A Cinematic History of Crime, Part 1

Movie studios learned early on that, when it comes to box office intake, crime really does pay. The parent genre of mystery, suspense and noir, crime films allowed the average moviegoer a closer look at the darker, more violent aspects of society from the comfort of their local theater, and the interest in these shady elements was apparent almost from the first.

A British short film from 1895 depicting a policeman arresting a pickpocket is among the earliest known films in what would become one of the cornerstone genres of cinema, and before long other creators began to experiment in this vein. Thomas Edison's cultural phenomenon The Great Train Robbery hit theaters in 1903, startling audiences with its famous final scene of an outlaw firing a gun directly at the viewer, while the very first gangster film, D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley, came to the screen in 1912.

1913 saw the first cinematic supervillain in the form of Fantômas, a six-episode French serial based on a series of novels, starring René Navarre as the titular criminal mastermind. By the end of the decade it was apparent that crime films were here to stay.

The release of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler in 1922 was an example of a crime film that also served as social commentary. The story of a literal criminal psychologist who uses a combination of hypnotism, disguises, and the efficiency of his personal henchmen to enrich himself at the expense of others, it also serves as a grim portrait of life in Weimar Germany; the first chapter of this two-part, 268-minute-long epic is literally subtitled "A Portrait of Our Times." It combined quiet drama with riveting suspense, and a brilliantly-executed scene featuring a nighttime car chase was one of the first of its kind.

Lang would return to the crime genre with his first sound film, M, in 1930: the story of a serial killer who targets children, and the race between the police and the criminal underworld to put an end to him. With its proto-noir feel and a fantastic performance by Peter Lorre, M was an international sensation and would continue to influence the crime genre for decades to come.

The 1930s saw the rise of the classic gangster films. Crowds flocked to theaters to see stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in films such as The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, watching in awe as these wiseguys used every dirty trick in the books to rise to the top of the criminal underworld before karma inevitably caught up with them. Despite the bleak fates met by the protagonists, some criticized these films as glorifying the criminal lifestyle, which was taken into consideration when the Production Code Administration was established in 1934.

Though the public's love of gangster films remained undiminished, studios were now forced to emphasize beyond any doubt that crime truly doesn't pay in accordance with the Code. The 1939 film The Roaring Twenties, considered the last of the classic gangster films, serves as a love letter to the genre while simultaneously imparting that the era had passed. No longer would cinema be able to present outright the gritty, frighteningly realistic violence that had characterized the genre since the beginning. The Code had taken over Hollywood, and crime films would never be the same again.

Join us next month for a continuing look at the evolution of crime films. In the meantime, you can check out the films mentioned here in our catalog!

- by R. Lindsey