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.
Historically, 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