By Ola Zaltin
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
So ends one of the most famous detective films in history.
Whatever actually happened in Chinatown (the title of the film) is only hinted at throughout the story. The notion we get is that whatever happened in Chinatown - in the past - was not good. It has, in fact, tainted and jaded our protagonist no end. It was probably the reason JJ Gittes was dismissed - or left - the police force and became a private investigator.
Furthermore: we get a strong indication that it was what happened in Chinatown that brings our protagonist to the brink of disaster - and beyond - once again: his stubborn belief that he can fix the world. The laconic ending line from his erstwhile partner summing it all up: you can’t.
Most stories are told from here on and forwards. “This is the set-up, this is what happens, this is how it ends.” (A tiny village is each year beset by a marauding gang that steal their meagre crops. A party of villagers venture into the big city to hire samurai to protect them. The samurai do so, but lose most of their members in the endeavour. The samurai have won a pyrrhic battle: the farmers are the real victors. Seven Samurai.)
In the straight forward told narrative, if the past is used at all, it is to tell us something about our characters. This backstory is often there to give our main characters a bit more texture and humanity (or not, as in this piece of climactic ending exchange from Runaway Train: “Sara: You’re an animal! Manny: No, worse! Human! Human!”) Their history, their inner turmoils and struggles will lead them to either 1. Learning the life lesson at hand: happy ending, or 2. Not: tragic ending.
“Detective story” as a genre will be taken loosely within the context of this particular columnist’s venture into the past. What I will call “Investigative” stories can range in subject matter from an in-your-face plucky single mother of two taking down a huge corporation in court, to a quiet English butler re-evaluating his life, to the super-rich of America trying to save their own skin.
Stories that have very different storylines, but share this: the characters attempt to untangle a web of lies and deceit going back in time: be it huge corporations having poisoned innocent men, women and children; or a lone butler looking back on his life trying to make the remains of his days make sense; or a lawyer trying to find out what really happened on that one single day.
All three films here - chosen at random - are firmly set in the present, but involve a great deal of history: what happened, and how and where? They are of course Erin Brockovich, The Remains of the Day and Reversal of Fortune. (The last film’s story based on real events and in a stroke of genius by the screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, the voice-over narration is done by the woman central to the drama - now in a coma. A device later used with similar success in Desperate Housewives.)
None of the above mentioned stories could by the farthest stretch of the imagination be called detective stories, but they share the central element of one driven main character researching the past to solve a puzzle in the present. The investigative storyline gives the writer a handful of very useful tools for telling the story.
1. A main character with a drive and passion: trying to answer a life-changing question.
2. A strong backstory motivating the main character for his or her quest.
3. People trying to stop main character from reaching his or her goal.
4. The titillating central question: is it true? is it not? who’s the culprit? what really happened?!
5. Will it be a happy ending? We invest our emotions in the main character, hoping for a happy outcome to their quest.
Philomena, starring Judi Dench, is a good example of an investigative storyline that is neither a thriller nor a detective genre film. Philomena is a middle-aged woman with grown children. She carries a great secret burden: when a young woman, she had sex before marriage, became pregnant and was thrown out of her family and forced to give her baby boy away to nuns, who gave him away to unknown parents. She gets in contact with the reporter Sixsmith, who decides to help her research the story, and find her son. Nuns, Americans, ex-partners, bureaucrats all conspire to stop Philomena on her quest. Will she find her lost son - and how and what will he be? A junkie or a happy family father? Philomena sets out on her life-altering journey.
See the five or so beats in the above? How although it’s no detective movie or thriller - it uses the same dramatic elements to tell a story of finding something hidden in the past to great effect.
Detective stories are by nature told in the reverse. The central question here is: “What happened?” and there’s a fair amount of time travel involved to solve the crime.
When a detective story begins, the murder is already done, or will be, within minutes of screen time. The detective(s) arrive to find a fait accompli. Now it’s time to start the research back in time, minute by minute, hour by hour, and map the victims background, friends, enemies, movements, witnesses - and so on; you know the drill.
This is usually set against a ticking clock - and clocks, as we all know, move forward. The detective(s) are under pressure to travel back in time, to prevent the murderer killing in the future.
My own way of writing crime (or investigative) stories comes in stages. The first is thinking of the crime, who committed it, why and how. I.e. creating the backstory; the road into history that the detective will start travelling down, step by step and hour by hour into the past. Much of this is often background work on the characters involved in, or around, the murder. Their lives, their liaisons, their jobs, dreams, secrets (up and above all, their most innermost and secret drives and fears) and goals.
The second stage is covering the whole thing up. When I know who committed the murder, and how and why, and what the red herrings will probably be, who profits from keeping the history being kept hidden, and thus will look suspicious (but not necessarily be the guilty party).
This trail is akin to a detonator wire I’ve covered by sand, that the detective will uncover and follow and which will blow up in his face (or hopefully not) at the end of that line. A flow chart of webbed wires, in fact, were some will lead to duds, some branch off in unexpected directions but in the end, one wire will be found to be the right one that leads to the denouement - the defusing of the big explosion, as it were.
Then and only then does the detective come onto the stage, stage three in the process.
Also here is the question of how and why central. How does the detective (or an “investigator” such as Philomena) come into the story? Why now? What happens that triggers the story?
And why is this character chosen as the detective/investigator, what drives him or her? What makes it absolutely impossible for them to say no to the challenge of heading down that dark and scary tunnel into the past that might very well give them some nasty shocks, uncomfortable truths, deadly enemies and most probably put them in harm’s way? What is the reason he or she just HAS to undertake this perilous journey? (Hint: it’s often something to do with their own past…)
The collection of data to solve the crime is at the very core of the investigation.
Modern film and TV-series almost all have their ubiquitous data-nerd: Benji (Mission Impossible franchise), Penelope Garcia (Criminal Minds), Job (Banshee), Finch (Person of Interest) to name but a few. There’s nothing these geniuses can’t find in an instant, cross-indexing and illegally searching, providing passwords, background, aliases, locations and floor plans, (somehow - also magical - always being able to have radio-contact with our protagonist, although said is 200 meters underground in a cement bunker 200 kms away) etc etc. To me, this has ruined the basic art of knocking on doors and talking to people, and sadly, gradually taken the impossible out of the mission. Person of Interest is a clear indicator of the state of things, as it is involved with the stopping of future crimes, not even yet committed. (It also moves so fast and was so uninvolving this viewer opted out after ten minutes of viewing.) The basic premise of uncovering something hidden and dark has been reduced to typing on a keyboard and bingo; the idea of searching your way, slowly and painstakingly down through the corridors of time, replaced by a matter of pressing Enter and hey presto, here’s the culprit!
Call me old, but I’m more and more beginning to enjoy series like Foyle’s War, or more recently Inspector Gently, detectives inhabiting a world before the internet and mobile phones, where a lot of walking and talking, pondering and observing and going back and talking solves the crime. HBO’s new series True Detective takes the element of going back in time full on with (so far) great success. Telling the story of a 17-year hunt for a serial killer it divides its time deliciously between the present day interviews of the two detectives first involved with the case 17 years ago, and flashbacks to that time, when mobile phones were scarce, the world wide web unborn and there weren’t any radio masts yet in the bayous of Louisiana.
The pace of a series without mobiles and internet is slower, it takes its time. We get to know people, their idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. We lean forward to learn more and engage, as opposed to leaning back and getting everything served with the click of a mouse from the resident nerd IT-oracle. (The other day I found a guy on a message board asking if anyone noticed, right at the end of episode two of True Detective, what looked like four stones being dropped in the lake as the camera tilted up and away from the church. I personally think that it wasn’t stones. Or something meant to be there, just fish surfacing coincidentally or whatever, the wind. But just the fact that this guy is so super into every scene, every movement, every possible clue, is both telling and endearing.)
Famously, Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne first wrote the ending as a happy ending, with the evil father Noah Cross being shot, and daughter Evelyn surviving. Polanski’s instincts told him this would make it just another bland cop thriller, and reversed it, with the resulting tragic ending. Polanski was right: with a happy ending, the whole shebang would have sunk without a trace.
To be a bit glib, story is a part of history; and history must be an integral part of every good story, be it a happy or tragic ending. From character background to the investigative storyline to detective films proper, history is a very essential part in a film or tv-narrative. Research it, explore it, develop it and use it - or you’re history.