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Research Uncovers the Culture behind Classic Detective Films

Projected onto the silver screen in the early twentieth century, the push for censorship and the defining messages embedded into detective films served as the subject for a graduate student’s original research, which was presented among 25 undergraduate and graduate projects at the annual research poster showcase on Nov. 1. Sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and Research, the annual event offers students the opportunity to present their original work and practice sharing their findings.“Research, whether it’s in biology, psychology or history, serves to explore and gain deeper insight and understanding of how something is formed and influenced,” said history graduate student Amanda Regan, who earned her bachelor’s degree from CSUSM in 2011. “In historical research, we investigate how social, political and economic ideologies impact, shape and reflect the culture.”In her study, Regan examined three adaptations of the classic film The Maltese Falcon and how each rendition was uniquely shaped by the values and historical perspective of each era’s popular culture.Based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, the plot features private investigator Sam Spade, who works to solve a murder mystery involving a gang of crooks and femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy who are in search of an ancient, jewel-encrusted artifact known as the Maltese Falcon. Each film version places its own spin to conform to the attitudes and cultural perspectives when it premiered on the big screen. The first rendition of the film debuted in 1931 just before censorship codes were enforced.  The film’s dark, cynical outlook reflected the depression-era with strong undertones of distain for law enforcement and rampant greed, explained Regan. The grittiest of the three films, it pushed the envelope for its time and outraged critics with innuendos and promiscuity.“The film accurately reflected the distain that many at that time felt toward authority,” she said. “Life was rough for so many Americans, and the film echoed their lack of trust in the government, the abundance of greed and the cynicism that resulted after the depression.”Remade under a different name five years later – Satan Met a Lady – the 1936 version adhered to the strict censorship policies that were imposed on the film industry that decade. Forced to conform to positive moral values, studios and directors tried to appease the code administration. The film shifted away from its original screenplay and removed all sexual connotations, cynicism and violent and provocative imagery. However, the film did not reflect the popular culture, and subsequently as Regan argues the film flopped at the box office.The third and most famous remake debuted in 1941 just before World War II when conflict seemed imminent. Starring Humphrey Bogart and later nominated for three Academy Awards, historians credit this adaptation as the birth of the film noir genre. The film returned to a darker side and carried subliminal messages about double-crossing, deceit and the need for a committed hero that could outwit the criminals – messages that aligned with the nation’s pre-war attitude.Building her research off of historian Frank Krutinik’s principle, which states that “films do not somehow spring magically from their culture, for they are constructions that are economically and ideologically determined,” Regan concluded her original study pinpointing the ways in which the film remakes were influenced by the culture and imposed censorship policies.“I love how we can use history to gain insight on the values and morals of our society through the centuries and then apply it to today to better understand the changes and shifts in our current culture,” she said. Continuing her passion for popular culture research, Regan is currently conducting an original study and examination of Silva of Hollywood, a Norwegian woman who is credited as being the first fitness guru for celebrities in the early 1900s. Regan is exploring how Silva’s seemingly wild health practices may have influenced the social construction and standard of Hollywood beauty that remains prevalent in modern culture.“The showcase served as an opportunity for me to practice and refine my presentation skills,” she said. “Research is not just about gathering and analyzing data, but also thoughtfully and purposefully communicating your findings to others.”To learn more about upcoming research events, including the campus-wide Student Research Competition, visit the Office of Graduate Students and Research.