Crime and gangster films are developed around the sinister actions of criminals or gangsters, particularly bank robbers, underworld figures, or ruthless hoodlums who operate outside the law, stealing and violently murdering their way through life. In the 1940s, a new type of crime thriller emerged, more dark and cynical. Criminal and gangster films are often categorized as post-war film noir or detective-mystery films - because of underlying similarities between these cinematic forms. Crime stories in this genre often highlight the life of a crime figure or a crime's victim(s). Or they glorify the rise and fall of a particular criminal(s), gang, bank robber, murderer or lawbreakers in personal power struggles or conflict with law and order figures, an underling or competitive colleague, or a rival gang. Headline-grabbing situations, real-life gangsters, or crime reports have often been used in crime films. Gangster/crime films are usually set in large, crowded cities, to provide a view of the secret world of the criminal: dark nightclubs or streets with lurid neon signs, fast cars, piles of cash, sleazy bars, contraband, seedy living quarters or rooming houses. Exotic locales for crimes often add an element of adventure and wealth. Writers dreamed up appropriate gangland jargon for the tales, such as 'tommy guns' or 'molls.'
Film gangsters are usually materialistic, street-smart, immoral, megalo-maniacal, and self-destructive. Rivalry with other criminals in gangster warfare is often a significant plot characteristic. Crime plots also include questions such as how the criminal will be apprehended by police, private eyes, special agents or lawful authorities, or mysteries such as who stole the valued object. They rise to power with a tough cruel facade while showing an ambitious desire for success and recognition, but underneath they can express sensitivity and gentleness.
Gangster films are morality tales: Horatio Alger or 'pursuit of the American Dream' success stories turned upside down in which criminals live in an inverted dream world of success and wealth. Often from poor immigrant families, gangster characters often fall prey to crime in the pursuit of wealth, status, and material possessions (clothes and cars), because all other 'normal' avenues to the top are unavailable to them. Although they are doomed to failure and inevitable death (usually violent), criminals are sometimes portrayed as the victims of circumstance, because the stories are told from their point of view.
Classical Hollywood crime/gangster film
"Gangster films dealt with the contemporary urban environment – specifically, the criminal underbelly of big-city life. Like westerns, they focused on violent, action-oriented character, but this figure exhibited antisocial attitudes which one might think would have been off-putting to most audience members. Yet they were not. Spectators demonstrated a fascination for tough guys who lived on the edge. To audiences in the 1930s, the gangster figure represented the ultimate rebel. Unlike most citizens, he refused to accept Depression-imposed privations. Quick with a gun and unafraid to use it, he aggressively pursued power and wealth at a time when most Americans felt powerless and deprived.
Movie gangsters were ethnic, mainly Italian Americans and Irish Americans. When they found obstacles placed in their way because of their ethnicity, or for any number of other reasons, they kicked them aside, taking the shortcut to success. Their dream was, of course, commonplace; it had lured many immigrants to American shores in the first place. As expressed by Rico (Edward G. Robinson) in Little Caesar (1931), these young men were determined to 'be somebody: wealthy, respected, powerful. However, they chose a more rapid, direct, unlawful path to this American Dream than the heroes of the popular Horatio Alger novels who represent their law-abiding counterparts. This decision is costly; most movie gangsters die violent deaths while still young men.
The gangster's home is the modern city, a mecca of fun and excitement and opportunity. But the metropolis is also figured in the films as a place where someone can lose his moral compass and, ultimately, his soul. Although the films contain politicians and police officers and law-abiding city dwellers, the gangster rules the city of these films, a world of nightclubs, taverns, plush apartments and businesses that mask the criminal's true underground activities. The protagonist is a voracious hedonist whose all-consuming desire far flashy, expensive clothes and jewelry, large, powerful automobiles and beautiful women drives him forward. One charts his rise to the top of the gangland hierarchy through his acquisition of these iconographic markers.
Real-world gangsters were a dangerous societal menace who threatened the very lives of all honest citizens, so why did moviegoers flock to their films? Some of their appeal certainly related to the mobsters' embrace of wealth and power which were sadly lacking in the lives of so many during the Depression. But the films also gained popularity because the screen gangster died or, in some instances, was incarcerated at the finale. The importance of this reassuring closure, a convention of the genre even before the Production Code Administration cracked down on it in 1934, should not be overlooked. It is doubtful that contemporary spectators would have been so enthusiastic about Hollywood gangsters if they had emerged triumphant at the fade-out. Viewed remained fascinated with these avatars of the dark side of the American Dream so long as they were able to leave movie theaters feeling that no one in the modern world really gets away with such outrageous disregard for the law.
The genre became established during the silent period, which culminated with such successful and well-regarded examples as Underworld (1927) and The Racket (1928). However, it quickly gained maturity and entered one of its most exciting periods once sound was possible. Lights of New York (1928), the first 'all-talking picture,' was a gangster film and a blockbuster hit. Soon enough, similar films would take advantage of the dynamic possibilities of sound to provide audiences with squealing tires, police sirens, machine gun blasts, rumbling explosions and, most importantly, the special urban dialogue of the characters. Such slang terms as 'molls' and 'mugs,' 'gats' and 'heaters,' and 'taking someone for a ride' quickly became recognized elements of the American language.
Other factors contributed to the popularity of the gangster genre during the early years of the Depression. The continuation of prohibition (it would be abolished in 1933) caused the gangster, in his bootlegger incarnation, to take on a Robin Hood persona in the minds of liberal-minded filmgoers. If one were patronizing a bootlegger, it was difficult to view him as a hardened criminal or danger to society.
This was also the era when actual criminals, such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, 'Baby Face' Nelson and 'Pretty Boy' Floyd, became celebrities, their exploits chronicled in newspapers, magazines, radio programs and newsreels. Audiences eagerly awaited stories about the latest St. Valentine's Day massacre or the latest bank job pulled by Bonnie and Clyde or the 'Ma' Barker gang. Film producers were, of course, paying attention. They modeled many of their on-screen scofflaws after the real-life law breakers.
Over 50 gangster films were produced between 1930 and 1933. Of these, the most influential were Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface. Each made a star of its lead actor: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni. Each told essentially the same story: the rise and fall of the gangster figure. And each featured snappy dialogue, memorable male and female secondary characters, shocking violence and punchy sound design, all of which would be benchmarks of the genre for years to come. To a certain extent, future gangster pictures would be measured against these early successes.
Even before enforcement of the Production Code began in mid-1934, the gangster genre started to lose its hold on the audience. The constant criticism of reformers, the national shock over the kidnapping and subsequent death of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 which was initially blamed on underworld types, the end of Prohibition and the over-production of gangster pictures all contributed to the genre's decline. Clearly, however, the coup de grâce was delivered when Joseph Breen took charge of the Production Code Administration. Breen let it be known that sympathetic gangsters would no longer be tolerated. Realizing that spectators would be unlikely to patronize films featuring thoroughly repellent protagonists, the studio heads turned away from the genre.
In 1935, Warner Bros, found a way to inject new life into the form. Relegating the criminal to secondary status, the studio focused instead on the crime fighter who attacks or infiltrates a gang and brings the villains to justice. 'G' Men (1935) and Bullets or Ballots (1936) cast James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in the main parts. They exhibited many of the same characteristics that had made them stand out in their earlier roles - toughness, cynicism, rebelliousness, a penchant for violence; in short, they were still gangsters, only now they were sporting badges and acting for the public good. In 'G' Men, Cagney joins the FBI to get even with gangsters who murdered an unarmed friend. But even though the film was quite violent and clearly violated the Production Code ('Revenge in modern times shall not be justified'), Breen let it go because the hero was on the right side of the law.
Other films of this type, such as Special Agent (1935), Racket Busters (1938), Smashing the Rackets (1938) and Smashing the Money Ring (1939) also received a boost from the public’s growing fascination with the achievements of high-profile law enforcement officials, particularly J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and New York Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. In 1936, Dewey engineered the conviction of Lucky Luciano on 61 different criminal charges.
Dead End (1937) ushered in a new strain of socially aware gangster pictures which wrestled with the question of how criminal behavior can be minimized in the United States. Drawing on contemporary social science research, Dead End dramatized the thesis that environmental factors are the principal cause of antisocial behavior, and advocated the eradication of poverty and slum conditions as the necessary antidote. Dead End and other similarly themed pictures that followed in its wake, such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Crime School (1938), Mutiny in the Big House (1939) and Men of Boys Town (1941), also emphasized the failure of penal institutions and reform schools whose brutalizing conditions were much more likely to turn individuals into hardened criminals than regenerated citizens.
Another group of these sociological gangster films depicted the problems of the ex-convict, an individual who has made mistakes but 'paid his debt to society' and now wishes to live a normal existence. However, the stigma attached to the incarceration makes it impossible to find or hold a decent job, so he or she is pushed back in the direction of crime. You Only Live Once (1937) and You and Me (1938), both directed by Fritz Lang, were exemplary films that dramatized the plight of the parolee, as did Youth on Parole (1937) and Invisible Stripes (1939).
By the late 1930s, the Production Code Administration had eased its position, allowing sympathetic gangsters to once again appear on movie screens. Some of the best films of the pre-war years dealt, in nostalgic fashion, with the Prohibition Period and, ironically, its sober aftermath. The gangster protagonist is now split into good and bad variants with the positive figures presented as tragic anachronisms. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), James Cagney plays a man whose battle experiences in World War I and subsequent inability to land a decent job drive him into the underworld. Nonetheless, he retains his basic decency and, after passing through a rise and fall phase during the Prohibition years, commits a socially redeeming act before dying. The bad gangster killed by Cagney in The Roaring Twenties was played by Humphrey Bogart, who assumed the lead role two years later in High Sierra (1941), another nostalgic film about a man of honor and principle whose death, like Cagney's, signals the end of an era when a crook might still have a heart of gold.
Once the US became a participant in World War II, the genre went into an immediate decline. Of the limited assortment of gangster films produced during the war years, most presented the transformation of the criminal into a patriot, as a consequence of the contemporary crisis. Mr. Lucky (1943) was a good example. In the narrative, con man Cary Grant sets up an evening of casino gambling to help war relief, fully intending to abscond with the proceeds. But the influence of a beautiful woman (Laraine Day) summons forth his latent patriotism and, at the climax, he turns his posh gambling ship into a vessel for the transport of medical supplies. Similar gangster reformations occur in All Through the Night (1942), Lucky Jordan (1942) and Seven Miles from Alcatraz (1943)".
The Descent into Noir
"The thirties was a period in which tragedy, and its pleasures, could prosper. Audiences needed to encounter the truth of hard times, but also needed psychological support, to be reminded of the value of human endeavor. Tragedy, a harsh but not hopeless mode, was a suitable approach for the genre. Tragedy is not truly disturbing, because human error is justified and ennobled, because feelings are focused on and honored, and because it drains us of our difficulties instead of clarifying them by analysis or repleting them by further complications.
The appearance of tragedy is a sign of the culture’s faith, innocence, and idealism. Early gangster narratives, whether they related specifically to the rapacity of American capitalism or not, were resonant myths of defeat that echoed with heroic, positive reverberations. The gangster was uplifting, aweinspiring, and grand, even in death. Movies created dreams and fantasies that made a hard life bearable. By 1939, the depression was over and Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties put the turmoil of the recent past into an ambiguously elegiac perspective. It felt like the gangster’s swan song, but it wasn’t. In 1941, during a period when America was energetically involved in the war, High Sierra (also Walsh) was released. The gangster had the first of many new roles to play, and the genre was imbued with a new purpose. From this point on the genre becomes extremely flexible and the gangster’s role less fixed. His character and identity are no longer well defined, something we can expect. The Killers appeared in 1946, after the war. In both films views of freedom and possibility narrow. America had beat the depression and won the war, but all it had accomplished was to create new and more complex problems in place of old, problems the structure of the genre was ready to handle.
As the decade of the 40s and the post-war period emerged, crime films became darker, more brutal, violent, and cynical - many crime/gangster films were actually film noirs. After World War II, gangsters were often businessmen who represented large and corrupt corporations (often anonymous). The first film to illustrate changes in the character of gangsters after WWII was Byron Haskin's I Walk Alone (1948). Burt Lancaster took the role of Frankie Madison, an ex-con who faced a changed world and a double-cross by his partner after his release from 14 years in prison. He learned that Noll 'Dink' Turner (Kirk Douglas) was now a pseudo-legitimate and respectable, high-flying Manhattan night-club owner/racketeer, unwilling to share in bootlegging profits from an earlier promise (Turner: 'This is big business. We deal with banks, lawyers, and a Dunn and Bradstreet rating. The world's spun right past you, Frank.')
Memorable gangster characters included Alan Ladd as a cold, solitary, professional killer in the film-noirish This Gun For Hire (1942), and James Cagney as a violent, psychopathic, mother-fixated, bad-guy killer in the extremely violent White Heat (1949), marking the actor's return to gangster films after a full decade. The superb B cult movie Gun Crazy (1950) featured a gun-loving couple on a violent murder spree. The beautiful star Gene Tierney became a ruthless, greedy killer of her husband's paraplegic brother (Darryl Hickman), by luring him out onto a lake and causing his drowning, in John Stahl's melodramatic Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Fritz Lang's spy film Cloak and Dagger (1946) was memorable for its long, brutal fist-fight sequence between physics Professor - turned - American spy (Gary Cooper) and an enemy agent. [This scene was imitated in an excruciating death struggle in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966), when world-famous scientist Paul Newman fought in a farmhouse kitchen with a Soviet villain and slowly asphyxiated the man in a gas oven]".
Merging with Film-Noir
"The gangster crime genre, more than any other, is allied in spirit to the dark side of things, and it has always reflected contemporary tensions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that it too starts disintegrating along with the national psyche in the year 1949. The quality of postwar life was profoundly changed by the dropping of the bomb in 1945. By 1949, fears, guilts, and anxieties had achieved over four years’ time a psychologically ruinous density and momentum. Events at the turn of the decade merely exacerbated the prevailing mental and emotional distress.
In the fifties the genre will examine the difficulties of remaining human in the new directions life takes after the impact of such events, but in 1949–1950 it too is reeling under the blows and groping to make itself a fit artistic instrument that can address the harried imaginations of its audience and still, of course, be compatible with entertainment. 1949-1950 was a banner year, and noticeably experimental, for the genre. A great number of crime/gangster noir police thriller movies were made. A sample: Side Street, Criss-Cross, They Live by Night, The Asphalt Jungle, The Crooked Way, The Killer That Stalked New York, Panic in the Streets, Johnny Stool Pigeon, Manhandled, Mystery Street, Night and the City, No Way Out, One Way Street, Quicksand, Impact, Tension, Shakedown, The Sleeping City, Thieves' Highway, Too Late for Tears, Under the Gun, Where the Sidewalk Ends.
The very titles of these films suggest that the close of the forties experienced a kind of fin-de-siècle trauma. The list of leading figures - Farley Granger, Dan Duryea, Howard Duff, John Payne, Ricardo Montalban, Richard Conte, Richard Basehart, Dana Andrews - does not inspire a heroic certitude. These films are about every freakish calamity and human nastiness the mind can conjure short of the supernatural. The Killer That Stalked New York and Panic in the Streets are about plague carriers. No Way Out and The Sleeping City contain insane goings-on in hospitals; in Johnny Stool Pigeon a dude ranch is the scene of quirky violence; Thieves' Highway depicts the brutality of the trucking industry".
“Seeing” through the Fifties
"On the surface the genre’s treatment of crime and gangsters in the fifties is relatively simple when compared to the complicated views induced by noir’s psychological malaise. The genre assumed some new and fairly consistent characteristics. For much of the fifties criminal heroes are few and far between. The cop or citizen, moved by obsessive personal reasons, takes over as hero in films of criminal action. They become the agents by which public paranoia about organized crime can be momentarily dissipated. Crime becomes disgusting; it is pictured as powerful, settled, cool, on a comfortable plateau of semi-respectability. While the criminal is restrained and businesslike, the hero who opposes him gets overheated and frustrated. He has played by the rules and gotten nowhere for too long, and so, like the gangster before him, he now takes out his aggression, not only against crime but against the world. If the forties was full of characters who were deluded into thinking that action was meaningful, the fifties action hero, fighting for the 'right side' and getting somewhere, reveals the ugliness of his distress and his envy, hatred, and blindness.
Fifties gangsters seem simply to want money and power, and when they have it, more. They’re following the drift of the world, of competitive industries and corporations. The gangster is no longer explained. The reasons behind his ruthlessness are obvious - it is only the most ruthless who get to the top. Getting to the top means having the big money, having big money means having power over others, and the gangster wants that money and the power it brings, at any human cost. In the fifties the tensions of the cold war are evident. Crime, like communism, is against the American way of life. The evils of these poisonous systems are analogous. Americans must stick together and support whatever measures, however extreme or unsavory, that a courageous individual adopts to penetrate syndicate operations and hierarchies. The gangster has run out of excuses and, with them, sympathy. In a period of prosperity, his motives are reduced to selfish greed. He no longer acts in response to a problem; he is the problem.
Crime is corruption that exacts from the public good a daily price. It must be annihilated at its source. A major motif of the fifties crime film is the difficulty of threading one’s way to the top, of tearing away the masks of crime and discovering where, how, and by whom the immense criminal empire is ruled. The underworld czar retains a grandeur, but of a diabolical, perverse, and often hateful kind. His vileness justifies the hero’s savagery, but the crime-busting hero is part of the corruption. He exhibits the characteristics of the old gangster. In the exchange of roles, however, there is a difference. The fifties hero is generally humorless and morose, is less likable, and often more brutal.
If noir’s assessment of crime and its attitudes toward experience suddenly become archaic within a moral dynamism of 'cleansing action', noir lighting is, if anything, intensified in a certain subgroup of fifties crime films, reaching its apogee in the eye-piercing boldness of the Alton-Lewis The Big Combo, the Laszlo-Aldrich Kiss Me Deadly, and the Joe MacDonald–Samuel Fuller Pickup on South Street. Kiss Me Deadly (1955) in particular seems to exhaust the extremes of black and white photography. Late fifties gangster crime films have looser compositions, less dramatic use of black and white, flatter visuals, and a cooler, brighter, more neutral look - a prelude, perhaps, to the moral neutrality automatic to the loss of drama in the more even distribution of light and emphasis in the color film but also in keeping with a sinister assumption about the invisibility of crime and its efficient fusion into the mainstream of modern life. The late fifties initiated a pocket of films evoking the exploits of notorious gangsters of the thirties, an explicitly neurotic gangster cycle that extends fitfully up to the present. From the perspective of the late fifties, the old gangster appears as a psychological misfit, his life a prolonged seizure of uncontrolled acts. He lacks the confidence of his thirties counterpart and also the stylish panache of innumerable noir hoodlums. His awkward, traumatized, alienated behavior invites a psychological understanding, not a moral judgment. Machine-Gun Kelly (1958) is a representative film. In a period interested in psychology and mental aberration, especially in a climate in which the issue of conformity looms large, the gangster is again useful as a vehicle to carry matters of concern to the society. In this case, being a gangster means, exclusively, being mentally disturbed, and therefore in conflict with the norm of sanity. The genre also responded to the Kefauver investigations into organized crime by producing many smash-the-syndicate and sin-city expose films.
These represent distinct shifts and real concerns, but the genre’s major theme in the fifties is its unrelenting view of the world as a hideous machine in violation of human realities. If noir scrambled the terms of the opposition, the fifties inverts them. The gangster represents the society; society is the gangster. For human values to survive, it (he) must be opposed. Civilization has caused a greater chaos than it cured".
The Modernist Perspective
"Kiss Me Deadly was noir’s belated climax and, as well, a film in which the moral fervor of the early fifties gasped its last gasp and gave up. After Kiss Me Deadly, the genre enters its modernist phase. In the late fifties and early sixties the genre makes fresh starts and explorations and strikes new attitudes, however tentatively. Burdened by cheap production and by the obligation to break new ground, the films are often not as confident as one might wish, but they supply the artistic and tonal foundations for the more popular, surefooted, lavish, and ceremonious (though not necessarily superior) genre films of the late sixties and early seventies.
The label 'modernist' is somewhat voguish and unsatisfactory, but may serve to cover the strategies of films as distinct as Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank, The Godfather, and The Godfather II. The term signifies, in the main, an articulate and consciously conceived non-illusionistic cinema. The genre from the late sixties on is marked by films that prevent the audience from nursing the illusion that they are watching a real world. The nature of the relationship between art and the audience (and art and reality) undergoes a major shift.
The quality of involvement/detachment integral to the meaning of a film like Bonnie and Clyde is a generic syndrome of the decade 1965–1975. Broadly speaking, even through the fifties, the world on the screen was something to believe in for an hour and a half. Creating an illusion of reality was a dominating principle. Elements of non-illusionism that threatened it remained incidental; they were properties more than principles. Certainly, watching Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is nothing like watching 99 River Street (1953) or Gun Crazy (1949) and very different from watching Little Caesar (1931). The experience of Bonnie and Clyde is weird, and its weirdness can only be understood by postulating a working assumption about art and reality made possible by the development of the genre. From 1945 on, the audience was carried gradually to the point where it was ready to 'see' a film like Bonnie and Clyde. Hindsight shows us that Bonnie and Clyde had to come at a specific point; it could not have been made before".
Coppola's Epic Crime Films
Eventually, two of the most successful gangland 'Mafia' films ever made appeared in the 1970s with Francis Ford Coppola's direction of Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, The Godfather (1972), and The Godfather, Part II (1974). Both were epic sagas of a violent, treacherous, and tightly-knit crime family superstructure from Sicily that had settled in New York and had become as powerful as government and big business. Returning war veteran/son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had to loyally follow in his father's criminal path, without questioning its legitimacy. Both contained a number of brutal death scenes, including Sonny Corleone's (James Caan) flurry-of-bullets death at a toll booth in the first.
"The Godfather achieved extraordinary popular and critical success, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and becoming the top-grossing film
in Hollywood history until the days of Steven Spielberg". The stunning Part II sequel was the first sequel ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Rarely before, in New York Confidential (1955), had the 'Mafia' been featured in a main-stream film. The third and final installment in the trilogy was The Godfather, Part III (1990), again featuring stars Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire. (In addition to his brilliant roles in The Godfather pictures, actor Al Pacino also starred in other crime classics, including Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) - a film with an award-winning screenplay, Brian De Palma's bloody remake of Scarface (1983) with the defiant Cuban gangster dying in the film's explosive finale with his guns blazing, and Carlito's Way (1993). "The third film in the series, for all its grand scale and historical sweep, is memorable mostly as a pastiche of the first two, from its extended opening sequence at a festive celebration to its furiously crosscut climactic bloodbath".
Scorsese's Crime Trilogy
Director Martin Scorsese also explored the theme of family ties being torn apart by unpredictable violence, in a world of losers, loners, outsiders and low-lifes. His intense films regularly starred actor Robert De Niro. Scorsese's so-called 'crime trilogy' included two mob pictures in the 1990s. The first film in the trilogy was Mean Streets (1973) - the one that established Scorsese's reputation. It was about the lives of aspiring, small-time crooks in the Little Italy section of New York.
The other two films - both with the same scriptwriter Nicholas Pileggi - were GoodFellas (1990) - adapted from Wiseguy, which followed thirty years in the lethally-violent criminal careers of rising mobsters and was based on the life of actual ex-mobster Henry Hill, and Scorsese's Casino (1995) examined a Mafia criminal dynasty making its presence known in a brutal takeover of a gaudy, neon-lit 1960s-70s Las Vegas.
Recent Crime Films
Other films showed the untiring, violent and abusive counter tactics of detectives fighting crime including William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), with two narcotics detectives (Gene Hackman as Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo) facing an international narcotics smuggling ring. "Tireless, brutal, vicious, indifferent to the constraints of the law and his superiors, as violent as the druglords he pursued, Doyle represented both the ideally intuitive police detective popularized by decades of films since “G” Men and the audience’s worst nightmares of the public abuse of authority".[Two semi-sequels or follow-up films also emphasized tough and violent police tactics: director Phil D'Antoni's The Seven-Ups (1973), with Scheider in the lead role as a tough NYC police department investigator, and Badge 373 (1973), with Robert Duvall as an avenging cop].
The film’s portrait of institutional authority was too lacerating to be simply recycled. Its 1975 sequel French Connection II – in which Doyle, traveling to Marseilles in search of the French druglord (Fernando Rey) who eluded him at the end of the first film, is kidnapped, hooked on heroin, and then released to the French police, who hold him in secret while forcing him to go through the horrors of cold-turkey withdrawal – makes him far more sympathetic, even to restoring a speech attesting his fondness for Willie Mays that had been cut from the earlier film.
When movies turned again to establishment heroes, their criticism was more measured and equivocal. Even Dirty Harry (1971) and its four sequels (1973–88) gave its rogue cop better excuses for his reckless behavior than The French Connection had for Doyle’s, from more dangerous criminal adversaries like the well-organized rogue cops in Magnum Force (1973) to a fistful of Christian analogues that helped establish his credentials as a traditional, though unexpected, moral hero. Yet the antiauthoritarian legacy of Vietnam left law enforcers of every stripe under a shadow, particularly after the Watergate scandal had the effect of criminalizing in the public imagination the entire executive branch of the federal government. Lawyers, the most obvious villains in the Watergate cover-up, fell to such a low point in public esteem that the most admirable Hollywood lawyer heroes were the antilawyers of ...And Justice for All. (1979), The Verdict (1982), and My Cousin Vinny (1992) and the nonlawyers of Regarding Henry (1991) and The Pelican Brief (1993). Even the blue-sky heroics of Superman (1978) and its three sequels (1981–7) gave way to the darker heroics of Batman (1989) and its three sequels (1992–7), in which the Dark Knight is repeatedly upstaged, like Dick Tracy, by villains more interesting than he is".