CRIME FILMS. AN ENDURING AMBIVALENCE – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

Structural analyses of crime fiction also shed light on the
interrelations among other popular film formulas.
Commentators from Herbert Ruhm to John McCarty
trace the crime film’s lineage to the western, but Ruhm
considers the hard-boiled dick and McCarty the gangster
to be the gunslinger’s heir. Both are correct; their disagreement indicates the extent to which gangsters and
private eyes resemble each other, just as heroic police
officers, whose loyalty to their organization ought to
make them the antithesis of hard-boiled gumshoes, act
like private eyes in Dirty Harry (1971) and like gangsters
in ‘G’ Men (1935), even though these figures are their
nominal opposites.
More than any one single crime formula, the interrelations among the several formulas indicate an ambivalence toward crime, criminals, the justice system, and
the official culture that the crime film defines. Stock
figures that one formula borrows from another invariably
assume a new role and provoke a new and more nuanced
reaction. The professional criminal hero of the gangster
film mutates in the 1940s into the reluctant amateur
criminal hero of film noir; film noir in turn replaces
the greed of movie gangsters with the passion for forbidden bliss as embodied by sirens like Lana Turner (The
Postman Always Rings Twice) and Jane Greer (Out of the
Past, 1947). A still later mutation is the story of whitecollar criminals like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), in which
a desperate sales force—a legal gang whose members are
eternally at war with one another—reveals the thin line
between skillfulness and lawbreaking, between capitalistic
competition and crime, inside established corporate culture. Attorneys-at-law, because of the adversarial nature
of their practice, become their own opposites in films
from Anatomy of a Murder (1959) to A Civil Action
(1998), in which every heroic lawyer is defined in contradistinction to a villainous lawyer. Crime comedies like
Fargo (1996) show unexpected sides of both their harried
criminals and their stolid police officers in order to raise
questions as to why some criminal outrages are horrifying
while others are funny. A figure as apparently simple as
the uniformed police officer becomes a hero in police
films, an enemy in private-eye films, a nemesis or nuisance in gangster films, an obstacle in lawyer films, and a
figure of fun in crime comedies, each version faithfully
reflecting part of viewers’ more complex attitude toward
the institutions of law.
It is easier to note the enduring ambivalence that
characterizes crime films, whatever their formula, than to
analyze it definitively. But a few patterns are clear. For
Hoppenstand, the formal detective story becomes something like the antithesis and resolution to the tale of
supernatural horror at the opposite end of the spectrum,
and professional criminals, as organized in their way as
detectives, occupy a surprising middle ground between
the extremes. Derry’s emphasis on the three figures on
which all crime stories depend, which ought to reveal a
symmetrical relationship among victims, criminals, and
avenging detectives, reveals instead a crucial asymmetry.
There are many crime formulas emphasizing criminals:
gangster films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) that focus on professional criminals, film noir like Gun Crazy
(originally titled ‘‘Deadly Is the Female,’’ 1949) that
track amateur criminals to their doom, caper films like
The Score (2001) that bring together a disparate group of
mutually distrustful crooks for a single big job, studies of
psychopathology like Cape Fear (1961/1991) and To Die
For (1995), and white-collar crime films like Wall Street
(1987). And there are plenty of crime stories about
avenging detectives, from superhero films like Batman
(1989) to formal detective stories like Murder on the
Orient Express (1974) to amateur detective stories like
Blue Velvet (1986) to Benji (1974), about a lovable dog
who foils a kidnapping. But there are very few
Hollywood movies focusing on victims, and those few,
from D.O.A. (1950/1988) to The Accused (1988), almost
always allow their protagonists to change from passive
victims to heroic avengers in accord with a distinctively
American glorification of individual initiative and action.
Crime films routinely downplay the sufferings of
victims in favor of the heroic actions of their avengers.
Not even the avenging detective, however, enjoys the
prestige of the criminal hero viewers love to hate, and often love to love as well. Because the possibility of
criminal behavior by victims like Frank Bigelow in the
1950 D.O.A. and respected attorney George Simon in
Counsellor at Law (1933) is what gives both innocent
victims and pillars of institutional justice their dramatic
possibilities, the label ‘‘crime film’’ rightly gives pride of
place to the criminal.
The casting of key performers in the genre consistently reveals the remarkable affinities between movie
victims and movie criminals, like the affinities Ruhm
and McCarty establish between movie gangsters and
movie detectives and indeed between criminals and characters outside the crime genre. In M (Germany, 1931),
the murderous child molester Hans Beckert comes across
as tormented and ultimately pitiable. This is partly
because director Fritz Lang (1890–1976) keeps
Beckert’s heinous crimes off-camera, and partly because
the plot focuses instead on his pursuit and entrapment by
a criminal gang determined to get him off the streets so
that a reduced police presence will allow more breathing
room for their own activities. But it is the performance
by Peter Lorre (1904–1964) that most brings out the
anguish, and finally the agony, in every move the sweaty
little killer makes toward a new hiding place or a new
attempt to explain his crimes. In his first important film
role, Lorre makes the killer both monstrously evil and
monstrously banal. Similarly, the portrayal by the iconic
French actor Jean Gabin (1904–1976)—who specialized
in stoic Everymen in films such as Les Bas-fonds (The
Lower Depths, 1936) and La Grande Illusion (The Grand
Illusion, 1937)—of doomed killers in Pe ´pe ´ le Moko
(1937), La Be ˆte humaine (The Human Beast, 1938),
and Le Jour se le `ve (Daybreak, 1939) imparts a weary
sense of honor and decency to characters who might
otherwise come across as simple criminals.
The Hollywood studios notoriously cast to type but
recognize that typecasting inevitably expands and complicates the type. Although Paul Muni (1895–1967),
who played Tony Camonte in Scarface (1931), resisted
typecasting, two of the other preeminent screen gangsters, James Cagney (1899–1986) and Edward G.
Robinson (1893–1973), played effectively within and
against their menacing types even though neither was
physically imposing. The appeal of Cagney and
Robinson was elemental. Whether or not they were playing criminals, they were always riveting in their direct
appeal to the camera and the audience. Yet the third great
American star of crime films created a larger and more
enduringly complex set of heroes than either of them.
Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) was a moody, worldweary figure hundreds of miles from a boyhood he could
never remember. Robinson is the American immigrant
on the make, Cagney the American innocent swept into
crime by primitive urges he can neither understand nor
control. Bogart is the American hero whose experience
has left him with no illusions about anyone, least of all
himself. His successors are the even more introverted
Alan Ladd (1913–1964) and John Garfield (1913–
1952). Ladd’s performance in This Gun for Hire (1942)
established him as the most noncommittal of all crimefilm stars, the handsome hero whose dead eyes could
conceal any emotion or none at all. Garfield, by contrast,
specialized in wounded cubs, bruised boys who carried
a deep vein of emotional vulnerability beneath their
criminal portfolios in The Postman Always Rings Twice
and Force of Evil (1948).
These stars incarnate the American dialectic between
striving and disillusionment, limitless optimism and cynical worldly wisdom at the heart of all crime films. After
the demise of the studio system, actors had a freer hand
in shaping their own career, but many of them followed
the same path of invoking a single powerful persona that
developed and deepened from film to film. Marlon
Brando (1924–2004), the Method actor who rose to
fame playing sensitive brutes under Elia Kazan’s direction
(A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951; On the Waterfront,
1954), seemed to bring all his complicated past to bear
on his performance as the honorable, aging gang lord
Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Kevin Spacey’s selfeffacing monsters in Se7en (1995) and The Usual
Suspects (1995) darkened and deepened his equivocal victim in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
as well as his equivocal hero in American Beauty (1999),
culminating in his criminal/victim in The Life of David
Gale (2003). Casting the cocky glamour-puss Tom Cruise
as a contract killer in Collateral (2004) galvanized an
otherwise commonplace story, and casting Tom Hanks
against type as a mob killer in Road to Perdition (2002)
leavened the film’s obligatory doomy pathos with
warmth, affection, and compassion.
The leading stars of late-twentieth-century crime
films were, like Brando, Italian-American graduates of
the Actors Studio who spent years perfecting a persona
that carried through all their later work. Robert De Niro
(b. 1943) and Al Pacino (b. 1940) shot to fame playing
Hollywood gangsters, De Niro in Mean Streets, Pacino in
The Godfather, the two of them together in The
Godfather: Part II. De Niro’s specialty was low-level
crooks who were none too bright and often psychotic,
like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976); Pacino’s was
grandly scaled criminals whose behavior ranged from
witless (Dog Day Afternoon, 1975) to operatic (Scarface,
1983). Both communicated a fervid intensity unmatched
by any other performer of their generation. Once he had
established his no-limits persona, De Niro could create a
gallery of criminal types, from the suave Louis Cyphre in
Angel Heart (1987) to the gangster Jimmy Conway in
GoodFellas (1990), who seemed all the more menacing
for his underplaying. Pacino, who never underplayed,
brought an equally edgy conviction to heroic gangsters
(Carlito’s Way, 1993), compromised cops (Sea of Love,
1989), and the Prince of Darkness himself (The Devil’s
Advocate, 1997). Frustrated by the fact that The
Godfather: Part II had consigned De Niro and Pacino
to story lines a generation apart, fans hailed their two
scenes together in Heat (1995) as the perfect meeting of
De Niro’s iconic gangster and Pacino’s equivocal cop.
Both actors have fleshed out their personas by playing
against them subtly (Pacino’s honorably aging mobster in
Donnie Brasco, 1997) or broadly (De Niro’s farcical
mobster in Analyze This, 1999, and Analyze That,
2002). As these performances show, the deepest conflicts
within crime films are not between good guys and bad
guys but within oversized antiheroes, heroic villains, and
equivocal characters torn by their own histories and