This article is written by Oishiki Bansal, a student of Symbiosis Law School, Noida. The article discusses the growing trend of crime films and the approach of criminologists towards them.


The trend of watching films based on crime has been growing at a rapid pace. The filmmaking industry has become a powerful medium to represent stories based on crime, both fictional and non-fictional. According to criminologists, all those films whose central theme is a crime and their repercussions on society come under the domain of crime films. The relation between crime films and society can be defined according to the two perspectives, on one hand, the crime films communicate about the society from where they have been fashioned, and on the other hand, they have an effect on society, law, culture, justice, etc and provide an interpretation of the reality of the society.

Criminology’s approach towards crime films provides a series of theoretical and methodological repercussions. It also supplements the academic knowledge such as the forms of teaching the research methods to be used, ways to tackle crime, etc.

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History of crime films 

The interest in crime by the filmmaking industry and its audience has always been a global phenomenon. In 1935, when the research was conducted by Dale on cinematic content, it was observed that crime was the most loved genre in films after ‘love’. In the study on American film industries, it was analyzed that almost 4000 American films were categorized as crime films in the 1920s. Further, the interest in crime films can be traced back to the silent films era where it was found that over 200 films were crime films. 

The contribution of crime films to the British film industry was about 26 percent from the 1930s to the 1980s. In 1997 a study by Allen et al. provided that in almost half of the films in the British industry including the European and American films, crime was the central part of the story. 

The first American film, The Great Train Robbery(1903) was based on the crime of robbery and violence. Not only the film industry but people were attracted to the compelling stories relating to crime written by great authors like Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Sue, Zola, etc. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) by D. W. Griffith is said to be the first gangster film under the crime films category. This film portrays another side of New York which deals with the dangerous sides of the metropolis and depicts the social contradictions of the society. 

The European filmmaking industry also saw a great contribution to crime films since early 1900. The Cycle of Fantômas film (1913–1914) is set on the streets of Paris about the life of an evil thief who is uncatchable. Through this movie, a symbol of rebellion against social norms has been shown.

The different genres of crime films and their growth

Gangster films 

Lights of the New York (1928) was the first all-talking full-length feature film in the American filmmaking industry. The central theme of the movie was bootlegging. This movie was based on gangster culture providing a threat to American tradition in two ways, firstly providing a mythical representation to urbanization and secondly, an ambivalent approach to immigration. The actors who played the role of gangsters in these movies were all second-generation immigrants like Italians, Jewish, Irish, etc. The era of the 2000s was said to be the richest decade for gangster film in the category of crime films history. Gangster films, combined with the west, were Hollywood’s most represented genre. The 1930s saw the rise of movies like The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932), The Doorway to Hell (1930) preceded by more literary excavations based on detectives and gangsters. These films emphasized the criminal nature in a very clean, classic, and realistic way. The gangster was condemned to punishment after a massive failure, this tragic experience was inculcated in the expression of individualism. The films under this genre were an expression of the disagreement between the individual men, women, and groups as well as a society as a whole. The struggle of the society was depicted in the form of conflict between the law and order and the dominant norms of the society.

The filmmaking industry of other nations was also largely focusing on the presumed separation of evil and good as depicted in the gangster films. ‘M’ (1931), a masterpiece given by the German filmmaking industry featured how the mind of a criminal work, the symbiotic relationship between a criminal and police, how crimes are organized in German cities, and lastly heart-drenching trial scenes. Le Deuxieme Souffle, 1966; La Haine, 1996 of the French cinema Get Carter, 1971; The Long Good Friday; 1982 of the British cinema Pixote, 1981 of the Brazilian cinema Kismet, 1943; Satya, 1998 of the Indian cinema Battles without Honor and Humanity, 1973; Sonatine; 1998 of the Japanese cinema has also left an impact on the appearance of gangsters in the crime films and its impact on the society, law, and order, justice, etc.

Film noir 

The 1940s marked the introduction of film noir. These films highlighted the fundamental theme of the representation of crime-fighters and crime. The key element of such movies was the uncertainty of good and evil,  crime and law, etc. Film-noir provided a mixture of the fictional and real landscape which contributed to the social imagination. It recognized the aesthetic version of the society conveyed by the ethical vision. The word “noir” is derived from the french culture which came after the post-war period of the 1940s and became a thriller in the Hollywood industry. The film Dixon, 2009 featured the environment which was affected by fear and disillusionment of pre and post-war time eras. The Third Man, 1949 included the theme of how a troubled veteran was forced to choose the path of crime during the tension of the cold war. Movies like Kiss Me Deadly, 1955; Christopher, 1997; Muller, 1998 featured the themes of nuclear bomb threats, tough and forlorn life of individuals which force them on becoming criminals. The classic era of film noir included movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941),  Touch of Evil (1958), Schrader (1972), The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), etc. 

Police and detective films 

The detective and the police films were structured around a crime whose investigation was the responsibility of a detective or the police. These movies were often inspired by the work of literature on detective stories. At present, the main character can also be portrayed as an amateur who works under a professional detective. Movies like Lott, 2006; Pautz, 2016; Gates, 2006 have provided the different roles of detectives and police as the central character. 

Courtroom films

The trial scene is the heart of a courtroom film. The trial in a case is understood as a public rite and not just as a procedure by law. The cinematic representation of the courtroom was designed to strengthen the moral and political values and order that underlie society. The success of movies like Greenfield & Robson, 2010 was because of the precise legal procedure that was followed and the drive to encourage debate on social and moral issues. Films like M (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Death and the Maiden (1995), where the trial takes place outside the real courtroom play an important role in the study of criminology. In the movie Silbey, (2001) the courtroom was shown as a legal ceremonial process that provides an opportunity to all to witness the truth of the crime and court proceedings. The movie also represents the process of arriving at a verdict after the various phases of investigation and restructuring of truth.

The representation of lawyers has best illustrated the dispute of positive and negative figures in the justice system. Movies like  Body Heat (1981), The Firm (1993), and The Devil’s Advocate (1997) featured the involvement of honest and righteous lawyers as compared to the lawyers in the 1950s film who worked for law firms and were unscrupulous, corrupt, and cynical. However, the contradiction between the ideal administration and justice process and the reality of the same process is often implicit in courtroom movies.

Prison films 

One of the most popular categories under crime films is the prison setting. The French movie A Man Escaped (1957), the Spanish movie Cell 211 (2009) have featured the prison settings in a very prominent manner. The films like Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) have reproduced the prison setting in a very exact manner. The first part involves outside of the Auburn prison and the second part of the movie reproduces the execution scene in the prison. The category of prison movies concerns the criminologists and criminology students as the execution of the punishment of criminals is hidden and obscured in contemporary societies. The movies like Crime School (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) have shown the prison as the place that provides apprenticeship for criminals while movies like Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Resistance, (2011) provides the self-incriminating image of prison.

Criminological research on crime films 

The perspective given by the crime films has fallacies to a great extent and is a largely inaccurate description of the law and order in society. Therefore it is important to understand the contrast in the representation of criminal justice by the media and the reality behind criminal justice. It is important to discuss the evolution of criminality and its impact on society with the correct accuracy from the criminologist’s point of view. The image created by the media through the crime films is not a reflection but mere refraction that is created by the forces of political and economic influence.

Criminologist’s approach towards crime films provides us with an important theoretical and methodological repercussion. By analyzing the crime films the criminologists provide us with better insights into the key elements and fundamentals of academic knowledge. They inform us about how crime can be tackled, the discipline and research method that can be used, and also the teaching method of criminal codes to be revised. Observing the crime genre in filmmaking can help us better understand the law, justice, crime, and how society works in general. It emphasizes the role of technology and scientific development in the field of criminal law. The study of the complex relationship between metropolises and criminals, the psychological behaviour of individuals who are impacted by the loneliness and competition in the big cities. Analyzing all these things also helps us in segregating urban civilization from violence. 

The role of media in popularising the films related to the crime genre needs to be reviewed and the perspective needs to be changed. The methodological and theoretical tools should be adapted and sharpened for providing accuracy. A multifaceted approach should be adopted towards crime films so that the crime cinema can be studied with other criminological, sociological, and psychological aspects. 

Causes and consequences of cinematic representation of crime

It has been widely acknowledged that what we see impacts us more than what we read. We have always been told that a person learns from his/her surrounding environment. Similarly, a thriller movie that is based on the crime genre impacts the viewer more than what a novel does. Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan, and Ram Gopal Verma are some of the notable directors of crime films in the Bollywood industry. Films and dramas like Gangs of Wasseypur, Raman Raghav 2.0, Black Friday, Johnny Gaddar, Satya are some of the classics in the crime genre. Substantially, there have been cases where it has been found that the audience has been influenced to commit crime after watching the dark comedy. In films like Joker, the audience gets happy only when the joker kills people and cheers when he commits those gruesome murders. The making of movies based on the real-life incidents of serial killers or taking inspiration from them sometimes influences the audience to commit a crime. 

For instance, in 2016 where the accused abducted a Snapdeal employee who was just 24 and then helped her by resolving the problems that the accused created himself. Later the accused asked the girl to marry her and told her “Are you going to make a friend or enemy”. The accused later confessed to the police that he was inspired by Shah Rukh Khan’s movie Darr(1993)

Similarly, after getting inspired by Akshay Kumar’s movie Special 26 (2013), a group of armed robbers claimed themselves to be CBI officers and conducted a raid at the Hyderabad branch of Muthoot Finance. They took 40kg of gold and also all the CCTV cameras to destroy the evidence. However, we should not forget that the movie Special 26 was itself inspired by a real-life incident that occurred in 1987 by Opera House Heist at the Mumbai branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) Jewellers

Munna Bhai M.B.B.S a 2003 film loved by every kind of Bollywood film watchers, has influenced more than a dozen crimes where the students have tried to impersonate themselves and send a proxy candidate in exams or used the Bluetooth technology to cheat in the exams. The accused kidnapped a 15-year-old boy, a classmate of his, and asked for a ransom of about 50,000 rupees, and later killed that boy, confessed that he was so inspired by the character played by Vivek Oberoi in the movie Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) that he used to watch the video of him murdering the boy every day and used to copy mannerisms of Vivek Oberoi in the said movie.

Not only Indian films have influenced people to commit crimes but also this trend is seen in every industry. Crimes, where the children are reported as accused, have often confessed that they were influenced by the 1991 American film Child’s Play 3. After the case of James Holmes who killed almost 12 people and wounded 70 people by opening tear gas at the theatre of Aurora in Colorado, it has been contested whether the movies and comics like Batman and other like productions by Marvel and D.C influence the people to commit a crime or not.

Committing a crime is always seen from the perspective of psychology, the environment, condition, or circumstances that lead a person to choose the option of crime. The film industry’s motive is not to influence anyone to commit a crime, nevertheless, the audience sometimes gets inspired by the characters played in the movies. Here, the importance of criminology and criminal psychology comes into play. The work of criminologists is to understand the circumstances which lead a person to commit a crime and try to find a roadmap to provide alternatives to such environmental stimuli. The crime genre film industry has contributed to a certain extent to the increase in crime, however, it’s upon the viewer’s discretion how to perceive the portrayal of a partially or fully fake scenario. Everything in films is pre-decided and controlled but one cannot do such a thing in real- life.


The growing trend of films in the genre of crime has impacted in both negative and positive ways. The study of criminology needs to include analyzing crime films from a different perspective. The contrast between the criminal justice system as shown in crime films and realities need to be reduced and a more accurate and better image should be provided to the general public.



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