Development of the crime film

The period granted the public with two portraits of the ‘ideal’ criminals played by Edward G. Robinson (from Little Caesar) and by James Cagney (from Public Enemy). Due to the invention of synchronized sound, the gangster stopped being “a deracinated outlaw” and evolved into “a member of a specific marginal ethnic group” (Leitch 2002, p. 24). A criminal was identified by his “accent [that] frame[d] his desire for success within a history of struggle over national identity” (Munby 1999, p. 44).

Since 1927, the invention of sound film, up to the end of the 1930s, the ‘tough guy’ American movies (Little Caesar, 1930; The Public Enemy, 1931; Scarface, 1932) have been exploring the shift in social attitudes towards crime and criminals. As Rafter (2000, p. 20) summarised, “1930s gangster films turned criminals into heroes”. Leitch (2002), however, stressed that upon the president election of Franklin Roosevelt (1932), censorship tried to distract audience’s empathy with the “promethean” (Leitch, 2002, p.26) figure of the criminal to the romantic figure of the law enforcer (Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, 1931;

Manhattan Melodrama, 1934; The Thin Man, 1934; “G” Men, 1935). Whereas 1930s American directors were more inclined to “portray crime predictably, relying on conventional ideas of criminality” in kinds of “murder mysteries”, European directors of the same period (John Ford in The Informer, 1935; Fritz Lang in Fury, 1936, and You Only Live Once, 1937) were rather interested in psychoanalysis of crime and its agent employing “cynical, psychological, and stylistically sophisticated” (Rafter 2000, p. 22) themes and methods.

The 1940s In the 1940s, the crime film continued to be metaphoric (Leitch 2002, p. 32) demonstrating “a knack of tying particular crimes to a pervasive sense of urban paranoia and a claustrophobic compression of dramatic time”. In the United States, the cinematographic crime genre was based on literary traditions (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich). In Europe, a prominent cohort of directors (Robert Siodmak with Phantom Lady, 1944, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, and The Dark Mirror, 1946, Criss Cross, 1949; Billy Wilder with Double Indemnity, 1944, Sunset Blvd., 1950) marched triumphantly onto the scene with their crime movies.

Although such masters of the crime genre as Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window, 1944; Scarlet Street, 1945; The Big Heat, 1953) and Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca, 1940; Strangers on a Train, 1951; Rear Window; Vertigo, 1958; Psycho, 1960) shot their masterpieces in the United States Hollywood, those emigres (German and British, accordingly) continued to integrate European cultural traditions into their fictions.

The European filmmakers of that period were remarkable for “their sense of expressive visual style and their fondness for literate dialogue” (Leitch 2002, p. 33). Meanwhile, in the United States, as Rafter (2000 p. 22) observed, the main heroes of the genre, the professional criminals, have turned into “desperate, aging representatives of a dying breed”. The period was innovative in its presentation of a new subgenre, the so-called film noir (1946 – up to the mid-1950s).

Leitch (2002 pp. 33-34) delineated that the film noir treated criminals as amateurs “trapped in ordinary situations gone wrong, using everyday drives for love and success as the basis for criminal nightmares driven by the expressionistic psychopathology of everyday life”. Important features of the film noir (John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, 1941; Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, 1946; Rudolph Mate’s D. O. A. , 1950; Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., 1950; William Wyler’s Detective Story, 1951).

Were the plot elements of “the treacherous femme fatale” and “the tough private eye hoping to outwit the criminals who owned his city”; the visual effects of “the maze of rain-slick night streets leading nowhere” and “the hallucinatory contrasts between glaring white faces and deep black skies”; the sound effects of “the lush orchestral scores ratcheting up moments of emotional intensity still further”; the stylistic technique of “a realistic handling of mise-en-scene, coupled with the unfolding of the story in real time, [and with] a new, harder-edged expressionism” (Leitch 2002, pp.33-34).

Being “[C]ynical, daring, and risque” (Rafter 2000, p. 23), employing “infinite possibilities of lighting, shadow, and the versatile camera, [... ] complex compositions that extend the films' themes and central dilemmas” (Rafter 2000, p. 26), the film noir laid solid foundation for the further development of the crime film.