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December 1996, Week 1


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"Brian P. Taves" <[log in to unmask]>
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Brian P. Taves
Wed, 27 Nov 1996 13:37:57 -0500
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Since this subject has been brought up on both ScreenL and Hfilm, I'm
cross-posting this to both lists.
> was pointed out to me that the hard boiled detective (that we associate
> with--among other names--d hammett) is clearly a descendent of
>    the lonesome cowboy:
>          the [definitively?] masculinist hero/protagonist who operates
> pretty much alone, observes a moral code that may well require the breaking
> of legal codes, whose life intesects with that of some woman but who remains
> alone and lonely, and whose success at [re]solving the specific problem posed
> by the plot nevertheless does not end up as a comic [that is, redeemed]
> character but insists on holding on to a more tragic or ironic posture and
> destiny
>         now all of this seemed so obvious when pointed out  that i could
> hardly believe that it had never occurred to me before . . . indeed it was
>         1.  is this idea as obvious and compelling as i for the moment
> think, or is there something i'm missing that might throw a monkey wrench
> into what is a too facile equation?
> icons you're interested in.  In THE SIX-GUN MYSTIQUE, though, Cawelti
> challenges the critical cliche that the cop film (a la DIRTY HARRY) is
> basically "a western in modern dress."  (I can also give you Cawelti's
> We *could* trace the lineage of the detective back to the cowboy back to
> the frontiersperson (Cooper's Leatherstocking might be the archetypal example)
> back to the knight errant (a point of comparison explicitly made by Chandler
> in his novels) and back to the oral tradition hero (from Beowulf to Sundiata).
> An archetypal critic would say there'
> s a lesson in this pattern, but I'm more interested in the variations myself.
> In particular, there are the variations afforded by specific socio-political
> moments.  For example, Chandler creates Phillip Marlow in answer to the
> British tradition (actually derived from Poe's Dupin) of the reclusive
I'd like to amplify the responses of a number of my colleagues here, some
excerpted above, most of which I agree with. The problem is the same as
introduced a few weeks back on ScreenL in the question of whether a
western can be a western if not set in the west.  The basic concept Mike
Frank mentions, of the hardboiled detective's relationship to the lone
cowboy hero, makes an interesting discussion for a film class, or even a
speculative thesis investigating parallels along archetypal lines.
(Indeed, these sorts of comparisons can be made between many modern genres
and ancient storytelling patterns.)
However, from the standpoint of understanding either the detective or the
western genre, or even the common elements between them, this type of
argument fails in some important ways on a necessary practical level.
More significant than the cross-fertilization between the genres is the
specific evolution of that generic tradition itself.  As another post
noted, the hardboiled detective and the western genres were evolving
simultaneously in the pulp magazines from the 1880s through the 1920s, and
the conventions there governed, to a large degree, what eventually
appeared in film.  Indeed, the specialization of the pulps helped define
some of the various genres for popular audiences in a way that impacted
the plan and reception of films.
For instance, the Marlowe character could be traced to the cerebral Dupin,
or to his successor, Sherlock Holmes, who (in his literary, not cinematic
manifestation) is often operating outside the means and the ends of the
law, with his own methods and semi-legal assistants. And there was the
rest of the English detective tradition, more in line with social norms
and accepted behavior (Christie, Sayers) to which the hardboiled mode was
Further, the urban setting of the detective and the other types of
underworld and police characters s/he is surrounded by, are far different
from the specific (if mythicized) historical time and locale in which the
westerner exists.  The notion of frontier, and new settlements, that is at
the heart of the lone western hero's relation to society has been
replaced, in the case of the detective, with modern urban problems--crime,
overcrowding, ghettoization, ethnic rivalries, gangs, drugs--of the very
sort the westerner fled.  Context is vital to defining genre, and to
remove those elements and say this detective is a
westerner-in-modern-times, or a detective in science fiction, elides those
elements that make for very basic differences that make up the various
By contrast, one way the study of such parallels might be most fruitful
would be where these lines are blurred, such as in the many westerns using
a contemporary setting, which was typical of many westerns into the 1940s,
especially those made on a low-budget and emphasizing the cowboy vs.
cattle rustler (or whatever lawbreaker) storyline as opposed to the cowboy
vs. Indian theme.
Brian Taves
Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division
Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.  20540
202-707-2371 (fax)
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