“Let’s go figure out who the bad guy is, all right?”
Mr Pink, Reservoir Dogs
Bent cops, crook politicians, underhand media tactics, internal cover-ups, spin doctoring, hookers, developers, payoffs, con men and movie stars. Are we talking Queensland in the 1980’s? Well, no. But you could be forgiven for thinking so. It’s crime, Hollywood style.
In the days of Bogart as Private Investigator, it used to be so easy to sort out the goodies from the baddies, the trustworthy from the outright scoundrels. No matter the problem, with Bogie in his ubiquitous trench coat and fedora, as Marlowe or Spade, it would be resolved one way or the other. If you were in trouble, you phoned the authorities. And if the nature of your troubles meant that wasn’t an option then you hired a private investigator. Pretty straight forward – unless the dick you hire is a crook, no more trustworthy than the guy you’ve hired him to sort out. Nowadays a girl could get the impression she should be as wary of the cop flashing his badge as she is of the burglar flashing his weapon.
What is it with today’s crime fighters? Why do they seem to have so much trouble working out that they’re the ones who solve the crimes, not commit them? Is it really that hard to stay straight when surrounded by all those crooks? If you believe Hollywood, even the straightest of honest cops can be bought if the price is right.
Maybe Bogart’s film noir detective could be momentarily distracted by a great pair of legs, but that was as far as his devilishness went. Part of his allure was surely that he gave the appearance of being a rogue without actually having to be one. His success came from being able to ride with the criminals while not letting himself ultimately become one. Surrounded by moral corruption, he had his own moral code that allowed him to operate within crime circles while maintaining his professional integrity. The hope we held that the detective would prove to be honest was generally fulfilled. He was the perfect hero, “neither sinner nor saint, he was a little bit of both” (Rafter 2000: 73).
A good look at today’s class of heroes shows us a motley crew of gangsters, mobsters, kidnappers, pimps, gambles and hit men. Identifying the dodgy players has become an almost impossible task in Hollywood productions, as the world begins to demand narratives that don’t always take the moral high ground. Today’s audiences are very different from the pre Vietnam, Watergate and Al Qaeda aware consumers, who had implicit trust in their authorities and organisations. To a generation yet to be exposed to media saturated in conspiracy theories, it was not impossible to expect cops to be upstanding members of the community. Now, while audiences may desire law enforcers with strong ethics, they aren’t shocked if they don’t turn up, nor are they particularly inclined to trust them if they do.
It appears that movie producers are aware of this loss of naivety and innocence as post-Vietnam movies reflect a lack of confidence in government, protective services and other organisations acting as society’s guardians. Documented examples of police brutality and inefficiency have created a culture that demands to know who exactly is in control. If we can’t count on the police, and if we suspect we aren’t getting the right information from the government, then exactly who is in charge? Film and television, as the main purveyors of our cultural activities, reflect these changing mindsets.
A film such as LA Confidential should (being based primarily around a group of cops from a major downtown precinct), be teeming with decent human beings, yet there’s not a decent figure amongst the characters. Sure, Basinger plays the hooker with a heart of gold role, but she’s not above screwing her boyfriend’s colleague when her pimp asks her to. Set around the working relationship of three very different detectives, the audience is left in no doubt of the film’s message – that anyone can be corrupted if the price is right, or the motivation spot on. They don’t trust each other – why should the audience?
From the moment we are introduced to the highly moralistic character of Ed Exley (played by Guy Pearce), we know that by movie’s end either he’ll have had to confront his ethical beliefs, or the audience will hate his moral crusade. It is only through his wavering, and subsequent ethical dilemma, that Exley becomes likable. Until that moment of realisation, not only is he ostracized by his world weary colleagues, but by the audience as well. Until he shows his ‘inner criminal’, we loathe him, and certainly don’t align with him.
Positioned as Exley’s polar opposite in LA Confidential, Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a man on a mission to avenge every act of violence against women, and will break the law to do so. Problem is, when things get a bit grim his personal life, he gives Kim Basinger a smack across the face highlighting how the strongest convictions can fall apart if the right buttons are pressed.
Perhaps the only character we can rely on is the consistently corrupt Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a figure who would never miss the chance of a payoff, yet is forthcoming about his activities, and refreshingly self-mocking.
What remains constant in today’s crime films is that the audience is often left rooting for the supposed criminal rather that the crime fighter. Criminals are now often drawn in such a way that their charisma overrides any judgement we may make about their clandestine activities. Positioned against a dodgy cop, the crim doesn’t look so bad!
Sometimes we justify their criminality with movies such as Thelma and Louise, and sometimes we glamorize their criminal careers in films like The Godfather trilogy. Interestingly, The Godfather was always intended to highlight the gritty futility of mafia crime, yet its subsequent cult status within our culture highlights the way the audience reveres and condones the characters and their lives.
There is an undeniable attraction to the glamour of crime, to the sheer recklessness of the criminal’s actions. Certain characteristics of criminals become admirable – their daring, their icy demeanour and the ability to switch off their emotional response. The criminal hero’s allure lies in his sense of adventure, his romantic temperament and his stalwart belief that his actions are justifiable. Just think Warren Beatty in Bonnie & Clyde, one of cinemas most likeable bad guys. If a guy can go out breaking skulls all day, then come home bearing roses for his wife, he is all the more admired. Depictions of gangsters who return for dinner at 5 o’clock give their lives a sense of normality. For the viewer, the hero’s criminal activities are just a form of employment, comparable to a lawyer, bank manager or insurance salesman.
Martin Scorscese’s Casino highlights how a group of people we’d normally have little compassion for can endear themselves to an audience to the extent that we cheer them on and relish their success.
Take Ginger (Sharon Stone), a character who is glamorous, intelligent, powerful, infamous and sexy. Did someone say drug addicted whore??? Who cares! She’s hot, she’s got great clothes, and she brought the whole shebang to its knees! GO SISTER!!!
Even Joe Pesci’s portrayal of the emotionally barren Nicky Santoro can evoke affection from the audience. Perhaps it’s the way he says ‘FUCK’ with complete abandon, or the way he pats his wife on the bum. More likely, our admiration for Santoro stems from the total audacity of his actions.
It is a visual extension of the feeling we get when we talk our way out of a speeding ticket, or drive home a little tipsy without getting sprung by the Booze Bus. Society loves getting one up on authority and celebrates rebellion in various forms. Anyone who’s received so much a parking ticket knows the urge to get revenge on Big Brother. That there are people in the world who enact these fantasies is a given, but for the majority of us our only insight into this world is via crime reports in the news (Bond Potter 1998: 59). Films allow us access to a life of crime without the risk of ending up in the clink.
Popular absurdist films such as Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and to a certain extent even Casino, refuse to let the audience take crime too seriously by filling the screen with delightfully despicable characters we can’t help but like. We enjoy them because they enact to extreme levels every outlandish fantasy we’ve conjured up about teaching that parking inspector a lesson. Absurdist films work on our natural assumptions of crime and those who commit them by taking hose assumptions and throwing them back at us, so that murder and mayhem are treated with an unexpected quirky edge (Rafter 2000: 47). Whether the criminal ought to be punished for their misdemeanours becomes inconsequential as we begin to see them as we see ourselves – the perpetrator of the crime suddenly becomes the victim of a greater injustice. Never mind they’ve previously kidnapped a child, shot her mother and stolen a car; we know how they feel because we’ve been in trouble with the law too.
In reality, we’re just a bunch of cowards living vicariously through rebellious film characters as a means of safely resisting authority, allowing film to nourish our “secret voyeuristic desires” (Rafter 2000: 43).
As a cultural conductor, film provides the perfect place to enact the antagonism we feel towards the justice system without having to consider ourselves common criminals. Today’s films, by allowing us to experience both sides of the law, make us feel just a little less morally compromised. We never be no Spade or Marlowe, but we ain’t no Nicky Santoro either!