- Space and the Amateur Detective in Contemporary Hollywood Crime Film
The crime film has traditionally been defined through spatial concepts that point to social issues metaphorically, from the urban underworld of gangsters and private eyes to the hostile foreign territories traveled by spies. The macrogenre of the crime film itself can be tentatively explained as a narrative structure that expresses views about the conflicting relationship between personal initiative and the social organization of communal life by tracing the lives of the agents of crime: criminals, victims, and law enforcers. The gangster film, the suspense thriller, and the detective/cop film deploy these agents as protagonists of stories where we witness the passage from a social space, troubled by fantasies of power and disempowerment, to a space of adventure that serves as the escape from social oppression. In this process the self is asserted through violence.1 Since space is so intimately related to the form, content, and cultural significance of the genres of crime, analysis of it should open ways to understand the aesthetic, thematic, and ideological changes undergone by crime films.
Within the detective/cop subgenre of contemporary Hollywood, the procedural and the detective film are still, despite their long tradition, the most relevant variations, and both have their roots in literary forms. The procedural appeared as an offspring of the mystery novel in which the classic private eye was replaced by a group of investigators (the police team), and methods that relied on logical analysis or tenacity were replaced by police routines. Based on the real activities of the police, the procedural is the only kind of detective fiction that was not born out of a purely literary tradition, a fact that set limits on the degree of fantasy that can be included in the novels and makes them realistic by nature (Dove 4, 47-55). The change from the earlier form of the private-eye narrative to the police procedural has been explained as a consequence of that need for realism: the marginal, limited perspective of private eyes made impossible the degree of verisimilitude that was provided by a group of investigators inserted in the social system of fighting crime. Abandoning the isolated heroism of the private eye in favor of the police allowed complex interrogations of social order and the institutions that support it (Messent 2, 89, 97). In attempts to explain the social role of the genre, definitions have tended to include the variable of space. For Gary J. Hausladen, the police procedural turns space into a narrative element that he calls its "sense of place," by which he means "all the physical and human characteristics of the place—the physical and human landscapes, the ways in which people interact, the formal and informal institutions that structure the society, including family, church, and political and economic institutions" (23). Space is thus not only a physical but also a social and institutional dimension, and the presence of the procedural's detectives [End Page 14] in that space leads the texts to reflect on social issues, produce the impression of realism, and show that the complexity of the real world does not always allow mysteries to be solved.
The detective not integrated into a group such as the police carries different cultural connotations. The already classical work by Thomas Schatz and the more recent one by Philippa Gates have defined the detective film by referring to the role of space in it, but they view detectives as characters who are isolated from their space and whose intervention succeeds in resolving or containing the conflicts when the investigation reaches its end. Still, Schatz argues that, as in the police procedural, those conflicts are intrinsic to the space of detective films, whose stories actually reflect the physical and ideological struggle for control of the space (Schatz 24-29; Gates, "Always a Partner in Crime" 28, Detecting Men 24-25). This function of space as a signal of the conflicts in detective narratives is also implicitly admitted by definitions that nevertheless view detectives as intimately related to their spaces. Thus, one-time or amateur detectives such as the protagonist of Blue Velvet (1986), ordinary...