Crime film and television has proliferated such influential variations as the Depression-era gangster film; the post–World War studies in corruption known as film noir; the pro-police procedural of that time; and then the violent rogue-cop stories that eventually became cop action in the 1980s, with such hits as television’s Miami Vice and cinema’s Die Hard. Mobster movies enjoyed a resurgence with the works and knockoffs of Scorcese (Goodfellas) and Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), resulting in such TV series as The Sopranos, and with a return to “blaxploitation” with the ’hood movies of the early 1990s. Recent developments include the neo-noir erotic thriller; the rise of the corrupt cop anti-hero, paralleled by the forensic procedural, often focused on baroque serial killers; and the near disappearance of black crime movies from cinema screens. Such developments may owe to shifts in relations between real policing, real crime, and citizens, but they may owe more directly to shifts in the movie/television industries that produce them. Such industry shifts include freewheeling depictions of social problems in early cinema; carefully controlled moralism over the 1930s established by such industrial regulators as the Production Code in Hollywood and the British Board of Film Censors; further repression of subversion as anti-Communism swept through Hollywood in the 1950s; then a return of repressed violence and cynicism in the 1970s as Hollywood regulation of depictions of crime broke down; and a huge spike in box office and ratings success in the 1980s, which resulted in the inclusion of more heroes who are not both white and male. The rise of the prime-time serial on television, enhanced by the introduction of time-shifting technologies of consumption, has allowed for more extended storytelling, usually marketed in terms of “realism,” enabling a sense of unresolved social problems and institutional inertia, for which shows like The Wire have been celebrated.
The content of such storytelling, in Western film and television, tends to include white male heroes meeting goals (whether success as criminals or defeat of them as cops) through force of will and resort to violence. Such stories focus on individual attributes more than on social structure, following a longstanding pattern of Hollywood narrative. And they present crime as ubiquitous and both it and the policing of it as violent. The late 1980s increase in the depiction of women of all races and men of color as heroes did little to alter those patterns. And gender patterns persist, including the absence of solidarity among women and the absence of women from stories of political corruption or large-scale combat.