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Audrey Kupferberg: An Inspector Calls

Audrey inspects a film
Audrey Kupferberg

Since Sherlock Holmes, the character of the detective has been among the most popular figures in pop culture.  Successful actors who have had their choice of leading roles on stage and screen have been pleased to head up detective series.  From John Barrymore to Helen Mirren, actors cannot resist the temptation of the detective role.

The reason is clear. Often, the personality of the detective is the most important feature leading to the success of a crime film or show.  Snaky plots are essential.  Brooding suspects and exotic settings add to the fun.  Still, there is nothing about a police procedural or detective show as intriguing as a detective with a shady past, social dysfunction, and a penchant for breaking rules.  Throw a failed love into the mix, and one has the perfect specimen of an onscreen detective!

In 1954, Alastair Sim (Yes. Scrooge.) portrayed a puzzling detective in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.  We know so little about his character, nothing really, yet he dominates every shot in which he appears.  He is Inspector Poole.  He wears a rumpled suit and an enigmatic smile.  His eyes are piercing.  Breaking with convention, he seems to know all there is to know right from the start.

In this feature, an upper crust British family learns of their involvement in the death of a woman from the lower classes.  It is 1912, before British social structure would be affected by the events of World War I.  Priestley actually wrote this now classic play at the end of World War II.  The crime in An Inspector Calls is actually significant only as an ideological statement.

It is the character of Inspector Poole—who breaks with the stereotype of the detective because we know nothing about him at all, that stays with the viewer most of all.  Sim is such a presence that no other actor has a chance to shine in scenes they share.  Should you seek out this film, be sure to see the Kino Lorber blu-ray release, rather than the other versions that are available for streaming. It is more complete and the digital restoration is well done.

Another detective of note is Scottish Inspector John Rebus in the series Rebus, based on the books of Ian Rankin and airing 2000-2004.  John Hannah originated the role, but after a year turned it over to Ken Stott.  Stott is intense as Rebus, a quirky tough guy who lives for his job.  He can’t make a successful romantic commitment even though women are attracted to his monotonously black attire and impish facial features.  He drinks too much and will never rise above his current rank.  In ways, he is Morse with a Scottish brogue. There is talk of bringing it back.  It’s a series with endless possibilities.  Many have mentioned that Stott was born to play the role.  Let’s hope any regeneration of the series includes him.

Some detectives are not tied to police forces.  In 2008, a six part series with the inglorious title Bonekickers aired.  The stars are Julie Graham of Shetland and Queens of Mystery; Adrian Lester of Undercover and Hustle, and Hugh Bonneville, best known as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.  Their young associate is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Each is a detective—an archaeologist who recovers the priceless remains of history.  Their quests are similar to a police detective’s tasks.  Each has a personality with an interesting past tied to danger.  Graham’s character has a ruthless streak, an anti-social personality.  Lester’s character is kind, smart, and calm in perilous moments.  Bonneville’s character is the most fun, a drinker, lusty, clever, and a real professional.  These so-called bonekickers are as intriguing as any TV police detectives.  Unfortunately, the series is poorly conceived, with confusing flashes of history and poorly- structured storylines.  No matter.  The characters hold my interest.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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