It was while I was first compiling the site’s chronological listing of movies that the realization came to me that the seventies were a very good decade indeed for the private eye film.
You could easily argue that the “Golden Age of P.I. Flicks” was the forties and at least the first half of the fifties (which conveniently coincided with the film noir era), when most of what are now consider the classics of the genre, from Hawk’s The Big Sleep and Huston’s The Maltese Falcon to Tourneur’s Out of the Past and Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly were made. And in between those stone cold classics were dozens of none too shabby B-films, many featuring recurring popular sleuths as Boston Blackie, The Falcon and Mike Shayne.
But something weird happened as television swept the nation in the 1950s and ’60s. Even as the private eye slugged it out with westerns for dominance of the small screen, somehow he was shut out from the big screen. Not that the late fifties or the sixties didn’t have a handful of decent P.I. films, but a quick glance of our timeline demonstrates just how far the noble shamus had fallen from cinematic grace.
Those few good P.I. flicks into the sixties were scattered exceptions to the rule; lonely outliers adrift in a decade without much use for them. Hell, by the time, it barely seemed like a genre at all.
Films like, say, Marlowe (1969), Gunn (1967) or The Girl Hunters (1963) all featured private eyes as their cooler-than-cool heroes, but there was something off about them, something self-consciously awkward and often disjointed, something almost juvenile, as if they were kids playing dress up (and don’t get me started on the the aging hipster cosplay schtick of Tony Rome). Suddenly the private dick who once could fit in anywhere, from cheap gin joint to country estate, didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
It was almost as though Hollywood was embarrassed to embrace such a man out of time, a character that perhaps more properly belonged in an earlier era–or at least to smaller screens.
Fortunately, by the early seventies there was a new breeze blowing down the mean streets, and a new breed of film directors whose exposure to the classics of another generation came secondhand and baggage-free, through the late show and repertory theatres. Suddenly the number of P.I. films began to increase (although it was a fraction of what it had been thirty years earlier), but even more importantly there was an almost cocky new acceptance of the genre, and a new maturity in the approach.
It was, if you ask me, the “Silver Age of the Private Eye Film.” If it wasn’t quite a movement, but there was at least a certain sense of thematic cohesiveness and a new awareness among the filmmakers and the audience of the genre. They not only knew what they were doing, but what others had previously done. And they were very aware aware of what everybody else was doing.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the producers of films as diverse as Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Conversation and Night Moves seemed more cognisant of and willing to accept the tropes and traditions of the genre, even as they lifted the lid and started tinkering, sometimes furiously, with the works.
Suddenly there were private eye films again, and a surprising number of them were of astounding quality. And while there were definitely more than a few downbeat films (Hickey and Boggs, Klute) that weren’t afraid to embrace the bleak fatalism of the classic noirs of the past, there were also relatively light-hearted parodies and spoofs (Gumshoe, The Cheap Detective), reconstructions, post-modern deconstructions and even, nostalgic, heart-on-their-sleeve homages to the genre (Farewell, My Lovely, The Late Show). Even at-first-glance more traditional fare such as The Drowning Pool and Shaft were being fashioned and shaped to get new messages and new concerns (environmentalism and black pride, respectively) across; themes that would have been almost unthinkable in the past.
Dicks were cool again. Maybe even relevant, in a self-conscious, ironic, born-to-lose way, but with Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, and the wreckage of sixties idealism having put the boots to what and who we thought we were, perhaps a little skepticism and irony, self-conscious or not, wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Or perhaps, in an age of disillusionment and growing cynicism, it was simply that we wanted to see someone who gave a damn again–even if (or possibly especially if) he was likely to fail.
The important thing perhaps, particularly in an era where it was tempting to just surrender to the growing malaise, was that he was trying.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. But something was definitely happening…
* * * * *
In this issue, we have brief essays on four essential flicks from the seventies:
“I Was Filled With a Sense of Loss and Longing”
Chinatown remembered by Fred Zackel
“Looking for the Connections”
The Long Goodbye remembered by Thomas Pluck
“It’s Not Supposed to Matter”
The Conversation remembered by Ben Solomon
“With Autumn Closing In…”
Night Moves remembered by Daniel Moses Luft