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date: 18 October 2017

Crime Films

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: crime in popular culture, law in popular culture, criminology and films, gangster films, police films, courtroom films, prison films

Definitions and Methodological Issues

The cultural representation of crime has a long history. Crime and criminal justice have been central themes in oral culture, myths, fables, literature, and the theater since antiquity (Cavender & Jurik, 2014, 2016; Greer & Reiner, 2012). The narration of crime has continued in the cinema, which, together with television, has proved to be perhaps its most extensive, popular, and powerful medium.

The crime film is a complex and variegated object of study, with many facets (Benyahia, 2012; Hardy, 1997; Leitch, 2002; Rafter, 2006; Thompson, 2007). The first issue to present itself is that of definition. Unlike the western or the war film, the definition of the “crime film” as a cinematographic genre is not straightforward. For Clarens (1997, p. 13) for example, crime films present a symbolic representation of criminals, law, and society. They describe what is culturally and morally abnormal, and in this respect they differ from thrillers, which in contrast are concerned with the psychological and private spheres. Schatz (1981, p. 26) does not refer to the concept of crime film as a genre and separates the gangster film, whose protagonist “has aligned himself with the forces of crime and social disorder” from the hardboiled-detective film, in which, in contrast, the “detective, like the Westerner, represents the man-in-the-middle, mediating the forces of order and anarchy.” Neale (2000) also refrains from using the concept of crime film, referring instead to three main crime genres: the gangster film, the detective film, and the suspense thriller, which respectively emphasize the essential figures of the crime film, that is, the criminal, the agent of law and order, and the victim (see also Derry, 1988; Rubin, 1999).

From a criminological point of view, however, the problem of how to frame the crime film within a given and consistent genre does not seem to be fundamental: it is more interesting to consider its overall social meaning. To this end, it would seem more useful to adopt the approach proposed by Rafter (2006, p. 6)—that is, to consider the crime film not as a genre, but rather as “a category that encompasses a number of genres—caper films, detective movies, gangster films, cop and prison movies, courtroom dramas, and the many offerings for which there may be no better generic label than, simply, crime stories.” With the conclusions of the law and film movement (Greenfield & Robson, 2010; Machura, 2016) in mind, it can thus be stated that crime films are all those movies whose central theme is crime and its consequences.

At this juncture, it might be tempting to change the question and ask, somewhat provocatively, what is meant by crime? Crime is a historically relative concept: a social construct and, indeed, a highly contested one. For this reason, to understand the meaning of crime and crime control, one must understand their cultural representations, that is, the way they are portrayed in the media (Carrabine, 2008; Ferrell, Young, & Hayward, 2008). Indeed, according to Leitch (2002), crime films can be distinguished from other types of film and recognized as a genre precisely because they dramatize the uncertainty of moral categories and the ever-present tension between the social order and its violation. Crime films bring the spectator face to face with the constant ambivalence between the comforting safety of good and the fascination of evil.

For this reason, crime films should be defined on the basis of their relationship with society (Rafter, 2006). As with every cultural product, this relationship is reciprocal. On one hand, crime films reveal something important about the social context that they represent and from which they have been fashioned. On the other, 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. This is the case for both the general public and for the criminals, policemen, and judges. However, the influence of crime films also extends to criminology. Not only does a crime film express its own verdict on the causes of crime, anticipating or strengthening certain criminological theories, but it can also serve to enrich scientific reflection, shifting attention to problems and perspectives that criminology can unwittingly neglect (Deflem, 2010; Frauley, 2010; Hayward & Presdee, 2010; Jacobsen, 2014; Picart, Jacobsen, & Greek, 2016; Rafter, 2006, 2007; Rafter & Brown, 2011; Tzanelli, Yar, & O’Brien, 2005). The discourse on crime generated by crime films and other media, which Rafter (2007) calls popular criminology, has an even greater social significance than academic criminology.

As Machura (2016, p. 27) says, “films, as complex entities, are the product not only of a work team but also of a society (or, at least certain segments of society). Broader social communications, myths, stories, and stereotypes are filling in the spaces of films, as if the audience has a say in the production.” How then should the criminological study of crime films be approached? First of all, this perspective requires a complex and interdisciplinary methodological approach, which draws not only on criminology, but also on sociology, criminal law, psychology, and economics, as well as on the history and aesthetics of cinema. Indeed, an analysis of what Young (2009) calls “the cinematic nature of the medium of film” is also required.

The external aspects that influence the production of crime films and their reception should also be considered. In this regard, Cameron (1975, p. 12) is right when he affirms that of all the film genres, “no genre has been more consistently shaped by factors from outside the cinema than the crime movie.” A broader cultural study is thus necessary, 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.1

Given this premise, a highly selective historical and thematic reconstruction of the productive and stylistic cycles of crime films is attempted here, specifically tackling the gangster, noir, detective, courtroom, and prison film genres. Subsequently, the main reasons for the success of crime films and what elements influence their production are described. Lastly, the thorny topic of the effects of crime films is discussed. This way of structuring the questions has a purely heuristic value, since, as with all means of communication, it is wrong to consider the three levels of investigation (the content, production, and impact of crime films) separately.

A Brief History of Crime Films

The difficulty of writing a history of the crime film arises first and foremost from its uncertain definition. If the crime film is to be considered as an umbrella category that encompasses numerous different genres, it becomes necessary to take account of the specific evolution (gestation, take-off, success, decline, recovery) of each of these genres, for example, the gangster or the noir. Another difficulty is that of following the evolution of crime films in light of broader social transformations, which helps to understand how society’s attitudes toward crime and criminals have changed. For this reason, it is necessary to study the individual national milieus, the characteristics of the social, criminal, and juridical contexts of reference. Studies and research that apply a combined sociological and criminological approach to media products thus have great potential.

Listed in the following are examples of how the specific types of crime and criminals that cinema chooses to represent depend on the social context. It will be seen how cinema, as with all media, contributes to the cultural construction of the social problems that preoccupy the citizens and for which intervention on the part of politicians and police is required.

The interest of the cinema and the cinema-going public in crime is a global phenomenon. However, it is inevitable that most of the references given here are to American cinema and society. Given the uncertainty regarding the definition of crime films, there can be no sure way to accurately quantify them, although quantitative research does demonstrate their success. In one of the earliest studies of cinematic content, Dale (1935) found that crime was the second most frequent theme, after love, in the films of the 1920s. Langman and Finn (1994, 1995a, 1995b) counted over 4000 American crime films from the 1890s to 1959, including more than 2000 for the silent era, more than 1000 for the 1930s, and more than 1200 for the 1940s and 1950s. A total of 26% of British films between 1930 and 1983 can be classified as crime films (Gifford, cited in Chibnall & Murphy, 2005, p. 1). Allen et al. (1997) demonstrated that nearly half of all films released in Britain between 1945 and 1991, which include American and European films as well as British productions, had crime as a central part of the narrative structure, with little change in this proportion over the period.

From its very beginnings, cinema has been about crime. The first American film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), is a story of robbery, violence, and pursuit. In the phases of experimentation and then consolidation of the cinematographic industry, a valuable source of compelling stories of criminals with which to attract the public was literature: not only the detective fiction of Poe and Conan Doyle, but also the great 19th-century novels by Dickens, Sue, and Zola, who so vividly depicted the emergence of urban and industrial society and all its contradictions (Abruzzese, 2007; Ousby, 1976).

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) by D. W. Griffith is considered the first-ever gangster film. The title card of the movie, which tells the audience that the story will take place on “New York’s Other Side,” is significant. It is proof of the close link between the crime film and the dangerous side of the metropolis, depicted with all its social contradictions (Clarens, 1997). This interest in the underworld is attested by the masterpiece of the same name, which enjoyed great success: Underworld (1927) is the classic example of a redemption story, just like many other crime films of this silent phase of cinema (e.g., Me, Gangster, 1928). However, this film already fully expressed two characteristics that were to become typical of the crime films of the following decade: the fascination of the gangster and the spectacle of violence.

Crime films were also extremely popular in Europe and contributed to the rise of cinema. Of great importance is the cycle of Fantômas film (1913–1914), set in the streets of Paris (Abel, 1994). The main character is an uncatchable and evil thief, a symbol of rebellion against the social conformism of the Belle Époque. Figures of criminals such as Fantômas are frequent in European silent cinema: they expressed the feeling of a crisis of civilization caused by the profound social transformations of the modern world and the shock of the First World War. In this sense, some of the most important films of German cinema are particularly significant (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920; Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, 1922; and Sunrise, 1927) (Elsaesser, 2000).

Gangster Films

The tendencies of silent cinema regarding the representation of crime were to be amplified in the cinema of the 1930s, when cinema became the most important means of mass communication. Cinema was now the dominant culture for Americans, providing new values and social ideals that contrasted with tradition (Sklar, 1994). At the start of the 1930s, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the advent of talking pictures left an indelible sign on the American consciousness (Clarens, 1997, p. 40). It is no coincidence that the first all-talking full-length feature film was Lights of New York (1928), centered on the crime of bootlegging. In this context, the American gangster movie provided a mythical but ambivalent representation of urbanization and immigration, two phenomena that posed a threat to traditional America (Rosow, 1978; Sklar, 1992). In the Prohibition era, modern urban pleasures clashed with traditional morality, leading to feelings of loss and uncertainty (Doherty, 1999; Potter, 1998). The gangsters of the cinema in that period, like those in real life, were all second-generation immigrants, especially Italians, but also Irish, Jewish, and others. However, crime films were also a reflection of the crisis of the American Dream in the epoch of the Depression (Bergman, 1971; Dickstein, 2009). There was a general loss of confidence in the government and the elites, both of whom were seen to be responsible for the economic crisis.

All these factors are behind the “richest decade in crime film history” (Todd, 2006, p. 25). The gangster movie was the key genre of these years (Grieveson, Sonnet, & Stanfield, 2005; Mason, 2002; Munby, 1999; Renga, 2011; Rosow, 1978; Shadoian, 2003; Silver & Ursini, 2007; Wilson, 2014). The gangster, together with the western, is one of Hollywood’s most representative and easily recognizable genres (Warshow, 1954). Preceded by a boom in popular literature based on gangsters and private detectives, the beginning of the 1930s saw films such as The Doorway to Hell (1930), the first film about Al Capone, and above all the three so-called classic gangster films: The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932). Following a classic rise-and-fall structure, these films emphasize the figure of the criminal in a clear and realistic way.

The gangsters of these films, condemned to failure and punishment, were the tragic expression of individualism in a mass society (Warshow, 1948). The gangster film was a metaphor for the conflict between individual men, women, or groups and society as a whole: a social conflict, arising from a struggle against the legal order and society’s dominant values (Shadoian, 2003). Thus, it represented the profound contradictions of American society, including the desire for wealth and power at all costs. The success of this social critique was soon opposed by conservative movements that forced the classic gangster movie formula to be abandoned (Munby, 1999, pp. 93–110; Rosow, 1978, pp. 153–171).

The feeling of crisis, be it economic, political, or cultural, also pervades the European cinema of the 1930s, and this is clearly seen in the crime films of this period. France saw the rise of poetic realism, a style that expressed the climate of oppression of the urban lower classes (Andrew, 1995). The gangsters of the French cinema symbolized these sentiments. They are heroic figures whose poetic destiny is defeat, but unlike their American colleagues they are more sentimental (Pépé le Moko, 1937; Port of Shadows, 1938). Often their lives are marked by an encounter with a femme fatale, for which the prototype is seen in the film The Bitch (1931) (Mainon & Ursini, 2009). Before the thematic and stylistic closure imposed by the Nazis, German cinema offered another crime film masterpiece, M (1931), which contains many interesting features: the psychology of the criminal, the organization of crime in the big German cities, the symbiotic relationship between criminals and police, and a memorable trial scene.

Subsequent American gangster films (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938; The Roaring Twenties, 1939; High Sierra, 1941) brought this season to a close, with a nostalgic and romantic approach that was more interested in the psychology of human beings and violence in society than in criminal activity per se (Shadoian, 2003). In the 1940s and 1950s, the representation of crime was influenced by the ethical-aesthetic vision of the noir. The gangster now appears as a socially isolated figure, neurotic and psychotic (White Heat, 1949), and thus no longer compatible with the values of American culture (Munby, 1999, p. 120).

This period saw the appearance of important variations with respect to the classic gangster film: in parallel with the contemporary hearings of the Kefauver committee (Yaquinto, 1998, pp. 93–94; Wilson, 2005), the gangster-syndicate film showed the entrepreneurial nature of criminal organizations, which increasingly resembled large corporations (Force of Evil, 1948; The Enforcer, 1951; The Big Combo, 1955) (Mason, 2002, pp. 105–119; Munby, 1999, pp. 126–142; Wilson, 2014, pp. 66–80). Then there was the caper or heist film, whose tone was often dramatic (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; the French Rififi, 1955; The Killing, 1956) but sometimes more comic (the British The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951; the Italian Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958; Ocean’s 11, 1960) (Mason, 2002, pp. 97–105; Lee, 2014). Other films, in contrast, portrayed the criminal careers of famous gangsters of the Depression era (Baby Face Nelson, 1957; Machine Gun Kelly, 1958).

With the end of the 1960s, the cinematographic representation of the criminal took an innovative direction. The rural gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is in this sense a seminal movie because it expresses the values of youth counterculture in the era of the Vietnam War (Brode, 1995; Creekmur, 1997; Friedman, 2000). Its protagonists are no longer tragic heroes because they are excluded from the capitalist system but romantic outlaws and anarchists who reject and fight that system. In addition, Bonnie and Clyde amplified the on-screen violence in order to criticize the establishment and the oppression of all forms of freedom and diversity in American society (Prince, 2003).

Another key moment in the cinematographic representation of the gangster came with The Godfather I and II (1972, 1975) (Browne, 2000; Clarens, 1997, pp. 270–292; Freedman, 2013; Larke-Walsh, 2010; Leitch, 2002, pp. 115–124; Papke, 1996; Renga, 2011; Santopietro, 2012; Shadoian, 2003; Wilson, 2014). The Italo-American Mafia was the central theme in these two films, which proved a huge success with both critics and public. Once again, via the brutal violence of the scenes and the mythical but stereotyped representation of the world and values of the Mafiosi (family, honor, rituals, betrayal), the presumed separation between the good and evil sides of American society, between the world of the law and that of crime, was demystified. Like Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather also describes “a normative culture so lethally inimical to human needs that the only way to survive and find meaning within it was to create an alternative criminal society” (Raeburn, cited in Neale, 2000, p. 74). The tragic decisions made by the Godfather, whether in the person of the father Don Vito Corleone or his son Michael, seem to be taken in the absence of alternatives and are thus inevitable: “The man must do what he does; his choices are made for him and not by him. They have been made for him long ago by the competitive business society in which he lives” (Shadoian, 2003, p. 270).

In contrast, the 1980s saw the rise of what may be called the postmodern gangster film (Mason, 2002), in which the narratives, meanings, and iconography of the classic gangster film are now revived and transformed, nostalgically (Once upon a Time in America, 1984; The Godfather: Part III, 1990), emphatically (Scarface, 1983; The Untouchables, 1987) or comically (Prizzi’s Honor, 1985) (Hirsch, 1997). The problem of the sale and consumption of drugs, which had already emerged in the crime films of the 1970s as The French Connection (1971) (Clarens, 1997, pp. 294–295), now becomes a recurrent theme as the cause of the fortunes or defeat of the crime lords, or the reason for social dissolution more generally (Scarface, 1983; New Jack City, 1991; Casino, 1995; Traffic, 2001; Blow, 2001) (Markert, 2013; Starks, 1982; Tebbe-Grossman, 2003). The emphasis on the criminal’s ethnic origin does not disappear (Larke-Walsh, 2010; Munby, 1999; Rowe, 2012), although now the Italians are joined by Latinos (Scarface, 1983; Carlito’s Way, 1993), Chinese (Year of the Dragon, 1985), Japanese (Black Rain, 1989), and above all African Americans, often represented as members of dangerous juvenile gangs (Boyz N the Hood, 1991; Dead Presidents, 1995; American Gangster, 2007) (Reid, 2012). Again, the protagonists of the postclassical gangster film of these years are no longer heroic figures or extraordinary men, but low-level criminals and wiseguys whose lives are represented in a hyperrealistic style, for example, in the films of Scorsese (Mean Streets, 1973; Goodfellas, 1990; Casino, 1995) (Baker, 2015; Freedman, 2013; Renga, 2011; Thomson & Christie, 2003).

This realistic tendency (García-Mainar, 2016; Sorrento, 2016) was, however, accompanied by representation characterized by eclecticism, appropriation, spectacularization of violence, nonsense, and parody, as emerged in certain emblematic films (Blue Velvet, 1986; Reservoir Dogs, 1992; Natural Born Killers, 1994; Pulp Fiction, 1994; Fargo, 1996) that have profoundly influenced subsequent crime films (Benyahia, 2012, pp. 44–58; Gormley, 2005; Leitch, 2002, pp. 277–288; Mason, 2002, pp. 160–164; Sorrento, 2012; Yaquinto, 1998). The most recent developments in the representation of crime and the criminal are harder to summarize, but as examples of films in which the scenes of action and violence reach ever higher levels of involvement and adrenalin, one may cite Drive (2011) or The Raid: Redemption (2012); the biographies of famous gangsters continue to find favor, at times with a nostalgic tone (Public Enemies, 2009; and the French Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct, 2008); and cinema continues to explore the close link between crime and the news media (the Hong Kong film Breaking News, 2004; Nightcrawler, 2014).

Lastly, it should be remembered that the figure of the gangster appears in the cinematography of many other countries, which have produced films of great impact on the global imagery of crime films (Hardy, 1997; Mayer, 2012). This includes French cinema (to give just two examples: Le Deuxieme Souffle, 1966; La Haine, 1996); British (Get Carter, 1971; The Long Good Friday; 1982); Italian (Salvatore Giuliano, 1962; Gomorrah, 2009); Japanese (Battles Without Honor and Humanity, 1973; Sonatine; 1998); Hong Kong (A Better Tomorrow, 1986; Election; 2005); Hindi (Kismet, 1943; Satya, 1998); and Brazilian (Pixote, 1981; City of God, 2004).

Film Noir

The film noir deserves particular attention because it highlights certain fundamental themes concerning the representation of crime and crime-fighters. Its key elements are the ambivalence of the concepts of good/evil and crime/law, and the critique it offers of the social system, especially the hypocrisy of its institutions and conventions. This ethical vision is conveyed by means of an immediately recognizable aesthetic approach. Therefore, even today, the noir is a kind of mediascape, “blurring the line between our fictional and real landscapes and contributing profoundly to the social imaginaire” (Naremore, 2008, p. 255).

The 1940s marked the heyday of the noir. Unlike the gangster movie, the noir is harder to pigeon-hole (Hirsch, 2008; Naremore, 2008; Silver & Ursini, 1996; Spicer & Hanson, 2013). It has been variously described as a genre, a style, a phenomenon, a state of mind, and so on. The label “noir” derives from French cinematographic culture, which in the postwar period saw the Hollywood thrillers of the early 1940s as being aesthetically consistent to the point of constituting a clear genre (Chartier, 1946; Frank, 1946). French critics were struck by the irrational and dreamlike violence of these films, which appeared to subvert not so much the social order as even more basic moral and psychological categories (Borde & Chaumeton, 2002).

Noir films were strongly affected by the climate of fear and disillusionment of the wartime and postwar eras (Dixon, 2009). Recurring themes include the figure of the troubled veteran forced into a life of crime, the tension of the Cold War (The Third Man, 1949), and the threat of the nuclear bomb (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955). The noir also reflected McCarthyism and the inquisitorial practices of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The tough, lonely, and dangerous life of the big city formed the background to plots about criminals (Christopher, 1997; Muller, 1998). Central to these films was the enigma of human psychology. The rise of psychology and psychoanalysis “provided writers and directors with the image of an over- and underworld within a single person (consciousness and the unconscious)” (Hardy, 1996, p. 308; Krutnik, 1991). The weight of the past, a sense of guilt, dreams of the future, sexual desire, the need to escape—these are some of the themes that form the backdrop to the noir. Crime is merely a consequence, often inflicted and undesired, of a precarious existential condition (e.g., Detour, 1945).

This malaise found its unmistakable aesthetic partly thanks to the contribution of German directors who had emigrated to America during the Nazi era—for example, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak. The noir style is immediately recognizable, with its use of flashbacks (the opposite of the rise-and-fall narrative structure of the gangster movie), voice-overs, deep focus, chiaroscuro lighting, low-angle shots, and subjective view shots. Other common stylistic elements include night filming, shadows, mirrors, roads wet with rain, the neon lights of bars and clubs, and fog.

The “classic” era of the noir runs from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958) (Schrader, 1972). Also considered classics of the genre are The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). The last two films clearly feature a woman protagonist, who not only inspires but also actively commits the crime and, like her man, is a victim of it. Other examples of evil women are seen in Out of the Past (1947), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). The noir portrays the breakdown of traditional gender roles and the struggle of the woman, at all costs, to carve out her own space (Chopra-Gant, 2006; Grossman, 2009; Kaplan, 1998; Krutnik, 1991; Tasker, 2013).

Similarly, noir films “reveal an obsession with male figures who are both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement” (Krutnik, 1991, p. 13). The male protagonist of the noir is a tough yet fragile figure, a hard drinker, neurotic, and marginal from a social point of view. His morality is contradictory, always poised between the law and crime, although he always pursues his own personal sense of justice, for which he sacrifices money, success, and peace of mind, constantly putting his life at risk. The figure that best incarnates this fascinating hero (or antihero) is the private eye, in line with the tradition of the “hardboiled” detective (the main source of inspiration for these films) (Friedman & Rosen-Zvi, 2001; Horsley, 2009). In this figure, the vitality of the gangster heroes gives way to cynicism and disillusionment, best represented by the iconic actor of this epoch, Humphrey Bogart. Often the antagonist of the private eye is the corrupt police officer, such corruption extending to the police force as a whole. At other times, the policeman is an exceptionally evil figure, as in Touch of Evil (1958), capable of extreme violence, as in The Big Heat (1953).

The American noir enjoyed great success and influenced the cinema of the whole world, developing in accordance with the various national contexts, offering a critical view of social problems (Fay & Nieland, 2010; Pettey & Palmer, 2014; Shin & Gallagher, 2015; Spicer, 2007, 2010). The climate of the postwar period was presented, often with the intention of making social comment, by means of crime stories, as in films such as Quai des Orfèvres (1947) and Grisbi (1954) in France; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) and the so-called Spiv cycle films in the United Kingdom2; Murderers Among Us (1948) and The Lost One (1951) in Germany; Ossessione (1943) and The Bandit (1947) in Italy; and Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) in Japan.

Since its classic period, the noir has continued to exert enormous cultural and aesthetic influence. The films that are labeled “neo-noir” consciously imitated the classic noirs, revisiting their themes, characters, and styles, often with explicit references to them (Bould, Glitre, & Tuck, 2009; Desser, 2012; Hirsch, 1999; Silver & Ursini, 2015). This phenomenon is extensive, encompassing films with the same settings as the classics—the so-called retro-noirs, for example, Chinatown (1974), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), and L.A. Confidential (1997)—and films that express similar sentiments of alienation and existential angst while being set in the contemporary era, such as Taxi Driver (1976), or projected into the future such as Blade Runner (1982). Clearly, the neo-noir touches on contemporary global social changes, and it continues to express its own social critique, especially with regard to the police (such as the Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs, 2002, or the French 36th Precinct, 2004), the government, gender politics, and race relations.

Detectives and Police

The “detective film” is structured around a crime and its investigation by a detective, narrative characteristics that it shares with crime literature (Todorov, 1977). For present purposes, it one can also speak here of law-enforcement stories, in which the central character is a crime-fighter, whether amateur or professional (Reiner, 2010, p. 186).

Naturally, as with the other types of film described here, it is difficult to provide an undisputed definition of the detective film as a genre. For example, the figure of the policeman is present in many successful films belonging to a wide range of genres and not only crime films (Lott, 2006; Pautz, 2016). However, certain subgenres can be defined on the basis of the type of detective-figure who plays the role of the investigating protagonist (Gates, 2006). With regard to the detective’s social role, a distinction may be made between the official detective, or justice professional, and the unofficial figure, the private detective, the amateur, and the ordinary citizen. It is obvious that this is a continuum along which numerous intermediate figures can be found, such as the more recent figures of forensic experts or psychologists who belong to or work for the police (e.g., The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; The Bone Collector, 1999).

The official/unofficial distinction is important in narrative and stylistic terms, but it is even more important from the point of view of popular criminology because it results in a different perception on the part of the public. Indeed, the official policeman is the expression of state authority, security, and the law. Media representations that portray the success of courageous and honest police officers who protect the public reflect what Reiner (2010, p. 22) calls “police fetishism”—that is, the overestimation of the role of police in fighting crime and disorder with respect to the complex processes of social control. At the opposite extreme, making the crime-fighting protagonist a civilian expresses a mistrust, a critique, or an accusation aimed at the official justice system (Surette, 2015, p. 101). However, the two figures of the cop and the private or amateur investigator almost always appear side by side at some point, sometimes cooperating and sometimes, perhaps more often, in conflict. This is a recurring narrative trope: even Sherlock Holmes requires the presence of Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard.

Better understanding of the reasons for the constant and almost universal success of detective stories requires brief consideration of the link between investigation and modern society. Police literature was born in response to the rapid and uncertain social transformations arising from the advent of mass society (Carrabine, 2008, pp. 99–109; Cawelti, 1976; Mandel, 1984). In his writings on Baudelaire and Poe and the metropolis of the 19th century, Benjamin (2006) identified the origins of the need for investigation in the fear resulting from the anonymity of the crowd. The profound changes in social attitudes toward deviance and crime that took place at this time were also grasped by Foucault: “from the exposition of the facts or the confession to the slow process of discovery; from the execution to the investigation” (Foucault, 1979, p. 69). The close link between investigation and the development of science, positivist philosophy, and the birth of social sciences should also not be neglected.

Police literature reflected these transformations, providing cinema with an unlimited supply of stories and characters. All great writers of police novels, in every nation, have seen their works adapted for the big screen, and some of them have worked directly on the screenplay (Tuska, 1988). For its part, cinema has influenced the evolution of this literature, as can be seen in the “hardboiled” genre (Mandel, 1984, pp. 1–52). At the same time, cinema has enriched the cognitive and emotional experience of the investigation of crime and the criminal with the power of its language, as is seen, for example, above all, in Hitchcock.

Gates (2006, p. 5) proposed a clear timeline of the dominant trends within the overarching genre of the detective film: the classical detective or sleuth was present on movie screens in the 1930s and 1940s; the hardboiled detective was the protagonist of the 1940s noir; the police procedural appeared in the 1940s; the dominant figures in the 1970s were the hero cop and vigilante; the 1980s saw the rise of the cop action-hero; and the 1990s and 2000s were the time of the criminalist.

The Private (or Amateur) Detective

Throughout the 1940s, the protagonists of the detective film were mostly unofficial, consisting of amateur sleuths, private detectives, or reporters (Reiner, 1981). The most famous and long-lived amateur detective—of literature, cinema, and television—is Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s character appears in more than 100 films, from the first years of cinema until today, in numerous countries, with numerous variations on the theme (Barnes, 2011; Haydock, 1978; Porter, 2012). The most classic of these films are those of the 1930s by 20th Century Fox, in which Sherlock Holmes was played by Basil Rathbone (e.g., The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1939). The 1930s saw the success of numerous independent sleuths who cooperated with the police, as in the long-running series with Philo Vance, Charlie Chan, The Thin Man, and many others (Gates, 2006; Mason, 2011). All these investigators shared the ability to resolve, more by their wits than by force, the puzzle that lay at the center of the story and held the attention of the spectator. The moral and social aspects of the crime were of no importance, nor was the restoration of law and order an imperative (Greenfield & Robson, 2010, pp. 203–204). Interestingly, there were also films, especially B movies, in which the detective was a woman, usually a journalist, enterprising and independent (Gates, 2011). In subsequent decades, these characters were recycled in various adaptations, as in the case of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in the 1970s (e.g., Murder on the Orient Express, 1974). However, it was above all television that consistently and successfully fed them to the public, for example, in series such as Columbo (1968–1978) and Murder, She Wrote (1984–1996). Currently, the investigation of apparently irresolvable riddles is tackled in thrillers and puzzle films (Buckland, 2014; Thompson, 2007). The increasingly complex plots of these films often have dramatic crimes as their starting points but at the end offer neither a solution to the mystery nor the hope of a return to order (e.g., The Usual Suspects, 1995; Primal Fear, 1996; Memento, 2001; Oldboy, 2003; Inception, 2010).

The other classic detective figure outside the state system of criminal justice is that of the professional private investigator or private eye (Conquest, 1990; Greenfield & Robson, 2010, pp. 197–221; Leitch, 2002, pp. 192–214; Nicol, 2013). The private eye is “one of the most instantly recognizable figures in popular culture” (Nicol, 2013, p. 7). As noted earlier, the figure of the private eye is the central character of noir and neo-noir films, of whose ethical universe he is the complete expression. Indeed, the film The Maltese Falcon by John Houston (1941), the adaptation of a novel by Dashiell Hammett, sets the coordinates of the noir genre and the mythology of the private eye. In both fiction and cinema, the private eye appears very different from the classic sleuth (Binyon, 1989; Ruehlmann, 1974). While the sleuth usually tackles individual criminals, cooperates with honest police officers, never uses violence, and has no particular sexual aspect, the private eye is forced to tackle an organized crime gang, is obstructed by police officers who are often corrupt, and both suffers and metes out violence. In addition, he is a protagonist who expresses a strong, unambiguous, sexy masculinity, as in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (Gates, 2006; Rafter, 2006, pp. 118–122). Krutnik (1991) describes films that have the private eye as the protagonist as “tough thrillers,” in order to stress that crime is tackled more with masculinity and physical endurance than with deductive detection skills. There is a clear criminological meaning in these films: skepticism regarding the possibility of acquiring scientific knowledge of the crime, difficulty in clearly separating good from evil, and lack of trust in the system of justice and the police. Moreover, the ideological function of the private eye character is also to defend the client’s life and interests from the public gaze and the moral hypocrisy of society and scandal, as well as from the dangerous or unreasonable power of the official police and the law (Nicol, 2013).

The cinematographic representation of the private eye has naturally evolved over the years. Above all, in the 1970s, some films by auteur directors (e.g., The Long Goodbye, 1973; The Conversation, 1974; Chinatown, 1974) repackaged an increasingly anachronistic and isolated professional investigator. A poignant or tragic figure, a “reminder of all that was missing in the modern world: he stood for moral and social codes that were out of date and unsuited to the volatile 1970s world” (Nicol, 2013, pp. 191–192). The 1970s also saw the appearance of the stylish black private eye (Shaft, 1971). In more recent cinema, the figure of the private professional investigator usually plays a secondary role and is often overwhelmed (e.g., Blood Simple, 1985; The Firm, 1993). He can be a credible figure only in films set in the past (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995), or, paradoxically, in the future (Blade Runner, 1982). However, the representation of his professional and moral crisis expresses the sense of angst and uncertainty that characterizes contemporary American society (e.g., Gone Baby Gone, 2007; Inherent Vice, 2015).

The Police Detective

As has been stated, until the end of the 1940s, policemen in the cinema played a secondary role with respect to other investigators and were often portrayed negatively or as figures of fun. Examples include The Keystone Cops silent film comedies (1912–1917) and the amusing Cops (1922) in which the policemen appear incompetent and foolish.

From the start, this comic representation met with the disapproval of the police (Reiner, 1981, 2010). However, it was above all in the 1930s, faced with the cinematographic glorification of the gangster, that the alarm and pressure grew to the point that Hollywood was obliged to change its approach to police officers. The Hays Code was applied to filmmakers, who now had to affirm the principle that “crime doesn’t pay.” The Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the first of many media-conscious police chiefs, conducted a policy of cooperation with Hollywood in order to gain control over how his agency was represented (Potter, 1998; Powers, 1983). The result was a series of films (“G” Men, 1935; Bullets or Ballots, 1936), which in terms of the lead actors (James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) and the violence portrayed were the exact opposite of the gangster movies.

The end of the 1940s saw the appearance of a new realistic genre, the “police procedural” (Leishman & Mason, 2003, pp. 54–61, 89–93; Reiner, 1981, 2010). In the words of Borde and Chaumeton (2002, p. 7), films such as The Naked City (1948) and The Blue Lamp (1950) were documentaries “to the glory of the police” and stood in direct contrast to the lack of trust in the police that typified the noir (see as well The FBI Story, 1959). The police procedural represented a broader cultural phenomenon in which the world of the policeman featured regularly as a central theme not only in the cinema but also in print, radio, and above all on television, for example in classic series such as Dragnet (1951–1959) and Dixon of Dock Green (1955–1976).

However, the real success of policemen in the cinema arrived around the 1970s. Those years saw the rise of the cop film genre via a series of films centered on the figure of the ordinary policeman and the police as a group. Films such as The Detective (1968), The New Centurions (1972), and The Choirboys (1977), the last two of these based on novels by Joseph Wambaugh, describe the routine activities of the policeman and processes of socialization within the professional group. But the plots of these films draw our attention to the uncomfortable consequences of choosing this profession, including the moral dilemmas, the family breakdowns, and the low status in terms of salary and social recognition. Again, this realistic view of the human side of the work of the policeman found its way into successful television series, such as Police Story (1973–1978), Hill Street Blues (1981–1987), Law & Order (1990–2010), and NYPD Blue (1993–2005).

As Clarens (1997, p. 298) points out, in the 1970s, “the cop embodied the traumas and tensions of the decade better than the criminal.” It was not just the drama of Vietnam or the civil rights and youth protest movements. The huge success of highly significant cop films such as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), and the Dirty Harry series (1971–1983), together with the appearance of vigilante films (the Death Wish series, 1974–1994, and Falling Down, 1993) should be seen with reference to two major social developments that had already begun in the 1960s but became visible, and politically significant, in the 1970s, in the United States and other Western societies: the normality of high crime rates and the acknowledged limitations of the criminal justice system (Garland, 2001). These films dealt with the burning social problems of the period (drugs, gangs, urban decay), but they also reflected the dilemma of every democratic society, caught between a liberal or a conservative response to the growing problem of crime that was apparently out of control (Lenz, 2003; Melossi, 2000; Reiner, 2010). In this sense, Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, is emblematic. He represents the values of the absolute hero who makes no compromises, typical of the western genre; he is a maverick cop and an outsider (he belongs neither with the establishment nor with the counterculture); he expresses the conflict between the “charismatic” legitimacy of the lawman against the rational legitimacy of the criminal justice system with its acknowledgment of civil rights (Benyahia, 2012). With his huge black handgun, a .44 Magnum (a clear symbol of virility), this figure re-creates for the public an idealized model of masculinity, the myth of the hard, strong man, unemotional and independent (Rafter, 2006, p. 121).

Such a clearly defined model of policeman-hero, who has since been replicated in numerous forms in the cinema and on TV (Sabin et al., 2015), also expresses a clear criminological ideology. Crime is portrayed as the result of evil and weak individuals making bad choices. The criminals are “clearly enemies, not citizens who had broken a law, and they had to be defeated as opposed to being deterred or rehabilitated” (Surette, 2015, p. 106). In addition, celebration of the hypermasculinity of the hero means that the crime issue is reduced to a struggle between individuals, while general measures of a social or economic nature are no longer relevant. The sense of the failure of the law in the implementation of justice is particularly intense in the representation of do-it-yourself justice in the vigilante films (Robson, 2016).

The cop films of the subsequent decades repackaged these themes, emphasizing them but also transforming them. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the dominant genre was the cop action film (48 Hours, 1982; Lethal Weapon, 1987; Die Hard, 1988). Making much use of the muscular physique of a working-class cop, highlighting his hypermasculinity, these films are a response to the crisis, social and economic, of the hegemony of men and the white man resulting from the progressive affirmation of women and minorities (Jeffords, 1994; King, 1999). On the other hand, the cop films of these years themselves reflect these social transformations, since they include highly successful biracial buddy films in which the white policeman co-stars with a black policeman. Before the 1980s, the only black policeman of note was Inspector Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night, 1967), while today the charismatic policemen are more down to earth and credible (Inside Man, 2006). The passage from the 1980s to the 1990s also saw the appearance of the first women in a genre that until then had been exclusively male (Dresner, 2006; Gates, 2011; King, 2008; Wilson & Blackburn, 2014). The women police officers were no longer just partners but charismatic protagonists in their own right, who portrayed the struggle against crime from a woman’s point of view (Blue Steel, 1990; The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

This subversion of the canon of the white male hero police officer not only chimed with the general reconfiguration of the criteria of gender and race affecting society at that time. It also highlighted the crisis of a model of crime-fighting based entirely on strength and virility, and the return of intelligent and scientific investigation by the thinking detective or criminalist, not dissimilar to the classic sleuth detectives (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; Se7en; 1995; The Bone Collector, 1999) (Gates, 2006, 2011). This shift was also seen in television programs, with famous series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–2015) and Criminal Minds (2005–). Here we have sought to take account of the complexity of the cinematic representation of law enforcement stories. Consider that Reiner (2010, pp. 189–190), who also looks at the representation of policing in literature and television, identified 12 ideal types. One result of these narrative patterns, common to all contemporary cinema, is a schizophrenic representation of law enforcement, persistently presenting the two competing law enforcement approaches of “good cop” or “bad cop” (Surette, 2015). Referring to the media in general, Reiner (2008, p. 328) notes that the representation of the police presents a “bifurcation of images in recent years between extremely negative ones and attempts to resuscitate the earlier positive representations.” While the myth of the wholly good policeman, such as Serpico (1974), is still sometimes seen (The Untouchables, 1987; RoboCop, 1987), it is much easier to remember the great portrayals of contradictory, ambiguous, or plain nasty policemen (Bad Lieutenant, 1992; Heat, 1995; Face/Off, 1997; Training Day, 2001; The Departed, 2006; The Chaser, 2008; A.C.A.B., 2012). This ambivalence is a constitutive element of police films: as Leitch points out (2002, p. 220), “it is a primary task of police films to mediate between these two attitudes, expressing audiences’ skeptical fears about the justice system while leaving them ultimately confident in its workings.”

Courtroom Films

As Durkheim (2013, p. 64) points out, “we should not say that an act offends the common consciousness because it is criminal, but that it is criminal because it offends that consciousness. We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.” The meaning of crime thus depends on the social reaction to it, that is, on the punishment. Combining this assumption with the theories of Foucault and Elias, Garland (1991) highlights the “crucial division in modern penal systems between the declaration of punishment, which continues to take the form of a public ritual and which is continually the focus of public and media attention, and the delivery of punishment that now characteristically occurs behind closed doors and has a much lower level of visibility” (p. 125). In what follows this distinction is applied, looking first at those films that foreground the declaration of punishment, “courtroom films,” and subsequently at films that depict the delivery of punishment, that is, prison and execution films.

At the heart of the courtroom film is the unfolding of a trial in a courtroom. For present purposes, the trial is understood not so much as a legal procedure as a public rite, and its cinematic representation is designed to strengthen or question the moral or political order underlying society. The popular success of legal movies lies precisely in their use of the legal process as a vehicle for debate on wider social and moral issues (Greenfield & Robson, 2010). From a criminological point of view, those films in which the trial takes place outside a real courtroom, such as M (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Death and the Maiden (1995), are also very interesting. To paraphrase Foucault (1979, p. 35), the courtroom film can be seen as a legal ceremonial that reproduces, in the open for all to see, the truth of the crime. Representing the trial in a film means arriving at the verdict via the phases of the investigation and the reconstruction of the truth (Silbey, 2001). From the dramaturgical, structural, and narrative point of view, there are many analogies between the legal process—at least in its Anglo-Saxon form—and films (Black, 1999; Silbey, 2007). In addition, the “grammar” of cinematographic representation itself attributes a certain meaning to the legal and moral issues tackled in the film (Rosenberg, 1996).

Since L’Affaire Dreyfus by Méliès (1899), cinema has been concerned with representation of the trial, as in the films Falsely Accused! (1908), The Cheat (1915), and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Civil law jurisdictions produce fewer courtroom films, however. The few that have been made are often the work of individual directors with a particular dedication to the theme, such as André Cayatte in France or Pietro Germi in Italy. This lack of interest in the representation of trials can usually be explained with reference to the characteristics of legal procedure in civil law jurisdictions, which is inquisitorial rather than adversarial and therefore cinematically less attractive (Asimow, 2005; Machura & Ulbrich, 2001). However, courtroom films are not that numerous in the United Kingdom either, 22 of them being made between 1940 and 1997 (Greenfield, Osborn, & Robson, 2006). In contrast, Hindi cinema shows a certain attachment to the genre: films such as Awaara (1951) or Veer-Zaara (2004) use the story of a trial to reflect on the main social problems of Indian society (Hoffheimer, 2006). A certain interest is also seen in Chinese cinema (Conner, 2010; McIntyre, 2013) and in Asian cinema generally (Creekmur & Sidel, 2007).

Hollywood is clearly the king of the courtroom film genre, and American companies continue to dominate the production of legal TV series (Robson & Schulz, 2016). The imagery used by American cinema to portray the law, justice, and punishment thus constitutes the thematic and stylistic point of reference for the production and consumption of this genre of film all over the world. Hollywood is also the focus of international studies of law and film, for example, in European scholarship (Robson, 2008).

Hollywood’s production of courtroom films became significant in the 1930s and has continued since then. Rafter (2006, p. 142) identifies three phases in the evolution of the courtroom film: from the 1930s to the 1950s, which included an experimental period followed by the so-called law noirs; a heroic period from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s; and a period of decline, from 1970 to the present. Other authors have proposed other chronologies (Nevins, 2014), for example, focusing on the specific evolution of the representation of lawyers (Asimow, 1999) or judges (Papke, 2007).

Two classics in particular from the 1930s are worthy of mention: Fury (1936) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), both of which highlight—each in its own way—the fundamental role of the rule of law against vigilantism, popular justice, and—considering the historic period—totalitarian ideologies (Lenz, 2003, p. 53). In the 1940s and 1950s, the philosophical and aesthetic approach of the noir was reflected in the “law noirs” (Rosenberg, 1996), whose exemplars were skeptical regarding the functioning of the legal system and the possibility of achieving truth and justice by means of a trial—for example, Call Northside 777 (1948), Knock on Any Door (1949), and I Want to Live! (1958).

In contrast, the late 1950s and early 1960s coincided with the “golden age” of the American legal film. Some of the main exemplars are 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Compulsion (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). As Papke (2000) observes, these highly successful films, which won numerous Oscars, channeled a belief in the possibility that law, with its procedures and protagonists, leads to truth and justice. This was a clear ideological message designed to champion American democracy against the threat of communism, but it also reflected the actions of the Warren Court (1953–1969) (Nevins, 2014). This was the same period as the worldwide television success of Perry Mason.

After that brief but intense phase, courtroom films declined in terms of both quantity and quality. This decline, which lasted at least until the late 1970s, has been interpreted as a signal of the dialectic tension—inherent in both legal doctrine and popular culture—between individualism and liberalism, advocates for tougher crime control and defenders of due process (Chase, 2002), and liberal ideas and conservative ideas with regard to criminal justice policies (Lenz, 2003). This tension (discussed earlier in relation to detective films) is reflected in the courtroom films of the subsequent period, such as Justice for All (1979), The Verdict (1982), and The Star Chamber (1983), which presented the courtroom in a much more ambivalent light.

The main novelty of the genre in the 1980s was the appearance of female protagonists in the role of lawyer/attorney, seen in films such as Jagged Edge (1985), The Accused (1988), and The Client (1994). However, the representation of women in the difficult world of lawyers seen in these films is contradictory and ambivalent (Lucia, 2005). In any case, the impact of the images, stories, and characters of the golden age of courtroom films is still being felt today and has had a profound influence on the legal culture of America and the world. This is seen even in recent films that highlight the positive function of the law and due process, for example, A Time to Kill (1996), Erin Brockovich (2000), and A Civil Action (1998).

The courtroom film offers a wide-ranging and discursive view of crime and the criminal. Its reflections conclude with answers that are more or less definitive and more or less reassuring, with the conviction or acquittal of the defendant, although at times doubts and ambiguities remain (e.g., Reversal of Fortune, 1990). What counts in these films is the search—strenuous and dramatic—for truth and justice. American cinema has promoted the idea of the trial as an opportunity to restore justice to the lives of the common people (in addition to the films cited, see The Rainmaker, 1997).

However, this idea frequently plays out in a contradictory and critical manner. As Rafter (2006, pp. 136–137) points out, courtroom films usually portray the conflict between an “injustice figure,” “the person responsible for creating or maintaining the gap between justice and man-made law,” and a “justice figure,” “a hero who tries to move man-made law ever closer to the ideal until it matches the justice template.” This cinematic conflict between positive and negative figures in the world of justice is best illustrated by the representation of lawyers. According to Asimow (1999, 2000), this representation evolved from the honest and righteous lawyer of the films of the 1950s toward figures who were much more unscrupulous, corrupt, and cynical, who worked for firms that were driven by greed and/or involved in crime themselves, as seen in films from the 1970s onward, such as Body Heat (1981), The Firm (1993), and The Devil’s Advocate (1997). However, the basic contradiction of the courtroom film between an ideal model of administration of justice and its practical reality often seems to be implicit in the legal profession as seen in films: thus, there is no such thing as a good or an evil lawyer in the absolute sense, but rather ambivalent figures, who on one hand believe in the law and defend its institutions and on the other hand are prepared to go “beyond law” to achieve justice (Greenfield, 2001; Greenfield & Robson, 2010).

The contradictions of courtroom films cast doubt on the legitimacy and fairness of the legal system, but in this way they regenerate the popular legal consciousness regarding the function of law in society.

Prison Films

Prison is one of the most frequent and popular cinematographic settings and has a significant impact on popular criminology. All cinematographic cultures have important examples of prison films, such as the French A Man Escaped (1957) or the Spanish Cell 211 (2009). But it is American cinema that has constantly produced prison and execution films, with results that have always been greatly appreciated by critics and public alike, at home and abroad. This has been the case since the very beginning—for example, the film Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901). The first part of this short film contains actual footage of the outside of Auburn Prison, while the second part contains a reproduction of the execution that took place inside the prison. Even at this early stage, the ambivalent nature of prison films made for entertainment purposes clearly emerges, seeking to provide a fictional representation of prison and punishment while at the same time giving the appearance of a realistic, crude, and, at times, enlightened analysis.

For our purposes, the prison film can be defined as a “film that concerns civil imprisonment and that is mainly set within the walls of a prison or uses prison as a central theme” (Mason, 2003, p. 283). Such films are hard to place in a precise genre because prison is often the central theme of films otherwise defined as noir, social problem cinema, westerns, war films, comedies, action-adventure films, and even science fiction films. Various attempts to analyze the genre in terms of its historical phases have been made (Cheatwood, 1998; Crowther, 1989; Rafter, 2006, pp. 163–188; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). In this context, since the melodrama Prison Bars (1901), Hollywood has produced around 350 prison films (Mason, 2006, p. 197). Of these films, many were made in the 1930s, the decade in which this type of film really took off, producing many classics of the genre, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Criminal Code (1931), and The Big House (1930). These films clearly reflect the lack of public confidence in the government, the police, and legal punishment typical of the Depression era (Whissel, 2015). Prison films subsequently continued to be produced, though in smaller numbers.

Studies of prison films highlight the continuous presence of certain types of character, stock plots, and scenes. Recurring themes include wrongful conviction, the daily violence of detainees and guards, rioting, and escape. A highly successful film such as Brute Force (1947) or The Shawshank Redemption (1994) contains many of the constitutive elements of the typical prison movie. Moreover, films like Natural Born Killers (1994) are an excellent example of the tendency toward self-reflexivity that can be found in contemporary prison films (Rafter, 2006, pp. 183–184).

Prison films represent prison as a machine, “the ‘system’ with its impenetrable sets of rules and regulations which grind on relentlessly” (Mason, 2003, p. 289). In this way, they emphasize the struggle of the individual for survival and the inherent process of dehumanization resulting from detention. Often, it is the head of the prison, cruel and insensitive, who represents this bureaucratic institution.

The protagonist of the film is usually a victim, either because he is incarcerated unjustly or because, though guilty, his suffering and punishment far exceed what his crime would warrant. The protagonist of Murder in the First (1995) steals just five dollars, but, after attempting to escape, is locked up for three years in inhuman isolation. The hero of the prison film is an absolute hero more righteous or better educated and in any case stronger, physically and morally, than his fellow prisoners and the average man in the street (e.g., Papillon, 1973). Identification with such figures is one of the reasons for the success of prison movies. Recently, this classic genre has undergone a number of transformations, with main characters who are represented in a more realistic and less romanticized way, as in Dead Man Walking (1996).

In such a fearsome and dangerous environment, with the constant threat of violence from other inmates or guards, as well as rape (e.g., Short Eyes, 1979), themes of friendship, loyalty, and solidarity are emphasized, as in the Hong Kong film Prison on Fire (1987) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). At the same time, prison can be a place of suspicion and betrayal, as in the French film The Hole (1960), in which three detainees are betrayed by one of their fellow inmates just as they are about to escape.

The social significance of prison films above all lies in their promotion of an awareness, however distorted and fictional, of the conditions of detainees in prison. This also concerns the criminologist and students of criminology (Jacobsen & Petersen, 2014) and is very important, considering that the moment of punishment is hidden and obscured in contemporary societies. This type of film has a series of other functions (“revelatory, benchmarking, defence, news/memory and humanising/empathy”) that can produce, via the general public debate in the media, a greater awareness among citizens regarding the need for penal reform (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). While a film such as Brubaker (1980) expresses this reforming intention explicitly, almost all prison films contain a critique, more or less overt, of prison as an institution. Films such as Crime School (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and the more recent A Prophet (2010), for example, highlight the criminal “apprenticeship” that prison provides. Others, such as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), describe prison as a self-limiting environment that compromises any possible attempt to rehabilitate the detainee (Welsh, Fleming, & Dowler, 2011).

However, there is a risk that the global “Prison Iconography” produced by crime films and widely propagated today in the other media, especially television (Rapping, 2003), might have an unhealthy effect on the public consciousness, reinforcing the normalization and acceptance of prison as it is, rather than promoting a serious reflection on the meaning of punishment (Brown, 2009).

Tendencies and Meanings of Crime Films

The foregoing historical reconstruction proposed makes it clear that with their various subgenres, characters, issues, and contexts, crime films replicate the social, political, and demographic changes occurring in society. This is also true of the evolution of crime and the social reaction to it, and thus of law and punishment.

Indeed, a structural tendency of these films is the constant representation of the relationship, characterized sometimes by confrontation, sometimes by mixing, between the underworld and the world of law-abiding citizens (Hardy, 1996). The ideology of heroism that emerges from these films clearly illustrates this dialectic relationship: whether one is dealing with the criminal hero or the avengers, both suggest the ambivalence between success and honesty, strength and justice, liberty and the law, which prompts the viewer to identify with them and makes these films compelling (Rafter, 2006). It is also true, however, that the films that Rafter (2006) refers to as “critical crime films,” part of an alternative tradition that poses sharp ideological challenges to crime film traditions, affirm the impossibility of heroism in the late 20th century.

Linked to this ideology of heroism is the structural tendency of crime films concerning the representation of the victim. According to Leitch (2002, p. 79), “if every crime story depends on a victim, a criminal, and an avenger, the victim is the structuring absence in American crime movies. The role of the victim of crime is so perennially unfashionable in Hollywood that it is hard to think of a single victim-hero.” In order for the experience of the victim to become a central element of the cinematographic narrative, he must transform himself into the avenging hero who is able to defeat his assailants, often with an equal or even greater violence and without recourse to the official justice system. The justice violated by the antisocial behavior of the criminal is thus restored, but at the cost of the innocent victim assuming the typical ambivalence of the hero of crime films—this ambivalence being what ensures the success of such films among the public. This is a recurring narrative mechanism in many films based on cases of victimization (e.g., Fury, 1936; D.O.A., 1950; Straw Dogs, 1971) but also, as mentioned earlier, in prison films. In any case, the experience of victimization began to be told with greater emphasis in the 1970s, above all in vigilant films (Death Wish, 1974; The Brave One, 2007; Law Abiding Citizen, 2009). In these films, crime is portrayed as a violent invasion of the domestic space and the daily life of the middle classes by predatory criminals (Welsh, Fleming, & Dowler, 2011). This new attention of cinema to the victim reflects the general rediscovery of this figure in criminology, political debate, and media coverage (Chermak, 1995; Garland, 2000; Greer, 2003).

It can also be useful to study the evolution of gender relationships in crime films, which highlight the criminological aspects of power relations. Clearly, the times have changed since the hero of the film could freely express his misogyny, like Cagney of Public Enemy (1931) thrusting a grapefruit into Mae Marsh’s face or Bogart in Dead Reckoning (1947) expressing deep suspicion of women (“I don’t trust anybody, especially women”) and desire for an absolute control over them (“Get back in my pocket”). However, the instability of male identity, and thus the need for it to be asserted in the strongest ways, resolute and violent, often provides the backdrop to the plots of crime films. The sexist nature of the institutional system and the moral universe of justice and punishment are also critically represented, for example, in woman-on-the-run films such as Psycho (1960, at least its first half) and Thelma & Louise (1991): “Such films punish women for their transgressions against the institutional order, putting the masculinity of that order itself on trial” (Leitch, 2007, p. 406).

The American crime film also shows how, on the level of collective consciousness, and often in an ideologically unaware way, the problem of difference and otherness is constructed, for example, in the case of ethnic and racial issues. The villain of the cinema has often been an immigrant from a different religious culture (Catholic or Jewish) or an Afro-American or Latino (Bouchard, 2011; Grieveson et al., 2005; Munby, 1999). In contrast, the crime-fighter has traditionally been a WASP, at times accompanied by a partner of another ethnic group. Clearly, contemporary cinema no longer refrains from portraying black police officers. On the contrary, this is probably one of the roles in which black actors have achieved greatest success. However, as Gates argues (2006), this is perhaps due to the basically solitary and socially disconnected nature of the policeman hero as a protagonist, which enables Hollywood to offer subjectivity to a black character without addressing race or ethnicity as a central issue.

It is also interesting to see how criminal behavior is explained in crime films, as explored by Rafter (2006) and Rafter and Brown (2011). “Films draw on popular criminological explanations and in turn embody these explanations, feeding them back to mass audiences” (Rafter, 2006, p. 61). However, crime films are also a useful testament of the criminological theories in vogue in a given historical period. Consider for example the potential links between noir films and Freudian psychoanalysis or between the vigilante films of the 1970s and the broken windows theory. Clearly, Rafter sees that the triangular relationship between criminological theory, popular criminology, and crime films is neither linear nor direct nor synchronous: once discredited criminological theories can come back into fashion in films because they are more attuned to popular perceptions. In contrast, crime films can presage new criminological interpretations.

For Rafter (2006, pp. 61–86), four basic explanations of crime can be found in crime films. One of the most frequent is the bad-environment explanation, that is, the representation of the circumstances that drive normal individuals to a life of crime, as in Badlands (1974) and in the films by Scorsese (Mean Streets, 1973; Goodfellas, 1990). A film such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) presents a sociological example not only of how poverty and the life of the ghetto lead to crime, but also of the processes of differential association, such as prison, which build a criminal career.3 By channeling this type of message, the gangster films of the 1930s consciously aspired to contribute to the debate concerning the social problem of crime and its causes, basing themselves on the research being conducted at that time by sociologists of the Chicago School (Maltby, 2005).

Other crime films offer rational choice explanations of crime. Usually, it is the desire for a life of success or at least a life superior to the mediocre life of the common people that prompts the protagonists of the film to decide rationally to commit the crime (e.g., Double Indemnity, 1944; Dog Day Afternoon, 1975, as well as many heist films). As already mentioned with regard to gangster films and as pointed out by Bell (1953), in crime films the offense becomes the means—sometimes the only possible means—with which to attempt to fulfill the dream of wealth and freedom that is glorified in the American way of life. However, these films usually end in tragic, wrenching failure, highlighting the moral message that there is no escape from the steel cage of the social structure.

The third explanation identified by Rafter is that crime inevitably results from the bad biology of the criminal, as affirmed in the theories of Cesare Lombroso (e.g., The Bad Seed, 1956). More generally, it is worth pointing out that films often slyly seek to make a connection between physical and racial features and the risk of criminal behavior.

Lastly, there are explanations that make reference to psychopathy or mental illness, implying that criminal behavior is the result of psychological abnormality, for example, M (1931), Gun Crazy (1950), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and, above all, Psycho (1960). The popular success of the figure of the serial killer (Rafter, 2006, pp. 87–108; Simpson, 2000) in films that often have horror influences has important criminological implications. Indeed, the main message is that crime is an individual deed. Reiner et al. (2000) note that since the Second World War, the media representation of crime has tended to neglect the social causes of criminal behaviors, preferring to stress the individual aspects (individual evil). This should induce criminologists to reflect on the fascination that the psychological explanation has over the wider public.

It should also be stressed, with Rafter and Brown (2011), that in many contemporary crime films the issue of the causes of crime is not faced at all, and criminal acts therefore appear irrational, incomprehensible, and random (e.g., Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007; No Country for Old Men, 2007).

Causes and Consequences of Cinematic Representations of Crime

The need to attract the public is the main aim of the creators of media products in general. Obviously, this is also the case with the cinematographic industry of Hollywood, whose goal is to produce “the maximum pleasure for the maximum number for the maximum profit” (Maltby, 2003, p. 15). To achieve these objectives, it is necessary to meet both the cognitive and entertainment needs of a mass public.

Regarding the first objective, crime films are open and flexible in reflecting the fears and conflicts caused by social transformation. If this was not the case, the success of crime films would be much more modest and less constant over time. Indeed, one reason the public consumes this type of content is that they provide an answer, implicit or explicit, to the problems of security and the social and existential questions of the present (Cavender & Jurik, 2016). The theme of crime represents an extraordinary business opportunity for the cinematographic industry of every country. As Leitch (2007, p. 408) points out, “perhaps more than any other popular genre, the crime film shows the resourcefulness with which filmmakers convert cultural anxiety—about criminals, political conspiracies, the awful power and possible corruption of the justice system, the dangers that face everyone who works for it, and the citizens who unwittingly run afoul of it—into mass entertainment.”

As for its entertainment function, it is not easy to identify the effects of the cinematic experience on the spectator (Mayne, 1993), but one should consider the analysis of collective imagery by Morin (1962). For Morin, cinematic crime offers a chance to break free of the everyday subjection to law and bureaucracy that binds the common man. The spectator is fascinated both by the absolute freedom of the criminal act (which goes beyond every physical, social, legal, and moral limit) and, conversely, by the absolute freedom of the hero to enforce justice, in which the law coincides with the will of the individual. According to Morin, for the spectator who lives in a world of rules and restrictions, the crime film amounts to a dream of liberty. This deep ambivalence of the crime film holds a fascination for the spectator that has also been highlighted by Rafter (2006), Leitch (2002), and Young (2009).

Many of the thematic and stylistic choices made by the producers, screenwriters, and directors depend on the fact that the objective is to maximize success and minimize failure. For example, real criminal cases that are so extensively covered by the news media as to become consolidated in the collective consciousness are often made into films. A famous example is the Leopold and Loeb case (Geis & Bienen, 1998), which inspired many films (e.g., Rope, 1948; Compulsion, 1959). Similarly, the literary detectives and serial killers that drive high book sales not only usually end up being adapted for the big screen but also give rise to successive sequels, remakes, and variants. For its part, cinematic representation is so powerful in terms of style, effects, and symbols that it becomes a model for—and an influence on—both narrative fiction and the language of journalism.

In the same way, among the elements that influence the characteristics of films, including crime films, the shared professional ideologies of the creative elites that produce them are also very important (Powers, Rothman, & Rothman, 1996). This extends to the commercial decisions, organizational structures, technological resources, and political affinities of the studios, both independents and Hollywood majors: think of the role played by Warner Brothers in the rise of the gangster movie (producing the classics Little Caesar and Public Enemy) (Roddick, 1983). Lastly, many institutional factors determine the content of crime films. For example, in many countries, the film industry is backed by substantial contributions from the public sector. Above all, the thematic and stylistic evolution of these films, which are frequently not appreciated by governments, the police, and “moral entrepreneurs,” is shaped by changes in the laws and the attitudes of censors. This was the case in the 1930s in America with the Hays Code and in Italy with the government’s criticism of neorealism. In the Soviet Union, the crime film was obstructed by the ideology of the regime (Cassiday, 2014), whose fall was rapidly followed by an explosion of the genre (e.g., Kings of Crime, 1990; Pigs, 1992).

Scholars, institutions, and public opinion have paid much attention to the effects of the cinematic representation of crime. The present historical reconstruction cites the main concerns raised by crime films: that they engender crime by inducing spectators, especially younger ones, to commit criminal acts (Springhall, 1998); that they glorify the criminal as a hero while ridiculing the police; that they prompt aggressive and violent behavior on the part of the public.

The content, people, and institutions of the media are frequently blamed for social phenomena that create apprehension and moral panic. It is not possible here even to summarize the evolution and results of research into the effects of the media, which have been conducted from both psychological and social perspectives (Bryant & Oliver, 2009; Döveling, Scheve, & Konijn, 2011; Potter, 2012; Rössler, Hoffner, & Zoonen, 2017; Scharrer & Valdivia, 2013). However, the model of direct causation between the message of the media and the behavior of individuals is more popular among politicians and public opinion than among scholars. Indeed, scholars assess the impact of the media considering numerous correlated and relevant variables, such as the characteristics of the individual, the relational and social context, and the content of the message.

Generally speaking, the earliest studies of the effects of the media were addressed to the cinema. Worthy of specific mention here are the Payne Fund Studies (Jowett, Jarvie, & Fuller, 1996), 12 surveys conducted from 1933 to 1935, some of which (Blumer, 1933; Blumer & Hauser, 1933; Forman, 1935) are extremely useful for understanding the concern then prevalent regarding the effects of gangster films, particularly the violence portrayed in them, on young viewers. Since that time, the theme of violence in films has been widely debated (Benyahia, 2012; Carter & Weaver, 2003; Prince, 2000, 2003; Slocum, 2001; Young, 2009), partly because it is clear that “cinema has always been able to show violence bigger, bloodier and more expensively than any other medium” (Carter & Weaver, 2003, p. 70). Psychological studies have highlighted the considerable role played by the representation of violence in films and other media such as television and video games, as a contributing factor in aggressive behaviors (Barker & Petley, 2001; Murray, 2008; Potter, 1999).

Moving from the individual to the macro-social level, crime films have paradoxically been credited with a reassuring effect. The figure of the detective is a powerful antidote to the widespread sense of uncertainty and risk affecting certain historical periods (Cavender & Jurik, 2016; Harrington, 2007). In addition, detective films have a double narrative mechanism: on the one hand, there is a horrible and apparently unsolvable crime; on the other, there is the investigation that solves the mystery by means of a process of discovery and reflection that is recognizable and predictable for the spectator. For example, Benyahia (2012) points out that some contemporary crime films (Gone Baby Gone, 2007; Zodiac, 2007; The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) represent an attempt, by investigator and spectator alike, to impose order on a world out of control, thereby tackling moral, political, and historical problems that had hitherto seemed intractable. More generally, crime films almost always tend to offer a plausible explanation of the crime and therefore to reduce the state of uncertainty and shock that crimes and violence can generate.

On the basis of these considerations, it is clear that the effects of the representation of crime need to be seen in relation to the cultural and social dimensions of how media products are perceived. It is not possible to make generalized assumptions about what audiences make of the content of films. For example, in their study of a group of homeless men watching the film Die Hard (1988), Fiske and Dawson (1996) demonstrate that the representation of violence in films can have different and even diametrically opposed meanings—and be appreciated for different reasons—depending on how the audience interprets the narration of the film.

To see the effects of crime films in the proper perspective, it can thus be useful to refer to the concept of narratives (Bruner, 1991; Longo, 2016; Shaw, 2004). As Rafter notes (2006, pp. 83–84), “crime films give us narratives for thinking about the nature and causes of crime. . . . Crime films influence ideologies of crime and justice through their assumptions about the comprehensibility of criminal behavior, who is best qualified to cope with it, and its distribution by offense type.” In this way, it is also easier to consider crime films as just one of the many types of criminal narratives that pervade the contemporary mediascape, contributing to the formation of the common understanding of crime in everyday life.

Crime Films and Criminological Research

What has been said so far about crime films should be sufficient to warrant criminology’s serious attention to popular culture. In this sense, it is necessary to go beyond the skepticism of the so-called fallacy perspective, according to which the crime genre offers largely inaccurate portrayals of the reality of crime, and critically apply a “concordance perspective,” according to which, in contrast, the media’s representation reflects the evolution of criminality and the concerns it raises with a certain accuracy (Cavender & Jurik, 2016). In Reiner’ words (2010, p. 178), the media-constructed image of crime is not a “mirror reflection” but rather “a refraction of the reality, constructed in accordance with the organizational imperatives of the media industry, the ideological frames of creative personnel and audiences, and the changing balance of political and economic forces.”

The approach of criminology to crime films has a series of important theoretical and methodological consequences (Jacobsen & Petersen, 2016; Rafter, 2006; Rafter & Brown, 2011; Tzanelli et al., 2005; Yar, 2010). In general, 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. Analysis of crime films can help to better investigate many aspects of the perception and understanding of crime, law, and justice in society. Think of the importance of scientific and technological evolution in the investigation and prevention of crime and how common it has become in the crime genre (Cavender & Jurik, 2016; Meehan, 2008). Think of the study, always central to criminology, of the complex relationships between the city and criminality, and between urban segregation and violence. In this regard, the enormous repertoire of urban landscapes seen in crime films can be an excellent source of reflection and comparison (Elliott, 2014). Lastly, to give just one more example, think of the importance of characters’ dress codes in films, which for the spectator are immediately recognizable signs of the characters’ moral, psychological, and even gender traits (Bruzzi, 2012).

This attention to the role of the media and popular culture, neglected by traditional criminology, is essential today in our media-saturated societies (Jacobsen & Walklate, 2016; Lundby, 2014). It is also necessary, however, to sharpen the methodological tools adopted for the approach to crime films, looking at what happens in closely related lines of research, such as the law and film movement, which is currently producing a series of interesting reflections in this regard (Machura, 2016; Robson, Osborn, & Greenfield, 2014), or the inspiring research by the cultural criminology perspective (Hayward & Presdee, 2010; Picart et al., 2016). Indeed, a multifaceted approach to crime films is always a good idea. This entails studying crime cinema with reference to criminological and sociological theories, legal statutes, and the available empirical data. In addition, future analyses will need to pay increasing attention to crime films in terms of the constant flow of contemporary intertextuality, thus looking at contamination and interference from other genres but also at the differences between all fictional representations of crime, that is, films, television, novels, videogames, and social media (Yar, 2012).

As has been demonstrated here, there is a close link between crime films and the social anxieties, moral dilemmas, and political conflicts of each epoch. It is for this reason that the crime film genre has been able to evolve with great flexibility, enjoying constant success with the public, and is expected to continue to do so in the future.

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(1.) See also King et al. in this volume.

(2.) On the “Spiv cycle” films, see Chibnall and Murphy (2005).

(3.) See also the comment on this film by Sutherland et al. (1992, pp. 87–88).