Interview: Luc Sante on Crime Cinema

May 11th 2017

Tonight, the Museum of the Moving Image is honoring legendary caper and crime writer Donald Westlake with a screening of John Boorman's hallucinatory Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank (1967), followed by a conversation between Abby Westlake, Lawrence Block, and Luc Sante. Sante has written extensively on crime fiction, and recently shared a few thoughts with me about noir, work, and honesty.

Cosmo Bjorkenheim: Under the Hays Code, methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented in the movies, but ever since at least Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties there’s been a sort of sub-genre of crime/heist movie (that I’ve heard called “competence porn”) that lays out criminal techniques in forensic detail like a how-to guide (Rififi probably being the classic example). In his recent book on Bresson, Brian Price even praised Pickpocket for teaching the audience “how to live outside of the system of capital.” Can you think of other examples of this sub-genre and what its political/practical value might be, beyond merely fetishizing technique?

Luc Sante: Jacques Becker's Le trou, which makes you think that you, too, could escape from prison, and many of Jean-Pierre Melville's movies have this quality, too—Bob le Flambeur, Le cercle rouge, Un flic... It's a quality I associate more with French movies than American ones, maybe because of the Hays Code, maybe because of the Cartesian method every French person receives intravenously in school. On the other hand, there's Ulu Grosbard's tremendous Straight Time and even David O. Russell's flawed but interesting American Hustle, so I could just be misremembering. In any event, the great advantage to this sort of approach is that it turns the picture into a narrative machine. It invites suspense—waiting for something to go wrong—but also its inverse, the satisfaction of watching gears mesh and billiard balls fall into their pockets. This putative subgenre treats crime as work and the accomplished criminal as an artisan, and watching difficult work done well and smoothly is a great pleasure that has otherwise been insufficiently exploited by cinema. I should also say that Kurosawa's crime pictures have this quality in spades. I sense that Johnnie To would also be adept at depicting work, but he kills his characters before you get a chance to find out.

CB: A lot of classic crime fiction is being reevaluated as “literature” tout court (Richard Stark’s Parker novels being republished by University of Chicago Press, Highsmith by Norton, Simenon and Manchette by NYRB). Does this simply reflect haphazard market forces, or is the canon expanding for some other reason?

LS: I think we've come to realize in the past twenty or thirty years that the very notion of genre is a myth, a holdover of nineteenth-century bourgeois prejudices. There are great crime fictions and great science fictions—and there are lousy coming-of-age and breakup-of-marriage and identity-crisis stories. Because of the economics involved, there is of course an enormous amount of subpar crime and sci-fi (and Western and aviation and so on). Writers were paid small amounts and enjoyed little prestige, and often had to pump out a novel every month to pay the rent. The ones who managed to transcend those limitations in their work were relatively rare. Those who succeeded more often than not—Westlake/Stark, Highsmith, Manchette, Simenon, Chester Himes—were simply phenomenal. And even those whose generally huge output was generally spotty but who now and then wrote a great book—e.g., Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Frederic Brown, Charles Willeford—seem slightly miraculous.

CB: Jim Thompson is one of my favorite hardboiled writers, because apart from probing the minds of psychotic law-enforcers, he teaches us a lot about working life in America, having experienced it first-hand. Who do you find to be the most honest crime writers in this regard?

LS: Here it's time to mention Elmore Leonard, who wrote wonderfully crafted books, with expert pacing, perfect dialogue, and ingenious plots, that nevertheless evaporate so quickly in my mind that I've been able to reread them as avidly as if I were an amnesiac. He's very good on the subject of work, as is Willeford. What they have in common with Thompson is that they all held all kinds of jobs, whereas most of the others named above were always writers. Simenon could research the hell out of most areas of life, but for all that his psychological acuity was second to none, you don't actually feel the sweat and sinew of manual labor in his prose.