His work habits are abominable. He is busiest when the sky over the city is a grey suspicion of dawn, the hour when streetwalkers quit, grifters count their take, and busted junkies begin to jitter with the inside sweats. He is a loner, but his world is filled with friends. He knows the cop with the abused arches, the complaisant heiress, the slick saloon proprietor, the sick comic, the sullen stoolie who talks in the guarded whisper of cell block and exercise yard. He is furiously honest, but he can spot a rigged wheel with a sharper's skill. He is hard-muscled, handsome, handy with a snub-nosed .38, and his hide is as though as the bluing on a pistol barrel. Decent, disillusioned and altogether incredible, he is a soap opera Superman. He is television's "Private Eye."
Smarter than the cops, craftier than the crooks, to quick to be caught and domesticated by the classiest doll, TV's private detective runs second to only one competitor in the race for ratings. So far, in a season riddled with old scandals and new specials, the Cowpoke is still top draw, but the Eye has impressive fire power, and by year's end may well be top gun. The TV tally sheet already lists 62 shows (network and syndicated) devoted to some variation of Cops & Robbers. Police detectives practice their profession on the networks only a few hours a week; it is the civilian shamus who lays down by far the heaviest barrage. At least 15 of the Private Eyes now visible have survived other seasons; the four newcomers--Staccato, Philip Marlowe, Bourbon Street Bear, Hawaiian Eye--came on behind a resounding drum roll of publicity. On the ABC network alone there are twelve detective shows, three of them back-to-back on Friday nights.
This surge of interest in the armed support of law and order calls for a combined budget of upwards of $1,250,000 a week--a bankroll that supports sleuths ranging from a corn-fed country operative named Hannibal Cobb, who appears in five minute syndicated slices, to a brand-new sunburned entry, Hawaiian Eye, with a mixture of leis and lead, and a full hour on the screen. As the corpses pile up in the living room, citizens who know crime from the tabloids follow the Eyes like men on the trail of their most desperate hope. And as the evenings pass, one Eye blurs inevitable into another, a TV trouble that even an honest repairman cannot cure.
Tricks & Schticks. Each Eye is an unabashed copy of the last. Characters who ought to be able to trace their lineage all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe have been changed by their packagers until each one looks and sounds like the spawn of a supercilious contemporary named Peter Gunn. Ever since last fall, when Gunn began to impress the public as a guy who could probably carry out his own dead--and ever since the program's hipped-up background jazz began to sell on disks--the TV imitators have been at work. Just as Stu Bailey's 77 Sunset Strip is a far-out California version of Gunn, the new Hawaiian Eye might well be called 77 Waikiki. Johnny Staccato take the audience back to Manhattan, but, though Star John Cassaveters is an actor of considerable talent, this time he is only Gunn at the piano, in a minor key. Diamond and Marlowe are Gunn from the cut of their Ivy League threads to the last high-rising whine of their score. Like Gunn's, their faces are stiff with concern for their clients--or anyway, with something that makes their faces stiff.
Tough as they are, the TV Eyes have been manhandled by scriptwriters. All that they have of their own is an occasional schtick (a show business adaptation of a Yiddish word meaning bit, or gimmick). Gunn has Edie Hart (Lola Albright), an insinuating saloon singer who keeps his hearth warm while he prowls the streets. Staccato has his Steinway, which is hardly an adequate substitute. Richard Diamond comes considerably closer with Sam, a sultry answering-service operator who never slinks into camera range above her comely neck. Sunset Strip has Kookie (Edd Byrnes), a bop-talking car jockey minus a haircut. Philip Marlowe has to make do with a suggestive scar on his cheek.
Moments of Truth. But under the schticks, they all have the same style. They start work on a case with hardly enough leverage to lift a dime off a cigar-store counter; they consult their pals from the far edge of the underworld to the higher echelons of the police. It is proper this season for TV Private Eyes to get along with the police, a typically unrealistic TV compromise, for even on TV no real cop would dream of asking a detective for so much as the loan of a leather-covered sap. Of course the Eyes absorb their beating, and in the end they beat the cops to the kill. "The whodunits we make," says Marlowe Producer-writer Gene Wang are as ritualistic as a bullfight.
A veteran of Perry Mason and radio's Thin Man, Wang speaks with authority. "The bullfight parade," he explains, "is, for us, the parade of suspects. The entrance of the torero is the entrance of the detective, the point at which he takes the case. You cannot leave the audience wondering why the detective's clients have not gone to the police. The cape work is when the detective sees his various suspects. The picadors come on, and it's the time of murder. The moment of truth is when the Private Eye says, 'You killed Cock Robin.'"
Faithful to this rigid ritual, few writers busy paying for their swimming pools and thunderbirds with Private Eye cash could take the facetious oath of Britain's Detection Club--that their heroes "shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them...not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery Pokery, coincidence or the Act of God."
Like the Western. TV's Private Eye certainly cannot lay claim to realism, either. His real-life counterparts work out of the country's 5,000 agencies (and earn a collective income of about $250 million a year), not out of swank bars and seedy clip joints. They spend more time at plant protection or gathering over-the-transom divorce evidence than avenging mink-clad corpses. TV Eyes, says San Francisco's crew-cut professional Eye, Hal Lipsett, are altogether too tough. They ignore the real Eye's tricky devices and subtle techniques--the television phone tape, the hidden recorder, the infrared camera, the fish-hook microphone (which can be cast as lightly as a dry fly onto an upper-story windowsill). On TV, the Eyes shoot the joint up like maniacs, or "they all throw their revolvers away and use their fists and are too damn smart. A good Private Eye doesn't get in trouble--he doesn't get hit with surprises. If you do a decent job, you don't have violence." In 13 years of sleuthing, says 41-year-old Investigator Lipsett, he ahs been involved in only one serious scrape.
And yet, despite all the stereotyping, the TV Eye, can be topnotch entertainment. He is what sometime Saturday Review Critic John Paterson called "every man's romantic conception of himself: the glorification of toughness, irreverence, and a sense of decency almost too confused to show itself." The Private Eye is the ordinary citizen "become suddenly, magically aggressive, become purified by righteous and legitimate anger--and become, at last, devastatingly effective." Properly presented, he is much a part of American legend as the super-cowboy, just surely escapes the conventional rule-ridden world by taking the law into his own hands. He does not know the wide-open spaces or the purple sage, but the narrow, closed-in spaces of saloons, and the wind-swept, nighttime highway can give him a similar sense of freedom. "The Private Eye Show," says David (Richard Diamond) Janssen, "has the same elements as the western: the hero is invincible; he gets the girl and never marries her; the convertible car has replaced the horse."
Marvel of Mobility. Stubborn addicts of the classic whodunit consider the TV Eye a boor. Some paperback browsers, still slavering over Mickey Spillane's sleuthing satyrs, consider him a sissy. But the TV Eye often has more taste than his critics. At his best, he is a healthy step backward toward the hardboiled heroes who swaggered onto the American scene in the novels of Dashiell Jammett and Raymond Chandler.
The literary investigator has been around for little more than 100 years. The world's first detective bureau was established in Paris by Eugéne Francois Vidocq in 1817, but it was not until 1841 that Edgar Allan Poe recognized the adventure available to a man who was a detective without being a public cop. Auguste Dupin, the intellectual Eye who was the hero of Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, was a Parisian gentleman devoted to the dual task of outthinking a murderer and outwitting the police.
The pattern was contagious, and neither Poe nor his immediate successors seemed anxious to move it back to America. The first big geographical jump came in 1887, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought him to London in the guise of Sherlock Holmes. Like Dupin, Holmes was an intellectual athlete, and socially he was a marvel of mobility, at home with scholars, society bluebloods, police inspectors. "Holmes." wrote Social Historian David Bazelon, "despite his eccentricities, is essentially an English gentleman acting to preserve a moral way of life." From Dickens' unfinished teaser The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to the 20th century whimsy of Dorothy L. Sayers, crime was cleaned up until it became an intellectual puzzle, as safe for the amusement of high-chokered ladies as it was satisfying to the fantasies of highangled gentlemen.
Even after the mystery came back to the U.S., through the first two decades of the 20th century, crimes were committed in the grand old English manner. Murder was still a puzzle, and whether S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen or H.C. Bailey were writing the rules, the man who found the answer was a citizen of superior intellect. Whatever he collected for the job, he actually worked the intellectual satisfaction. It was not until 1929 that a slim, sardonic operator named Samuel Dashiell Hammett published Red Harvest and gave murder--to say nothing of lesser crimes--back to the people who are ordinarily involved.
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