Crime Films


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 like

(From left) Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta in GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990).
Scarface 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.

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