Essay: Crime Films

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¶ … Crime Film Genre and the Heroic Paradigm

The American crime film genre has been used throughout the 20th century as a vehicle for a variety of themes: from explorations of social degradation (White Heat) to social injustice and Christian allegory (On the Waterfront) to moral ambiguity (The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil) to action spectacle and car chases (The French Connection, Bullitt) to analyses of lost innocence and media corruption (Badlands, Natural Born Killers) to the film noir homage (Miller's Crossing). But primarily, the crime film genre has been used to represent a dual mentality in the American social fabric: "The first gangster cycle condemned and glorified the brutality of the underworld" (Mast 270). Raymond Chandler's tough-talking Marlowe would throw the scales of justice back in the face of a hypocritical system, thus establishing the feverish paradigm of the crime genre: a hero whose legitimacy was denied by the very public whose order he attempted to serve -- often following the spirit of the law over the letter. The crime genre has also always dealt with varying levels of corruption both in public offices and in private lives. At its best, the crime genre has shown both sides of the story -- humanizing the villainous and the noble alike. At its worst, it has been a preachy, smug homage to American self-satisfaction. This paper will analyze the crime film and the variety of perspectives from which it has engaged American audiences since its inception; showing how, through its various influences and inspirations -- from Germany's Fritz Lang (M) to Hong Kong cinema and British, Russian, and American literature -- it has revealed the American consciousness as one in which the battle between good and evil is fought, as Dostoevsky said, in every human heart.

Influences and Inspirations: the Heroic Paradigm

The crime film and film noir genres, though dating in American cinema back to the very beginning of the twentieth century with the one-reel shorts that depicted cops against robbers and other notorious or fringe-characters (Dirks), really found their inspiration in the classic novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (the Underground Man figuring as the prototype for all modern anti-heroes) (White). There were also Joseph Conrad's several psychological novels (many of them adapted to film), such as Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes, Victory. The nihilist or criminal element was ever present in the British author's works, attempting to subvert polite society in some manner or another; often drawing the balance between good and evil with expansive shades of gray, acting as the precursor of Orson Welles' classic corrupt fat chief in Touch of Evil ("He was some kind of a man"). And then there were the hard-boiled detective novels and crime stories penned by American authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Hammett's Sam Spade became iconic (portrayed by Bogart in 1941 before he went on to portray Chandler's Marlowe on screen). Bogart, in fact, could not have been Bogart without Hammett or Chandler, and Hammett and Chandler each in turn owed a debt to the criminal psychology and gray-scale characterization of Conrad and the inverted, regime-changing, heroic/anti-heroic paradigm of Dostoevsky.

The heroic paradigm (stood on its head by the Russian novelist) had descended from the classic stage through the classic novels into the modern age (where black could be white and white could be black -- a notion perfectly phrased in the Coen brothers' 1990 film noir classic gangster flick Miller's Crossing) whereupon Dostoevsky gave it new life by characterizing the dregs of society and upholding him as both better (in a way) than much of the upper crust -- and yet worse (in another way) than genuine goodness. The Underground Man was the first anti-hero -- followed by Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment (who moves out of the Underground Man's shadow and into the light of Redemption -- not an uncommon theme in some of the more moralistic of crime films), followed by Alyosha in The Brothers Karamzov -- his first and only truly good character. Dostoevsky essentially developed a new heroic paradigm -- one in which the balance of good and evil was greatly tilted in favor of the latter and the former was hardly judged by the majority of polite society as belonging to the good (but, in fact, as in Dostoevsky's characters' cases, he is usually the only one to really represent the good). Conrad's Lord Jim fits such a paradigm, as does Chandler's Marlowe and Hammett's Continental Op. Each follows a romantic code of chivalry (sorely out of place in the modern world yet sorely needed all the same).

The crime film genre's cinematic (and stylistic) influence was German (not French -- they only gave us the noir name) -- and Fritz Lang gave us the first crime genre masterpiece M: a gruesome tale starring Lon Cheney as a deranged pedophiliac murderer being hunted by both the cops and the criminal element (and the homeless). American director Stanley Kubrick would recall Fritz Lang's wildly angled shots and his eerie set-ups in Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange, and every director who has attempted to shoot a film noir since Lang has had to tip his hat to the German for translating into film what the novelists had first depicted on page -- good vs. evil in the psychotic society. Hitchcock would carry on the tradition of the crime genre, adapting Conrad's The Secret Agent into the romanticized Sabotage, which would show up again in Tarantino's 2009 Inglorious Basterds (an homage, like all of Tarantino's films, to the earlier works of cinema). And Hitchcock's Psycho would change the way films addressed the subjective -- opening the door for further analytical ambiguity. Nonetheless, no thread or genre has had a greater life than the crime genre -- and that is because no better heroic paradigm has been constructed that so well fits the modern American world.

Introspection

The crime genre, however, is as heterogeneous as any genre can be -- ranging from themes of pure spectacle and machismo to character studies that scrutinize the spiritual nature of the good vs. evil conflict. Again, Conrad's Lord Jim provides ample basis for such introspection -- but American author Flannery O'Connor provides it as well -- and establishes it in a much more American Gothic tone (predated just barely by Shirley Jackson's New England gothic -- and, of course, by Hawthorne before her). One of O'Connor's most iconic characters is The Misfit, an escaped convict who (anticipating the nation's coming slew of murder-sprees) fails to bat an eye at the thought of murdering an entire family in broad daylight. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" dwells, however, not on the Misfit's wrong-doings, but on the fact that he makes more metaphysical sense than the "good people" he slaughters in the woods, expressing the truth of American malaise and spiritual mediocrity: "She would of been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life'" (O'Connor). The theme is picked up again by Terrence Malick and his 1973 big screen debut of Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as precursors to Oliver Stone's Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers two decades later. Both films go beyond the normal scope of the crime film genre, the former by examining the desolate interior life of the characters through their journey across the desolate American landscape into the badlands; the latter by examining the pernicious influence of modern media, the American obsession with crime, and the desensitization of youth: at one point in the film the spiritual Indian observes the devil that haunts Mickey (played by Woody Harrelson) -- its name is "Too Much TV."

Stone would also pen the updated version of Scarface for director Brian de Palma (another lover of film noir), which would also contain one of the themes that would define Stone's filmmaking career: Tony Montana's symbolic gaining of the entire world at the expense of his soul and his life (itself an echo of Cagney's cry in White Heat -- just before he is damned to the flames: "Look Ma! I made it! Top 'o' the world!").

The most cinematically satisfying and faithful adherents to the style and themes of the film noir/crime genre, however, are Joel and Ethan Coen who have crafted a number of films that fit the mold, beginning with their first Blood Simple -- a kind of Hitchcockian suspense-thriller, complete with adultery, the jealousy husband, the corrupt private dick, money, and the dragging-the-body-out-from-the-middle-of-the-road-while-a-car-comes-in-the-opposite-direction scene (replayed with a different result in their later opus Fargo); Raising Arizona (a comedic twist on the genre); Miller's Crossing (an ode to speak-easy gangster films, and an adaptation of Hammett's The Glass Key); Barton Fink (an existential twist on the genre); The Big Lebowski (an affectionate parody/homage); The Man Who Wasn't There (another existential twist -- this one filmed… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Crime Films.  (2011, July 8).  Retrieved May 22, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/crime-films/6449378

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https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/crime-films/6449378.