Before continuing with my exploration of detective film (leaving, at last, Sherlock Holmes and moving on to more contemporaneous examples), I want to take a moment and re-iterate something that has been implicit in my posts here, but which might get lost in the shuffle when we narrow our focus to individual films. This post, then, is meant to tie together some general themes that are (I think) evident in the movies I’ve discussed so far; hopefully, this work of house-keeping will give us some groundwork as we move toward less-traditional examples of the detective story on film.
The central element of the detective story—the element that I have argued is essentially religious in nature—is a pattern, a habit, a method of paying attention to the everyday world. Sherlock Holmes once observed that there is nothing so important as a trifle; that is, if we are looking for some titanic inbreaking of truth (or Truth), it is better to focus on the small, the neglected, the weak things of the world. This is the real import of Holmes’ famous cigar ash, of Poirot’s disarranged spills, of Father Brown’s postman. This habit of paying attention is the true method of the detective.
I was reminded of this point when an essay from 3QuarksDaily came through my feed. In it, Tom Jacobs suggests that meaning lies in exactly those things that are most meaning-less:
The quotidian as a legitimate object of philosophical reflection… If there is an authenticity to be found in this fallen world, surely it is here, in the quotidian, in the finding or making of self in the mundane and banal. With luck, we experience what Lefebvre calls “moments of presence,” which are “those instants that we would each, according to our own personal criteria, categorise as ‘authentic’ moments that break through the dulling monotony of the ‘taken for granted’”
“One dumbbell, Watson!” Is there anything more stupid than a dumb bell? A wag might even be tempted to pun on its name. But for Holmes, there is nothing dumb about a dumbbell; it is shot through with significance, it means something. But its meaning is precisely that it is meaningless, that it is an aberration, a quotidian object that we take for granted, something that only becomes significant in its absence (other meaningful-because-meaningless clues are the dog in the night-time and the unknown speaker in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). If I may be permitted a brief moment to pillage Theory for my own uses, we can call the clue a “blot”—that thing which unsettles our immediate impressions of reality and replaces it with a vertiginous feeling that we are being watched, that we are being played, that nothing is as it seems. And this blot does not reside in what everyday observers call the “miraculous”—in signs and portents and dark distressing utterances—but, rather, arises from the precise fabric of everyday existence.
Going back to The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes does not find the truth in the so-called miraculous appearance of the Gothic Hound, but in the quotidian disappearance of Henry Baskerville’s boot. The boot is the dumbbell is the real dog-in-the-night-time; it is a gap, an absence of meaning that becomes meaningful. Or, to take one of my favorite non-Holmes television detective stories, look at Well-Schooled in Murder. The break in the case comes, not when Lynley discovers the positive evidence (an audio cassette on which the murdered boy recorded his journals) but when he realizes that the journals are missing—that a particular tape is missing—and by that absence discovers how far down the rabbit-path he has gone.
This close attention to gaps in meaning is what makes the detective the ideal religio-political hero[i]. Murder by Decree shows Holmes literally discovering a gap—the erased writing on the wall—and it is by paying attention to that gap that he discovers the secret conspiracy underlying the Ripper killings. Again, the writing is not what Holmes discovers; it is, as it were, accidental to his discovery of the more damning clue—the fact that there is no writing there. That is, the writing is specifically erased by the people who have the most to lose by its discovery[ii]. This goes far beyond the boy’s missing tapes, since it suggests that something is afoot in the world; it reinforces the uneasy certainty that we [the viewers] are being lied to by someone (the government, the universe, etc). Of course, such an idea is what we call paranoia (but remember—just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you).
“Lie” is too strong a word for what I have in mind here. I do not mean that the ultimate lesson to be taken from detective cinema is that we can trust no one. Nor do I mean to suggest some sort of Gnostic idea that the Real is hiding behind appearances and that we, like Ahab, must break through the mask to see the blazing Thing beneath. What I do want to suggest is that the detective story suggests a way of looking at the world that underlines its essentially uncanny nature—it’s the sort of world where at any moment a seemingly inessential thing could catch flame, could erupt with an excess of meaning.
If we are trying to tie together all the posts I’ve made thus far, it might be wise to ask what the “blot” in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might be. There are, of course, any number of possibilities: the partially-erased ticket number on Mme Valladon’s hand—a mark that signifies the absence of a ticket—is the most obvious example that springs to mind. But too-close attention to those details might hide the most obvious “blot” of all—the character of Sherlock Holmes himself. I mentioned in my review that Holmes relentlessly defies classification. We know less about his “private life” at the end of the movie than we did at the beginning. He is, if you will, the ultimate Absence—essentially meaningless because he will not conform to our expectations of the Great Detective as the person-supposed-to-know (or even to our assumptions about sexuality, personality, or geniality). Holmes is less of a person here than an opaque symbol that defies all our attempts to plug him in to a system of meaning.
Thus, Wilder’s Holmes functions as the biggest clue of all—but the movie shifts the interpretation of that clue out of the film itself and into the audience. We must interpret Holmes; we must discover what this dog-in-the-night-time really signifies. As I suggested in my post—and then withdrew because it seems like too much speculation—the character of Holmes ultimately becomes about the character of the audience. But I think it’s a fair reading, and one that will stand up to scrutiny.
“Paying close attention to the everyday world” is more than looking for beauty in plastic bags and garbage trucks. In a sense, there is nothing so everyday as the self—and that self is inextricably bound up with others (here, again, we can call this self political). The mystery of the Other is one that has been explored in far greater depth than I could ever hope to, but it is the other side to the detective story’s close attention to material reality. If I may be permitted a side-step into literature for a moment—how does Dupin discover exactly how Minister D— has hidden the titular “Purloined Letter”? By putting himself, imaginatively, into the mind of his nemesis. This is also how Father Brown solves crimes, if we take him at his word in The Secret of Father Brown:
“The secret is,” he said; and then stopped as if unable to go on. Then he began again and said:
“You see, it was I who killed all those people.”
“I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”
Close attention to the self—and to the self-as-Other—is, thus, a species of attention to the everyday. And, again, this attention is focused on minutia, on trifles—not the grand evil of Jack the Ripper, but the smaller evils of Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death, where at last we come to see that she is not only malignant but also desperately unhappy[iii]. The gaze of the detective may be unrelenting, but it can never be uncharitable without losing its perceptiveness.
These thoughts may not, perhaps, congeal entirely—there is more emphasis on “loose” than on “sally of thought”—but they bear repeating because I think they tie together exactly what this series of posts has been about so far. By taking the Sherlock Holmes adaptations as my text—Holmes being, of course, the ultimate example of the Great Detective—I have laid out some preliminary groundwork for a broader discussion of mystery-and-detective films. In coming posts, I will be moving away from more strictly formalist tales (though they will still make an appearance). Film has never been particularly adept at addressing those little pleasures that written detective fiction provides; the urge to gloss over strictly logical deduction and emphasize melodrama has been too strong. And yet, I think that the underlying points of interest are the same, and in the future I will be looking at various detective films—of varying degrees of generic faithfulness—with the expectation that these concerns will be repeated, and varied, with each new example.
[i] I use “religio-political” here in a way that is, perhaps, not religious enough for some people and not political enough for others. “Religious” refers strictly to an understanding of the world as shot-through with meaning that cannot be contained by the world itself; “political” refers to the ways in which humans orient themselves in this world, with no attempt to speak more directly of leftist-rightist, Marxist-Capitalist or Democratic-Fascist binaries. The phrase “religio-political” does not mean some sort of attempt or desire to see politics as a religious exercise or religion as a political one, though of course both are possible under the expanded definitions I’m using here.
[ii] Again, if I were to plunder Theory, I would suggest that the writing is erased to maintain the [imaginary] Symbolic Order, to hide its dark underside and maintain the illusion that Law and Order are mathematically positive things.