Crime films rule the world from East to West—from Shanghai Triad to Kalifornia —because they allow audiences to indulge two logically incompatible desires: the desire to enter a criminal world most of them would take pains to avoid in real life, and the desire to walk away from that world with none of its traumatic or fatal consequences. Whether they focus on criminals, convicts, avengers, detectives, police officers, attorneys, or victims, crime films depend on a nearly universal fear of crime and an equally strong attraction to the criminal world. They play on a powerful desire for a modern-day version of the catharsis that Aristotle contended should evoke and purge pity and terror. Crime films from every nation help establish that nation's identity even as criminals seem to be trying their hardest to undermine it.
This sense of contested national identity is especially strong in the United States, whose crime films, constantly synthesizing such disparate influences as German expressionism ( Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler], 1922), French poetic realism ( Le Quai des brumes [ Port of Shadows ], 1938), and the Hong Kong action film ( Lashou shentan [ Hard-Boiled ], 1992), have been the acknowledged model for international entries as different as Tirez sur la pianiste ( Shoot the Piano Player ; France, 1960), Tengoku to jigoku ( High and Low ; Japan, 1963), and L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo ( The Bird with the Crystal Plumage ; Italy, 1970). A Martian visiting Hollywood might well conclude from its products that crime was the predominant economic activity in America, and the one that best dramatized the collision course between American ideology, which promises freedom and equal opportunity to all citizens, and American capitalism, in which money protects the secure and successful from their criminal competitors. Crime does not pay, insists the self-censoring 1930 Production Code that shaped the content of all Hollywood movies from 1934 to 1956 and left shadows long after it lapsed. Yet movies consistently show crime paying, at least for an intoxicatingly long moment.
The crime film is by far the most popular of all Hollywood genres—or would be if it were widely acknowledged as a genre. Many specific kinds of crime films have been more readily recognized and closely analyzed than crime films in general. Viewers familiar with private-eye films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), police films like The French Connection (1971), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), caper films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), man-on-the-run films like North by Northwest (1959), outlaw films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), films about lawyers like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or the extensive film series presenting the exploits of detectives from the saturnine Sherlock Holmes ( The Hound of the Baskervilles , 1939) to the slapstick cast of Police Academy and its sequels (1984–2006) would have a hard time defining the crime film. So would commentators who have written on gangster films ( Scarface , 1931/1983) and film noir ( Double Indemnity , 1944), the two kinds of crime films that have inspired the most extensive critical discussion. Everyone can recognize a private-eye film by its hard-boiled hero's wisecracks, a caper film by its atmosphere of professional fatalism, and a film noir by the distinctive high-contrast visuals that break the physical world into a series of romantically dehumanized objects and gestures. But the crime film, like crime itself, seems so pervasive a social reality that it is hard to step outside it and pin it down.