Throughout motion picture history, women have experienced more transition in their roles, as a result of changing societal norms, than any other class. At first, both society and the movie industry preached that women should be dependent on men and remain in the home, in order to guarantee stability in the community and the family. As time passed and attitudes changed, women were beginning to be depicted as strong willed, independent minded characters, who were eager to break away from convention. The genre of the crime film represents such a change in the roles handed to women. Two films that can be contrasted, in order to support this view, are: The Public Enemy by William Wellman (1931) and Bonnie &Clyde by Arthur Penn (1967).In The Public Enemy, women are portrayed as naive and/or objects of carnal pleasure by men. In this period, women were often categorized as mothers, mistresses, sisters, or ladies.
Ma Powers (played by Beryl Mercer), the lead character Tom Powers’(played by James Cagney) mother, is easily fooled by Tom’s fake stories about where he get his money and doesn’t believe that her "baby boy" could be a vile gangster. At one point during prohibition, when Tom brings home a barrel of beer, she doesn’t even question where he obtained it, but rather takes a drink for herself. Ma Powers is the prototypical mother of the 1930’s. She is blind to the ways of the world and doesn’t see the danger of things, even in regard to her own children. She is a widow who does not work, but is supported by her sons. She is even blind to the fact that her sons hate one another.
Even though, her Tom was sadistic killer and gangster, she always welcomes him back lovingly with open arms. At the end of the movie, she gets a phone call saying that Tom will be coming home from the hospital, where he had been treated for a gunshot. She rushes upstairs to make his bed and get his room ready, when the doorbell rings and the rival gang drops of Tom’s gun riddled body. The other women who appear in the movie are portrayed as fast women who are sexual object to be enjoyed by Tom, until he gets tired of them and then throws them away. In one famous movie seen, Tom doesn’t appreciate what his mistress moll Kitty (played by Mae Clarke) said to him, so he wickedly squeezes half of a grapefruit into her face. She is left there belit...
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...onnie & Clyde first premiered on the big screen.
The female roles in The Public Enemy were stereotypical of the roles handed to women in the 1930’s and also conveyed the zeitgeist of society. During the 1960’s, as indicated by Bonnie & Clyde, there was the emergence of the women’s role as a central character of the plot, one who was just as capable and omnipotent as the male lead character. She was a character that would not be controlled by society’s norms or be held captive to male authority. It is safe to say that Bonnie & Clyde, helped redefined the role for women in crime and action films. Many recent films, such as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven 1992), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone 1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin 1996), have emulated the strong, seductive leading role that Bonnie & Clyde helped define. It also helped further that idea that women can hold their own in the crime film genre, both in the box office and by public opinion, and through its innovation may have supported the production of such preceding all-women crime films such as Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), Set It Off (F. Gary Gray 1996) and Bound (The Wachowski Brothers 1996).
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