Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book: The Detective in Hollywood, by Jon Tuska (1978)

If I’ve learned one thing from the big dogs of the noir circuit, it’s the importance, nay, the necessity of documentation. Talk directly to the people who made the movies, get them on the record, create a body of knowledge. (Exhibit A, as I’ve said before: Eddie Muller’s one-of-a-kind Dark City Dames.)

That’s what makes Jon Tuska’s overview of the private eye genre so vital. He did the legwork when there were still plenty of people around to interview, like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Montgomery.

Even more impressive is that he committed to this undertaking in those dimly remember’d days before video and the internet, when research of this kind meant hard work. Tuska sat down with Lloyd Nolan, who played Michael Shayne, and Nolan brought along something a fan sent that might be helpful: a typewritten list of all of Nolan’s films. An asterisk by the title meant the fan owned a print of the movie.

Tuska’s work is exhaustive but never tiring, guiding you through now-neglected series like the Crime Doctor and Mr. Wong, telling you which Charlie Chan films are worth your while. The chapter on The Thin Man movies also includes their many imitators. Tuska writes with wit and affection, but also a sharp critical eye. Some of his positions I agree with (dismissing all of Boston Blackie), some I don’t (no way is The Drowning Pool better than Harper). And the few stances he cheerily admits are heretical – such as claiming that Montgomery’s subjective camera Lady in the Lake is superior to both Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep – are so persuasively argued that I’m willing to give the movies in question another look. The book ends with an affectionate appraisal of the ‘70s troika of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Late Show.

I first learned about the book from Ed Gorman, who wonders why it never got its due. Having read it, I’m now asking the same question. Tuska updated it in 1988 as In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. I’m going to need a copy of one version or the other to call my own. Any fan of The Whistler is welcome around here.