CRIME FILMS. A MAN’S WORLD – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

The iconic stars who flesh out the formulaic characters of
crime films by giving them personas, performance histories, and the all-important variations that distinguish one
gangster from the next are not of course limited to men.
Jean Harlow (1911–1937), Joan Blondell (1906–1979),
and Glenda Farrell (1904–1971) all play memorable
molls to Hollywood gangsters. The four female friends
of Set It Off (1996) form a gang and rob banks themselves. The soiled screen persona of Gloria Grahame
(1923–1981) (In a Lonely Place, 1950; The Big Heat,
1953; Human Desire, 1954) encapsulates the mystique
of film noir as surely as the crassly eager vulnerability of
John Garfield. And their roles as cops in The Silence of the
Lambs and Fargo won Academy Awards for Jodie Foster
and Frances McDormand, respectively. On the whole,
however, the world of the crime film is a man’s world—
an axiom that can readily be tested by a brief look at the
film noir, the one kind of crime film frequently dominated by strong women.
The errant male heroes of film noir like Double
Indemnity, Scarlet Street, The Killers (1946/1964), The
Postman Always Rings Twice, Criss Cross (1948), Gun
Crazy, and Angel Face (1953) are all destroyed by their love
for the wrong woman. The femmes fatales of film noir, who
lure unsuspecting men to their doom, return with a vengeance a generation later as the sirens of erotic thrillers like
Body Heat, Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct, and The
Last Seduction (1994). In the latter two films respectively,
Sharon Stone and Linda Fiorentino dominate both their
films and their male costars, yet their power is presented as
something aberrant and menacing, a threat the men will
pay for not containing. The unending conflict between men
and women might seem all the more remarkable in crime
films, which ought logically to subordinate it to the conflict
between good and evil. But in fact Hollywood routinely
subordinates the second conflict to the first by making
the challenge of crime—whether the hero is a lawbreaker,
a law enforcer, or a victim—a test of masculinity.
This test is most obvious in film noir and erotic
thrillers, which ritualistically punish weak men for their
sexual transgressions by unmanning or killing them. The
sirens in these films incarnate temptation, but the moral
agents with the power to choose wrongly are always men.
Commentators from E. Ann Kaplan to Frank Krutnik
have pointed out that hard-boiled detective movies like
The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, and The Big Sleep
confront their heroes with a similar choice between a
masculinity that requires them to act professionally and
dispassionately and a set of taboo alternative sexualities
ranging from feminization (the ineffectual consort
Merwin Lockridge Grayle in Murder, My Sweet) to
homosexuality (Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel in
The Maltese Falcon, Arthur Gwynn Geiger and Carol
Lundgren in The Big Sleep). In Chinatown, this confrontation reaches a climax in J. J. Gittes’s tragic inability to
trust Evelyn Mulwray precisely because she consistently
acts like a woman. The conflict in each case is not
between masculinity and femininity but between masculinity and nonmasculine sexualities, all of them less than
fully human in the hero’s eyes. Gangster films like Scarface present women as just another prize for manly
men to win; prison films like Brute Force (1947) ban
women from the present-day setting and relegate them
only to dreams and memories; police films like Bullitt
(1968), The French Connection, and Serpico draw sharp
conflicts between male teamwork and heroic male independence to the virtual exclusion of women; and even
lawyer films like A Few Good Men (1992) and Reversal of
Fortune use the courtroom as an arena for testing a
masculinity threatened by the temptations of female or
feminized behavior that can be exorcised only when the
male heroes appeal to the justice system.
By associating masculinity with the institutional justice system, crime films can use either one to test the other.
When a woman is the head criminal, as in Lady Scarface
(1941) or Bloody Mama (1970), or the lead detective, as in
Blue Steel (1990) or Fargo, the genre does not redefine
itself in female terms but rather uses the dissonance of the
female character in a stereotypically male role to multiply
the temptations for her beset male costars and to explore
the masculine possibilities available to women.
The crime film’s investment in an institutional justice system that is gendered male is revealed most clearly
by man-on-the-run films in which the one running is a
woman. The founding premise of films like The 39 Steps
(UK, 1935), Three Days of the Condor (1976), and The
Fugitive is that the innocent hero, mistaken for a criminal, is pursued by both the real criminals and the police.
But when women are put in a similar position, as in
Thelma and Louise (1991), Bad Girls (1994), Bound
(1996), and Psycho (whose first half might be described
as a brutally foreshortened woman-on-the-run film), they
are anything but innocent. Such films punish women for
their transgressions against the institutional order, putting the masculinity of that order itself on trial. In the
most uncompromising example of such films to date,
Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the crime of Brandon Teena
(Hilary Swank) is literally that she is a woman.