Secondary characters get little or no respect in film analysis. Approaches that consider formal elements or ideology pay minimal attention to secondary characters, and the more character focused approach of Star Studies excludes secondary characters by definition. Genre studies, not surprisingly, gives primacy to the generic elements, such as the figure of the detective in detective genre films. David Galef, after extensive discussion of the role of secondary characters in literature, dismisses secondary characters in film as “simply action and nothing more” (167).
This essay proposes that secondary characters, particularly in the detective film, are considerably more than “simply action.” Using examples from The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934) and The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946), secondary characters are shown to have multiple functions in the detective genre film: They are essential to the structure, they reinforce the theme, and they offer multiple ways to engage the viewer.
This essay draws upon work concerning secondary characters in literature and television. The detective film genre is generally understood to have its origins in detective genre novels, so consideration of secondary characters in literature is appropriate. Both films were written by well known novelists, and the opening credits of The Thin Man, appearing over the cover of the source novel, make the literary origins explicit. The applicability of television analysis to films is debatable, however both films predate television and therefore are not differentiated from television. The Thin Man had five sequels, giving it some of the characteristics of a television series, and, at the risk of being reductionist, the entire canon of detective genre films could be treated as a single television series. As Thomas Sobchack claims, places and characters change very little between different films in a genre (107), just as these things are largely consistent in most series television shows.
The primary function of minor characters is to support the narrative, largely by offering a number of various characters as possible suspects. Martin Price proposes that reading a novel is essentially a game between the reader and the author, and that this is most clearly seen in the “relatively pure case” of the detective story. Similarly, Deborah Knight and George McKnight argue that the process of detection is apparent in various genres and non generic narratives, but most obvious in the generic detective narrative (123). For Price, the game requires the author to present pieces of the puzzle, including false leads, and it is “cheating” on the part of the author to make the criminal a character introduced late in the narrative (4-5). Instead, the test scenario identifies the criminal from among the multiple possible suspects (Knight 133). The Thin Man offers a generous serving of possible suspects at the test scenario dinner party scene, all of them minor characters, including the lawyer MacCaulay, Mimi’s “husband ” Chris, Mimi, petty criminal Morellli, the late Nunheim’s girlfriend Marion, and office clerk Tanner. The Blue Dahlia has a smaller group of potential suspects, reduced through a protracted test scenario over two scenes, but the true killer is one of the most minor characters. Despite Dad’s limited role in the story (and revision to make him the guilty party), this was not cheating on the part of the author. Dad was introduced early in the story, and has a plausible motive.
Secondary characters also advance the narrative through various functions such as providing information or assistance. Various terms exist for these character functions, including dispatcher, helper (Vladimir Propp), confidant and “ficelle” (Henry James). Nora, in The Thin Man, is clearly a confidant, though arguably not a secondary character. Morelli functions in part to tell Nick about Nunheim and Julia, a piece of the puzzle. In The Blue Dahlia, Johnny organically discovers the clue on the back of the photo after fighting with the hotel clerk.
The seedy hotel clerk is also an example of secondary characters supporting thematic elements. He is apparently not associated with Harwood, but his own petty corruption reinforces the film’s atmosphere of moral decay. His activities also help make the larger scale crimes of Dad at the more upscale hotel more plausible. In The Thin Man, Nunheim and Marion’s struggles and Nunheim’s death are a close lower class parallel of the unhappy fates for the adulterous Clyde Wynant and Julia, both in contrast to the happy and virtuous Nick and Nora.
Secondary characters in literature “are mostly empty canvas” (Gass qtd. in Price 56), and Price singles out detective narratives as having rudimentary characters (5). The less defined character may be more real (Nuttall qtd. in Price 58), but Price claims that the effect of the character ultimately depends on the reader identifying the character with a real person (62). Film gives concrete form to the secondary characters, but identification remains important. Janet Staiger notes that part of the appeal of popular television shows is providing multiple characters for identification, including characters of different generations, and quietly addressing race and class issues (163-166). Issues of generation, race, and class can all be addressed through secondary characters. Sobchack claims audience identification is limited to the major characters (108), but others, including Linda Williams and Carol Clover have proposed more complex and fluid models of viewer identification. Staiger also notes that when it comes to roles, “it is easier to tinker with minor characters than major ones” (161), suggesting, in opposition to Sobchack, that variety can exist with a genre, and that it may originate in the secondary characters. Examples of secondary characters providing variety and multiple options for viewer identification in The Thin Man include the young Gilbert, possibly suffering from Aspberger’s syndrome. Some viewers may identify with Nunheim, trying to survive with little income and a shrewish wife. Leo, in The Blue Dahlia, could be read as homosexual from his early line “Most women are poison.”
Secondary characters are much more than “simply action.” By providing multiple possible suspects, they are critical to structure of detection narratives. In this genre and others, they also advance the narrative, reinforce the theme, and allow more options for viewer identification if they are varied in terms of generation, class, ethnicity or gender. Variation of the secondary characters between films of the same genre, though not explored in this essay, may be a factor in genre development.
Galef, David. The Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters. University Park, Pennsylvania UP, 1993.
Knight, Deborah, and George McKnight. “The Case of the Disappearing Enigma.” Philosophy and Literature. 21:1, April 1997. p. 123-138
Price, Martin. Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.
Sobchack, Thomas. “Genre Film: A Classical Experience.” Film Genre Reader. ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. p 102-113.
Staiger, Janet. Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era. New York: New York UP, 2000.
Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Expanded ed. Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1999.
Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2008, All Rights Reserved.