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The Private Eye

Detectives in the Movies

From Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to Jake Gittes, private eyes have made for some of the most memorable characters in cinema. We often view these detectives as lone wolves who confront and try to make sense of a violent and chaotic modern world. Bran Nicol challenges this stereotype in The Private Eye and offers a fresh take on this iconic character and the film noir genre.
Nicol traces the history of private eye movies from the influential film noirs of the 1940s to 1970s neonoir cinema, whose slow and brilliant decline gave way to the fading of detectives into movie mythology today. Analyzing a number of classic films—including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and The Long Goodbye—he reveals that while these movies are ostensibly thrillers, they are actually occupied by issues of work and love. The private eye is not a romantic hero, Nicol argues, but a figure who investigates the concealments of others at the expense of his own private life. Combining a lucid introduction to an underexplored tradition in movie history with a new approach to the detective in film, this book casts new light on the private worlds of the private eye.

224 pages | 100 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2013


Film Studies

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“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

“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

“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

Table of Contents


1. History: The Private Eye Film

2. Seeing: Literature, Film and the World of the Private Eye

3. Working: The Private Eye and the Spaces of Noir

4. Policing: Gender and Desire ‘in the Private Eye’



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