Support your local police movie

A look back at Philip French’s exploration of the burgeoning cop movie sub-genre, from our Spring 1974 issue.

Serpico (1973)

If one were to suggest the ideal hero for the biggest American box-office hit of 1974, he would be a tough, middle-aged plain clothes policeman possessed by the devil in a middle-western city at the height of the 1930s Depression.

To have predicted this even four years ago, when anarchic, youth-oriented, anti-establishment movies were all the rage, would have been to invite hoots of derision. Yet three highly successful movies of 1967-68 – Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby and Bullitt – foreshadowed this Seventies fascination with nostalgia, the occult and the cops. And this triple fascination is closely related to the crises and anxieties of the Sixties. Much has already been written about the nostalgia boom and the cult of the occult; less has been said about the police business, which is as interesting, though less socially pervasive, a phenomenon.

There have of course always been police in movies – lovable Irish flatfoots on the neighbourhood beat, the Keystone Cops, federal agents, and so on. In the mid-Thirties there was a wave of police films, William Keighley’s G-Men (1935) prominent among them, after Hollywood producers were requested to transfer their attention from mobsters to lawmen; and there was another cycle in the late Forties. In both cases they came – as the present one has come – after widespread public criticism had been directed at the industry’s alleged social irresponsibility and excessive violence.

Unlike most other countries, America has never been reluctant to have the shortcomings of its police revealed in the cinema. There have been plenty of crooked cops (The Street With No Name, 1948), brutal cops (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1950), overzealous cops (Boomerang, 1947), paranoid cops (Touch of Evil, 1958), and neurotically unbalanced cops (Detective Story, 1951), and in virtually all private-eye movies the hero gets pushed around by the suspicious official fuzz. Until recently, however, the general tendency has been to depict such men as exceptional and undesirable, the ‘normal’ cop being a hardworking, honest, well-adjusted family man. In The Naked City (1948), for example, the detectives (Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald) are shown as kindly, scrupulous men, the salt of the earth when compared with the idle rich they investigate; this excessively bland portrait of the cops was the work of screenwriter Albert Maltz and director Jules Dassin, both men of the left who were subsequently black-listed. This benevolent, traditional view has been upheld through the twenty-odd years of TV police series, from Jack Webb’s pioneering Dragnet up to Ironside and the exotic Mod Squad. But it has changed in the cinema in a rather interesting way.

Bullitt (1968)

The two outstanding police pictures of 1966 – Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night and Arthur Penn’s The Chase – were both impeccably liberal movies in which upright lawmen stood up against, and morally above, ignorant, prejudiced, violent communities in respectively the Deep South and Texas. The liberal tradition continued, though with a greater degree of physical violence, through three significant pictures of 1968 – Don Siegel’s Madigan, Gordon Douglas’ The Detective and Peter Yates’ Bullitt, all of which were able to take advantage of the new permissiveness in language and the depiction of the urban milieu. Henry Fonda’s commissioner in Madigan, Frank Sinatra’s New York homicide investigator in The Detective and Steve McQueen’s San Francisco plain clothes man in Bullitt, were sensible, sensitive men doing a difficult job with the minimum of force in a context of political interference and public indifference. What the pictures further shared was a concern for the mystique of police work and law enforcement that was soon to become familiar.

Outside of these police pictures, in the youth and counter-culture movies, the cops were most frequently presented as vicious, racist and corrupt, the iron fist of a repressive society. To take three representative films of 1969 – Medium Cool shows us the cops as proto-fascists, beating up the young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the year before; Alice’s Restaurant presents the policeman as a moderately amiable but uncomprehending buffoon and archetypal square; Easy Rider gives us the cop as a paranoid redneck and hippie-hater.

Naturally, it was only part of the great American audience that didn’t like cops in the late Sixties – the dissident young, the blacks, the under-privileged among them. The middle Americans, ‘the silent majority’ that Nixon and Agnew named and courted in the 1968 presidential election, loved cops. The more demonstrative among them carried on their cars the bumper slogan ‘Support Your Local Police’, an apparently reasonable and inoffensive suggestion, but in reality a badge proclaiming the car’s owner a right-wing supporter of ‘Law and Order’, another coded phrase for restoring peace to the cities at any price. At the end of Bullitt we are shown a dishonest, right-wing politician sporting this sticker on his car.

Medium Cool (1969)

The two great issues of the 1968 election had been peace in Vietnam and Law and Order in the cities. Nixon promised both but by 1970 had delivered neither. Hollywood wouldn’t finance pictures about the war, because the issues were too complicated, the subject too divisive and the box-office value highly dubious. John Wayne alone had the nerve to press on in the face of much discouragement to make The Green Berets. Instead Hollywood turned to World War II and the Korean War with three big 1970 releases that handled the war theme in such a fashion that doves and hawks could read diametrically opposed messages into them – Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora! and M*A*S*H. The most significant of these, for its calculated ambivalence, is Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, a model of how to present a character in such a way that he can be either admired or hated, or simultaneously admired and hated, and seen as a necessary evil in his particular situation. The opening scene is especially skilful in exploiting different attitudes to the American flag, to uniforms, to patriotic rhetoric, to obscenity, to the charismatic martial leader, the misunderstood hero, the warrior in a civilised society, the inscrutable loner, the martyr in the democratic cause. The picture proved an enormous success with people of all ages and political opinions. Schaffner’s film not only opened up the way for a new-style police hero but showed the consciously ambivalent fashion in which he should be presented. Shortly afterwards, the cinema jumped off the youth band-wagon and on to the police paddy-wagon. The pattern for the movie cop was Patton, and most of the characteristics and contradictions ascribed above to the portrait of the World War II general are shared by the movies’ new men in blue.

In the vanguard in 1971 we had Donald Sutherland, leading male star of the emerging anti-establishment cinema, playing the uniformed cop in Klute, and – more influentially – Gene Hackman as the foul-mouthed racist Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection and Clint Eastwood as the omni-competent Inspector Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. The immediate success of the latter pair led to the wave of police pictures that swept over us in late 1972 and throughout 1973, and that shows little sign of abating. We’ve had The New Centurions (shown in Britain as Precinct 45 – Los Angeles Police), Badge 373, Walking Tall, The Seven-Ups, Magnum Force, Electra Glide in Blue, Serpico, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, with (at the time of writing) Cops and Robbers, Busting, John Wayne as McQ, and many more to come.

Dirty Harry (1971)

All of them are indebted to The French Connection and Dirty Harry, and several show the direct influence of Patton. The latter’s pre-credit sequence, for instance, is deliberately echoed in the opening of both Electra Glide in Blue and Magnum Force, where the cops are introduced to us, as Patton is, through items of equipment and uniform, on which the camera lingers fetishistically; George C. Scott’s playing of the alienated patrolman in The New Centurions frequently recalls his impersonation of Patton. Another picture many of them recall is Psycho – or at least a single shot in Hitchcock’s movie: the huge close-up of the Arizona patrolman wearing large sun-glasses that the fugitive Janet Leigh sees peering down at her when she awakes in her car. This peculiarly powerful image suggests something menacing and all-seeing, and it plays on our latent sense of guilt that cops exploit.

One doesn’t wish to deny individuality to all of these films. Certainly they vary in sophistication from the crude, rabble-rousing B-feature exposé techniques of Phil Karlson’s Walking Tall (which is very nearly a reprise of the same director’s Phenix City Story, made almost twenty years ago) to the delicately balanced ironies and visual elegance of James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue. The heroes likewise are strung along a spectrum from the hippie cop Frank Serpico, who nearly paid with his life for exposing the corruption of the New York force, to the uncouth ‘Popeye’ Doyle, though the majority are encountered towards the latter’s end. Nevertheless, because of their shared themes, plots, characters and locations (mostly San Francisco and New York), they tend to merge in the memory to form a single extended picture; and a singularly bloody and brutal one it is.

Several factors intensify this effect. The same professional advisers, writers, producers and cameramen turn up again and again. Philip D’Antoni, for instance, produced Bullitt and The French Connection, and has now directed The Seven-Ups, which naturally includes another of his long drawn out, wildly destructive car chases. These crazy police auto derbies – the credibility of which is usually in inverse ratio to the length and virtuosity – are now considered an essential feature of the genre. Casting also lends an air of uniformity – the same actor plays Harry Callahan’s Black assistant in Magnum Force and Sheriff Buford Pusser’s Tennessee deputy in Walking Tall; Mitchell Ryan appears as a mentally disturbed cop in both Magnum Force and Electra Glide in Blue, and as an apparently sane Boston detective in The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Roy Scheider was the hero’s sidekick in The French Connection before being elevated to the leadership of the special crime squad called The Seven-Ups.

Magnum Force (1973)

They have moreover evolved very rapidly into a semi-enclosed genre in the sense that the films not only refer to or echo each other, but they look into a mirror as it were and take themselves as their own subject matter. In this they resemble a good deal of recent art and popular culture both good and bad. Thus the problem of crime, its prevention and cure, has moved to the periphery; equally the business of detection is handled in an increasingly perfunctory fashion, the deliberate obfuscation of the plot often concealing this. What the pictures are about is the situation – ethical, aesthetic and existential – of being a cop.

Now all these police heroes are men with, if not a social mission, certainly a vocation. Why they have always wanted to be cops is left a mystery or only vaguely explained; sexual maladjustment is hinted at in several instances, as it is in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (this however might result from having such a job), and so is personal inferiority. Yet oddly, once they are in the force and therefore alienated from the community around them, they experience a second alienation by being constantly at loggerheads with most of their professional colleagues and superiors. This applies as much to crude tough-guys like Doyle, Callahan and Pusser as it does to the naively dedicated John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) of Electra Glide and the equally idealistic, equally short Frank Serpico (AI Pacino).

Much time is devoted to talking about what it means to be a police officer, and much energy is expended upon internecine strife, the opponents being according to the circumstances either corrupt, right-wing bigots or lily-livered liberals who insist upon respect for the law, civil rights and such expendable niceties. Indeed these cops despise the fickle public and most of their fellow peace officers almost as much as, in some cases more than, the criminals they pursue in the time they have left over from station-house bickering. The comedy of this situation is occasionally perceived, though the paranoia it reveals is scarcely recognised, except in two splendidly humorous moments in Electra Glide. The first is when a sergeant prepares a squad of cops for duty at a pop concert by hurling anti-police obscenities at them. (A parallel sequence in Medium Cool showed a group of plain clothes men in a police exercise playing their role as provocative insulting yippies with a little too much enthusiasm.) The other scene is when a deranged detective, in the course of a characteristically self-pitying speech about crime and the high police mortality rate, claims that ‘this country is undergoing a carefully formulated policy of police genocide.’

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

The clearest example of this generic introspection is Magnum Force, a poor film but too easily dismissed as an unworthy, opportunistic sequel to Don Siegel’s highly accomplished Dirty Harry. For Magnum Force is not a further adventure for Eastwood’s Inspector Callahan but – in John Milius’ cunning screenplay – a picture about Dirty Harry. Many critics called Callahan a fascist and considered Siegel’s picture a reprehensible ‘law-and-order’ tract that played upon every middle-American prejudice about the young, the Supreme Court, the state of the cities, permissiveness and so forth. Magnum Force sets out to challenge this view by making Callahan’s opponents not civilian offenders but a team of fanatical young patrolmen, who band together with the approval of a long-service captain to form a secret squad whose mission it is to eliminate criminals (sadistic pimps, labour racketeers, etc.) that the law cannot touch.

Such bodies have existed and do exist in fact – the film knowingly refers to the Brazilian police’s unofficial ‘death squad’ and to the citizens’ vigilante committees formed in 19th-century San Francisco. Such groups flourish even more in fiction, and appeal strongly to the impotent and frustrated on whose fantasies they feed. We saw them in the fiction of Sapper and Edgar Wallace after the Great War, in such post-World War II entertainments as the British film and play Noose (a group of ex-Commandos cleaning up Soho), and we’re experiencing a revival of them now in the wake of the Vietnam War. The Seven-Ups is about an officially approved special squad operating on the very edge of the law. Many Black movies – Slaughter and Gordon’s War for example – feature Vietnam veterans using their military training for purposes of rough justice and vengeance back home, there being no thought of calling on the cops to do the job.

Not surprisingly, the blonde, blue-eyed, immaculately turned out leader of the self-appointed executioners in Magnum Force has served in Vietnam. He and his friends, the film is saying, are the real fascists, not Harry, who in tracking them down with his customary brutal efficiency establishes himself as the very bulwark of democracy. That the case is crudely and dishonestly put does not take away from the fact that the film’s producers found it worthwhile to pursue this political point, rather than to pursue ordinary criminals. One scene in the film stands out from the rest for its clarity and wit – a police shooting contest in which hot-shot Callahan is out-gunned by the secret squad’s young leader. Negotiating a surprise target range, Harry loses points by opening fire on a plywood policeman that suddenly appears before him. The spectators gasp with horror and the umpire admonishes him with the words, ‘You shot the good guy, Harry.’

The French Connection (1971)

Most of these films acknowledge the assistance of the police; or are written by cops (Joseph Wambaugh, author of The New Centurions, recently returned to duty with the Los Angeles police after becoming bored with the literary life); or are based on the experiences of policemen (the exploits and personality of the unorthodox Eddie Egan, for instance, inspired both The French Connection and Badge 373 and he himself has turned to acting, playing both cops and crooks); or purport to follow non-fiction works with some degree of fidelity, as Serpico does. Yet for all the claims in the opening and closing titles, for all the apparently unvarnished and unwhitewashed language and deportment, for all the grimy locations and semi-documentary style camerawork, these pictures only intermittently have the feel of reality. They just do not stand up to comparison with such books as John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident and Morton Hunt’s The Mugging, which attempt to examine criminal cases and the relationship between the law enforcement agencies and the public in all their many-layered complexity. Indeed the films are ultimately most interesting as exercises in myth-making; at their best – and not merely as entertainment – when most consciously working as fables.

I have little doubt that these current variations on older figures, myths and attitudes are due quite as much to the disappointments, frustrations and conflicts caused by the Vietnam fiasco – an unwinnable war that betrayed its supporters and rejected its heroes – as they are to the problems of present-day urban life. In the light of this contention, it will be interesting to see how the genre develops over the next year or so, and in what direction. The effect of the Watergate Affair is cardinal here and could explain the immense and immediate popular response to Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, which can easily be viewed as a left-wing reformist fable advocating a wholesale cleansing of the system. The Seven-Ups, however, is also drawing big crowds and its heroes’ behaviour is not greatly different from that of the White House plumbers. So far one minor masterpiece (Dirty Harry) and a couple of highly diverting entertainments have emerged from what could prove to be less a valuable genre than a repetitive cycle, in which gimmickry is substituted for innovation, thudding overemphasis for depth, pastiche for style.

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