Reflexivity in Remington Steele

Remington Steele was a lightly comedic detective procedural from the early 1980s. It had two gimmicks – front and centre is the conceit that Remington Steele is a fraud, an invention of the real detective, Laura Holt, who was not being taken seriously in the private investigation world because of her gender. Laura did all the real detection and puzzle solving, even as the greatest enigma eluded her: just who was that tall blue-eyed stranger who’d insinuated himself into the role of Remington Steele? Steele brought the second gimmick, which is that he would always try to solve their cases by finding a movie with an analogous plot. It’s a strategy which has fascinated me for virtually my whole life, and was in large part what lead to my interest in classic movies. I’ve never specifically looked for a film on the basis of it featuring in an episode of Remington Steele, but it did make classic movies accessible and familiar in a helpful way.

The explicit incorporation of genre precursors is the kind of highly literate referentiality that we have come to associate with post-modernism. I’ve previously looked at this purely in terms of my emotional response, but now I’d like to probe a little deeper and inquire why the show has adopted this strategy and how it affects the mechanics of the fiction. Why include older fictions? How does it affect the show’s sense of reality? How does it affect the story mechanics? Remington Steele uses film references in a number of different ways, for different effects. It is rare that a film’s plot does actually map perfectly onto the mystery of the week, quite often the film reference applies only to a particular clue or scene, so that the most complexly referential episodes can draw on a half-dozen films. Almost as often, the filmic reference has no real plot significance, but is used as a commentary beat.

What all of these uses have in common is that they provide a commentary on the action that’s unfolding, suggesting a future possible sequence of events, and most crucially, exposing the puzzle-solving process directly. Most detective fiction takes great pains to hide the process of solving a crime from the audience, from mystifying the ability of the detective to collate the clues and arrive at the correct conclusion. However, as Raymond Chandler observed, the clues never actually work once you start to really tear into the details – they are not in that sense “realistic”. What you see again and again in detective fiction is a series of seemingly arbitrary inquiries whose combined purpose is revealed as the story climax, though most televisual detectives keep their inquiries comfortably away from the truly esoteric. Despite Holmes’ dictum that you must have facts before theories, lest you twist your facts to suit your theories, most practical detection works on the more scientific principle of forming a theory and then searching for corroborating/eliminating facts, often culminating in one or more mid-story false accusations, necessary to elicit the crucial fact that will disprove a given theory. This process is at least a little at odds with the old idea that people read detective fictions as a battle of wits with the fictional detective – it’s far more like a magic trick, where I think we broadly don’t want to know how it’s done, we want to be amazed. In fact, the simplest way to solve almost all detective stories is via some or other process of meta-gaming the problem, eloquently summed up by the default position that it’s always the least-likely suspect. The way that the magic trick has to be structured is a little more sophisticated than that – the criminal must usually be someone seen only slightly, usually early in the drama, who appears unconnected to the crime at first glance. That simple rule will solve 95% of television procedurals, because the ergonomics of 40-minute shows means there will only be one or at most two viable candidates. The existence of clues themselves are inherently misdirections. What Steele’s references to films does is short-circuit this logic by directly meta-gaming the mystery at hand inside the fiction, and inviting the audience to do the same. What this referentiality creates then, is an entirely different way of thinking about detectives and detection, a way that is perhaps a little more honest about the way fictions are structured and consumed.

An important consequence of this change is that it directly responds to Chandler’s basic complaint about detective fictions, that they are completely inward looking, interested only in evaluating and solving the very specific problems that they themselves create. We could use Umberto Eco’s useful formulation here of the “closed” versus the “open” text – not that I think he really believes there is such a thing as a “closed” text. By explicitly becoming self-referential, Remington Steele actually opens the text to a wider array of interpretations, because not only do we have the closed system of mystery clues, but the richness of the associations created by the reference. We can use that reference to understand the show, or we can use Remington Steele as a prism for looking back at the original work.

One example is “Vintage Steele“, from the first season. The central mystery revolves around a mysterious body floating in a vat of wine, found during a press conference announcing the expansion of the vineyard. The body has an annoying habit of being stolen and then placed to appear when it will cause maximum disruption, and this habit causes Steele to dub the unknown corpse “Harry”, from The Trouble With Harry [1955], one of Hitchcock’s comedies. The comedy revolves around the burgeoning romance between the not-terribly-grieved widow and a local painter, ultimately ending with a murder turning out to be natural causes and the successful consummation of the romance plot. Because The Trouble With Harry ultimately has no killer, it provides a schema for the incidental action of “Vintage Steele”, but not a conclusion; in fact, Laura is only able to actually solve the mystery after a string of false accusations leads to the last remaining suspect being found guilty, she then reconstructs the crime after solving it. The solution comes before the detective’s ruminations, a major destabilisation of business-as-usual for Great Detectives made possible by the reflexivity of the plot.

Aside from the effect on detection, explicitly referencing The Trouble With Harry allows Remington Steele to adopt a quite macabre plot device within its lightly comic tone through the establishment of that precedent. It’s the kind of navigation of genre conventions which enables Remington Steele to have different tones as required for the narrative. In making the audience aware that the show is aware of its own fictionality, it avoids any risk of being branded “realistic”, and hence any risk of being subject to the kind of critique Chandler delivers. It instead acknowledges the real process we use for watching and interpreting fictions, which is very heavily to use precedent and formula. In acknowledging this, Remington Steele invites the playful participation of the audience instead of trying to fool them, a process which Chandler showed can never be successful without the active goodwill of the audience in any case.

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword [2017]

It is axiomatic in my critical writing that a work should be taken on its own terms as much as possible, and I try to then understand given it succeeds, what meaning the thing conveys. This is a very difficult criterion to use when encountering works that are themselves explicitly remakes of older films, explicitly re-imaginings of previous source material, or explicitly meta-textual in some way. With versions of King Arthur, there emerge a range of, if you like, Sacred Cows – Merlin, Excalibur, Mordred, Guinevere+Lancelot, the round table. Films that try and use just parts of the legend are often not that successful, or end up feeling like they used the key names as a ploy for telling an unrelated story. And in the specific case of Arthur, they’ve got to project their identity strongly enough to overcome one of the foundation texts of English, L’Morte d’Arthur, and one of the most widely seen and adored satires, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Guy Ritchie’s film, unfortunately, runs face-first into most of these challenges. It’s not quite as dire as King Arthur [2004], but there’s a lot that the film does to undermine itself, creating a narrative that’s semi-coherent at best. The challenge, in a way, is explaining why I still somewhat enjoyed it – an admittedly emotional rather than rational response. As I always say, the starting rather than the ending point for engaging with a film.

I think the way to approach the film is not as a fantasy epic or quest at all  – nor as some critics have done, as a tale of the criminal underworld. I think the most productive way to think about it is as a superhero story. Seen as a super-hero origin story the outline plot begins to look familiar: ambitious boy of unassuming (apparent) origins acquires power and must learn to use it before facing a powerful villain. The scenes in Londonium which otherwise seem like off-cuts from a medieval Ritchie caper flick then start to make sense as the small-scale testing ground for the powers he needs. Vortigern has the usual supervillainous interest in obtaining some ultimate weapon, and so on.

If this reading is right, the bigger question becomes one of how we interpret fictions. What is it that makes a super-hero version of Arthur the Arthur that we need right now, compared to the gritty world-weary commander from 2004, or the naive dreamer of 1967, or the wonder-struck idealist of 1963? Just as importantly, why doesn’t this Arthur need most of those trappings, so essential for 500-odd years since Malory? I think the answer comes down in a way to the capstone of this film: the formation of the round table. Arthur is king partially because of his birthright, but mostly by the assent of the other knights – that’s why the table is round, in order to give equal voices to all those sitting at it. Arthur may be king, but that makes him first among equals, and of course, famously he is not the best knight – that’s Gawain, nor the most noble, that’s Percival, and so on. Recent TV versions have emphasised Merlin as a central driving character, eschewing the notion of royalty as centrally important, but what Ritchie’s Arthur has instead of magical powers is a reliance on his close group of allies.

Despite enjoying it, and thinking that it touches on some really interesting ways of thinking about Arthur, I have to admit that the logical and structural problems with this film are immense – by the way it establishes its own expectations I think it’s pretty clearly not a whole-hearted success. I can’t quite call it a failure though. Deeply flawed, but nonetheless interesting.

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Atomic Blonde [2017]

Atomic Blonde belongs to a male-dominated genre and aesthetic, not only dominated, but almost explicitly anti-woman. Women exist in this genre space almost purely to get “Fridged“, rescued, or indifferently used by the hero in furtherance of his aims. The big, perhaps only, exception in a male-led film has been Ilsa Faust [Rebecca Ferguson] in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation [2015], a rival of Ethan Hunt’s [Tom Cruise] who effectively does every feat of daring he does, rescues him when he fails, and defeats him in a chase – I very much want to see a Mission Impossible film headlined by her with an entirely new team. Before that there have been a tiny handful of female-led films like Haywire [2011], Salt [2010], The Long Kiss Goodnight [1996], and The Assassin [1993]. The rarity of a female-led spy action film makes gender the elephant in the room when thinking about this film, an elephant that the film itself is very aware of, because it needs to walk a tight-rope of expectations. A female hero in the Bond vein can’t use her sexuality the way Bond does his, because of Mata Hari; yet she must demonstrate or perform her sex, or end up a  effectively male with breasts. The Long Kiss Goodnight made this kind of dynamic explicit by pitting the spy identity against the mother identity, while the others have generally opted to lean away from the spy as a sexual being. Atomic Blonde takes my supposed dichotomy and destroys it as the limited and retrograde error of thought it is. Continue reading

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The Fate of the Furious [2017]

The response to the film by critics was by-and-large “it’s bonkers and doesn’t care”, which is critical short-hand for “I didn’t understand what this film was doing or how, but it seemed to appeal to the (stupid) masses”. Consider for example, Kate Muir’s hot take:

Oh what a cheery, trashy car crash of a movie we have in Fast & Furious 8, which does, once again, exactly what it says in the instruction manual in the glove compartment.

This dismissive tone suggests that what the film does is unplanned, haphazard, and that it’s a by-the-numbers recipe-book at the same time – a paradox. I think the inference we’re supposed to make here is that it’s the beans on toast of movies, the simplest possible thing in the world. The contempt for what is a superbly crafted story object is very disappointing and as usual, speaks far more to the predilections of the critic than the quality of the product. Of course, I know better – why else bother posting my knowledge on the internet?

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The Circle [2017]

Often when I read a negative review about a film, I’ll eventually come to the conclusion that the reviewer brought their own agenda to the review rather than coldly evaluating the work in its own terms. How valid that is as a strategy is up for debate, but I think one useful way of thinking about that decision is to look for precedents and familiar story patterns – genre. The Circle isn’t exactly a genre piece, but it is explicitly about the function of social media and its intersection with surveillance, and hence connects to a range of other similarly-interested films recently, and broadly with a major area of civil concern right now. Facebook and its analogues know a truly terrifying amount about us, both in terms of what we explicitly tell it, and in that we share information using it as a medium even knowing that every keystroke is recorded somewhere. A film about this topic, by its mere existence, posits an investigation of the phenomenon beyond the obvious facts of it that are well known to virtually everyone. Despite any good intentions I may have about letting the film speak for itself, it’s inevitably actually just a contributor to a much wider discussion that’s going on around me.

As usual, spoilers follow.

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The work of the Critic ™

A long time ago Hulk posted a scathing review of The Amazing Spiderman, and I had a riposte, and I find myself now having to come back again to defend Spiderman: Homecoming from his “criticism“. His basic problem is that this new iteration doesn’t show Peter growing or changing – let me tell you, as a long-term reader of the comics, growth and change are tiny and incremental because the bulk of what happens is about showcasing the implications of being Spiderman, not of becoming Spiderman or of Spiderman fundamentally changing what that means. Put it this way – Spiderman is not Hamlet. Once again, I cite Robin Laws’ work on “Iconic” versus “Dramatic” heroes, and the necessarily different narrative structures that surround those approaches to character.

So what? I disagree with Hulk, he disagrees with Marvel, what’s the point of rehashing all of this? For me, the point is the larger question in play, which is what the heck a critic is “supposed” to be doing in the first place, and whether Hulk (or I!) is doing that. And I think there are two main aspects to what we should be doing. Continue reading

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The Simple Art of Melancholy

The question of just what “Film Noir” is has plagued discussions of the genre since its retrospective creation by French critics in the 1950s and 1960s. As the term pertains to “Hard Boiled” detectives, whose presence was a clear signifier in early film noir, the formal distinctions have always been weak. I think we tend to fall back on Chandler’s dismissive summary of the differences between “realism” and “Cheesecake Manor” to frame how we divide Marple from Marlowe. Chandler famously picked Hammett as the true origin of the hard-boiled school, out of all the pulp writers publishing alongside Hammett he was picked as the “Dean of the Hard Boiled School”, and that reputation relies heavily on cross-promotion of Hammett as himself a real detective. This assessment of “realism” can’t sustain any kind of detailed scrutiny, as Hammett is definitively wrong on a number of matters in his non-fiction essays on the craft of detection.

My research into Dashiell Hammett ended up focusing on the ways in which he re-purposed the “classic” formal structures of detective fiction as practiced by the likes of SS van Dyne, Agatha Christie, et al, and enshrined in the rules of the Detection Club [1]. Raymond Chandler was fond of “doubling” his mysteries, so that a crime in the deep past was usually the key to solving a crime in the present – a technique also favoured by one Agatha Christie. Hammett’s career can be seen in some ways as as gradually succumbing to the lure of the formal approach, because Red Harvest and The Dain Curse use detective tropes without meaningful use of clues, the defining genre feature [2], while The Maltese Falcon uses clues to power a melodrama, before The Glass Key features a classic whodunit to motivate its gangster drama, and The Thin Man is actually a perfectly conventional whodunit.

Hammett’s work was converted into films in approximately reverse order – The Thin Man (1934), The Glass Key (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1931 & 1941), The Dain Curse (1978), and (debatably) Miller’s Crossing (1990). The Big Sleep (1942) and The Long Goodbye (1973) were transmogrified almost without important mysteries included – who killed Owen Taylor indeed [3]? Just as Hammett was singled out as the first “true” practitioner of the Hard Boiled school, The Maltese Falcon (1941) is commonly identified as the first “true” Film Noir. My favourite aspect of thinking about The Maltese Falcon as the first film noir is the way it was constructed in its marketing campaign, as a “story as exciting as his blazing automatics”, which is a great selling strategy for a film in which there is not a single gunshot. The Maltese Falcon is missing, or only has in relatively low levels, many of the key aesthetic and structural features identified as “Film Noir” – so-called “Dutch Angles” are used only a few times, the lighting is fairly mainstream, the good guys broadly win. Yet there is something distinctively different about it.

The lynch-pin of The Maltese Falcon is Sam Spade’s masculinity, his through-and-through toughness, the toughness that allows him to remark of his partners death “Miles had $10,000 in insurance, no kids, and a wife that didn’t like him”. He instructs the repainting of the office door straight away and as Polhouse remarks was “in too much of a hurry to look at Miles’ body”. The sense we get is not of someone whose armour of hope and optimism allows him to overcome all emotional buffets – if anything, quite the reverse, someone so inured to the school of hard knocks that he doesn’t even notice any more. His toughness has a definite quality of fatalism and nihilism, which are the hallmarks of Film Noir. We have a word for this – “Melancholy”.

Chandler will double-down on this aspect of the detective in Marlowe, who constructs his identity through the medium of loss, indefinite sadness, discontent, and a sense that the world is arranged principally to kick men like him in the teeth. It’s a short leap from the melancholic reverie of Marlowe to the resigned determination of the genuinely disadvantaged VI Warshawski and Easy Rawlins, who more properly occupy the role of the outsider and underdog that Marlowe regards as his lot in life.

This makes the sense of melancholy a potentially far more useful tool for understanding the difference in approach between the two great schools of detective fiction, because, as noted above, they are formally often indistinguishable. All detectives question suspects, search for clues, and use “ratiocination” to identify the murderer; not all detectives suffer from melancholy. Holmes, for example, is only melancholic when not detecting, at which times he diverts himself in other vices.


[1] Wright, Willard Huntingdon. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1928.

[2] Moretti, Franco. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (March 2000): 207–27.

[3] DeFino, Dean. “Killing Owen Taylor: Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past.” Journal of Narrative Theory 30, no. 3 (October 1, 2000): 313–31.

[4] Mooney, William. “Sex, Booze, and the Code: Four Versions of the Maltese Falcon.” Literature/Film Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2011): 54–70.

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