CRIME, ENTERTAINMENT, AND SOCIETY – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

Crime films display various and often contradictory
attitudes toward crime. The viewers themselves are ambivalent about the lure of money and the upward
mobility it promises; they have mixed feelings about the
need for the institutional control of antisocial behavior
and are suspicious about the possibilities of justice under
the law. A large number of commentators on the genre,
including Eugene Rosow, Jonathan Munby, and Nicole
Rafter, have analyzed movie crime in sociological terms.
The movies I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
and Fury (1936) treat inhumane prisons and lynch mobs
as social problems only partly responsive to social engineering; likewise, critics view the convincing evocation
and less convincing resolution of the social problems associated with crime as a mirror of society’s own impotence in the face of crimes it cannot control (Amores
perros, Mexico, 2000) and in which it may well be
complicit (While the City Sleeps, 1956; Z, Greece,
1969). Will Wright’s analysis of Hollywood westerns
notes a shift in western heroes from lone gunfighters to
social outcasts seeking revenge to professional groups of
hirelings; this shift corresponds to the shift in American
culture from the celebration of heroic individualism to
faith in a planned corporate economy. This change in
American culture can also be seen in the shift from
gangster films to film noir to caper films.
Yet crime films, as Wright’s emphasis on the responsibilities of mass entertainment suggests, do not simply
mirror social problems, offering solutions or giving up on
them in despair. Perhaps more than any other popular
genre, the crime film shows the resourcefulness with
which filmmakers convert cultural anxiety—about criminals, political conspiracies, the awful power and possible
corruption of the justice system, the dangers that face
everyone who works for it, and the citizens who unwittingly run afoul of it—into mass entertainment. Like the
westerns from which they borrow so much of their
energy and their formulaic stories, crime films take the
insoluble moral dilemmas of social complicity and the
costs of justice and present them as stark dichotomies:
innocent and guilty, masculine and nonmasculine, legal
and illegal. The viewer’s enjoyment stems from succumbing to the irresistible lure of resolving the unresolvable
problems of the causes and cures of crime. And because
these problems are so much more complex than any one
movie can possibly represent, the audience will come
back for more.