Crime Films


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

Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s.

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.

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