Friday, February 25, 2011

The Timelessness of Cops & Detectives, or: Loose Sartorial Associations

Here’s a stream-of-consciousness post that I refuse to refine or edit. Besides, it requires more work and would only blur my original train of thought anyway...

I’ve always liked the rogue cop/detective/private eye genres. Aside from the action-oriented and individualist elements that inhabit these films, I get a sense of timelessness about them. I used to think that the only worthwhile detective movies were ones that took place circa 1934-1954, give or take a year or three. Besides, there weren’t really many contemporary detective movies from the ‘60s onward that provided the atmosphere that a black & white movie did. Oh, there were throwbacks like Chinatown, but even that referenced an earlier time.

It wasn’t until I reacquainted myself with the first two Dirty Harry movies that I realized that the rogue cop and the private eye were apart from their times and existed on the fringes of society, serving as wry and cynical observers of the world’s madness. They’re about as far removed from the everyday world as a character can be. They’re transitory figures in every respect: Their home lives are nonexistent; their relationships are limited to brief interactions with weasly snitches and frequently-tipped civil servants who provide them with leads. These guys, to quote Anthony Vincenzo in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, “don’t have a rapport with society.” They move freely within society while never belonging to any aspect of it. In fact, the cops hate the private eyes and the private eyes—who were once cops themselves—resent the bureaucrats and thugs who inhabit the force; it’s a mutual disdain that’s fueled many a movie. Cops and detectives are working towards the same goal, only they have what might be termed conservative and liberal ways of going about it.

Get ready for some clothing talk.

I was hung up on the trench coats and fedoras of that Golden Age, and associated those articles of clothing with the worlds of Mitchum, Andrews, and Bogart. How could a cop or detective get by without them? How could a guy bust crooks wearing ball hugger jeans and eye-stabbing tab collars? That could never happen…and it didn’t. Harry Callahan didn’t wear powder-blue leisure suit, ruffled cuffs, or a lemon-yellow ascot. Conservative Clint wasn’t about to trash his character’s dignity with some Neo-Edwardian duds, anyway. Dirty Harry’s wardrobe signified timelessness, with his simple sweater vests and (non-bell-bottom) slacks, and tasteful sports jacket. Yes, it was just his clothes, but it gave me the impression that Callahan was a character not of his time, and he could very well have existed alongside Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson character in 1952’s On Dangerous Ground. Callahan existed only to do his job, and his crap attitude and non-existent social life further proved that. Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and Roy Scheider’s Buddy Grosso dressed like regular Joes and eschewed the garish fashions of the early ‘70s, all the while living like animals, eating slices of crappy cardboard New York-style pizza in the freezing cold while their quarry ate sumptuous meals in the finest restaurants. Sleeping was a fleeting act between knocking drug smugglers’ heads in and choking down putrid black coffee that sat on a hot plate for two days. Heck, even funktastic private dick John Shaft wore subdued and tasteful clothes in the urban-blighted Harlem of 1971. They weren't a part of society, outside of the job they had to do, so why would they embrace any aspect of a decaying culture?

I’m sure this wardrobe stuff was all by design, though I haven’t actually seen any scholarly treatise on film detectives’ wardrobes that would confirm what I suspect, but all signs point that way. The common link that these characters had was that cynical and detached world view that’s necessary to cope in these dangerous and dehumanizing jobs. A Robert Ryan or Clint Eastwood character isn’t likely to adhere to the old lie: “People are basically good.” Wishful thinking doesn’t keep these guys alive; knowing human nature does.

And to think that this post came about because I noticed that Harry Callahan didn’t dress like a flamboyant, middle-aged pimp...


  1. What a great idea for some student to write a paper on. Good thoughts!

  2. That is actually a brilliant take on it

  3. C.K., I enjoyed this post tremendously, not only the fun comments about the wardrobe these guys wore but also the really insightful comments about their relationship to society. I read a really good essay once on a certain strain in American (and the writer meant this be specific to American) fiction and movies about the man (this type of character is nearly always male) who lives outside of society but uses his outsider status to defend the social order from destructive elements inside it. The main example used was "Shane." I can see how this concept also exactly fits the kind of cop/detective you're writing about, and you gave some really appropriate examples. You might have written the post in one go, but clearly you gave it a great deal of thought before writing.

  4. I'll echo what RD Finch just said -- this is a beautifully thought-out idea and a well-written post and I agree with every word of it.


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