With the trench coats, the fedora, the cigarettes, and the slimy yet debonair attitude, the private eye is the poster boy of the noir style. While this very unique film set has many stand out feature, few are as iconic as the classic gumshoe. This is what makes this rugged character such a tradition in the style. Essentially, the private eye is the embodiment of noir and no other character is more representative of that essence than Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Perhaps one of the main aspects of the detective in noir is the concept of one being the antihero. Because the detective is not a badge carrying law enforcement employee governed by the city, rules are more flexible to the detective. There is no paper work (with the exception of cash to grease palms) and no police chief to report to. The private eye simply has to complete the task at hand without getting into too much trouble with the law from their own work, which is often counterproductive to their current interests. This concept of working outside of the law is often paired with a sense of business. The private eye is not paid a salary like the police. He takes the jobs that walk through his door and makes his pay where he can. Because of the gumshoe’s ability to work outside of the law and use of discretion, figures of less than desirable nature often involve the protagonist with simple sound stories at the beginning of the case which later develop into complex and incriminating issues. These clients also include another noir staple, the vulnerable woman. Noir houses another strong character type in the femme fatale. Preying on most men’s relax nature towards women, the gumshoe is typically a rough, womanizing man with a dismissive or distrusting attitude towards women in general but are not above physical attraction. So with this fusing of traits the audience is left with a protagonist with work ethic, a disdain for the police, powerful self-preservation and women problems.
These traits can be perfectly exemplified by Bogart’s Spade. Start with his work ethic. After his partner, Archer, is murdered Spade continues with the investigation without so much as a moments hesitation. After finding out about his affair with Archer’s wife one could make the assumption that Spade cares little for his partner but his confession at the end to O’Shaughnessy about avenging his partner and it looking bad on all private eyes everywhere shows his loyalty to both Archer and his sense of duty to his job. Another look into his professional life is the brief scene in which Spade is being informally questioned by both the District Attorney and an Assistant District Attorney while being recorded via stenographer. The conversation quickly escalates (mostly due to Spade’s quick temper and disdain for being blamed for Archer’s murder) until Spade taunts them to try to take his license away again, hinting that they have both tried before and failed to do so. The idea that Spade so openly opposes the District Attorney shows both how far he is willing to go to save himself and how seriously he takes the position he is in. He is good at his job and he is confident he will not only figure out who committed the crimes he is being blamed for but also that he will be able to find out without getting so tied up in the process as to get himself arrested. This also ties in perfectly to the other noir detective character trait of police disdain.
Instead of working closely with the police, Spade intentionally keeps the law at a distance. During his meeting with the District Attorney he claims that having the police around will interfere with his attempts to catch those who can clear his name. However, his interaction with the Police Detectives Dundy and Polhaus lead the audience to believe that there is a history of conflict between at least Spade and Polhaus. Spade seems to at least tolerate Dundy during most of their meetings and even uses him as a foil to verbally tease and insult Polhaus. Polhaus on the other hand is shown as hungry to arrest Spade from the start. Farther along into the story more references are made to the two men’s past when the police visit Spade’s apartment late in the evening while O’Shaughnessy and Cairo are discussing the terms for selling the Falcon. Polhaus tells Spade directly that he has got away with a few things but he cannot avoid arrest for forever. This shows that Spade has definitely had more than once crossed the police and gotten away without arrest. This animosity between the private eye and the detective is likely because of the different ideals of the jobs they hold. While the police uphold laws by going by the book, the private eye is ruled only by their own sense of right and wrong, normally disregarding the normal rules. However, this method is also dangerous. Working on the edge with little help often means the private eye has to watch their own back. This makes self preservation a key aspect of the private eye.
For the private eye, it does him little good to solve the mystery if he ends up in prison or dead. So really in the handbook for the private eye rule number one should always be look out for yourself. With the police consistently on his back, Spade needs to find who committed those murders. This is the reason why he tells Gutman that turning over either Wilmer or Cairo will be part of his deal. Perhaps the very best example of this is the final moments between Spade and O’Shaughnessy. Although he loves her, Spade will not take the fall for her crimes. He will not go on the run with her and incriminate himself either. Instead, Spade hands O’Shaughnessy over to Polhaus and Dundy with an arm full of evidence and a noticeable twinge of regret but the resolve of knowing that it is either him or her and that in the end it has to be her. This determination to always make it out in one piece is a frequent motivator for detectives in this style. This is a great pairing with their other motivational trait, trouble with women.
Interesting female characters are as much of a facet of the noir style as the private eye is himself. Often strong, attractive, and lying through her teeth, the femme fatale (who is discussed as another convention herself elsewhere in this exhibit) is the standard problem for the private eye. Either she has a problem or she is the problem and luckily the gumshoe has just the right amount smarmy attractiveness and quick wit to stay one step ahead of the whole game. Now, if he decides leave her high and dry, dump her to the police or actually fall for her depends on how badly she hurts him in the end. Because in the end, its all about who can the private eye trust. In the example of Spade, he can trust his secretary and he could eventually trust Archer’s widow if she could get her emotions under control. However, O’Shaughnessy lied to Spade from the moment she walked into his office and that is not compatible with someone who’s entire career is finding the truth.
So you have all these traits rolled into one smoky, smirking package but what are you really left with? Really, compared to most protagonists throughout film, perhaps one of the most initially unlikable yet emotionally striking character tropes in media. He’s not the war hero, he’s not the knight in shining armor, and he’s not the cop cleaning up crime. He’s Batman with less morals, a worse mouth and a shorter temper. The private eye is not a hero but he can do some rather heroic seeming things if the money is right.
By David Cody Allen