Skip to main content

Rotten to the Core: Voyeurism In the Detective Film

ISSUE:  Winter 1985

In the opening frames of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown we see a series of blowups of black-and-white still photographs of explicit sexual acts between an unidentified man and woman. The photographs were taken, we learn quickly, by private investigator Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) who had been hired by a client named Curly, the justly suspicious and now unquestionably cuckolded husband of the girl in the pictures. Curly struggles to contain his grief and rage by munching on the Venetian blinds in Gittes’ office. The photographs establish the moral anarchy of the film, an immoral climate in which, as the monstrously corrupt Noah Cross (played by John Huston) puts it to Gittes near the end of the film, “most people never have to face the fact that given the right time, and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” The photographs also tell us something about the sort of detective Jake Gittes is. He does divorce work. He is more of a gumshoe than Philip Marlowe, that most famous of movie detectives (though we should keep it in mind that there have been many Philip Marlowes—seven in all—ranging from Bogart’s romantic and charming tough guy in The Big Sleep to Elliott Gould’s softhearted patsy in Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Robert Mitchum’s brooding, melancholy loner in Farewell My Lovely); and though Gittes dresses better, his jokes are cruder and his clientele is more than a few steps below the Sternwoods of The Big Sleep. But the incriminating photographs in the opening frames of Chinatown also establish a role for the film’s audience, a role in which the audience of this and every detective film is cast—the role of voyeur.

The role we are more consciously aware of is playing Watson to the movie detective’s Holmes, searching for clues, following leads, and making deductions by which we, at the side of the detective, unravel the mystery, crack the case, and bring the criminals to justice. But we have been cast in another role besides silent partner in crime detection. We have also been looking over the detective’s shoulder, peering through his camera viewfinder, spying through his binoculars, eavesdropping around corners, listening in on phone conversations, peeping in windows . . .in short we have been cast in the role of voyeur. Roman Polanski has said “Detectives are losers. . . . Theirs is a dirty business, peeping, spying, getting photographs of what people do in hotel rooms. That’s not a profession.” Lauren Bacall, playing Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep, confesses that, before she met Marlowe, she thought detectives were “greasy little men sneaking around hotel corridors.” Despite her leading man’s upbeat Marlowe, the description fits: the detective is not only a sleuth but a congenital onlooker, a professional voyeur. It comes with the job. He does go sneaking around hotel corridors, and we are only too happy to go sneaking along with him.

There is a world of difference, of course, between the Agatha Christie or Columbo type murder mystery and the classic detective film, because the world of the latter is not merely a convenient or potentially dramatic setting for a murder. The sordid world which can produce only a Philip Marlowe or a Jake Gittes as its hero is the thematic subject of the detective film. The detective film has borrowed its plots, its characters, and its dark vision of urban American life from the so-called “hardboiled” school of detective novelists, which included Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and the prolific Raymond Chandler. In his review of Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, Edmund Wilson wrote, “It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together, but of a malaise conveyed to the reader.” Raymond Chandler saw himself living in a society of thoroughly corrupt and self-serving individuals, a world in which, as he put it, “any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.” The detective film, when it is faithful to the vision which originally inspired it, projects upon the screen a world of duplicity and corruption, a world totally without innocence.

That “malaise” Edmund Wilson detected is usually conveyed to the film audience through the persona of the detective hero himself, “the best man in his world,” as Chandler knighted Philip Marlowe. The detective hero is usually disillusioned, often a disillusioned castoff from the city police department; he has probably resigned himself to playing his small part on the side of moral justice in a hopelessly corrupt society, or even to just eking out a living by what he believes is an honorable trade, and he is a loner. His profession places him on the outside looking in. He makes his living by being shrewd and suspicious. He is coldly objective and habitually distrustful. He can trust no one. His nemesis is emotional involvement. He cannot afford to become personally involved with anyone connected with a case he is working on, yet he will risk it to escape his solitary confinement. The consequences of his emotional involvement are usually tragic. We come to know his loneliness and his alienation, and so we enter into his malaise.

But sometimes the detective film can convey that malaise to the audience by deliberately luring the audience itself into that “world without innocence.” Like the detective hero, the moviegoer is, at least temporarily, on the outside looking in, deriving pleasure from the illusion of watching people who do not know they are being watched. The voyeurism is, in our case, not professional, but habitual. Some detective films can make us feel that distance between ourselves and the world up on the screen and force us to recognize our own voyeurism and hence our own lack of innocence. The detective himself, likewise a voyeur, a kind of parasite feeding off a world he cannot enter without tragic consequences, living “secondhand” as it were, mirrors our own alienation back to us. By casting its audience in the role of voyeur, the detective film can generate its own malaise by making the audience a part of it.

Voyeurism is, I think, inherent in the detective film and a key to its popular appeal. Many of the seedier variety of detective films (I am thinking particularly of the Mickey Spillane novels adapted for the screen) purposely exploit our voyeuristic interest but stop short of exposing it. That would ruin the fun. On the other hand, some detective films, like the ones I intend to examine more closely now, do expose our voyeuristic interest with varying shades of sinister intent, turning innocent fun into a guilty pleasure.


In 1946 Robert Montgomery directed and starred in a film version of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. Montgomery played Philip Marlowe, the private investigator, who is hired by a beautiful magazine editor named Adrienne Fromsett to find her magazine publisher’s missing wife, Crystal, so he can initiate the divorce proceedings which will free him to marry Adrienne, Marlowe’s client. A corpse is discovered in a lake near the publisher’s vacation cabin, and it turns out to be the body of Muriel Chess, the caretaker’s wife, whose real name is Mildred Haveland. It gets worse. The publisher claims he has no desire to divorce his wife, he fires Adrienne for hiring Marlowe to find her, and hires Marlowe himself for the same job. His wife is blackmailing him. Marlowe finally tracks her down, leaving a trail of rice (believe it or not) for Adrienne, who is now his financée, to follow. He discovers what he had suspected all along, that she is not Crystal but Mildred Haveland, who had drowned Crystal in the resort lake. She tries to shoot Marlowe, but before she can she is shot and killed by her guilt-ridden lover, who had followed the trail of rice, and before he can shoot Marlowe and make it look like Mildred had done it, he is shot by the captain of police, who arrives in the nick of time. Marlowe and Adrienne are then happily reunited.

This elaborate and even improbable plot is not atypical of the detective genre, for it is purposely emblematic of the network of corruption facing the detective. Lady of the Lake is atypical of the genre, however, in its use of the subjective camera: throughout the film, the camera plays the role of Philip Marlowe, who appears in front of the camera in only one shot—sitting behind his desk mulling over clues and appealing through the camera directly to the audience in the theater for help in solving the mystery. The identification between audience and detective is cemented by this direct appeal for help and by the subjective camera device employed throughout the rest of the film. We are privy not only to Marlowe’s thoughts on the case, but to his unspoken suspicions and unexpressed desires, which are communicated to us visually. We see what he sees, we glance where he glances, and his stare is our stare; for his eyes are our eyes, and for the first (and maybe the last) time in the detective film we see the world literally as the detective sees it.

Unfortunately, the device proves to be too intrusive. It is unnerving enough to have everyone Marlowe meets looking directly into the camera, but the film degenerates into low comedy and the spell of the drama is broken when the camera lens is kissed by gargantuan lips or blacked out by a punch. But the second nature of the detective’s voyeurism has never been made more visually explicit, For example, when Marlowe is initially interviewed by Adrienne Fromsett, her alluring and seductive receptionist enters the room. Marlowe is distracted and so are we; much to our amusement and delight, the camera tracks her every step as Marlowe takes her in inch by inch. And throughout the film the objective detachment Marlowe must maintain and the sense of isolation which accompanies it are also communicated visually through his careful scrutiny and surveillance, his unwavering wariness, and his roving, restless eye. The identification between audience and detective is so strong that during those moments of the film when the subjective camera is least intrusive, we cannot help but experience his alienation or fail to recognize its inception in his and in our own voyeurism. In this way Montgomery not so subtly draws his audience into that world without innocence, only to let us off the hook by contriving a happy ending which chases away all the ghosts of moral complicity which haunt detective and audience alike.


If Lady in the Lake does succeed, at least temporarily, in luring its audience into its world without innocence, it belongs to a small minority of detective films which point an accusing finger at an unsuspecting audience. Ordinarily we sit comfortably beyond the reach of that dark world projected on the screen, content to watch the detective put himself through familiar paces, and relieved to see him prevail, in the end, over the forces of evil at large in the world and the pangs of loneliness at large in his soul—no matter how contrived the romantic ending may be. But Robert Altman and Roman Polanski have chosen, in their thoughtful adaptations and studied direction of the detective film, to expose, quite deliberately, the voyeurism underlying our love affair with the detective genre. They do so by substituting for the dimly lit, heavily shadowed, sordid and ugly mise-en-scéne of the classic detective film, a brightly lit, richly colored, visually seductive world, a world so beautiful that we are no longer content to remain comfortably on the outside looking in, but desire instead to flee the dark world of the theater and the mundane lives we lead outside it for the beauty and excitement of the world up on the screen. And so we play right into the director’s hands: the world we long to enter, whether it be the world of Chinatown or The Long Goodbye, is as corrupt as it is corrupting.

Although The Long Goodbye is not a parody of the detective film, Altman does turn many of the conventions of the detective genre into instruments for satire. Yet the target of Altman’s satire is not really the detective film but rather the pervasive narcissism of contemporary Southern California, which encompasses the movie business and the mass-produced fantasies it disseminates. Most of the characters in The Long Goodbye play out their favorite Hollywood fantasy: Marty Augustine plays a show-biz gangster; the Malibu Beach Colony gatekeeper does bad impressions of Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Walter Brennan; and Marlowe himself, played by Elliott Gould, plays the role of the movie detective of the forties transported, along with his 1948 black ford sedan, into the 1970’s. He has seen as many movies as we have. When he is laid up in a hospital bed after colliding with a car while running in hot pusuit through the evening traffic after his client, Mrs. Roger Wade, who no longer has need of his services, he turns to the patient next to him, who is wrapped completely in gauze to look like the invisible man, and says “I’ve seen all your pictures too.”

Chandler’s L. A. was rotting away under the surface, infected by a cancerous corruption at every level of business, government, and personal relations. Altman substitutes a narcissistic amoral generation for the corrupt immoral one of Chandler’s novel. Gould is actually closer, in some ways, than Bogart or Dick Powell or Montgomery was to Chandler’s Marlowe. Gould’s Marlowe is a loser, we are told, because he cares what happens to people at a time when nobody cares, but not because nobody’s the wiser and nobody’s the worse for not caring. That was Chandler’s world, not Altaian’s; that was 1953, not 1973. In Altman’s The Long Goodbye nobody cares because nobody cares about anyone but himself. Marlowe is surrounded by pleasure-seekers who are no help to him as he tries to get to the bottom of his best friend’s mysterious suicide in Mexico.

One thing you could not charge Gould’s Marlowe with is voyeurism. Altman doesn’t allow him to do enough real detective work to qualify for that fraternity of congenital onlookers to which most private detectives belong by trade. Instead, Gould is used, lied to, and beat up. He is, as one reviewer put it, “a victim instead of a sleuth.” In fact he seems almost desensitized, as if he were tired of looking. It is we, not Marlowe, who leer at the half-naked girls practicing their yoga on the veranda across the courtyard from Marlowe’s apartment. It is we, not Marlowe, who watch people through the many glass barriers Altman places between us and his characters. It is we, not Marlowe, who are cast in the role of voyeur by the ceaseless motion of the camera. In the sequence which immediately follows the opening credits, the camera closes in on Marlowe as he is awakened in the middle of the night by his hungry cat. The framing is so tight, and the tracking of the camera so relentless as Marlowe shuffles about his apartment, that it implicates a voyeuristic interest in the detective on the part of the audience. The camera is never still throughout the entire picture: it is a restless, roving, curious, and searching eye which mirrors our own voyeurism back to us. Finally, it is we, not Marlowe, who are seduced by the sensuous beauty of the setting as it is captured by Vilmos Zsigmond’s lush cinematography.

When Marlowe finally catches up with his friend, who is alive and well in Mexico, and learns how he has been used and lied to in an elaborate scheme to cover up a murder and make the perfect getaway, Marlowe shoots him, and the death scene is as lyrical a treatment of violence as has ever been scripted: Terry Lennox falls backward in slow motion into a tropical paradise. When Marlowe passes Mrs. Wade along the lush, green, treelined road that she thinks will take her to her lover and happiness now that their respective spouses are out of the way, the shot is a visual tribute to Reed’s The Third Man, and Gould dances a jig to the tune of “Hurray for Hollywood.” The seduction is complete. Our obsession with the form, beauty, and excitement of the movies places us in the same camp with the amoral hedonists of the film, and Gould blows the harmonica on all of us.

Roman Polanski has always taken a perverse delight in making moviegoing a guilty pleasure, and Chinatown is no exception. Whereas The Long Goodbye is satiric and therefore unlikely to generate any pathos, Chinatown belongs to a small minority of Hollywood films which project an uncompromisingly tragic vision of life on the screen. A mood of dejection hangs over the picture which threatens to swallow the audience whole. Chinatown can bestir in its audience a melancholy which extends beyond the pathos we feel for Jack Nicholson during the film’s tragic conclusion where he must stand helplessly by while the woman he loves is shot through the eye and her daughter carted off by the moral monster who is both her father and grandfather. The haunting, melancholy, musical theme is suddenly all-enveloping because the detective’s impotence only mirrors back our own—one cannot come away from seeing Chinatown without feeling momentarily adrift with nothing to believe in.

Jake Gittes is defeated by every detective’s nemesis, which is emotional involvement in a relationship. Before he became a private investigator he had been a police detective assigned to Chinatown. He had tried to keep a woman he became involved with from getting hurt, and only succeeded in making certain that she was. He tells this to Faye Dunaway, playing the role of his present client, Mrs. Mulray, while they lie in bed together. She meets the same fate and Gittes is left with nothing but guilt and another ghost to haunt him. Haunting memories of the past seem to be an occupational hazard for the detective, who can never fully repress his desire to escape from the solitary, vicarious existence his trade requires. Whenever Gittes escapes, he pays dearly for it and is propelled back into the role of voyeur.

Chinatown is a film which makes voyeurs of its audience from the pornographic appeal of the opening frames to the latent sexual content and its morbid appeal in the closing ones. Between opening and closing frames we spy through Gittes’ binoculars, look through his camera viewfinder, and peep through windows over his shoulder. Polanski’s obsessive voyeurism surfaces in action shot from a distinctively voyeuristic perspective, as in the unusual and excessively tight framing of the passionate love scene between Nicholson and Dunaway in her bathroom, or in shots and sequences with implicit voyeuristic appeal, such as the covert photography session conducted by Gittes’ operatives among rowboating lovers, or the extraneous and unusual sequence in which Gittes showers and gets ready for bed. One image that is particularly revealing of the role in which Polanski has deliberately cast his audience is a close-up shot of Gittes’ camera lens in which we see the reflected image of an older man and a young girl tenderly embracing. Like Gittes, who snaps the picture from the rooftop, we assume we are spying on an illicit sexual affair, only to discover later that we witnessed only an innocent moment between stepfather and daughter. We have been set up, not only by Noah Cross, who wants to find his daughter/granddaughter, but by Polanski, who wants to undermine our moral integrity and make us a part of his world without innocence. Both the detective and the moviegoer are voyeurs, earning a living or deriving a pleasure from watching other people. And both pay a high price for their voyeurism.

There are plenty of other films on the fringes of the detective genre which make us feel uneasy about the morality of voyeurism. In Hitchcock’s Rear Window Jimmy Stewart plays a news photographer, laid up with a broken leg, who spies on his neighbors within view of his apartment’s rear window and within range of his telephoto lens. His voyeurism leads him to become an armchair detective when he witnesses a murder. But his voyeurism is initially symptomatic of his fear of emotional commitments. The girl who wants to marry him, played by Grace Kelly, describes him as “a tourist on an endless vacation.” His nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, observes his “window-shopping” and admonishes him with the remark that “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” Surely Hitchcock intends, if not the admonishment, then at least its commentary for us, In Antonioni’s much celebrated Blow-Up, we find another photographer turned amateur detective: while secretly photographing two lovers in a park he incidentally photographs a murder, or so it might seem from the blowups. In both films the photographer’s voyeurism is more pronounced and explicit than the private detective’s, and he pays the same high price of alienation. In Coppola’s The Conversation Gene Hackman plays a sound-surveillance expert who is nearly driven insane by the moral consequences of his voyeurism.

By exposing its audience’s voyeurism as partly to blame for the world without innocence projected up on the movie screen, the detective film can lure us into that world and temporarily leave us, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, or the photographer in Blow-Up, or Gene Hackman in The Conversation, or Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely, with nothing to believe in. “Come, Devil, for to thee is this world given,” cries Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, the victim of a performance arranged and directed by Satan himself for the damnation of his soul. Young Goodman Brown leaves the Devil’s forest theater a figure of despair and alienation for he has nothing to believe in. And to think it was all a devil’s trick.

In the 1953 film version of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, Detective Mike Hammer is nearly the victim of a deadly seduction. In the final climactic scene his fiancee, who has been deceiving him all along, disrobes and gathers him into her arms with intent to kill. When she is nearly naked, he plugs her in the belly with a .45. “How could you?” she gasps. “It was easy,” he growls back. Easy for the aptly named Hammer, perhaps, but not so easy for us. We are more likely to submit to the detective film’s beautiful but deadly embrace.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading