In Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on a 1955 crime novel of the same name by the celebrated author Patricia Highsmith, a young psychopath befriends and unwittingly kills the son of an American shipping tycoon in Italy, usurps his identity and then engages in a series of cold-blooded murders to cover up his crime. Despite rousing suspicion and subsequent investigation, the law fails to nail him.
Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) explores the relentless quest of a private eye to solve a murder that leads him to a water related scam of gigantic proportions that plagued San Francisco Valley in the ’30s, involving some of its richest denizens. The forces of evil overwhelm the detective in the climax as he helplessly witnesses the kidnapping of an adolescent girl by the chief architect of the scam — a patriarch, who happens to be both the grandfather and father of the young girl!
The tendency towards this kind of attitude where criminality wins over moral justice saw one of its earliest manifestations in William Wyler’s 1965 psychological thriller The Collector. Wyler gave up The Sound of Music to do this morbid thriller, set in the English countryside, where a young clerk who collects butterflies, kidnaps an art student without any monetary or carnal motive; and when the young woman dies in captivity, he goes on to kidnap another one!
In a society where the dividing line between crime and justice became increasingly blurred, resulting in dwindling of people’s faith in any kind of fair play, it is only natural that it got reflected in films. In the gangster films of ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, even when the audience rooted for anti-heroes, the long hand of law ultimately caught up with the protagonists and justice prevailed. But since the ’70s, skepticism seeped in.
The phenomenon reached its culmination in the Godfather series where extra-legal practices of the underworld subvert the democratic process and its legal system completely, in a manner that makes it appealing and glamorous. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, like the Godfather series, explores a lawless world with its own moral codes where the law and its representatives are conspicuous by their total absence.
David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and the South Korean film Memories of a Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-Ho both depict real life police investigations of serial killings that remain unsolved, depriving the audience of its customary catharsis. Many South Korean directors, in fact, have made a virtue out of films where serial killers have been shown to get away with some of the most gruesome killings without ever getting caught.
The Vanishing (1988), a Dutch-French production traces the three-year search of a man for his missing girlfriend. The kidnapper ultimately reveals himself to the protagonist, spikes his coffee and buries him alive, just as he had done with his girlfriend. In Mientras Duermes (Sleep Tight), a 2011 Spanish horror-thriller, the janitor of an apartment building drives a young woman into mental breakdown with his creepy machinations.
Woody Allen pushed the boundaries of his customary relationship genre in Match Point (2005), where the protagonist who is a social climber, marries into a rich family, has an affair with the ex-girlfriend of his brother-in-law, and when she becomes pregnant and threatens him with exposure, shoots her down in cold blood after killing an elderly neighbour to make it look like a robbery. Despite investigations by the police, he is let off for want of concrete evidence and a quirk of fate.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, both the American version (2007) and its Austrian original (1997) pushes the world of morbidity to its extreme by showing two psychopath teenagers take over a family of three and terrorise them relentlessly, before engaging in a blood-curdling carnage.
Indian cinema by contrast has stayed clear off such subjects. The status quo, despite being disturbed time and again, is always restored. Perhaps, the sole exception is Neeraj Pandey’s brilliant Special 26 (2013), inspired by true events, where a group of CBI imposters gets away with the biggest jewellery heist in Mumbai, without shedding any blood.
It’s perhaps time that other Indian filmmakers pushed the boundary and get away with murder.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)