As my column’s name suggests, I’m something of a Langian, and have long been the ardent devotee of a particular reflex in European pulp culture that goes at least as far back as the years prior to WWI. If you’ve seen Spiders (1919-20), Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), M (1931), or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), you’ve seen it in action—the assumptive, almost quaint notion that “modern” crime is the action of an organized underground government, replete with unions, meetings, bureaucracies, taxes, rituals, insignia, and/or sartorial regimens. What’s not to love? Far from a reflection of actual organized crime as it coalesced in the mid-19th century (in Sicily), which as a genuine criminological phenomenon has never been very organized at all, Fritz Lang’s underground is an almost ironic mirror-image of above-ground social commerce. This may be for convenience’s sake, but it’s also a weird, irrational idea, innocent at its core of real vice or malice. Why would the by-definition unregulated, chaotic, sociopathic side of human society ever organize itself in this way? Aren’t hierarchal social concerns and demands exactly what any self-respecting burglar or pickpocket or bank-robber is trying to escape from?
The paradigm reaches back to the advent of high-seas pirates as subjects of popular reading—begun in 1724 with the rousing mythologizations of the pseudonymous “Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.” Presumably a modicum of managerial organization was required to run a pirate crew and keep it viable. But the Euro-movie trend of vast and orderly criminal subsocieties was a 20th-century creation, expanded from the “arch-criminal” myth epitomized by Brit novelist Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” (first appearing in 1913) and Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s “Fantomas” (debuting in 1911)—franchises that were rich soil for movies for the next decades. But a lone megalomanic genius, perhaps with a band of henchmen (who presumably earn salaries), is a far simpler concept than an entire shadow commonwealth, dovetailing nicely with Christian beliefs of good and evil and personal moral choice, and with Freudian ideas of psychological pathology. Still, an important thread through the Fu Manchu books is the evil arch-fiend’s troubled relationship with the Si-Fan, a mysterious cabal of assassins and criminals intent on killing destructive world leaders. The Si-Fan is more talked about than actively engaged in Rohmer’s books, but their collective engagement with crime and civilian espionage may be our ground zero, despite the obvious hints of Masonry Rohmer included.
Yet we’re not talking about secret societies, which have a fascinating legacy going back centuries (oddly enough, there’s been a thinner legacy in movies). Rather, what arose was a distinct conception of the new urban crime that began to grip cities in the early 1900s, which may’ve started with Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-16). Feuillade’s style—long, deep shots of uncoiled happenings, brimming with fugue states and vicarious connectivity and otherworldly evocations—perfectly suited the notion of a hidden underground other-world. After that the myth thrived and varied, most passionately by way of Lang, but also reaching from the Houdini serial The Master Mystery (1919) to Lev Kuleshov’s outrageous The Death Ray (1925), which converts the organized-underground template to anti-Fascist espionage, but is nonetheless farcically packed with rampaging action editing, hidden passageways, surprise disguises, quicksand, knife fights, and on and on. Most people have met this quaint dynamic in Lang’s M, where the entire story is constructed around the premise that the guild-&-annual-dues Bremen underground of cut purses and whores is in fact the Janus-face reflection of the legit law-&-order world that co-occupies the streets.
This is a world where criminals meet in secret rooms all wearing the same outfit, compliantly pay percentages of their take to their bureaucracy, call themselves scary team names like “Spiders” or “Vampires,” leave totemic “calling card” signs and objects (or, sometimes, real calling cards) behind to signal their presence, and plot robberies and crimes as though they were war games. In other words, they’re children. Feuillade’s movies in particular have the air of play about them, as the actors “pretend” the story in what’s close to uncut real time, while the streets and estate grounds and parlor rooms hide vacuums and vacancies and the ideas of possibly hidden things behind doors, paintings, windows or moving wall panels. (Your eyes roam these odd places instead of the director telling you where to look, and the absences are brimming with anxiety—your watching becomes part of the story, joining the mysterious pursuits and tightening the pull of tenterhooks.) All told, it’s a vision of society’s dark underbelly as a community of grade-schoolers acting out adult transgressions, about which they haplessly apply rules and regulations, because isn’t that how it’s done?
Maybe that’s why it’s seductive: this view of criminal life resembles what Wendy and Peter Pan’s Lost Boys would cook up if they decided to play “crime.” At the same time, we can imagine that the idea made urban crime—previously relegated to unprotected travel routes—feel relatively safe and familiar, menacing but not evil, malevolent but still smacking of humankind’s impulses toward order and sanity. This wouldn’t be odd if it turned out to be true—we have done the same thing in the last few decades with serial killers, investing them with all kinds of patterns and elaborate schemes and investigatable obsessions, when in reality serial killers are most often completely random forces. Murder is murder, but order, even insane order, is less terrifying than absolute chaos. The semi-corporate order of the Mob in The Godfather films is just as much an insecure fiction—the reality of the Mafia, we all know now, was far closer to the impulse killing and petty violence of Goodfellas. Maybe that’s pulp’s prime ulterior function—to make the madness of our nightmares, of the secret agents out there who want to kill our children, steal our money and burn our homes, into something reasonable we can deal with, and even enjoy.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.