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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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