TV Reviews : ‘Life of Crime’ Study Raises Ethical Questions

Whatever else is gleaned from documentarians Jon Alpert’s and Maryann De Leo’s hourlong report, “One Year in a Life of Crime” (part of HBO’s “America Undercover” series, tonight at 10), one thing is clear: There is nothing petty about petty thievery.

Though the crimes recorded here are no more than the shoplifting of bed sheets or auto parts, the ultra-intimate observation of three New York criminals named Rob, Mike and Fred gives their lives and self-destructive acts greater import and impact. But at a cost.

Alpert and De Leo tread on the ethically gray area that others in the cinema verite tradition have tripped upon before. Not only do they conduct pre- and post-robbery interviews with Rob and Fred, but they also record these full-time shoplifters in the act.

Perhaps you’ll be fascinated by the process of the act--for pros, they are amazingly inept and unsubtle. Perhaps you’ll be amazed that they’re able to steal at will, in full daylight and virtually under the noses of employees. But perhaps we should wonder that Alpert and De Leo didn’t use this footage to help arrest the pair. Are they not in some way, even as “observers,” accomplices in the act?


Interestingly, in a film about criminals, this ethical question becomes sharply defined when the camera peers in on Mike’s home life. Like the Louds in that verite watermark, “An American Family,” the thieves’ extended families clearly permitted this video intrusion in their domestic affairs. But one wonders about Mike’s girlfriend, slapped and shoved around by him on camera, then terrified and cowering in a bedroom. From the horror of abuse of women, we then move on to the horror of television’s violation of privacy.

One reason why these concerns are so inadvertently raised by “One Year in a Life of Crime” is that its analysis of its ostensible subject goes no deeper than “crime doesn’t pay.” There is no substitute, not even the most roving of mini-cams, for a real appraisal of the social roots of crime.