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.