“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” – Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Detective fiction as we recognize it today began with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which featured a detective, C. Auguste Dupin, investigating said murders and discovering the truth by a combination of observation, deduction and intuition. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie perfected the British style of detective story, which were likely to end with a suspects gathered around the dinner table while the detective expounds how he or she arrived at the infallible conclusion. There is one movie in today’s Flickchart Top Ten list that copies (or parodies) that final dinner party, though it is by American Dashiell Hammett (whose birthday, not coincidentally, would have been this week). All the others trace their lineage, directly or indirectly, back to Hammett’s milieu, American hard-boiled detective fiction.
The quote above is from an essay by Raymond Chandler, perhaps the best known hard-boiled writer of them all, but Chandler is full of praise for Hammett, who took detectives out of drawing rooms and put them in alleys, who exchanged precious witticisms for the rough but honest talk of the street, and who created, especially in his recurrent hero Sam Spade, the kind of detective Chandler speaks of. This is the detective of noir and the precursor of neo-noir, though as you might expect, neo-noir complicates the Hammett/Chandler “man of honor.” There are plenty of detective movies about Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and even Auguste Lupin – in fact, Sherlock Holmes vies with Dracula for most number of screen appearances – but the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the cinematic world strike a chord. Theirs is the cinematic heritage that looms largest, and that’s reflected in Flickchart’s Top Ten.
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