Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 11, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how work had reminded me of how much I had loved westerns as a boy and how much fun, how invigorating and nourishing it was, to return to that genre with a vengeance at the distance of many years. Well, it’s happened again, although we’re not talking about so long a separation. See, I love crime. Not real crime, mind you — not the pathetic, horrific, ripped-from-the-headlines variety… I’m talking about the movies. Horror and crime are my double major, though I spend much more time talking about the former than the latter. Both derive a great deal of suspense from the depiction of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, both tease tension out of shadows and the release of dark passions, both point their principals more often than not toward a bad end and yet the genres could not be more different where it really counts. Let’s talk.
But first (as ever), a little history. When I was 10 or so, and for reasons I never fully understood, my Mom bought for me at Christmas a 20-volume encyclopedia entitled Crimes and Punishment. As you might well imagine, this was a concordance of malevolence, misdeeds, and malice aforethought committed in and punished by polite society all over the world. It was quite an education, ranging in subjects from Jack the Ripper and Giles de Rais to Ruth Snyder, the Moors Murderers, the Rose Mar Beauty School massacre, Charles Manson, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Kray Brothers, Henri “Bluebeard” Landru, the Black Dahlia, Ed Gein, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, prostitution, sex crimes, crimes of passion, crimes for profit, insanity, and various sciences of crime detection. There were chapters dedicated to “Homosexual Murderers” and “Servants Who Slaughter” and “Angels from Hell” (motorcycle gangs). It was the first place that I ever read about such serial killers as Albert Fish, Peter Kurten, Reginald Christie, and Dean Corll, about New York City’s pre-World War II “Mad Bomber,” about murderous thugs Richard Speck, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith (the IN COLD BLOOD killers), Dallas Delay and Willie Sutton, and where I first became acquainted with the Profumo Affair, the Teapot Dome Scandal, and the tragic tale of expatriate American actor William Berger, whose enjoyment of la dolce vita came to an abrupt end with the August 5, 1970 raid on his Amalfi villa by Italian police and the subsequent death of his wife Carol while in custody. (The Italian police found, for their trouble, 1/28 of an ounce of marijuana, for which Berger spent over 200 days in jail and his 39 year-old wife was buried in the Praiano Cemetery.) Yeah, so anyway. I was a changed man after hacking my way through this encyclopedia.
I have no difficulty obeying our nation’s laws (well, the good ones) and I know I am not criminal material. Mostly because I’d rather be a successful criminal than a bungling one and because I have a distracted, absent-minded aspect that really would not serve me well in the underworld. Nevertheless, I have always gravitated toward stories of crime and criminals. Happily, I came of age before the advent of criminal cool, which became a going concern mostly with the rise of Quentin Tarantino and the successes of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) and PULP FICTION (1994). This strikes me as funny, given that QT and I are more or less the same age, our influences are the same, and we have very similar interests. I was writing a lot of crime drama and comedy for the theatre around the time that he broke out but my stuff wasn’t cool – it was (to my eyes and ears, anyway) anguished and bleak, sort of funny but ultimately tragic. As criminal cool began to spread and Tarantino wannabes grabbed the reins, I backed off from writing crime. When THE SOPRANOS became the most popular show on television, I stopped thinking about it. By 2001 (the year my first full-length crime play IN THE PARLANCE was staged on 42nd Street), I had retreated fully into horror and was happy there … but in the mean time I kept obtaining crime films on the new medium of DVD. It was always a treat to go back and see something that had piqued my curiosity as a kid, like Roger Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967) — still a seminal, influential, life-changing title for me — or Raoul Walsh’s incendiary WHITE HEAT (1949), Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY (1972), Rolf Olsen’s BLUTTIGER FREITAG (BLOODY FRIDAY, 1972), Michele Lupo’s UN UOMO DA RISPETTARE (THE MASTER TOUCH, 1973), and Philip D’Antoni’s THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). As I switched from writing plays to writing film criticism, I saw a great number of foreign crime films on the job, among them Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) and LE SAMOURAI (1969), and Jacques Becker’s TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (1954) and LE TROU (1960) — to name but a few. All this to say that, no matter how long I go between crime films, it doesn’t take much to bring me back in.
A few weeks ago I was asked to write liner notes for an upcoming collection of Boris Karloff’s Depression era crime films, a set that will include Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931), Rowland V. Lee’s THE GUILTY GENERATION (1931), and John Francis Dillon’s BEHIND THE MASK (1932). To get into the spirit, I’ve also had recent looks (or looks back) at Karloff’s roles in Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932) and Alfred E. Green’s SMART MONEY (1931), and at MGM’s entirely Karloff-less CRIME DOESN’T PAY series (1935-1947), newly released as a 5-disc set from the Warner Archives. And I just want to keep going, to go back and rewatch LITTLE CAESAR (1931) and PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) and THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936) and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939) and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) and THE KILLING (1956) and, coincidentally, GRAND SLAM (1967), which Morlock Kimberly discussed yesterday, a day after I saw my DVD of it and thought “I need to give that another spin.”
Crime and horror films complement one another in interesting ways but it’s in how they differ that interests me. Horror films are often personal, explorations of sensation, mood and feeling; crime films, on the other hand, are social, more often than not — they’re about groups, about families, about society, and how we treat one another, talk to one another, how we pitch in, take sides, enable, betray, and fail one other. You don’t have to be a criminal to appreciate crime films. Anyone who has buffeted a long-term relationship can feel the plight of the cinematic criminal couple, whether that coupling is romantic (YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, GUN CRAZY, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GETAWAY) or professional (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, RIFIFI, ONCE A THIEF, ACROSS 110TH STREET, AND HOPE TO DIE) or combines the two in unexpected ways (WHITE HEAT, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, CITY ON FIRE, RESERVOIR DOGS — essentially, any story where a cop infiltrates a criminal gang and becomes mispocha with the boss, ultimately betraying him and often suffering the wrath of the betrayed). If you’ve bought a house with your loved one, raised children, started a business, or planned a trip to visit family, you can sympathize — perhaps even empathize — with John Dall and Peggy Cummins at the end of Joseph H. Lewis’ GUN CRAZY (1949). You may even have that same look on your faces, the one that says “Just kill us and get it over with.”
At their best, crime films offer us more than just the vicarious thrill of breaking the law — they lay bare the contradictory nature of humanity, exposing how we strive to fit in and have it better than others, how we want to pay as little and make as much as we can, and how we want to live in a safe place where we can break all the rules. If horror films catch us at our most worried and anxious, fearing the bad end we suspect we have coming, then crime films reveal us at our most childlike and hopeful. And in our failures, in our doom, despite the influence of over 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, we are far less likely to meet our ends (justified or unjust, divinely shaped or other) with Christ-like acceptance than we would in the manner of Sterling Hayden in THE KILLING (“What difference does it make?”) or Jean Moorhead in THE VIOLENT YEARS (“So what?“) or Richard Conte in OCEANS 11 (“Never the luck… never the luck…”) or Bob Hoskins in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY… duped, thwarted, depressed and pointed toward annihilation but attempting in some small but essential way to at least enjoy the ride.
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