Pop culture crime trackers. Real cops aren't everyone's to look up to

Detectives were, are and will be. Even if some have become crackpots and the reputation of others has always been reprehensible, they continue to seek the truth, solve mysteries and track down villains.

A1 "Commissioner Montalbano" every Saturday on TVP HD. The first episode will be broadcast on 4 February at 8pm.

Polish Television will show the Italian RAI TV series 'Commissario Montalbano' (or 'Inspector Montalbano', it is impossible to catch up with the translations). It's an adaptation of Andrea Camilleri's popular police novels. For some of my friends, it's a hit. For me, a good opportunity to reflect on my own entirely subjective ranking of detectives. Without a doubt, Salvo Montalbano, chief of police in the imaginary town of Vigata in Sicily, is one of them.

There are police detectives and there are private detectives. Both have been characters in books and films hundreds of times. There are even numerous amateur detectives - after all, who was Miss Marple, invented by Agatha Christie? And who is our Father Matthew from Sandomierz?

For good measure, an amateur detective, albeit one who helped the British police voluntarily, was also the most famous character in the detective novel Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about him in 1887 and put him to death in 1893, but was forced to bring him back to life due to reader protests. A master fiddler and morphinist, astonishing his friend Dr Watson by deducing from his unshaven cheek where the latter was and what he was doing, he is said to have appeared in 153 films and TV series.

As well as trying to get to know him from reading, I naturally watched some of the adaptations. What really frightened me was the film version of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', one of several made in the 1950s by Hammers Films. For a child not yet immersed in horror films, especially as they rarely reached Poland, a monstrous beast was really something (although it turned out to be an illusion, a trick, at the end). But while I appreciated the brilliant sophistry of the individual with the pipe from Baker Street, I somehow didn't become friends with Holmes. There will still be an opportunity to return to him.

Poirot and Maigret: crimes unpunished

The second character synonymous with 'detective' for me was naturally Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. He appeared in her novels and short stories 30 times, in the realities of the old world - between 1920 and 1975. He, in turn, was one by profession, but as a private initiative. Whence the writer gave his occupation a special status - he was a rich and influential citizen of the world. Hence, however, she put Poirot to death in the last novel about him.
"Murder in the Orient Express", a 1974 British film directed by Sidney Lumet and based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name. Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Photo: press material.
Admittedly, I didn't particularly like him either, he seemed bloated, too bombastic with his Belgian recitations. But I owe him one of the most interesting experiences of the first stage of my life. Those were the days when, with every literary and cinematic work I learned, I asked myself: who are the good guys and who are the bad ones?

Sidney Lumet filmed 'Murder in the Orient Express', an adaptation of one of the major novels featuring Poirot, in 1974 - with an all-star cast. The detective was Albert Finney. I probably watched it a few years later, the films arriving in communist Poland with considerable downtime. I don't want to summarise the intrigue of a crime committed on a luxury train, somewhere in the snows of pre-war Yugoslavia. It is possible that someone still does not know who did the killing.

This finale seemed thrillingly imaginative to me. Only later did the reflection come that the construction was as much lace as it was completely implausible. This is, by the way, the case with most novels and short stories with Poirot. They are mathematical puzzles, the kind of mechanisms living people would not be able to set in motion.

But more important was something else. Crime should be punished. Poirot himself repeated this ad nauseam in every book, in every film about himself. And yet here, although such a tirade was also uttered, on one single occasion he dispensed with justice. It was thought-provoking. I fully conceded his point, but it corrected my vision of the world. It opened me up to the complications of moral judgements.

I dislike Poirot even more today than I did then, he so often refused to empathise with others. But this one time... Well. I later saw two more film versions of "Murder...". And although Poirot was made a little weaker in them, with the addition of dark-skinned characters (unlikely as passengers on the Orient Express in those days), nothing has changed in this fundamental conclusion.

Only episodically did I rub shoulders with the professional policeman that was Georges Simenon's Commissioner Maigret, another, but this time, French pipe-smoker. And here again, an interesting experience. I read a novel about Maigret in my childhood days, in which his career comes to an end. He goes into retirement. I don't remember the title: Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories on the phlegmatic philosophising cop. Let someone reading this help me reconstruct the title!

Maigret was trying to solve a murder case. The victim was a burglar. The perpetrator someone very influential who wanted to silence the witness of his sins. This time the conclusion was the opposite. The policeman wanted the truth to come out, but he was aware that no one would believe him. It was another, very early lesson that even in the world of ritzy detective stories, in a Western civilisation generally less based on fiction than the communist Poland, crime can go unpunished.

Not quite good private eyes

Yet another experience was being exposed to American crime fiction 'noir'. I remember seeing John Houston's 'The Maltese Falcon' very early on. It was another adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, filmed in 1941. Well, this one I couldn't accept altogether. Detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, doesn't look for criminals at all, but gets into vague combinations with suspicious characters. So much for being a classic private eye, one of a formidable gallery of people slipping somewhere on the fringes of the law, populating squalid offices and cheap pubs.

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Initially, Hollywood was able to shoot crime films with criminals as the protagonists, who were generally admired. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and FBI chief Edgar Hoover began to push for such practices to be abandoned after 1933. In turn, the brave federal agent or policeman became a favourite hero.

"The Maltese Falcon" heralded the next wave, a return to ambiguity, though not going directly to the flirtation with crime. The war, however, encouraged pessimism in describing the world. In the finale, Sam Spade was handing over to the police the criminals he had previously bargained with. Also the woman he had been having an affair with. Mainly because one of the victims was his accomplice, transferring this to police reality - his partner. And the partner was not to be betrayed.

This did not, however, free this black-and-white image from an itch of ambiguity. I was fascinated by this picture and at the same time rebelled against it. I was not the only one who was in a dilemma. Renowned American stars did not want to play Spade, believing that it would be a blemish on their reputation. Bogart stepped up. This is when his great career begins.

Then - I am writing not about the 1940s but about the 1970s - I got to know Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of Raymond Chandler's novels. First from the book episodes printed in the " Słowo Powszechne", the journal of the PAX Association, and then also from adaptations. I came to terms with him more easily, whether it was the charismatic Robert Mitchum ('Farewell, My Lovely') or the peculiar Jerzy Dobrowolski (Polish Television Theatre: 'Trouble Is My Business').

Their third brother was, of course, another private investigator, Jake Gittes, wandering through the wilderness of corrupt Califonia, surprised by nothing and yet, in the end, horrified by the immensity of evil. We are, of course, talking about Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown', a film from 1974 but set in the era of 'The Maltese Falcon'. I liked Jack Nicholson's charismatic ugly man, for much of the film with a patch on his mangled nose, best. He was the very essence of a somewhat flimsy, but nonetheless capable of raising his head, humanity.

Kojak and the nemesis from Los Angeles

These were all characters from the old world. There were, however, new protagonists. Firstly, the serialised Lieutenant Kojak, played by Telly Savallas. I am unable to recreate any of his banal New York investigations today. It was watched out of curiosity about how American policing works. Also out of sympathy for the bald Savallas. Were the realities well rendered? It was said of such films back then that, even if they exaggerate characters and events, the hope was that real cops would follow at least some of their pop culture imagery. Kojak was good-natured and incorruptible. He knew life.
Telly Savals in the title role in the TV series 'Kojak'. Photo arch. TVP
Secondly, naturally, Lieutenant Columbo, played by Peter Falk, an unassuming man with a glass eye (the actor's real one was removed as a child due to illness). He played him in many seasons of the series from 1968-2002. He had no name, talked about a wife who was never shown, dressed sloppily, and had a host of weaknesses and flaws, which could effectively confuse the next murderers.

He was inattentive, slurred, repetitive and pestered his interviewees. He evoked a disregard for the perpetrators, let us add that we knew from the beginning, because in the first series the course of the murder was always played out in the beginning. The question was not who killed, but how Colombo would prove it. He may not have operated with such complex observations and techniques as Sherlock Holmes, but he was a kindred soul to him.

At the same time, he was a kind of nemesis for various elite figures, as they were the most frequent perpetrators. Everything took place in the reality of a Los Angeles dripping with wealth. There were no overly literal social accents. But there was the raw pedagogy of police films, a vibe, I might add, that survived for a very long time, amid a wave of widespread permissiveness. I appreciated it. Columbo was locking up criminals, people succumbing to various temptations, including on my behalf. Although in a few cases I regretted that he did not go the way of Poirot from 'Murder in the Orient Express'. As far as I remember, at least in the dozens of episodes I saw, he didn't do it once.

And in fact, during my childhood and early teenage years, I became friends with two detectives with a capital 'd'. Today largely forgotten.

Credeck i Cattani – my heroes

The series that shaped me earliest was now like an archaeological dig for me. I remembered its Polish title: 'The Great Robbery', but if it hadn't been for a randomly found entry on the internet, I wouldn't have tracked down its details because it was never repeated. It was 'The Gold Robbers', a 13-episode British production from 1969, shown in Poland a few years later (my family didn't buy a TV until 1970). Each episode began with dramatic scenes of a robbery of a gold shipment at an airport. A sniper would release an incendiary bullet, a fire would break out, and the action would begin.

But ' The Gold Robbers' was a record of an investigation. British Commissioner Credeck spent years catching a succession of perpetrators playing various roles in the scheme - from minnows to big shots. Some were scumbags, others were hapless people caught up in crime. I remember the climate of dissecting their individual guilt, my mum and I even put together a list of punishments, bestowing grace on some and no grace on others. For the crime films of the time, this climate of ethical unease, of questions about human responsibility, was extremely important. At the same time, each story was interesting and the finale, when reached to the very top, surprising and pessimistic. Again, another crime not quite punished.
In the British series 'The Gold Robbers'(1969), Commissioner Credeck was played by Peter Vaughan. In the Italian 'Octopus' ('La Piovra:, 1984-2001), Commissioner Corrado Cattani was played by Michele Placido. Photo posters
But this film was also strong on the charm of actor Peter Vaughan, playing Credeck. He's a master of many film and TV roles (in James Ivory's famous 'Remains of the Day', he played the old butler, Harry Hopkins' father). As British as it gets. Characteristically, although I've been convinced of the power of American cinema since I was a kid, in the realm of serials I've benefited most from the British. Credeck, an ordinary man, as far from Hollywood glamour as possible, full of doubt and dilemmas, yet sticking to the police code, even in moments of doubt or irritation, was one of my first role models.

And then there is another protagonist: commissioner Corrado Cattani from the Italian TV series 'The Octopus', shot by many directors between 1984 and 2001, with music by Ennio Morricone. A policeman with a playboy beauty, amorous, very human and at the same time epitomising all the best on the frontline of the fight against the Italian mafia. He was played by Michel Placido. This was not about a mystery. When Cattani arrived in Trapani, Sicily, he was immediately confronted with a suffocating atmosphere of conspiracy of silence. There is a great picture there of the corrupt, or intimidated, Italian elite. Nor did this series idealise the pits of society. It was a stand against a social cancer. A cry of protest.

Cattani is a tragic figure when everyone, bad and good, dies around him in turn. Including his wife and lover. Further seasons extended the action to the whole of Italy. They showed the leprosy also consuming Rome itself. This is what the title piovra - the octopus - was all about. At the end of perhaps the sixth season, Cattani himself died. The plot dragged on, the work was taken up by collaborators. It gave the impression of a nightmare that could not end. The crime story was becoming an apocalypse.

Detective aka freak

It is impossible to tell the story of all book and film detectives, as it is a huge chunk of pop culture history. As we approach modern times, I am compelled to synthesise more and more. But I stress, this is a subjective ranking.

Today's stories, mainly contained in TV series, have changed a lot in the portrayal of justice fighters. They are sometimes brilliant profilers, a bit like Sherlock Holmes (the protagonist of the American series 'The Mentalist', played since 2008 by Simon Baker), or even specialists in the examination of corpses. After all, in the series 'Bones', much of which takes place in autopsy labs, the main female character is picturesquely nicknamed 'Bones'.

The stories become more and more fantastical, as in the series 'Criminal Minds' (2005-2020), where a special group of one of the American secret services, made up largely of freaks, chases the most sophisticated killers around the country (even around the world in recent seasons). They crack the mysteries of crimes so contrived, technically or psychologically, that they are hard to believe. But in the end, Agatha Christie's lacy crossovers also raise doubts in my mind, at least years later. And reaching closer to our geographical lengths, do we believe Father Matthew almost week in, week out, facing a crime in the small town of Sandomierz?
Benedict Cumberbatch during the filming of the fourth series of the BBC series 'Sherlock', Charles Street in Cardiff, South Wales. Photo by Matthew Horwood/GC Images
Exactly - it's full of freaks. They profile criminals and crimes, but they are increasingly specific themselves. Serial detective Monk, tracking down killers between 2002 and 2009, played by Tony Shalhoube, suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. One can wonder at will about the personality of the brilliant but self-centred Sherlock Holmes. But when he became the protagonist of a series moved to modern times in 2010, Benedict Cumberbatch played a regular sociopath. In Guy Ritchie's film, he was in turn transformed, played by Robert Downey jr, into a superhuman who does not shy away from hand-to-hand combat.

'True detective', or the sadness of the police

It is hard in this text not to write about the American series 'True detective', made up of three unrelated seasons (from 2014). The first is the story of two police partners, tracking the mystery of a doomed crime for years in the wilderness of the American South. The degree of my antipathy for the pair of protagonists (Woody Harrelson and Mathew McConaghay) probably even exceeded the toxicity of their relationship. But there was some depth to it, though again it was the freaks fighting for the truth.

The second 'True detective' was hailed as weaker. And I was interested not only in one of the best shooting scenes I've ever seen, but also a treatise on broken people being ashamed of themselves. This was won for me by, among others, Colin Farrell, a former amante, here bloated and neglected. True detective? More like true man.

It's all been in cinema before. Flashes of the dignity of debased people. The burning, hydrochloric acid-like toxicity of the crime world, clinging to tired policemen's faces and clothes. And yet it's told engagingly, with a good dose of suspense, despite the slow pace. Nic Pizolatto, the series creator, has a unique style.

The third season returns to the pattern of the first. Again, there are two police partners. Again, they are investigating a mystery that no one wants explained, roaming the wilderness of the southern state of Arkansas. Again they can't sleep at night, their private lives are spilling out. And they themselves are sometimes if not mean, then too violent, inattentive, damaged by routine. There is a major difference: one of them is a Black man. This provides an opportunity for observations on race relations.

This series has a sophisticated structure. It takes place on three planes: 1980, when two children, a brother and a little sister, disappeared. Plan two is 1990 - the return of the investigation. Plan three is 2015, when the now old detectives are drawn back into the distant past. We watch the whole story in a kind of alternating way, partly from behind the scenes, the individual pieces of the puzzle being revealed out of sequence. We don't even grasp everything completely.

It is a story about so many things at once. About the nature of a police system not geared to displaying the truth. About the cruelty of the rules of a society that is still semi-feudal, though supposedly modern. About the attraction and repulsion of pairs: white and black partners. About how an unsolved mystery can weigh on the lives of investigators. But also about the fact that its solution will be half-hearted, if only through the frailty of the body of an old man sinking into dementia. Somewhere from behind the tiresome, unpleasant atmosphere emerges a poignancy, if only through the strength of an uneasy, fractious friendship, against all odds.

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Great performances from Mahershal Ali (Hays) and Stephen Dorff (Roland West) make this series devilishly believable. You can't look away, and you are left with sadness afterwards.

That doesn't change the fact that there is plenty of strangeness here bordering on belief in paranormal phenomena. But in the end, even the 'X-Files' series was to some extent a story about a pair of detectives. Agents Mulder (David Duchowny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) pursued either aliens or horror movie characters, conducting regular investigations.

A traditional cop ballad

At the same time, we also have the regular, traditional police ballad all the time. The cop is still the protagonist of a mass of novels, films and series in the normal day-to-day work. I always wonder to what extent these are records of a reality at least slightly similar to the real one. That doesn't change the fact that Detective Mac Taylor from 'CSI: New York', the classic CSI series, filmed since 2004 and still subject to a kind of police rigour, is another favourite character of mine. Although I don't know if the constant concern painted on Gary Sinise's face is the typical expression of a real New York cop. It's also impossible not to remember this film as a bloody, picturesque spectacle. In other series of this type, like 'NCIS', officers joke and gossip at crime scenes (it's probably true). Mac Taylor-Sinise is worried about our demise.

There are some such characters and outside America, to remind you of the British detectives played by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in the excellent two-season series 'Broadchurch', in which it turned out that some things are unchangeable. With manifold changes in customs, the province also continues to harbour a variety of dirty secrets in the present day.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Finally, the question is to what extent has Poland kept up with all this? After all, the militia captain Sowa played by Wieslaw Golas was already on the hunt in the 1960s.

The first proficient attempt to create a domestic detective series was undoubtedly Krzysztof Szmagier's '07 come in'. Well filmed, it unfortunately ceased to exist for me during martial law, when an unbridgeable chasm grew between me and the Citizen's Militia..

Then there were interesting attempts at such own cop ballads. One still remembers the weary face of Commissioner Olgierd Halski from Wojciech Wójcik's series 'Extradition', even if Marek Kondrat is now associated only with advertising a bank and selling wine. Interesting police officer characters were outlined for us in three series: "The Officer", "Officers" and "The Third Officer" by Maciej Dejczer (based on a script by Wojciech Tomczyk). Somewhere in the background in both series, the various pathologies of the Third Republic of Poland were well portrayed (in 'Extradition' from the 1990s, in 'Officers' from the early 21st century). But beyond all that, it was about the fight of detectives against the resistance of criminal matter.

Today we are left with the naïve yet popular 'Father Matthew'. Nota bene stories of amateur detectives are again a serious bite of our pop culture, and high culture too. After all, who was the monk William of Baskerville investigating mysterious crimes in a certain monastery in northern Italy in the 14th century? He was the protagonist of Umberto Ecco's 'The Name of the Rose' and the two screen adaptations of this novel: a film and then a TV series.

The novel is naturally deeper, getting more firmly into the political and religious dilemmas of the Middle Ages. Yet William, even using a magnifying glass, will always have for me the face of Sean Connery from Jean Jacques Annaud's 1986 film version. It is also impossible not to remember this film as a bloody, picturesque spectacle.

So detectives have been, are and will be. Even if some have become nutcases and the reputation of others has always been reprehensible, they continue to seek the truth, solve mysteries and track down villains.

– Piotr Zaremba
- Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

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Main photo: Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in the 1941 Warner Bros film 'The Maltese Falcon'. Photo: Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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