Class, labor, and the home-front detective: Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, and the dissident lawman (and woman) in 1940s Hollywood and beyond.
This process accelerated immediately after the war in a wave of strikes (1945 to 1946) and ultimately resulted in the outlawing of strike activity in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Labor's movement outside the law is paralleled in the detective film by the breakdown of the lawman in films such as Out of the Past (1947), in which the working-class-aligned tough guy is so far outside the law that the film can only end in his death. Extreme outsiders, often women, also populated the fictional and cinematic work of the most prominent adapter of the postwar period, Cornell Woolrich (Phantom Lady, 1944; Black Angel, 1946).
This wartime and immediate postwar detective contrasts markedly with today's conformist home-front detectives. This article traces the movement of the home-front detective through several key texts and argues that this movement is congruent with that of labor as a whole. It suggests that, just as the movement outside the law accelerated as the war continued, with business profits rising and wages stagnating, the current return to the conformist home-front detectives in television series such as Dragnet and C.S.I. may soon give way to more dissident detectives as audiences find less benefit in the promised gains of the post-September 11 "endless" war.
Pulp novels of the 1930s often used the themes and characters of the period's proletarian fiction, and Dashiell Hammett was the most skillful purveyor of that convergence. Hammett's conversion to the Left and the side of the worker was said to have dated from a moment when the strikebreaking activity of his employer, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, may have gone over the line. In Red Harvest, which comments on those earlier strike-busting actions, Hammett's most famous detective, The Continental Op, is paid to clean up the mess after the town's wealthy industrialist hires a gang of thugs to pulverize the local union. This situation, in which the law in the town operated through the quasi-fascist rule of gangsters, deliberately drew a parallel to Mussolini's Italy, where fascism came to power by breaking the backs of the organized working class (Marcus, 1994).
The private detective was not directly of the working class (he does not punch a clock, has his own office and business, and works for multiple clients). Yet, he has multiple affinities to that class in the directness of his language, especially when speaking to wealth and power, in his determination to get paid for his work, and in his dogged ability to get the job done, often despite obstacles created by his employer or by some other authority. (1)
In the 1941 adaptation of Hammett's novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), casting helped to associate the detective with the working class. When the film was brought to the screen in its third and most famous adaptation in late 1941, Humphrey Bogart's persona contained two elements that merged in that role and helped to alter the character of the Hollywood detective. Throughout much of the 1930s, Bogart played a sadistic, two-bit thug (see, among many others, Bullets or Ballots, 1936), but he reversed that image in his box office breakthrough role in High Sierra (released in early 1941), in which he played a sensitive, romantic gangster who befriends a blind woman. This new sympathy for the outside-the-law character was incorporated into the persona of Bogart's Sam Spade, who is hounded by the law and considered a suspect in the case he is investigating, but ultimately proves his loyalty to his murdered partner. The sympathetic outsider merged with the second aspect of Bogart's persona, that of an ordinary worker, prominent in Black Legion (1937), in which Bogart's factory employee learns tolerance after joining a racist organization, and in They Drive by Night (1940), done just before The Maltese Falcon, in which the Bogart character, unlike his upwardly mobile former partner (played by George Raft), is content to remain one among a group of truck drivers.
This adaptation of The Falcon was unique in that it faithfully followed Hammett's book, quoting long passages of the dialogue verbatim. (2) The film signaled the beginning of a new realism in Hollywood, occasioned by the threat of world war, and shifted the direction of the crime film in general and of the detective film in particular. The popularity of this adaptation changed the dominant lead character of the crime film from an official agent of the law to a private detective whose relation to the law was much more ambiguous and at times even hostile. By the mid-1930s, in reaction to the idolizing of the gangster in the early 1930s (Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface), the lead figure of the crime film had become a lawman. Cagney relinquished his street loyalty to the neighborhood in Public Enemy (1931) to hunt down his former allies in G-Men (1935), while Edward G. Robertson turned police stoolie in Bullets or Ballots to bring down the kind of criminal kingpin he had portrayed in Little Caesar (1930). The Maltese Falcon was released as the country prepared to go to war, when the lawman ought to have been a rigid defender of the law, but instead championed a character whose relation to authority was much more circumspect.
This almost literal ingestion of Hammett onto the Hollywood screen also significantly altered a subgenre of the crime film, the detective film. The 1930s detective, nicknamed "the dapper detective," was usually an upper-class and independently wealthy character, on the model of Sherlock Holmes, whose sleuthing was confined to baronial mansions and landed estates (though the villains could often be lower class or foreigners) and who viewed the law as ignorant, seeing himself as a much more successful embodiment of it. Bulldog Drummond, Philo Vance, and Nero Wolfe are examples of this character, and some Hammett adaptations fit into this category. (3) The first Maltese Falcon (1931) starred a Rudolph Valentino imitator, Ricardo Cortez, as Sam Spade, a detective who lounged in his apartment in a silk dressing gown; similarly, The Thin Man (first entry 1934), the most popular detective series of the 1930s, starred musical-comedy lead William Powell as a supposed one-time hardened private eye turned upper-class lush.
Unlike this earlier detective, Bogart's Sam Spade is constantly obsessed with money and "getting paid." He forces his client Bridgette initially to pay him another $100, then coerces her into giving him all of her remaining $500, and when her money is gone, he is more than happy to take sex as payment for helping her. His language is also extremely direct in a world in which his adversaries use language to obfuscate. "I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk," says The Fat Man, literally named Gutman. "What will we talk about?" Spade punctures this reverie and bluntly suggests that they talk about "the black bird." Raymond Chandler believed Hammett's process invested the detective story with the language and structure of feeling of those other than the upper classes. "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it.... He put these people down on paper as they are and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes" (in Cawelti, 1976: 309).
A crucial difference between the hardboiled and the classical detective was the former's relation to the law. As noted, the police viewed Spade as a suspect in the killing of his partner; he is coerced and hit by a sadistic, rotund cop. When summoned to the district attorney's office, it is revealed that the DA previously threatened to revoke Spade's license for failing to cooperate; Spade warns this obese guardian of a bloated legal system to back off. Ultimately, he comes down on the side of the law, delivering his client, Bridgette O'Shaughnessy, to the police, but he is at pains to explain to her his own complicated rationale for aligning himself with the law, one that refutes any claim to blind allegiance to it.
What explains the popularity of this film at the onset of World War II, since it featured a character with obvious working-class characteristics and an open antagonism to the law? A partial answer requires us to look at the position of organized labor before and during the early part of the war. From 1939 until the middle of the war, U.S. workers benefited from the gain in employment occasioned by the Lend-Lease Act and later the entry into war. Concurrent with this gain in employment, however, the Roosevelt administration forced workers to relinquish their power to strike and froze their wages. Meanwhile, they watched business leaders move for the first time directly into the government, taking up positions on the War Board, which set the industrial policies that governed them. (4) Due to these policies, business profits exceeded 250% during this period (Boyer and Morais, 1955: 319).
Organized labor was anti-fascist and supported the government effort to fight the war, but working people were also coerced by a business-government front and told that not showing up for work was traitorous. They were thus conflicted in their relation to the law. According to George Lipsitz (1994: 31), "workers generally supported the no-strike pledge, but as a practical matter they refused to allow it to interfere with their struggle against intolerable working conditions."
Sam Spade's ambiguous feelings about the law at the end of The Maltese Falcon, his torturous decision to turn Bridgette over to the police, can be seen in this context as a working out of these conflicted emotions. (5) On the one side is his moral obligation, including that of allying with his fellow workers: "When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it"; later, "It's bad business [for every detective everywhere] to let the killer get away with it." On the other side is desire: "maybe you love me and maybe I love you." At this point in the war effort, duty and obligation win out over desire for this working-class-aligned figure. In the end, Spade will not let Bridgette go free, because "all of me wants to."
Spade is not conflicted about "sending over" Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), whose crusty, British upper-class accent and mannerisms could easily be read as representative of that segment of the English nobility that so strongly supported the fascists. Yet in the end, Spade assumes the position of the law in regard to Bridgette, a former working-class woman whose upper-class airs cannot hide a street fighter (as shown in the scene in which she slaps, scratches, and kicks one of the thieves, Peter Lorre's Cairo, during his interrogation). Her killing of Spade's partner is unmasked as the ultimate evil in the film. This reconciliation with the law at the expense of the upwardly mobile female continues in the next iteration of the detective film, before being challenged in the novels and cinematic adaptations of Cornell Woolrich, which came to prominence after the war.
Chandler's Corrupt Cops
Dashiell Hammett's works were widely adapted for detective films in the early part of the war, with films such as The Glass Key (1942) based on his novel. In the lead role as a gangster-detective was Alan Ladd, who had previously played a sympathetic hit man in This Gun for Hire (1942). The movement of the detective beyond the law, initiated in The Maltese Falcon, thus continued, though in The Glass Key the detective was more gangster than detective. As the war progressed, Raymond Chandler supplanted Hammett as the primary crime film adapter. His detective character, Philip Marlowe, followed his own morality and was further removed from the law than Sam Spade had been. From 1943 to 1947, a number of Chandler novels came to the screen (see Filmography). Chandler also wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944), a film that has a legitimate claim to founding (or at least codifying) the branch of the crime film known as film noir, which moved the outside-the-law character into the mainstream. Here the audience is asked to sympathize with insurance salesman Walter Neff's attempt to escape the corporate trap through adultery and murder.
In 1944, the Marlowe character is first introduced on the screen in Murder My Sweet, representing a decisive shift outside the law for the detective subgenre of the crime film. The film is based on Chandler's novel, Farewell My Lovely (1940), which he had originally titled, apropos of what he was exploring in the book, Law Is Where You Buy It. Chandler presents the law not merely as belligerent and sadistic, but, more pointedly, as corrupt. In the Bay City of the novel, Marlowe is beaten by cops who are part of the villainous milieu he investigates. "Our city is small but very clean," the corrupt police chief tells the detective. "I look out my western windows and I see the Pacific Ocean. Nothing cleaner than that, is there?" Marlowe, in his personal reverie, adds: "He didn't mention the two gambling ships that were hull down on the brass waves just beyond the three-mile limit" (Chandler, 1940: 220)--a perfect image of the chief's personal corruption projected onto that of an entire city. The film does not sustain the theme of Bay City police corruption, but Marlowe is depicted as alienated from the police and rebellious toward authority. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, which is told sequentially, Murder My Sweet is told in flashbacks. In the opening, the police are interrogating Marlowe at a crime scene where he was found with two dead bodies. The flashback is his defense and explanation of his actions. It reveals that the district attorney who was harassing Marlowe had fired him for "talking back," for directly resisting that authority.
In the film and novel, Marlowe does not wrap the case up neatly for the police, as Spade had done. In the novel, he allows the villain, Helen Grayle, to go free. The wife of a withered old rich man whose wealth had corrupted many of the characters, she later commits suicide over her part in the killings. In the film, Helen Grayle, her rich husband, and Moose (her former lover, a working-class-aligned tough guy who is presented visually as a shadow of Marlowe), shoot it out and kill each other. Marlowe arranges this denouement, the classic ending of the detective story in which the suspects are gathered together for the detective to reveal the criminal. Driving his actions are not a need to enforce the law or to get to the truth, in the tradition of the classical detective, but simply a desire to have Moose, with whom Marlowe feels some kinship, confront the Grayles, whose push to obtain and maintain wealth has made Moose's life miserable. As in The Maltese Falcon, the ultimate villainy belongs to a woman, Helen Grayle, who is responsible for a series of murders to keep her working-class past a secret, a past that includes Moose. Only the social cataclysm brought on by the war's end, one that more sharply altered gender relations, would provoke a rewrite of the female role in the detective genre.
Cinematic adoption of Chandler's world of corruption from above and Marlowe's refusal to enforce the law took place took place as Roosevelt's wartime no-strike clause was breaking down. A series of wildcat strikes by unions such as the United Auto Workers was directed against the law or authority in the form of the government, the auto manufacturers, and their own union leadership. In response, Roosevelt issued a dramatic hold-the-line order to prevent further strikes. It proved of little use, as the number of strikes by the final year of the war exceeded the high prewar strike year of 1937. This defiance was fueled by a recognition by the workers that, as John Dos Passos put it, "the great automobile concerns were using the war emergency for their own purposes: When it was over they were the ones who would come out on top" (in Lichtenstein, 1982: 119).
In Murder My Sweet, Chandler presents the Grayle wealth, or rather the disparity between the old man's wealth and the position of the other characters, as creating the conditions for the seething emotions that Marlowe confronts. In the book, Marlowe describes the Grayle mansion through eyes that perceive class divisions acutely: "The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building" (Chandler, 1940: 122). In the film, the disparity is visualized through Marlowe's eyes as he peers down the long hall of the mansion and sees Grayle's daughter as a speck on the horizon at the other end of this extravagance. Marlowe shows his disdain and refusal to be overcome by this wealth, similar to the narrator's contempt and distancing in the book, by hopscotching on the checkered pattern of the linoleum floor until he reaches Grayle's daughter.
The milieu and character of the home-front detective presented content that was forbidden in mainstream wartime films. For example, the World War II platoon film extolled the values of an egalitarian society working together to conquer a fascist foe, while detective films presented a world of fractured individual consciousness in which upper-class greed ruled. Many leftist writers and directors, whom Michael Denning (1996) describes as part of the Cultural Front in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in both genres. It is as if combining the two genres was needed to get a more accurate representation of the anti-fascism and discontent of the workers during the war. These directors included Murder My Sweet's Edward Dmytryk, who somewhat later directed Back to Bataan (1950). (6)
Woolrich's Walk on the Wild Side
After the war, the movement toward the detective outside the law became more pronounced, receiving full expression through Cornell Woolrich, whose works were the most widely adapted in this period. From 1946 to 1949, nine of Woolrich's works were brought to the screen. They are nominally detective stories, but in place of a quasi-official Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, the protagonists are "victims, bystanders, naiffs, the occasional psychopath, never the enforcers of social order" (Reid and Walker, 1993: 74). In several Woolrich adaptations (Phantom Lady, 1944; Black Angel, 1946; and I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes, 1948), the "detective" is a woman who has been forced into a role that calls on her to explore, and often to participate in, some aspect of the underworld, usually to save a wrongly convicted love interest. In Phantom Lady and Black Angel, the woman--in the former a secretary, in the latter a wife--is a working-class representative, forced out of her routine into exploring a world outside the law. In their quest, these female detectives impersonate prostitutes, become witnesses to murders, and, explicitly in the novels and peripherally in the films, become introduced to a forbidden world of drugs, murder, and sexuality, all to prove the innocence of a loved one, a class ally, wrongly convicted by the law.
In this period, the detective falls into one of two categories. In Woolrich's adaptations, they are not even quasi-official; standard detectives become fugitives themselves in the course of the narrative, though usually for crimes they did not commit. In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum's Jeff Bailey is eventually killed by the police. In The Dark Corner (1946), ex-con Bradford Gault, a detective just released from jail for a crime he did not commit, is again wrongly accused and hunted by the law for a second murder. The ultimate reversal of the standard role of the detective as protector of the law occurs in So Dark the Night (1946), directed by Joseph H. Lewis, and in Woolrich's adaptation of The Guilty (1947). In the former case, the protagonist is a respected police inspector who is involved in the investigation of the death of a young woman and, in the latter, a citizen-detective who helps the police solve a murder. In the end, both are revealed to be the actual criminals. Here the form implodes and the efficacy of the law is questioned to an extraordinary degree.
Both the postwar female detectives who entered the criminal underworld and the fugitive male detectives retain the alliance to the working class established during the war. Their movement outside the law, or to its borders, coincides with one of the most turbulent moments in U.S. labor history. In a nine-month period, from September 1945 to April 1946, strikes occurred in almost every major U.S. industry, with four strikes developing into mass labor actions that cordoned off the midsized cities of Oakland, Houston, Lancaster (Pennsylvania), and Stanford (Connecticut) (Lipsitz, 1994: 135). These strikers were often opposed by the government and industry, as well as by union heads. The rank and file had become "more radical than their leaders" (Ibid.). As such, they felt themselves outside the law, but nevertheless justified in their actions, and thus innocent. In February 1947, as its first act a Republican Congress, elected on a platform of halting the strikes, passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which made many of the organizing devices employed by these union militants illegal, and thus drove them further outside the law. A reinvigorated House Un-American Activities Committee targeted unions and extended this attack. HUAC's most famous incursion into union busting was its investigation of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947, which culminated in 1950 in the jailing of eight writers who constituted the majority of the Hollywood Ten. (7) In this period, the detective film changes: the detective is driven to the fringes of the law or outside it, while seeking to prove his or her own innocence, or that of a loved one, which is congruent with the structure of labor's sense of being forced outside the law. (8)
Hollywood's adaptation of Woolrich's novels--with their dazed male characters who had awakened from a stupor to find themselves accused of murder (Street of Chance, 1942; Deadline at Dawn, 1946; Fall Guy, 1947; Fear in the Night, 1947)--exacerbated the general movement outside the law. Their innocence was determined by the subsequent investigation, which always involved a journey into the underworld. Similarly, many workers considered themselves to be innocent of the charges of radicalism being leveled against them, since they were merely trying to secure for themselves a part of the wartime prosperity that management had clearly obtained.
Far from being strong, independent detectives, Woolrich's male protagonists were never even quasi-representatives of the law, but were pressed into "detecting" because they were accused of a crime, and often needed the help of others to clear themselves. In a parallel series of films (Phantom Lady, Black Angel, I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes), however, his female protagonists were drawn into a treacherous male underworld to clear a wrongly accused lover or husband, and proved quite resourceful in making their way through it. Their resourcefulness was a testament to the newly acquired independence won by women during the war. Even in the most notable prewar film with a female detective, the prototypical noir Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), the woman is not the lead character, only begins detecting in the second half of the film, and must in the end be rescued.
In the 1940s, Woolrich wrote the novels upon which these films were based. Part of his youth was spent in Mexico in the 1920s, where he observed the Mexican Revolution; Depression-era New York influenced much of his adult life (Steinbrunner and Penzler, 1976: 429). The stark evocations of terror in his novels captured the structure of workers' feelings in the 1940s--that sense of being outside the law, hunted and pursued. Critic Anthony Boucher described the Black Novels (Woolrich's term) as depicting "the everyday gone wrong" (Ibid.: 430), in which routine actions of workers, such as waging strikes, were branded as traitorous as the Cold War period took hold. Elsewhere, Woolrich's novels were said to exhibit "the agony of the hunted and the terror of the doomed" (Ibid.).
In Black Angel (novel 1940, film 1946), Woolrich details the journey of a wife (Alberta) who is racing to prove that her convicted husband did not kill his girlfriend. She enters the lives of a series of men known to the victim to determine which one wished her dead. In the book, Alberta masquerades as a drug addict, a prostitute, and a con artist, positioning herself outside the law to right a social wrong. The film somewhat cleans up the implications of Woolrich's dark night of the soul, while concentrating on the resourcefulness of the young wife.
The plots in Woolrich's novels, written from 1940 to 1948, corresponded to the plight of the postwar working class. Even more effective is Woolrich's intense first- or third-person narration, which conveyed the feeling of being outside societal bounds. "I don't know what the game was.... I only know we must have played it wrong. We broke some rule or other along the way and never knew it at the time.... We've lost. That's all I know. We've lost ... and now the game is through." This closing, from the last of Woolrich's major novels, I Married a Dead Man, written in 1948, describes the personal situation of a working-class woman who has assumed the identify of an upper-class counterpart, but who may have had to kill a blackmailer to maintain that identity. It strongly conveys the sense at the end of the post-Taft Hartley period that this class has lost something important, that their actions have been outlawed for reasons they do not understand. And it evokes a sense of desperation and remorse at the failure of the postwar world to fulfill the expectations of equality prompted by the war.
Woolrich may never have intended for his plots and psychological evocations of angst to convey the structure of feeling of the working-class fugitive. Nevertheless, the crime film was a form that tended to draw directors with a strong social conscience (Edward Dmytryk, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang), who found in these accounts a useful, readymade vehicle to express this structure of feeling.
The adaptation of Woolrich's novels also forced a rewriting of gender relations within the detective film. Beyond female detectives, in place of the treacherous female villain found in Hammett and Chandler, now the guilty finger pointed at a treacherous male companion who had seemed to help the woman, such as the male artist and jazz musician in Phantom Lady and Black Angel. Ultimately, gender equality in the detective film is most strongly asserted in a little-discussed Woolrich adaptation, I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes. Here, the female partner in a song-and-dance team makes the underground journey to clear her partner. Accompanied by another devious male companion, this time the trusted guide is a police detective who turns out to be the murderer. In charge of the investigation, the woman is able to identify the male representative of the law as the source of wrongdoing.
Thus, in Woolrich's hands the detective exhibits the resourcefulness of the wartime female assembly-line worker, who seeks to free her wronged male working-class counterpart, while the representative of the law is embodied in a figure that disrupts social harmony. This rescripting of actual postwar power relations shifts the focus of guilt from the working-class fugitive to the law or government, now doing the bidding of industry.
Spillane and the Police Procedural
The year 1950 brought an end to the postwar questioning of the detective's role vis-a-vis the law, as well as to film noir's outside-the-law protagonist. Making a return in the crime film was the police procedural (Union Station, 1950; Detective Story, 1951; The Enforcer, 1951), in which the staunch working-class cop is the hero in a narrative that aligns the audience with the police against the formerly sympathetic fugitive, now viewed as a psychotic killer. In the detective subgenre, this change was effected by the adaptation of the novels of Mickey Spillane. Spillane's Mike Hammer, most prominently in I the Jury (1953), journeys outside the law not to expose it, but to more strongly enforce it. Hammer is a vigilante detective who appoints himself judge and jury. Also restored with a vengeance are the genre's more traditional gender relations. The film and novel end with Mike Hammer summarily executing the female betrayer, again the source of ultimate evil, but she is now tried, convicted, sentenced, and punished by the detective, who has become the sole embodiment of the law.
This period in the detective film coincides with the elimination of female, minority, and radical elements from organized labor through the Taft-Hartley Act's anticommunist clause. Eleven unions, many with prominent female and minority membership and leadership, were expelled from the CIO between 1949 and 1950, just as the Cold War was crystallizing (Rosswurm, 1991). Unions took on a policing function, with the CIO patrolling its members and eliminating its militant element, while the AFL, in Europe and Latin America, actively enforced business unionism and regulated militant union activity abroad. (9) The threat of the Soviet Menace, of a protracted war against a treacherous opponent, was used as the lever to force labor to police itself, a role that was duplicated on the screen in the crime film.
A seminal figure in this period was the informer cop who infiltrated the under world (T-Men, 1947; I Was a Communist for the FBI, 1951; Finger Man, 1955). This validated the process of informing that was so crucial to HUAC's investigations of Hollywood. Settings that once had housed and hidden the fugitive outsider, the working-class enclaves of the city tenements, urban flophouses, and late-night lounges, were now presented as sites of criminality to be spied upon, patrolled, and "cleaned up." The private detective, whose relation to the law was by definition less than official, was replaced by the police force itself, personified in the plainclothes detective, who assumed the hat and the trench coat of the private detective, but in the role of the direct representative of the law.
The outside-the-law private eye became a minor figure with the ascent of Spillane's series character, Mike Hammer, a misogynist who claimed to be helping the downtrodden while actually meting out justice as a vigilante. In I The Jury, he executes the villain, but in My Gun Is Quick, he passes judgment on a police stoolie, whose life he spares. Hammer lets him leave town, with the admonition "Don't--ever--come back" (Spillane, 1950: 125).
The following passage from My Gun Is Quick, transferred to the screen in 1957, was supposed to present Hammer's "wary-fellow feeling." Instead, it exhibits a patriarchal gaze as a way of defining what this woman, once the ally of the working-class male, must be:
She wasn't very pretty after all. She had once been, but there are those things that happen under the skin and are reflected in the eyes and set of the mouth that take all the beauty out of a woman's face.... Her clothes were last years' old look and a little too tight. They showed a lot of leg and a lot of chest: nice white flesh still firm and young; but her face was old with the knowledge that never came out of books (Ibid.: 11).
When the woman is killed, Hammer sets out to avenge her. But as his description indicates, she is, despite his "fellow feeling," nothing to him but a mass of still functioning body parts. His gaze upon her is that of a cop, one of power and control, not the acknowledgment of a fellow traveler that was a component of Hammett and Chandler's work, and far from the privileged subjectivity of Woolrich's narration from the female perspective.
This transformation of the detective through the adaptation of Spillane's novels was part of an effort in the crime film, in line with the HUAC investigations, to roll back the figure of the sympathetic fugitive. The period from 1950 to 1955 marks an endpoint in the parallel of the detective with the structure of feeling of labor. After 1955, Hollywood cinema becomes much less class oriented, with a conscious attempt to erase the lingering traces of working-class consciousness. Hollywood purged writers, actors, directors, and producers who had been sympathetic to the aspirations of the working class in the 1930s and 1940s (Sklar, 1992; Ceplair and Englund, 1983).
The Contemporary Home-Front Detective
George Lipsitz (1994) refers to the "materials memory" of that Hollywood past, most significantly in terms of the narrative of the sympathetic fugitive. (10) A more dominant convention has been the detective as a standard-bearer of the law, whose investigation is aided by the clinical use of science, rather than by an intuitive empathy for those he encounters, e.g., Marlowe. The Dragnet television series established this clinical convention in the classical period. Joe Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am" represented a detachment that belied his underlying paranoia, a cynical objectification that divided working-class neighborhoods into recalcitrant witnesses or criminals. Another popular convention that emanated from the Cold War period was the detective, either officially or simply as a citizen, who became an excessively violent vigilante. Examples are the Dirty Harry and Death Wish series in the 1970s and 1980s.
The police procedural has reappeared in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In this war without end, appeals to patriotism are often predicated on the World War II model. The crime show on television--the equivalent of lower-budget B-movies of the 1940s studio period from which the detective film sprang--has initially featured plainclothes detectives modeled on the McCarthyite 1950s, lawmen and women firmly inside the law. The private eye, or even the rogue cop of the 1950s who sometimes strayed outside the law and became a fugitive (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1951; Private Hell 36, 1954; Pushover, 1954), is nowhere to be found. Instead, we have C.S.I., the institutionalization of the 1950s police procedural, in which forensic science trumps the legal system and is more powerful than a fair trial; Dragnet, which weekly reprises the 1950s procedural that validated the racist Los Angeles Police Department by presenting "stories taken from their actual files"; and Karen Cisco, which portrays not the 1940s quasi-official female detective, but a federal marshal and a full representative of the law who, rather than acting in solidarity with and proving her male ally's innocence, now dates and then arrests him. (11)
These shows dominate the airwaves along with constant government and media reminders that we face an endless, undeclared war against an unknown enemy labeled "terrorism." World War II was a declared war with a fully mobilized populace, and yet the consensus failed to hold because working people grasped the essential inequality concealed by wartime propaganda. The exploitative quality of today's endless war is apparent in the huge budget deficit from defense spending on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism; tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals; and reductions in services such as health care for the poor and the elderly, education, and veteran's benefits. Government borrowing for this war means "the generation that is doing most of the fighting will get stuck with the bill (of added debt to pay down the deficit over the next 10 years), even as they have to worry about financing their parent's retirement" (Borosage, 2003: 5). The unfairness of the burden of the "war on terror" is heightened by an awareness that these war policies have produced economic gain for a small section of the populace centered on the Bush-Chancy axis of oil, military applications, and construction. Resentment during World War II over climbing business profits while wages were frozen has its contemporary analog in the ire over rising gas and fuel bills due to the Iraq war, Halliburton's contract to "rebuild" Iraq without competitive bidding, and the company's scandalous failure to account for $60 billion in government funding.
Although the detective subgenre could explore these class tensions, that has not yet taken place in film or television. A decade passed before the detective literature of the 1930s, with its working-class conventions, was brought to the screen. Today, several branches of the literary detective form highlight class tensions and inequality, while validating the persistence of working-class modes of thought, traditions, and ways of life in the face of an increasingly rapacious dominant class. Most prominent, perhaps, in the realignment of the detective with the working class is the African-American detective novel. This development is directly in line with the ethnic and racial change in the composition of the U.S. working class. For example, Walter Mosley's male detective, Easy Rollins, excavates the class and racial tensions of Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1970s. Mosley's A Red Death concerns the uneasy relationship between black progressives and the Communist Party at the time of the blacklist; more problematic--since it emphasizes race and practically eliminates class--is his Devil with a Blue Dress, which was brought to the screen in a version with Denzel Washington. In the end, this detective returns to his solitary house and enjoys his own version of the middle-class dream.
The novels of Grace F. Edwards feature Mall Anderson, a female ex-cop turned Harlem sleuth. A series character similar to Chandler's Marlowe, Mali has appeared in four novels. She constantly celebrates the joys and marks the sorrows of black working-class life in New York City. A Toast Before Dying (1998) contains a bittersweet description of the jail in which her friend's brother, who she knows to be innocent, is being kept: "The house of detention loomed large on Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Some folks said that the newer building a block north of the older Gothic structure was nicer, with its dorm-style details. I could see no difference between the old and the new" (Edwards, 1998: 87). To her, new is not always nicer: for an oppressed people, modernity may simply signal a more efficient means of exploitation. Mali left the police force to maintain her integrity, becoming a people's detective around Harlem. In tracing the history of a murdered cocktail waitress, she discovers and reaffirms the traditions of black working-class life that sustain Harlem, as well as the constant attack those traditions must withstand. Edwards lovingly describes the flow of life in Harlem in all its variety, through the eyes of a person who grew up with its rhythms:
Outside Marian gazed across the avenue at the entrance to the Hospital. I waited, watching the whirl of activity on the avenue: folks rushing from the subway, swirling around a cadaverous crackhead holding a dingy paper cup; lines of vendors moving fast, pushing shopping carts filled with flowers, fruits, cakes and pies, and coconut-flavored ices (Ibid.: 235).
Edwards' writing is rich in African-American phrases that capture working-class personality. Here, personality is intimately tied up with family, to the point that Harlem becomes a large, extended family. "Your dad said you might be here at your cooling-out spot" (Ibid.: 242), Mali's boyfriend tells her as he surprises her in the beauty parlor. Her father knows that the beauty parlor is the locus of female communal gathering. In black parlance, a personality is conceivable only in relation to the collective, and her "cooling-out" spot offers a haven from the street. Yet Edwards is aware that Harlem is a working community under attack. Her story details the carnage wrought by a black woman who, to marry a Wall Street banker, must claim to be white. She is "good enough to love, but not to marry" (Ibid.: 287). Race and class overlap in Mali's detective work, with race an excuse for the meanest inequality. In describing the thin line between laughter and tears for an old Harlem woman, Mali explains that "race has poisoned the core of this country, and the sound we make is the distraction that keeps us from killing somebody" (Ibid.: 179).
Michael Simon's Dirty Sally (2004) uses the detective novel to explain the present by examining the not-too-distant past. Simon's detective, Sergeant Dan Reles, is a New York Jew and working-class outsider working for the Austin, Texas, police. His deceased best friend was a Latino cop and also an outsider. Reles loves his partner's ex-wife, Rachel. A Puerto Rican woman, she is forced to pass as white in a South that is supposedly part of a "new" multicultural America, though this America in reality "exists only on the sides of libraries" (2004: 15).12 He watches, with sympathy and helplessness, as poor communities in Austin are decimated by the crack boom of the 1980s, and as the town's newfound prosperity vanishes after the 1987 stock market crash.
Symptomatic of the U.S. in general, the novel's focus is on the post-1987 effects on the city of Austin. Reles' investigation of the death of a prostitute crisscrosses social classes and reveals the desolation of the 1980s under Reagan Republicanism. It eventually leads to a developer with gubernatorial aspirations, who is perhaps a future presidential candidate. Like Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974), the developer has committed crimes that are personal and public. (13) His plan presages current Republican blueprints for the U.S., with industry takeovers of government programs, hastened by false security alarms in a war on terror that foster a constant mood of fear, increased financial burdens, and mounting dead and wounded from military conflicts. (14) In Reles eyes, Austin is full of:
Southern gentility, high windows, crack dens, trailer parks, whorehouses, six-month summers, dead cops, beautiful wives, fat lawyers, powerbrokers, future governors, and fully lawful plans to take over the world. They're not out to get you, folks say, it's just how they do business. A new breed of power is gestating in the Lone Star state, the world's biggest lab of trial and error, and you're the guinea pig (2004: 2).
Simon's perspective on these changes comes through in a conversation between the developer and the detective, in which the former states that government should be run like a business, and even the universities should turn a profit. Reles objects that half the kids in Texas can no longer afford public college, to which the developer responds with a smile that there are always jobs for caddies. The interchange, set in the "greed is good" era of the late 1980s, shows privatization to be an upper-class device to shield itself from the contingencies of the market, in this case from a stock market crash. It reveals how conscious the process has been and what glee its perpetrators have taken in disenfranchising people. The novel is also a commentary on the U.S. electoral system: "Americans prove in every election that they love millionaires. They want more power and more money in fewer hands, they just keep thinking their own hands will be among the lucky few" (2004: 253).
Reles learns the truth, but is unable to stop the developer. The novel refuses to paper over the situation by having the developer killed or imprisoned. Reles acknowledges his powerlessness: "the last thing you give up is hope" (2004: 15). Reflecting the limits of the detective form, one person is insufficient in the face of such concentrated power. Yet the ending signals the possibility of mass action through the demonstrators gathered outside the developer's mansion.
Due to his isolation on the force, Reles functions more like a private detective. Aside from an African-American officer, the other officers are allied against him. The book is influenced by films such as African-American director Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield (1994), which deals with racism on a police force, Chinatown, and John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) in the way it juxtaposes Reles' past and present in seamless flashbacks. There are echoes in the novel of Hammett and Chandler's use of the tough, cynical comment to express the psychological devastation brought about by a world of absolute greed. Rachel says of her husband, an honest cop turned corrupt: "He was dead a year ago! It took him six months to lie down" (2004: 143).
The detective novel today sustains the "material s memory" of the nonconformity and the critique of capitalist relations inherent in the Hammett-Chandler-Woolrich home-front detective. Repercussions in the sphere of labor from the uneven sacrifices demanded by the current war will one day take expression in the cultural sphere. Thus, the dissident lawman and woman will reappear on television and cinema screens. This remade film detective, now incubating in detective fiction, will roundly question the law and, if previous experience is an indicator, become convinced of the law's inequities and substitute working-class-aligned values for those they are sworn to uphold.
(1.) The detective genre in film and literature is one of the few (if not the only) American genres in which we watch someone at work and are made to feel a fascination with the moment-to-moment way they go about their work. As an early commentator on Hammett put it, "to Hammett the plot is not the main thing in the story. It is the behavior of the detective attacking a problem which intrigues him" (quoted in Nolan, 1999: 29).
(2.) For the first draft of the screenplay, director John Huston gave the novel to his secretary and told her to transcribe the dialogue, putting in scene changes around the dialogue. Houston explained: "(The producers) were surprised at my wanting to remake a two-time failure, but the fact was that The Falcon had never really been put on the screen" (Friedrich, 1987: 80).
(3.) For a detailed description of this period, see Everson (1974).
(4.) Labor initially had a seat on the board, but its representative was eliminated by the middle of the war (Boyer and Morals, 1955: 319).
(5.) An unstated part of Spade's quandary lies in exposing to the full brunt of the law a woman whose concealed last name, O'Shaughnessy, is a marker of her ethnic, working-class background.
(6.) Besides Dmytryk, other future Hollywood Ten members who worked in both genres were writers Lester Cole, who wrote the early noir Among the Living (1941), a critique of the ongoing racism in the plantation economy of the South, as well as Objective Burma (1945), and Albert Maltz, who in 1942 wrote This Gun for Hire, an indictment of the wartime industrial class for conspiring with fascism, and Destination Tokyo.
(7.) The first question posed to each of the writers at the HUAC hearings in 1947 was: "Are you a member of the Screen Writers Guild? The second question was: "Are you now a member of the Communist Party or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" (Ceplair and Englund, 1983).
(8.) George Lipsitz (1998: 218) notes that dramatic changes in the social world often correlate with changes in generic patterns. This certainly is the case in the rapid changes in the detective film from the war to the postwar, and into the Cold War.
(9.) According to Renshaw (1991: 122), the union alliance with federal surveillance agencies became so entwined and commonplace that "most labor leaders ... viewed the CIA as simply another institution which financed the extension of American-style corporate unionism overseas."
(10.) For a description of its persistence, see "Neo-Noir" in Silver and Ward (1992). For a reading of moments of neo-noir that accent the fugitive outsider, see Broe (2003).
(11.) For a detailed description of this trend after September 11, see Broe (2004).
(12.) Simon and Edward both wrote murder plots that revolve around the agony of "passing," a phenomenon said to have been transcended in today's multicultural U.S., since racism has been eliminated. As these novels illustrate, the phenomenon still exists because inequality still exists. The phenomenon hasn't disappeared, just the discussion of it.
(13.) Pursuing the George W. Bush parallel, the novel (Simon, 2004:251) includes some authentic Karl Rove-speak. The developer says, "people need enemies, Dan, how else will they know who their friends are?"
(14.) From the inaugural address by French U.S. foreign polick expert, Gilbert Achcar (2003), at the "Imperial War, Social War" conference at the Sorbonne, September 29, 2004.
Achcar, Gilbert 2003 The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Borosage, Robert L. 2003 "Sacrifice Is for Suckers." The Nation (April 28).
Boyer, Richard O. and Herbert M. Morals 1955 Labor's Untold Story. New York: Cameron Associates.
Broe, Dennis 2004 "Genre Regression and the New Cold War: The Return of the Police Procedural." Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 45,2 (Fall).
2003 "Class, Crime, and Film Noir: Labor, the Fugitive Outsider, and the Anti-Authoritarian Tradition." Social Justice 30,1 (May).
Cawelti, John 1976 Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ceplair, Larry and Steven Englund 1983 The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930-1960. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Denning, Michael 1996 Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso.
Everson, William 1974 The Detective in Film. London: Citadel Press.
Friedrich, Otto 1987 City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940"s. New York: Harper and Row.
Lichtenstein, Nelson 1982 Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lipsitz, George 1998 "Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation." Nick Browne (ed.), Reconfiguring American Film Genres. Berkeley: University of California Press: 208-232.
1994 Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Urbana: University of Chicago Press.
Marcus, Steven 1994 "Dashiell Hammett and the Continental Op." Christopher Mettress (ed.), The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press: 194-202.
Nevins, Francis H. 1998 "Cornell Woolrich." In Mystery and Suspense Writers, Volume 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Nolan, Tom 1999 Ross Macdonald: A Biography. New York: Scribner.
Reid, David and Jayne L. Walker 1993 "Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the Abandoned City of the Forties." Joan Copjec (ed.), Shades of Noir. New York: Verso: 57-96.
Renshaw, Patrick 1991 American Labor and Consensus Capitalism 1935-1990. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Rosswurm, Steve (ed.) 1992 The CIO's Left-Led Unions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Silver, Alain and Elizabeth Ward 1992 Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Third Edition. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
Sklar, Robert 1992 City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press.
Steinbrunner, Chris and Otto Penzler 1976 Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detectives. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Selected Detective Novels
Raymond Chandler 1940 Farewell My Lovely. New York: Vintage Books.
Grace E Edwards 1998 A Toast Before Dying. New York: Bantam.
Dashiell Hammett 1929 Red Harvest. New York: Vintage Books.
1930 The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage.
1931 The Glass Key. New York: Orion Publishing Company.
1934 The Thin Man. New York: Orion Publishing Company.
Walter Mosley 1991 A Red Death. New York: Pocket Books.
1995 Devil with a Blue Dress. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Michael Simon 2004 Dirty Sally. New York: Viking.
Mickey Spillane 1947 I the Jury. New York: E.P. Dutton.
1950 My Gun Is Quick. London: New English Library.
Cornell Woolrich 1943 The Black Angel. New York: Doubleday.
1948 I Married a Dead Man. New York: Ballentine Books.
Selected Filmography : Adaptations 1941-1955
Raymond Chandler Time to Kill, 1942 (adaptation of The High Window plot in the "Mike Shayne Series")
Murder My Sweet, 1943
Double Indemnity, 1944 (Chandler screenplay, not from a Chandler novel)
The Unseen, 1945 (Chandler screenplay, not from a Chandler novel)
The Blue Dahlia, 1946 (Chandler screenplay, not from a Chandler novel)
The Big Sleep, 1946
The Brasher Doubloon, 1947 (from The High Window)
The Lady in the Lake, 1947
Dashiell Hammett The Maltese Falcon, 1941
The Glass Key, 1942
Mickey Spillane I the Jury, 1953
The Long Wait, 1954
Ring of Fear, 1954 (not a Mike Hammer adaptation, starred Spillane playing a detective)
Kiss Me Deadly, 1955
My Gun Is Quick, 1957
Cornell Woolrich The Leopard Man, 1943
Street of Chance, 1942 (from the Woolrich novel, The Black Curtain)
Phantom Lady, 1944
Black Angel, 1946
The Chase, 1946 (From the Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear)
Deadline at Dawn, 1946
Fall Guy, 1947 (from the short story "Cocaine")
Fear in the Night, 1947 (from the short story "Nightmare")
The Guilty, 1947 (from the Woolrich short story, "Two Men in a Furnished Room")
I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes, 1948
Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948
The Window, 1949
No Man of Her Own, 1950 (from the Woolrich novel, I Married a Dead Man)
Rear Window, 1954
DENNIS BROE is Graduate Coordinator in the Media Arts Department of the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University (One University Plaza, Brooklyn, NY 11210; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). His article in Social Justice Vol. 30, No. 1 (2003) was titled "Labor, the Fugitive Outsider, and the Anti-Authoritarian Tradition." He has also written for Cinema Journal, Framework, Science and Society, Newsday, and The Boston Phoenix. His book Class, Crime, and Film Noir is forthcoming from University of Florida Press.
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|Title Annotation:||Dashiell Hammett, Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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