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Peter Corris, AuthorMy three best private eye films are as follows – in chronological order:

1 The Maltese Falcon (1941). Various stories attach to the making of this film. One, that John Huston gave Dashiell Hammett’s novel to a script assistant with the instruction to ‘just follow the book’, may be apocryphal. However, the film does follow the book very closely. Another story, that George Raft was initially offered the role of Sam Spade, is true. Raft turned the offer down, unwilling to test the inexperienced director, John Huston. Bad move; the role boosted Humphrey Bogart’s stocks and Raft never had a part as good.

Bogart, stumpy, somewhere between handsome and ugly, with a tobacco-stained voice, was a perfect Spade. He’d had a long bit-part career as a bad guy and he brought that style – the leer, the rough treatment of women, callousness – to the role of the not-quite good guy. Spade is a misanthrope whose only principle is a vague impulse to get even when his partner (whom he disliked and whose name he has had taken from the office door within hours, seemingly, of his death) is murdered.

Despite a couple of the clunky, semi-comic scenes that disfigured films of the period, the action is brisk and all the supporting players are good. Peter Lorre, in particular, was never better than in his role as the creepy, wonderfully well-named Joel Cairo.

Lines such as ‘You’re good. You’re very good,’ directed caustically by Spade to Brigid O’Shaughnessy have been stolen by other scriptwriters and novelists. Spade’s cruel summary of his relationship with Brigid after he turns her over to the cops is the essence of hard-boiled:

‘The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.’ 

2 Chinatown (1974). Robert Towne crafted the script of Chinatown for his friend Jack Nicholson and the fit was perfect. As Jake Gittes, Nicholson is utterly believable as the ruthless, on the make, reputation-tarnished 1930s private eye. Like Spade, Gittes is rough on women and his employees, cynical about motives and has an uneasy relationship with the police. Unlike Spade, he has a wicked smile and buckets of charm when he chooses.

Those are his strengths. Vanity, displayed in his natty dressing and grooming, is his weakness, which he covers up with a toughness that he employs only when deviousness and argument fail.

Director Roman Polanski created the nose-slitting scene that causes the first-time viewer to recoil. But Towne is the author of the classic telephone exchange between Gittes and a woman pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray.

‘Are you alone?’

‘Isn’t everybody?’

It’s the perfect line for Jake, who is alone at the beginning of the film and even more alone at the end.

Faye Dunaway is achingly alluring and John Huston (here he is again) is the embodiment of evil as the rapacious, incestuous Noah Cross. Although played out in the high, bright sun of Southern California. Chinatown is dark at the heart, true noir.

3 Night Moves (1975) presented a contemporary version of the classic private eye film, although it retains the essential characteristics of the books and films of the 1940s and 1950s. Harry Moseby, played convincingly by Gene Hackman, shares Spade’s and Gittes’s cynicism and resourcefulness, but we learn more about him and he isn’t a loner. In keeping with the literary private eyes of more recent times, he is married, but rockily so. He is also an ex-football player, brought down by a bad knee. A friend remembers a pass Harry held at the Super Bowl. ‘Yeah, it stuck pretty good,’ Harry says.

Again, like more modern detectives, Moseby travels over long distances by plane and meets a wide variety of characters. One, played superbly by a very young James Woods, comes up with one of the great lines in the film:

‘Any message if I run into Delly?’ Harry asks the runaway’s ex-boyfriend.

‘Just be driving a truck.’

Unlike Spade and Gittes, Moseby is something of a moralist. The runaway’s stepfather admits to having had sex with her, his excuse being her nymphette appeal.

‘ Well, you’ve seen her. God, there ought to be a law,’ he says.

‘There is,’ says Harry.

I find the climactic scene in Night Moves ambiguous, which is fine. In the best private eye stories the social, political or moral fabric is rent and can’t be wholly restored.