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Friction between law enforcement, private eyes is fiction, investigator says

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“Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown.”

That famous line, uttered by one defeated private eye to another at the end of director Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown,” is an important point in the popular conception of the private investigations business.

The phrase, ranked No. 74 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years ... 100 Quotes” list, has become a plaint of sorts for the person who attempts to take on an institution in a confusing and unwinnable scenario. In this case, it’s a private investigator’s contentious relationship with law enforcement officials entangled in a web of money and power in pre-war Los Angeles.

But what is its connection to reality?

Private investigators interviewed by the Times, including Wayne W. Corsa — chief investigator with the Jefferson County district attorney’s office — said quarrelsome interactions between private detectives and local law enforcement are pure fiction.

“There’s a lot more accountability than people think,” said Mr. Corsa, a 33-year veteran of the state police.

Movies and books about the investigations business are “more about entertainment than education,” according to Mr. Corsa, who said he didn’t set out to be a police officer, but after several years on the job, it became a part of his personality.

“It’s like a lot of things. Your job becomes your life, and your life becomes your job. I don’t know if it’s a positive thing, but that’s the way it was for me,” said Mr. Corsa, whose sonorous Long Island baritone still persists despite decades living in upstate New York.

He said the fallibility of memory stands out in his line of work.

“I need to corroborate what you’ve said,” Mr. Corsa said. “It’s the nature of the business. ... I have to go back and investigate.”

famous works
Some influential novels, short stories and movies about private detectives:
BOOKS
• “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (often cited as the first detective story), featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin, 1841
nThe Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, including “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” 1902
• “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, featuring Sam Spade, 1930
• “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie, featuring Hercule Poirot, 1933
• “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, featuring Philip Marlowe, 1939
• “The Godwulf Manuscript,” “God Save the Child” and “Mortal Stakes,” all by Robert B. Parker, featuring Spenser, 1973-1975

MOVIES
• “Double Indemnity,” 1944, directed by Billy Wilder, featuring Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)
n“Vertigo,” 1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) and Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton (Kim Novak)
• “Chinatown,” 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, featuring J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway)
• “The Big Lebowski,” 1998, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, featuring Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore)
• “Brick,” 2005, directed by Rian Johnson, featuring Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Laura (Nora Zehetner)
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