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198 × 120 mm
224 pages
108 illustrations
06 May 2013

The Private Eye Detectives in the Movies Bran Nicol

Since the early days of cinema, the private eye has been one of its most memorable characters, often viewed as a romantic hero, a ‘lone wolf’ who confronts and tries to make sense of a violent and chaotic modern world. In The Private Eye Bran Nicol challenges this stereotype, offering a fresh take on iconic figures such as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Jake Gittes, and a cogent reappraisal of film noir.

Analysing a wide range of films, including classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and The Long Goodbye, Nicol traces the history of the private eye movie from the influential film noirs of the 1940s, through innovative 1970s neo-noir cinema, to the presence of the private eye in movie mythology today. He reveals that although these films are exciting thrillers, they are nevertheless preoccupied by ‘domestic’ issues: work, home and love. Rather than fearless investigation, Nicol argues, the private eye’s job is really about unveiling the private lives and private spaces of others, an achievement which comes at the expense of his own private life.

Combining a lucid introduction to an under-explored tradition in movie history with a novel approach to the detective in film, this book casts new light on the private worlds of the private eye.

‘With his fedora and old overcoat, wisecracks, hard drinking, womanising and dislike of authority the private eye is an instantly recognisable figure in 20th-century cinema. Bran Nicol investigates the history of the private eye in film noir and more recent private eye movies, such as Robert Altman’s 1973 “masterful” movie The Long Goodbye, and argues his role is to unveil “private spaces, private lives, hidden selves” . . . An insightful survey of an iconic hero of the silver screen.’ – The Guardian

‘we also enjoy it because the private eye movie is one of the great entertainment genres of the last century, and it isn’t quite dead yet. Nicol’s book will provide the seasoned noir-ist with more clues to hunt down, or introduce the curious novice to a new film universe.’ – Prospect magazine

‘a valuable introduction to a busy corner of film studies’ – TLS

‘Nicol takes a left-field approach to the history and cultural life of a familiar figure, examining the tensions between public and private that make the detective’s particular brand of masculinity so problematic and so enduring. Full of stills, The Private Eye provides an ideal introduction to the cinematic sleuth, working particularly well as a counterpart to more stylistically focused analyses of film noir and neo-noir. The volume complements and extends other work on gender and sexuality in the crime film, and unearths new ways to think about the simultaneous quests for personal, romantic, and investigative fulfilment that characterise the detective film.’ – Viewfinder

‘Nicol’s work is well-researched and does an excellent job of intersecting various theories. By focusing on the character of the private eye, Nicol gives clarity to this one dimension in the ongoing discussion of film noir.’ – Literature Film Quarterly

‘It is fun to read . . . and absorb Nicol’s thoughtful ideas about films, heroes, and society. . . . Private eyes in the movies are heroes, but Nicol points out that they are seldom seen that way by their on-screen companions.’ – Columbus Dispatch

‘With a keen touch for cinematic detail, Bran Nicol focuses on the private in classic Hollywood’s conception of the private eye. Not the male heroism usually associated with this stock figure of film noir but rather his partial vision is exposed to our view; his subjective engagement in a world that has rendered him homeless. After reading this compelling chronicle our conception of the solitary detective, sacrificing his life for an idiosyncratic sense of moral right, has changed forever’ – Elisabeth Bronfen, University of Zurich

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Bran Nicol is Professor of English Literature at the University of Surrey. His previous books include Stalking (Reaktion, 2006).

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