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10 Great Crime Fiction Characters on Film

04/07/2014 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2014
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Like many crime writers, I was profoundly influenced by the great crime novels of the traditional British and hardboiled American schools. But like so many of my generation, I first encountered these canonical detective stories in film and television versions, discovering the books later. This wasn't as easy as it sounds, since it was long before cable TV, VCRs, Tivo, and Netflix made it possible to view anything-on-demand. So let me tell you kids all about life in the dark ages, when the dedicated viewer had to struggle to stay up past 1 AM to watch classic films on a ghosting black-and-white TV, edited for television and interrupted by endless (and awful) late night commercials.

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Yes, I know, I’m really going out on a limb here, but I’m going to start with Sherlock Holmes. Every generation gets the Holmes it deserves, but we really have to start with Basil Rathbone, who played the great detective in 14 films between 1939-46 (the first two were A-budget period pictures produced at 20th Century Fox, the rest were B pictures filmed at Universal). While the current series starring Robert Downey, Jr. is in some ways truer to the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories than many film versions--Watson is a vigorous ladies’ man in some of the stories, not the bumbling old fool portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the later Universal films (why on earth would Holmes share his rooms with such a moron?)--Rathbone’s Holmes is, in many ways, the iconic granddaddy of them all, the exemplar by which all others are measured.
  • Sam Spade
  • Another must-have on this list is Sam Spade, the complex (anti)hero of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, and the role that catapulted Humphrey Bogart to stardom. Unlike so many film noirs of the Production Code era, which took hard-edged novels full of lust, depravity and grit and proceeded to REMOVE all the lust, depravity and grit (see: The Postman Always Rings Twice, from 1946), the classic 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon draws heavily from the novel for most of its dialogue, brilliantly delivered by a first-rate cast. The lone exception is Mary Astor’s unfortunate take on Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who is played more like a brittle porcelain figurine than a sexually manipulative femme fatale, but we’ll have to blame the Production Code for that one. Spade and O’Shaughnessy have a steamy, conflicted sexual relationship in the book; in the film, they might has well have gone on a lunch date at the Automat--with a chaperone. (The Code really did a number on Postman, though: Even John Garfield in all his glory couldn’t make the last 20 minutes of that picture fly.) Let’s talk about the black bird, indeed.
  • Phillip Marlowe
  • Still another must-have is Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, but things get tricky here. Marlowe has been portrayed by such big name Hollywood stars as Bogart (again), Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Robert Mitchum, but none of those films quite manage to capture an essential element of the novels--the cynical voice and acerbic humor of Marlowe’s narration. (Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake from 1946 is particularly weak.) For that, you’d have to look to Elliot Gould’s performance in Robert Altman’s iconoclastic and radically revisionist version of The Long Goodbye (1973). Some purists will scream, but it’s OK with me, baby....
  • Miss Marple
  • We can’t leave out Agatha Christie, but I’m going full-on idiosyncratic here and voting for Margaret Rutherford’s plucky portrayal of Miss Marple in Murder She Said and three sequels made for MGM between 1961-64. True, these films bear little resemblance to the novels (see the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, above), but in their own way, the off-beat humor and eccentric “jolly old England” performances made this beloved series as much a part of the British Invasion as Beyond the Fringe, A Hard Day’s Night--and later, Monty Python--for this child of the 1960s.
  • Holly Martins and Harry Lime
  • Everyone knows that when novels are made into films, “the book is always better.” But what can a film add to the book? Graham Greene’s novel, The Third Man, is a brilliant dramatization of modern society’s struggle with moral ambiguity, and the 1949 film version starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles is justifiably famous for their characterizations of two morally-conflicted souls. But one could argue that they share star billing with the sewers of Vienna and the whimsical theme music, which took on a life of its own after the movie came out.
  • James Bond
  • And while we’re on the subject of how much novels lose in translation to film, I’m going to open a real can of worms and include one great exception to that rule: Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers. I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, the first five Bond films, with Sean Connery as Bond, are better than the novels. Critic Anthony Boucher once said that Bond is actually a lousy spy--he allows himself to get distracted by sex, he blows his cover and gets caught in practically every novel, and the only thing that saves him is the convenient fact that his enemies are really bad at shooting. But what is really unforgivable for me as a reader is that the Bond depicted in Fleming’s novels seems to have no soul, no inner life at all besides his desire to indulge his tastes for fine food, fine wine and women with comically absurd names. (Plenty O’Toole? Pussy Galore? Seriously?) Connery brought a virile sexuality and flippant humor to the part that tempered the comparative spiritual emptiness of the character on the page. So for me, Sean Connery is James Bond. No one else even comes close. (Though Daniel Craig places a respectable second in Casino Royale.)
  • Mike Hammer
  • Now I’m going to put on my hazmat suit and try to handle the radioactive subject of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. This hypermasculine creation--who nonchalantly dismisses bullet holes in his trench coat and punches people so hard they vomit (among other indignities)--left me wondering, “Who the hell buys his groceries?” after I read a scene in I, The Jury where he makes some scrambled eggs and “shovels” them into his mouth because, presumably, eating eggs with a knife and fork is for pussies. The character is such an over-the-top tough guy, without humor or irony of any kind, that it’s impossible to imagine him buying eggs at the grocery store. (I guess his “girl,” Velda, does the shopping for him.) Absolutely the best film based on a Mike Hammer novel is Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) starring Ralph Meeker as the nastiest detective ever. This film pushes the over-the-top quality of Spillane’s prose into cinematic overdrive. A fan once told me that every shot in the movie looks like the cover of a lurid vintage 1950s paperback. And it’s true. (And yes, that’s a young Cloris Leachman stopping a car on the highway while dressed in a bathrobe.)
  • Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones
  • Chester Himes created Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two detectives who “never were but should have been,” whose beat is Harlem in the 1950s (and early 1960s), a time when there were no black detectives on the NYPD. One of his best is Cotton Comes to Harlem, which was made into a film starring Godfrey Cambridge in 1970. The film changes the flavor of the book by “updating” it to the era of Black Power, since much of the tension in the novels stems from the fact that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are working under oppressive conditions in which their skills are essential (they are capable of single-handedly preventing race riots), yet under-appreciated and marginalized by the pre-Civil Rights machine of NPYD and City Hall politics. A Rage in Harlem was filmed in 1991 starring Gregory Hines and Danny Glover, but you will find it billed as a “comedy” on imdb.com. There is certainly a lot of humor in Himes’s novels, but much of it is cynical “black” humor. Himes spent nearly 10 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary from 1928-37 for armed robbery, so he knew how to pack a helluva punch in his books. That film is still waiting to be made.
  • Easy Rawlins
  • Two of the great detective series characters of our own era are Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski. Mosley was lucky enough to have Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle and Jennifer Beals portray his characters in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), even if Hollywood did choose to play down the simmering racial tensions of postwar Los Angeles depicted in the novel. But poor V.I. Warshawski! The 1991 film of the same name, starring Kathleen Turner, should have been amazing. But to paraphrase Bill Clinton, It’s the script, stupid. Who decided to make a film based on this tough, independent, dark-haired Polish-Italian character, only to ignore (or ridicule) those very qualities in the story? When V.I. is set upon by a bunch of goons in the novel, she knows enough karate to surprise them and crack a few ribs, but they end up beating the crap out of her. In the film, of course, she has nearly superhuman fighting skills. Frankly, the hack job they did on Paretsky’s character is as bad as any of those vintage era noirs that were gutted by the Production Code.

On the bright side, Paretsky's books are still available, un-gutted, for your enjoyment. And the day I get to say "Hollywood made a lousy movie out of my book" will still be a good day as far as I'm concerned.

Kenneth Wishnia is the author of the recently reissued book Red House.