The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Crime Movies


' New York's Other Side: The Poor', runs the opening intertitle of D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley ( 1912) over shots of the ghetto that was Manhattan's Lower East Side. The final intertitle is equally revealing. After a shot of a hand passing some banknotes to a cop through a half-opened door, the title 'Links in the Chain' comes up.

Musketeers was an early example of the American crime film, and one, moreover, that deals with crime in a manner that has reverberated throughout the genre down the years. The opening shots and title indicate an underworld that coexists with the world we know, and the last one shows how the two are connected. In between Griffith tells the slight story of an innocent couple almost overcome by poverty but saved through the activities of the Snapper Kid, who has been smitten by Lillian Gish as the innocent wife.

Much has been written about Griffith's borrowings from Charles Dickens in his depiction of poverty, but the narrative of Musketeers is more revealing of his borrowings from more simply structured Victorian melodramas and pulp fiction. The central notion behind these is of separate under- and overworlds and the point where the two come into collision is often the attempted seduction of an innocent. The classic literary examples of this are Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris ( 1842-3) and the many pulps written by former police reporter George Lippard in the USA in the 1840s.

The importance of this structure for the crime novel and film lay in its flexibility and adaptability as metaphor of social relations. Consider Marcel Alain and Pierre Souvestre's (and Feuillade's) Fantômas: the plot of Fantômas is virtually the same as that of Les Mystères de Paris. The difference is that the villain is recast as the hero and that Fantômas, though diabolical and a scourge of the bourgeoisie, is not corrupt while the aristocracy from whom he steals Lady Belthan is. It is in short a poetic inversion of Sue's novel in which a prince chooses to live among thieves and expose and correct injustices. Lippard's novels, which were also clearly influenced by Sue, represent a further refinement and simplification. Monk Hall, with its six floors, three above ground, three below, and numerous secret rooms, trapdoors, and secret passages, represents Philadelphia. The central plot concerns the attempted corruption of a young innocent by one who seems a respected member of the overworld but whose wealth comes from the underworld. These simple juxtapositions were seen at their purest in American serials of the 1930s in which villains twitched spider's webs of intrigue that were as delicate as the Victorian tracery of their pulp forefathers.

Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse films ( Dr Mabuse der Spieler ('Dr Mabuse the gambler'), 1922; Spione ('Spies'), 1928; Das Testament des Dr Mabuse ('Dr Mabuse's will'), 1933; and even Die tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse ('The thousand eyes of Dr Mabuse'), 1960) also take as a central notion the contrast between under- and overworlds and the codes that govern them. These films look backward to Victorian notions of conspiracy, but a film title as early as Underworld ( Joseph von Sternberg , 1927) and as late as Underworld U.S.A. ( Samuel Fuller, 1961) confirms the durability of the central core of the idea. Further examples of the tenacity of this opposition can be seen in films as different as Lang's M ( 1931), in which the two worlds temporarily unite to seek a killer whose crimes are considered to break the rules of civilized society; Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp ( 1950), in which the organized criminals themselves choose not to associate with the young tearaways played by Dirk Bogarde and Patrick Doonan because they do not understand about the need for restraint; and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street ( 1953), in which a professional informer will not sell information to an enemy of her country even at the cost of her life.

Seen from this perspective, although The Musketeers of Pig Alley may be simply constructed, its articulation of the narrative device of seduction/rape within the structure of a contrast between the over- and underworlds is modern rather than Victorian. Particularly striking is the film's ending, which only offers a moment of respite, a truce between the conflicting forces rather than a victory. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Snapper Kid is both prototype hero and villain. In Victorian melodrama and pulp fiction the theme of seduction/rape and the underworld/overworld contrast are generally held tightly and straightforwardly together. In crime films (and twentiethcentury crime novels) the two remain closely connected but are often developed in a variety of different ways. As Ian Cameron ( 1975) has forcefully pointed out, of all the film genres 'no genre has been more consistently shaped by factors outside the cinema than the crime movie'. To explain the development of the crime movie it is therefore necessary to explore the social reasons that lie behind the changes in the narrative strategies to which the crime movie repeatedly returns.


Nowhere is Cameron's point more visible than in the beginnings of the American gangster film subgenre in


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this book

This book has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this book

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited page

Bookmark this page
The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents



Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen
/ 824

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.