Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

A Distinguished Burglar: The Cinematic Life of a Criminal Social Type

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

A Distinguished Burglar: The Cinematic Life of a Criminal Social Type

Article excerpt

E. W. HORNUNG FIRST PUBLISHED STORIES featuring the character A. J. Raffles in 1898. Raffles, a genteel English cricket star by day and jewel thief by night, proved to be a remarkably popular hero: Hornung's stories were collected in several volumes, which were soon followed by a successful stage play and then by four major Hollywood films between 1917 and 1940. Raffles was an explicitly "amateur" thief, but he should be understood in relation to a discourse about "professional" crime and one criminal in particular, who gained widespread notoriety in England and America: Charles Peace. In fact, Raffles films reveal a tension between Hornung's gentleman burglar and a working-class criminal type embodied by Peace. An examination of the criminal protagonists in the Raffles films can help us to understand the development of the gentleman burglar as a criminal social type in American film-a type that was balanced between working-class social bandits in early cinema and the heroes of hard-boiled heist films of the postwar era. I am interested in the process by which certain criminal social types have come to prominence, a process that was shaped by developments in modern law enforcement, film language, and film censorship.

Richard Dyer's work on cinematic stereotypes provides a framework for the following discussion of criminal social types. Dyer defines a type as "any simple, vivid, memorable . . . and widely recognized characterization in which a few traits are foregrounded" and character development is "kept to a minimum" ("Stereotyping" 28). Dyer distinguishes between social types who "live by the rules of society" and stereotypes whom those rules exclude ("Stereotyping" 29). Film stars tend to embody the dominant values of society, although there have been "alternative" social types in the cinema that have expressed a certain "discontent with or rejection of" dominant values (Dyer, Stars 52). Dyer urged scholars to question the extent to which alternative social types represented "real challenges" to the dominant ideology or were simply "holidays" from it (Stars 52). Dyer thus examined "the rebel" as embodied by Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean and found that "the alienated/materialist elements" of the type were "subsumed under anomie," in large part because of the emphasis placed on youth in the type, which carried with it the notion of a "passing phase" (Stars 53). Criminal characters are "alternative" in that they break the law, but they can be recuperated as social types. Take, for example, the "social bandit": an outlaw regarded as a criminal by "the lord and state" but considered a hero by "peasant society" (Hobsbawm 20).1 As many Robin Hood narratives illustrate, the social bandit can be made compatible with dominant values: Robin might break the law, but it is only because the "wrong" monarch is on the throne. The gentleman burglar provides us with another, more modern criminal character, one whose history can tell us something about the ways in which criminal types have been represented in the cinema.

E. W. Hornung's Raffles stories were first enacted on the American stage in 1903, with Kyrle Bellew in the starring role. The play received enthusiastic press coverage across the nation, with President Roosevelt occupying a box at the National Theatre to take in a performance of Raffles in October 1903 ("Kyrle Bellew at the White House" 9). The successful 1903 tour led to numerous stage revivals and a 1917 film version starring John Barrymore as Raffles. The film combines several narrative elements from Hornung's first Raffles collection, but with some subtle but significant changes. At the heart of Hornung's stories was the friendship between Raffles and Bunny, a relationship that mirrors that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: Bunny is Raffles's partner in crime and the awe-struck chronicler of his exploits. Bunny is fairly unimportant in the film, however, existing primarily as a plot motivation to induce Raffles to commit what will be his final crime. …

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