Nowadays filmmakers can get away with most things in the name of entertainment — heads in vices, people in wood-chippers — but in the formative days of the talkie, things were far less straightforward. Gangsters were bad and policemen were good — except that audiences didn’t see things like that.
When the gangster film emerged in America in the late ’20s and early ’30s a new breed of anti-hero was born. The BFI Companion To Crime writes that, “Let down by established official society, audiences during the Depression cheered on the gangsters — often folk heroes in real life as well as on screen — sharing with them in spirit the delight of putting on evening dress and mixing with those to whom such trappings were a birthright.”
Charismatic actors like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson became stars after audiences identified with and actually cared for the gangsters they were playing. As director John Cassavetes once observed, “James Cagney played a man you didn’t want to see die. Whether he was right or wrong, he was a guy who could stand up to life; he was the toughest guy I’d ever seen.”
In Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz also looked at why audiences identified with the gangsters, noting, “The classic screen gangster represents the perverse alter-ego of the ambitious, profit-minded American male. The gangster’s propensity for asserting his individual will through violent action and self-styled profiteering renders him an ideal screen persona. The fact that his assertiveness flaunts social order even heightens his individuality.”
While films like Little Caesar, Scarface and Angels with Dirty Faces depicted the rise of organised crime and its henchmen, the Production Code — a voluntary censorship system operated by the major US studios — also ensured that the criminals always suffered a subsequent fall from grace as well. Even this moral ‘crime doesn’t pay’ overtone wasn’t enough for Beckenham Council in Kent though, which banned both The Public Enemy and Scarface, appalled by lines such as “There’s only one law — do it first, do it yourself and keep doing it”. Where the films were screened, though, audiences revelled in the audacity and ingenuity of the criminal mind
When film noirs displaced gangster films as the top box office draw, the criminal found himself on the run from audience sympathies. In films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage, there was only room for one twisted, screwed-up hero — and that was already being played by the crime-fighting private eye or innocent man trying to clear his name. Luckily, a new genre emerged in the ’50s which would present criminals as likeable underdogs worthy of the audience’s support: the caper movie.
Ealing Comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob removed the view of crime as an anti-social, threatening act and instead turned the whole thing into an adventure, a game in which the smartest person won the lucrative cash prize. Sadly, despite the audience hoping otherwise, the criminals rarely triumphed in these often victimless crimes. Even in a neo-realist classic like Bicycle Thieves, the man fails to get away with his simple crime, despite having all of the audience’s sympathies riding with him.
With criminals being shown in a lighter tone, it was only a matter of time before they started getting away with it. They could be depicted as real people with strengths, weaknesses, foibles, passions and even motives. Criminals could be hip (the Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven), endearingly incompetent (the small-time Italian crooks in Persons Unknown or I Soliti Ignoti), flamboyant (Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, the elegant gambler in Bob Le Flambeur) or even legends (Hoodlum Empire or The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond). In the ’60s, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Italian Job took the comedy caper to the very edge, especially in the case of the cliff-hanger ending of Michael Caine’s Turin-set movie.
It has often been argued that by depicting criminals at work, the movies glamorise both the protagonists and their milieu. Yet the public’s gleeful reaction to the Great Train Robbery — and the burgeoning ‘True Crime’ sections in book shops — explains why producers return time and again to scenes of the crime. Where else does the ‘ordinary’ little man triumph over the establishment as many times as in this genre?
In particular it’s the ‘perfect crime’ (or heist) movies which continue to delight cinema audiences. John Huston’s 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle was arguably the first heist movie, but Jules Dassin was responsible for two of the most famous early ones, Rififi (1954) and Topkapi (1964), both of which contain tense burglary scenes which last for half an hour. The more audacious the crime — whether it’s robbing a bank wearing masks of Presidents of the United States (Point Break), stealing a heavily guarded diamond (The Hot Rock), thieving from thieves (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) or stealing an actual mobile bank (Bank Shot) — the more thrilling the experience for the audience. And the advancement of technology has always breathed new life into the genre whenever it looked like getting a bit stale or repetitive.
Over the years, villains in crime movies have become increasingly complex and engaging. While people’s sympathies will always be divided by a good film such as Michael Mann’s Heat, there’s also a joy to be gleaned from simply watching menacing figures at work. As the original bad guy Parker in Point Blank — before Mel Gibson reprised the role for Payback — Lee Marvin knew all about acting tough and getting audiences to respond either with a grudging respect or by developing a love/hate relationship similar to the one James Cagney enjoyed in the ’30s. “If you’re going to be bad, be real bad,” Marvin once said. “In filmmaking, once the film is going through the machine at 11 cents a foot, the thing is to use it and I did. I leaned on people, real hard.” Audiences clearly loved it, recognising that, without screen villains, there would be no need for heroes in the first place.