March 26, 2010

Top-rated crime and noir movies created during peaceful times

Lately I've been going through a lot of the great action crime movies -- Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, etc. -- and not being a movie buff, I went to IMDb to see what other great crime movies are out there that I could move to next.

Surprisingly, almost none of the movies on the top 50 crime titles was in the vein of the three I just mentioned. They're more stylized, more glorifying of and sympathetic to criminals, and not as focused on action. That's fine, but I thought these movies should be listed under "drama" since most people think of Lethal Weapon or the Dirty Harry movies when it comes to the crime genre.

I noticed that almost all of these more stylized crime movies came from periods in American history when the homicide rate was falling or flat at a low level. The periods of rising homicide are 1900 (and maybe before) through 1933 and again from 1959 through 1991 or 1992. The periods of falling homicide are 1934 through 1958 and again from 1992 or 1993 through the present. There are a few exceptions (mostly ones that make the gangster / mob life look fun), but overall these top-rated crime movies were made during a time when their subject matter was fading out of the picture.

So next I went to the top 50 film noir titles, and they are almost entirely from low-crime times. Only 2 of the 50 are from high-crime times, and just barely: Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (both 1932).

Why aren't such movies made during high-crime times? Because the audience is in the thick of the shit and can't remove themselves enough to appreciate a stylized and morally ambivalent portrayal of the world of crime. The great crime movies during high-crime times are more gritty than dressed up and draw fairly clear lines between who are the good guys vs. the bad guys. The focus is more on the impact of crime on average people and their surroundings -- accomplished through all the action shots rather than dialog. The only morally ambivalent aspect is that the crime fighters are vigilantes or cops with that streak. This is justified in these movies, however, by the flabbiness and blindness of the higher-ups and the establishment in general:

Homer: Ooh! It's that new show about the policeman who solves crimes in his spare time.

Bart: Crank it, Homer!

Chief: You busted up that crack house pretty bad, McGonigle. Did you really have to break so much furniture?

McGonigle: You tell me, Chief. You had a pretty good view from behind your desk.

Homer: Ah, McGonigle: eases the pain.

Chief: You're off the case, McGonigle!

McGonigle: You're off _your_ case, Chief!

Chief: What does that mean exactly?

Homer: [yelling] It means he gets results, you stupid chief!

Lisa: Dad, siddown.

Homer: Oh, I'm sorry.

You see exactly the same difference in crime-oriented video games. During the high-crime times of the '80s and early '90s, popular video games like Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Double Dragon, Renegade, Golden Axe, Shinobi, NARC, Streets of Rage, Bad Dudes, and a thousand others -- they all feature criminals running amok, and you play as a vigilante that's going to flush all that scum down the sewer where it belongs.

In contrast, it was only when crime started falling after 1992 that video games where you play as the criminal, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, became popular and the renegade crime fighter stories faded away. The reason again is that when crime is high, it is palpable and people -- especially energetic young boys -- want to do something about it and go kick some scumbag's ass. Video games like Final Fight let you enjoy combat driven by moralistic aggression. When crime starts plummeting, people aren't as freaked out as before and don't have the same desire to clean up the streets Martin Riggs-style. Then young boys return to their default state of mild sociopathy and want to play as a sadistic killer or petty thief.

Fortunately for those who still enjoy the crime-fighting games, they've been collected into "arcade classics" compilations for the newer systems. There's still nothing more satisfying than knocking a criminal kingpin out of a window 50 stories high and hearing him cry like a little girl as he falls to his death.


  1. Still one of the best vigilante games is Streets of Rage for the Sega Mega. You go around beating the shit out of scum in Los Angeles (I think).

    If you want movies where good guys go around killing bad guys then Charles Bronson is worth watching. I haven't seen his Death Wish movies but they're supposed to be hardcore vigilantism.

    I would also recommend the Untouchables.

    BTW - film noir was a different genre to modern crime movies. Its a lost art. There was very little violence by today's standard in film noir movies.

    - Breeze

  2. On a different but related note, I recall reading that the core audience for police-procedural TV shows like Law & Order and CSI is comprised of middle-aged, middle class suburban white women, who also happen to be the demographic group with just about the least risk of becoming crime victims.


  3. One movie with a non-reckless sympathetic cop protagonist is Fargo. Oddly enough, the Coen brothers said they identified most with Buscemi's character (because he's very out of place).

    Off-topic: Slate has now joined you among the anti-anti-fat brigades:


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