Canaries & Cafetieres: Innards Of A Noir Detective

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Michael Caine making coffee at the beginning of The Ipcress FileAt the beginning of the 1965 spy classic The Ipcress File, we are shown the fine details of our hero’s world. The camera surveys Harry Palmer’s (Michael Caine) flat, revealing two half drunk glasses of brandy, neat bronze crockery, and watches as he grinds fresh coffee, precisely scoops and then pours it. This is his flat, it is a place where he has lived for some time, it is his private space.

Humphrey Bogart sam spade maltese falcon

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

We rarely get to see the insides of our hero’s worlds in noir crime and spy dramas as they are often too busy breaking down the doors of unsuspecting crooks and damsels, terrorising someone else’s personal space. Their space tends to remain off limits from the camera, which usually peers over their shoulder observing all from the protagonist’s point of view as they quip and smoke and scrap. Unusually for the time, The Ipcress File used this physical property to show the refined innards of our normally stoic and stereotypically masculine protagonist, as crystallised in Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade characters who saunter in and out of other people’s lives, cracking wise. The camera keeps them safe from view and protects this 1940s man from being truly seen or becoming emotionally exposed.

The archetype grew in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with the comically violent Mike Hammer and his flashy apartment, lined with trinkets, loud art and expensive new tech. We are encouraged to scrutinise him and get a shot inside his brash ostentatious head as he plods his way through the mystery which is, mockingly, hidden within a poem. The unrefined postwar man is left floundering by something more complex than insults and punching.

Gene Hackman playing saxophone in The Conversation

The Conversation (1974) – Love what you’ve done with the place.

Kiss Me Deadly was made in the heat of McCarthy era paranoia and was altered at the request of the censors. A generation later and the same issues of state intrusion had bubbled to the surface again following the Watergate scandal, this time brilliantly captured by Francis Ford Coppola in The Conversation (1974). Gene Hackman plays the guilt ridden private surveillance expert Harry Caul who, unlike his barrel chested Jimmy Doyle in The French Connection (1971), intrudes at arm’s length through bugging. We see more of Caul’s personal space than almost any investigator before. In a devastating fit of paranoia that he himself has been bugged, Caul rips his apartment to the bone. We are shown for the first time the raw anxieties that rattle in the head of the detective, anxieties which have probably always been there but have become more relevant than the crimes which he investigates and so more central to the camera’s focus.

PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) reflects on much of this, and shows through the detective’s hazy vision and slurred speech, how slippery memory, history and truth can be. In chasing the unreal icon of the utopian ‘60s dream in Shasta Fey Hepworth, Doc Sportello unwittingly watches as the smoke of the dream clears to reveal a more brutal network of cults, police, government and property developers. As with Blade Runner (1982) and Chinatown (1974), Anderson deliberately uses Los Angeles, a city built by the film industry, as the lush illusory backdrop for his film. As if to remind us that many of these modern dreams and aspirations were seeds planted by Hollywood, and that there is in fact a brilliant joy to be had in revelling in its fiction that it has blossomed.

In his context, Doc is a brilliantly original character, but there is nothing necessarily different about each of these characters from Bogart’s archetype and those which preceded him. They are all relatively expressionless and emotionally cagey. They are all equally reluctant to give anything away. All see the world bathed in booze or narcotics (‘doper’s memory’). What changed was the thematic and physical point upon which the camera fixed. Where once the personal space of their protagonists had been off limits, now they came centre stage and showed the fraught psyche from the collected exterior. You can’t help but feel that a version of Bogartian gumshoe in today’s world would be laughed out of the auditorium.

Le Samourai apartment wide shot

Le Samourai (1967) – Love what you’ve done with the place.

Five years prior to The Conversation Jean-Pierre Melville had his anti-hero hitman Jef Costello live in a sparse and lifeless room too, in Le Samourai (1967). The film’s opening credits linger over his bleak empty room decorated only with a caged canary as symbolic decoration. The room echoes Costello’s own lifeless stare as a man who who lies, steals and kills all in the name of his job. In a memorable sequence, the police chase him through the Paris Metro, signalling his presence via an electronic buzzer which lights a diode on a map of the city in police HQ. The city is vivified as a living force hostile to the individual.

Blade Runner Deckard in his apartment

Blade Runner – Deckard’s Apartment

This is something done to a greater to degree in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which creates one of the most vivid cities of any noir, taking this discussion of private vs. public space, and state surveillance to another more foreboding level. Shot on the New York set at Warner Brothers’ lot at Burbank (fittingly the site of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon) ‘LA 2019’ is dense with detail. It harks back to Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) and Lang’s Metropolis (1927) again in giving us a taste of the divisive hierarchical nature of the city; from the grubby, wet ground level streets up the way up to the great golden towers of the powerful. Our hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), digresses onto a mission of self-identity, to understand his own past in the face of a murky corporatised state which may well already control it. It is symbolic that whilst Deckard’s private space is cluttered with personal artefacts it is also sandwiched anonymously into the city complex, exposed to the subliminal blink of adverts outside.

Whether sparse and desolate or littered with personal junk, the detective’s space gradually gained centrality over time as we have become less interested in the truth which, following a legacy of lies and manipulation in the postwar era, we’ve come to recognise might well be illusory. After all, as Le Commissaire proclaims in Le Samourai:

The truth is what I say it is.”

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Part-time film writer and maker. Enjoys Mark Cousins’ voice, Mark Kermode’s hands and Lindsay Anderson’s If.

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