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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN POPULAR CULTURE

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Whatever our personal views concerning capital punishment we must admit that it is a powerful and final response to the question of what to do with those adjudged of the most heinous crimes in our society. Timothy McVeigh=s execution on June 11, 2001 for the murder of 168 persons at the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 reminds us of the difficult questions involved in imposing the death penalty.

 

Important issues include whether the death penalty is ever justifiable as a societal response to heinous crimes, the effects of the death penalty on those who impose it and those who witness it, whether it is actually a deterrent, and whether, assuming it should ever be imposed, how it can be imposed fairly. How has popular culture reflected the death penalty and the controversy over its imposition? Indeed, how has the death penalty been defined? Following are some ideas for paper topics and research into images of the death penalty in popular culture.

THE DEATH PENALTY IN FILM NOIR AND AB@ MOVIES

Often, the specter of Athe gas chamber@ is used in film noir, low budget films and thrillers either to frighten suspects or defendants, or to amplify and justify the actions of heroes in such films. For example, in the decades in which the death penalty was fairly universal in the United States, the gas chamber or execution by hanging casts a shadow over the plots of such well made if formulaic films as The Blue Gardenia (1953), directed by Fritz Lang and starring Raymond Burr as the wolf who gets murdered, the classics Double Indemnity (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Out of the Past (1947), all of which pose the question of whether it=s possible to pull off the perfect crime in order to avoid society=s perfect revenge. The film Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), directed by Fritz Lang, stars Dana Andrews as a novelist who allows his future father-in-law to frame him for murder in order to demonstrate the wrongs of capital punishment. (For more film noir examples see the IMDB database and search by genre: Film noir).

Questions of the imposition of the death penalty are finessed in such docudramas as The Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story (TVM 1993), Cruel Doubt (TVM 1992), and Wife, Mother, Murderer: The Marie Hilley Story (TVM 1991). Certainly the controversies over Karla Faye Tucker (executed February 3, 1998) who may have actually undergone a true religious conversion, justifying one of the stated purposes of the penitentiary as a place of rehabilitation, and the conviction and potential execution of Darlie Lynn Routier for the murder of two of her children suggests that if justice seems flawed then much of society questions whether the death penalty can ever be justified.

CONTROVERSIES OVER IMPOSITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY

A. SEEKING THE DEATH PENALTY AS A CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE

In some films the death penalty is presented as a touchstone for a character=s conscience, as in Rampage (1988), in which a liberal prosecutor faces the prospect of seeking the death penalty for a defendant he views as guilty of particularly heinous and despicable crimes.

B. REACTIONS TO THE ELIMINATION OF THE DEATH PENALTY

FICTIONALIZATIONS AND DOCUDRAMAS

Another response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that the death penalty could be considered unconstitutional was to highlight the dangers of allowing those guilty of crimes previously punishable by the death penalty to continue living, as in Terminal Island (1973), in which murderers run rampant over an island so difficult to control that the authorities seem to have given it up. Compare the idea of exiling murderers and other undesireables in Terminal Island with Papillon (based on Devil=s Island).

In Vigilante (1982) the filmmakers suggest that lack of the death penalty leads to extra-legal activities including revenge, a common justification for capital punishment. Those who know they do not face death have no reason to mitigate their actions.

The French film Le Pull-over Rouge (1979), a dramatization of the trial and execution of Christian Ranucci, helped bring about an end to the death penalty in France in 1981, primarily because Ranucci=s guilt was far from obvious.

Dance With a Stranger (1985), dramatizes the story of the last woman in England hanged for murder, I Want to Live! (1958) and Kill Me If You Can (TVM 1977) brings up the question of capital punishment for felony murder. 10 Rillington Place (1971) retells the story of John Christie, a serial killer who temporarily escaped his crimes while an innocent man was executed for them; the latter, Timothy Evans, was posthumously pardoned.

DOCUMENTARIES

Documentaries on the death penalty tend to criticize or bring into question the efficacy and advisability of capital punishment. See for example the UK film Executions (1995)(Great Britain banned the death penalty in 1965).

Errol Morris= The Thin Blue Line (1988) brings into question the fairness of the death penalty as it is applied to minorities and others marginalized by our society.

C. THE DEATH PENALTY AS SHORTHAND FOR CRITICISM OF OTHER CULTURES

In such films as Dadah is Death (TVM 1988), the death penalty imposed by Asian and Middle Eastern governments for such crimes as drug smuggling, viewed as a particularly dangerous social evil, is heavily critized. Note however that the United States also sometimes imposes the death penalty for drug smuggling and trafficking, and that the drug war in the United States is a common theme in popular culture (note, for example, Steven Soderburgh=s Traffic (2000)).

D. IMPOSITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN QUESTIONABLE CASES

The murder case of Dr. Sam Sheppard (1954) for his wife Marilyn brought to the fore the question of execution when guilt is eventually brought into question. The tv series The Fugitive (1963), starring David Janssen, suggested not only that Sam Sheppard was innocent, but the the imposition of the death penalty is a fundamentally flawed response to legally adjudicated guilt. The Fugitive was turned into a full length movie starring Harrison Ford in 1993. Two other films with the same theme, although with different outcomes, are Petrocelli (TVM 1974), the pilot film for the series and Indict and Convict (TVM 1973).

The guilt of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, convicted of the kidnapping and murder of small Charles Lindbergh Jr., is more than questionable after seventy years, as films that have documented the trial and execution make clear. Consider Anthony Hopkins= portrayal in The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976) and Stephen Rea in Crime of the Century (TVM 1996).

Some have suggested also that the specter of the death penalty causes acquittals when the jury cannot conceive of imposing the death penalty (death-qualified juries are another interesting and mostly unexamined phenomenon). A good example is that of Lizzie Borden, particularly as played by Elizabeth Montgomery in The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975).

E. IMPOSITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY FOR WAR CRIMES AND OTHER ACTS OF WAR

The death penalty as the ultimate punishment for those adjudged guilty of war crimes was highlighted in the film Judgment at Nuremberg (1963) and in the mini series Nuremberg (2000). The Andersonville Trial (TVM 1970) considers the justification of executing only one officer for war crimes that were arguably the responsibility of many others higher in rank than he. Death and the Maiden (1994) and The Execution (TVM 1971) suggest that private vengeance may be the only recourse for those victims whom society continues to ignore.

Death for other crimes, including as cover for the crimes of governments, is the subject of 8-A (1993), which dramatizes the execution of the Cuban war hero General Ochoa, and of Paths of Glory (1957), in which soldiers refuse to commit what they consider war crimes, and are executed for refusal to follow orders. In The Execution of Private Slovik (TVM 1974) Martin Sheen portrays the first American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War.

Death for what is considered treason is also a theme: see films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and A Man for All Seasons (1966).

F. EFFECTS OF THE DEATH PENALTY ON THE EXECUTIONER

Rarely, as in the Spanish film El Verdugo (1963) we examine the result of the death penalty on those condemned to impose it.

RESOURCES

Some websites on the Death penalty include

Death Penalty Information Center

LII: About the Death Penalty

ProDeathPenalty.Com

Bibliography

Beck, Hamilton, Of Two Minds about the Death Penalty: Hippel's Account of a Case of Infanticide, 18 Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 123-140 (1988).

Franklin, H. Bruce, Billy Budd and Capital Punishment

Hay, Douglas, Albion=s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (1975).

Saltzmann, Rachelle H., 'This Buzz Is for You': Popular Responses to the Ted Bundy Execution, 32(2) Journal of Folklore Research 101-119 (May/August 1995).

Strecker, Geralyn, Statecraft as Stagecraft: Disneyland and the Rosenberg Executions in The Public Burning, 42(1) Critique 70-80 (Fall 2000).

On Film Noir

Classic Film Noir Images

Dreams and Film Noir

Film Noir: Full text articles

Film Noir: Articles

In Focus: Ten Shades of Noir

Narrative Innovations in Film Noir

Don=t forget that not everything is on the Internet. For additional materials search library catalogs under the following subject headings, as well as others suggested by your librarian:

Crime in literature

Murder in literature

Other topics:

The image of the murderer in crime films

The image of the district attorney in crime films

The jury in the crime/murder film

The justification for the imposition of the death penalty in various circumstances: intentional murder, murder for hire, murder for money, felony murder: what dialogue does popular culture engender on these issues?

 

 




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