BRITISH CRIME FILM IN THE 21st CENTURY
When writing British Crime Film for Palgrave Macmillan, I knew I was dealing with combustible stuff.
These films are dangerous. But despite being notorious for shocking violence and sex, Britain’s crime cinema offers a more politically informed analysis of British society from the 1920s onwards than more overtly respectable ‘heritage’ cinema – and particularly so in the 21st century, where the genre is edgier and more relevant than ever, addressing crime in every form, from drug-ridden, violent council estates to the corporate well-heeled crime of the boardroom.
The best filmmakers utilise the language of classic crime cinema (gangsters, robberies, up-against-it policemen), frequently providing a provocative critique of society. The British Board of Film Censors once advocated drastic cutting (not persuaded by the filmmakers’ stated aim of targeting an adult audience), pointing out that such films would appeal to ‘morons of a violent inclination’ – and British film censorship from the 1940s onwards has focused on the potentially destabilising effect of popular cinema with its graphic violence or carnality.
In 2012, the dividing line between TV and film is growing ever more tenuous, as a new TV frankness mirrors what is possible in the cinema today. The crime fiction movie is in the rudest of health, continuing to inspire some trenchant and accomplished work among the most ambitious filmmakers, keen to incorporate political and social comment into their audience-pleasing (and still shocking) narratives.
In many ways, the modest critical standing of much British crime cinema has afforded it a rich seam of possibilities. Genre cinema was for many years treated with critical disdain (consolidated by the fact that audiences – while enjoying it – regarded the field as nothing more than entertainment). But it didn’t take long for intelligent filmmakers to utilise the language of classic crime cinema (gangsters, robberies, establishment-baiting policemen) in new and ingenious ways, frequently offering up a critique of society by allusion. There is an interesting parallel here with the critical standing of literary crime fiction in Britain, similarly afforded little respect until such writers as PD James finessed the elements of psychology and characterisation first introduced by Golden Age novelists such as Dorothy Sayers, with the result that crime fiction on the printed page is now frequently reviewed in the broadsheets alongside more ‘literary’ genres. To some degree, there has been a parallel breakthrough for many filmmakers dealing in cinematic crime, but the level of acceptance has been more fitful. One of my principal aims in writing British Crime Film was to demonstrate the myriad ways in which British crime cinema is as worthy of serious critical attention as more self-consciously ‘respectable’ subjects.
There are certain areas that proved to be incendiary when the films were examined by the British Board of Film Censors (the name of the organisation was changed in a piece of Orwellian rewriting to the British Board of Film Classification – appropriately, in 1984); and it’s not hard to discern the reasons for the fuss. In the 1960s, the BBFC made little secret of the fact that it regarded its role as maintaining the rigid status quo of society as much as protecting the vulnerable public from sights that would cause offence or (worse still) inspire imitative behaviour. The 1961 Joseph Losey film The Damned featured scenes of gang violence in the original screenplay submitted to the Board, and inspired a nannyish response. Registering unhappiness with the brutal young thugs, the Board was not persuaded by the filmmakers stated aim of targeting an adult audience, pointing out that the offending sections would appeal to ‘morons of a violent inclination’ – revealingly talking about the sort of ‘X’-certificate film patrons the Board wanted to protect. Interestingly, this protection extended into the political dimension, perhaps influenced by director Losey’s recent pillorying by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as part of its anticommunist initiatives (which had driven Losey to this country – and thereby facilitated the making of several classic British crime films, such as The Criminal (1960) and Blind Date (1967).
We live in a (hopefully) more liberal age – but these moral panics over censorship are cyclical -- when will the next crackdown on crime movies happen?
British Crime Film is published by Palgrave Macmillan