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Nearly as compelling as the fascination with being frightened by horror films, people also have a fascination with crime.  Curiosity about the criminals and why they do what they do, about the people and forces that try to stop them, and about the system that strives to make sure they can’t commit their crime again keeps bringing audiences to the Saturday matinee and riveted by the films that tell the stories of crime.

Very basically, crime films involve crime, and can take their stories from the written word (plays or novels) or from real-life crimes.  These movies, however, are a bit harder to categorize than some other genres since so many crime films can also legitimately be classified in other genres.  For example, most horror films contain crimes, and so do most Westerns, action films, dramas, mysteries, etc.

As in all genres, crime films are sometimes classified into sub-genres.  Crime films can focus on the exploits of a single criminal, or on a gang or mob.  Mob films are films which focus on characters who are involved seriously with the Mafia or gangs.  Notable mob films are “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) and starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods.

One of the more popular is the detective crime film where the hero is usually a private detective who has been hired to investigate a crime and bring the bad guys to justice.  An example of one such film is “The Maltese Falcon” of 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre.

Also popular is the crime film where the police or other law enforcement agencies take top billing, casting the officer in the role of the hero who hunts down the criminal.  Examples are “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) which starred Sidney Poitier, Warren Oates and Rod Steiger, “The French Connection” (1971) with Gene Hackman and Bill Klein, and “The Untouchables” (1987) with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro.  (“The Untouchables” was also a television program in 1959 and again in 1993.)  In some police based films, however, when especially tough cops are on the trail of the criminal it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, like in 1971’s “Dirty Harry” (Clint Eastwood and Andrew Robinson) and it’s sequels “Magnum Force” (1973) (Clint Eastwood and Hal Holbrook), “The Enforcer” (1976) (Clint Eastwood, Tyne Daly, and DeVeren Bookwalter), “Sudden Impact” (1983) (Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke and Paul Drake), and “The Dead Pool” (1988) (Clint Eastwood, Liam Neeson, and Jim Carrey).

Heist films are films that deal with a group of criminals attempting to perform a theft or robbery on a large scale, and the consequences.  Heist films that are lighter in tone are sometimes called caper films.  “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) directed by John Huston and starring Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe and James Whitmore, and “The Sting” (1973) starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and directed by George Roy Hill are good examples of heist films.

True crime films relate the story of real-life crimes, but some of the details of the story may be changed to enhance the story.  “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) with Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters is one such film.

Films dealing with crimes, but where most of the action takes place in a courtroom are legal or courtroom crime dramas.  The crime itself is usually related through flashbacks, and the film focuses on the attorneys or juries who are charged with determining the criminal’s guilt or innocence.  “12 Angry Men” (1957) starring Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb and E. G. Marshall and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham are great courtroom crime dramas.

Crime films dealing with the criminal’s experiences behind bars, and often their attempts to escape, are referred to as prison films.  “Devil’s Island” (1939) with Boris Karloff, “Convicts 4” (1962) with Ben Gazzara, “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) with Paul Newman, and “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) with Clint Eastwood are some of the great ones.

Crime films are usually contemporary, set in the time period when the movie is made, or in the recent past.  They reflect society at the time, and are quite often set in urban environments.  Crime films also tend to contain more dialogue and narratives than some other genres, where words are often more important than actions, and it is sometimes considered a more intellectual genre than others.  Another characteristic of many crime films is that flashbacks are frequently used to explain the actions of the main characters.

The plot relates the criminal acts of an individual or a mob, or gang, of individuals, and can involve murder, bank robbery, jewel theft, kidnapping, drug dealing, etc.  The stories can be told from the viewpoint of the law enforcement figure hunting the criminal, from the criminal’s perspective, or from a legal point of view through the trial process.  In the first case, guilt is assumed since law enforcement is tracking down the criminal.  When told from the criminal’s angle, the criminal is often depicted as a somewhat sympathetic figure that has been forced by life’s circumstances to turn to a life of crime.  When presented through the trial process, the guilt or innocence of the criminal is often unclear until the end of the movie, building suspense as the story unfolds.

In the earliest days of movie making crime films often depicted the criminal as a character the audience could admire.  He was a criminal, but he was “forced” into a life of crime because life had dealt him some hard knocks.  Although he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he was often uneducated, he was portrayed with a certain charisma and a sense of his own code of honor.  Audiences could relate on some level to the little guy fighting the establishment, and some of the characters were looked upon almost as folk heroes.

Two things in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s caused an upsurge in the popularity of crime films—sound, and Prohibition in the United States.  Sound of course because it made the movies even more realistic when the sounds of actors’ voices, gunfire, and car chases could be heard, and Prohibition because the criminal events of the era (1920-1933) were constantly in the news.  The increased awareness of organized crime, bootlegging, and the news of real-life gangsters captured the attention of audiences.

In 1934, under the influence of the Motion Pictures Production Code (“Hays Code”), studios started monitoring themselves and criminals and gangsters began being portrayed in a more negative way.  The movies began presenting them more as vicious, amoral psychopaths and censuring their brutal lifestyles and crimes.

One effect of the Hays Code restrictions was to turn the focus of the movies being made from the criminal to law enforcement.  Movies began to feature more acceptable heroes characterized as police officers and FBI agents whose mission is to make sure the criminal is stopped and punished.  Ironically, these law enforcement officers seemed to be just as ruthless and brutal as their criminal counterparts once were, but they were on the right side of the law.  In order to comply with the restrictions of the Hays Code during this era and show that “crime doesn’t pay” the gangsters ultimately met their match and were punished for their crimes.

By the 1940’s film noir had become very popular and proved to be very suitable for the genre of crime films.  The moody lighting, stark backgrounds and brooding characterizations of private detective and criminal alike in film noir seemed to be made for crime films, and the era of the 1940’s produced some of the best and most memorable such as Joseph H. Lewis’ “So Dark the Night” in 1946 starring Steven Geray.

The 1950’s emphasis in crime films focused on organized crime, often with two “crime families” battling each other, and also on the heist or caper film, an emerging sub-genre of the crime film.  The themes of movies about crime following World War II tended to be more cynical, and the action was often more violent and brutal than in earlier years, and the trend continued in later years with the ending of the Motion Picture Production Code’s restrictions.

Three of the greatest actors in early gangster films are Edward G. Robinson in films like “Little Caesar” (1930) and ”Bullets or Ballots” (1936); James Cagney in “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938); and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946-as Detective Phillip Marlowe).

As unlikely as it may seem, some actors of the era were also given roles as both good and bad guys.  Jimmy Stewart is one such actor, starring in 1952’s “Carbine Williams”, directed by Richard Thorpe and distributed by MGM.  In the film he portrays David Marshall Williams, a man who has been convicted of making illegal moonshine and murder.  While in prison he is allowed by the warden, H. T. Peoples (Wendell Corey) to work in the prison tool shop and while incarcerated he invented the gas system for the M1 carbine rifle which was used in World War II.  Conversely, Jimmy Stewart was also cast in 1959’s “The FBI Story” which was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and distributed by Warner Brothers.  In this film he plays John Michael “Chip” Hardesty, an FBI agent who recounts the history of the FBI from its earliest days to World War II through recollections of his own career.  In these two roles Jimmy Stewart portrayed characters from opposite ends of the spectrum, from a criminal on a chain gang to a stellar career in law enforcement.

One of the earliest crime films is the silent “Regeneration” directed by Raoul Walsh and distributed by Fox Film Corporation in 1915.  Interestingly enough, many of the characters in the film were actual residents of The Bowery in New York (where the movie was filmed) and real gangsters from the area.  The film tells the story of Owen Conway (played at different ages by John McCann, H. McCoy and Rockliffe Fellows) who is orphaned at the age of ten and by the age of seventeen has learned that “might is right” and is the leader of a gang.  Things change for Owen when Marie “Mamie Rose” Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson) enters his life.

“The Racket”, a 1928 silent film is a story of big-city corruption, with sections of the city being controlled by the mob.  The black and white movie was banned in Chicago because it cast the police in such a negative light.  The film was directed by Lewis Milestone (produced by Howard Hughes) and released by the Caddo Company.  The story follows the efforts of Police Captain James McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) to bring down Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim) a bootlegging gangster boss.  The film was remade in 1951 and released by RKO Radio Pictures, starring Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott.

The first “all talking” film was a gangster film, “The Lights of New York” in 1928.  Directed by Bryan Foy and distributed by Warner Brothers, the film involves Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), a young man in New York who gets mixed up with Kitty Lewis (Helene Costello), a good-hearted chorus girl, and Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), a gangster boss at a speakeasy.

In 1931 Warner Brothers released “The Public Enemy”, directed by William Wellman.  Tom Powers (played by James Cagney in his first film) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are boyhood friends who begin as small-time crooks and rise through the gangster ranks through murder and bootlegging during Prohibition.  Tom’s mother, Ma Powers is played by Beryl Mercer, and Kitty, Tom’s “moll” girlfriend is played by Mae Clark.

Dead End” a 1937 crime film, directed by William Wyler and released by United Artists, tells the story of Drina (Sylvia Sidney) and her attempts to keep her kid brother on the straight and narrow.  Her brother, Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop) meanwhile dreams of being just like crime boss Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart).  Tommy is part of a gang known as the Dead End Kids which includes Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T. B. (Gabriel Dell), and Milty (Bernard Punsly).  This movie marked the first movie appearance of the Dead End Kids.

This Gun for Hire” is a crime drama in the film noir style, directed by Frank Tuttle and released by Paramount Pictures in 1942.  Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd) is a ruthless, friendless hit man whose only soft spots are children and cats.  When he is double-crossed by Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), a nightclub owner, Raven methodically sets out for revenge.  Along the way he meets up with Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who sings and performs magic in a nightclub, and who has been enlisted to get close to Gates to find out who is aiding the enemy in World War II.  A partnership of sorts forms between Raven and Ellen as they both go after Gates, complicated by Ellen’s boyfriend, Detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston), who is after Raven.

In the 1950’s the caper film was a popular sub-genre of crime films, and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) is one of these.  Released by United Artists, the movie follows Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a lifelong criminal, as he plans one last heist before marrying his girlfriend Fay (Coleen Gray) and going straight.  Johnny and the gang he has gathered manage to pull off the elaborate scheme to steal the money from a racetrack, but then are double-crossed.

 “Bonnie and Clyde” was directed by Arthur Penn and released by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1967.  Set in the Great Depression in the central United States, the film follows the bank robbing crime spree of Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway).  With C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman), and Buck’s wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) their gang’s crimes escalate into more and more violence as they are pursued by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle).

The 1970’s brought epic gangster, crime stories brutally to life in “The Godfather”, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and released by Paramount Pictures in 1972.  Starring Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, the movie follows the lives and exploits of the extremely powerful Mafia family, the Sicilian Corleones.  The Don’s sons Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan) continue the family’s control over New York and their expanding criminal empire.  The story was continued in two sequels, “The Godfather, Part II” in 1974 (Academy Award for Best Picture) and “The Godfather, Part III” in 1990.

Scarface”, directed by Brian De Palma and released by Universal Pictures in 1983, follows the steadily accelerating criminal career of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a young Cuban refugee in Miami.  Enlisted by crime boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), Tony and his friend Manolo “Manny” Ribera (Steven Bauer) rise through the cocaine smuggling and dealing underworld through vicious acts of violence and murder while dealing with rival gangsters and corrupt narcotics detective Mel Bernstein (Harris Yulin).  This movie is a remake of “Scarface” (1932) directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni.

So, if you’re curious, or just looking for some great action and drama, browse through the crime film section here at Matinee Classics and enjoy some terrific movies.

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