It’s OK with Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye, by Jason Bailey. $11.99, 78 pp. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Across individual analysis of about 28 films, Bailey’s book traces the private eye’s stumbling journey into New Hollywood, from his quasi-disappearance from the multiplex following Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) to the deeply Nixonian neo-noir of Chinatown (1974). For a short book, it covers a lot of ground, offering a breezy survey course split between the history of New Hollywood and that of film noir, citing director interviews, film scholars, and critics alike.
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If Hollywood is to be believed, the private investigator exists in a permanent state of in-between. His office, if he has one at all, is a mere front of professionalism, designed as a place to drink or sleep before driving across town to meet with the next sleazy client. Unlike a cop, the private eye is neither beholden to government bureaucracy nor protected by it, left only with his personal code to dredge justice from the moral swamp. He is – almost uniformly – a man, ruggedly individual, somewhat quick with a gun, and conspicuously irresistible to women. Which is all to say: he is a figure of distinctly American make, shy of Western gunslinger on the machismo scale, but equally virile and adrift.
Or, in the words of critic Jason Bailey, the private investigator is an “interloper,” affected but not controlled by the bureaucratic institutions he circumvents. In his short book It’s OK with Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye, Bailey turns his focus to the revisionist noir of New Hollywood, where the once self-assured PI becomes an anachronism, adhering to an outdated code amid the moral squalor of Nixon’s America. Humphrey Bogart no longer, the private eyes in films such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) fumble around and lose their cool, always a step behind the bad guys as they fail to grasp the depth of corruption surrounding them.
Prefacing his book with a brief rundown on the state of Hollywood at the start of the 1970s, Bailey recounts the collapse of the paternalistic Motion Picture Production Code and the public’s waning interest in movie musicals. As box office returns settled into an ever-deepening slump, the once-mighty studio system continued to crumble. Desperate studio executives turned to a generation of “film brats” (among them Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Peter Bogdanovich), who proved eager to inject Hollywood fare with the moral murkiness and stylistic experimentation of European movements like the French New Wave. Well funded and no longer facing censorship, these New Hollywood films were free to reflect an era defined by corruption, paranoia, and a deep distrust of American institutions.
While the “film brats” took it upon themselves to subvert and update every genre from Western to horror, Bailey argues that a cycle of revisionist private eye films best reflects the 1970s’ particular cultural mores and filmic sensibilities. The private eye had enjoyed popularity in earlier decades, of course, first rising into the public conscience by way of literary characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Humphrey Bogart portrayed each of them on the silver screen (in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and 1946’s The Big Sleep, respectively), and quickly became inseparable from the private eye iconography. Rogue but morally infallible, Bogart’s chain-smoking investigators achieved justice at a personal cost, and provided the type of hero that WWII-era America demanded.
How, then, does a figure established during a 20th-century peak of gung ho American patriotism re-emerge amid the disenchantment and malaise of the 1970s? Across individual analysis of about 28 films, Bailey’s book traces the private eye’s stumbling journey into New Hollywood, from his quasi-disappearance from the multiplex following Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) to the deeply Nixonian neo-noir of Chinatown (1974). For a short book, it covers a lot of ground, offering a breezy survey course split between the history of New Hollywood and that of film noir, citing director interviews, film scholars, and critics alike (digging up true gems from the likes of Robert Altman and producer Robert Evans). At its most effective points, the book analyzes the specific ways that New Hollywood filmmakers deconstructed the private eye, scoffing at the idea that humanity was close enough to salvation for an overtly masculine loner to tip the scales.
Of all the films referenced in It’s Ok with Me, it is Penn’s Night Moves that perhaps best represents Bailey’s central argument. Juxtaposing the past and then-present of the private eye iconography, the film exposes the figure’s well-established machismo as incompatible with being human, presenting a hero (Gene Hackman) whose emotional blockages prevent him from solving the central mystery. From its explicit invocation of the Kennedy assassinations, to its post-1960s sexual politics, to its resolutely bleak ending, Night Moves makes full use of the New Hollywood ecosystem to capture the era’s sense of hopelessness. Released to a mixed response in the same year that Jaws (1975) birthed the modern blockbuster, Night Moves offered something of a quiet goodbye to the 1970s private eye, supporting Bailey’s idea that these films could only have been produced by their exact moment in history.
For every film that fits neatly within that narrative, though, the book sometimes struggles to organize its analysis of the ones that do not. The New Hollywood movement may have come to define the legacy of early-1970s Hollywood, but studios also continued to produce films reflecting the values of earlier eras – including ones about private eyes. To account for this variety in content, Bailey groups his chosen films into five main chapters, each tied loosely around a theme or shared approach to the private eye archetype. In most instances – as with the “Gumshoes” chapter, on films that largely fail to update or comment on the 1940s private eye – the organization is clear, and unassailable. In others, it becomes easier to imagine the infinite permutations in which Bailey could have arranged his analyses of each individual film. For example, why lump together the era’s varying depictions of the Philip Marlowe character, when the tragic parody of The Long Goodbye begs for side-by-side analysis with the genre’s more nihilistic films? As with any book covering this amount of material in such limited space, each slight digression in structure (such as the inclusion of the non-Marlowe picture The Yakuza in the Marlowe chapter) leaves the reader open to consider how they might have organized it, and which films they’d like to see compared more directly to one another. Still, It’s OK with Me flows well from chapter to chapter, starting each one off with an epigraph of noir-tinged dialogue – each more quotable than the last.
Fittingly, Bailey closes his book with an epilogue on Inherent Vice (2014), or what he calls Paul Thomas Anderson’s “answer record” to Altman’s Long Goodbye, and to the 1970s private eye thriller, more generally. The film is Anderson’s cover of a cover, riffing on the 1970s private eye in much the same way that Altman riffed on the Bogart archetype. The difference, Bailey argues, is that Inherent Vice has to work to position itself within the 1970s, going so far as to drop explicit references to Nixon and the Manson family. “This is the difference between a film that’s about a time, and one that’s of it,” he writes. Before Watergate – and before the retrospective understanding of the 1970s as a turning point in American disillusionment – a cultural mood produced the New Hollywood movement, and the private eyes within it. With It’s OK with Me, Bailey furthers the work of situating these films within the moment that produced them – that moment right before the industry and the American public turned back toward easy answers.