The Neo-Realistic Detective

The appearance of a new style of detective programming in the late 1940s and 1950s represents an important development in the history of broadcasting. While crime had been an anti-social activity in earlier detective formats, the hallmark of the emergent Neo-Realistic format was its emphasis upon crime as a symptom of a deeper social malady. The likable personalities that dominated the Glamorous series now gave way to a group of disillusioned, embittered men who reluctantly went about their professions.

These characters usually expressed an abusive tone when dealing with others—be they clients, criminals, police, or bystanders. They also articulated a general disdain for most of the positive symbols of civilization and social order. Instead of stressing the rational process of crime detection found prominently in the Realistic pattern, these programs emphasized ugly crimes investigated by brutalized detectives existing within a depressingly grim environment. There was nothing inspirational in the weekly introduction to Twenty-First Precinct which described its environment as,

just lines on a map of the city of New York. Most of the 173,000 people wedged into the nine-tenths of a square mile between Fifth Avenue and the East River wouldn't know if you asked them that they lived and worked in the Twenty-First. Whether they know it or not, the security of their homes, their persons and their property is the job of the men of the Twenty-First Precinct.

There was a desensitized, new realism in these programs, a degrading view of life and society well summarized in a typical opening to a broadcast of Pat Novak for Hire.

That's what the sign out in front of my place says, "Pat Novak for Hire." It's the easy way because down here on the waterfront in San Francisco you can't afford to wait your turn. If you're gonna make a living down here, you gotta do everything you can. And you gotta be out of the henhouse by sunup. Even then it doesn't work out always because you get trouble, tax-free. It's like leukemia: there's nothing you can do about it. There's no way to duck it. You might as well try to start a conga line in a cathedral.

Ranging far beyond the scope of the other styles, the Neo-Realistic Detective programs were reflections in radio of the sullen realism of hard-boiled detective literature and of film noir. The revolution in detective fiction created by authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane represented a re-evaluation by an urban and technological society of a literary art form with its roots in the nineteenth centheir linkage with Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, their linkage with Poe and Doyle, and produced a psycho-sociological brand of literature which meshed with their modernity. The new authors placed their heroes squarely within what Chandler called "the bitch city," the squalid ugliness of modern urbanity—a landscape that literary scholar John Cawelti succinctly described “as a wasteland, as a man-made desert or cavern of lost humanity.” Within that existential locale, the brutalized heroes plied their trade with jaded sensibilities.

In cinema, the atmosphere of the hard-boiled style was captured in several features of the 1940s, but especially in the murky pessimism that pervaded film noir. These films of the seamy quality of urban life enjoyed great popularity in the second half of the 1940s. In their dark, psychoanalytical outlook, films like Nightmare Alley, Cry of the City, and The Naked City probed with pessimism the condition of civilization in postwar America. The Neo-Realistic Detective was the attempt by radio to emulate the success of other popular art forms in expressing this condition.

Radio, however, suffered from a precondition not nearly as pervasive in literature or cinema: censorship. The argument over what could and should be placed over the air was almost as old as radio itself. Network officials, advertising agencies, directors, and even writers were well aware that their programs could easily enter any home, thereby making the right of choice inherent in books and movies less relevant in radio. There was, therefore, a constant concern among the creators of radio shows that they might offend listeners.

Compounding the problem, detective series had been a chronic point of contention in broadcasting, as many critics throughout the 1930s and 1940s assailed crime series for being disruptive to adult society and harmful to juvenile minds. Because of such potential and actual criticism, detective shows were usually tame, even reassuring. Sex was usually innocently present, and words as common as "guts" and "damn" were stricken from scripts. This pervasive self-censorship caused one critic in 1954 to berate their "virginal innocence so far as murder and mayhem are concerned."

Despite the limitations inherent in radio, the Neo-Realistic Detective format was a significant approximation of its literary and film forerunners. While earlier radio detectives seemed to symbolize civility being called to rectify injustice, the Neo-Realistic Detectives lived in a world of injustice and seemed at times to approximate incivility themselves. Within this mood of crime and social failure, these newest detectives were relentlessly drawn into conflict. Such was the masochistic confession of Chicago newspaperman Randy Stone, hero of the Night Beat series, when he admitted that "like an iron filing, I was drawn to the magnet of unhappiness." To him, this meant a world of pain and failure—dramatically juxtaposed to the real environment of most radio listeners which he described as a world of "success, promotion, love, and friendship."

Listeners could not help reacting to the fearful picture that these characters presented. In their purview, the greatest cities of the country—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco—were criminal cesspools with only a thin cadre of depressed public and private investigators defending them from anarchy. Police Detective Danny Clover, principal character on Broadway Is My Beat, spoke of all such cities when he described the downtown of New York as "from Times Square to Columbus Square—the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world." If a Sherlock Holmes or a Nick Carter inspired in the audience a quiet confidence in the purposefulness of detective activity, even in victory the Neo-Realistic Detectives left listeners uncertain.

In theme and content, these series pioneered new dimensions in radio. If murder continued to be the criminal's favorite act, it was now accomplished with noisy pistol shots interrupted by morbid groans and punctuated by the explicit thud of bodies collapsing to the floor. Still, nontraditional crimes were investigated. Themes such as juvenile delinquency and anti-Semitism could be found in Broadway Is My Beat. Dragnet related stories of children running away from home, adolescent girls posing for lewd pictures, drug addiction, and the abandonment of children. In programs like The Line Up and Twenty-First Precinct, both police dramas in the 1950s, brutal new dimensions in radio crime were treated as investigators became involved with such matters as the bombing of a politician's home, the strangling of a sixty-year-old woman, muggings, contract murder, and attacks on police officers.

To match the new types of crime, Police Lt. Lew Dana in The Man from Homicide demonstrated similar frankness as, for instance, when he graphically described the dying reactions of a beautiful woman who had just been shot: "Her face relaxed, and it was a beautiful face, even in death." Such explicitness was also observable when the hero of Night Beat portrayed the scene in the room of a murdered man: "We found McMasters lying on his bed, the rumpled silk counterpane was slowly changing from chartreuse to crimson. Two bullets had ripped holes in him through flesh and bone." And sometimes, as in Jeff Regan, Investigator, realistic description could become crude personal observation: he was "a big, heavy-set man wearing a dirty Panama hat.... He had hair in his ears."

The most colorful writers of such series were David Friedkin and Morton Fine. Their poetic style in depicting New York City in Broadway Is My Beat is a striking example of a writing flare which was generally absent from radio. Indicative of their naturalism, in one episode they described Broadway in the summer:

In the summer heat Broadway is a wasteland—sullen, a place of regret. It's a time when the breeze puffs in from the river, dies suddenly before it touches your dampened cheek. The time when you wake up already exhausted, then pause before your office door and consider arson. Broadway fans itself with a newspaper, and finds fascination watching a fat fly crowd against a sweating window. The thing to do is to give up—except you've got a job, except you've got to pay the rent, pick up the check, buy the beer, leave the tip, meet the installment. July or not, you've got to make a living, kid.

The heroes of this format were trapped in an existential dilemma. Sensing what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said that "hell is other people," these detectives were condemned by their profession to operate in a world of ugly people. Out of such a moral, emotional, and physical contradiction, the Neo-Realistic Detectives often emerged with hatred for their existences. Such was the lesson in an NBC program in 1949, Dyke Easter, Detective:

Be a detective! Shadow people! Make big money! I'll bet I've spent two years of my life waiting on street corners, watching for people who never showed up. Do you like rain? Tell me about it at 2 o'clock in the morning.

Like all such sleuths, Easter lived with a pain he was unable to share. This type of hero had no such companion as a girlfriend or a flirtatious secretary—love in the world of these detectives was contemptuous, since revealing openness to human warmth was only a sign of exploitable vulnerability. Should such a character make an attempt at developing a relationship with a woman, he was doomed to failure; and a collapsed love affair meant only more self-castigation, as with Dyke Easter when he bitterly admonished himself: "The tougher they are, the harder they fall. Dyke Easter—whip him, shoot him, tear his heart out. He got paid for it, didn't he?"

The investigators were a tough breed. Lt. Dana explained it to a petty criminal he was beating to get information. "If I'm tough," he sneered, "it's because guys like you have made me tough." "The bitter Lt. Dana," as one character called him, reaffirmed his reputation at the opening of each weekly program when he sneered, "I don't like killers." This characteristic of the Neo-Realistic Detectives was accurately diagnosed in Dyke Easter when the private eye’s love interest rejected him saying, "You're not lonely, your anger keeps you warm." Police Lt. Ben Guthrie, the principal character in Blake Edwards' gritty series, The Line Up, more graphically punctuated this feeling of anger and frustration. In the broadcast of June 21, 1951, after being rescued by police from a band of robbers who had kidnapped and terrorized him, Guthrie turned and drove his fist deep into the face of his handcuffed chief antagonist.

Still another important theme in many of these series was a disdain for the wealthy. This was not a rejection of money since none of the Neo-Realistic Detectives was a do-gooder who solved crimes without compensation. Instead, their scorn was focused on the rich leaders of society who, through their money, purchased privilege. The hero of Pat Novak for Hire, for example, scorned the power of money—a power that was amplified because of his relative poverty and social impotence. This antagonism also existed in police investigators such as Lt. Dana who sarcastically noted to one wealthy client that, regarding justice, $9 million spoke much louder than his own police department.

In probing the content and meaning of the various Neo Realistic Detectives one cannot help but be impressed with the array of series characters created by actor/producer Jack Webb. Working with gifted writers like Richard L. Breen, Herb Margolis, and James Moser, with talented young actors such as William Conrad, Lee Marvin, and Raymond Burr, and primarily with director William Rousseau, Webb in the late 1940s developed a singular detective type whose sarcasm and toughness were the essence of the Neo-Realistic style. Under various names, and in different contexts, Webb refined his character first in Johnny Madero, Pier 23; then in Jeff Regan, Investigator; Pat Novak for Hire; and finally in Dragnet.

Even when it premiered in April 1947, Johnny Madero, Pier 23 was different from other radio detectives. The reviewer for Variety termed it “a hard-hitting, fast-moving item that carries a good deal of punch in its dialog.” But that dialog would be the undoing of the series, for in early 1949 it was unexpectedly cancelled by Mutual because, according to the president of the network, the writers could not tone down their characterizations. Madero was a caustic, quick-tempered type who owned a boat shop on San Francisco's Embarcadero, but hired out as a detective after hours. As Madero explained his lifestyle in one episode, "I rent boats and do anything else you can blame on your environment." The most striking feature of the series—beyond the incessantly rude banter the hero carried on with everyone he encountered—was the hatred for society which he betrayed in all his undertakings. It was a characteristic Webb further expanded in Pat Novak for Hire.

Pat Novak, like his predecessor, leased boats on the docks of San Francisco. But now on ABC, Webb had an artistic freedom he apparently lacked before. The scripts were riddled with the clichés that had become associated with hard-boiled detective stories. A beautiful woman entering his room, for example, was described as "like 118 pounds of warm smoke" and possessing a smile "like a furnace full of marshmallows." Another femme fatale in Novak's life had "a voice like a bowl of warm stew" and "she made Cleopatra look like Apple Mary."

Novak's weekly nemesis was Police Lieutenant Hellman, described as so mean "he wouldn't give his wife an aspirin if she had concussion of the brain." And the difficulty in solving a case was "like trying to follow a grain of rice in a Shanghai suburb." Nevertheless, through the overextended similes Webb's character emerged as a powerful but unstable hero with emotional traits bordering on psychosis. In a few exchanges of dialogue, Novak could change from an ambivalent flirtation with an attractive woman, to an unguarded threat against her life, bitterly promising that, "I'll dirty you up like a locker-room towel." There was nothing middle-class about Pat Novak—he was from the earth earthy, alienated and mean within a world of normal people. Novak once confided that "the only honest guy I know" was the recurring series character, Jocko Madigan, and he was described as "an ex-doctor and a boozer."

Webb's fictional characters were clearly drawn from the hard-boiled formula. But, as manifest in his interpretation, they were a breed apart, a totally new style in detective radio programming. In a sense, he admitted this in an episode of his third series, Jeff Regan, Investigator, a CBS program in 1948, when the following exchange took place:

Client: Regan, you've got a nasty way of talking. People don't talk to me like that.
Regan: Yeah. Well this is a brand new crowd of people, frosty top, and we talk like we feel.

The naturalism demonstrated by the "brand new crowd" of anti-heroes created by Jack Webb had one serious drawback—their personalities were often more frightening than the criminals. Even though victorious in combating crime, they were never people from whom audiences could obtain constructive impressions. If the importance of detective programming lay in communicating socially-beneficial lessons, the negative attributes of Webb's heroes invariably undermined the salutary impact of those weekly triumphs.

With the debut of Dragnet in late 1949, however, Jack Webb compensated for this shortcoming and produced one of the most influential interpretations of police procedure in American popular culture. In the central character, Sgt. Joe Friday, are found many of the attributes of Johnny Madero, Pat Novak, and Jeff Regan. A cold and disciplined personality, Friday mechanically went about his duties for the Los Angeles Police Department. From the opening overview of the city as a reservoir of criminality, to the closing bittersweet announcement of the prison sentences for the guilty, Dragnet projected an image of a corrupted civilization defended by dedicated but mechanical police, crushed by the enormity of imperfection.

Dragnet utilized a realistic, semi-documentary style that was accentuated by specific references to numbered regulations in the Police Code, by frequent interjections of extraneous material—the request for a glass of water in the midst of a strategic confession, the detailed listing of the contents of a murdered woman's purse, a witness who last saw a runaway child when she came out the side door to empty the garbage, an accurate reproduction of the sound of a photographer in a darkroom printing a picture—and by the monotoned enunciation of the actors which sounded more like a newsreel interview than a radio drama. In this manner, Sgt. Friday became a believable hero, something lacking in Webb's earlier characters, to whom listeners could relate. He became as much a part of the police force as any real-life officer.

The greatest appeal of the program, however, was its underlying moral tone. Dragnet utilized irony and understatement to suggest that the capture of a criminal on one broadcast did not mean that others were not committing similar crimes. This can be best illustrated with reference to the broadcast of December 5, 1950. The drama involved the plight of two seventeen-year-old girls who had been lured into the "dirty, rotten business" of pornography. One girl, who had had a "good family, good training" before coming to Hollywood to seek a career in the movies, drowned herself in the ocean, leaving only a repentant note saying, "I'm sorry." Police investigation led to a photographer who printed for Friday a lewd photo of the drowned girl, lustfully assuring him, "Bet you get a kick out of this one—real beautiful girl." The second girl led Friday to two men who had taken and distributed the "filth." They eventually were convicted of rape and lewd conduct.

The story was a powerful indictment of pornography and the exploitation of gullible young women. In a moment of morality meant for the audience, Friday preached, "As an organized crime it's one of the most vicious and insidious rackets that exists today." To make its point more poignant, the broadcast ended on a note of irony with the surviving girl accepting a job as a carhop—where she could wear "cute uniforms"—hopefully reassuring the police: "Never can tell, might lead to something."

Because they appeared at the close of the creative era in radio programming, the Neo-Realistic Detective series never attained the popularity enjoyed by the earlier formats. Even though Dragnet was the most influential police drama in the 1950s, it is most remembered as a television series which began in 1952. Yet, these series were clear signs of important developments within U.S. society. They represented a clear determination in postwar America to come to grips in a more brutally frank manner with the vices and imperfections of civilization.

Detective programming in the 1930s and 1940s, even when dealing with actual police problems, avoided confronting the causes of crime. If Gangbusters or Mr. District Attorney showed criminals being apprehended, it was always as if their capture would bring justice and harmony to reality. The Neo-Realistic Detectives, however, made no pretenses about their world. They showed environment spawning criminals and suggested that even though a few villains were now in prison, the social conditions that created them were still operative. Where the Realistic and Glamorous Detectives usually possessed a quality of deux ex machina, the Neo-Realistic heroes were flawed people enmeshed in dirty problems. There was no solid, happy resolution at the end of their exploits, only a hiatus until they could resume the perpetual struggle—this, they suggested, because the environmental conditions that bred crime could never be altered by their insignificant weekly achievements.

A cynic might contend that the sex and violence entering radio by way of the Neo-Realistic style was only an unsophisticated attempt to thwart the rush of listeners to television. This explanation, however, fails to appreciate the cultural import of such programming. The Neo-Realistic series were only part of a great liberal upheaval in American popular culture in the postwar years. In film, literature, popular music, television, and radio, interest turned to realistic appraisal of civilization in the United States. The search to understand the roots of crime was only part of this reformist attitude. Bigotry, prejudice, discrimination—their result so horrendously revealed in Europe at the close of World War II—were powerfully exposed in the cultural media. Through the documentary format, citizens were appraised of problems never popularly discussed in the past: delinquency, the rearing of children, foreign involvement, divorce, the inadequacy of educational facilities, sexism, and the decay of the cities.

Psychological themes filled novels, movies, and dramas as the process of re-evaluation—a rational investigatory approach not dissimilar to the methodology of the radio detectives—turned to the individual as well as to society. It was, however, a period of debate which inevitably raised questions of how much freedom could be balanced against order. By the early 1950s about the time radio was undergoing its metamorphosis, the forces of reaction had gained an upper hand, momentarily arresting the process of national introspection.

The Neo-Realistic Detectives attacked crime in a manner compatible with the time that produced them. Products of the late 1940s, they helped to expose imperfections within the American system. In this light, rather than a slick promotional gimmick designed to lure would-be television viewers, these series were positive cultural achievements with intimate ties to progressive realities.

Regardless of the format in which they appeared, detective programs were a significant manifestation of American social principles. More than any other type of adult programming, with the exception of religious broadcasts, detective shows invariably presented listeners with moral models. Certainly, they entertained audiences and sold commercial products, but they also championed the simple pattern of Good over Evil, Truth over Lie, and Civilization over Anarchy. Ultimately, these programs were secular allegories of the middle-class, property-owning society which spawned them; and their heroes were agents of bourgeois America, there to tell criminals and citizens alike that crime did not pay, and that good, in whatever form it was manifest, was always victorious.

As simple as it may appear, this was a vital function. A liberal-democratic nation such as the United States, disdaining totalitarian mechanisms for enforcing governmental will, must persuade its citizenry of the rectitude of its system. Since dissidence is relatively tolerated, and therefore always a viable alternative, methods of suasion must be diverse and potent. In this light, radio detective programming takes on political nuances. These series were not, however, the product of any cultural conspiracy. Indeed, because they were not, detective series were free of artificiality and pretense. Instead, emanating from the natural proclivity of a social arrangement to maintain its validity, the radio detectives were champions of law and order in the broadest sense of the term.


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