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Hollywood’s Detectives

Crime Series in the 1930s and 1940s from the Whodunnit to Hard-Boiled Noir

Fran Mason


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Hardcover. ix+187 p. ISBN 978-0230578357. £50.00


Reviewed by Delphine Letort

Université du Maine – Le Mans




Fran Mason’s book on the 1930s’ and 1940s’ Hollywood crime fiction series provides an interesting insight into an overlooked sub-genre of detective fiction. Cheaply made as B features in the context of the double bill, which aimed at attracting spectators whom the Depression deterred from going to the cinema, the detective series presented by the author offer curious variations on the English formula of the whodunit, appropriating such figures as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Leslie Charteris’ The Saint and Michael Arlen’s Falcon. While Fran Mason highlights the creative constraints of working within Hollywood with B-level budgets, he also focuses on the relationship between the literary sources and their film adaptations to pinpoint how Dashiell Hammett, S.S. Van Dine, Earl Derr Biggers, John P. Marquand, among others, contributed to renewing the archetypal figures of the genre by presenting crime as more completely integrated into American society.

Conceived as 60 to 70-minute programmes, the films of the series display specific stylistic features which Fran Mason spotlights through the six chapters of his study. The scholar enhances the multifarious character of the detective whose persona—and sometimes that of the actor performing his role—determines the crime text. The detective’s role is shaped by the plot: the sense of mystery generated by the enigma to be solved sheds light on his detection in the whodunit, while suspense prevails in the action-based thriller. Drawing on a rich critical background which ranges from literary theory (Todorov) to film noir studies (Bordwell, Cawelti, Doane, Kaplan, Krutnik, Telotte, etc.), Fran Mason examines the series as a cultural production whose discourse he analyses in light of the hard-boiled tradition which became the dominant mode in the 1940s. The figure of the private detective is a significant trope in film noir, with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe embodying “the detective’s integrity by his resistance to economic temptation” [139]; however, film noir detectives are more often than not embodied by victim heroes “stumbling about blindly or powerlessly within a world they cannot control, subject to the corruptions and seductions of a fallen society, particularly in the form of desire and money, as an obstacle to masculine empowerment” [139].

Although Mason provides critical comments on films noirs, his most illuminating remarks concern the B-series he views as hybrid forms, intersecting the whodunit mode with screwball conventions in The Thin Man. The 13-year long MGM series may depict the wealthy as corrupt and immoral; however, the domestic situation of Nick and Nora Charles counterbalances the criminal elements of the narratives, providing textual pleasure rather than social comments on American society [31]. Mason retraces the evolution of the detective’s status from ‘The Thin Man’ style to the textual worlds of ‘Charlie Chan’ and ‘Mr Moto’, whose Asian origins became synonymous with qualities of harmony, tradition and serenity in the highly popular series. Peter Lorre’s interpretation of Mr Moto added complexity to the persona because “as a Hungarian émigré from Nazi Germany playing a Japanese agent he draws attention to the placelessness of the textual world of the series and its representation of the dislocations of global politics to suggest that personal allegiances are variable and temporary”[106].

Crime is not treated in moral terms in most B-films which foreground action and mystery as entertaining devices. Significantly, the criminal detective introduces ambiguity in The Saint and The Falcon series, moving between law and crime to return society to order. Mason underscores the transformations that underpin adaptation, for instance pointing that the Saint becomes a chivalric detective with a shady past in the American series while he is drained of criminal associations in its English version. The Sherlock Holmes series, first produced by Twentieth Century Fox and later by Universal, offers the character a diversity of settings where he can perform his detection skills: whether he plays the role of a spy-hunter, an active male hero in the manner of the investigative thriller or a special agent, he personifies English Victorian values and signifies stability and integrity—which, nevertheless, makes it impossible for him to fit into the hard-boiled world of film noir. To conclude, Fran Mason invites the reader to rediscover the B film series as entertainment culture which both contrasts and anticipates the darker tones of film noir. His detailed analysis reveals the rich subtext of a genre that has been granted little scholarly attention because of its B-status.


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