I am well aware that there were several good silent crime films (The Great Train Robbery (1903) for one), but that era is not my expertise. If you have a crime drama from the silent era that you would like to discuss. I’d be happy to share your work. I am always welcome to the discussion.
Before the rise of technology and CGI, the crime drama was one of the most popular genres of the 1930’s. The names change and the graphic violence escalates, but the roots remain the same.
Criminals vs Authority figures
Deception, surveillence, double crossing.
Often featuring an energetic, but ruthless, leading role played by a popular male actor of the day. (Women still have a hard time breaking into this genre as leads.)
The two main possibilities for female representation are motherly figures, and younger women who stay too long in a bad situation (by choice or sometimes through force).
Some of the crime films of the early 1930’s paved the way for more modern movies. They may feel dated now, but they are a vital piece of cinematic history. The three in particular that I will discuss are Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface.
Little Caesar (1931)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks
Plot: Small-time criminal seeks to make it big in the city. There he finds larger obstacles, but bigger payoffs.
When you think of the language of the mobster in the classical sense, you likely try to impersonate Little Caesar-Rico. (Now see here, mnah.) Think a much more menacing Chief Wiggum from “The Simpsons”. Edward G. Robinson cemented his role in movie history with this film. The lingo, the actions, the catchphrases, even the ending. This film sparked dozens of others much like it.
The Public Enemy (1931)
Director: William A. Wellman
Plot: The young and feisty Tom Powers rises through the Chicago underworld while a looming mob war percolates under the surface.
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow
James Cagney plays the hot-headed and diabolical Tom Powers.
I’ve always had a hard time with this movie because of some the actions in it. Just terrible toward women in general. It’s a vicious film, but it follows to a familiar ending. Spoiler here- (In most crime dramas this era, the “lead” rarely wins out.) Movies like Public Enemy showcase this as well as the harsh treatment of women.
Released: April 9th, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks/ Richard Rosson
Starring: Paul Muni, George Raft, Boris Karloff, Ann Dvorak
Plot: An ambitious and nearly insane violent gangster climbs the ladder of success in the mob, but his weaknesses prove to be his downfall.
Scarface was so dark and violent that they added humor to it to lighten the mood. In my opinion, it is a great movie that is hurt more than helped by the addition of comedy. It is a staple in the crime-drama genre. I strongly urge people to watch both versions. It is the model to which most crime dramas were molded.
A More Modern Look
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfiffer, Robert Loggia,
In Miami in 1980, a determined Cuban immigrant takes over a drug cartel and succumbs to greed.
This Scarface remake is the perfect example of a more modern crime drama. This time Al Pacino take on the role and brings a performance of a lifetime (one of several for him) the violence is a lot more intense as is the production value.