Crime Movies History – Film Genres and Hollywood


Hello, everyone, and welcome to Ministry of
Cinema’s web series, “Film Genres and Hollywood.” I’m Bradley Weatherholt and I’ll be your host
on this journey into genre filmmaking. In this episode, we traverse the dark alleyways
and the underworld of the crime film genre. At its core, the crime genre exposes the vices
of ambitious, often street-wise, mostly materialistic, and always self-destructive heroes and villains. Set in large, urban areas, these films turn
the great American success story on its head. In a sense, the crime genre answers the American
Dream with an American nightmare. Fatally flawed, the heroes and anti-heroes
of these films often confuse the boundaries of right and wrong,
light vs dark, and good guy vs bad guy. In stark contrast to the Western, where the
genre’s early protagonists were almost entirely honorable
and only through the evolution of the genre did they develop more than single-sided goodness,
the protagonists of crime films started out flawed and ambiguous. In fact, it is not until the release of D.W.
Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” that the genre truly takes shape. The film begins with an intertitle: “New
York’s Other Side: The Poor;” and then follows with a few opening shots of Manhattan’s
ghetto. With this opening sequence, Griffith introduced
us to an underworld setting that exists in essentially every crime film since. What’s more, the film closes by introducing
another important theme. In its final shot, we see a criminal’s hand passing some form
of currency to a cop through a partly opened door. Afterward, the title “Links in the Chain”
appears. This obvious case of corruption provides the
genre with the earliest example of its most significant themes:
that the underworld and everyday world are actually connected. A decade later, Fritz Lang’s two-part melodrama
“Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler” illustrates the exploits of a sinister, quasi-mystical crime boss. The popularity of the films helped catapult
the developing genre and familiarized the audience with the criminal underworld. In 1927, Josef von Sternberg’s “Underworld”
would further solidify the underworld theme as well as help establish another convention
of the genre, that of telling the story from the criminal’s
point of view. One year later, the crime genre had its first
sound film. “The Lights of New York” (1928) helped establish
the genre’s tradition of sharp dialogue and startling sound effects. However, not until the 1930s, when the scandals
and exploits of the Prohibition Era bred a gang of real-life criminals such as Al Capone,
did the genre become entirely mainstream. Newspaper headlines supplied an endless string
of narrative material, and the crime genre flourished. Leading Hollywood’s crime film production,
Warner Bros. earned a reputation for producing high quality gangster pictures. The studio’s success rested on its team
of conscripted actors, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1931, Warner Bros. released two gangster
masterpieces back to back. The first of the films, Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little
Caesar”, told the rise and fall of ambitious, ruthless Caesar Enrico. Edward G. Robinson’s lead performance brought
to life a ferocious megalomaniac whose lust for esteem causes his downfall. The character is one of the best in the genre’s
history, establishing Robinson as the first real gangster star. Four months later, Warner released “The Public
Enemy”, its second film in its gangster one-two punch. Starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, an arrogant,
misogynistic bootlegger, it was his first film, initiating a long career of one of crime’s greatest character actors. In 1932, United Artist responded to Warner
Bros with “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation”. Directed by Howard Hawks, the film stars Paul
Muni as Tony Clamonte, another canonical gangster protagonist who self-inflicts his own demise
through his fatal flaws. The film, like the previous crime pictures
of Warner Bros., showcased a high level of violence
and misogyny as they sought to shock audiences through the protagonists’ scandalous lifestyles. This soon changed with the dawn of the Motion
Picture Production Code, a list of ethical standards commonly referred to as the Hays
Code after its chief enforcer, the president of the Motion Pictures Association
of America Will H. Hays. 1938’s “Angels with Dirty Faces” provides
an example of the code’s early impact on the genre. Starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and an
upcoming Humphrey Bogart, the film is a moralistic tale of two childhood friends
who took different turns in life–one becoming a criminal, the other a priest. Through the rise of crime’s most pronounced
sub-genre, film noir, Hollywood used visual metaphor suggestively as a work around the
code. For starters, film noirs have a conspicuous
visual style. Represented by a harsh, low-key lighting scheme,
silhouettes, smoke, and stark compositions, the films stand in blatant contrast to their
contemporaries. Along with a clear visual style, noirs typically
shaped narrative elements and character types; for instance, the conflicted, existential
male protagonist or the femme fatale, an archetype of seductress shadow. John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” provides
a fitting starting point for tracing the influence of film noir. In the film, private investigator Sam Spade,
played by Humphrey Bogart, follows the obsessive quests of three individuals in pursuit of
a falcon statue of mysterious importance. Many popular film noir tropes appear in the
film: the “femme fatale”, the conflicted protagonist, the innovative lighting scheme,
and more. Also, “The Maltese Falcon” employed another
important plot device, that of the Macguffin– an object or desire which drives the film’s
characters despite little explanation or reason. The Macguffin is commonly used in many genres,
particularly the crime genre. Three years after “The Maltese Falcon”, Billy
Wilder, one of history’s great studio directors, released “Double Indemnity”, the standard-bearer
of future film noirs. The film, which involves Fred MacMurray and
Barbara Stanwyck in their insurance fraud conspiracy, perfectly presented all the necessary
elements of the subgenre. Six year afters “Double Indemnity”, Wilder released
his other landmark noir, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). “Sunset Boulevard” was an introspective look at Hollywood’s inner-workings. By this time, the subgenres of film noir and
screwball comedy had mostly eroded the influence of the Hays Production Code. Crime films such as Walsh and Cagney’s “The White Heat” and Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” were able to show a level of violence forbidden
up to that point. By this time, a new director was making his
name in Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock, famed for his innovative
editing and cinematography, psychologically rich characters, suspenseful narratives,
and much more, Alfred Hitchcock would become the great Hollywood crime director. Like many film noirs, Hitchcock’s films
often featured a “wrong man” protagonist, generally a normal guy who was inadvertently
thrown into the mix of some great conspiracy or crime. Unlike the gangsters of earlier crime films,
these characters were overtly sympathetic, played by Hollywood’s most likeable such
as Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda. The most notable of these actors was James
Stewart. The pairing of Hitchcock and Stewart, much
like the previous director/actor duos of Huston and Bogart or Walsh and Cagney, established
an entirely new type of crime picture. In “Rear Window” and “Vertigo”, Stewart plays
the quintessential Hitchcock protagonist, sympathetic, noble, but with some physical
impairment, whether crippling or vertiginous. These films are among not only the crime genre’s
best, but the best of any genre. The 1960s mark a changing time in not only
the crime genre, but cinema as a whole. Films like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”
were redefining the rules of filmmaking. Hollywood adapted with a new set of filmmakers
in what would come to be called New Hollywood. These filmmakers grew up on pictures from
Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as films of the Foreign Wave. They brought a breath of fresh air to Hollywood,
influencing and reinventing every classic genre. In 1967, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty starred
as Bonnie and Clyde in one of New Hollywood’s first films, “Bonnie and Clyde”. “Bonnie and Clyde” took a revolutionary approach
to sex and violence, flying in the face of the Hays Code. The film would open the public up to a new
level of mature content, paving the way for another crime film, “The French Connection” (1971),
to become the first R-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. Just a year later, a completely different
crime film would take Best Picture. “The Godfather”, directed by Francis Ford Coppola,
and based on Mario Puzo’s novel, hosts one of the greatest casts of all time, brilliant
lighting and camera work, emotionally rich characters, and an epic narrative. The film, as well as its sequel, was a critical
and box office success, becoming a pop culture phenomenon with its unforgettable scenes and
quotable lines. “The Godfather” series would catapult the careers
of some of the crime genre’s greatest. Al Pacino, who played cruel, cynical Michael
Corleone, would star in several acclaimed crime pictures. Reputed for his boundless energy and bursts
of anger, Pacino’s on screen personality contributed to the success of crime films
such as “Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, and “Carlito’s Way”. Perhaps his most iconic role, one in which
he might be remembered for, even over his performance as Michael Corleone, was as Tony
Montana in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”. Pacino would later team up with fellow Godfather
alumnus Robert DeNiro in Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller “Heat”. DeNiro by this time had become the premier
crime actor of his generation, playing an ambitious, intrepid Italian immigrant in “The Godfather: Part 2” and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”. However, perhaps his most notable work came
in collaboration with New York director Martin Scorsese. Beginning in 1973 with “Mean Streets”, the collaborationof DeNiro and Scorsese has spanned decades as one of cinema’s greatest actor/director teams. Three years after “Mean Streets”, Scorsese directed
DeNiro in “Taxi Driver”, a dark indiosyncratic picture following the exploits of confused
anti-hero Travis Bickle. If “Taxi Driver” isn’t Scorsese and DeNiro’s
greatest collaboration, then that distinction must go to the pair’s sprawling gangster
epic “Goodfellas”. With a mastery of camerawork and character,
“Goodfellas” explored the underground of New York’s gangsters with equal parts humor
and intense violence. Scorsese’s followup to “Goodfellas”, the less
spectacular “Casino”, showcased Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro once again in a Las Vegas melodrama
involving the career of Sam Rothstein, casino manager. After these DeNiro collaborations, Scorsese
continued to make crime films. The director would team up with another actor,
Leonardo DiCaprio, in again one of cinema’s greatest pairings. Beginning with “Gangs of New York”, Scorsese’s
new pupil gave a second wind to the later portion of his career. Perhaps the duo’s most notable work was
“The Departed”, a much different type of crime picture for Scorsese. Instead of New York, “The Departed” took the setting
of South Boston in a sprawling cops and gangster drama. “The Departed”, a bold, fearless crime picture
was only made possible by the innovative gangster films of the 90’s,
particularly those from the radically creative mind of director Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s first movie, “Reservoir Dogs”,
highlighted a job-gone-wrong by professional criminals who turn on each other in a quest
to reveal the undercover cop among the group. After “Reservoir Dogs”, Tarantino helmed “Pulp
Fiction”, a film featuring an entirely new type of gangster. With the film’s edgy dialogue, unorthodox
plot, and innovative edit, “Pulp Fiction” deconstructed the crime picture, boldly opening the doors
to a new way to approach the genre. One of the most lasting impacts of “Pulp Fiction”
came with the characters. Historically, the crime picture revolves around
a few types of protagonists, depending on the era. In its early years, crime largely involved
the gangster and his rise and fall from the criminal underworld to power. Crime pictures later went through a Mafia
phase, where many notable films centered on wiseguys and mafia bosses. Now, after the breakthroughs of films like
those of Tarantino, crime pictures have expanded their narratives to different protagonists. A recent example of this comes with recent
crime films focusing on a different kind of criminal activity, white collar crime. In films like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, the
crime genre has been turned on its head, showing a different type of criminal manipulating
capital markets. After surveying the crime genre’s history,
a recurring theme comes to light. This theme is most obvious in the rise and
fall of the gangster. Through his self-destructive lust for wealth,
crime’s prototypical hero provides a stark critique of capitalism. Remember, it is a byproduct of modern capitalism,
the inner-city slum, that fostered the original crime protagonist. In a sense, crime and gangsters are the natural
consequences to capitalism’s exploitation of labor. To paraphrase Robert Warshaw, the gangster
is the “no” to the great American “yes” which is stamped so largely over our culture. But it is in their similarities that the criminal
provides his sharpest critique of the capitalism. An old joke asks, what is the crime of robbing
a bank compared to the crime of founding one? More often than not, it is the gangster who
shines as the capitalist at his finest–an ambitious, talented profiteer who understands
above all the accumulation of wealth. Perhaps it is in this day in age–this second
gilded age of bankers and bailouts–that the crime film is needed more than ever. At its worst, the crime genre exploits the
audience’s lust and desire for hyper violence and scandal. But at its best, the crime genre reminds us
that gangsters reside on both sides of the law– and that crime is only a matter of perspective.

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