Navigating the Moral Waters of the Crime Film

Ever rooted for the bad guy?  Of course you have, we all have.  Many times the bad guy is more interesting, more exciting, and much more charismatic.  To take two obvious examples, Batman is brooding and Superman is upstanding but neither is terribly interesting while their nemeses, the Joker and Lex Luthor, are a hoot and despite their clearly psychotic natures,  fun to watch.   The movies picked up on this long before comic books even came into existence and once the sound era began, making criminals the star of the show became even more apparent.  In the course of a little over a year, moviegoers were treated to Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface, all putting the bad guys front and center as the stars of the movie.  And all tried their damnedest to convince moviegoers that while they were the stars, their actions were wrong.  As time went on, and the production code waned, the movies could be a little more honest about why they were making crime movies:  Because they’re exciting and fun even if we know they present a romanticized view calibrated precisely for our enjoyment.

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All day today on TCM, movies about crime are being shown (until tonight’s Star of the Month, Melvyn Douglas, gets his prime time due) and it got me to thinking about just how those movies have developed and my own conflicted feelings about them.  Rarely does a movie about a criminal (and to be clear, I’m talking about cops and robbers, gangsters, people killing to get ahead or get insurance money, con artists – that kind of thing – not serial killers or other horror movie psychos) really present them as the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for (and most often it is, in fact, a guy).  More often than not, they’re charismatic and charming but you know they should be punished.  When a movie explicitly makes the criminal the hero, it can be a little jarring.  Michael Caine has probably starred in these types of crime films more than any other actor, from Gambit and The Italian Job to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and A Shock to the System, he has many times over played criminals that are absolutely and unquestionably the hero of the movie, one we are supposed to be rooting for, and do.  But in most of these cases (the first three, for example) the victims are museums, banks, wealthy widows, etc.   Only in A Shock to the System are the victims more relatable to an average audience member: his wife, his boss, etc.  They irritate him, give him heartburn, annoy him but none of them deserve to die and yet that’s precisely what the movie does with glee as his character gets exactly what he wants by simply killing those who stand in his way.  And, spoiler alert, there is no punishment, retribution, or comeuppance of any kind.  He not only gets away with it, the audience member is expected to cheer him along.  This isn’t some probing, insightful look at the desperate measures a selfish man will go to in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation, like Crimes and Misdemeanors.  This is, “hey, look, he’s killing everyone.  Ha, ha, isn’t this fun?”  The unsettling thing is, the movie’s well enough made that it is sort of fun.

But that’s black comedy.  What about the transformation movies had when the criminal heroes weren’t supposed to comic heroes as well?  A lot of people place that starting point at Bonnie and Clyde and the way the movie portrays its eponymous characters.  Bosley Crowther took issue with the movie for many reasons and was unfairly roasted for it but his criticisms hit the mark many times.  When the characters kill someone, it’s clear from the way the story is presented that our sympathies are to lie with them for having to live with killing someone, not with the person killed or his family.  That guy who gets shot in the face as they speed away from the crime?  Who cares?  What’s important is that they feel bad.  Ugh.  Of course, the movie presents its case for criminals turned into celebrities by the media and the very media, the cinema, presenting their story is putting all the attention on them to make that point so it’s also understandable to hear the “but that’s the point” style arguments when presented with this argument.  Still, the romanticizing of the characters is a little much to take at times considering who they really were (and it doesn’t help that literally zero attempt was made to make Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway look like anything but sixties magazine cover models which awkwardly dates the movie more each year but, again, I think making them look like stars was the point).  It got much worse, or better, depending how we’re looking at this.

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In 1972, The Godfather dominated critics polls, movie awards, and the box office.  At its center was the good son of an organized crime leader who slowly finds himself drawn in to a life of crime.  The story of Michael Corleone is a romanticized view of life in the mob, surely, but he’s still portrayed as a man who loses his soul.  By the end, when that door closes as his wife, Kay, looks in, it’s clear that Michael has become the cold-hearted killer that his father never was.  This point is driven home in The Godfather, Part II, where they take everything made abundantly clear by the end of the first Godfather and spell it out explicitly for three and half hours just in case you somehow missed it the first time around (this remarkable act of redundancy was rewarded with even more critical raptures and awards).  In Part II, Vito Corleone, this time portrayed by Robert De Niro, is pretty clearly made out to be the good guy to Michael Corleone’s bad guy.  As in Bonnie and Clyde, the criminal is to be admired while they hold our sympathies, not reviled but it’s even worse here because they’re countering the bad criminal, Michael, with a good criminal, Vito as if to say, “See, Vito is killing for good reasons while Michael is killing for bad reasons and, hey, he killed his own brother!”  Of course, the life that Vito chose pulled his son Michael in and led to the death of Sonny, something that wouldn’t have happened had he actually been an olive oil businessman.   So the whole “Vito as good guy” has always played as bit forced and disingenuous.  He’s not a good guy, he’s a Mafia kingpin.   But here’s the thing: I like him.  And I’m supposed to.  And even though I’m well aware of the deck stacking going on in Part II in his favor, I still watch it and think, “Boy, Michael threw it all away while Vito was, at heart, a pretty good guy.”

Of course I feel that way.  The Godfather, Part II and Bonnie and Clyde are both very well made movies.  But I like Tom Powers, too, from Public Enemy, and there’s not even a pretense of him being good at heart.  I even like Cody Jarrett from White Heat and that guy’s straight up nuts.  But James Cagney plays both of those characters and by simply casting someone as charismatic as Cagney in those roles instead of some quiet, brooding actor, aren’t they manipulating the characters in precisely the same way as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, Part II?  Completely.   And in the end, none of it bothers me.  Do I care that Vito isn’t killed for his sins like Tom, Cody, Bonnie, or Clyde?  Nope.  Do I care that Henry Hill in Goodfellas mocks the viewers of the very movie he’s in for being suckers because we work for a living?  Nope.  Should I?  I really don’t know.  I assume if we felt morally corrupted every time we watched a story about morally challenged characters we’d never have gotten past Macbeth or Richard III.  One of the great things about art is that it can show us another world, one we’re not especially accustomed to and one in which we can see without moral reservations.  When I watch Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather, Part II or Goodfellas or Public Enemy or White Heat or even A Shock to the System, I watch them to see a world I can’t see in everyday life.  I also watch them to see a good story, compelling characters, and an exciting plot.  I’m not watching them to balance my moral compass. Should I be?

14 Responses Navigating the Moral Waters of the Crime Film
Posted By Arthur : September 10, 2014 2:36 pm

You ask a number of fascinating questions and offer intriguing insights. . . Regarding the Godfather, the rationale for his behavior is that he had to eliminate the small tine Mafia boss that was strangling the community and then once he was gone, he naturally filled the vacuum, protecting his people from other less scrupulous gangsters and the American power structure. . . As for Michael, recall the killing of the prostitute in the hotel room of the corrupt Senator? He set it up so that the Senator thought he killed her when he was drunk, a totally evil indefensible act. After that Michael appeared to me a complete villain. . . As for Bonnie and Clyde, I could not root for them at all. . . But Cagney, in White Heat, for some reason I was in his corner pretty much throughout. Hmmmm.

Posted By kingrat : September 10, 2014 4:43 pm

A thought-provoking article, Greg. William Blake said, in his “Proverbs of Hell” that “Energy is eternal delight.” Actors like Cagney and Michael Caine bring that energy.

Posted By jbryant : September 10, 2014 5:43 pm

I think my favorite criminal protagonist is Walter Matthau’s Charley Varrick, but he’s a bank robber, not a stone cold killer. I also thought of The Getaway, the very title of which clues us in to the fate of McQueen and MacGraw.

I think Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is palatable because he’s clearly mentally ill. It doesn’t justify his actions, of course, but leaves room for some sympathy, as does his fixation on his tough-as-nails mother.

Posted By Emgee : September 10, 2014 7:52 pm

You can be interested, even fascinated by a character without admiring his actions. I think anyone’s moral compass is sound when he knows certain acts are reprehensible, even when he enjoys watching them. Actually admiring those acts is quite a different thing( which is one reason for me disliking modern horror movies, where the killer is set up as the hero)

Posted By johnnytoobad : September 10, 2014 8:55 pm

People who live within the confines of society’s rigid strictures and mores often are fascinated with the outlaws who flaunt them

Only a few of us are truly at the, say, Ned Flanders level of goodi-goodi-two-shoes-ness … However most of us are not bold enough to live out our personal dreams against the backdrop of societal expectations and repression … So our contempt for those who do so even in a “bad” way may be mixed with some envy

Of course the truth is that characters like Tony Montana or Michael Corleone — or like Tony Soprano or Walter White — are very far indeed from having freedom of movement and desire … There may be this illusion at first — but they increasingly become trapped and stuck in webs partly of their own devisings

The paradox of course is that these tensions make for great, visceral entertainment — and we find ourselves rooting for the “anti-hero” … Like many people, I find it harder to enjoy movies about truly great men or saints … Being worshipful of them both at the beginning and end of the film, it winds up making me wonder why I needed to see the film at all … Hollywood knows this all too well of course …

Posted By Doug : September 11, 2014 2:41 am

Contrast: I love the anti-heroes of “Wild At Heart”, Lula and Sailor, because, even though they are not goodie two shoes (Adam, not Ned)they are bound together by love while even nastier villains chase them around the Oz chessboard.
However, I detest Mickey and Mallory who seem to have no souls in “Natural Born Killers”. I want them to die from frame one.
Maybe it’s as simple as Lula and Sailor (and Lynch) are romantics, and we viewers love romance. I’ve never seen much ‘romance’ from Stone or Tarantino.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 11, 2014 3:57 am

Yeah, I can admire bad guys for being very good at being bad. There is deep within us all a perverse envy of anyone who can remove enemies and rivals with as much skill as Richard III. But I’m still glad he gets butchered at the end by people he thought he could terrorize into being allies. And the people Michael (or for that matter Vitto) Corleone dispatches are as bad as he is.

The nasty thing about Bonnie & Clyde, however, is that they are presented as counterculture heroes in the “peace and love” 60s precisely because they are a couple of murderous thugs. Am I the only who cheers when they get shot to pieces? I really hate seeing the early the ’60s idealism of Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (which I adore) give way to his post-Vietnam and assassination cynicism.

Posted By gregferrara : September 11, 2014 12:34 pm

The nasty thing about Bonnie & Clyde, however, is that they are presented as counterculture heroes in the “peace and love” 60s precisely because they are a couple of murderous thugs. Am I the only who cheers when they get shot to pieces?

Not by a long shot. Like I said in the piece, Crowther was “unfairly roasted” for some very salient points, including that these lowlifes weren’t presented, as Michael Corleone after them and Cody Jarrett before them, as bad but as the characters the viewer is definitely supposed to have sympathy for. That “ugh” moment I mention in the piece is the worst part of the movie for me. All of the sympathy is directed towards them for killing a man. The man who’s killed? Who cares!

Posted By gregferrara : September 11, 2014 12:35 pm

By the way, I can’t stand Natural Born Killers so, Doug, I’m with you on wanted those two dead from the first frame.

Posted By Andrew : September 11, 2014 1:17 pm

I don’t want movies to portray realistic characters in real life situations, I have a life of my own filled with people and all are by definition real. I want the movies to take me someplace else, like the world of Michael Corleone or Tony Montana, where I have never been been and never will go. (BTW I am also very happy to have Bill Forsythe or Frank Capra take to me to there gentle and happy places too.)

I think this is why we often root for the bad guys when presented with both sides. Othello is an exaggeration of people we meet, Iago is exotic. The cops in Heat feel like regular guys, with some movie star confidence, but the thieves live in this foreign land.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 11, 2014 1:56 pm

“All of the sympathy is directed towards them for killing a man. The man who’s killed? Who cares”

I would say it’s worse than that. It isn’t that we’re not supposed to care that the man got killed; we’re supposed to be pissed at him for jumping on running board of the getaway car to try and stop a robbery, and for making the them have to kill him. After all, he represents the establishment. It’s his own fault he got killed, not theirs.

Posted By Richard Brandt : September 11, 2014 7:46 pm

That’s one of the things I like about the depiction of the criminal Dustin Hoffman portrays in STRAIGHT TIME: He’s pretty much unredeemable, and what’s worse, wants to shift the blame onto everyone else for whatever debacle is clearly his fault. If we were supposed to feel any sympathy towards him (an ex-con doesn’t have an easy time of it, after all)l I lost it by the end of the film. Not sure if that was the filmmakers’ intention but it works for me.

Posted By george : September 14, 2014 11:48 pm

Those mug shots at the end of STRAIGHT TIME let us know the Hoffman character has been a criminal since he was a teenager, and he’s not going to reform.

Posted By george : September 15, 2014 12:01 am

Also: Hoffman’s cold-blooded murder of Gary Busey’s character removes any sympathy we might have felt. He’s not a “misunderstood” nice guy; he’s a hardened career criminal.

I haven’t seen STRAIGHT TIME in years. Might dig out my DVD tonight.

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