A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOVIE CRIME – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

Most popular genres have a history. The crime film has
none—or rather, it has so many that it is impossible to
give a straightforward account of the genre’s evolution
without getting lost in innumerable byways as different
crime formulas arise, evolve, compete, mutate, and crosspollinate. Crime films arise from a radical ambivalence
toward the romance of crime. That romance gave heroic
detectives like Sherlock Holmes—burlesqued onscreen as
early as 1900 or 1903 (the exact date is uncertain), in the
thirty-second Sherlock Holmes Baffled—a matchless
opportunity to make the life of the mind melodramatic
and glamorous, and it made silent criminals like
Fantoˆmas (Fantoˆmas and four sequels, France, 1913–
1914) and Bull Weed (Underworld, 1927) both villain
and hero. The arrival of synchronized sound in 1927 and
the Great Depression in 1929 created an enormous
appetite for escapist entertainment and a form of mass
entertainment, the talkies, capable of reaching even the
most unsophisticated audiences, including the millions of
lower-class immigrants who had flocked to America. The
great gangster films of the 1930s and the long series of
detective films that flourished alongside them, their
detectives now increasingly ethnic (Charlie Chan Carries
On, 1931, and forty-one sequels; Think Fast, Mr. Moto,
1937, and seven sequels; Mr. Wong, Detective, 1938, and
four sequels), were nominally based on novels. But crime
films did not seek anything like the literary cachet of
establishment culture until the rise of film noir—
atmospheric tales of heroes most often doomed by passion—named and analyzed by French journalists but
produced in America throughout the decade beginning
in 1944.
Postwar crime films, whatever formula they adopted,
were shaped in America by cultural anxiety about the
nuclear bomb (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) and the nuclear
family (The Desperate Hours, 1955). The decline of film
noir after Touch of Evil (1958) was offset by a notable series of crime comedies at England’s Ealing Studios
(such as The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) and a masterly
series of psychological thrillers directed by Alfred
Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, 1951; Rear Window,
1954; Vertigo, 1958; North by Northwest, 1959; Psycho,
1960). The 1960s was the decade of the international spy
hero James Bond, who headlined history’s most lucrative
movie franchise in a long series beginning with Dr. No
(1962). But it was left to a quartet of ironic valentines to
retro genres, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather
(1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and Chinatown
(1974), to reinvent the crime film for a hip young
audience. The replacement of the 1930 Production
Code by the 1969 ratings system allowed niche films to
be successfully marketed even if they were as graphically
violent as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) or as
bleak in their view of American politics as The Parallax
View (1974) or JFK (1991). The closing years of the
century, marked by a heightened public fear of crime, a
fascination with the public-justice system, and a deep
ambivalence toward lawyers, allowed a thousand poisoned flowers to bloom around the globe, from the sociological sweep of the British television miniseries Traffik
(1989), remade and softened for American audiences as
Traffic (2000), to the ritualistic Hong Kong crime films
of John Woo (Die xue shuang xiong [The Killer], 1989)
and Johnny To (Dung fong saam hap [The Heroic Trio],
1993) and their American progeny (Pulp Fiction, 1994),
to the steamy eroticism of the all-American Basic Instinct
(1992) and its direct-to-video cousins. Perhaps the most
distinctive new strain in the genre has been the deadpan
crime comedy of Joel (b. 1954) and Ethan (b. 1957)
Coen, whose films, from Blood Simple (1985) to The
Ladykillers (2004), left some viewers laughing and others
bewildered or disgusted.