October 8, 2008

Does knowing that the bad guy must lose in old movies affect the viewing experience?

I don't know how well-versed in film censorship history y'all are, but a long long time ago there was a system of censorship in American known as the Production Code. I wrote a massive research paper on it several years ago, but in a nutshell, from 1934 to the late 1960s there were a rigorous set of rules and standards of decency that movies had to meet. Have you noticed a lack of extreme violence, graphic sexuality, and obscenity in older movies? Well, it certainly wasn't for lack of directors trying - that was the Code's doing. I even argued in my paper that these restrictions forced filmmakers to be more creative and subtle, ultimately leading to more sophisticated films - but that's a story for another day.

One aspect of the Code that I've always found interesting is that the bad guys weren't allowed to win. To cite the actual text of the Code, "the treatment of crimes against the law must not: 1. teach methods of crime 2. inspire potential criminals with a desire for imitation 3. make criminals seem heroic and justified." Even in the era of gangster movies, where the audience secretly sympathizes with the gangsters the whole time, their behavior was not allowed to go unpunished. They must either repent, get caught, or die (or all three).

Now, perhaps you have not noticed that in older movies (and keep in mind that this does not necessarily apply to pre-1934 films) it never ends well for people working against the law, even if they are arguably the protagonists. I'm always very aware of it, and it can sometimes color my viewing experience. It's essentially knowing the ending - or at least the general outcome - of every crime movie made in a 30+ year period. I know that a good film should still hold up and be engaging even if you know how it ends, but a certain virgin quality is lost of going in totally unaware.

For example, I recently saw Stanley Kubrick's breakthrough film from 1956, The Killing. It's a taut crime noir about a gang of hoods robbing a racetrack. Even though I was totally hooked on the story, my mind started to wander a little and I couldn't help but thinking, "no matter how well they execute their plan, they will ultimately not succeed." Even though nobody explicitly spoiled the end for me, the truth of that era of moviemaking hung over me. To Kubrick's credit, he actually handles the mandatory disciplining of his lawless characters with deftness and grace, but depending on the nature of the story being told, often the endings just seem slapped on. Take Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). The film features the incomporable king of the gangsters, James Cagney, thugging it up for almost the entire running time and clearly having his escapades glorified, but then shows him being executed at the end, and appearing afraid and pathetic in the face of death so that a gang of street urchins who idolize him will cease to do so. Most modern audiences - and in fact, even the audiences at the time - realized the incongruity of these endings and generally ignored them, but being a sucker for good endings, I still wonder how these movies would end if the directors were left to their own devices.

In trying to think of a film where the bad guys got away with it, the first one that came to mind was Ocean's Eleven (the Soderbergh version - I can't speak for the original). How could they not get away with it? Those guys are heroes! They're too cool to get caught! In modern films, because the possibility of success and failure exist in an equal ratio (unless it's based on a true story), there is actual tension and suspense as to the outcome. Again, the film should still stand on its own if you know who wins and/or loses, but with that knowledge a certain bite is lost.

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon, and has it affected your viewing experiences?