Based on the first substantial film noir reference books (listed below), from 1940-1944, there are only two private eye film noirs, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944). This is one kind of evidence that the PI has scant significance in the early years of film noir.
The character who dominates this period is the hunted man. However, as I will show, because he is a specific type of hunted man, there is additional evidence that the private detective scarcely matters in this historical period of film noir.
Robert Ottoson, A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir: 1940-1958 (The Scarecrow Press, 1981)
Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1984)
Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (The Overlook Press, 1992, Third Edition)
Michael L. Stephens, Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995)
In Martin Green’s fascinating book, Seven Types of Adventure Tales: An Etiology of a Major Genre (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), the penultimate chapter is, “The Hunted Man Story – The Seventh Type.”
It begins as follows.
“The Hunted Man adventure story is often included in the more amorphous ‘thriller’ category as a subgroup. That is appropriate. The idea of being hunted is an important part of most thrillers, perhaps of most adventures, at some point, and if some thrillers contain a lot of other material, too, the Hunted Man story has exerted a certain hegemony over the rest.
“We can distinguish between two kinds of Hunted Man story: the conservative and the liberal. The first is the British thriller of the kind written by John Buchan [such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, featuring Buchan’s recurring adventurer, Richard Hannay]; the second is the American kind written by Raymond Chandler [such as The Big Sleep, with Chandler’s recurring private eye, Phillip Marlowe]…
“The protagonist of this adventure type is, superficially, an anti-romantic figure, who sees himself as ordinary. He may have adventurous experience behind him, but no desire for any more. He wants, allegedly, to be an ordinary person, but he has greater than ordinary capacity for action – with his fists, his guns, his cunning, his connections to other men of force, keepers or breakers of the law – and a greater than ordinary sense of responsibility. Sometimes he is, or has been, a detective or an attorney; sometimes he is strictly a private citizen. In any case, he is effectively alone when he stumbles across a clue, an inexplicable incident, which leads him to find other clues, and ultimately to unravel a puzzle, a plot, a conspiracy.” (186-187)
Green is describing what he believes is the preeminent type of adventure story in the twentieth century, if not also the twenty-first. Based on these quoted paragraphs, it might seem that he is also reinforcing the perspective, which is held by proponents of the hardboiled paradigm, about the significance of the private eye in film noir. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that Green is analyzing literature, not cinema. For example, he focuses his discussion of the prototype of the American hunted man on several of Chandler’s novels, not films based on those books.
If the hardboiled paradigm’s claim for iconic status of the private eye in film noir were legitimate, wouldn’t the PI frequently appear in the years, 1940-1944, when there are many hunted man film noirs? Wouldn’t the character who is the hunted man be a private detective in many if not most of these film noirs?
But the hunted man in film noirs during WWII isn’t a private eye. Instead, he is, in Green’s words, “strictly a private citizen.” (For much greater background about this type of hunted man, see the page Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs. Postwar.)
The private detective slightly appears after WWII, and then rapidly vanishes. (See the page The Missing PI in Film Noir.
Since puzzles are rare in postwar film noir plots, it stands to reason that the PI isn’t useful as the central figure. Without mysteries, people may be hunted, but it is known by the audience and their on-screen pursuers that they are guilty. Further removed from the private eye, film noirs of the later Forties and the Fifties feature professional law enforcement, which is typically federal or state, rather than local.
Yet why is the private detective absent from film noirs during the early Forties, when there are puzzles? Because a private citizen is more appropriate as the protagonist. He is falsely accused of murder. Even if he isn’t jailed by the local police, and is still at large (a hunted man), he can’t prove his innocence by himself. He needs an ally. And, over and over again, he teams up with a woman, who has a job, and who helps him identify the real killer.
Martin Green’s explanation of the politics of the Hunted Man story parallels what I present in my essay on “the war noir.” He says that this adventure type “promise[s] the reader that the unaided individual can take on large organizations and conspiracies that are subverting the state or the nation and can triumph over them. This is an exhilarating message, and in some sense a democratic one, even though the hero works against the institutions set up by and for citizens.”
In the years of the war noirs, the U.S. was in peril from the threat of the Axis. There was no need for the heroes in the war noirs to find, in Green’s words, “at the heart of the conspiracy…a social monster, an organization, sometimes totally legal, sometimes apparently respectable, that threatens the life of his city or his nation.” (188) War noirs didn’t need an imaginary social monster; fascism was real.
The threat to the hunted man in a war noir may be “only” a prison sentence, rather than a threat to his nation. But in the circumstances of the world war, the political message that private citizens “can triumph” is delivered strongly when the hunted man and a working class woman clear his name and set him free (and then become a romantic couple). In the plots of war noirs, he and she don’t have to save their country. Actual private citizens – in the armed forces, fighting, and in factories, building ships, planes and weapons – would do that. At other times, these private citizens are in the movie theaters, watching the hunted man and his female ally solve a murder mystery and, thereby, overcome adversity.
During WWII, the hunted man in film noir only needs to save himself. His success is personal. But, through displacement, it is also social. The triumph of private citizens in a war noir is a displacement for the promise of victory by civilians in uniform – and in overalls – against the Axis. In this historical context, the private eye isn’t appropriate as the hunted man. Accordingly, the PI is absent in film noir for nearly all of WWII.
Below is a list of film noirs with a hunted man from 1940-1944. When there is a woman cited, it is a war noir.
Film Noirs, 1940-1944, with a Hunted Man: title, date, actor (female actor if it is a war noir)
Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940, John McGuire (Margaret Tallichet)
They Drive by Night, 1940, George Raft
Among the Living, 1941, Albert Dekker
I Wake Up Screaming, 1941, Victor Mature (Betty Grable)
Man Hunt, 1941, Walter Pidgeon (Joan Bennett)
Meet Boston Blackie, 1941, Chester Morris (Rochelle Hudson)
Pacific Blackout, 1941, Robert Preston (Martha O’Driscoll)
Rage in Heaven, 1941, George Sanders (Ingrid Bergman)
All Through the Night, 1942, Humphrey Bogart (Kaaren Verne)
Fly-By-Night, 1942, Richard Carlson (Nancy Kelly)
The Glass Key, 1942, Brian Donlevy
Little Tokyo, U.S.A., 1942, Preston Foster (Brenda Joyce)
Saboteur, 1942, Robert Cummings (Priscilla Lane)
Street of Chance, 1942, Burgess Meredith (Claire Trevor)
This Gun for Hire, 1942, Alan Ladd (Veronica Lake)
The Gorilla Man, 1943, John Loder (Marian Hall)
Hangmen Also Die!, 1943, Brian Donlevy (Anna Lee)
Journey into Fear, 1943, Joseph Cotton (Dolores Del Rio)
Two Tickets to London, 1943, Alan Curtis
The Conspirators, 1944, Paul Henreid (Hedy Lamarr)
The Ministry of Fear, 1944, Ray Milland (Marjorie Reynolds)
Phantom Lady, 1944, Alan Curtis (Ella Raines)
When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed), 1944, Dean Jagger (Kim Hunter)