Crime films, like most popular formulas, are defined by a relatively small number of consistent plots and plot transformations. The one common feature all crime films share is a crime; they differ in what sort of crime it is (though murder, the most serious and irreversible of crimes, disproportionately predominates), how they stage that crime, what attitude they take toward it, and how they present the people who are involved in it.
Although they all agree that crime is the defining feature of crime films, critics have taken two different approaches to the profusion of crime formulas. Jack Shadoian and Carlos Clarens, following the lead of Robert Warshow's influential essay "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" (1962), make criminals as central to the genre as crime. In their accounts, the gangster film, the film focusing on the lives and deaths of professional criminals, is the central crime formula to which all other sorts of crime films are subordinate. Gangster films, according to these commentators, present urban heroes whose law-breaking behavior is the quintessential expression of the American Dream and its ultimate bankruptcy. The big-city gangster, born in silent shorts like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and given definitive shape in the Depression-era triptych of Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), licenses its criminal hero to follow his dreams of wealth at the price of ensuring his destruction. Crime becomes for these commentators a rich metaphor for the extravagant promises and tragic contradictions of American capitalism, social equality, and unlimited upward mobility. Other crime formulas—especially, in Shadoian's case, the film noir —are important to the extent that they participate in the economic and social critique of American culture that makes the gangster film quintessentially American.
Instead of locating the gangster film at the heart of the American crime film, theorists like Gary Hoppenstand and Charles Derry have mapped out a broad range of crime-related fiction and films without giving any one kind priority over the others. Hoppenstand surveys a spectrum of mystery fiction from supernatural horror tales like Psycho (1959, filmed 1960), which places the greatest emphasis on forces of evil and chaos beyond the heroes' ability to understand or control, through a series of formulas that show evil gradually receding before the power of rational thought: fiction noir like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934, filmed 1946 and 1981), gangster stories like The Godfather (1969, filmed 1972), stories of professional thieves like A. J. Raffles ( The Amateur Cracksman , 1899, filmed 1930), spy thrillers like Dr. No (1958, filmed 1962), and detective stories like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841, filmed 1914, 1932, 1971, and 1986), in which the detective hero's analytical intelligence triumphs over the forces of darkness.
Derry begins instead with a triangular model of crime films, in which the films are distinguished by their emphasis on one of three parties involved in every crime: the victim, the criminal, and the avenging detective. He then arranges one series of crime films along the line from detective to criminal: classical detective films like The Thin Man (1934), hard-boiled private-eye films like Murder, My Sweet (1944), police procedurals like Serpico (1974), gangster films like Mean Streets (1973), bandit films about romantic lovers on the lam like Bonnie and Clyde , and caper films like The Anderson Tapes (1971). He arranges a second series along the line from criminal to victim: thrillers about murderous passions like Body Heat (1981), political thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate (1962), films of assumed identity like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), psychotraumatic thrillers like Vertigo , films of moral confrontation like Blue Velvet (1986), and innocent-on-the-run films like The Fugitive (1993). Whereas Warshow's analysis emphasizes the criminal hero's mythopoetic power, in Derry's schema the films focus on the varied relations mystery and thriller formulas have established between good and evil, the known and the unknown, the controlled and the uncontrollable.
By considering a range of stories that regard evil as omnipotent, eminently resolvable, or somewhere in between, Hoppenstand implicitly poses rationality and detection as a counterweight to mystery. Making mystery central to the crime film emphasizes questions of knowledge. Where will Jack the Ripper strike next in From Hell (2001)? How will a gang of thieves proceed if they plan to rob the racetrack in The Killing (1956)? What is the best way to handle the appeal of a socialite convicted of attempted murder in Reversal of Fortune (1990)? In a world of treacherous women, whom can private eye Philip Marlowe trust in The Big Sleep (1946/1978)? Or, in the question most closely associated with the mystery: Whodunit? These questions are brought into focus by the publicity line for the release of The Silence of the Lambs (1991): "To enter the mind of a killer she must challenge the mind of a madman."
Important as the battle of wits between FBI trainee Clarice Starling and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter is, however, The Silence of the Lambs is less about knowledge than about power, especially the power to pry or trick knowledge from someone who does not want to share it. It is in this connection that Derry's schema of crime films in terms of the three figures they necessarily involve—victims, criminals, and detectives or avengers—is most useful. For it allows a primary distinction between crime formulas like the detective story that are mainly about knowledge and formulas like the film noir and police story that are mainly about power. And it indicates some of the relations between crime stories that focus on the power of promethean individuals and the power of governmental institutions. Here the gangster, the lawbreaking individual whose fortune and whose very life depends on the criminal organization he heads, turns out to be pivotal after all. In addition to exemplifying the tragic contradictions of American capitalism, his gang, a microcosm of a doomed society, illustrates the limits of all social organization.