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Wednesday July 27, 2011

Book Review: Crime Films by Thomas Leitch (2002)

In 2004 I reviewed the book “Crime Films” by Thomas Leitch for Film Quarterly magazine. The original review, which I reread recently, wasn’t good. Here’s an attempt to both loosen up and focus the original. Apologies to all involved.

In the first chapter of “Crime Films,” which is the third installment in Cambridge University Press’ series, “Genres in American Cinema,” author Thomas Leitch, professor of English and director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware, spends much of his time debating whether he even has a genre to explore.

Crime Films by Thomas LeitchHistorically, he argues, crime film has been an academically ignored category; its sub-genres—including film noir, detective stories and gangster films—garner the attention. So should the larger category be its own genre or simply an umbrella covering better-known genres? And does it matter what we call it? And what makes a genre a genre?

In this way Leitch exercises himself for pages even though we know—as surely as we know that the detective will solve the crime, because that’s the way of detective films—that Leitch will argue in favor of the crime film genre, because we’re holding the book in our hands.

We’re not there yet, though. Leitch raises three “insuperable obstacles” in defining his genre: 1) crime is an aberration but crime films tend to treat it as normal; 2) how to distinguish crime films from thrillers, where crime is an isolated event rather than a metaphor for social unrest; and, 3) the various intermingling of the genre’s stock characters: the criminal, the victim and the avenger. Reading, I thought, “Why are these obstacles? They read like definitions.” At which point, Leitch, like a bad magician, reveals, with a hearty abracadabra, that his obstacles aren’t obstacles at all but “at the heart of such a definition.”


It’s still an interesting topic. Human beings are constantly veering between the wish for order (and safety from the lawless), and the wish for freedom (and safety from the law), and crime films are celluloid representations of this ambivalence. It’s tricky generalizing about decades, but it’s still worthwhile pointing out, as Leitch does, that the lawyer as hero (Atticus Finch) reflected comforting thoughts about institutions in the 1950s; the gangster as hero (Bonnie and Clyde) reflected doubts about institutions in the 1960s; and the rogue cop as hero (Dirty Harry) reflected doubts about both rebellion and institutions in the 1970s.

I wish he’d continued in this direction. I wish he’d taken individual crime films through the years and charted whether they affirmed or challenged the existing moral, social or institutional order. This could have proven fascinating.

Instead, shortly after identifying the crime-film genre, he abandons it in favor of its better-known subgenres. Chapters 4 through 12 highlight, in order, the victim film, the gangster film, the film noir, the erotic thriller, the unofficial-detective film, the private eye film, the police film, the lawyer film, and the crime comedy, with a representative film explicated at the end of each chapter. This is certainly fun but scattershot. We’re never sure why, for example, his representative films are representative. At times he chooses purity over complexity: “Bullitt” instead of “The French Connection” for police films. Other times, he opts for complexity over purity: “Fury” instead of “Death Wish” for the victim film. “The Godfather” is selected as the representative gangster film because it’s “the most ambitious of all such studies, and the greatest of all American crime films.” But doesn’t this make it least representative?

So is there value in dealing with the crime-film genre via its tidier sub-genres? Sure. In the chapter on the lawyer film, represented by “Reversal of Fortune,” Leitch writes, “The lawyer’s official role, held in contempt in gangster films and police films alike, is to represent the law to individual citizens accused of wrongdoing...”—which is when a light went on over my head. Of course! Since we identify and root for the protagonist in each subgenre, studying the gangster film without the corresponding lawyer or police film is like watching a third of “Rashomon”: we’re only getting part of the story.

Leitch says so much in the final chapter. The full story, he writes, “continues to haunt the partial story each subgenre represents, for every film in every crime subgenre is marked by numberless traces of the alternative crime story it could have been.” Imagine, for example, “The Godfather” as a police film about the rise-and-fall of a corrupt cop (Capt. McCluskey). Imagine it focusing on a young, ambitious gangster (Sollozzo), who saw the future in drugs and had it stolen away by Don Corleone and his greedy sons. In this manner, you could to any crime film what Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did to “Hamlet.” Where’s the film on Dirty Harry’s beleaguered chiefs—trapped between a maverick cop and the prigs at city hall? Where’s the film on the good folks at city hall who must deal with this rampaging cop and his ineffectual police chief?

This raises the question: Are there crime films that abandon the singular viewpoint? That give us the movie from the perspective of criminal, victim and avenger? If not, maybe it’s an argument for why the crime film, as defined by Leitch, doesn’t exist. It needs a greater wisdom than we, with our love of the narrow point-of-view, have.

“Crime Films” isn’t an easy read. Leitch’s prose tends to be overly academic and his mind tends to wander. Some meanderings, admittedly, are interesting: his distinction, for example, between the European victim film like “The Bicycle Thief,” in which there is a crime and a victim but not a criminal or avenger, and the Hollywood victim film, like “Death Wish,” in which victims tend to be “worms who turn on their tormentors.” And as academic as he is, he still provides a structure through which any film with a criminal, victim and avenger can be studied.

That structure is never more valuable than now. We’re living in a post-Enron world, in which our institutions are corrupt and must be weakened. We’re also living in a post-9/11 world, in which the world is corrupt and our institutions must be strengthened. So which way will we go? How will our ambivalence about order and freedom be exhibited over the next decade? And how will this ambivalence be reflected in our art?

--Originally published in a 2004 issue of Film Quarterly

No tagsPosted at 07:18 AM on Jul 27, 2011 in category Books
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Friday April 15, 2011

Why You Should Never Name Your Plane “Green Hornet”

I don't want to make light of a book that contains the horrors that Laura Hillenbrand's “Unbroken” contains, but I find it—how do I put this?—superheroally appropriate that a WWII airplane named Super Man, after getting shot 594 times during an air battle over the island of Nauru, continues to fly many hours and hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean to deposit its crew safely on the island of Funafuti; while a plane called Green Hornet can't handle one rescue mission, crashes into the ocean, and in effect causes all the unspeakable horrors that ensue.

Name your planes well, people.

Super Man, an F-24, as seen in Laura Hillenbrand's book "Unbroken"

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Posted at 07:01 AM on Apr 15, 2011 in category Books
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Monday April 11, 2011

My Starting Nine (of the Literary World)

Josh Wilker, voice of the mathematically eliminated, and author of one of my favorite recent books, “Cardboard Gods,” was interviewed a few weeks back by Shelf Awareness, who asked him, among other things, to name his five favorite authors. He did them one better: he gave them a starting nine.

On his own site he asked, a la the MLB Network, “What's your starting nine?”

That's my kinda question.

First, I went with American authors only, partly because it's our national pastime, and partly because I couldn't figure out positions for Tolstoy and Kundera. Then I tried to pick my most-read authors. This is what I came up with:

  • James Baldwin, CF: Great range—from novels to essays to memoir to plays. (.312/.401/.405)
  • Tobias Wolff, 2B: Never hits the ball far but always hits it cleanly; good at moving the man over. (.293/.397/.372)
  • Ernest Hemingway, 1B: The legend. Opposition pitchers quake when he steps up. (.302/.384/.557)
  • Norman Mailer, C: Big mouth behind the plate; big bat at the plate—he’s always swinging for the fences. (.264, .374, .531)
  • John Irving, 3B: Another big hitter, not as naturally talented as Mailer, but he's put together some incredible seasons. (.274/.359/.514)
  • Philip Roth, RF: A line-drive hitter, he sprays it all over the park. (.282/.367/.482)
  • E.L. Doctorow, LF: Just what the world needs, Edgar, another left fielder. (.275/.353/.455)
  • J.D. Salinger, SS: A lot of heart and soul; plus poetry on the glove. (.266/.353/.422)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, P: Crazy lefty. (2.88 ERA)

Leading off, playing center field, and author of "Notes of a Native Son," no. 22, James Baldwin. Baldwin.   Batting second and playing second, number 2, the author of "This Boy's Life," Tobias Wolff. Wolff.  In the third spot and playing first base, number 3, the author of "The Sun Also Rises," Ernest "Big Papa" Hemingway. Hemingway.

Hitting cleanup and catching, number 1, the author of "The Naked and the Dead," Norman Mailer. Mailer.  Fifth, playing third, and author of "The World According to Garp," number 6, John Irving. Irving.   Sixth, the right fielder and author of "The Ghost Writer," number 17, Philip Roth. Roth.

Batting seventh, the left fielder and author of "The Book of Daniel," number 33, E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow.  Eighth and playing shortstop, number 42 and author of "The Catcher in the Rye" and the Glass family series, Jerome David Salinger. Salinger.  Pitching and batting ninth, number 99, author of "Cat's Cradle," Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut.

My starting nine.

This means a lot of talent on the bench, of course: Cather, DeLillo, Morrison, Updike. Serously: Updike? I'm not starting Updike? Don't I want to win this thing?

Originally, by the way, I had Gore Vidal pitching, so I could have a battery of Vidal-Mailer, but then I remembered Doctorow wasn't on the team so someone had to go.

It's a tough, fun exercise. Now what's your starting nine?

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Posted at 07:48 AM on Apr 11, 2011 in category Books
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Sunday March 13, 2011

Opening and Closing: Louis Menand on Wild Bill Donovan and the Hollywood View of History

Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience has a fun feature he does semi-regularly, called “First and Last,” in which he shows readers a screenshot of the first and last images of a movie and asks them to guess the movie. It's harder than you'd think.

This isn't meant to emulate that. Yesterday I simply read Louis Menand's review of Douglas Waller's “Wild Bill Donovan," about the founder of the O.S.S., and thus the granddaddy of all U.S. foreign intelligence operations, and was particularly impressed by Menand's opening and closing paragraphs. I wanted to share.

Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas WallerHere's the opening:

There is history the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything. Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.

Here's the closing:

Waller believes that Donovan got his nickname from his soldiers in the 165th, one of whom is supposed to have shouted out, during a particularly intense drill, “We ain’t as wild as you are, Bill.” Other writers, such as Tim Weiner, in his eye-opening history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” claim that it came from a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who was called Wild Bill Donovan in tribute to the number of walks and hit batters he was responsible for. The first story suggests fearlessness, the second recklessness. Donovan had both. It is good that his time onstage was brief.

I recommend reading everything in between.
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Posted at 05:28 PM on Mar 13, 2011 in category Books
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Tuesday January 04, 2011

Scene at a Barnes & Noble II

Scene: The Barnes & Noble on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas. I enter the store for the second time in the span of an hour to buy a DVD (“How to Train Your Dragon”) for my nephew Jordy. That's when I spot an author table near the door. The table is small, the author ready, no one is paying attention. Too bad, I think. Wonder what the dude wrote? Then I see the book propped up around the table:

Me: Whoa.

I go over, pick up the book, leaf through it. I exchange pleasantries with the author, Bob Showers. He begins to explain how the book came about.

Bob: I contacted the Twins organization for official photos from the period. See these? I got all of these from the Twins. Then I brought them along when I interviewed the players to jog their memories.
Me: Oh, so it's an oral history, too. Wow, you interviewed Killebrew?
Bob:  Yep.
Me: Hey, has anyone written a biography of him?
Bob: Well, biographies have been written, back in his playing days, but...
Me: I'm talking about a big bio, like Mays and Aaron just got, but about Harmon. There'd be less interest nationally, of course, but ... I don't know. All the more reason to do it. I'd like to read it anyway. Hey, the Beatles!
Bob (nodding): Beatles played at the Met in '65, Eagles in '78.
Me: I remember that concert. The Eagles, not the Beatles. God, great photos. Cesar Tovar, Rich Rollins, Ted Uhlander. Love the '60s uni. That “Twins” script and the TC caps. Hated it when they went to the red cap and the beltless stretch pants in the mid-seven- ... Holy crap!
Bob: What?
Me: It's ... me.

I'd come across a photo that I knew well but hadn't seen in decades: Dave Edwards, on June 13, 1979, bounding toward the Twins dugout after hitting a late-game, two-run homer to give the Twins an 8-6 lead over the New York Yankees. The shot is from behind so you can see his name and number (33), the Twins players in the dugout, including Kenny Landreux and Johnny Castino, smiling and ready to congratulate him, and about ten rows of cheering fans. The photo made the front page of the sports section of The Minneapolis Tribune the next day, and I kept it for years, because I was in it. Me, my father, and my friend Dave Budge sat in row 8 that night.

Bob: Where?
Me: Right there.
Observer #1: That's you?

I look up. By now we've drawn a crowd.

Me: Yep.
Observer #2: Right. Sure, that's you.
Me (vaguely amused): Why would I make that up?
Bob: The guy in front of you is wearing a CheapTrick concert T-shirt. When was the photo taken? June 1979? I bet he was at that CheapTrick concert at the Met around that time.

I flip through more pages. I'd planned on buying it anyway. Now it's a done deal. Me and two other guys start talking about the last Twins game at Met Stadium. Turns out we were all there.

Me: How odd. Because that crowd was, like, sparse.
Observer #1: Less than 25 thousand.
Bob: 15 thousand.
Observer #1: That low?
Me: Right? So it's weird that 30 years later three of those 15 thousand would be in the same Barnes & Noble at the same time. Weird but cool.

If you're at all interested in the book, you can buy copies here or here. Bob Showers' Web site is here.

And remember to check out author tables. I'm not saying you'll find yourself but you never know.

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Posted at 06:39 AM on Jan 04, 2011 in category Books
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