Historical Dictionary Of Crime Films Review

Author: Geoff Mayer.

diCrime Films themselves are a subset of the Thriller genre. In his schematic introduction to the genre Mayer breaks down the crime film into further sub-genre categories that range from the classical detective (Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, Miss Marple, Mr Moto, Charlie Chan etc.) to the police detective, from the gangster film to political crime movies, from crime capers to socio-political crime films. Within this the author also breaks down the suspense thrillers into six further categories using the system of Alfred Hitchcock film historian Charles Derry’s list into:

  • political thriller (films would Suddenly [1954], The Day of the Jackal [1973], Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire [1993] etc.).
  • the double identity or doppelganger film (The Double Man [1967] with Yul Brynner and Among the Living [1941] spring to mind).
  • ‘Psychotraumatic’ thrillers (The Manchurian Candidate [1962 and 2004] could fall into both this and the political thriller category).
  • the moral confrontation film (Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train [1951] and Eastwood’s Tightrope [1984]).
  • The innocent on the run film (This could include any number of Hitchcock films including The 39 Steps [1935], Saboteur [1942] and North by Northwest [1959]).
  • The murderous passion suspense thriller (this would include any number of film noirs such as Double Indemnity [1944] and The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946].

At the beginning of his book Mayer draws the distinction between those differences between a crime film and a thriller in which both elements are central to both sets of genres and there is very little between them. However, using another film historian called Carlos Clarens as an example he puts this difference between the ‘thriller’ being a disturbance of the private sphere and is often violent in nature and the ‘crime’ film which is more concerned with Society and the Law. This seems to be the clearest definition I could find in the book and as short as the introduction is in comparison to the size of the book it is certainly the most in-depth aspect of this dictionary book.


The order of the book runs exactly the same as any other book in the series by the publishers Scarecrow Press and is the most recent publication. This is just the latest edition in the long series of books under the ‘Historical Dictionary of Literature and the Arts’ titles published by Scarecrow Press that, as the title states goes beyond just cinema. However, don’t expect an in-depth book on the crime film, it is as it says on the tin a dictionary of the genre. It runs the same as others: it starts off with a year-by-year history broken down nationally before going into the well written and concise introduction that includes a history of the crime film before the main body of the dictionary itself which includes everything from well-known authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, all of whom have had their novels turned into classic crime films. It also includes key personnel who have made or starred or written crime films, as well as some, just some of the infamous criminals such as Al Capone or John Dillinger, although these are fewer. The book concludes with an exhaustive bibliography.


What is also interesting is the degree of attention Mayer gives to a film that is already becoming a modern classic, Nicolas Winding’s Drive (2011) which starred Ryan Gosling, a film he describes as not your run of the mill action film but instead but a film about a morally complex character. What is also noticed by its absence is much mention either of the real Bonnie and Clyde and their influence on films and the classic Arthur Penn film of 1967. I think this is something of an omission due to the infamous pair’s folk hero status and the controversy that this raises both morally and within the genre itself, let alone the film. Yet, as is such the case with these books they soon become outdated by newer releases and titles on the screen where there is always room for an updated publication. Ultimately the book is as it should be taken a reference book, albeit a rather expensive one, but a reference book none the less smattered with a few illustrations.


Chris Hick


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