Crime Films

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Crime Films


Crime films rule the world from East to West—from Shanghai Triad to Kalifornia—because they allow audiences to indulge two logically incompatible desires: the desire to enter a criminal world most of them would take pains to avoid in real life, and the desire to walk away from that world with none of its traumatic or fatal consequences. Whether they focus on criminals, convicts, avengers, detectives, police officers, attorneys, or victims, crime films depend on a nearly universal fear of crime and an equally strong attraction to the criminal world. They play on a powerful desire for a modern-day version of the catharsis that Aristotle contended should evoke and purge pity and terror. Crime films from every nation help establish that nation's identity even as criminals seem to be trying their hardest to undermine it.

This sense of contested national identity is especially strong in the United States, whose crime films, constantly synthesizing such disparate influences as German expressionism (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler], 1922), French poetic realism (Le Quai des brumes [Port of Shadows], 1938), and the Hong Kong action film (Lashou shentan [Hard-Boiled], 1992), have been the acknowledged model for international entries as different as Tirez sur la pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player; France, 1960), Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low; Japan, 1963), and L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; Italy, 1970). A Martian visiting Hollywood might well conclude from its products that crime was the predominant economic activity in America, and the one that best dramatized the collision course between American ideology, which promises freedom and equal opportunity to all citizens, and American capitalism, in which money protects the secure and successful from their criminal competitors. Crime does not pay, insists the self-censoring 1930 Production Code that shaped the content of all Hollywood movies from 1934 to 1956 and left shadows long after it lapsed. Yet movies consistently show crime paying, at least for an intoxicatingly long moment.

The crime film is by far the most popular of all Hollywood genres—or would be if it were widely acknowledged as a genre. Many specific kinds of crime films have been more readily recognized and closely analyzed than crime films in general. Viewers familiar with private-eye films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), police films like The French Connection (1971), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), caper films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), man-on-the-run films like North by Northwest (1959), outlaw films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), films about lawyers like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or the extensive film series presenting the exploits of detectives from the saturnine Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1939) to the slapstick cast of Police Academy and its sequels (1984–2006) would have a hard time defining the crime film. So would commentators who have written on gangster films (Scarface, 1931/1983) and film noir (Double Indemnity, 1944), the two kinds of crime films that have inspired the most extensive critical discussion. Everyone can recognize a private-eye film by its hard-boiled hero's wisecracks, a caper film by its atmosphere of professional fatalism, and a film noir by the distinctive high-contrast visuals that break the physical world into a series of romantically dehumanized objects and gestures. But the crime film, like crime itself, seems so pervasive a social reality that it is hard to step outside it and pin it down.


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 cross-pollinate. 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 Fantômas (Fantômas 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.


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.


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 white-collar 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.

b. New York, New York, 25 December 1899, d. 14 January 1957

Humphrey Bogart is the greatest and most versatile of all crime stars, the only one equally at home as a gangster (Dead End, 1937), a hard-boiled detective (The Big Sleep, 1946), a noir hero (Dead Reckoning, 1947), a crusading lawyer (The Enforcer, 1951), an innocent on the run (Dark Passage, 1947), and a victim (Key Largo, 1948). After years of apprenticeship on Broadway and in Hollywood, Bogart first achieved fame as the gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). He soon added depth and heart to the gangster figure in roles from aging, betrayed Roy Earle (High Sierra, 1941) to vicious anti-father Glenn Griffin (The Desperate Hours, 1955). But he is better remembered for his performances as a series of tight-lipped heroes forever tarnished by their star's lingering criminal persona, from Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). His unlikely romantic heroes from Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) to Charlie Allnut in The African Queen (1951) mark Bogart as universally available—The Big Sleep makes a running joke of women throwing themselves at his feet—but always withdrawn, the American icon females would find easiest to seduce and hardest to open emotionally.

Bogart's most distinctive gift was his ability to suggest a current of thought beneath each action, a consistent shadiness beneath his characters' heroism. Although he often played men of action like Army Captain Joe Gunn in Sahara (1943) and fishing skipper Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944), his finest performances constantly suggested thought without specifying it. Because his reserve always implied unexplored depths, he was especially useful as the hero without a past in Casablanca and as the lawyer or editor who could channel his passion into his job in Knock on Any Door (1949) and Deadline U.S.A. (1952). He brought complexity to attorneys and reporters who dealt regularly with criminals and to servicemen who had to face physical danger and internalize moral pressure. He rarely played criminals after achieving stardom but brought a special tough-guy edge to his performances under the direction of John Huston, who co-wrote the role of Roy Earle and directed The Maltese Falcon, Across the Pacific (1942), Key Largo, The African Queen, and Beat the Devil (1953). Although he won an Academy Award® for The African Queen, his finest performance was as Fred C. Dobbs, the prospector maddened by greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), again under Huston's direction.


The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937), High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), Casablanca (1942), Sahara (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947), Dark Passage (1947), Key Largo (1948), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Knock on Any Door (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Enforcer (1951), Deadline U.S.A. (1952), Beat the Devil (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Desperate Hours (1955)


Benchley, Peter. Humphrey Bogart. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Bogart: A Life in Hollywood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Sperber, A. M. Bogart. New York: Morrow, 1997.

Thomas Leitch

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 Pépé le Moko (1937), La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), and Le Jour se lève (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, world-weary 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 crime-film 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 self-effacing 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 desires.


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 likeScarface 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.


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

b. Queens, New York, 17 November 1942

Born in Queens, Martin Scorsese grew up in Manhattan's Little Italy, just a few steps from the Bowery. After seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood, he went to film school instead, completing his Bachelor of Arts degree at New York University in 1964. His shoestring first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), caught the attention of Roger Corman, the legendary producer of exploitation films, who offered him the chance to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972). With Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese's career took off, and he has become one of the most widely praised American filmmakers of his generation, the first of the so-called film-school brats.

Scorsese's work evidences a remarkable thematic consistency. His collaborations with the screenwriter Paul Schrader on Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) only hint at this consistency. Whether he is directing a period adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel The Age of Innocence (1993), creating a Tibetan epic based on the early years of the Dalai Lama in Kundun (1997), or returning, as he so often has, to the formulas of the crime film in GoodFellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), or Casino (1995), Scorsese is fascinated by the story of the hero in revolt against a stifling culture whose norms he or she has internalized to a dangerous extent.

Occasionally, as in the feminist road film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), the black comedy After Hours (1985), or the historical epic Gangs of New York (2002), the hero triumphs or escapes. This triumph is muted or highly equivocal for the all-too-human Messiah in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the inventor/movie mogul Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). More often, as in the ill-fated romance Who's That Knocking at My Door?, the musical extravaganza New York, New York (1977), the nonpareil boxing film Raging Bull, and The Age of Innocence, the hero succumbs to the pressures of his or her culture, in which success amounts to personal failure.

This conflict between cultural repression and heroic but generally futile resistance has special resonance in Scorsese's crime films. Taxi Driver is the story of a New York loner who recoils so violently from the moral squalor around him that he ends up embodying its worst excesses as a crazed assassin. GoodFellas and Casino, the director's jaundiced response to Francis Coppola's The Godfather (1972), present life in the mob as a series of increasingly corrupt deals, accommodations, and indulgences, with loyalty unfailingly sacrificed to expedience. More probingly than any other contemporary filmmaker, Scorsese has projected the themes of the crime film outward onto aspiring heroes unable to hold onto their romances or escape their fatal surroundings because their instincts are so deeply at war with each other.


Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), Boxcar Bertha (1972), Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), After Hours (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), GoodFellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Kundun (1997), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004)


Friedman, Lawrence S. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. New York: Continuum, 1997.

Scorsese, Martin. Martin Scorsese: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Stern, Lesley. The Scorsese Connection. Bloomington: Indiana University Press/London, British Film Institute, 1995.

Thomas Leitch

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.

SEE ALSO Gangster Films;Genre;Spy Films;Thrillers;Violence


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Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.

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Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Thomas Leitch

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