Rushing Towards Death: Alienation and Doom in the 1940s American Crime Film
Unruh, Isley Demetrius
University of Kansas
Film & Media Studies
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While the criminals found in classic American crime films take many forms, from frontier outlaws to big city gangsters, they all serve, on some level, as surrogates for audiences’ darker impulses and desires. And, while these criminal characters have undergone many changes and permutations, a small cycle of gangster films from the early 1930s have come to disproportionately represent a broad period of classic Hollywood crime films. Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) have dominated the discourse surrounding the classic American crime film to such a degree that important variations on the criminal character can become generically linked to these early films even though their defining qualities are, in reality, quite different. In this study, I will examine one criminal variation which I have labeled the “Doomed Criminal.” I will both disentangle this unique Doomed Criminal archetype from the influence of pre-Code characterizations, and determine the significant factors which led to the development of this new character that appeared in a cycle of films throughout the 1940s. Also, by first situating the Doomed Criminal within the socio-historical framework of its time, I will establish the proper background for a focused look at the authorial contributions of W. R. Burnett and John Huston to the Doomed Criminal. Both of these creators were responsible for the three films I use as case studies in my textual examination of the character: High Sierra (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). By giving each of these three films a close textual analysis, I will be able to illuminate and support the traits identified as unique to this character throughout this study. This multi-pronged approach will ultimately reveal a distinct character archetype that was noble, professional, competent, and, above all, doomed to alienation and death within a world in which it had no place.
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