THE STRUCTURE OF CRIME FORMULAS – Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film

Crime films, like most popular formulas, are defined by a
relatively small number of consistent plots and plot transformations. The one common feature all crime films
share is a crime; they differ in what sort of crime it is
(though murder, the most serious and irreversible of
crimes, disproportionately predominates), how they stage
that crime, what attitude they take toward it, and how
they present the people who are involved in it.
Although they all agree that crime is the defining
feature of crime films, critics have taken two different
approaches to the profusion of crime formulas. Jack
Shadoian and Carlos Clarens, following the lead of
Robert Warshow’s influential essay ‘‘The Gangster as
Tragic Hero’’ (1962), make criminals as central to the
genre as crime. In their accounts, the gangster film, the
film focusing on the lives and deaths of professional
criminals, is the central crime formula to which all other
sorts of crime films are subordinate. Gangster films,
according to these commentators, present urban heroes
whose law-breaking behavior is the quintessential expression of the American Dream and its ultimate bankruptcy.
The big-city gangster, born in silent shorts like The
Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and given definitive shape
in the Depression-era triptych of Little Caesar (1930),
Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), licenses its
criminal hero to follow his dreams of wealth at the price
of ensuring his destruction. Crime becomes for these
commentators a rich metaphor for the extravagant promises and tragic contradictions of American capitalism,
social equality, and unlimited upward mobility. Other
crime formulas—especially, in Shadoian’s case, the film
noir—are important to the extent that they participate in
the economic and social critique of American culture that
makes the gangster film quintessentially American.
Instead of locating the gangster film at the heart of the
American crime film, theorists like Gary Hoppenstand
and Charles Derry have mapped out a broad range of
crime-related fiction and films without giving any one
kind priority over the others. Hoppenstand surveys a
spectrum of mystery fiction from supernatural horror tales
like Psycho (1959, filmed 1960), which places the greatest
emphasis on forces of evil and chaos beyond the heroes’
ability to understand or control, through a series of formulas that show evil gradually receding before the power
of rational thought: fiction noir like The Postman Always
Rings Twice (1934, filmed 1946 and 1981), gangster
stories like The Godfather (1969, filmed 1972), stories of
professional thieves like A. J. Raffles (The Amateur
Cracksman, 1899, filmed 1930), spy thrillers like Dr. No
(1958, filmed 1962), and detective stories like ‘‘The
Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ (1841, filmed 1914, 1932,
1971, and 1986), in which the detective hero’s analytical
intelligence triumphs over the forces of darkness.
Derry begins instead with a triangular model of
crime films, in which the films are distinguished by their
emphasis on one of three parties involved in every crime:
the victim, the criminal, and the avenging detective. He
then arranges one series of crime films along the line from
detective to criminal: classical detective films like The Thin
Man (1934), hard-boiled private-eye films like Murder,
My Sweet (1944), police procedurals like Serpico (1974),
gangster films like Mean Streets (1973), bandit films
about romantic lovers on the lam like Bonnie and Clyde,
and caper films like The Anderson Tapes (1971). He
arranges a second series along the line from criminal to
victim: thrillers about murderous passions like Body
Heat (1981), political thrillers like The Manchurian
Candidate (1962), films of assumed identity like The
Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), psychotraumatic thrillers like
Vertigo, films of moral confrontation like Blue Velvet (1986), and innocent-on-the-run films like The Fugitive
(1993). Whereas Warshow’s analysis emphasizes the
criminal hero’s mythopoetic power, in Derry’s schema
the films focus on the varied relations mystery and thriller
formulas have established between good and evil, the known
and the unknown, the controlled and the uncontrollable.
By considering a range of stories that regard evil as
omnipotent, eminently resolvable, or somewhere in
between, Hoppenstand implicitly poses rationality and
detection as a counterweight to mystery. Making mystery
central to the crime film emphasizes questions of knowledge. Where will Jack the Ripper strike next in From Hell
(2001)? How will a gang of thieves proceed if they plan
to rob the racetrack in The Killing (1956)? What is the
best way to handle the appeal of a socialite convicted of
attempted murder in Reversal of Fortune (1990)? In a
world of treacherous women, whom can private eye
Philip Marlowe trust in The Big Sleep (1946/1978)? Or,
in the question most closely associated with the mystery:
Whodunit? These questions are brought into focus by the
publicity line for the release of The Silence of the Lambs
(1991): ‘‘To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge
the mind of a madman.’’
Important as the battle of wits between FBI trainee
Clarice Starling and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal
Lecter is, however, The Silence of the Lambs is less about
knowledge than about power, especially the power to pry
or trick knowledge from someone who does not want to
share it. It is in this connection that Derry’s schema of
crime films in terms of the three figures they necessarily
involve—victims, criminals, and detectives or avengers—
is most useful. For it allows a primary distinction
between crime formulas like the detective story that are
mainly about knowledge and formulas like the film noir
and police story that are mainly about power. And it
indicates some of the relations between crime stories that
focus on the power of promethean individuals and the
power of governmental institutions. Here the gangster,
the lawbreaking individual whose fortune and whose very
life depends on the criminal organization he heads, turns
out to be pivotal after all. In addition to exemplifying the
tragic contradictions of American capitalism, his gang, a
microcosm of a doomed society, illustrates the limits of
all social organization.