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002.

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    This overview of the genre offers a section devoted to the noir detective film and the hard-boiled tradition.

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  • Fox, Terry Curtis. “City Knights.” Film Comment 20.5 (1984): 30–36.

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    This article discusses the influence of hard-boiled writers on Hollywood detective films, including Hammett, Chandler, Cain, MacDonald, and Woolrich.

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  • Kiszely, Philip. Hollywood through Private Eyes: The Screen Adaptation of the “Hard-Boiled” Private Detective Novel in the Studio Era. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

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    Kiszley rightly argues the private-eye subgenre is often discussed only in reference to noir and yet is much broader in scope: for example, The Thin Man (1934) and the mystery-comedy. He provides an interesting discussion on Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane by charting the process of adaptations from their sources rather than focusing on film analysis or style.

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  • Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. 2d ed. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1991.

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    With this second edition of his 1982 book, Luhr remains a core—and some would say the definitive—source for Chandler’s contributions to Hollywood. Like Phillips 2000, the book offers one section on the films based on Chandler’s original screenplays, including Double Indemnity (1944), and a second section on the noir adaptations of Chandler’s stories, including Murder, My Sweet (1944).

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  • Phillips, Gene D. Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

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    A thorough and thoughtful book on Chandler’s influence on Hollywood film noir. Similar to Luhr 1991, the book has one section that discusses the noir adaptations of Chandler’s stories, including The Big Sleep (1946), while another section explores the Hollywood films for which he wrote original screenplays, including The Blue Dahlia (1946).

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  • Renzi, Thomas C. Cornell Woolrich: From Pulp Noir to Film Noir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

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    Woolrich is often overlooked in the discussion of noir adaptations, but he was extremely popular and prolific in the 1930s and 1940s. This is the authoritative study on Woolrich and an excellent book on noir adaptations. Each chapter begins with a detailed examination of a Woolrich story followed by an in-depth analysis of all film adaptations.

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Neo-Noir

Included here are books and articles that focus on the detective film in neo-noir rather than the broader trend of neo-noir in general. Neo-noir is not identifiable as a genre like classic noir because it covers several decades (1970s to the present) and several genres. In a reflection of this, scholarship has tended to focus on individual films. It is for this reason that the list here is dominated by discussions of Chinatown (1974) (Cawelti 1986, Neale 2005, Polan 2006) as perhaps the first neo-noir with a noir detective. Other significant neo-noir detective films are addressed in the African American section, including Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and Seven (1995). Schwartz 2005 offers in-depth analyses of thirty neo-noirs from 1960 to 2004. Hirsch 1999 is a comprehensive overview of neo-noir, and Conard 2007 is a collection with several articles on neo-noir films including more recent ones such as Memento (2000). Arthur 1996 addresses Los Angeles as the site for many noir detective films, including recent ones. The Usual Suspects (1995), one of the key films that altered the detective narrative, especially the concept of “fair play,” is discussed by Telotte 1998 and Orr 1999.

  • Arthur, Paul. “Los Angeles as Scene of the Crime.” Film Comment 32.4 (July–August 1996): 20–26.

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    This article explores Los Angeles as the site for many noir detective films, from post–World War II films such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) to recent films such as Mulholland Falls (1996).

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  • Cawelti, John G. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films.” In Film Genre Reader. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, 183–201. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

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    An early, important, and often reprinted article on Chinatown (1974) in terms of how the film updates the themes and characters of the 1940s noir for the 1970s social context.

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  • Conard, Mark T., ed. The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

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    Similar to Conard 2006 (cited under Hard-Boiled Private Eye) in terms of approach, the papers in this collection explore philosophy in neo-noir exclusively, beginning with Chinatown (1974) and moving through to more recent detective films such as Memento (2000).

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  • Hirsch, Foster. Detours and Lost Highways: The Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999.

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    Hirsch offers a comprehensive overview of neo-noir and, although not specifically focused on detective films, he offers close analyses of detective films such as Touch of Evil (1958), Chinatown (1974), and John Woo’s Hong Kong film The Killer (1989).

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  • Neale, Steve. “Chinatown (1974): Early 1970s Hollywood Cinema.” In Film Analysis: A Norton Reader. Edited by Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutsky, 660–677. New York: Norton, 2005.

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    The essays in this collection were written by leading scholars in the field and aimed at an undergraduate readership. Neale’s essay offers an excellent introduction to the key debates over, and analysis of, Chinatown (1974) as representative of themes in early 1970s Hollywood films.

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  • Orr, Stanley. “Postmodernism, Noir, and The Usual Suspects.” Literature/Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 65–73.

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    A theoretically informed reading of The Usual Suspects (1995) as a new strain of noir—moving away from the modernist neo-noirs of the 1970s to a postmodern deconstruction of the genre.

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  • Polan, Dana. “Chinatown: Politics as Perspective, Perspective as Politics.” In The Cinema of Roman Polanski. Edited by John Orr and Elżbieta Ostroswska, 108–120. London: Wallflower, 2006.

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    While many articles have focused on Chinatown (1974) as exemplifying the concerns of 1970s Hollywood film or of the shifts in the noir and detective film, Polan’s essay examines the film in terms of intersections with the other films of its director, Roman Polanski, especially the investigation of the city and masculinity.

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  • Schwartz, Ronald. Neo-Noir: The New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

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    Offers in-depth analyses of thirty neo-noir films from 1960 to 2004, including significant detective films such as Dirty Harry (1971), To Live and Die in LA (1985), and LA Confidential (1997). It also includes an extensive filmography listing over 650 films.

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  • Telotte, J. P. “Rounding Up The Usual Suspects: The Comforts of Character and Neo-Noir.” Film Quarterly 51.4 (Summer 1998): 12–20.

    DOI: 10.1525/fq.1998.51.4.04a00030Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An examination of the “comforting” nature characters in the film The Usual Suspects (1995) in order to illustrate some of the changes to the genre in recent neo-noir. Part of the article is devoted to a discussion of Agent Kujan as the detective trying to unravel the mystery in the film.

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Agents of Law Enforcement

In the 1940s, the private eye was replaced by the police detective and other agents of law enforcement, solving crime thanks to legwork, teamwork, and forensic evidence (e.g., Dan Muldoon [Barry Fitzgerald] in The Naked City [1948]). In the 1950s, the police detective came to be increasingly neurotic (e.g., Jim McCleod [Kirk Douglas] in Detective Story [1951]), then corrupt (e.g., Hank Quinlan [Orson Welles] in Touch of Evil [1958]), before disappearing from the screen for a decade as criminal-heroes came into vogue. The police detective returned by the 1970s as the vigilante hero (e.g., Harry Callahan [Clint Eastwood] in Dirty Harry [1971]). The vigilante cop reflected Nixon’s hard-line politics on crime and America’s widespread loss of confidence in law enforcement, in portrayals of (anti)heroes who annihilated crime at any cost. By the 1980s, the cop became a fully fledged action hero and represented a denial of the failure of Vietnam and a backlash against the perceived feminization of society (e.g., Martin Riggs [Mel Gibson] in Lethal Weapon [1987] and John McClane [Bruce Willis] in Die Hard [1988]). The 1990s saw a return to a sleuthlike detective but with a focus on police procedure—namely crime scene investigation and forensic analysis—as the key to catching the criminal (e.g., Clarice Starling [Jodie Foster] in The Silence of the Lambs [1991] and William Somerset [Morgan Freeman] in Seven [1995]). Other discussions of the contemporary detective can be found listed under African American and Female detectives and also under Villains. Dove 1982 is the definitive source on the police procedural even though the author’s focus is on fiction rather than film. Reiner 1985a is an article-length overview of the history of the police detective from silent film to the end of the 1970s, while Reiner 1985b is a book-length study with a chapter devoted to the various kinds of police detectives in fiction and film. Berliner 2001 explores how films in the early 1970s were bending the generic conventions of the police detective film. Parshall 1991 examines Die Hard (1988) as exemplifying the themes and values of the cop-action, while Brown 1993 provides a broader exploration of the generic conventions of the popular cop-action films of the 1980s. Lichtenfeld 2004 is a study of action films in general but addresses key cop-action films including Dirty Harry (1971). King 1999 provides a book-length overview of the cop-action film, and Herzberg 2007 provides a similar overview of the FBI in film.

  • Berliner, Todd. “The Genre Film as Booby Trap: 1970s Genre Bending and The French Connection.” Cinema Journal 40.3 (Spring 2001): 25–46.

    DOI: 10.1353/cj.2001.0006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    We tend to think of genre-bending as a recent phenomena in film; however, Berliner demonstrates, films including The French Connection (1971) exploited audience expectations in terms of their knowledge of the codes of the police detective film.

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  • Brown, Jeffrey A. “Bullets, Buddies, and Bad Guys: The ‘Action-Cop’ Genre.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 21.22 (Summer 1993): 79–87.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1993.9944235Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article outlines the popularity of the cop-action film and the narratives, iconography, villains, and values that are repeated across films within the subgenre. Brown argues that these films illustrate how myth functions in contemporary society to explore and often resolve cultural concerns.

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  • Dove, George. The Police Procedural. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982.

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    Although focused on the trend in detective fiction, Dove’s study is the best source for laying out the characters and that define the police procedural and also the social issues to which the trend was a reaction.

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  • Herzberg, Bob. The FBI and the Movies: A History of the Bureau on Screen and Behind the Scenes in Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.

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    A playwright and author, Herzberg offers an extensive history of the representation of the FBI in Hollywood films from the 1930s to today. Not necessarily scholarly in focus, this book offers a good overview of the plots and themes of the films featuring FBI protagonists.

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  • King, Neal. Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

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    A sociological examination of over 190 cop action films produced between 1980 and 1997 in terms of what they reflect about changing social attitudes toward masculinity and heroism. Notable for being one of the few studies dedicated to the popular genre.

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  • Lichtenfeld, Eric. Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

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    Exploring action films in general but with attention paid to key cop-action films and core generic themes such as vigilantism and physical retribution from crime. One chapter focuses on vigilante heroes with an analysis of Dirty Harry (1971).

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  • Parshall, Peter F. “Die Hard and the American Mythos.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 18.4 (Winter 1991): 134–144.

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    An examination of the hero of Die Hard (1988) as exemplifying the most popular kind of police detective hero: the Dirty Harry rogue. Parshall explores McClane of Die Hard (1988) as a cultural hero, fighting foreign enemies for the preservation of American values.

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  • Reiner, Robert. “Keystone to Kojak: The Hollywood Cop.” In Cinema, Politics, and Society in America. 2d ed. Edited by Philip Davies and Brian Neve, 195–220. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1985a.

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    An excellent and concise overview of the history of the police detective in film from silent film to the end of the 1970s. Reiner divides up the article according to key trends and themes in different decades.

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  • Reiner, Robert. The Politics of the Police. Brighton, UK: Wheatsheaf, 1985b.

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    The book is written from a sociological rather than film-studies view and focuses on real-life policing; however, one chapter offers an excellent discussion (and chart) of the different kinds of police detectives (e.g., vigilante, undercover, police deviancy) in fiction and film and the themes explored in relation to those different kinds of heroes.

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Lawyer

Once law enforcement agents have captured a criminal, it is up to the legal system to see justice served. The protagonist of the courtroom or lawyer film is a figure of justice who attempts to close the gap between natural law and man-made law. These films often cross over into the detective genre as the lawyer seeks to uncover the truth about a crime to clear the name of his or her client. A cycle of lawyer-as-detective films began in the 1980s with a focus on female lawyers and was the product of the same male anxieties that informed the cop-action film. With strong, well-known actresses playing the female lawyer, these films seemed to offer a narrative of feminist empowerment; however, the female lawyer was often proven to be somehow personally or professionally deficient (e.g., Teddy Barnes [Glenn Close] in Jagged Edge [1985] and Kathleen Riley [Cher] in Suspect [1987]). In the 1990s the youth lawyer replaced the female lawyer, in what critics have dubbed the “Grisham cycle,” since many films were adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novels (e.g., Mitch McDeere [Tom Cruise] in The Firm [1993] and Rudy Baylor [Matt Damon] in The Rainmaker [1997]). With the shift from the woman as lawyer to the youthful lawyer, the debate of the courtroom film likewise shifted, from the woman trying to juggle her personal and professional lives to a debate about political and moral corruption in David-versus-Goliath stories. The majority of scholarship on the lawyer film tends to focus on issues of law rather than the role of detective which the lawyer often plays. Rosenberg 1996 looks at the “law noir” following World War II. Bartlett 2003 discusses the 1990s adaptations of Grisham’s legal thrillers. Rafter 2000 is a key source for laying out the key themes of the courtroom film. Lucia 2005 offers a focus on the female lawyer in 1980s and 1990s films. Unlike the other sources here, Black 1999 moves away from discussions of films about the law and, instead, explores the commonalities of the courtroom and film for telling stories. Bounds 1996 investigates perhaps the most famous lawyer (and certainly lawyer-detective), Perry Mason, and his appearance in 1930s films.

  • Bartlett, Keith. “Grisham Adaptations and the Legal Thriller.” In Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Edited by Stephen Neale, 269–280. London: BFI, 2003.

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    The most thorough analysis of the series of films released in the 1990s based on the best-selling legal thrillers of John Grisham. Bartlett explores the key themes of the films and the different plot types around which they are structured (e.g., “chase,” “issues,” “innocent-on-the-run.”).

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  • Black, David A. Law in Film: Resonance and Representation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

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    Rather than offering a survey of films about the law, Black offers a different perspective to law films—from making connections between the law and film (e.g., courtroom and cinema as arenas for narratives with detectives and witnesses) to exploring the legal scholarship written on film.

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  • Bounds, J. Dennis. Perry Mason: The Authorship and Reproduction of a Popular Hero. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

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    No bibliography on the lawyer-detective would be complete without an entry on Perry Mason. Long before he became a staple of television, the lawyer was featured in a series of films in the 1930s. Bounds offers an in-depth consideration of Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-detective and discusses the novels, television series, and the 1930s films.

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  • Lucia, Cynthia. Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

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    An important book-length contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on female detectives in film. Offers excellent readings of the key films of the 1980s and 1990s that feature female lawyers and many that explore their role specifically as detectives. Also discusses the conflict that arises in terms of the detective’s ability to balance her personal and professional lives.

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  • Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Rafter’s exploration of crime films includes an excellent chapter on the courtroom film that lays out the key debates in the genre (and in scholarship that has come since) and “law noir” of the 1930s—a period of the law film that is often left unexplored by scholars.

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  • Rosenberg, Norman. “Law Noir.” In Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts. Edited by John Denvir, 280–302. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

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    Rosenberg’s chapter discusses post–World War II “law noir,” including Call Northside 777 (1948) and Knock on any Door (1949), in which legal institutions are criticized or the ability to see justice served is questioned.

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“Other” Detectives

With the shift from the 1980s into the 1990s from hard bodies and violence to education, intelligence, and experience as the key to successful crime investigation, detectives other than the white, working-class, heterosexual male became increasingly common. In terms of race, In the Heat of the Night (1967) introduced the first notable African American detective-hero, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and the biracial buddy formula that would be capitalized on in the 1980s cop-action film. The African American detective experienced popularity in the 1980s from Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and 1990s with William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Seven (1995) and Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). Hollywood’s “Asian” sleuths—Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, and Mr. Moto—proved to be some of the earliest and most popular detectives on the screen in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, Charlie Chan is second only to Sherlock Holmes in the number of films made of the detective-hero. These sleuths were intelligent, generous, and skilled, offering their expertise to pursue and capture the villains of American society, and their “otherness” as a foreigner functioned to explain (and to disguise) their superior deductive skills. However, his portrayal by white actors led the “Asian” detective to be a figure of controversy and scholarly debate. In terms of gender, the female detective has struggled to be both a successful detective and a successful woman from her first appearance in 19th-century fiction to the contemporary criminalist film. The only female detectives who seem to have avoided this dilemma are either too old (e.g., the spinster Jane Marple and the widow Jessica Fletcher) or too young (e.g., the teenager Nancy Drew) for romantic relationships and thus elude the complications that arise when career and romance compete. Surprisingly, the female detective appeared early in both detective fiction and film and, in the 1930s, tended to be an amateur sleuth, an undercover agent, or a girl reporter. These women pursued criminals and often careers with as much determination and often more success than their male counterparts. The female lawyer became a vigilante in 1970s blaxploitation films, a lawyer in 1980s legal thrillers, and a criminalist in 1990s serial-killer films. In fiction and independent film, there has been a far greater diversity of detectives, including the appearance of gay and lesbian characters; however, in mainstream film, detectives still tend to be heterosexual.

African American

African American characters and actors have appeared with increasing frequency in mainstream film, especially in the detective genre; however, those characters are offered only when they can be contained by isolating the hero and denying him opportunities for sex and action. These strategies effectively neutralize any “threat” perceived by Hollywood to mainstream (i.e., white) audiences with the presence of African Americans on screen but without an address of race as a central issue. Indeed, the scholarship on the African American detective has focused on his simultaneous representation and neutralization. Ames 1992 reads the biracial buddy cop film of the 1980s as a mythic fantasy of biracial male bonding; Guerrero 1993 explores how mainstream films employ “strategies of containment” with the African American cop-action heroes; Gates 2004 continues that discussion with how the detective narrative itself facilitates the de-racing of the African American hero; and Nishime 2004 explores the most recent variation of the subgenre, pairing an African American and Asian cop. Berrettini 1999 discusses Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), a film that exposes the history of African Americans in 1940s Los Angeles, which classic noir had ignored, and Covey 2003 completes important recovery work in terms of exploring the contribution to the genre of neo-noir made by African American filmmakers and actors.

  • Ames, Christopher. “Restoring the Black Man’s Lethal Weapon: Race and Sexuality in Contemporary Cop Films.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 20.3 (1992): 52–60.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1992.9944228Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article explores male bonding and the homoerotic overtones of the biracial buddy cop film. Ames discusses how the films attempt to elude stereotypes of black masculinity and show black and white protagonists working together in a mythic fantasy to assuage historical guilt over racism.

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  • Berrettini, Mark. “Private Knowledge, Public Space: Investigation and Navigation in Devil in a Blue Dress.” Cinema Journal 39.1 (Fall 1999): 74–89.

    DOI: 10.1353/cj.1999.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) is an important revisionist film for revealing the history of African Americans that classic and even 1970s neo-noir ignored. This article explores Los Angeles, a quintessential “American” space and one commonly used in neo-noir, to explore the cultural anxieties about race and gender that the film exposes. Available online by subscription.

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  • Covey, William. “The Genre Don’t Know Where It Came From: African American Neo-Noir since the 1960s.” Journal of Film & Video 55.2–3 (Summer–Fall 2003): 59–72.

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    This article is important for its revision of the history of neo-noir to include African American detectives. Covey identifies two periods: the late 1960s and early 1970s, with films such as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970); and the 1990s and early 2000s, with films such as One False Move (1992) and Clockers (1995). Available online by subscription.

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  • Gates, Philippa. “Always a Partner in Crime: Black Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 32.1 (Spring 2004): 20–29.

    DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.32.1.20-30Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article explores how detective films, including Kiss the Girls (1997) and The Bone Collector (1999), offer a “safe” space for Hollywood to offer, and yet simultaneously contain, black masculinity through a variety of strategies, such as denying the black detective opportunities to perform heroic action or be sexual.

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  • Guerrero, Ed. “The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywood’s Biracial Buddy Films of the Eighties.” In Black American Cinema. Edited by Manthia Diawara, 237–246. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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    An important article for theorizing the various “strategies of containment” that mainstream film employs when offering African American heroes, including the placement of the hero in the position of sidekick to a white hero and denying the black hero the same opportunities for performing action. Guerrero discusses some of the key biracial buddy detective films in the second half of the article.

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  • Nishime, LeiLani. “‘I’m Blackanese’: Buddy-Cop Films, Rush Hour, and Asian American and African American Cross-Racial Identification.” In Asian North American Identities: Beyond the Hyphen. Edited by Eleanor Ty and Donald C. Goellnicht, 43–60. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

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    This article updates the discussion of the biracial buddy cop film to the more recent variation of the subgenre: pairing the African American cop with an Asian cop. The popularity of Rush Hour (1998), leading to two sequels, demonstrates how the cop-action film continues to offer space for negotiating cultural anxieties about race.

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“Asian”

While there are many excellent critical articles on Charlie Chan, none discuss his role as a detective and instead focus on his racial identity and (mis)representation of Asian subjectivity—and often focus on the novels more than the films. It is for this reason that only the filmographies and guides are listed here. Both Everson 1972 and Tuska 1988 offer chapters on what they term the “Oriental detective.” In terms of the Charlie Chan films, Berlin 2000 is an encyclopedia of elements related to the films, and Hanke 1989 and Mitchell 1999 are exhaustive annotated filmographies. In terms of the Mr. Moto films, Berlin 2005 is an annotated filmography not unlike Hanke 1989 and Mitchell 1999, while Wires 1990 is a critical discussion of the Moto novels and their adaptation to the screen. For discussions of Jackie Chan’s more recent Asian detectives, refer to the African American detective section.

  • Berlin, Howard M. The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

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    This encyclopedia contains over 1,900 entries for characters, cast, and crew, common plot points, and summaries of the various films.

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  • Berlin, Howard M. The Complete Mr. Moto Film Phile: A Casebook. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Wildside Press, 2005.

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    Similar to the coverage of Chan offered by Hanke 1989 and Mitchell 1999, Berlin offers a background into Moto’s creator, character, and the actor who played the Japanese detective (Peter Lorre) and a detailed discussion of the production and plots of the nine Moto films listed chronologically.

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  • Everson, William K. The Detective in Film: A Pictorial Treasury of the Screen Sleuth from 1903 to the Present. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1972.

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    Along with his other chapters devoted to classical detective series of the 1930s and 1940s, Everson has a chapter devoted to (what was termed at the time) the “Oriental detective,” including Chan, Wong, and Moto.

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  • Hanke, Ken. Charlie Chan at the Movies: History, Filmography, and Criticism. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.

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    Similar to Mitchell 1999 in terms of coverage, this is a good resource for a history of the Charlie Chan films. Organized by the key actors who portrayed Chan, the book offers an introduction to each actor and a thorough plot summary and commentary on each film of the classical Hollywood series up to 1949.

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  • Mitchell, Charles P. A Guide to Charlie Chan Films. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

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    Similar to Hanke 1989 in terms of coverage, Mitchell’s volume offers an introductory history of Chan, including his literary origins and common plot devices across the films. Entries on each film (listed in alphabetical order) follow, detailing production information and plot summaries.

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  • Tuska, Jon. In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

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    A revised version of The Detective in Hollywood (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978). Tuska devotes one chapter to (what was termed at the time) the “Oriental detective,” in which he discusses the Chan, Wong, and Moto series.

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  • Wires, Richard. John P. Marquand and Mr. Moto: Spy Adventures and Detective Films. Muncie, IN: Ball State University, 1990.

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    The book offers an interesting examination of the intersections between, and cross-pollination of, the spy adventure thriller and the detective narrative in Marquand’s novels and their adaptation into eight Hollywood films in the late 1930s starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese agent, Mr. Moto.

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Female

Most writing on the female detective remains focused on detective fiction. Hollywood’s female sleuths of the 1930s and 1940s are covered in the Filmographies and many of the Classical Sleuth entries. Many books on the female detective in fiction touch on her presence in film; Walton and Jones 1999 offers a chapter on the female private eye in film and television of the 1980s and 1990s. Kaplan 1993 was one of the first articles to explore the significance of Kathryn Bigelow’s female cop-action film Blue Steel (1990), and Jones 1999 looks at a film from the same trend, V. I. Warshawski (1991). Tasker 2002 is a short but excellent book that sums up the key debates regarding another influential film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Dresner 2007 explores the female investigator in different media, including Hollywood film since the 1970s. Hanson 2007 is from one of the first scholars to explore the female investigators of film noir. Tasker 1998 includes a chapter on women in crime films including the female detective. Mizejewski 2004 and Gates 2011 offer the most comprehensive examinations of the female detective in Hollywood film.

  • Dresner, Lisa M. The Female Investigator in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.

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    A cross-generic approach, examining how women detectives are portrayed in popular culture. One chapter focuses on the female detective in Hollywood films, ranging from blaxploitation to contemporary postfeminist comedies, and how the female detective is often linked to madness.

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  • Gates, Philippa. Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

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    The most comprehensive study of the female detective in film, including the mystery-comedy series of the 1930s, film noir of the 1940s, blaxploitation of the 1970s, the lawyer film and erotic thrillers of the 1980s, and the criminalist and postfeminist comedies of the 1990s and 2000s.

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  • Hanson, Helen. Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

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    One of the first books on noir to offer an exploration of the “working-girl investigator.” The focus of the book is not on the female detective, but this section of the book is important for identifying that she exists and opening the discussion of female detective agency in the film noir.

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  • Jones, Manina. “Shot/Reverse Shot: Dis-solving the Feminist Detective Story in Kanew’s Film V. I. Warshawski.” In Diversity and Detective Fiction. Edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, 22–37. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

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    Examines one of the key films for discussions of both the female hard-boiled private eye and women in the cop-action film—V. I. Warshawski (1991). Although Sarah Paretsky’s female detective proved popular with both critics and readers, Jeff Kanew’s film was critically panned.

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  • Kaplan, Cora. “Dirty Harriet/Blue Steel: Feminist Theory Goes to Hollywood.” Discourse 16.1 (Fall 1993): 50–70.

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    An early and theoretically informed reading of Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990), the film that kick-started female law enforcer films. The article explores “the uneasy positioning of women” in the cop-action film and how the film’s heroine embodies conflicting questions about gender. Kaplan’s article highlights the debates that still dominate scholarship about female detectives today.

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  • Mizejewski, Linda. Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    Mizejewski is a key scholar on women in film, and here she explores the hard-boiled female detective in fiction, film, and television. In terms of film, she covers 1970s blaxploitation, 1980s thrillers, and 1990s cop-action films, serial killer films, and action comedies; she also devotes an entire chapter to Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

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  • Tasker, Yvonne. Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. London: Routledge, 1998.

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    Includes a chapter on women in crime films—including the figure of the female detective—and another on the femme fatale in Hollywood noir since the late 20th century. Both explore how women are in need of constant “policing” in mainstream film because they are regarded as potentially transgressive due to their sexuality, even when in the role of the investigator (versus femme fatale).

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  • Tasker, Yvonne. The Silence of the Lambs. London: BFI, 2002.

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    A short but illuminating book as part of the BFI Modern Classics series by a key scholar on women in film. An excellent overview of the key themes of the important film and of the critical debates that the film inspired, including the film’s relationship with genres like the gothic and the detective film.

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  • Walton, Pricilla L., and Manina Jones. Detective Agency: Women Rewriting the Hard-Boiled Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

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    A good example of scholarship focused on detective fiction that also devotes some space to a discussion of the female detective in film, with a chapter on the female private eye and discussions of some of key films, including Blue Steel (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and V. I. Warshawski (1991).

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Gay and Lesbian

Hollywood’s detectives are by and large white and heterosexual. Although there have been a handful of gay detectives on the big screen, they tend not to feature in big-budget or mainstream film. In a reflection of this, there is only one resource exploring gay detectives in print and film—namely, Gunn 2005. Lesbian detectives have become more common in fiction but are still absent from the screen; however, the theorization of gender and sexuality in regard to detective fiction—for example, Munt 1994 and Betz 2006—provides a critical framework with which to “queer” some of Hollywood’s heterosexual female detectives.

Villains

Villains in the 1930s and 1940s tended to be individuals who killed for the traditional reasons of greed, jealousy, and revenge; however, Hollywood has also offered intriguing criminal masterminds who can be more interesting and enigmatic than the law enforcers who pursue them. These villains are almost always “othered,” whether foreign and intellectual (e.g., Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty) or insane and deviant (e.g., Clarice Starling’s mentor, Hannibal Lecter). Certainly, the 1990s witnessed the popularization of the exciting and elusive criminal in the form of the serial killer (e.g., Hannibal Lecter [Anthony Hopkins] in The Silence of the Lambs [1991] and John Doe [Kevin Spacey] in Seven [1995]). Everson 1964 is the earliest overview of villainy in Hollywood film but only discusses the villains of detective films in passing. The best-known villains of film noir are typically the femmes fatales, but new studies including Grossman 2009 and Hanson and O’Rawe 2010 seek to revise the conventional wisdom established in books such as Kaplan 1998 about this infamous figure. Gillis and Gates 2002 is a collection of essays on villains in detective fiction and film. A recent trend in the detective genre is the serial-killer narrative: Simpson 2000 is the authority on the subject, an issue of Post Script from 2003 is devoted to the topic with several essays on film, and Taubin 1993 explores The Silence of the Lambs within that broader history of the serial killer film.

  • Everson, William K. The Bad Guys: A Pictorial History of the Movie Villain. New York: Citadel, 1964.

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    The first book to offer an overview of villainy in Hollywood film—a topic that is still under-examined today in scholarship. Everson explores the villains of several different genres, from the western to the crime film. By no means extensive in its treatment of the detective film, the book does refer to several memorable villains, including Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

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  • Gillis, Stacy, and Philippa Gates, eds. The Devil Himself: Villainy in Detective Fiction and Film. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

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    Distinctive for its focus on villainy in the detective genre, this collection includes chapters that focus on film specifically, including Rowland Hughes on Hitchcock’s films (pp. 107–119), Philippa Gates on the cult of villainy in 1990s film (pp. 183–196), and Linnie Blake on serial killers as heroes (pp. 197–210).

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  • Grossman, Julie. Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-up. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230274983Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Similar to Hanson and O’Rawe 2010 as one of the newer books challenging the previously held assumptions that the femme fatale of film noir merely reflects male anxiety and desire (e.g., Kaplan 1998). Grossman moves away from psychoanalytic and gaze theory and instead re-reads these women not as villains but victims of socially prescribed gender roles.

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  • Hanson, Helen, and Catherine O’Rawe, eds. The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230282018Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Similar to Grossman 2009 in that this collection seeks to revise the popular conception of the femme fatale as lethal to the male hero of noir (e.g., Kaplan 1998). These chapters extend the discussion to different sociohistorical periods and films of different national traditions, offering a broader diversity of fatal femme figures.

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  • Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir. London: BFI, 1998.

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    The seminal book on the role of women in film noir, especially the femme fatale. It is the critical arguments put forth in this book to which more recent books, such as Grossman 2009 and Hanson and O’Rawe 2010, are reacting.

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  • Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 22.2 (2003).

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    This issue of Post Script is devoted to the serial killer in film and television and includes several excellent essays on these enigmatic villains in film, including Steffen Hantke’s article on monstrous bodies (pp. 34–54), Carl Goldberg and Virginia Crespo’s on the 1995 female detective film Copycat (pp. 55–63), Nicholas Rombes’s on the 1995 biracial buddy detective film Seven (pp. 81–91).

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  • Simpson, Philip L. Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

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    A key book in outlining the trend of the serial killer in popular culture. Half of the book focuses on 1980s fiction and the second half on the character’s subsequent popularity in film. Although the focus is on the serial killer, the detectives who hunt them are discussed, notably in relation to Thomas Harris’s novels and the film Seven (1995).

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  • Taubin, Amy. “Grabbing the Knife: The Silence of the Lambs and the History of the Serial Killer Movie.” In Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. Edited by Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, 123–131. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

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    This article on The Silence of the Lambs (1991), originally published in Sight and Sound magazine, situates the film within a broader history the serial killer film. Discusses the film as “profoundly feminist” in terms of the construction of its female FBI agent-in-training heroine.

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Non-US Film

For a long period, genre studies in film tended to be explored only in relation to Hollywood film; however, a new but burgeoning field in film studies is to examine genres that operate in other national cinemas. In terms of the detective film, there have appeared chapters in recent edited collections exploring the detective film, although still often under the umbrella of the crime film or film noir. A lot of work remains to be done on the topic, but the following sources are a promising start. Chibnall and Murphy 1999 is an excellent collection on the British crime film, and McFarlane 1996 is interesting study of the British B-crime film. Elsaesser 1996 includes two important chapters on early German detective films, and Joglekar 2007 offers an in-depth exploration of postwar German detective films. Torlasco 2008 discusses several Italian art films of the 1960s and 1970s with detective narratives. Moran and Vieth 2006 examines several key genres in Australian film, including the detective film. The majority of studies that explore detectives in European film tend to do so as part of the broader category of film noir, including Buss 1994 and Spicer 2007.

  • Buss, Robin. French Film Noir. London and New York: Boyars, 1994.

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    As is typical of discussions of noir, the detective film is discussed but is not a main focus. Buss offers one chapter in this book on French film noir on the figure of the police detective.

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  • Chibnall, Steve, and Robert Murphy, eds. British Crime Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

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    One of the few books on British crime films and an excellent collection of essays. The focus of this collection is mainly on criminal-heroes; however, most chapters discuss detectives at some point even if only in passing or in relation to those criminal-heroes.

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  • Elsaesser, Thomas, ed. A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.

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    This collection on early German cinema includes two important chapters on detective films. Tilo Knops (pp. 132–141) offers important recovery work on the Wilhelmine period, which the film studies authority Siegfried Kracauer had declared devoid of detective films. Sebastian Hesse (pp. 142–150) discusses questions of reforming German cinema and an analysis of Stuart Webbs’s films.

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  • Joglekar, Yogini. “Helmut Käutner’s Epilog: Das Geheimnis der Orplid and the West German Detective Film of the 1950s.” In Framing the Fifties: Cinema in Divided Germany. Edited by John Davidson and Sabine Hake, 59–73. New York: Berghahn, 2007.

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    A fascinating and rare overview of the postwar German detective film as a genre, with a special interest in the “antidetective” narrative and a close analysis of Epilog (1950) as an example.

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  • McFarlane, Brian. “Pulp Fictions: The British B Film and the Field of Cultural Production.” Film Criticism 21.1 (Fall 1996): 48–70.

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    This article offers a detailed examination of the all-but-ignored British B film. Since the greater number of those B films were centered on crime plots, McFarlane devotes the final section to a breakdown of the common features he found that the sixty B thrillers he analyzed.

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  • Moran, Albert, and Errol Vieth. Film in Australia: An Introduction. Port Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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    This is a groundbreaking book on Australian film, with a focus on genre. The detective film is one of the fourteen genres that Moran and Veith list, and it is given its own chapter separate from the crime film. The chapter explores the different types of plots and characters as well as themes in the Australian tradition of the genre.

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  • Spicer, Andrew, ed. European Film Noir. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

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    A breakthrough collection examining the noir films in the cinemas of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The focus of many chapters is firmly noir, and, thus, the detective film is discussed in passing; however, French and Spanish police thrillers figure prominently in other chapters.

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  • Torlasco, Domietta. The Time of the Crime: Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, Italian Film. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

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    Not an attempt to define a genre but a close and interesting examination of a handful of late 1960s and early 1970s Italian art films with detective-narrative structures. Torlasco explores how those films problematize the spatio-temporal parameters of the crime scene in a philosophical speculation of crime and its investigation.

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LAST MODIFIED: 10/28/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0024

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