Private detectives or private eyes, as they were stylishly called in Golden Age of Hollywood, have been screen heroes and anti-heroes since the early days.
Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Lew Harper, Nero Wolfe, V.I. Warshawski, Peter Gunn, Joe Mannix, Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum – all fictional detectives for hire.
As I was watching Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby in Night Moves (1975), I got to wondering about why private investigators or private detectives are so popular in literature, television and film.
P. I.’s are usually written as wounded birds, loners, fractured souls. Tough guys like Spade, Marlowe or Hammer, who dames were attracted to, but could get their hearts broken. Gunn and Mannix were straight-shooters, men of values and only tough when needed. Women liked their style and gentlemanly nature. Rockford and Magnum were determined, but often fooled by clients, and likely to avoid a fight if possible.
P. I.’s very much reflected their times. Harry Moseby easily represented the confused 1970s. He could see the tree, but miss the forest. His one-man agency was closing and he was not enthused about going to work for someone else. His bored wife was having an affair right under his nose, he only stumbled across knowing.
Why are we drawn to detectives, police or private? They are modern cowboys, who operate on the margins of the law. Most private detectives seem on the margin of society. Generally, they aren’t married, seem to fail at relationships, live in trailers or dumpy apartments. Not everyone can live on an estate in Hawaii. Most live hand-to-mouth, case to case, and have an awkward relationship with the local police. Mannix not only had one friend on the force, he had two. Lucky.
Another reason P. I.’s are cowboys, they must be self-sustaining and creative in times of trouble. Tough and resilient too. If you look at cowboy leading characters on television and in film, these are principled men, living by the code of the West, where the law was what you could bring to the campfire. Whether you were the Virginian, a Maverick, Paladin, Lucas McCain or a Cartwright, you got involved in the lives of others and solved problems. You lived by your wits as much as your fists or guns.
Harry Moseby used to be a professional football player, he even played in a Pro Bowl. He’s a bright guy, good at reading offenses, but not so good at reading people. He’s a chess player, who has studied the moves, but cannot apply them to his life.
In the hands of director Arthur Penn, Night Moves is a jigsaw puzzle of a story that gets more complicated with each interconnected clue. Private detectives were often fed wrong clues and frequently deceived. In the 1970s, the cases often revealed human fractures in the detectives. The threats could be internal. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye updated Marlowe, but made him a social misfit, a man morally out of step with the hedonistic amoral 1970s.
Harry Mosley was also moral, adrift in a sea of immortality, and it cost him. Private eyes were weathervanes of their times.