Writing in 1972, William K. Everson, a good authority on genre films in years gone by, famously noted that detective films have never been as good as prose detective fiction:
Despite the admitted entertainment value of literally thousands of movie mysteries, barely a handful have really matched the skill, cunning, and meticulous construction of their source novels. The British Green for Danger was one that did; so did an early Philo Vance talkie, The Kennel Murder Case, a model of its kind, and the best of the Philip Marlowe mysteries, Murder My Sweet. The rest have entertained us, excited us—but rarely fooled us.
(William K. Everson, The Detective in Film, pp. 2-3)
What Everson said in 1972 remains true today. Sure, some Hollywood "mysteries" have been entertaining and exciting, no doubt about that, but as for fooling us—no.
Why is Hollywood afraid to challenge its audiences when making detective films? Do the producers in Tinsel Town think we’re all so dumb that we can’t figure out the mystery ourselves? Is it a classic case of projection, in which they attribute their own shortcomings to the rest of us? Or could it be a technical limitation, something in the literal nature of film a priori that precludes them from creating whodunits that really can fool us? Is it all of these, or some, or none?
Some would say that the Dream Factory has produced some genuine mysteries since 1972, such as The Usual Suspects, but Suspects isn’t really a whodunit. Yes, there is a marvelous twist at the end, but a work doesn’t qualify solely on that count.
The Usual Suspects actually belongs in the same category of shaggy dog story as, say, the John Wayne Western The Train Robbers. These two films are in no wise classic whodunits, with a crime, suspects, and a detective working towards a solution: the classic formula.
Historically, Everson writes, Hollywood has failed to take advantage of the cultural awareness among the masses of this classic formula that already existed in the widespread availability of written detective fiction:
Curiously, the movies have seldom exploited the public’s familiarity with the cliches of the detective formula. Anticipating the audience reaction to a given set of circumstances—leading them astray—giving them credit for tumbling to the deception and carrying it a step further—this is the kind of gambit thinking that could have made the movie mystery an entertainment form quite separate from the detective story. But few directors (or writers) have ever chosen to play with their audiences like that.
I’m willing to bet that there is a large segment of the moviegoing public who wouldn’t mind that kind of experience. The great mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers likened the urge to solve puzzles to self-torture. Whatever the merits of that comparison, Sayers certainly knew full-well that an exquisite pleasure can be derived from solving a mystery, as her own works attest.
The "cliches of the detective formula," it seems to me, can’t miss: "[a]nticipating the audience reaction . . . leading them astray . . . giving them credit for tumbling to the deception." Such "gambit thinking" has seldom been exploited by the film industry. Why not?
Everson does offer lazy-minded Hollywood producers and writers an out when he proposes a technical limitation to adapting detective fiction to the motion picture medium:
What is surprising, however, is that so few really classic detective movies have resulted. Perhaps the two arts [the written detective story and films adapted from it] are too far apart. The detective story is essentially a contemplative and nonvisual art. The good ones are so structured that the reader can go back and restudy the case in light of later knowledge. The essential information is conveyed not by action, but by extended dialogue conversations, and by meticulous description. . . .
The film, of course, does not allow for the luxury of either extended detail or protracted examination; at best, it occasionally allows, via flashbacks or other devices, for the rescrutiny of important sequences. And the viewer has no option: he is reshown only what the writer or director chooses.
We know that successful (if often radically altered) adaptations of classic detective novels are possible; Everson cites three very good ones: Murder, My Sweet, Green for Danger, and The Kennel Murder Case, my all-time favorite. (In the last film, I think changing the sleuth from a Nietzschean superman to someone more identifiably human helps immensely, without at all vitiating the mystery elements of the original story. Philo Vance is the smartest man in the room, not because he’s a more highly evolved Ubermensch but because he just happens to be the smartest man in the room.)
It has been a common complaint among readers in every genre that "the movie just wasn’t like the book I remember reading." Can Everson’s tenuous excuse—that "[t]he detective story is essentially a contemplative and nonvisual art" whose "essential information is conveyed not by action, but by extended dialogue conversations, and by meticulous description"—justify Hollywood’s neglect of the classic detective tale? Some would say it’s a necessary and sufficient reason, but how necessary and how sufficient is it?
Couldn’t filmmakers tell such stories through action (including dialogue, of course), they way they tell other stories? And could not that action convey the necessary information about the critical facts—means, motive, and opportunity—that allow us to figure out who committed the crime, without showing who actually did it, plus including sufficient red herrings to mystify us?
Is cinema a relatively poor means of engaging the problem-solving, analytical side of the intellect? Or is the problem simply that too few filmmakers are willing and able to rise to that challenge?
Certainly a good many real and satisfying whodunits have been done for television. Yet few people would claim that TV is inherently a more intellectually intensive medium than the cinema. Perhaps it is, however, and scholars should look into that possibility.
Or could it be that filmmakers simply regard their customers as the Great Unwashed, the "boobsoisie", unlettered and unfettered knuckledraggers who will tolerate almost any nonsense Hollywood designates as "culture," as memorably formulated by the journalist H. L. Mencken when he wrote, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public"?
In the final analysis, one thing seems clear: Hollywood can’t or won’t make thought-provoking detective films in the classic mold. What that says about Tinsel Town culture and American culture at large I will leave for the reader to determine.