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Musical scores and female detectives of the 1940s

By Dr Catherine Haworth


The dangerous dames, fall-guy private eyes, and psychologically unstable heroes and villains who roam the streets of the 1940s crime film have often been linked with anxieties surrounding changing roles for men and women in the years around World War II. Although appearing less regularly, the evolution of the ‘working-girl’ detective character can also be connected with these shifts in gendered identity. Amateur investigators who take on a ‘case’ to get the man they love out of trouble, these women are usually white-collar office workers whose professional skills and urban familiarity prove invaluable aids to sleuthing. Their activity justified as a means of ensuring conventional romantic happiness, these leading ladies are allowed to occupy the privileged space of the detective — a role that drives the narrative forward and which, despite literary forebears such as Miss Marple, Nancy Drew and the like, remained primarily a male domain.

These agent female detectives therefore pose a challenge to the crime film’s traditional gender politics, and (like other elements of story, mood, and characterisation) music and sound play a crucial role in their construction. The classical Hollywood score consistently draws upon various cultural stereotypes to forge an expressive and easily understood set of musical signifiers of identity. From the jazz, blues, and ‘exotic’ cues associated with the femme fatale, to the strident, brass-driven sound of the hero, and the soaring strings, harps, and flutes of the ‘good wife’, film music encourages us to hear characters as Hollywood wishes. Music therefore provides a significant means through which female characters can be moved between various positions in relation to issues of crime, criminality, and romance. They may be romantic leads, femmes fatales, victims, or detectives — or take on several roles within the same film.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and The Big Steal (1949) demonstrate some of the dramatic and musical approaches to the characterisation of the working-girl detective. All three are cheaply produced ‘B’ pictures released by RKO Radio Pictures — the smallest of the major studios and a company noted for its relatively experimental approach to commercial filmmaking, as well as its crime and noir films. As the slideshow below indicates, the soundtrack of these films is used to support the activity of the female detective — giving women credibility as sleuths and highlighting the suspenseful nature of the situations they find themselves in — but music is also used to reposition these same women into the more conventional and socially acceptable roles of the love interest or the victim of crime.


Despite their low budgets, these films demonstrate the complex ways in which music contributes to the classical-era crime film, making use of a range of styles and approaches to both articulate and curtail the agency of the female detective. Music interacts with storyline and structure, image construction, and other elements of the soundtrack as an interlinked and mutually dependent aspect of multimedia narrative. These soundtracks include cues ranging from generic, easily reusable ‘library’ music to expansive themes in the leitmotif tradition — but all are shaped by their interaction with other elements of narrative, and go on to shape the film in turn. What we might ordinarily think of as ‘Jane’s theme’ in Stranger on the Third Floor actually functions to reflect Mike’s possessive paternalism. The Latin rhythms that accompany Joan’s Mexican adventures in The Big Steal serve to highlight the cultural competence that helps her crack the case, rather than passing her off as a typically exoticised and expendable femme fatale.

All three films feature saccharine (and occasionally unconvincing) ‘happy endings’, where the female lead’s agency as detective is exchanged for a less threatening, more conventional positioning as an eager bride-to-be. But this typical 1940s shift in register from the criminal to the romantic cannot entirely negate the pleasurable ways in which these women challenge and extend the more usual characterisations of the classical crime film. Their role as detective may not be as clearly defined as later incarnations of the female cop, for example, but these working-girl investigators play a crucial part in unravelling mysteries, seeking justice, and keeping their men safe from harm. A crucial contributor to the gendered discourse of 1940s Hollywood, the soundtrack mediates between the positioning of women as detectives and archetypal good wives; these city sleuths not only reflect the evolution of the urban workforce, but also articulate the anxiety that surrounded it.

Catherine Haworth is a Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. A member of the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity, she is interested in issues of representation and identity across various media, with a particular focus upon music for film and television. You can read her Music & Letters article, ‘Detective agency? Scoring the amateur female investigator in 1940s Hollywood’ for free online for a limited time. Follow her on Twitter @CathreeneH.

Music & Letters is a leading international journal of musical scholarship, publishing articles on topics ranging from antiquity to the present day and embracing musics from classical, popular, and world traditions. Since its foundation in the 1920s, Music & Letters has especially encouraged fruitful dialogue between musicology and other disciplines. It is renowned for its long and lively reviews section, the most comprehensive and thought-provoking in any musicological journal.

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