Crime films operate by mediating between two powerful but blankly contradictory articles of faith: that the social order that every crime challenges is ultimately well-defined, stable, and justified in consigning different people to the mutually exclusive roles of lawbreakers, law enforcers, and the victims who are the audience's natural identification figures; and that every audience member is not only a potential victim but a potential avenger and a potential criminal under the skin.
The original feature of the crime film is the erasure of the demarcation lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘normal’ and abnormal’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Characters’ fictional identities in the crime film are also distorted because the seemingly well-defined roles of the criminal, the law-abider, and the victim are fading out as the plot exposition is approaching its climax. The criminal steps out as a positive hero defending his family, while the servant of law is shown in the depth of his moral decay, and the victim turns to the prosecutor with a gun in the trembling hand.
To summarize a discussion of generic traits of the crime film, there seems to be no universal definition of the crime genre in cinematography. Yet employing the research provided by Rafter (2000), Leitch (2002), and Shadoian (2003), several generalisations are still available. First, the genre of crime films concentrates on exploring three typological characters – criminals, victims, and servants of justice. These types are portryed as either pure or synthetic fictional representations.
Second, the crime film develops according to a distinctive plot that centers on the issue of social conflict between different types of characters. Depending on the theme of the plot and type of environment, the genre of the crime film may be subdivided into eight subgenres (Rafter, 2000, pp. 141-142): (1) the mystery/ detective story; (2) the thriller; (3) the caper; (4) the tale of justice violated/ justice restored; (5) the disguised Western; (6) tales of revenge and vigilantism; (7) chronicles of criminal careers; and (8) the action stories.
Third, crime films share a distinctive visual style. In regard to this, Leitch (2002, p. 11) listed lowkey, high-contrast lighting, unbalanced compositions, and night-for-night exterior shooting. Shadoian (2003, p. 7) poignantly added that “one of the genre's keenest pleasures is in its depiction of violence”. Fourth, the crime films employ several narrative matrices. One of them was defined by Cawelti (1976, p. 15 cited Leitch 2002, p. 12) as “the ultimate excitements of love and death”.
Besides the issues of love and death, every crime film tackles upon the issue of crime's nature as a social pattern. Finally, Leitch (2002, p. 16) concluded the list of narratives common for the crime genre with the tendency of any crime film “to valorize the distinctions among [the] three roles [of the Criminal, or the Society, or the Law] in order to affirm the social, moral, or institutional order threatened by crime, and to explore the relations among the three roles in order to mount a critique that challenges that order”.
In general, a well-defined crime culture may be referred to (Leitch 2002, p. 14) as the one that employs the method of “normalizing the unspeakable”, uses “different metaphorical valences”, displays “critique of the social or institutional order”, and “dramati[ses] not only the distinctive roles of criminal, victim, and avenger but also their interdependence and their interpenetration”. Taking into consideration the abovestated key principles of the crime film genre, the next subchapter provides a brief overview of the criminal film in its historical development.
Historical context Many researchers (e. g. , Rafter 2000; Leitch 2002; Shadoian 2003) echoed each other in defining the developmental stages of the crime genre: (1) The silent film era (the late nineteenth century until the late 1920s); (2) The era of gangster films and prison movies (the 1930s) ; (3) Film noir (the late 1930s and the 1940s); (4) Degeneration of the genre (the late 1950s and most of the 1960s); (5) Revival of older genres and emergence of synthetic postmodern narrations (1967-80);
Modern period. The first silent crime films (Edwin S. Porter's Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, 1903; D. W. Griffith's The Lonely Villa, 1909, The Lonedale Operator, 1911, two-reeler The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912, The Narrow Road, 1912, and four-story epic Intolerance, 1916 ; Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, 1915 – the United States; Louis Feuillade's five multiepisode about the master criminal Fantomas, 1913– 14; Maurice Tourneur’s Alias Jimmy Valentine, 1915 – in France ; Fritz Lang’s Dr.
Mabuse, 1922 ; Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, Fritz Lang’s Sunrise, 1927 – German expressionistic style) started to explore the issue of criminality and the character of the criminal. The silent era predefined many generic features of the crime film (plot, characters, and themes) and presented directors which were to become the kings of the genre at the next stage.