Miller's Crossing gives the best example of the "ethics" of the crime film genre -- beginning as it does with the classic speech delivered by Giovanni Gasparo: "I'm talkin' about friendship -- I'm talkin' about character -- I'm talkin' about -- hell, Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word: I'm talkin' about ethics…" The film, of course, is full of characters whose actions are shady and unethical -- but the good (calm, loyal, not afraid of a fair fight -- and not against a fixed one either) are clearly distinguishable from the bad (shifty, uncontrollable, irrational, conniving, and always looking for the fix). Tom Reagan, the hero, is the man who appears to be playing both sides against the middle (for his own interests or for those of his boss and friend, Leo?). Leo comes out on top at the end, and Tom is no worse for wear (even though he loses the girl, and walks away from further employment in Leo's racket); his look bears all one needs to know about the crime film genre -- essentially that it is at its greatest a genre devoted to introspection -- and the Coen brothers prove it as the camera pans up and zooms in on Tom's eyes focused on the carriage disappearing into the distance -- and on something even beyond the horizon…Dignity? Soul? Heaven? Hell? Death? Judgment? True to form, we are never told, and credits roll.
Crime Film and the Western: Moral Ambiguity vs. Nobility
The same tactics as displayed by Reagan, however, appear in Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns, which serve as yet another example of the expansion of the crime genre's code of ethics into other film genres -- this one the cowboy Western.
Eastwood, of course, represents the prototypical man with no name, whose precursor is Hammett's Continental Op -- the detective agency operative who can give any name he likes, none of them true -- and goes nameless for all of Red Harvest -- the ultimate forerunner of A Fistful of Dollars.
What Eastwood's man with no name and Hammett's Continental Op have in common, though, is a code that blurs the line between moral ambiguity and nobility. On one hand it is corrupted by a flagrant and unapologetic self-interest that smacks of a Hemingway kind of egoism -- on the other hand it is unfailingly on the side of nobility (if not on virtue, per se). Eastwood's spaghetti Western heroes are often callous, smug, self-interested types, whose heroism is only identified in their ability to remain cool under pressure -- a trademark of the crime film hero. The self-assurance and the calm demeanor stem, of course, from the knowledge that deep down they are on the side of the right: the Good never lets the Ugly hang, and will kill the Bad out of necessity. He will also protect the innocent -- when impinged upon. However, Eastwood's characters are never as fully heroic as the ones displayed in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit update.
True Grit, as the title implies, is their 2010 film based on the book by Charles Portis that poses and answers the question: What does it take to fight evil? Faithfully following the theme of the book (and the grandest theme of the crime film genre: good vs. evil), True Grit is full of characters with human failings and limitations, who nonetheless show great stride and determination in their performance of heroic acts of duty and valor. The film echoes the epitomic good vs. evil story found in Christian mythology when it displays the verse from the Old Testament that reads, "Evil flees when none pursueth." Here, in a nutshell, is the basis of all crime fiction and film: nobility is always clearly defined; evil is ambiguous; and good has a duty to prosecute.
The Hong Kong Influence and the Hong Kong Homage
The fact that crime film, however, is so often full of ambiguity is part of what makes it so alluring: nobility is rare; ambiguity is more common and therefore seemingly more realistic. What the genre is able to do is blend both features of humanity into one tapestry that reflects not only reality as it is but reality as it should be, can be, and sometimes manages to be.
Hong Kong cinema has demonstrated the crime film genre ethos on numerous occasions, and Meaghan Morris puts the heroic paradigm as viewed by Hong Kong in this light: "identity is the achievement of villainy, but similarity is the aspiration of heroism" (186). The definition is easy enough to see in Stephen Chow's unique homage to Hollywood (and the crime/gangster genre in particular), Kung Fu Hustle. As Ross Chen of Yum Cha! Asian Entertainment observes, "Chow's famed 'mo lei tau' verbal nonsense is all but nonexistent, but Kung Fu Hustle has Hong Kong Cinema goodness in spades." From the Axe Gang of Boxer from Shantung to Yuen Wah (Landlord) who with Landlady presides over the kind of tenement slum Chow himself grew up in, Kung Fu Hustle is devoted to personal and Chinese cinematic heritage. Chen lays out every single reference and cross-reference he can find in the film, linking the Guzheng assassins to The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute; Landlady's "Lion's Roar" to Jin Yong's Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre; and Sing's swollen lips to "Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's famous 'sausage lips' look from The Eagle Shooting Heroes" -- Chow's Asian cinematic forefathers.
But Chow's Kung Fu looks beyond Asia to find its true heritage: Hollywood. No other film in modern cinema has crossed cultures or genres so well or even come close to accomplishing what Hustle has -- as Bill Murray said, calling it "the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy…That movie is just AHHHHHH!" (Fierman 2010). Kung Fu is a who's who and a what's what of Hong Kong/Hollywood/crime film genre filmmaking, referencing everything and everyone from Buster Keaton to Scorsese and Tarantino.
Tarantino (as well as Scorsese) are, likewise, no foreigners to Hong Kong cinema, having based any number of their films on Hong Kong originals: Reservoir Dogs (Ringo Lam's City on Fire), Kill Bill (Hong Kong character The Bride); The Departed (Infernal Affairs). What Morris says about good and evil is true for all of these films, and stands up in both Hong Kong and American cinema -- but exceptionally well in Kung Fu Hustle: Chow's hero wants to be similar to his heroes -- he has no desire to erase them and usurp their place. But he will stand on their shoulders if he can.
In conclusion, the crime film genre was born out of the type of real-life characters of the 19th century: men who "blamed capitalism, religion, the army, and the state for the plight of the underclass, who struggled to get by as the rich lived it up…[Who] felt dislocated, alienated, and angry" -- men like Emile Henry who threw a bomb into Paris' Hotel Terminus in 1894 (Merriman 4). From life those characters went into books and from there into movies, but the same heroic paradigm never changed. The best pictures have always been true to it -- the worst have been little more than superficial attempts to redefine it. The fact is the crime film genre is part of the American fabric in a profound way: it touches on both aspects of the human heart -- the good and the bad -- and depicts them both on the screen. As Paul Sann observed in The Lawless Decade, "A jury in Hammond, Indiana, acquitted a man who had killed an alien for saying 'To hell with the United States.'" That was in 1920 -- and America's love of such a moral code has not changed yet.
Chen, Ross. "The Six Degrees of Stephen Chow and Kung Fu Hustle." Yum
Cha! 2005. Web. 8 July 2011.
Coen, Joel, dir. Miller's Crossing. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 1990. Film.
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Fierman, Dan. "Bill Murray is Ready to See You Now." GQ. 2010. Web. 8 July 2011.
O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Web. 8 July 2011.
Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2006.
Merriman, John. The Dynamite Club. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
Morris, Meaghan. "Transnational imagination in action cinema: Hong Kong and the making of a global popular culture." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2004: 181-199.
Sann, Paul. The Lawless Decade: A Pictorial History of the Roaring Twenties. Web.