In his introduction to Versions of Hollywood Crime Cinema: Studies in Ford, Wilder, Coppola, Scorsese and Others, author Carl Freedman makes a fascinating case for why for so long the crime genre has been thought of as the most middlebrow of all film genres. Crime movies exist in the “middle realm” as he defines it; a limbo of sorts created by the conflicting views of capitalism and Marxism that allowed it to become the least important, but perhaps most entertaining of cinematic styles.
He then proceeds to split the crime genre into film noir, mob movies and Westerns, a genre on its own that’s rarely included within the crime canon, but that, as explained by Freedman, makes more sense (even if it becomes slightly too idiosyncratic at times) within the larger scope of crime movies than standing on its own. The inclusion of Westerns might in the end have less to do with Freedman’s need to categorize all the American genres, than with justifying the inclusion of his essay called “Post-heterosexuality: John Wayne and the Construction of American Masculinity”; a brilliant piece of writing in which he deconstructs gender in America through the Duke.
Freedman observes how decades after his death, Wayne still remains the ultimate symbol of American masculinity, something that became evident when a prominent political figure compared a federal agent to John Wayne in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He goes on to add how troubling this figure is, when it comes to fulfilling an all-encompassing sense of heterosexuality. Especially, as Freedman points out, when desiring a woman suggests a sense of incompleteness, of “half” masculinity, which of course gives path to doubts about what entirely figures within this vague concept to begin with. It’s impossible to read this section of the book without a huge grin on your face, as Freedman proves to be a scholar with a wonderful sense of humor who finds as many points to reflect on as he has issues with how ridiculous concepts of sexual identity can become when juxtaposed against cinema legends.
In earlier articles, the author discusses other landmarks of crime cinema like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy as well as Goodfellas; the former he uses to explore the Marxist ideas of accumulation, the latter to point out how the men in mafia films would be understood by Thomas Hobbes who described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. If there’s nothing new or groundbreaking about a crime book discussing Coppola and Scorsese, it must be said that Freedman approaches them from perspectives that are rarely touched. The Godfather has become the ultimate crime film, but its tragic tale of corrupting power has always been more linked to a metaphor of American history (complete with passages on immigration) than about Marxist economic theory.
The same can be said for his humanistic take on Goodfellas through which he thinks, Marty painted a portrait of a world without solidarity, he goes on to point out how in this way, Coppola and Scorsese stand at direct opposites, while the former believes in the possibility of reformation (what is Apocalypse Now if not a lovesong to second chances?), Scorsese sees bleakness all around him.
After leaving us thinking about such provoking topics, Freedman pulls the rug from under our feet and declares that crime movies might very well be dead as he turns towards the Dickensian promise of “epicness” fulfilled by modern television. In order to make a powerful statement he uses David Chase’s The Sopranos, a show that owes as much to Coppola and Scorsese as they in return own to it for keeping their central issues valid and relevant. “Part of the real genius of the series is to understand that television cannot merely emulate cinema without consigning itself to mediocrity” says the author, as he then squeezes a surprisingly heartbreaking elegy to the mafia found within the legendary movies mentioned before.
Freedman points out how, after the appearance of The Sopranos in 1999, Hollywood has shown little or no interest in producing any movies about mobsters and when they do, they hired James Gandolfini to play the leader. Essay after essay, the author uncovers new layers in a genre that often seems to stall because filmmakers make us believe there is nothing new to say.
Establishing connections between works like Double Indemnity and The Day the Earth Stood Still, Freedman proves to be one of the most creative film scholars currently working. His theories on labor within the overtly sexual Body Heat are delicious, to say the least, and at the end of the book, you will want to revisit every movie he mentions to compare his points with your own.