Crime films are films that focus on the lives of criminals. The stylistic approach to a crime film varies from realistic portrayals of real-life criminal figures, to the far-fetched evil doings of imaginary arch-villains.
Plays and films
Films dealing with crime and its detection are often based on plays rather than novels. Agatha Christie's stage play Witness for the Prosecution (1953; based on her own short story, published in 1933) was adapted for the big screen by director Billy Wilder in 1957. The film starred Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton and is a classic example of a "courtroom drama". In a courtroom drama, a charge is brought against one of the main characters, who says that they are innocent. Another major part is played by the lawyer (in England a barrister) representing the defendant in court and battling with the public prosecutor. He or she may enlist the services of a private investigator to find out what really happened and who the real perpetrator is. However, in most cases it is not clear at all whether the accused is guilty of the crime or not—this is how suspense is created.
Often, the private investigator storms into the courtroom at the very last minute in order to bring a new and crucial piece of information to the attention of the court. This type of literature lends itself to the literary genre of drama focused more on dialogue (the opening and closing statements, the witnesses' testimonies, etc.) and little or no necessity for a shift in scenery. The auditorium of the theatre becomes an extension of the courtroom. When a courtroom drama is filmed, the traditional device employed by screenwriters and directors is the frequent use of flashbacks, in which the crime and everything that led up to it is narrated and reconstructed from different angles.
In Witness for the Prosecution, Leonard Vole, a young American living in England, is accused of murdering a middle-aged lady he met in the street while shopping. His wife (played by Marlene Dietrich) hires the best lawyer available (Charles Laughton) because she is convinced, or rather she knows, that her husband is innocent. Another classic courtroom drama is U.S. playwright Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men (1954), which is set in the jury deliberation room of a New York Court of Law. Eleven members of the jury, aiming at a unanimous verdict of "guilty", try to get it over with as quickly as possible. And they would really succeed in achieving their common aim if it were not for the eighth juror (played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie adaptation), who, on second thoughts, considers it his duty to convince his colleagues that the defendant may be innocent after all, and who, by doing so, triggers a lot of discussion, confusion, and anger.
The popularity of TV brought about the emergence of TV series featuring detectives, investigators, special agents, lawyers, and the police. In Britain, The Avengers (1960s) about the adventures of gentleman agent John Steed and his partner, Emma Peel, achieved cult status. U.S. TV stations produced series such as 77 Sunset Strip (1958–1963); The Streets of San Francisco (1972–1977), starring Karl Malden and a young Michael Douglas; Kojak (1973–1978), with Telly Savalas playing the lollipop-addicted police lieutenant; Switch (1975–1978), with Eddie Albert playing the retired bunco cop to Robert Wagner's role as a former con man; Charlie's Angels (1976–1981); Murder, She Wrote (starting in 1984), about the adventures of Cabot Cove-based mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury. In Germany, Derrick became a household word. Breaking Bad character Walter White is a methamphetamine drug manufacturer, this offered a different approach whereby the protagonist is the criminal instead of being the detective.
Crime films may fall under several different subgenres. These include:
- Crime comedies - A hybrid of crime and comedy films. Mafia comedies look at organized crime from a comical standpoint. Humor often comes from the incompetence of the criminals or dark comedy. Examples include Analyze This, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, In Bruges, Mafia!, Tower Heist and Pain & Gain.
- Crime thrillers - Thrillers in which the central characters are involved in crime, either in its investigation, as the perpetrator or, less commonly, a victim (generally, this is just a thriller). While some action films could be label as such for merely having criminality and thrills, the emphasis in this genre is the drama and the investigative/criminal methods. Examples include Untraceable, Silence of the Lambs, Heat, Seven, Witness, Memories of Murder, The Call, and Running Scared.
- Film noir - A genre popular in the 1940s and 1950s often fall into the crime and mystery genres. Private detectives hired to solve a crime are in such films as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly, L.A. Confidential, The Long Goodbye, and Chinatown. Neo-noir refers to modern films influenced by film noir such as Sin City.
- Heist films - These films deal with a group of criminals attempting to perform a theft or robbery, as well as the possible consequences that follow. Heist films that are lighter in tone are called "Caper films". Examples include The Killing, Oceans 11, Dog Day Afternoon, Reservoir Dogs, and The Town.
- Hood films - Films dealing with African-American urban issues and culture. They do not always revolve around crime, but often criminal activity features heavily in the storyline. Examples include Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood.
- Legal dramas - Not usually concerned with the actual crime so much as the trial in the aftermath. A typical plot would involve a lawyer trying to prove the innocence of his or her client. Examples include 12 Angry Men and A Time To Kill.
- Mob films - Films which focus on characters who are involved seriously with the Mafia or organized crime. Notable mob films include: The Godfather, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Bugsy, Little Caesar, The Untouchables, The Public Enemy, Scarface, and The Departed.
- Mystery films - Films which focuses on the efforts of the detective, private investigator or amateur sleuth to solve the mysterious circumstances of a crime by means of clues, investigation, and clever deduction
- Police procedural - Have remained a mainstay with He Walked By Night, In the Heat of the Night, Madigan, and The French Connection.
- Detective (or who-dun-it) film