The Tender-Hearted Bullies. A Journey into the Weaknesses of the Hard-Boiled Heroes by Sara Casavecchia Translated by Luca Sartori


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The Tender-Hearted Bullies. A Journey into the Weaknesses of the Hard-Boiled Heroes. by Sara Casavecchia

Translated by Luca Sartori

Dozens of characters featuring a detective have followed one another from the early forties (the golden age of hard-boiled) to the present day both in novels and movies. Although the passing of time and the changes in society have determined a parallel adjustment of the character to new demands, some elements have not changed and have helped to create the myth of this figure and have made it ambiguous as well. We are accustomed indeed to seeing the private investigator as a rude, brisk flint-hearted hero. These impressive features, which can be easily seen, conceal less evident and intuitive characteristics in direct contradiction to these, that is to say those weaknesses characterizing the detective’s unconscious and state of mind, which make him vulnerable despite his tough appearance.

The characters that will be introduced in the following paragraphs had the starring roles in three famous hard-boiled movies and novels through which we can trace back the history of this genre starting from the forties to the present day, they feature three different stereotypes of detectives who share a common demeanour that outlines their emotional sphere.

The Maltese Falcon by John Huston (1941)

Sam Spade is a private investigator. He has to look into his business partner’s death after a woman asks him to shadow a man who, according to her, has fled with her sister. Sam Spade comes across a group of shady characters, somehow related to the woman, in the course of his investigations while he is searching for a statuette which is said to be entirely made out of gold. At the end of the story, we discover that the author and intriguer of the whole plot is the very Dark Lady who charged into Sam Spade’s office desperately asking for his help. The falcon statuette isn’t coated with gold at all, and yet everybody is looking for it very eagerly. In order to highlight the presence of absurd characters who absurdly follow an absurd character, Sam Spade will quote Shakespeare in his final line and say that the falcon is ‘such stuff that dreams are made of’.

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958)

The main character of the story is detective Scootie who, after running the risk of hurtling downward in a manhunt in which a colleague of his who helped him has died, is a prey to a paralysing fear of falling. Not being able to live with his sense of guilt, he resolves to resign from the police district, when an old friend of his asks a favour from him: he shall shadow his friend’s wife who has recently behaved strangely, believing she was the reincarnation of an ancestor of hers who had committed suicide when she was the same age as she. The detective falls in love with the woman during the investigation and when she suddenly kills herself by jumping the top of a bell-tower, he sinks into depression again for not succeeding in saving her.

After being discharged from hospital, Scottie keeps on searching for the woman until he has clear visions of her. He finds his woman at last, a woman who, despite her different hairstyle and make-up, reminds him of the woman he was looking for. This woman is the real lost woman who had agreed to act as a double of his friend’s wife in a perfect wife-killing. This plot had also foreseen the phobia of the detective, who would not be able to reach the top of the bell-tower and stop the crime. In order to cure himself the man demands that the girl change her look and she accepts this because she is also in love with him. Nevertheless, Scottie will recognize the woman when he happens to see a necklace that was presented to her by his friend as a reward for acting in the plot. This notwithstanding, he won’t be able to save her from death when, finding himself at the top of the bell-tower once again, the woman hurtles to the ground and dies.

In the Cut by Jane Campion (2003)

The starring character is Frannie, a New York teacher who leads a boring life. Frannie is involved as the sole witness in an investigation aimed at stopping a dangerous serial killer who is slaying young ladies in New York. Frannie gets more and more involved until she embarks on a love affair with detective Malloy, who is entrusted with the investigations. When the killer slays Frannie’s sister as well, she runs to Malloy and discovers that the tattoo he has on his wrist is the same as the killer’s. Bewildered and desperate, Frannie opens her heart to a colleague of Malloy, who, unexpectedly, takes her hostage and reveals his true identity. Frannie, who had fled with the detective’s jacket, manages to shoot the killer with a gun she finds in a pocket of the jacket.

Main Emotional Characteristics 

  1. Detective Sam Spade


Even though he is a real tough guy of no sensitivity, Sam Spade betrays himself through his behaviour, both when, as a token of his friendship, he decides to look into his business partner’s murder and when he hands the Dark Lady over to justice. There is one shot in the movie where the woman appears behind the bars of an elevator – an obvious reference to jail – and rude Sam tells her ‘I will wait for you’.

Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship.

The characters of his calibre seem like the gods. He tries to dissimulate self-confidence through his male chauvinist and little unsympathetic attitude, that is to say of a man who always knows what to do in any situation. Sam Spade actually behaves in this way to protect himself in a corrupt, ill-famed environment where confidence in other people is rare stuff. The degraded and dangerous metropolis does not leave room to private life. Sam is a man who is able to make any single woman kneel at his feet, but he always finds himself alone in the end, because everything is soiled with falsehood and deceit. The woman he begins to fall in love with turns out to be indeed the intriguer of the plot.


Among the characters that we find in the hard-boiled stories of the thirties even the detective himself is blighted by a shadow of ambiguity. He is frowned upon by policemen, who believe he is a former gangster maintaining hidden connections with criminals. His behaviour, indeed, leaves much to be desired, since he constantly challenges the police and seems to share mutual respect with the scoundrels of San Francisco, who, on their part, do not disprove this guesswork. Nevertheless, every time Spade breaks the law he does so for the sole purpose of delivering a criminal to justice.

  1. Detective Scottie Ferguson


Detective Scottie is definitively the character who better than anyone embodies the inborn sense of frailty in the stereotype. His greatest fear is to be frightened with the idea of hurtling down because of his constant vertigos. Hurtling down to an abyss, indeed, is the obsession which continues to afflict the detective and which becomes tangible through a system of recurrences and repetitions echoing the idea of a spiral. Not only do they represent his physical bewilderment, but above all symbolize his moral and psychological decay.

Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship

The powerlessness of this character is highlighted since the very first scene, where he runs the risk of hurtling downward during a manhunt. He is not able to save himself and therefore a colleague of his comes to his rescue and dies because of it. The detective, not being able to live with his sense of guilt, will be compelled to resign from his job. The man thinks that by doing so he can avoid the hindrance but does not know that his life itself has become an illness and his sense of guilt turns into a sense of powerlessness when he cannot save the woman he loves, who falls down from the tower. This happens again, even when the detective thinks he has recovered his health and has found the woman he was in love with again. As the woman reaches the top of the tower, indeed, she falls down and dies.


The ambiguity that we can see in these characters is a moral ambiguity. Scottie is actually in love with a woman who does not exist. When he shadows Judy, indeed (thinking she is Madeleine), he falls in love with her and when chance leads Judy back into Scottie’s arms, he does not recognize her. The detective does everything he can do to transform Judy so she can look like Madeleine. The ambiguity of this character is nonetheless related to his illness which has become an obsession. The fear of losing the only woman he has ever been in love with causes him to lose her twice.

  1. Detective Giovanni Malloy


Detective Malloy can be considered an intermediate character between the previous two. In a certain sense he very similar to San Spade because he is ill-mannered and ill-tempered. On the other hand, he reveals his weakness when he courts an intelligent attractive woman like Frannie, since he does not succeed in understanding her complex mind. He is a brave, male chauvinist detective who feels inferior to the woman he loves, more cultured and sophisticated than he.

Powerlessness and incapacity to live a relationship

Although Malloy has already divorced once, he cannot treat Frannie coldly. Behind the mask of a daring man there is an old-fashioned fellow who is willing to start a long term relationship. This notwithstanding, he is not able to live a normal relationship with a woman due to the events and murders in which they are involved. Frannie is indeed endangered because of her affair with Malloy. The detective will never be able to protect his lady up to the final scene where she saves her own life thanks to her own bravery.


The ambiguity created by this character comes from a simple, casual sequence of events. Frannie mistakes Malloy for the killer because of a tattoo which he and a colleague of his had had done on their wrists to celebrate the solving of a case some years before.

  1. Conclusions

I have analyzed these three characters not only to make a comparison of the emotional traits which characterize the detective’s weakness and vulnerability, but above all to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present. If it is true that changes in society and a new call for action have also determined a change in the detective’s role – closely related to that of the police – his figure is still linked to the past. Despite the passing of the years, indeed, detective stories continue to be all the rage on the screen and in novels, more and more often captivating teenagers and the female audience. Since the past decade, indeed, movies and novels belonging to this genre have featured female characters more and more, not only as objects of desire or negative characters but also as detectives or at least as active participants.

It is important to reach an audience as large as possible to save this genre from extinction, a genre which has brought to the screen many of the social and literary topics of the twentieth century. For instance, in Vertigo we find the poetics of ineptitude and dual identity. The Maltese Falcon, or the “hard-boiled” story, above all others, has tried to make America accept a moral view of life based upon style, giving birth to a new artistic universe which was something more than a reflection of society: it was a real nightmare. A film which has not been particularly been held in high regard by critics due to the excessive simplicity of its plot, In the Cut, features some typical issues characterizing modern society: love, death, and conflictual relationships among family members.

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