The film noir detective film, with its hard-boiled detectives and gorgeous, backstabbing dames, is a great genre to parody, whether as a comedy sketch, a sequence in a movie or sitcom, or an improvised scene.
I’m going to discuss a few quick’n’dirty tricks to creating a detective genre parody.
Imitating any genre usually requires either (1) an intimate knowledge of the genre, or (2) a number of tricks which make it appear that you have an intimate knowledge of the genre. Here we’re going to be looking at strategy number 2, as it applies to the 1940s detective mystery genre. (If you’re an improvisor, you can use the same techniques if you get the suggestion “film noir”.)
The detective genre depends heavily on language, and using plausible detective jargon will take you a long way in a scene. You’ll find a list of some useful phrases below. You can also make up your own. Try to use metaphors and similes that conjure up images of the world the detective lives in. A big grimy city, filled with tough guys, narrow alleys, cheap bars, and greasy diners.
Food references are good, but make sure they’re the kind of food you’d get in a diner: “Big Ed’s operation was like smoked meat. And I was going to put it on rye.”
Make references to any grimy part of a city—sewers, rats, cockroaches: “Big Ed’s operation was like a sewer. And I was going to lift the manhole cover.”
Connecting something to drinking is good too: “Big Ed’s operation was like a cheap bourbon. And I was going to put it on ice.”
These can be one of two types:
1. The Big… something. (The Big Sleep, The Big Blue, the Big Bad Wolf . . . )
2. Any well-known phrase which has had one of its words removed and replaced with the word “murder”:
- Coffee, Tea, or Murder!
- Eight Murdering Days till Christmas
- Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Murderer!
- Pleased to Murder you
- Pop! Goes the Murder
The word “death” is an alternative substitute:
- I Now Declare You Man and Death
- Death around the Roses
- A Big Mac with Fries and Death
- She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Death
The titles don’t have to make much sense, providing they follow these rules. If you go to a bookstore specializing in mysteries, you may find that the made-up combinations you thought were corny are actually the titles of real books!
How to Move
Once you have the jargon down, try working on the typical detective moves.
Everybody smokes in detective films. Cool characters will remove the cigarette from the packet, place it into their mouth, and light it, using only one hand. Women will blow smoke into the faces of men (this was once considered sexy).
When entering a room which may contain your enemies, the detective should always move sideways, holding your gun against your ear. (Is this in order to deal with enemies by threatening suicide?) The rest of the time, keep your hands in your pockets. Don’t smile, or go big with emotions. (This does not mean that you shouldn’t use emotions—rather, play them as very suppressed.) You may find it helps to talk out of one side of your mouth.
Women are usually the femme fatale type, walking with their hips, and apparently with no aim in life but to be seduced by men.
The detective is in his office. It’s a slow day. Then a woman appears at the door. (He will usually fall in love with her during the course of the story, if not immediately.) She will give him some strange assignment, and is willing to pay his high fees. Inevitably the case will be more than it seems. The detective gets clunked over the head for no apparent reason. Perhaps someone will tell him to drop the case (which will only make him more determined to solve it). The story will end with a gunfight, and with the detective getting the girl (or for her wanting him but him having only contempt for her), and a complicated explanation, which, ideally, makes almost no sense.
How to Use the Genre in Improv
Of course, this genre can be used within the Genre Options game; however, this is a difficult game, and even many experienced improvisors can’t play it well. A better strategy is to perform a complete detective scene. You might ask the audience for a title (The Big [blank]), and then perform that title in the detective genre. This allows you to concentrate on this genre, rather than trying to practice the many genres required for Genre Options.
The constant first-person narration usually found in the detective mystery (“I went inside. I didn’t like what I saw . . .” etc.) makes it ideal for Typewriter Scenes, where the player on the microphone provides the detective’s narration, and another player plays the on-stage detective. (If you are doing a detective scene without an off-stage narrator, the improvisor playing the detective should frequently switch to narrator mode, delivering narrative directly to the audience.)
Something that is rarely seen on stage, but which should work well is to use the detective genre for a Word at a Time game. Once again, the narration fits in perfectly with the game.
Also, since the genre’s distinctiveness is mainly verbal, it can be used for a style in the Die Game.
Try adding the qualities of this genre to games where you might not normally use them—e.g., Boris, Fairy Tale, I Love You Scene, Arms Expert.
Sexism in the Detective Genre
Traditionally, the detective mystery contains a tough male lead character, who by modern standards would be perceived as a sexist pig. (“Hey, glamour! Get over here!”) The women who appear are usually there primarily as love interests.
There is nothing wrong with playing these scenes with men and women playing their usual stereotypes. After all, you are attempting to be faithful to a genre. However, if you decide to exaggerate the sexism for comic effect, don’t be surprised if it gets a negative reaction from the audience.
Some improvisors may want to experiment with the sex stereotyping in the detective mystery. Why not try placing women in the roles traditionally given to the men, and vice versa. Or place a 1940s detective in an environment filled with 1990s women, reacting appropriately to his sexist comments.
Before you try this at home . . .
Played well, this genre can get big laughs from an audience. However, it does require practice, and memorizing some of the common jargon. If you’re going to do it, make sure you do it well.
If you are really interested in the genre, try watching some of the old movies, especially the really bad ones. (Casablanca isn’t really typical.)
The Big Lingo
(A glossary of detective jargon)
I’d like to thank my my friend Russell Martin, who drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of mystery writing to put together the following the following lists of gangster jargon. Most of these can be found in actual mystery novels and movies.
- Ace: typical gangster nickname
- add up: what a caper doesn’t do till the end
- amble: walk
- Angel: form of address for a woman
- axe: musical instrument
- big cheese: gangster boss
- big house: prison
- big ones (as in five): thousands of dollars
- bird: guy
- bootlegger: dealer in illegal liquor
- bracelets: handcuffs
- bull: uniformed policeman
- bump off: kill
- bum’s rush, get the: be thrown out of a place
- burn: kill
- button man: assassin
- C-note: $100 bill
- cabbage: money
- cement overcoat: cement “coffin”
- Chicago heater: machine gun
- Chicago lightning: bullets
- Chicago typewriter: machine gun
- chill: kill
- chiseller: con artist
- cheap hood: small-time thug
- Cheese it! The cops!: Look out! The police!
- choppers: teeth
- Clyde: form of address for a man
- contract: agreement to kill someone
- copacetic: O.K., “everything’s copacetic.”
- cough up: hand over
- crack (this case) wide open: solve
- croak: die
- crumb: undesirable man
- crooner: singer (male)
- coffin nail: cigarette
- curtains: death
- dame: a woman
- dick: detective
- dive: place of ill character
- dough: money
- Duchess: form of address for a woman
- dust: leave in a hurry
- eyeball: look at
- fall in love with a client: what you never do.
- flatfoot: police detective
- frail: a woman
- (lousy) frameup: faked circumstances of a crime
- funny money: counterfeit
- G-man: FBI agent
- G’s (as in five): thousands of dollars
- gat: gun
- goon: thug
- gorgeous: form of address for a woman
- gorilla: muscular man
- grab some air: hands up
- grub: food
- gumshoe: private eye
- gunsel: gunman (spurious)
- hardware: gun
- heel: undesirable man
- heist (n,v): robbery; steal
- hit the pavement: walk
- hooch: liquor
- hoochie-coocher: exotic dancer
- hop-head: pot smoker
- hot: stolen
- hot seat: electric chair
- ice (n): diamonds
- ice (v): kill
- jane: a woman
- java: coffee
- Jersey: typical gangster nickname
- jimmy: pry open
- joint: place
- junk: drugs
- kingpin: head gangster
- lullaby cocktail: drugged drink
- Mac: form of address for a man
- making license plates: in prison
- nightcap: what you go to her apartment for
- old man, the: head of the detective agency, if you are not self-employed.
- Princess: form of address for a woman
- Purple Gang: typical name for a gang
- simoleons: dollars
- sing: confess
- sister: form of address for a woman
- squealer: informer
- stool pigeon: informer
- stoolie: informer
- sucker, a: what no one plays you for
- Sunday School picnic: what this caper isn’t turning into
- talk: confess
- tomato: a woman
Some useful metaphors and similes
- “An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach.”
- “This guy was tough. As tough as a nickel steak.”
- “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
- “His hands were big. As big as plates of spareribs, and twice as greasy.”
- “My rod was fresh out of fishhooks.”
This last phrase, by the way, means that the detective is out of ammunition, and not that he is impotent.
Note the structure when you describe somebody. “He was ____. As ____ as a ____.” Break it into two sentences. Private eyes don’t talk in long stretches.
Here’s a versatile phrase:
“I was mad. Real mad. So mad I could taste it.”
Any emotion can be substituted for the word “mad.”
Some good detective sentences:
- “The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.”
- “It was a blonde, and blondes always mean trouble.” (So do brunettes, redheads, etc.)
- “Mr. Big gave a signal. Two of his goons started to work me over.”
- “No one plays me for a sucker and gets away with it.”
- “There was more to this caper than I’d bargained for.”
- “The D.A. was after me, Lieutenant O’Hara was after me, Big Ed was after me. I had to crack this before someone caught up.”
- “I didn’t like his face. When he said he was called Smith, I didn’t like his name either.”
- “I don’t like to see cheap hoods messing with a sweet kid like you, Princess.”
- “She crossed her legs. She knew they were good. She leaned forward. She knew they were good too.”
- “I hadn’t started this thing, but it was up to me to finish it.”
- “You’re not working on this case any more, Mr. Hardstone. You’re fired.”/“Maybe you’ve fired me, but I haven’t fired me.”
- “There was a killer out there . . . and it was my job to find him.”
Want more? Here are a couple of websites with good lists of detective slang.