The Curious Incident of Cinema in the Night-time: The Evolution of the Mystery Genre

    Human beings are intrinsically curious creatures, locked in a lifelong search for answers to the questions they perpetually pose. Perhaps that is a clue as to why, ever since its cinematic inception, the mystery genre has appealed to humanity’s natural predisposition to investigate the world around them. Over time, the mystery genre has morphed and metamorphosed in tandem with the culture in which it has been produced. From the mystique surrounding a missing bird statuette to the tale of a private-eye investigating the sunbaked, seedy underbelly of pre-war Southern California, these stories demonstrate the ways in which the mystery genre has changed from the Classical to the Modernist period. As such, they prove that the genre functions as a metaphorical mirror of sorts; it reflects the values of the society that existed at the time, thereby showcasing the worldview that is embedded in its stories. Ultimately, the mystery genre has undergone a stylistic evolution, sacrificing closure for open endings, opting to play with point of view to a greater extent, and embracing a self-conscious engagement with social values. Both The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Chinatown (1974) compellingly demonstrate how such developments were a byproduct of the reaction to rapid cultural changes of the time. In doing so, these films illustrate that the impetus for the aforementioned evolution is not much of a mystery at all.

    The mystery genre underwent a thematic transformation 1930s to the mid-‘70s, going from homogeneous to heterogeneous narratives and abandoning any and all sense of cinematic closure. As it pertained to said genre, the Classical period was characterized by an unambiguous world in which there was causality, and, by extension, closure. This is best exemplified in John Huston’s noir-mystery classic The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which hard-boiled detective hero Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself at the center of a frantic search for a jeweled falcon. The film itself is an exemplar of the mystery genre during the Classical period, taking place in a world that is both literally and figuratively black and white. Its clear-cut nature is evident from the start, as Spade is the sole good guy protagonist, the only one the audience can trust. To observe Spade is to bear witness to the birth of a fundamental film character: that of the man who teems with human tragedy for a living, who exposes others’ secrets while running from his own. As he is “a cynically defensive loner,” it becomes obvious that it will be Spade against the world for the duration of the story (Wexman 47). This tactic permits the viewer to empathize and identify with his character, thereby feeling as though they are solving the case of the missing statuette alongside him. Single, goal-oriented protagonists were hallmarks of the Classical period for this very reason. When Spade ultimately solves his case and confronts the woman who had his colleague murdered, the film relies on exposition to explain the causes and effects of her actions so as to provide a satisfying sense of closure. Moreover, it subscribes to a clear-cut, binary social order rooted in universal truth, proving that the bad guy will inevitably be made to pay for their actions.

    Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) marks a shift from the aforementioned genre conventions, opting for a narrative rooted in happenstance and heterogeneity. The neo-noir mystery film tells the tale of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private eye who sees the seamy side of Southern California during a seemingly routine infidelity case. Chinatown differs from The Maltese Falcon in that it embraces ambiguity, both morally and as it pertains to the plot, in spite of the key elements of the mystery genre that it possesses: a femme fatale, a workaholic detective, and a plot that is riddled with more questions than answers. “But while its story follows what at first appears an obvious path to solution and satisfactory closure...slowly but surely bigger, wider and more imponderable issues...begin to make [Gittes’] investigation a fatalistic pursuit” (Scott, 2007). While Spade follows the rules of the genre, Gittes illustrates them. He can be sharp-edged and tell dirty jokes like Spade, but his character comes across as more detached, sympathetic, even. Like a prototypical private-eye of the genre, he isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with pigs in the mud, but unlike the majority of them, he doesn’t relish the experience. Thus, the film adheres to one of the basic tenents of Modernism: a journey for meaning. Gittes is made to reject the world he has been presented in his search for truth, deriving meaning from himself and his personal journey rather than his job or his title. It is in this way that Chinatown represents a stark contrast from films of the Classical period, rejecting clear-cut binaries and, in so doing, communicating that truth is much more of a nebulous concept than meets the eye.

    Both The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown illustrate the shift in point of view that occurred within the mystery genre from the Classical to the Modernist period; while the former relies on a primarily omniscient perspective, the latter adopts a radically subjective one. In The Maltese Falcon, detective Spade’s environment is menacing and unpredictable, as conveyed through several jarring shot compositions and intense close-ups. As was the case with many Americans during the war and postwar years, Spade does not trust anyone: “[the] world continually threatens him, and he must gain dominance over it in order to establish control over his own life” (Wexman 47). The film thus takes on the qualities of an exterior melodrama - a hallmark of the Classical period - as Spade’s environment is a manifestation of his own emotional, moral, and psychological issues. In spite of this, the point of view remains omniscient, as evidenced by the camerawork. The shot-reverse-shot pattern, for instance, serves the purpose of “[clarifying] the cause-effect flow of the narrative” while maintaining a degree of distance (Bordwell and Thompson 234). As a direct result, one is presented with a bird’s-eye view of the action, taking in the scene as it occurs. Rather than reveal the thoughts or feelings of the characters, the filmmakers allow the audience to observe and subsequently draw their own conclusions. Thus, The Maltese Falcon - in addition to similar mystery-noir films from the Classical period - “reflects the change in the moral outlook of postwar America” (Landau 3). Screwball comedies and heartwarming romps eventually gave way to narratives rooted in reality, all of which helped shape the mystery genre by mirroring the experience of the country and changing with the times.

    In stark contrast to its mystery-noir predecessor, Chinatown takes a cue from the Modernist period by embracing a selective, subjective point of view. The events that occur throughout the film are only seen by its private-eye protagonist; anything that happens in Gittes’ absence is not shown on screen. Polanski admits to “[putting] Gittes into sharper focus, partly by using a radical style of subjective point-of-view in which he filmed much of the movie over Nicholson’s shoulder” (Iorio, 1999). This technique gives the film a voyeuristic perspective, especially as it pertains to certain camera shots. Although Chinatown is replete with narrative twists and turns, it is ultimately its cinematography that augments the general feeling of suspense that pervades the story. By placing the viewer in Gittes’ shoes - or, rather, permitting them to see the world through his eyes - the film offers a great deal of intimacy to his character. Moreover, it marks a discernible shift from earlier films from the mystery genre in which the viewer was merely a passive observer of the action, as was the case with The Maltese Falcon; with Chinatown, they are an active participant. Several shots are framed to fit Gittes’ perspective, such as in an early scene where he tails the subject of an adultery investigation. As he holds a pair of binoculars to his eyes, a double-circular frame appears on screen, the edges blurred by an out-of-focus black mask so as to mimic the experience of peering through them. Similar effects are achieved with rear view mirrors or by placing an object of interest at a distance to match Gittes’ point of view as he attempts to stay out of sight. This causes the audience to continue questioning until Gittes, and by extension, themselves, uncover the ugly truth.  

    The mystery genre has undergone a notable shift in the way in which it expresses social norms on screen; while films from the Classical period actively abide by the status quo, films from the Modernist period self-consciously engage with it in order to subvert it. This change can be attributed to the environment that existed at the time, in addition to the values that persisted during the period in question. The Maltese Falcon, for instance, takes an incredibly straightforward approach, giving the audience someone to root for in the form of Sam Spade and painting everyone else as the enemy. This sort of ending is reflective of the society in which the film was produced: “[as] the country entered the Second World War, many politicians wanted more uplifting entertainment,” as “[they] thought it was more patriotic to keep people’s spirits up” (Landau 7). In their own offbeat way, many mystery-noir films do just that, showcasing good triumphing over evil and making sense from a superfluity of chaos. Spade’s character is also a product of the aforementioned societal circumstances, with his lower-class origins tying him to those who were experiencing the effects of the war firsthand. That being said, he gives the common man something to strive towards: although he is “threatened by the brutality of the urban milieu that [surrounds] him, he [has] the toughness and wit ultimately to win out over it” (Wexman 45). Spade’s character is rendered admirable for his persistent nature and the ways in which he triumphs over his enemies. He ultimately reflects the black and white world in which The Maltese Falcon was brought into: a world of good versus evil, the winning side of the war versus the losing side.

    Chinatown demonstrates a similar knowledge of social norms, but chooses to question and subvert them rather than subscribe to them. The film takes a preexisting genre - mystery - and imbues it with things from life so that its protagonist may experience a personal journey in a familiar world. Its screenwriter, Robert Towne, admitted that his aim was “[not] to do an exotic movie about Maltese falcons and jewel-encrusted birds but to take a crime that was right in front of your face, that was as basic as water and power” and use it as fodder for a story (King, 2004). As Modernism was born out of the rapid cultural changes of the Industrial Revolution with regards to urbanization and technology, this sort of subject matter was par for the course. The film builds upon the foundations of classic mystery-noir, taking inspiration from its predecessor but pushing the genre into unexplored territory for 1970s Hollywood. During the era when the film was made, violence and sex were beginning to become less taboo subjects and, as a result, more visually explicit. Thus, much is made of the fact that the opening scene of the film features photographs of a couple engaged in illicit fornication. Chinatown is undoubtedly a Modernist film in that “it was one of the first to echo Hollywood’s own history by ironically placing a past master of traditional noir, John Huston, into the heart of the story as the movie’s evil business magnate, Noah Cross” (Scott, 2007). This character device serves as a relevant reminder of the film’s lineage, as Huston directed The Maltese Falcon thirty-three years prior. By casting Huston in a substantial role and recreating 1930s Los Angeles in incredible detail, Chinatown conveys its indebtedness to his iconic film through its return to its cinematic roots. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates the distance that filmmakers have traveled from the world of Bogarts and bird statues, and how the mystery genre has gradually metamorphosed over time.

    At first glance, the mystery genre may appear to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in a question, incapable of being understood for the changes it has undergone. That being said, the case is much easier to crack than one may think, as the evolution of the genre itself is directly linked to that of culture. During the Classical period, audiences craved realistic narratives to meet the moment of the second World War and all that came with it. Thus, mystery films showcased cynical detective heroes prevailing over gun-toting bad guys, such as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. In so doing, they gave viewers someone to root for, something to identify with. In stark contrast to films of this period, Modernism marked the beginning of a self-conscious, cinematic engagement with social and moral values as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. Stories were less clear-cut, and protagonists embarked on personal journeys in which conventional ways of being were challenged so as to showcase the ingenuity and innovative spirit of the period, as is the case with Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Ultimately, this stylistic evolution indicates that the only true constant in cinema is change; as long as culture continues to experience this, so, too, will genre. Like an unapologetically curious feline with multiple lives, the mystery genre will continue to reincarnate as it always has, experiencing an endless transformation in an ever-changing world.

︎ Works Cited

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print. Huston, John, director.

Iorio, Paul. “Sleuthing 'Chinatown'.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 9 July ‘1999,  

King, Susan. “A Vintage L.A. Story.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 15 Nov. 2004,

Landau, David. Film Noir Production: The Whodunit of the Classic American Mystery Film. Taylor and Francis, 2016, doi:10.4324/9781315511733. 

Polanski, Roman, director. Chinatown. Penthouse, 1974.

Scott, Ian S. “'Either You Bring the Water to L.A. or You Bring L.A. to the Water'.”

European Journal of American Studies, European Association for American Studies, 17 Oct. 2007, 

Wexman, Virginia Wright. “Kinesics and Film Acting: Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 7, no. 1, Taylor & Francis Group, 1978, pp. 42–55, doi:10.1080/01956051.1978.9944191.