THE TEN BEST PRIVATE EYE MOVIES
Ten rainy day whodunits that have stood the test of time.
By Shaun Costello
Just exactly who was the best cinematic Private Eye, anyway? For my money, Phillip Marlowe is tough to beat, even though he was beaten up fairly often, staggering to his feet after being cold-cocked with a heavy object (usually a gun butt) held in the hand of a beguiling femme fatale who had gotten the drop on him. Marlowe leads the chase in three of the titles I’m listing here, and is played by three different actors. Two of these films were adapted from the same book, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The first, Murder My Sweet (1944) was renamed as box office strategy, which I suppose worked, to a degree. And, the 1975 remake with the original Farewell My Lovely title intact. The third Marlowe caper, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, had maybe the greatest writing team ever assembled, even though the audience had a tough time figuring out what, in God’s name, this movie was about. Sam Spade, a Dashiell Hammett creation, and a Marlowe contemporary is of course, the chief sleuth in The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogie and Huston and the fabulous Warner Bothers repertory company, and lines like, “You’re good. You’re very good”.
But, what about Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and their clue-finding pup Asta, Mike Hammer, Jake Gittes – snappy snoops all; tough, relentless, with a curiosity that won’t quit. These guys will stop at nothing in getting to the bottom of things, sorting out the details, finding out exactly who killed whom, and why.
In alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Alfred L. Werker 1939
The best of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes/Watson capers, from Fox and Darryl Zanuck. Holmes and Watson again do battle with that criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, nicely played here by George Zucco. And, this one’s got the fabulous Ida Lupino to add a bit of heat.
Moriarty has a plan to make off with the Crown Jewels, but Holmes stands in his way. Juicy Holmesian dialogue like:
Holmes, “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Moriarty, “That would make an interesting exhibit. Holmes, you’ve only now barely missed sending me to the gallows. You’re the one man in England clever enough to defeat me. The situation has become impossible.”
Holmes, “Have you any suggestions?”
Moriarty, “I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.”
Crafty direction by Alfred Werker, and a solid screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake. And, lovely black and white cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks 1946
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe finds himself in a nest of vipers, as usual, in this brilliant, if a bit confusing, film noir. Howard Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, has
a field day, juggling juicy lingo penned by an incredible writing team that included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and Hawks himself. The problem is, the story makes no sense. But, who cares, with Bogie as Marlowe, and Betty Bacall as a devious femme fatale. The now-famous jockey/horse-Bogie/Betty scene, filled with hilarious sexual innuendo, was added to the troubled production over a year later to spice things up. A solid cast, including a surprisingly sprite Dorothy Malone, makes this movie work, even if you may have trouble understanding what’s going on. Nice black and white lensing by Sidney Hickox, and a haunting, if sometimes abrupt, musical score by Max Steiner. I’ve seen this picture an embarrassing number of times, but for you, once should be enough – but see it!
Best scene: Bogie and Malone in the book store.
Roman Polanski 1974
“C’mon Jake, it’s Chinatown”, pleads Gittes’s friend, attempting to drag him away from the horrific car scene at the very end of the film. “Chinatown” means what you think, but it’s also an old expression meaning crazy, upside-down, or meshuganah – something best left alone. This is may be the best period film ever
made, and Polanski does it without the usual cheap tricks like historical references. He does it instead, with a fabulous cast, John Alonzo’s scorched cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s luscious score, Anthea Sylbert’s glamorous costumes, and Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay. It’s all about water – Los Angeles doesn’t have any. And the Hollis Mulwray character is based on William Mulholland, the brilliant head of LA’s water department, who turned this parched patch of Southern California into the metropolis it was to become.
Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, a private eye who makes a living on matrimonial cases, is sucked into a noirish whirlpool, where virtually nothing is as it seems. Polanski does a masterful job of slowing down Nicholson’s usually manic delivery, turning the performance into something more sensual and cunning. Faye Dunawaye is elegantly deceitful, and Polanski himself, plays a murderous knife wielding midget. But it’s John Huston’s Noah Cross that steals the show.
One of my all-time fave films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably find a disc at your local library. Delicious sleuthing.
Best scene: Anything with John Huston, and “My sister – my daughter, my sister-my daughter, my sister AND my daughter.”
Farewell My Lovely
Dick Richards 1975
This is the third and, in my opinion, best movie made from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel. As I’ve previously stated, Philip Marlowe is my favorite Private Eye and, although Bogie was near-perfect in The Big Sleep, Robert Mitchum is even better, as a big, hulking Marlowe, who seems constantly recovering from a whack on the noggin, or the woozy effect of the knock-out drops that some swell dame slipped in his drink. Unlike Polanski’s Chinatown, director Dick Richards uses the historical reference of Joe Dimaggio’s 57 game hitting streak throughout the movie to maintain a feel for 1940 period. OK, so it’s a gimmick, but a forgivable one – it works. Come to think of it, just about everything in this movie works. Great Chandler narration like, “I’d hardly reached the corner, when a hand so big I could of sat in it, landed on my shoulder”. Besides a wonderfully effective Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling provides the heat in a cast rounded out by John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. There’s even a quick glimpse of Sly Stallone in one of his first movie roles. Dark and sultry lensing, once again by John Alonzo, and a delicious musical score by David Shire make this recreation of 1940 Los Angeles believable. If you can find a DVD of this – pounce.
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
No more Mr. Nice Guy – not with Mickey Spillane’s brutal, tough, take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer on the case, and in this case, the case is a box – Pandora’s Box, filled with nuclear material ready to go off. Ah, the Fifties, when every right-thinking American had the A-Bomb on his mind, 24 hours a day. An apocalyptic murder mystery? You bet, and Mike Hammer’s the right guy to put the pieces together. A nice turn here by Ralph Meeker, as the Private Eye with an attitude problem. And the movie debuts of Cloris Leachman, and Maxine Cooper
On a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Copper) at his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big”.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest, is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It represents, of course, the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that was all the rage back then.
A dark, noirish nightmare, deftly handled by director Aldrich. Murky, night time Los Angeles locations, made to shine by cinematographer Ernst Laszlo. This is a low budget ($400,000), no nonsense, first rate film noir, with a game cast, and a savvy director. A film not to miss.
Otto Preminger 1944
OK, I know, I know – it’s not a private eye movie, it’s a cop caper, but it’s Laura, the one and only, and this is MY list so it’s just tough. We have to get past this. Good.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the grisly murder of a famous actress (Gene Tierney) falls in love with her painting. The more he hears about her, the deeper his spell. (I’d do the same thing if that music followed me around all the time) Everyone Andrews interviews seem to be in love with her too. Venomous gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) seems to be the late Laura’s biggest booster. Her grief stricken fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price) is beside himself. Just who would kill such a beloved creature? Just when the audience settles in to accepting lovely Laura’s demise, plot twist of plot twists, the door to her apartment opens, and in walks, you guessed it, Laura, live and lovelier than ever. Andrews, who had fallen asleep on the couch under Laura’s portrait, is awaked to find his obsession, alive and kicking, and wondering what this stranger is doing in her apartment. As Andrews adjusts to this new situation, he finds the living Laura to be everything he’d hoped. But, who was the disfigured corpse, who everyone mistook for Laura? It turns out that Lydecker’s obsession with our leading lady got the better of him. If he couldn’t have her, he’d kill her instead. But he shot the wrong woman, and she was too disfigured to identify, so everyone assumed it was Laura’s body. A living Laura is just too much for Lydecker to accept, so he tries once again to kill her. Andrews intercedes, shooting the murderous Lydecker in the knick of time. As Waldo lies dying on Laura’s carpet, and of course under the portrait, his last words are, “Goodbye. Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
It sounds pretty silly, but it works. Tierney is simply too beautiful to believe, and a game cast does wonders with this material. But, maybe the most important element, the glue that binds this classic together, is David Raskin’s haunting, memorable musical score – one of the real champs. I wonder what happened to the portrait?
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston 1941
This 1941 Warner Brothers release is the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that was a bit more comedic. It was released in 1936, with Warren William, and a very young Bette Davis in the leading roles. Warner Brothers had been prevented from re-releasing the 1931 version by the Hays Office censors, because of its “lewd” content, so they went into production in 1941, on a new, cleaned up version, which is the beauty we all know and love.
First-time director John Huston wanted Bogie to play Sam Spade, but producer Hal Wallis wanted veteran leading man George Raft, who rejected it because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”, the film that launched Bogie’s career as a leading man.
So, is The Maltese Falcon the ultimate private eye caper? You be the judge, but if it’s not, then it’s certainly close. Warner’s had the best ensemble of character actors in Hollywood, and most of them strut their stuff here. Beyond Bogey and Mary Astor, there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Barton MacClane and Ward Bond as Spade’s detective buddies, and Lee Patrick as Effie, who Spade addresses as “Precious” and “Darlin”. Huston even hired his father Walter, to play the ship’s Captain.
Whose got the bird, is the game played here. What exactly IS this Maltese Falcon, anyway? And why is it worth so many murders? Astor wants it, Greenstreet wants it, Lorre wants it, and the body count is mounting. Juicy, nest of vipers stuff here, and Huston is up to the task of getting the most out of this remarkable cast. A solid, tangy screenplay, written by the first-time director, nice dark lensing by Arthur Edeson, and a warm musical score by Arthur Deutsch. A bird for all seasons.
“You’re good. You’re very good”, say’s Bogie to Astor, and who among us could argue?
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk 1944
This is the second movie made from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely novel, and has a very different feel from the 1975, and third remake, above. The powers that be at RKO thought that changing the title to Murder, My Sweet would add some zip the film’s box office. Who knows, but the film did well.
Casting crooner Dick Powell in the Marlowe role was a gamble, but he’s an effective, if different gumshoe. With a small budget to work with, and 1944’s censorship problems to overcome, Dmytryk does an admirable job creating a dark, violent world for Marlowe and his cronies to inhabit. Nice turns by Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger. And, solid black and white camerawork by Harry Wild, plus a low-key musical score by Roy Webb rounds out the production. Powell is surprising here, and worth a look. Like Alec Guinness as George Smiley, when I read Chandler, I hear Mitchum’s voice, but Powell gives us an alternative.
Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet 1974
Agatha Chistie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly, was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne’s father-in-law) help them broach the subject.
In the end, according to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, “Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one.” Christie’s biographer, Gwen Robyns, quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”
Hey, Finney’s waxed lip-rug worked for me, but so did everything else in this dazzling film. I’m not the biggest fan of star vehicles, but Sidney Lumet somehow coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, and probably black-mailed this extraordinary ensemble of show business luminaries into one remarkable performance after another. Finney is a fastidious, almost effeminate Poirot, surrounded by a passenger list that includes (I’m going to name them all because it’s just such an amazing group) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris. And, their performances are all uniquely effective, and totally entertaining.
A complex Agatha Christie mystery, in the hands of a neurotic, self-involved detective, on the world’s greatest train, with a trainload of odd characters as suspects. Top notch lensing here by the masterful Geoffrey Unsworth, a lovely, waltzy score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Lumet’s crafty direction make this memorable.
A throaty Finney, “Touch notheeeeeeng”
John Gielgud as a British valet, “It all started in a fracas in the mess, over a desert called “Spotted Dick”
Igrid Bergman as a Swedish missionary to Africa, “I vont to, um, help little brown babies, who, um, are less fortunate than, um, myself”
The Thin Man
W. S. Van Dyke 1934
Dashiell Hammett’s crafty couple Nick and Nora Charles are on the case here, in the original of, what would become, a series of detective capers. They’ve even got a snoopy, clue-fetching dog, Asta – played by a wire haired fox terrier named Skippy. Nick (William Powell), a retired detective, and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are attempting to settle in to retirement when the disappearance of a friend pulls him back into professional snooping. Nick decides he’ll solve the case, much to the amusement of his socialite wife. The dead bodies, and empty martini glasses pile up, as an ever-tipsy Nick and Nora, endlessly clever banter at the ready, roll up their sleeves, along with their pup, and do some slippery sleuthing.
All of the suspects are invited to a hilarious dinner party, where Nick and Nora, in a series of brilliant, if tipsy, deductions, solve the mystery. Clever dialogue, written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and deftly delivered by two pros, drives this unique, comedic mystery. Sparkling black and white lensing by James Wong Howe, and strong ensemble work by Metro’s talent pool make this a movie not to miss. Funny doings.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
SHOWING IT TO CHARLOTTE
A Christmas Odyssey
By Shaun Costello
My friend John has a comfort-level problem with the Holiday Season. A lifetime of frosty Christmas mornings in Boston seems a distant memory now since John, fulfilling his long-standing commitment to never touch another snow shovel, moved his family to Florida, just a few years ago. The sappy scent of a real tree, usually a Blue Spruce or a White Pine, standing in the corner of his New England living room, covered with holiday ornamentation, some of which were family heirlooms inherited from his grandparents, has been replaced by a plastic palm from Walmart with built-in flashing lights. His kids didn’t seem to mind, but for John, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t feel much like Christmas. But this isn’t the only reason John is uneasy this season. Each Yuletide he relives his ultimate horror. It was the day before Christmas, several years ago, when John traveled three thousand miles in an attempt to show his penis to an unsuspecting Charlotte Rampling.
For some time now John has harbored a dark secret, something not even his closest friends suspect. He suffers from a ZARDOZ fixation. Growing up a sexually repressed Catholic in a working class Irish neighborhood in Boston, John spent more than his share of time in the balconies of porno theaters, and found this degenerate atmosphere to be a comforting refuge from the daily drudgery of his blue-collar life. But all good things eventually come to an end and, with the advent of the video cassette, the days of the “Adult Theater” were numbered. So one day John, who had set aside several hours for some serious balcony time watching some of his fave smut flicks, was astonished to find that the theater had changed it’s policy. No more porn. Instead, the theater was showing Vintage Sci-fi Movies, starting off with a twin bill of, “This Island Earth” with Rex Reason and Faith Domergue, and “Zardoz” with Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling. “Well”, thought a shattered John, his fiver still in his hand, “Better than nothing”. So he paid the five bucks, bought his popcorn, and settled in for an afternoon of ray guns and slippery logic.
As the plot of Zardoz began to reveal itself John liked what he saw. An Amazonian civilization where men were unknown and women ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. He began fantasizing about this little community as a vacation destination, where he might mingle with clusters of innocent, scantily clad, sexually curious maidens, who had never seen a man and were impossible to disappoint. Then came the scene where a naked Sean Connery stood before the Amazonian Senate. Curious about his anatomy, they showed him Charlotte Rampling’s naked breasts, just to see if they would have an effect on him. Not knowing how to react to Sean Connery’s now very erect penis, the nervous Senate chamber was filled with giggles and then laughter. But not from Charlotte Rampling, who knew a good thing when she saw one. She stared at Connery’s hard penis with the expectation of limitless possibilities.
John couldn’t sleep that night, not from nervousness over his Latin final the next day, but from that look on Charlotte Rampling’s face. The look that said, here was a woman who knew a good thing when she saw one. John had never seen that look on any woman’s face before. Certainly not on the face of Mary Alice Dowd, or any of the other girls at Our Lady of Perpetual Conception. He swore to himself that, one day, he would see that look in person. So he sat down and made a plan.
Through very thorough research, John found out that Charlotte Rampling lived in Dorset, on England’s southwest coast, in the village of Lyme Regis, about a three-hour train ride from London. He made up a story for his parents about going skiing in Vermont, packed his bags, and headed out to Logan Airport where he boarded British Airways flight 1181, and began the journey to England, and his date with destiny. It was cold and sleeting when he landed at Heathrow, but John was warmed by an inner fire and impervious to the weather. After sorting out the luggage/customs ritual, he took a cab for London.
At Charing Cross he boarded the Dover train, and got off at Waterloo Station, the first stop on the line. Within ten minutes he boarded the Weymouth train, which would take him to the coast. He sat in the club car, ordered a glass of Porter, and watched the towns and villages of southern England parading by his train window, all decked out in their Christmas finery, a spectacle to see. And he began to wonder, “What if she’s not home? What if she’s away on holiday?” But then he remembered having read an interview she had given to some movie magazine where she said, “There’s no place like Dorset for the Holidays”. He smiled, knowing that this year he would spend Christmas Eve like he had spent no other. This year he would spend Christmas Eve showing it to Charlotte.
Icy darkness descended on Weymouth, as John’s train reached its destination. He lugged his bags onto the Station platform, and wondered to himself why he had packed so much stuff? “Maybe”, he thought, “just maybe, once she had seen his goods, she would invite him to stay the night”. After all, that’s what happened with Sean Connery.
The cab ride from Weymouth to Lyme Regis took about thirty minutes. Not wanting to drag his luggage around with him he asked the driver to take him to the best Hotel. The desk clerk at The Royal Lion told him they were full up, and suggested The Mariner Hotel, just down the Street. The Mariner was booked solid for the Holidays, as was The Swallow’s Eaves, The Orchard Country, The Kersbrook, and The Dower House. The irony of “no room at the inn” on Christmas Eve did not escape our hero as he continued his search for a place to stay. Finally he gave the desk clerk at the totally booked Channel House a few pounds to watch his bags, sat down to a nice cup of tea and contemplated his next move.
He looked at the address on the crumpled piece of paper that he took from his pocket. Number 15 Blue Dolphin Way. This was the address. Her address. Charlotte Rampling’s address. He asked directions outside the Channel House and was told it was a short walk up the hill and to the right. John’s journey was nearly at its end, as he began the climb. The rain and sleet came down harder now, but our rain soaked hero was still warmed by that inner fire that made weather irrelevant. He passed a few sign posts on his climb. Tattersall Way, then Judith’s Close, and finally here it was, Blue Dolphin Way. And right there on the mailbox, just under the number ‘15’, were the initials C. R. He was home. Her Home. Charlotte Rampling’s Home. And home she was indeed. The house was adorned with hundreds of Christmas lights and decorations of all sorts. John could see movement through the first floor window, and there, to his overwhelming joy, was Charlotte Rampling, decorating her tree. He was unprepared as to what to do next. Should he remove his clothes and simply knock on her door? Should he expose himself to her through the window? He hadn’t really thought this through. When he first saw her mailbox he had noticed that the flag was up. She had not gone out to fetch her mail today. Maybe it was just raining too hard. Maybe she simply forgot. At any rate he felt certain that, sooner or later, she would make the trek to the mailbox, and that’s when he would confront her. That would be his moment of triumph.
As he watched through her window, she walked over to the front door and took a yellow slicker of its hook. This was it. The moment was here. She was going to fetch her mail, and our hero was up to the task at hand. He raced back out to the gate, tearing off articles of clothing as he ran and, naked as the day he was born, stood next to her mailbox, proud, and tall, and all hers. He could hear the front door to the house open and close, and the sound of a distant voice singing. She was singing. As the sound of her footsteps approached he could barely make out the words and melody. “Some day……my prince….will come”. She was singing “Someday My Prince Will Come”, from Snow White, and her prince he was indeed. Standing there in the driving rain and sleet, naked as a Jaybird was our John, the sexually repressed Irish Catholic kid from Boston who, once upon a time saw Sean Connery standing naked and tall in front of this very same Charlotte Rampling, the result of which was the beginning of a whole new civilization of little Seans and Charlottes to populate a brave new world filled with hope for the future, and Sean Connery’s endless erection. And here she was approaching her mailbox right next to her naked, soggy prince who traveled all these countless miles to fulfill a destiny that they both surely shared here in the driving English rain. And they stood there, together for that one endless moment, until she reached down, grabbed her mail, spun around and, still singing, walked back to the house.
It’s hard to tell just how long John stood there, naked in the driving winter rain, before he realized that she hadn’t noticed him. Or had she? He will never really know for sure. On the train heading back to London John wondered whether or not this was the dumbest thing he had ever done. No, it wasn’t. He had done much dumber things than this, without one tenth the satisfaction he got from standing there naked with Charlotte Rampling on that rainy Christmas Eve in Dorset, totally prepared to populate a brave new world with little Johns and Charlottes, if only she had noticed him standing there. John prefers to think that she did notice him. Maybe she really did notice him, but was just too polite to say anything. And if she had said something, what would it have been? As his plane began its final approach to Logan Airport, John realized exactly what she would have said. As he stood there, naked and cold, in the driving Dorset rain, she would have looked at him and smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas John”. The English are like that.
© 2006 Shaun Costello