Film Ma Thesis        

UNDERCOVER: A Hero in an Identity Crisis?

Submitted for the degree of
MA (Mass Communications) 2009.

Part 1

Dissertation Abstract

Employing genre analysis methodology, the author investigates the principles of undercover film as a form of hybrid genre, through examples of three contemporary gangster and detective films: Miami Vice by Michael Mann, The Departed by Martin Scorsese and Eastern Promises by David Cronenberg. The author considers existing scholarship on genre theory, and defines key concepts that are of great importance for understanding what constitute genres and how they change and develop. The findings of the research provide the grounds for acknowledgment of the undercover as a specific hybrid form that belongs to the wide category of crime genre.


This dissertation deals with the principles of undercover as a form of a hybrid genre, and tries to analyze it in examples of three contemporary gangster and detective movies. It focuses on the ideological implications behind the representations of an undercover hero. Its aim is to subject these three films to interpretative reading and thus try to uncover the ideological implications of these visual texts. Through the methodology of genre analysis, I would try to profoundly analyze texts in two dimensions: aesthetics and creative moments used in films, and social role of the genre. It is important to research this topic in order to discover: the problems in defining contemporary genres; contributions to the development of new genres; and the role of authorial experimentation, economic and technological factors and changing audience preferences.

Traditional definitions of genres state that it constitutes specific conventions of content and form, shared by the texts comprised within them. Genre is regarded to be a category that classifies a film in terms of certain general patterns of form and content.

In contemporary art production such divisions exist in order to facilitate categorizations, construct aesthetic criteria, and facilitate decision making for those consumers lacking time, attention and sensibility. The forms and functions of a contemporary genre are changeable, thus blurring the boundaries between different categories. However, established genre divisions are limited to already defined general principles, which under many difficulties fail in substantial specification of form and content of so called hybrid genre. One of such genres is an undercover genre.

The content of a moving image is an important element of mass communication and represents a fertile ground for symbols, myths, values and beliefs, which are shared between producers and their audiences. Through representations of set social values, symbolically packed in characters and their actions, genres provide a strong ideological function. Social values and beliefs are often embodied in a figure of generic hero, which, in this case, is an undercover detective.

In the long history of the film, there are many examples of those with the undercover narrative set in different arrangements, placed within a different ambient and realized within the different semantic potentials. In a short overview, it is possible to recall some variations of the hybrid genre that is present in many spy movies with political background (like "No Way Out" by Roger Donaldson which investigates undercover theme in a quasi – cold war ambient).

However, this study will refer to the movies which investigate undercover in an overlap between gangster and detective genre. It is tradition of films such as "Serpico" by Sidney Lumet or "Donnie Brasco" by Mike Newel. On the one hand, gangster and detective movies have mainly the same iconographic basis, from the formal or semantic side. These movies are set in urban areas, and are depicted by broad sweeps of scenery where clear contours of the concrete city blocks dominate. Their perspective is a moral one, where the microsoms of the crime narrative becomes a perfect background for the analysis of the global society.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the three most prominent North American film authors, in their latest works deal with the undercover genre, with different and unique characters, each in his own manner: Michael Mann in "Miami Vice", Martin Scorcese in "The Departed" and David Cronenberg in "Eastern Promises.

These very films would be used as case studies in this dissertation. Their utmost importance as the key representatives of this hybrid genre makes them the most suitable vehicles for the analysis of the state of the undercover genre nowadays.

In chapter one then, the consideration of genre theory and existing knowledge on hybrid genres is used to provide a theoretical framework and the basis that supports the interest for this study. It also provides explanations for key concepts that are crucial for understanding how genres work in correlation with industry, audience and ideology.

Chapter two presents methodology used in the research. It provides an insight on organization of research, and explains what methods have been used in analysis of films.

The actual research is presented in chapter three. Each sample film is subjected to examination of principal elements, iconography, mise-en-scene, narrative elements and plot structure.

Findings are brought together in chapter four through the consideration of 'outer form' and 'inner form' of sample films. The findings will try to provide the reasons for the acknowledgement of undercover as a hybrid genre. It establishes elements that constitute the genre, from aesthetic, ritual and ideological perspective.

The study concludes with an overview and some self-reflexive observations, concentrating on the specific attributes of undercover as a hybrid genre that could contribute to its acknowledgment in the theory of genre.

Chapter one – defining the field

1.1 Literature overview

There is plenty of literature in present scholarship that provides theoretical background and encompasses more than just works coming from film and media studies. Theory of genre was traditionally central to film studies, and many critical debates that dealt its with notions, definitions, functions and divisions. Such debates provide different understandings from various perspectives of what the term genre stands for. Useful sources that provide definitions of genre are works of Grant (2003), Tudor (1973), Neale (1990), Shatz (1977), Solomon (1976), Buscombe (1970), Altman (1984), Moin (2006), Shobchack (1975), Langford (2005), Cawelti (1979), Hess Wright (1974), Wood (1977) and Shadoian (2003). Some of these theorists emphasize the role of audience expectations in determination of genres (Cawelti, 1979; Neale 2000), while some suggest that they certify certain ideologies (Wood, 1977; Hess Wright, 1974; Shatz, 1977). Solomon (1976) and Buscombe (1970) consider aesthetic feature and authorial signature to be of great importance in genre development. However, they all stand together in the statement that genres can not be seen as discrete categories.

The flexibility of genres is argued by Neale (2000) and Chandler (1997), while Staiger (2000) discuss the phenomenon of hybrid genre and its history, suggesting that genres have never been pure and easily arranged in categories.

In exploring theory on crime genre, we ought to give considerable importance to the works of Leitch (2004) who classify crime subgenres according to figures that dominate in films; Neale (2000) who suggest that crime genre gathers detective, gangster and suspense thriller films, while their characteristics often overlap in individual films; Wilson (1998) who states that crime genre provide a popular "covert" culture; and Hughes (2006) who sees crime genre as most appropriate ground for experiments and adaptations in which new genres emerge.

The importance of Rafter's study Shots in the Mirror (2000) must be emphasized, because it provides a profound analysis of all elements that constitute crime genre, and profound analysis of types of heroes that exist in crime films.

The reliable sources for defining key terms and concepts are Schrimer Encyclopedia of Film (2007), Dick's (2005) Anatomy of Film, Hansen's et al. (1998) Mass Communication Research Methods, and Hartley's (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies – The Key Concepts.

Internet sources as,, and provide the list of undercover films of all the times, as well as some academic reviews of sample films.

Genre analysis of moving image content is considered to be the "key device for examining meanings in all moving image products and tools for opening up texts". (Hansen et al, 1998:130) and is widely recognized as a central to the study of mass media. Hansen's et al. (1998) Mass Communication Research Methods provides genre research methodology applicable to genre products to be analysed.

1.2 Theoretical framework

Our study belongs to the broad theoretical framework of cultural studies, film studies, genre theory, and qualitative approach to moving image content and genre analysis. Qualitative approach to moving image content – genre analysis, used in this study, is rooted in literary and film theory, as the part of cultural studies tradition in mass communication research. Through the history of mass communication research, moving image content represented a field for systematic study of the relationship between content and audience, and reflections of social and cultural values and beliefs.

In order to analyze undercover movie as a form of a hybrid genre, considerable importance must be given to the genre theory. The purest definition of the genre states that "Genres are categories of kinds or types of artistic or cultural artefacts with certain elements in common. In film, common generic elements include subject matter, theme, narrative and stylistic conventions, character types, plot and iconography." (Schrimer Encyclopedia: 2007: 297) But can all genres be defined by these common elements? Different standpoints in film theory, including auterism, Marxism, semiology, structuralism, and gender, race and feminist study, shifted away from such a simplistic definition, trying to establish a criterion that could define such categories. "The genre is what we collectively believe it to be" said Andrew Tudor (Tudor,1973; in Keith, 2003: p. 7) suggesting that in order to analyse genre we have to lean on what is known as "cultural consensus". Similarly, Shadoian states that "genres are cultural metaphors and phychic mirrors. We don't know of what until we study the films that comprise them". (Shadoian, 2003:8)

There are three main approaches in genre analysis that provided tools for deeper understanding of genres. Ritual, ideological and aesthetic approaches to genre study consider various contexts important for understanding genre and its relations between industry, audience and society.

Ritual approach is concerned with audience's expectations and considers genres as constructed entities that have preset reaction of audience already within them. Audience is familiar with various genres through employment and repetition of its conventions, such as settings, iconography and characters. The familiarity of conventions is of vital importance in some theories since they stand as a kind of "contract" between industry and audience (Shatz; 1977). Being aware of audience's expectations, industry provides desired plots, images and stories, allowing its spectators to enjoy the kind of films they wanted to see. Genres can not be defined simply as categories, but must involve the system of expectations brought by the audience (Neale; 1990). The expectations are made on the basis of the memories of previous films. Component texts provided by industry, including promotional material as advertisements and posters must be taken into account, as they provide exact labels for specific categories by emphasizing specific conventions and codes. Expectations rely on specific rules, norms and laws established by audience and these rules must be respected if industry wants to gain commercial success. However, genres must not be perceived as bare repetitions. Instead, genre films preserve dominant conventions, but suffer many variations and changes in order to keep their audience. In the economy of genre, variability turned out to be an essential component.

While ritual approach perceives industry as responsive to audience's expectations, the ideological approach sees industry advantageous of spectators' interaction and engagement in order to involve them into its own system of beliefs. Instead of symmetry between the genre and audience emphasized by ritual approach, of greater importance is the symmetry between the genre and the interests of the ruling order (Hansen et al; 1998:183).

Gramsci defined ideology as "the ruling ideas that constitute the "social cement" unifying and holding together the established social order". (Schrymer Encyclopedia; 2007:407) In the ideological approach genres reflect meanings, beliefs and values of the society, and its ideological dimension can be revealed through specific uses of conventions, icons, plots, themes and characters. Recognition of social conflicts and its virtual termination largely influence the financial success of films. In such way of maintaining social order and status quo, films provide spectators with satisfaction (Hess Wright; 1974). Rick Altman states that in such a way "far from being limited to mere entertainment, filmgoing offers a satisfaction more akin to that associated with established religion" (Altman, 1984; in Keith, 2003; p.37).

For some theories ideological dimension of genre is most obvious in plot resolution and generic hero's attitude and actions. Resolutions usually provide pictures of well-ordered community and stable society. (Shatz, 1977; Hansen et al; 1998:184) The structuralist approach is useful in finding such key meanings in the text and revealing hidden ideology. According to Berger "structuralism is a method of analysis that interprets text in terms of the relationships that exists among the basic elements found in the text."(cited in Hindmarsh; 1996:12) In his theory, the changing role of genre hero reflects and incorporates the changing ideology, and thereby influences the nature of the genre itself. Ideological approach suggests that genres can not be treated as discrete because they employ different strategies to treat ideological tensions.

Ritual and ideological approaches respectively, ignore the importance of cinematic effect in genre analysis. These theories see aesthetic merely as a stylish package for an important ideological content. However, genre films present a kind of combination of familiarity and novelty, and such novelty is usually the result of the artistic expression. The aesthetic approach to genre study deals, in its own right, with artistic expression and primarily emphasizes the role of creativity. The role of the artist is important since they bring to genre their own style, which is most obvious in the analysis of its outer form (Buscombe, 1970). In Solomon's theory of genre and originality it is presented that: "to achieve genre art, filmmakers must be committed to exploring new facets of the familiar setting, elaborating on their insights into the mythic structures of the genre" (Solomon; 1976; Barret and Newbold, 1998:457).

One of the problems in attempts to define genre has been the tendency to treat genres as discrete (Wood, 1977). Approaches to genre analysis prove, among everything else, that genres are subjected to constant variations. Critical theories on genre state that variations are crucial in many aspects, and include similarities and differences playing equal roles. For this reason genres must be seen as processes (Neale, 1990). Genres change and develop by borrowing some elements form, and overlapping with, each other, making a hybrid form. Hybrid genre can be described simply as a combination of familiar and original elements. Neale (1990) and Staiger (1997) both support the idea that hybrids consist of different styles and conventions, from different categories, but may not represent a genre in their own right. Through the process of hybridization, genres expand their repertoire of elements, which allows them to treat same themes in a new manner. The hybrids are neither novelty nor rarity. Genre hybridization is pushed by authorial creativity, technological factors and changing audience's preferences. In long Hollywood history hybrids were usual, combining different kinds of generic plots. Staiger states that "combinations and rearrangements of formulas are quite simple if two conventional plot lines from different genres are merged together. Such hybrids are usual in contemporary film production, since it presents the simplest way of gathering the widest audience" (Staiger,1990: 189).

Undercover film can be classified as a hybrid of gangster, detective, film noir and suspense thriller genre. These particular genres have been at the centre of genre analysis since the birth of film. All of them, as well, can be classify under the wider category of crime film.


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