A Gunman Close Behind: A Mike Lantry Classic Crime Novel
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In fact, it is a stronger genre than the crim- inal subgenres that have commanded more attention, not only be- cause its scope is by definition broader than theirs, but because the problem it addresses as a genre, the problem that defines it as a genre, places the film noir and the gangster film in a more sharply illuminat- ing context by showing that each of those is part of a coherent larger project. The defining problem of the crime film is best approached through the specific problems involved in establishing it as a genre.
Should the crime film be defined in terms of its subject, its effect, or its visual style? Many crime films adopt the visual conventions of film noir low- key, high-contrast lighting, unbalanced compositions, night-for-night exterior shooting , but others do not. If the noir visual style is a defin- ing feature of the crime film, how are color films like Leave Her to Heaven , Chinatown , and Pulp Fiction [Fig.
If the noir visual style seems to produce too narrow a definition of the crime film, its characteristic subject, crime, and its frequently Crime Films sought effect, suspense, are impossibly broad. Both crime and sus- pense have an important role in a very great number of movies. The English Patient presents several important crimes, from rob- bery to murder, and a detective figure in David Caravaggio Willem Dafoe ; do those elements make it a crime film? Every classical Holly- wood narrative depends on some disruption of the social order for its conflict, and an enormous number of social disruptions e.
It would surely be im- practical to call every film in which a crime produces the central dra- matic situation a crime film. The touchstone of suspense is even more hopelessly vague, since suspense might be called a defining feature of the well-made Hollywood narrative. Even Jane Austen adaptations from Pride and Prejudice to Emma depend on the sus- pense generated by the questions of who will marry whom, and how the anticipated happy ending can be compassed.
How can the crime film be distinguished from the broader category of the clcissical Holly- wood narrative, and how useful is such a vaguely defined genre likely to be? The problem of defining the crime film is exacerbated by three prob- lems implicit in its subject.
John G. Cawelti has noted that popular nar- rative genres almost by definition package "the ultimate excitements of love and death" within the most reassuring generic formulas in or- der to appeal to both viewers' flight from ennui and their love of secur- ity, In crime film, this pciradox is linked to the question of crime's nor- malcy By definition crime is an aberration, a disruption to the normal workings of society; yet crime films invariably treat crime as normal even as they observe the ways it undermines the socieil order.
Gang- sters do nothing all day long but smuggle or steal. Police officers pur- sue criminals for a living. Every single case a private eye like Philip Marlowe takes on turns criminal; every adaptation of a John Grisham novel of legal intrigue, even if the initicil proceeding is a civil one, ex- plodes in violence sooner or later.
Crime films all profess to solve the criminal problems they present by means of a happy ending; yet the frequency of crime in such films suggests that the more general prob- lems posed by crime will never be solved. Is criminal behavior in these films abnormal or all too normal? The second problem cuts even deeper. In distinguishing between the heroes of thrillers, who "almost exclusively represent themselves," and the heroes of crime films, who "represent the Criminal, the Law, The Problem of the Crime Film and Society," Carlos Clarens implies a distinction between crime as an isolated event the province of the thriller and crime as a metaphor for social unrest the province of the crime film.
In Clarens's terms, the work of Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker most closely identified with crime, includes only thrillers rather than crime films; yet critics from Eric Rohmer and Claude Cha- brol to Robert Corber have recognized that the criminal plots of all Hitchcock's films, from The Lodger to Psycho , have obvi- ous moral and social implications that range far beyond the plight of the characters themselves, is When is a cinematic crime a metaphor for an enduring moral dilemma or social upheaval or ideological cri- tique, and when is a crime just a crime?
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The third problem concerns what may seem like the most straight- forward components of the crime film: its stock characters. Every crime story predicates three leading roles: the criminal who commits the crime, the victim who suffers it, and the avenger or detective who investigates it in the hope of bringing the criminal to justice and re- establishing the social order the crime hcis disrupted. The three roles could hardly be more clear-cut, yet they everywhere overlap and melt into each other. Gangsters like Vito Corleone are devoted family men concerned only to protect and provide for their loved ones.
Wish franchise 94 , turn vigilante in order to avenge their loved ones. A critique of the justice system is obligatory in Hollywood movies about lawyers, police officers, or private eyes. When the hero is a good cop, he is set against an entire corrupt department, cis in Serpico , or ends up battling vigilante demons inside himself, as in The Untouchables.
And Hollywood movies about victims who merely suf- fer, cis opposed to taking cirms against their oppressors, are virtually unheard of. Evidently crime films both believe and do not believe in the stock characters at their center; they seem determined to under- mine and blur the boundaries of the typological figures that might otherwise stake their surest claim to the status of a single genre.
Although these problems might seem to present insuperable obsta- cles to the definition of the crime film, they are in fact at the heart of such a definition: for the crime film does not simply embody these problems; it is about them.
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Crime films present as their defining sub- Crime Films ject a crime culture that depends on normalizing the unspeakable, a place where crime is both shockingly disruptive and completely nor- mal. Crime may have different metaphorical Vcilences in different crim- inal subgenres - it can demonstrate the fragility of the social contract in thrillers about innocent men on the run, attack the economic prin- ciples of the establishment in gangster films, express philosophical despair in films noirs, test masculine professionalism in private-eye films - but it is always metaphorical.
Every crime in every crime film represents a larger critique of the social or institutional order - either the film's critique or some character's. Finally, crime films dramatize not only the distinctive roles of criminal, victim, and avenger but also their interdependence and their interpenetration. The problem at the heart of crime films, then, is their attempt to me- diate between two logiccilly contradictory projects.
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Like cill popular genres, crime films work primarily by invoking and reinforcing a cher- ished, but not entirely convincing, series of social bromides: The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the law is above individuals, crime does not pay. Crime films need to reinforce these beliefs, just eis viewers want to have them reinforced, in order to confirm the distinc- tiveness of the moral and legal categories that allow viewers to main- tain their sense of social decorum and their own secure place in the social order as law-abiding citizens who know right from wrong, iden- tify with the innocent, and wish to see the guilty punished.
It is no sur- prise that the Hollywood film industry is eager to endorse these bro- mides, since the industry's continued success depends on the hecilth of the capitalist economy. The moral certitudes on which the indus- try and its audience agree depend on a series of categorical distinc- tions among the roles of victim, who ought, according to Hollywood's official morality, to be their natural identification figure; the criminal, who ought by the same token to be the target of their fear and hatred; and the avenging detective, who ought to express the law in its purest yet most personal form.
Viewers for crime films know that these three figures - the innocent victim, the menacing criminal, the detective who incarnates the law - never exist in such pure incarnations, not only because of the require- ments of realism and narrative complexity but because they would be utterly uninteresting. The ritual triumph of avenging heroes over criminals is compelling only as ritual; to succeed as narrative, it re- quires complications and surprises in the conception of the leading roles and their relationships. The fciscination of crime films arises pre- The Problem of the Crime Film cisely from the ways they test the limits of their moral categories, en- gaging and revealing contradictions in the audience's fantasies of iden- tification by mixing elements from these three different positions, the primary colors of crime films that never occur in isolation.
Although crime films typically move toward endings that confirm the moral ab- solutes incarnated in each of their three primary figures, an equally important function crime films share is to call these primary figures, and the moral absolutes that inspire them, into question by making a case for the heroic or pathetic status of the criminal, questioning the moral authority of the justice system, or presenting innocent char- acters who seem guilty or guilty characters who seem innocent.
Even when the endings of crime films endorse a reassuringly absolutist view of crime and punishment, the middle of such films puts absolutist cat- egories like hero, authority, innocent, guilty, victim, criminal, and aveng- er into play, engaging the doubts and reservations about these labels that make them fit subjects for mass entertainment as well as moral debate, and so raising questions that the most emphatically absolut- ist endings can never entirely resolve. Crime films always depend on their audience's ambivalence about crime.
The master criminal is immoral but glamorous, the maverick police officer is breaking the law in order to catch the criminals, the victim is helpless to take any action except capturing or killing the criminal. It is therefore inevitable that they both insist on the distinc- tions among criminals, crime solvers, and victims, and that their ob- sessive focus is on the fluid and troubling boundaries among these categories. Crime films are about the continual breakdown and re- establishment of the borders among criminals, crime solvers, and vic- tims.
This paradox is at the heart of all crime films. Crime films operate by mediating between two powerful but blank- ly contradictory articles of faith: that the social order that every crime challenges is ultimately well-defined, stable, and justified in consign- ing different people to the mutually exclusive roles of lawbrecikers, law enforcers, and the victims who are the audience's natural identifica- tion figures; and that every audience member is not only a potential victim but a potential avenger and a potential criminal under the skin.
The audience's ambivalence toward both these premises, and the shifting identifications crime films therefore urge among the fictional roles of lawbreaker, law enforcer, and victim, are the defining feature of the genre, and the feature that indicates the place each variety of crime film has within the larger genre. Crime Films Hence the genre of crime films includes all films that focus on any of the three parties to a crime - criminal, victim, avenger - while ex- ploring that party's links to the other two.
What defines the genre, however, is not these three typological figures any more than a dis- tinctive plot or visual style, but a pair of contradictory narrative proj- ects: to valorize the distinctions among these three roles in order to affirm the social, moral, or institutioneil order threatened by crime, and to explore the relations among the three roles in order to mount a critique that challenges that order.
This contradictory double proj- ect, which has often been obscured by the predominance of sub- genres like the gangster film and the film noir over the crime film, un- derlies the ambivalence of all the crime film's subgenres, including several this book will not consider in detail. White-collar crime films like Wall Street explore the pciranoid hypothesis that American capitalism is at its heart criminal; caper films like The Asphalt Jungle present a criminal culture more admirable in its honor and pro- fessionalism than the official culture it subverts; prison films from Brute Force to The Shawshank Redemption explore the nature of legal and moral guilt in order to consider how individual hu- manity can survive the dehumanizing rituals of the prison system.
One final apparent omission deserves fuller mention because, as Carlos Clarens has acknowledged, it goes to the heart of the crime film's definition: the thriller.
The crime film has much in common with the thriller; but following Charles Derry's brief definition of the thriller as "films in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock"i9 revccils that the thriller is not, as Clarens argues, a parallel alternative to the crime film but a subset of it. Although every crime film postulates the same three piv- otal figures, different figures predominate in different criminal sub- genres. The criminal is most prominent in gangster films and films noirs; the avenging crime solver in detective films, police films, and lawyer films; and the victim in the man-on-the-run films of which Hitch- cock made such a specialty.
In a larger sense, however, all of Hitch- cock's films are about victims. The types of crime films Hitchcock nev- er essayed - films about professional criminals, about ordinary people sucked into committing crimes, about heroic agents of the justice sys- tem - make up a virtual catalog of the types of films about criminals and avengers.
Despite Hitchcock's bromide, "The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,"20 he never makes a criminal the hero of a film without recasting that criminal, from Alice White in Blackmail to Marnie Edgar in Mamie , as a victim.
Hitch- The Problem of the Crime Film cock's distaste for the police is even more well-known; he regards le- gal authorities of any sort with suspicion and fear. His abiding interest therefore remains with innocent people who are unjustly suspected of crimes North by Northwest, , or who must confront criminals without any help from the authorities Shadow of a Doubt , or who turn detective in order to clear themselves or save their country The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's thrillers, indeed thrillers generally, are essentially crime films that focus on the victims of crimes, or of the criminal-justice system.
Including in the definition of crime films all films whose primary subject is crimiucd culture, whether they focus on criminals, victims, or avengers, may seem to make the genre too broad to be truly useful or distinctive. But the test of this definition, like that of any genre, is neither its narrowness nor its inclusiveness; it is its ability to raise questions that illuminate its members in ways existing modes of think- ing about crime films do not.
The model of ambivalence toward the categories repre- sented by the criminal, the victim, and legal avenger is not meant to distinguish crime films from non-crime films once and for all, but to suggest a new way of illuminating the whole range of films in which crimes are committed. Criminals have exercised a particular fascination for the literary imagination whenever social orders have been in flux.
Shakespeare's great villains - Aaron the Moor, Richard , King John, lago, Edmund, Macbeth - are self-made men who seize oppor- tunities for advancement that would never have arisen in a medieval world whose divinely ordained sense of socicil order seems to reign, for example, at the beginning of Richard IIA Criminals, even if they end up as kings, are precisely those people who overstep the bounds appointed by their status at birth, striving each "to rise above the sta- tion to which he was born.
Criminals in American literature are as old as American literature itself. The first important novel to appear in the United States, Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland; or, The Transformation , is asuper- naturally tinged tale of crime that goes far to anticipate the anxieties of film noir in its sense of gathering doom. Half a century later Herman Melville produced an even more memorable portrait of a protean riverboat swindler in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade The early American writer most immutably associated with crime, how- ever, is Edgar Allan Poe.
These stories, all fea- turing the reclusive Chevalier Auguste Dupin, have made Poe univer- sally hciiled as the father of the detective story. Dupin, though the only recurring character in Poe's fiction, never- theless plays a minor role in that fiction as a whole. The Poe of the popular imagination and the Poe of innumerable Hollywood horror extravaganzas is the high priest of Gothic horror Although horror in Poe has many sources - the fear of being watched by a malign pres- ence, communication with the dead, states of consciousness between life and death dream, hypnosis, suspended animation, possession by the dead , the possibility of burial alive, the horror of maiming or dis- memberment - none of them is richer than the psychopathology of the criminal mind.
Poe is the first writer to explore systematically the proposition that the ability to imagine an action acts cis a powerful in- ducement to complete it, regardless of the disastrous consequences. Hence his criminals, from Egaeus, who breaks into his fiancee's tomb to extract her teeth in "Berenice" , to the anonymous killers of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" , are typically driven to crimes they neither understand nor assent to; when these crimes succeed, they are driven, equally irrationally, to confess, as in "William Wilson" , "The Imp of the Perverse" , and "The Cask of Amontillado" It is no coincidence that Poe is noted both as the inventor of the detective hero and as the preeminent American literary explorer of criminal psychology.
In Poe's nightmare world, Dupin, who is given many of the characteristics of Poe's crim- inals misogynistic reclusiveness, a love of night and mystery, an abil- ity to identify with the criminals he is seeking , represents a uniquely successful attempt to impose through a strenuous effort of will what his author calls "ratiocination" on an imaginative world that is gen- erally irrational in its cosmology and criminal in its morality. One recison Dupin, unlike his successor Sherlock Holmes, spawned no imitators and no immediate legacy is that his import is so abstract- ly philosophical, so little rooted in a particular time and place that Poe can substitute a minutely detailed Paris, in "The Mystery of Marie R6- get," to stand in, street by street and newspaper by newspaper, for the scene of the actual crime on which the story is based: Hoboken, New Jersey.
But crime films have from their very beginning attempted to link criminal behavior to specific socicil settings both in fulfillment of Hollywood's general tendency toward sensationalizing abstract con- Crime Films flicts and as part of its generic project of casting a metaphoric light on the workings of the social order crime challenges. Broadly speaking, the history of the crime film before follows changing social atti- tudes toward crime and criminals; the s mark a crisis of ambiv- alence toward the criminal hero; by , it was following changing attitudes toward the law and the social order that criminals metaphor- ically reflect.
The Romance of the Silent Criminal Given the vanishing of so many silent shorts and features, perhaps for- ever, the power and extent of the crime film in the years before syn- chronized sound may never be fully understood. To the handful of si- lent crime films scholars have discussed, Langman and Finn add some three thousand more in their catalog of the period From the time of Edwin S.
Porter's Edison film The Great Train Robbery , one of the earliest of all narrative films, criminals were more prominent on silent screens than enforcers of the law. If the robbers in Porter's seven-minute film are unremark- able, the posse of citizens that ends up shooting them down is even more nondescript, and has much less screen time.
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As its title indi- cates, the film is far more interested in the mechanics of crime than in the necessities of punishment. Griffith's two-reeler The Musketeers of Pig Alley , which is equal- ly memorable for its realistically grubby urban exteriors and its pio- neering use of enormous close-ups of gang members as they loom sur- realistically before the camera while sneaking out of an alley en route to a shootout with a rival gang. It is easy to forget not only that Grif- fith, for all the fascination of his lead criminal, the Kid, ends the film with a flourish of his usual sentimentality - in return for the unexpect- ed chivalry he has shown her, the heroine covers up the Kid's cul- pability by lying to the police - but that crime features prominently in any number of Griffith's contemporaneous films, from The Lonely Villa and The Lonedale Operator , which focus on hero- ines menaced by threatening robbers as stalwart heroes ride to their rescue, to The Narrow Road , whose heroine, Mary Pickford, rescues her husband, Elmer Booth the Kid in The Musketeers of Pig Historical and Cultural Overview Alley , from temptation by a counterfeiter and pursuit by a relentless police officer.
The most elaborate story in Griffith's four-story epic In- tolerance , later recut and relecised separately cis The Mother and the Law , dramatizes the struggles of an innocent man Robert Harron when he is unjustly accused of murder and is rescued from the gallows by the last-minute detective work of his faithful wife Mae Marsh. In all these films, Griffith's interest is less in the charisma or brutality of the criminals than in the dangers they pose the innocent victims, who remain closest to Griffith's heart.