Discussions of private eye film noirs focus on the detective character – challenged by a femme fatale, a corrupt world and a convoluted plot – and relate him to issues such as masculine identity and possession of or lack of control (over his client, the case or even language). As a rule, these discussions don’t address the extent to which a detective film is inherently limited as noir because the protagonist’s attributes are heroism, moral integrity and so on.
Moreover, these discussions ignore a critical recurring character, the “killer client.” He or she hires the PI, but also kills other people or has them murdered and/or imperils the detective.
The first private eye film noir, The Maltese Falcon, has a killer client. In fact, the majority of PI film noirs have this character. Furthermore, the killer client’s motives for retaining and then turning against the gumshoe are the raison d’être for making noir the film’s plot.
Private Eye Film Noirs with a Killer Client: title, detective and client
The Maltese Falcon (1941), with Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor).
Quiet Please, Murder (1942), with Hal McBryne (Richard Denning) hired by Myra Blandy (Gail Patrick).
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), with Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) brought into the case by Reginald Denny.
Murder, My Sweet (1944), with Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) hired by Mrs. Helen Grayle, aka Velma Valento (Claire Trevor).
The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), with Tom Lawrence, aka the Falcon (Tom Conway), first trying to aid Joan Marshall (Rita Corday) and then also her father De Forest Marshall (Robert Armstrong) to expose a smuggling operation inside the shipping line Joan owns and her father manages. The Falcon believes, like Joan, that Joan’s father, who was once known as the gangster Duke Monette (and who the police believe died years before), wants to go straight. The special twist is that the Falcon is mistaken. In the film’s climax, he realizes that Monette has already committed several murders and intends to kill everyone else who knows about his past. He has deceived his daughter about abandoning his criminal career. Instead, he has secretly been the leader of the smuggling ring.
The Tiger Woman (1945), with Jerry Devery (Kane Richmond) hired by Sharon Winslow (Adele Mara).
The Dark Corner (1946), with Stauffer (William Bendix) and Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) hired by Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). The special twist is that there are two private eyes. After Cathcart has Stauffer (“White Suit”) commit murder to frame Gault, Cathcart kills Stauffer.
The Brasher Doubloon (1947), with Philip Marlowe (George Montgomery) hired by Mrs. Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates).
High Tide (1947), with Tim Slade (Don Castle) hired by Hugh Fresney (Lee Tracy).
Out of the Past (1947), with Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas).
Philo Vance’s Gamble (1947) with Philo Vance (Alan Curtis) working for (but not hired by) Laurian March (Vivian [Terry] Austin).
Riff-Raff, with Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien) hired by Charles Hasso (Marc Krah). The special twist is that the killer client himself doesn’t endanger the PI. However, by hiring him, he is responsible for detective’s subsequent jeopardy. After Charles Hasso commits murder to get possession of a map, he hires Dan Hammer to protect him. Hasso hides the map before he is killed. Because Hasso’s killer suspects Hammer might know where the map is, Hammer’s own life isn’t safe.
I Love Trouble (1948), with Stuart Bailey (Fanchot Tone) hired by Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers).
My Gun Is Quick (1957), with Mike Hammer (Robert Bray) hired by Nancy Williams (Whitney Blake).
The Deceitful “Client”
In two private eye film noirs, there is a deceitful “client” instead of a killer client. In both of them, this character is a woman. She doesn’t hire the PI. She doesn’t kill anyone. The detective is in love with her. Her lies to him result in putting his life in mortal danger.
Private Eye Film Noirs with a Deceitful “Client”: title, detective and client
The Big Sleep (1946), with Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) hired by General Sternwood (Charles Waldron).
Marlowe is supposed to take care of the gambling debts run up by General Sternwood’s younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). General Sternwood says his daughters “are alike only in having the same corrupt blood.” He describes his older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), as “spoiled, exacting, smart, and ruthless.” General Sternwood also tells Marlowe that the man he had employed to be his friend, Sean Regan, disappeared a month earlier without even saying goodbye. Before Marlowe leaves the house, he meets Vivian, who wonders whether her father hired Marlowe to find Regan.
No sooner are the gambling debts removed from the plot than Vivian comes to Marlowe’s office to ask him to deal with a small-time blackmail shakedown involving photos of Carmen. She also tells Marlowe that Regan ran off with the wife of Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), the owner of a gambling casino (and, it is later revealed, a criminal many times over).
No sooner is the blackmail shakedown removed from the plot than Vivian tries to pay off Marlowe so that he will stop his investigation. Marlowe, however, is suspicious that Eddie Mars has “got” something on Vivian, and he wants to know what it is. She insists that there is nothing between Mars and herself. Using the clout of General Sternwood’s name, Vivian pulls strings to have the district attorney order Marlowe to “lay off the Sternwood case.” Marlowe’s response is, “There’s no law that says a man can’t work on a case without a client.”
Since Vivian is preventing Marlowe from communicating with General Sternwood, and General Sternwood has no idea what Vivian is doing in his name, General Sternwood is still actually Marlowe’s client. Marlowe suspects that what Mars has got on Vivian has something to do with Regan’s disappearance. When Marlowe tries to telephone General Sternwood, Vivian takes the call instead. She tells Marlowe that Regan has been found in Mexico and that she is on her way to see him.
Marlowe gets information where Eddie Mars’s wife is. He follows the lead and winds up being knocked out by Mars’s hired killer, Canino (Lash Steele). When he comes to, Mrs. Mars (Peggy Knudsen) is there, as well as Vivian. He is also tied up and handcuffed. Mars’s wife says Regan was just a friend. Vivian lied to Marlowe that Mrs. Mars ran off with Regan, and she lied that she was going to Mexico to meet him. Canino has gone out to find out from Mars what he should do with Marlowe, and Marlowe is sure that Mars will order Canino to kill him.
Vivian, as her father said, is “ruthless.” No matter how much Vivian loves Marlowe, she has done all she could to prevent him from learning that Mars has been blackmailing her. According to Mars, Carmen murdered Regan out of jealousy that he preferred Mrs. Mars to herself. Whether Carmen or Mars himself killed Regan is irrelevant. Vivian has believed Mars and has been paying him for his silence about Carmen. Vivian’s deceit about Regan being alive nearly costs Marlowe his life.
World for Ransom (1954), with Mike Callahan (Dan Duryea) risking his life for Frennessey March (Marian Carr).
Before World War II, Frennessey was Mike’s girlfriend in Shanghai. While he was in the service, she met and married Julian March (Patric Knowles). Now, years later, the three of them are in Sinapore, and Mike still openly carries a torch for her. At Frennessey’s request (but apparently not for payment), Mike has been tailing Julian, probably to report to her on the other women he is having affairs with. But Mike, who is also Julian’s friend, doesn’t give him away. Mike wants to stop because, as he explains to her, doing so may give him “some second chance with you some day, but spying on a man through keyholes and coming back and singing to his wife, he’d hate me and so would you.”
After Julian helps kidnap a professor, “one of the four men in the world who knows how to detonate the H-bomb,” he and the professor, plus several armed men, hide out in a remote deserted village. The plan, hatched by Alexis Paderas (Gene Lockhart), is to blackmail the British colonial government $5 million for the return of the professor. If the British won’t pay, Paderas will make an offer to the Communists. Julian is nothing more than a flunky in the operation. However, if the British Army catches him, his goose will be cooked.
Frennessey promises Mike that if he can get Julian out of the mess he is in, she will then leave him. Convinced that he will finally have her for himself, Mike makes his way to the remote village. However, when he confronts Julian, Julian tries to shoot him. Mike kills Julian and the other armed men, and rescues the professor.
When Mike tells Frennessey what happened, he learns that she had no intention of leaving Julian. She says that during the war he supposed that she was demurely waiting for him. In fact, because she had to deal with “a little problem of earning a living,” she had been a prostitute. Julian knew about it, but he still asked her to marry him. She says, “Imagine, Mike, if I’d waited for you and then I’d told you, how you would have detested me for not being as you remembered me. How I would have eventually detested you…That’s why I love Julian, because he loves me as I really am.”
She refuses to believe that Mike didn’t kill Julian deliberately. Mike says, “He tried to kill me.” She responds, “You don’t breathe a word against him…You weren’t in love with me. You were in love with some goofy eighteen-year old. A lily-white doll in your own mind. Well, Julian loved me. ‘Til I die I’ll love him. You, you murdered him for me. Well, this is all you’re ever going to be: murderer, murderer….” Frennessey repeatedly slaps Mike’s face. He risked his life for nothing. He leaves her crying and walks out into the same street at night where the film began. He is alone, as he was in the opening scene. Because the woman the PI loves not only rejects him but also humiliates him, World for Ransom has perhaps the most downbeat conclusion of any private eye film noir.