The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview

Crime Movies

PHIL HARDY

' 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.


THE GANGSTER FILM

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

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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • CinÉma-VÉritÉ and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823
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