For the past few years I have been developing a general framework for thinking about the representation of law in American films. My thinking has been guided by three convictions:
1. The problem of law is central to the major genres of American film, sometimes in surprising ways. Put another way, the major genres of American film all deal with issues in which the status of law is a central concern. This distinguishes film from other forms of American popular culture such as the novel. And it means that problem of law provides a framework for approaching American cinema in general. The field of law and film is often regarded as an interesting way of raising questions about the legal world. This is certainly true. I am suggesting that law also provides a privileged standpoint for grasping the most fundamental concerns of American cinema as a medium.
2. The portrayal of law in American film is one of deep ambivalence toward the law. American film manifests a profound skepticism towards the law’s claims to be what it claims to be, to achieve what it claims to achieve, and so on. This skepticism is typically manifested in the privileged place that it accords to the legal “outsider.” The outsider’s angular relation to the legal realm poses fundamental questions about the ambivalent relation between law and the individual, law and morality, the legal and the illegal, and so on.
3. American film’s skepticism of law and its privileging of the legal outsider achieves its greatest expression in the genre of Film Noir. As such, Film Noir is both a commentary on the other major genres of film and the consummation of those genres, and of American film as a whole, insofar as the problem law is central to it. This may explain why the noir sensibility became the dominant one in the last decades of the twentieth century, as the age of classical American film drew to a close. . . .