Detective Films

Philippa Gates

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Detective Films

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The “detective film” can be defined as a film that focuses on a detective-hero’s investigation into the mystery surrounding a crime; however, detective films vary in terms of content and themes, and often cross over into other genres, including science fiction (e.g., Blade Runner [1982]), the western (e.g., Tall in the Saddle [1944]), and even the musical (e.g., The Singing Detective [2003]). This makes defining the genre difficult, and, in fact, many scholars and critics place the “detective film” into the broader category of “film noir” (along with criminal-heroes) or the “crime film” (along with the gangster). This tendency to generalize is reflected in the sources listed in this article: while there will be some books and articles devoted solely to the detective film, many—even influential sources—may only discuss the genre specifically in a brief section. The majority of scholarship in English that addresses the genre tends to focus on American—specifically Hollywood—films. The term “detective film” often conjures up notions of overly complicated plots, a reliance on dialogue, and old-fashioned characters sporting deerstalkers—in other words, the classical detective story—and this has led to the genre being ignored or derided in terms of scholarly attention. However, in its broadest definition—that is, a narrative that follows an investigation by the protagonist—the detective film can include a wide range of films in every decade of film’s history. The detective film remains popular with audiences because the issues and themes it explores are continually relevant to American society, and the genre is able to adapt to changing sociocultural conditions. It is also the very nature of the detective narrative that is appealing. The genre offers the audience a high degree of participation in terms of the construction of the story by presenting a mystery—or puzzle—that must be solved; the audience, then, is encouraged to figure out the mystery’s solution before the detective presents it in the “scene of revelation” at the film’s climax. The founding scholarship on the detective film in the 1970s tended to offer historical overviews and production information on classical detective films of the 1930s, classic film noir of the 1940s, and revisionist neo-noir of the 1970s. By the 1980s, scholars’ approaches were informed by questions of formalism, auteurism, and adaptation and, by the 1990s, psychoanalysis, sociology, feminism, and race.

Article.  12636 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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