Cinema, together with television, has proved to be perhaps the most extensive, popular, and powerful medium in the representation of crime. From a criminological point of view, the crime films are all those movies whose central theme is crime and its consequences. The crime films should be defined on the basis of their relationship with society. On one hand, crime films say something important about the social context that they represent and from which they have been fashioned. On the other hand, they themselves have an effect on the social context, since their representation of crime, law, justice, and punishment itself becomes culture, acquires meaning, and provides an interpretation of reality.
The approach of criminology to crime films has a series of important theoretical and methodological consequences. It leads to a fundamental enrichment of academic knowledge, for example, regarding the themes to be tackled, the disciplines and research methods to be used, and even the forms of teaching. Indeed, the analysis of crime films can help to better investigate many aspects of the perception and understanding of crime, law, and justice in society.
The criminological study of crime requires a multifaceted approach, looking at the changing representation of crime and criminals in relation to the wider political, economic, and cultural transformations, and to the commercial and technological development of the cinematographic industry. The historical and thematic reconstruction of the productive and stylistic cycles of crime films comprehends the gangster, noir, detective, courtroom, and prison film genres. Moreover, this perspective deals with the main reasons for the success of crime films, the elements that influence their production, and finally the thorny topic of the effects of crime films.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Please check back later for the full article.
Crime abounds in 19th-century British fiction, although the kinds of crimes depicted, as well as the narrative significance, thematic weight, and cultural meanings assigned to them, varied widely over time and across fictional genres. As the 19th century’s dominant literary form, the novel was necessarily an admixture of art and commerce; for the burgeoning class of professional novelists, and particularly those whose livelihood required them to produce popular works in quick succession, criminality was an invaluable element of story that reliably performed several key narrative functions. Criminal characters and actions engaged readers’ imaginations and emotions, crimes undetected or unpunished created suspense, and the restoration of order brought stories to satisfying conclusions. Utility alone, however, cannot fully account for crime’s ubiquity. Fictional representations of criminality reflected, and sometimes inspired, changes to Britain’s social, political, and legal landscape, as authors used crime thematically to examine or exploit popular anxieties regarding the apparent instabilities of a rapidly changing society, to comment on current controversies, or to prescribe or dispute codes of conduct and morality.
Crimes and criminal behavior form an essential component of three key precursors to detective and mystery fiction, both of which emerged as recognizable genres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: conspiracies and crimes, ranging from forgery and fraud to kidnapping and murder, characterize late 18th- and early 19th-century Gothic fiction; the Newgate novels of the 1830s and 1840s depict urban criminal underworlds of thieves, fences, and prostitutes; and sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s rework such Gothic crimes as bigamy and blackmail in contemporary British settings. Although popular with readers, Gothic, Newgate, and sensation novels were frequently decried as immoral or corrupting. Yet fictional genres typically deemed less scandalous are also rife with criminal activity. Walter Scott’s immensely popular and influential historical novels, published between 1814 and 1832, feature several memorable villains and spectacular crimes. Similarly, the Industrial or Condition-of-England novels of the 1840s, which sought to anatomize the plight of England’s factory workers for middle-class readers, are frequently plotted around conspiracies involving murder, arson, or riots.
In the mid-Victorian period, Charles Dickens reworked elements of these narrative traditions to create a catalogue of crimes and criminals unrivaled in scope and inventiveness. Contemporaries, including Eliot, Thackeray, and Trollope, exploited the narrative possibilities of criminality in a somewhat more restrained fashion; although violent crime is rarely a central element, their works are nevertheless populated by cheats, swindlers, forgers, and thieves. Conversely, lurid crimes featured prominently in much of the period’s cheap popular fiction. Later in the century, new forms of criminality appeared in the fiction of the British Empire, in New Woman novels, and in the literature of aestheticism and decadence. Across these vastly different works, crime captivated readers while encoding cultural values and beliefs regarding not only law and justice, but also property and authority, social class and social change, individual and collective responsibility, faith, forgiveness, and life and death itself.
Criminal justice is a perennial theme in modern comics published in the United States and United Kingdom, with dominant narratives revolving around the protection of the innocent from crime and harm or the seeking of justice outside the authority of the state. The history of the comics medium and its regulation in the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, shows how the comics medium itself—not just its popular content—was embroiled in questions of criminality, in relation to its perceived obscenity and fears that it caused juvenile delinquency. Indeed, the medium’s regulation shaped the way it has been able to engage with questions of crime and justice; the limitations on moral complexity under the censorship of the 1954 Comics Code in the United States, for example, arguably led to both a dearth of critical engagement in crime and justice concerns, and an increased evil or psychopathy in criminal characters (because more nuanced motivations could not be depicted under the Code). From the 1980s onwards, the restrictions of the Code abated, and a broad “maturation” of the form can be seen, with a concurrent increase in critical engagement with criminological questions. The main themes of comics research around crime and comics after the 1980s include questions of vigilantism and retribution, seen as the dominant concern in mainstream comics. But other leading questions go beyond these issues and explore comics’ engagement with the politics of crime and justice, highlighting the medium’s capacity to question the nature of justice and the legitimate exercise of state power. Moreover, stepping back and considering the general relationship between comics and criminology, comics can be seen as important cultural forms of expression of moral and social values, as well as potentially alternative orders of knowledge that can challenge mainstream criminology. From free speech, juvenile delinquency, and vigilantism, to politics, culture, and disciplinary knowledge, there are significant interactions between comics and criminology on a variety of levels.
Crime news is an abundant staple in modern media coverage. Nowhere is this more evident than in the newspaper medium, which often faces fewer constraints with respect to space and time compared to other formats (e.g., television), thereby enabling more stories to be generated. As most people will rely on the news format for their information about crime, it is imperative that such stories be presented factually and within the scope of their magnitude. Yet as research has indicated, this often is not the journalistic practice as it relates to crime news. Instead, there is often a disproportionate amount of crime presented in the news, with specific attention dedicated to the most serious of crimes, such as homicide, even though these occur least often. Still, the focus of such reporting is often centered upon the most extreme and sensational cases, further distorting the reality of crime. A number of factors influence these selection decisions, including (but certainly not limited to) victim characteristics and agenda-setting practices by news organizations. The way in which these stories are constructed and framed also contributes to the creation of social problems as they are perceived by members of society. Consequently, there are broader impacts of the coverage of crime news in newspapers, particularly as it relates to audience effects.
The discussion of crime news on television must begin with a basic cultural understanding that journalism is facing a time of dramatic change. Mitchell Stephens argued in his 2014 book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism that the news process remains challenging to define: “Journalism is the activity of collecting, presenting, interpreting, or commenting upon the news for some portion of the public” (p. xiii). In the case of crime news, a variety of historical developments changed the nature of newsgathering and presentation. Sociological and cultural theories help us understand the process, the content, and the effects. An examination of the various approaches to the study of crime news will extend cultural understanding to entertainment media and long-term societal implications of new technologies, such as social media.
Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance
Crimesploitation is a kind of reality television programming that depicts nonactors committing, detecting, prosecuting, and punishing criminal behavior. In programs like Cops, To Catch a Predator, and Intervention, a real-life-documentary frame creates a sense of verisimilitude that intensifies the show’s emotionally stimulating qualities and sets it apart from fictional crime stories. Crimesploitation programs create folk knowledge about the causes and consequences of criminal behavior and the purposes and effects of criminal punishment. That folk knowledge, in turn, reflects and reinforces two ideologies that legitimized the ratcheting up of harsh punishment in the late-twentieth-century United States: law-and-order punitivism and neoliberalism.
In the early 1940s, films started to appear where homosexual characters were represented as inherently criminal. These early representations were often subtle or implicit because various production codes operating in the United States and United Kingdom forbade explicit depictions or naming of homosexuality. During the 1940s, homosexuality was associated with disease and sexual deviance. This ensured that these early depictions were unflattering. Gradually, as time progressed and homosexuality became a less taboo topic, representations of homosexual criminality became less coded and more explicit. Filmmakers became bolder in their treatment of the theme of homosexuality and crime. The most fascinating discovery is that, when it comes to popular culture and the cinema, murder is the crime that is typically associated with homosexuality. However, murder has been a mainstay of crime film plots and so it is not surprising that homicide features in films linked to crime and homosexuality. By the year 2000, it is apparent that the cinematic treatment of homosexuality and crime had evolved to become quite sophisticated. Whereas earlier films reviled their homosexual characters such that they attracted little empathy from the audience, these later films have sought to engender a greater tolerance and sympathy for the homosexual killers they depict. Finally, it is important to note that films that depict homosexuals as killers are not an expression of homophobic sentient per se. Crime films have long situated killing as an essential aspect of their plots, and so films that feature homosexuals as murderers are simply a subset of this most popular cinematic genre.
The concept of the criminal underworld has played a powerful role in media representations of serious criminality from the early 20th century. Even before this period, the idea of a subterranean “otherworld” that mirrored and mimicked the more respectable “upperworld” can be identified in published texts across Western Europe and North America, and in the colonial cities of empire. Colorful terms such as the “netherworld,” “deeps,” “stews,” “sinks,” “rookeries,” “dens,” and “dives” described the slums that developed in many 19th-century cities. But by the 19th-century, slum life was increasingly correlated with criminality by the press, social investigators, fiction writers, and penal practitioners in the urban landscape.
Earlier texts that described criminal types and ascribed to them a specific set of practices and values (languages, rituals, secret codes, the places in which they “congregated”) can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, dramatists such as Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker described such villainy in a new genre that would become known as “rogue literature.” Other European countries also had traditions of rogue literature that became popular in the early modern period. From the 18th century, the emergence of penal reform and new systems of law enforcement in the Western world saw concerns about crime reflected in the expansion of print culture. A demand for crime themed texts, including broadsheets, criminal biographies, and crime novels, further popularized the notion of a distinct criminal underworld. However, it would be in the 20th century that the underworld moved more directly onto political agendas. From the 1920s, events in North American cities would explicitly shape the public awareness of the underworld and organized crime. Within a relatively short time of gang warfare breaking out in cities such as New York and Chicago, the “gangster” and the underworld that he (apparently) inhabited became the subject of a global popular crime culture. Film, cheap fiction, and villain/police memoirs from the early 1930s popularized the “gangster.” Paul Muni memorably evoked the life of Al Capone in his character, Antonio “Tony” Camonte in Scarface (1932). Since then, gangsters have rarely gone out of fashion. In the 21st century, the relationship between the underworld and upperworld continues to be portrayed in popular culture. Television dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders successfully build on an unacknowledged consensus about the existence of the underworld. Indeed, the press, police, and politicians continue to refer to the criminal underworld in a way that gives it solid form. There are few attempts to critically engage in discussions about the underworld or to provide a more meaningful definition.
Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Michelle Brown
Cultural criminology is concerned with the convergence of cultural, criminal, and crime control processes; as such, it situates criminality and its control in the context of cultural dynamics and the contested production of meaning. It seeks to understand the everyday realities of a profoundly unequal and unjust world, and to highlight the ways in which power is exercised and resisted amidst the interplay of rule-making, rule-breaking, and representation. The subject matter of cultural criminology, then, crosses a range of contemporary issues: the mediated construction and commodification of crime, violence, and punishment; the symbolic practices of those engaged in illicit subcultural or postsubcultural activities; the existential anxieties and situated emotions that animate crime, transgression, and victimization; the social controls and cultural meanings that circulate within and between spatial arrangements; the interplay of state control and cultural resistance; the criminogenic cultures spawned by market economies; and a host of other instances in which situated and symbolic meaning is at stake. To accomplish such analysis, cultural criminology embraces interdisciplinary perspectives and alternative methods that regularly move it beyond the boundaries of conventional criminology, drawing from anthropology, media studies, youth studies, cultural studies, cultural geography, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, and utilizing new forms of ethnography, textual analysis, and visual production. In all of this, cultural criminology seeks to challenge the accepted parameters of criminological analysis and to reorient criminology to contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.
Per Jorgen Ystehede and May-Len Skilbrei
Paradoxically, in the 19th century, an era very concerned with public virtue, prostitutes were increasing being represented in Western European cultural expressions. Prostitution was a prevalent social phenomenon due to the rapid urbanization of Western Europe. People were on the move as both urban and rural areas underwent considerable material and normative change; the majority of Western European cities grew rapidly and were marked by harsh working and living conditions, as well as unemployment and poverty. A seeming rise in prostitution was one of the results of these developments, but its centrality in culture cannot be explained by this fact alone. Prostitution also came to epitomize broader social ills associated with industrialization and urbanization: “the prostitute” became the discursive embodiment of the discontent of modernity.
The surge in cultural representation of prostitutes may also be seen as an expression of changing norms and a driver for change in the public perception of prostitution. In particular, artists came to employ the prostitute as a motif, revealing contemporary hypocrisy about gender and class.