Monday, February 15, 2016


by John J. Blaser and Stephanie L.M. Blaser

The American hard-boiled detective film began to appear in the early 1940s, providing an alternative to the traditional murder mystery that had dominated detective films throughout the silent era and into the 1930s. These films represented an artistic effort to break the rules of the game laid down by countless movies about Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance, and by the ongoing "Thin Man" series. Embracing the techniques and outlook of film noir, which the hard-boiled detective film would come to represent, the people who made these films set out to create on the motion picture screen a different kind of world, and to provide it with a darker, more cynical interpretation.

The makers of this new type of detective film seemed to recognize that if they were going to create a new cinematic view of the world, they also would have to create a completely new hero to exist in that world. Yet, they did not all create the same type of hero, nor did the film noir hero remain static during his entire run. Instead, the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s supplied a surprisingly diverse set of heroes, each offering a variation on the common theme of crime and detection in the dark urban scene.

Although the new hard-boiled detective genre may seem to have emerged already fully developed in The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros., 1941), many of the elements that in Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart established the archetypal film noir detective-hero. The Maltese Falcon (1941) combination would define this and later films can be found separately in earlier films. Probably the most obvious as well as the most influential example of early film noir is Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941). Among other contributions to the hard-boiled detective genre, it perfected and used on a grand scale such techniques as high-contrast lighting (revealing certain characters in bright, almost washed-out light, while casting others into almost total shadow, for example); low-angle camera setups (making the subject seem taller and more powerful); and deep focus (a new technology at the time, allowing the camera to maintain in focus objects and characters in both the background and foreground in the same shot). Citizen Kane, along with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (United Artists, 1940), also used the narrative technique of introducing a central character after his death, then reconstructing the events of his life to develop his character through the rest of the film. Variations on this method would later be used in many of the hard-boiled detective films.

Read the full article: