Haworth, Catherine (2009) Detective agency? Music, sound, and the female investigator in 1940s Hollywood. In: International Conference on Music Since 1900, 2-5 July 2009, Keele University. (Unpublished)

The detective is an important figure in the crime film, occupying a position that is frequently analogous to that of the cinema audience in seeking out the characters, information and events that will allow them to assemble a coherent and convincing narrative. The investigator has access, authority and agency; attributes that are most commonly found in Hollywood’s male protagonists. However, the female detective figure has also been a feature of crime films from the 1930s onward, and her presence offers an interesting way to explore the construction of female agency in the cinema.

Writing about contemporary crime films, Yvonne Tasker notes that a key element of the genre’s presentation of women is their shifting position within the text: female characters move between roles as investigator, investigated and victim at different points in the narrative. This slippage between categories that variously create and contain agency is also a feature of Hollywood’s female detectives in the 1940s, where film noir’s intersection with the crime narrative increases the visibility and significance of these characters. Music and sound are frequently a crucial factor in mediating between the mobility of the female detective and Hollywood’s more usual ‘clear-cut’ approach to characterisation, and the role of the soundtrack in the (often simultaneous) construction and limitation of agency in the female investigator
calls into question the most common theorisation of the orchestral score as a reliable signifier of mood, characterisation and audience response.

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