A Murder Mystery in Pop: How ‘Smooth Criminal’ Subverted the Hardboiled Detective Genre

In 1988, still riding high from the success of Thriller—the biggest selling album of all time—and then BAD, a thirty-year-old Michael Jackson released the anthology movie Moonwalker. Filled with everything from concert footage to Claymation, the first half of the film is a rather surreal yet entertaining jumble of clips. The latter half, however, is a forty-minute neo-noir-cum-sci-fi action movie called Smooth Criminal. More often than not mention of Smooth Criminal brings to mind not the film—a classic tale of good vs evil with the former embodied in Jackson and the latter in drug-peddling gangster Mr. Big (Joe Pesci)—but instead the song and its four-minute video. More explicitly film noir-inspired than the rest of the film, the music video we call “Smooth Criminal” gave us the anti-gravity lean, the proto-dab, and a Fred Astaire tribute, along with some of the best choreography of Jackson’s career. It’s a classic, a standout of the music video format, and in my opinion, underrated in favour of the seminal “Thriller”. For “Smooth Criminal” at first glance may appear to simply utilise the jazz club aesthetic to entertain, to create an aura of cool around Jackson, or simply as an appropriate visual to bring the song, a veritable lyrical murder mystery, to life. But a deeper exploration reveals a subtle subversion of hardboiled detective fiction and cinema, the genre’s source materials.

Before the release of BAD 25 in 2012 (a remastering of BAD to celebrate its 25th anniversary), avid fans and insiders alone perhaps knew that “Smooth Criminal” was once an inferior synth-heavy track called “Al Capone”. Its lyrics vaguely tell the story of a man out to avenge the death of a girl who died at the hands of a “madman”, supposedly the eponymous Chicago mobster: “Forget it / cause it’s Al Capone said it”. That song evokes the atmosphere of Capone’s world, as would any music video, or short film as Jackson insisted they be called, for this song.

That classic gangster look: the tailored suit, the fedora, etc., became an iconic staple of Jackson’s, appearing once again in performances of “Dangerous”, a track from his 1991 album of the same name, as well as “You Rock My World” (2001).  Jackson was fond, at least aesthetically, of underworld noir, fictionalised and immortalised in many a pulp novel and classic Hollywood film, including the works of James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane. The latter wrote famously violent, sex-laden tales of his hardboiled detective (appropriately named Mike Hammer), and there is a line in “Al Capone” that evokes the Mickey Spillane style: “Now it’s my job to get revenge.” Hammer was admired by fans and reviled by critics for his archetypal tough guy machismo, his black-and-white sense of morality, and his penchant for violence to the point of sadism. In One Lonely Night, Hammer shows near sociopathic levels of violence:

“I turned him around to face me, to let him look at what I was and see how I enjoyed his dying… I had his neck in my one hand and I leaned on the railing while I did it. I squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until my fingers were buried in the flesh of his throat and his hands clawed at my arm frantically, trying to tear me away…. I laughed a little bit.”

Now Jackson wasn’t seen as the bad boy type, no matter the name of his recently released album. He broke up fights, (see: “Beat It”) he didn’t start them. And he preferred a dance to violence. In his filmic debut on the extended short film for “BAD” (directed by Martin Scorsese, no less), Wesley Snipes’ character scoffs at Daryll (Jackson) and says “What you gonna do? Dance me to death?”

The detective noir influence comes from Spillane-esque narratives, but via the elegance and charm of Fred Astaire. In 1953, the Vincente Minelli-directed musical The Band Wagon, a meta-entertainment spectacular starring Astaire and Cyd Charisse, featured a ballet directly inspired by Spillane. Astaire plays Rod Riley, a Mike Hammer parody: a slick-talking detective who’s not afraid to take the law into his own hands, overturning a jazz bar to get his man. His man turns out to be a beautiful woman, a blonde of course, who receives her comeuppance with four shots to the stomach, but not before Riley reminds us that “Killers have to die.” What a perfect scene, therefore, to emulate in a short film for “Al Capone”.

However “Al Capone” was not released, evolving instead and eventually becoming “Smooth Criminal”. The perpetrator becomes anonymous, and it is the victim’s name—Annie—that is forever ingrained in our collective pop culture consciousness. The lyrics try to reconstruct the scene of an assault: “He left the bloodstains on the carpet / She ran underneath the table / He could see she was unable / So she ran into the bedroom / She was struck down, it was her doom”. The heavy synths are replaced with brass, and the bass line becomes less dance-inspired and more ominous. There’s no regret or guilt about losing the culprit. “Why did you let him get away? / Why did you let him get her?” is replaced with sheer concern in that now-infamous refrain seemingly repeated fifty times: “Annie, are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?” Both songs lament, but “Smooth Criminal” gives us haunting details, like “the bloodstains on the carpet”. How then would the film for this track take its inspiration from Astaire’s Spillane-inspired hero?

The “Girl Hunt Ballet” was conceived as a parody of Spillane’s  tropes after the directors read a profile of the writer and his most famous creation in a 1952 issue of Life magazine. ‘[…] a strip-and-shoot-machine who drinks a lot, [and] never thinks at all…’ is how the article describes Hammer, perhaps a little harshly. Hammer honestly believes he is the only one out for justice. Minelli took the most recognisable tropes of Spillane’s fiction:the pulp style book covers, the femme fatale, and the beautiful-but-not-so-innocent damsel in distress, the anti-hero not unwilling to throw cuffs for the “Girl Hunt Ballet”. It’s humorous, exaggerated, and self-aware.

“Smooth Criminal”, however, is not a parody. Neither of “Girl Hunt Ballet” nor of Spillane. It is still a pop music video with dance sequences, but earnest. The staccato rhythm of the lyrics serve as a contrast to the smart-aleck narration of the Mike Hammer novels, and the smooth voice-overs of Astaire’s Rod Riley. Jackson is dressed like Astaire, in a light suit, fedora, and blue shirt, but where Astaire initially tries to disguise his entrance into the jazz club, Jackson makes no bones about his presence. The reaction is the same. Patrons stop and stare, both intrigued and suspicious, and when Jackson pulls his jacket open, the cocking of guns resounds. But unlike Rod Riley, and definitely unlike Mike Hammer, Jackson doesn’t seem to be armed, pulling out a coin for the jukebox instead of a weapon.

Kicking off the track with that high-pitched ‘Aow!’ Jackson walks through the club just as cocky and self-assured as Riley, butting in, taking the spoils of a gambling game, antagonising a huge man by crushing a snooker ball to dust and then blowing the remains in his face. Despite the initial friction, he manages to achieve what Riley does not: the patrons of Club 30s seem to embrace the stranger. The atmosphere of apprehension and suspicion is overtaken by the power of music and dance.  Guys and dolls are buoyed and distracted by the celebratory air. Jackson can now move through the club without his every move under scrutiny, and he does so, dancing along the way until he is standing on a table. He turns into one of those famous spins before letting out another high-pitched yelp, bringing everything to a stop.

It’s a startling moment. There’s broken glass, an interruption, a disruption of harmony, and it is here that what I refer to as the breakdown begins. To make it the more appropriate four minutes to air on TV, the breakdown is cut from the official video. Without it, “Smooth Criminal” does seem more of a straightforward tribute to gangster movies and Fred Astaire. But it is in this breakdown that the most subversive aspect of Jackson’s interpretation is embodied. The shuffling percussion and horns are replaced by discordant descending notes on a piano. Now that he has their attention, now that he has them on his side, Jackson makes the patrons of Club 30s mourn for Annie. An eerie, but somehow still sensual, stomping of feet, crawling, clapping, and wailing before the low chant of “Annie are you okay?” begins. The cries are heard independently but simultaneously from each attendee, a result of the wave of empathy and anguish created by Jackson’s own pained questioning. It rises to a crescendo, becoming a call and response: “Oh Annie, are you okay?” But he receives neither an answer in the affirmative, nor the negative he is dreading but knows most likely (“You were struck down, it was your doom.”). Instead his question, reframed slightly, is shouted back: “Are you okay, Annie?” It’s strangely final, more of an exclamation than a question. Here, the segment again conveys subversion of the detective and noir genres. The trope features a mystery throughout and for their patience the reader or audience is placated with the solution. But we never find out if Annie is okay. We never find out exactly what happened—emphasised by the outro of the track—the woe-filled repetition of ‘I don’t know’. All that exists is that increasingly redundant question: “Annie, are you okay?”

The men who initially seemed hostile to Jackson now join him in dance. They follow his lead. There’s a moment where all the men but Jackson drop to the floor, almost prostrating themselves, before imitating a skyward scream, a gesture of anguish, of lament. Slowly the rest of the patrons join the dance, and when the men drop to the floor, both Jackson and the women remain standing. I’ve always felt this gesture in “Smooth Criminal” was yet another comment about subversion of the Spillane tropes: Women are often victims, secretaries, or femme fatales. “Smooth Criminal” makes the men, perhaps each one a gangster or Mike Hammer-type, get on their knees, and all for Annie. “Smooth Criminal” wasn’t the last time Jackson paid homage to The Band Wagon. He did so again in “Dangerous” and “You Rock My World”. But they are more straightforwardly Spillane-esque, emulating, almost word for word, the voiceovers  (“She came at me in sections…The girl was bad…The girl was dangerous”) and the bar fights. “Smooth Criminal” alone stands out as an attempt to portray the other side, a rare homage to the victims in detective novels, and it’s a more iconic short film for doing so.

Aida Amoako lives in London, UK. She writes essays on her pop culture obsessions and also blogs at kidisalright.com. You can follow her @kidisalright.com if you’re into that.


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