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
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)
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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.
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Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir . 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998.
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McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to The Sopranos. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004.
Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster Film from "Little Caesar" to "Touch of Evil." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Ruhm, Herbert. The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine, 1920–1951 . New York: Vintage, 1977.
Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.
Warshow, Robert. "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture , 127–133. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.
Wright, Will. Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.