Shades of Black: Subgenres in Film Noir Part 2 – The Crime Caper

In defiance of the private dick blueprint, some of the best noirs are told from the crook’s point of view. Crime is the linchpin in Film Noir and the good guys (if there are any) are often mere supporting players. In these films it is the danger that threatens the protagonists after they fall on the wrong side of the law that holds the audience’s interest. If the fun in a detective movie is watching the protagonist’s struggle to solve the crime, then the joy in a crime caper is seeing if they will get away with it.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944) tells of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and lonely housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who plot to do away with her dull husband and score big on the insurance pay out. There’s precious little romance here. Walter and Phyllis barely seem to like each other but the film is a thrilling cat and mouse game and the tension is racked up when Walter’s shrewd boss (Edward G. Robinson) begins to smell a rat but has no idea that the guilty party is his friend and protege.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) focuses on a group of hoods planning a heist. The criminals are low-rent professionals but they are given much more depth than the hoods in most films of the era. The desperation of their circumstances make the viewer root for them despite their plan to rob a jewelry store. Perhaps the quintessential caper movie, it has been an inspiration for countless movies including Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Usual Suspects (1995).

Much has been written about the sexual symbolism in Gun Crazy (1950); a Bonnie and Clyde type tale about two young lovers embarking upon a bank-robbing spree. The weakness of gun fetishist Bart (John Dall) and his manipulation by femme fatale Annie (Peggy Cummins) can be seen as an allegory for the returning war veteran finding his place in society usurped by the working woman. Annie does most of the gun work as Bart lacks the stomach to kill and any Freudian will tell you what that means. But armchair psychology aside, Gun Crazy is one of the finest hoods-on-the-lam flicks you’ll see.

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My new novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – blends Film Noir with the monster movies of the 1940s. Set in wartime Los Angeles, it features Rosa Bridger; a private detective on the trail of a drug-addled starlet. But as she delves deep into the shadows of the City of Angels, Rosa uncovers something much more sinister than the hoodlums and hop pushers she is used to dealing with. Available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

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