An overview of the evolution of crime films, their authenticity, the issue of using films to change public behavior and whether crime films, in the last two decades, have influenced public thinking about such matters as crime, prisons and capital punishment.
by J.J. Maloney
Motion pictures have a way of creating their own reality. It is only through the strange power of film that one finds an audience of ordinary people cheering Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector, at the end of Silence of the Lambs, because Lector has not only gotten away, but plans to kill and eat the superintendent of the mental hospital Lector had been confined in.
Or "caper" films, in which the audience roots for the criminals who pull off a big job and get away (of course they often do this in real life, as anyone who remembers the Brink's Job will recall).
Or "Death Wish" philosophy films wherein rogue (but good) cops indiscriminately kill the bad guys because the "system" doesn't work anymore.
Because of a motion picture's power to capture the imagination, there have always been those who would harness this power to try to achieve one purpose or another.
The problem lies in what is viewed as art on the one hand, and the propaganda value of film on the other. With the advent of AIDS it became politically correct for filmmakers to include messages about safe sex – even though, artistically, it ruins a romantic film moment to pause and say, "Do you have protection?"
The latest big drive to control filmmakers is the "outrage" over stars smoking on the screen – the argument being that it promotes smoking among adolescents. Perhaps it does. Or maybe kids smoke because grownups smoke – or because grownups don't want them to smoke, and it is one form of rebellion.
Outside of sex, the next most controversial film depiction is that of crime. There have always been those who argue that film portrayals of crime actually cause crime -- evidenced by the occasional lawsuit filed after someone commits a crime similar to one they'd seen at the movies.
Crime films are different from sex films in one important respect, authenticity. Virtually any depiction of sex has some basis in reality. Another way of saying that almost everyone who has made a film has had sex, of one kind or another, while most filmmakers and screenwriters have had no experience with crime, other than what they've read or seen on screen.
Which is why so many crime movies are celluloid comic books. Crime has been a popular film topic since the invention of movies – yet the really fine crime movies are a very small percentage of the total number.
Charley "Bird" Parker is reported to have said that if you haven't lived it, it won't come out of your horn. That isn't necessarily so. The Red Badge of Courage, considered by many to be one of the best war books ever written, was written by Stephen Crane, who had never been in a war.
There have been movies written by screenwriters who had never been involved in crime, yet they were extremely realistic, and artistic. There have also been books by former criminals which were turned into powerful movies. One example is Cool Hand Luke, arguably the best prison movie ever made (even though hyperbolic in places, it was more realistic than most people realize). The Riot, written by Frank Elli, while in prison, was laden with every prison cliché ever created. On The Yard, written by Malcolm Braly while doing time in San Quentin, was a powerful book (published in 1967), but a mediocre movie.
Cool Hand Luke (1967) was shown to an audience of convicts at the Missouri State Penitentiary in the late 1960s. When Luke finally "broke" and fell to that guard's feet, and begged for mercy, the convicts in the audience hissed and booed – just as the convicts in the film did, while watching that spectacle from the barracks windows. And when Luke made another break for freedom – having apparently fooled the guards into thinking he was broken, the convicts in the audience cheered wildly, as did the convicts in the movie. Life imitating art? Or life imitating art imitating life.
Crime books and films (often films made from books) have had a definite impact on society. The words "stoolie," "fink," "shiv," "Big House," and many others became common terms in the language, implanted in our minds by films. When a crime film achieves greatness it is because it is rooted in the truth, even though it is stereotyped and far more simplistic than the truth.
Early Crime Films
The "modern" gangster film originated in the late 20s, with two silent films (Underworld, 1927 and The Racket in 1928). But the real onslaught of gangster and crime and prison movies came not only with sound, but with prohibition and the depression. The Lights of New York (1928), one of the first talkies, had a gangster theme, followed in 1930 with Little Caesar and in 1931 with The Public Enemy. These last two films established Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney as archtypical gangsters. George Raft played a coin-flipping hit-man in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932). For several years after that movie a lot of men were seen flipping coins and looking cool, imitating Raft (who was dogged his entire life with accusations he was mob connected). Although Raft made many movies, he is best remembered for that role. Humphrey Bogart made The Petrified Forest in 1936 and went on to be generally perceived as the equal of Cagney, but he wasn't – at least not in the gangster genre.
The first major prison movies, The Big House (1930) and The Criminal Code (1930) were followed two years later by I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang and by Each Dawn I Die (1939).. Such films became stereotypes that would dictate the course of prison movies in much the way that the early gangster films implanted a stamp of "authenticity" by which later films (and gangsters) would be judged.
The Big House was made following a wave of prison riots, including one at the Auburn Penitentiary in New York in 1929. This film began the trend of portraying a prison code and convict stereotypes that continue to dominate society's view of what a prison is, and who convicts are. The "code" was that you minded your own business and never ratted or "squealed" to the guards (or "screws" as they were commonly known). Another part of the code was that a good (or "solid") con was always against the administration of the prison. In this view, such a good con became the hero of the film and the stoolies were the enemy. The cons frequently ended up running the prison, because of their superior intelligence and, in Hollywood's view, their superior morality.
The Big House, in particular, set the tone for most later movies about prison. First published as a book, Grimhaven (written by a San Quentin convict), in 1924, the novel portrayed convicts as taciturn, loyal and courageous, ingeniously evil and misunderstood, and gave us words like stoolie, shiv, screw, etc. The words "Big House" have become synonymous with a maximum security prison surrounded by guard towers – a dark, brooding place where evils things happen and yet the human spirit can, if not triumph, at least survive. The convicts of The Big House, with the exception of the stool pigeons, were treated sympathetically, and the guards were generally brutes.
Of course, life isn't that simple. There are convicts who have many of the qualities you see in these movies, and there are guards who are brutal and insensitive. But, as in the outside world, there are infinite shades of gray. There are decent, kind and humane guards, and there are evil, foul convicts who would sell their mothers for a pack of cigarettes. One of the oldest sayings in prison is that prison wouldn't be so bad if you didn't have to live with convicts.
The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), a compelling movie starring Burt Lancaster, supposedly the true story of Robert Stroud, who served more than 40 years in federal prisons, idealized Stroud without giving us a real feel for who the man was. Convicts I've talked to, who served time in Alcatraz with Stroud, portrayed him as a stool pigeon and a predatory homosexual – but also as a man with a brilliant mind. Not all convicts portray Stroud this way. I've also heard him described as a "solid con," who was resented by many fellow convicts because of his fame. The truth may lie somewhere between these two extremes.
One thing that no two hour movie can ever convey is the incredible tedium and emotional deprivation of prison – or the impact on a person of spending more than 40 years in prison.
Which brings us to whether films have, or should have, a purpose beyond entertainment. Films like Little Caesar and Public Enemy were originally, in addition to their artistic purpose, intended to show America a growing criminal underbelly that truly was a menace. Later films, like White Heat, Key Largo, etc., were never intended to change the world. If they did so – by causing real criminals to imitate the stylized cool of the film gangsters, that was an incidental effect of a film intended to make money as a dramatic story.
Boy's Town, with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, had a "message" – that even the toughest, most intractable boy, is still a boy and can be changed for the better. Father Flanagan, the founder of Boy's Town, who reportedly once said that there are no bad boys, also did not take (or keep) every boy that came his way.
The advent of official "messages" in films goes back to the early 20s and 30s, arising out of such episodes as the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal.
As a silent screen comedian, Arbuckle became as famous, and liked, as Charlie Chaplin. He was the only actor of his time to be given complete artistic control of his films. He frequently co-starred with Mabel Normand (as did Chaplin).
On September 5, 1921 a young actress named Virginia Rappe died in San Francisco from what the medical examiner described as peritonitis and a ruptured bladder. The investigation revealed there had been a party at the St. Francis Hotel, hosted by Arbuckle. Newspapers across the nation gave massive coverage to the story, with the stories containing a great deal of speculation on what had happened at the hotel. One common theme was that there had been a drunken orgy that ended in tragedy.
Without question there had been alcohol at the party – in violation of the Volstead Act (Prohibition). There were allegations that Arbuckle had shoved a shard of jagged ice into Rappe's vagina, or that he had fatally pummeled her with his nearly 300-pound body while ravishing her. Rappe was often portrayed as a virginal young actress, defiled by Arbuckle. In fact, she'd had a number of abortions and was suffering from gonorrhea at the time of her death.
After three trials Arbuckle was acquitted. But his career was permanently ruined and he died in disgrace in 1933.
The second major incident leading to censorship of Hollywood was the murder of William Desmond Taylor on Feb. 1, 1922, while Arbuckle's second trial for manslaughter was underway. Taylor, a prominent director (president of the Los Angeles branch of the Motion Picture Director's Association at the time of his death), was romantically linked with both Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand, two prominent actresses of the time. In fact, Normand was one of the greatest film comediennes of all time (she invented the pie-in-the-face).
Normand had visited with Taylor shortly before he was shot to death, and the nation's newspapers headlined the story for a long time. There were widespread allegations that Normand was a cocaine addict, and that Taylor was killed by drug pushers who feared he would spur a federal investigation of drug trafficking in Hollywood.
As with Arbuckle, the explosive publicity ruined the careers of Minter and Normand.
The Taylor murder has never been solved, but between the Arbuckle and Taylor scandals, and the drug overdose of actor Wallace Reid, and the death, on Sept. 10, 1920, by mercury poisoning of prominent actress Olive Thomas, in Paris, after using cocaine, many corners of the public were convinced that Hollywood was a degenerate scar on society and clamored for it to be reined in.
Newspaper accounts of the day illustrate the public's attitude.
February 11, 1922
NEW YORK HERALD
Chicago Suburb Will Ask to Have Name Changed
"What's in a name? A lot, according to the citizens of Hollywood, Ill., a placid little suburb of Chicago.
Since the Arbuckle and Taylor cases were revealed the tiny Illinois town doesn't feel so placid. While it boasts of a movie theater, the Illinois Hollywood is innocent of Japanese butlers, love bungalows, Chinese dope peddlers and screen ingenues whose faces register "frozen horror."
Because of the notoriety of the movie colony, the residents of Chicago's suburb today announced they would have the name of their town changed."
February 10, 1922
Hollywood Must be Purified by U.S. Government
"Hollywood must be purified by the government, Canon William Sheafe Chase, veteran movie reformer, declared today in an interview.
He demanded passage by congress of a resolution to investigate the film colony and prevent its scandals from debauching the mind of America.
"Actors and actresses of the screen," he charged, "are teaching the public free love, adultery, murder, infidelity and lust. And," he added, "too many of them naturally are practicing what they teach.
"The murder of William Desmond Taylor is another reason why Hollywood should be investigated," Chase asserted."
February 10, 1922
Doctors hurry, bankers worry, another movie murder threatens to tear down the assets of another line of movie reels. At twice the salary of the President of the United States the movie producers hire Will Hays out of the President's cabinet to lend a touch of respectability to a gigantic business that has lost its place of popular respect because it has deported itself in defiance of public decency.
Will Hays has announced that he is going to Hollywood to personally investigate conditions there. He has served notice sufficiently in advance to find things remarkably good and pleasing there by the time of his advent. Not unlike the old-fashioned Tulsa police raids, a tip in time will save many.
February 18, 1922
Somebody with a bright idea wants to "probe" the moving picture industry. But what does somebody want to find out? The government is not going to investigate unless there is a probability that a law is being broken by the industry, and so far while there may be a lot of individuals in the movies breaking laws, what is there in the recent cases of Arbuckle and Taylor for the United States to look into? Will actors and actresses be all of them asked if they smoke cigarettes and chew gum and dance? Will they be asked if they take a little drink now and then when they think the brand is safe? Will they all be asked if they have led strictly moral lives? Will they be made to tell the truth about their salaries?"
In 1934 the Hollywood studios adopted the Hays Code – an effort by the studios to censor themselves to avoid government censorship, which in those days might well have been imposed. Under the Hays Code, Hollywood could no longer portray criminals in a sentimental way, and crime should never pay (even though, at the time the code was imposed on Hollywood, organized crime was virtually immune from prosecution). Movie people lived in fear of being banned, which Hays could do. While criminals could no longer be glorified, cops could (despite the fact that many police departments were totally corrupt and in Kansas City, for example, scores of ex-convicts were appointed to the police department), so the emphasis shifted to showing the same material by transforming James Cagney from a snarling gangster to a snarling cop (G-Men in 1935) or by showing Cagney as a hoodlum who goes to the chair bleating for mercy at the end (Angels With Dirty Faces, 1938). Ironically, if the intended purpose of Angels With Dirty Faces was to show that crime doesn't pay, it failed. In this movie Cagney is idolized by a group of street kids, who would like to grow up to be just like him. As he faces the electric chair a priest convinces him to go out like a coward, so the street kids would quit trying to be like him. So, as Cagney, at the last minute, starts crying for mercy, and has to be dragged to the chair – he may no longer be a hero to those street kids, but he becomes a hero to every kid watching the movie – because he is transformed from a killer gangster to a killer gangster with class and character.
History has proved that propagandizing films did not change America for the better – just as preventing married people from occupying the same bed on television did not prevent the free love atmosphere of the 60s.
Under Hays a movie like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could never had been made, because Henry does not get caught. Yet this movie is the truest depiction of a serial killer ever filmed, and reflects the unfortunate truth that at any given moment as many as 50 (some say 500) serial killers are roaming the United States, and some of them will never be caught.
The problem with Hollywood is that a minority of the people in the movie industry are genuinely creative – the rest have various levels of technical proficiency. This has always been the case.
Someone makes a successful movie and the movie makes a bundle. Immediately you have a dozen production companies gearing up to try to duplicate that movie and the result is a slew of cheap knockoffs. The problem in Hollywood, the problem for Hollywood's image, lies in the cheap knockoffs – movies with no intelligence, lacking originality.
One prominent example is Death Wish with Charles Bronson. The original movie tapped into a theme that was compelling – that, in modern society, a man is victimized by crime, cannot find justice, goes out to seek justice on his own and becomes not only a vigilante, but a revenging angel for the public at large. It was a cheap production, but had a core idea that the public responded to. It had originality. Then came Death Wish II and Death Wish III and Death Wish ad nauseum.
The first Death Wish had an underlying theme (whether you agreed with it or not), while the rest were merely vehicles for escalating violence.
Hollywood has fallen into a stagnant "Death Wish" pool. The progression of the Death Wish series has been the progression of most crime films in general. In the first movie, Charles Bronson engaged in violence, with a handgun. After the original idea had been milked, and with nothing original to offer, the handgun got bigger, and bigger, until it became necessary for Bronson to use military hardware to inject something new into the sequels. Throughout the Death Wish series, the criminals were unwashed cretins, barely human creatures who evoked no sympathy from the audience.
Ditto for the Dirty Harry series, with Clint Eastwood. The gun gets bigger and bigger, the violence more apocalyptic, because the underlying theme of the original movie (a roque cop who breaks the rules, because the "system" doesn't work) has been milked to death.
For several decades Hollywood has cartoonized crime, with the same unrelenting message -- the "system" doesn't work, and therefore extraordinary measures are called for -- mostly in the form of gratuitous violence -- to stem what is perceived as a tidal wave of crime washing over society.
The advent of this underlying message of Hollywood began in the 1970s -- coincidentally or not, that is also the advent of society's hardening of its attitude toward crime and criminals.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were the last vestiges of the prison reform and prisoner rights movements. In fact, it was in the early 1970s that Norman Carlson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, declared that rehabilitation had been tried, and failed, and that rehabilitation would no longer be the underlying purpose of federal prisons. As usually happens, many states followed the federal lead. Unfortunately, Norman Carlson forgot to tell us where and when rehabilitation had been tried and failed.
The federal system then abolished parole, and many states have followed -- by either abolishing parole or severely restricting it. Where capital punishment was on the wane by the late 1960s, then abolished outright by the Supreme Court (under the laws as then applied), capital punishment has roared back into vogue, to the point now where an overwhelming majority of people are in favor of it. After the execution of Carla Faye Tucker in Texas, a poll in that state showed that more than 50% of Texans favored the death penalty even in cases where the condemned person had changed (as was the main reason Christian groups sought clemency for Carla Faye Tucker-- i.e., that she had become a born-again Christian during her long stay on death row).
Is it really a coincidence that society's extreme hardening of its views toward criminals, and prisons, has followed a parallel decades-long cartoonizing and demonizing of criminals by Hollywood? Is it also a coincidence that, since the early 1970s, the prison population in America has risen from 225,000 to approximately 1,300,000 today?
Lost in the Hollywood message is the fact that more than 50% of the people in prison are there for non-violent crimes -- and that even many of those incarcerated for violent crimes are not the mindlessly violent creatures portrayed on film.
As Hollywood has adopted a bumper sticker mentality about crime, so have modern politicians -- liberal and conservative alike. The entire modern philosopy toward crime is a Bubba type philosophy -- "get tough," "lock'em up," "three stikes and yer out," "soft on crime," "more prisons." The quickest way for a politician to be voted out of office is to be "softer" on crime than his or her opponent.
When I say Hollywood, of course, in this instance I'm including television-- since both genres drink from the same well.
Oddly enough, this simplistic view of crime not only cartoonizes criminals, but police officers as well. Some of the best police officers I've known have never found it necessary to shoot another person. I've also known good cops who have killed people in the line of duty. Just as movies fail to capture the psychological erosion that often occurs in prison, particularly in maximum-security prisons, they fail to capture the "life sentence" that a career as a police officer can become, or the debilitating office politics that permeate large police departments. The cynicism of many police officers springs from the fact he must not only be a good police officer, but a politician as well if he wants to get ahead.
My step-father, who'd been a police officer in St. Louis for 29 1/2 years, could not bring himself to serve the final six months that would have given him a larger pension.
Certainly, in the last several decades there have been extremely violent crime movies that were also intelligent. Goodfellas springs to mind -- a tremendously authentic look at would-be "made" guys. Goodfellas is my pick as the best gangster movie of modern times -- fully the equal of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the most unrelentingly realistic crime movie ever made. The Godfather movies -- while deserving the appellation "great" movies, for artistic reasons -- are simply fawning, groveling mea culpas to organized crime.
Which brings us to the problem, and the challenge, of crime films in the years ahead. The early gangster films were original and compelling, because they reflected a new phenomena and an attempt to understand it. Same with the early prison films.
But once the early films had been done, the challenge became how to do the next one? In what way would it be original?
The Hollywood solution, usually, is to change the actors, and maybe the cities, but the core of the movie is deja vu.
Art and reality often conflict. Prison dramas become a blur when you think of the last 68 years – too often filled with snarling cons and weasly stoolies and dumb and brutal guards. Gangster films after the 1930s usually became parodies of themselves.
Only in the film noir category has Hollywood, after the early films (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, etc.), frequently lived up to the promise of art on film – possibly because such films have a literary, rather than a documentary, frame of reference.
The often overlooked To Live And Die In L.A. is excellent. As are Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Reservoir Dogs, L.A. Confidential, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver (Death Wish with a brain), The Accused.
One truly good crime movie – seldom mentioned by critics – was Devil In A Blue Dress, the 1995 Easy Rawlins film, with Denzel Washington and, particularly, Don Cheadle as "Mouse."
Devil In A Blue Dress is as good as any noir film ever made. But it will never receive a proper ranking because it is a "black" film and will always be perceived as such.
In addition to the movies already mentioned, the following movies, by no means intended to be an exhaustive list, are well worth watching:
Night and the City, 1950
The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1973
Little Caesar, 1930
Once Upon a Time in America, 1984
The Public Enemy, 1931
Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, 1932
The Untouchables, 1987
To Live and Die in LA, 1985
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The Big House, 1930
The Concrete Jungle, 1960
Cool Hand Luke, 1967
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, 1932
The Shawshenk Redemption, 1994
The Criminal Code, 1931
The Sting, 1973
Midnight Mary, 1933
Farewell, My Lovely, 1975
LA Confidential, 1997
Cry of the City, 1948
The Asphalt Jungle, 1950
The Big Sleep, 1946
Bonnie & Clyde
The Godfather, Parts 1 & 2
The Maltese Falcon, 1941
Call Northside 777, 1948