Great Cop Movies
As happened for so many other genres, the 1960s/1970s saw a tremendous creative expansion in crime and cop thrillers. The old Hollywood moguls had died off or retired, most of the major studios were bleeding red ink, attendance had gone off a cliff since the end of WW II, and a new breed of young, creatively adventurous production executives had been tasked with trying to save their business by coming up with movies which could hook a new, young, cinema-literate audience.
It also happened to be one of the most socially turbulent times in American history. Even before the American public grew restive over the growing disaster in Vietnam, the social fabric was unraveling with self-examination and doubt. The Cold War; a certain inner emptiness that went with a period of great material prosperity; once invisible fault lines on matters of race and gender discrimination beginning to crack – all these already simmering discontents rose to a boil with the frustrations and eventual disillusionment with the war in Vietnam; a conflict which, each year, seemed only to grow larger, draw the nation in deeper, and demand ever more in blood and treasure. It was a time when we regularly asked ourselves if we were the people we had always thought ourselves to be? Were we still the Good Guys? And were the Good Guys really the good guys? Were American ideals a reality? Or an unfulfilled hope? Or a lulling, self-satisfying myth?
This unsettled sensibility began to filter into the commercial mainstream of film, sometimes covertly, sometimes obviously. Criminals became funhouse mirror reflections of American aspirations gone wrong, cops came to represent a repressive, distrusted authority, the line between Good Guy and Bad Guy grew paper-thin with the wear and tear of trying to maintain a social order which seemed, every night on the evening news, to be coming apart. Out of this social maelstrom came a revitalization of the crime and cop movie forms, and a number of all-time Hollywood classics.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) was not the first Mob movie ever made, but, together with The Godfather, Part II (1974), turned Mario Puzo’s lurid Mafia tale into a Shakespearean tragedy about the American Dream going horribly off-track told with operatic grandeur. If The Godfather was grand opera, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets’ (1973) was rock ‘n’ roll; a brash, hyper, down ‘n’ dirty picture of the lowest rungs of hood-dom the movies had never seen before. Peter Yates’ autumnal The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) was the crime story as John Updike’s novel, working-class frustration and middle-aged despair transposed to the world of low-level hoods. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) visually elevated a simple story about payback into an expressionist vision of a society gone heartlessly corporate.
The cops got their overhaul, too. William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) brought a refreshingly gritty, near-documentary authenticity to the police procedural, while Yates’ Bullitt (1968) rendered it as a minimalist, almost totally visual abstract. At a time of rising crime rates and riots in the streets, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) tapped into a popular feeling that the biggest obstacle to law enforcement was the law, while Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973) showed that sometimes the problem with law enforcement was the law enforcers.
These were the biggies, the award winners, the instant classics which re-defined the crime and cop thriller genres and whose titles – even all these decades later – still stand as the milestones in the evolution of the forms. But behind them were any number of other movies, less well-remembered, but hardly lesser films.
1- The Anderson Tapes (1971)
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson.
You can’t talk about crime movies without talking about New York crime movies, and you can’t talk about New York crime movies without talking about Sidney Lumet. Fun, suspenseful, and sharp, The Anderson Tapes may not be one of Lumet’s better-remembered films, but it’s easily one of his most fun.
Sean Connery, just released from prison, plans to rob an entire uptown apartment building. For Connery, this isn’t just a shot at the proverbial Big Score; it’s also a “Screw the Establishment!” poke in the eye at that insular, Upper East Side, hoity-toity society of one-percenters he can only ever look in on as a permanent outsider.
The wrinkle to the caper, and what gives Anderson a lot of its bite, is that everyone Connery deals with to pull off his master caper – the “birddog” (Martin Balsam) who’ll pick out and fence the building’s priciest items, the Mafioso he goes to for financing (Alan King), etc. — is under some kind of surveillance. Since Connery is not the target, much of the surveillance is illegal, and none of the agencies involved share information, it never occurs to any of the observers to flag the cops about the upcoming heist even though they’ve documented every step of the operation. It’s a sad irony that Anderson’s poke at governmental intrusiveness during the paranoia politics of the 1970s feels even more resonant in today’s post 9/11 climate.
Lumet’s got a great cast (along with Connery and Balsam, Dyan Cannon, Ralph Meeker, a pre-Saturday Night Live Garrett Morris, Christopher Walken in his film debut, among others), and generously spices Pierson’s smart script (Pierson would cop an Oscar for penning Lumet’s better known Dog Day Afternoon ) with the New York he loved so well in all its grit, color, danger, and absurdity.
2- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Directed by Joseph Sargent. Adapted from the Joseph Godey novel by Peter Stone.
You may have seen the remake, and through it heard of the original, but I doubt you’ve seen it. Even in its day, Pelham – despite high marks from critics – was a box office stiff, only playing well in big cities with subway systems similar to the New York network where this taut suspenser takes place. Apparently, only audiences in those cities “got it.”
Pelham’s igniting caper may be daring, but fairly straightforward: four men hijack a subway train and threaten to kill their hostages unless the city pays them one million dollars (a lot of money in those days) in an hour. Sargent – ably aided and abetted with crisp editing by Gerald Greenberg and Robert Lovett; Owen Roizman, one of the best eye-for-New York cinematographers in the business; and a large, terrific case of Big Apple faces led by Walter Matthau) – turns what could easily have been an inert, static story into a never-let-up nail-biter. Stone, always one of screenwriting’s smartest practitioners (winner of three Tonys including one for 1776, an Oscar, and an Emmy), uses the hijack to frame a portrait of New York in all its glorious 1970s dyspepsia: caustic, broke, bureaucratic, resilient.
Want it in a nutshell? When Matthau nags fire-breathing trainmaster Dick O’Neill for some cooperation and points out that the lives of the hostages are at stake, O’Neill unironically spits back, “What do they want for their lousy thirty-five cents? To live forever?”
Directed by Milton Katselas. Adapted from the James Mills novel by Abby Mann and Ernest Tidyman.
This may be one of the best Sidney Lumet New York cop movies Sidney Lumet didn’t direct, and as engrossing as Report is, it’s hard not to wonder how much further Lumet could’ve gone with it.
Michael Moriarity is a young, naïve NYPD detective who develops an I’ll-save-you crush on a pimp’s girlfriend (Susan Blakely), unaware she’s an undercover cop in a maverick operation run by an ambitious police captain (Hector Elizondo), and that his well-meaning meddling can get people killed and blow the operation in embarrassing fashion.
Less a thriller than a cop drama (despite a climactic chase and tense stand-off in an elevator), Mann/Tidyman’s adult script looks at a different kind of police corruption; not of crooked cops on the take, but the kind of moral corruption which goes with rampant ambition, relentless politicking, turf wars, and all the other conscience-twisting forces that go with Big City government.
Katselas fills out his cast with a gallery of on-the-money Familiar Faces (Dana Elcar, Edward Grover, Michael McGuire, William Devane, Stephen Elliott) giving Commissioner a rich, full-bodied feel as its plot spills from one novice cop’s missteps into a major political scandal.
4- Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)
Written and directed by Bernard Girard.
A flop when it came out, Dead Heat became something of a cult fave among the 1970s film magazine crowd, and understandably so. It combines the twists of The Sting (1973), the exuberance of the Danny Ocean films, yet still manages to keep from floating away in fancifulness. But it also plugged into a distinctly 60s/70s subversiveness where the Bad Guys were less bad guys than they were counterculture rebels and mavericks cutting against the grain of a suffocatingly conforming tight-assuredness.
James Coburn plans to pull off a robbery at a bank on the grounds of Los Angeles International Airport. To do so, however, requires him to carry out a series of smaller scams on a cross-country trek in order to get up the money to buy the plans to the bank’s alarm system. While Coburn, at his Cheshire-smiling best, charms, seduces, and cons away across the U.S. under a variety of guises, security, and political bureaucrats are buzzing around LAX preparing the airport for the arrival of the Soviet premier. The two seemingly unrelated plots intersect in surprisingly organic fashion during the suspenseful third act heist.
Girard manages to keep the humor and the danger in perfect balance in a movie that stubbornly refuses to let you know where you’re going until you get there. It all builds to a delicious final twist that says even when you get away with it…you still lose.
5- Across 110th Street (1972)
Directed by Barry Shear. Adapted from Wally Ferris’ novel by Luther Davis.
Though to some reviewers at the time, this was just another in the jumble of blaxploitation flicks then hitting screens in an almost unbroken parade, others picked up that there was more going on here than cheap thrills. Two-time Tony-winning playwright Luther Davis turned Wally Ferris’ schlocky urban thriller into a Molotov cocktail of 1970s inner-city ills: grinding poverty, racism, crooked cops, brutal cops, desperation and despair.
Three desperate black men (Paul Benjamin, Antonio Fargas, Ed Bernard) steal $300,000 from a Mafia transfer point up in Harlem (110th Street was considered the southern border of Harlem). Somebody makes a wrong move and the robbery turns into a massacre including two dead cops. The three men are now looking over one shoulder for the Mob enforcers (led by Anthony Franciosa) out to make an example of them for their Harlem affiliates, and over the other for the cops looking to nail a trio of cop-killers.
The two pursuits are odd reflections of each other. For a past-his-prime Franciosa, this is his last chance to show his worth to the Mob. His opposite number is Anthony Quinn, a police captain also trying to prove he’s not past it even as he’s asked to step aside to let a young black detective (Yaphet Kotto) take the lead. Finding himself squeezed between those two, closing lines is Benjamin, a basement-dwelling janitor of a crumbling tenement up to his knees in other people’s garbage with no option left but to get rich or die tryin’.
6- The Hot Rock (1972)
Directed by Peter Yates. Adapted from the Donald E. Westlake novel by William Goldman.
Robert Redford is a (supposedly) master crime planner though he has a nasty tendency to get caught. No sooner has he been released from prison after his last miscalculation, when his brother-in-law, another con (George Segal) coaxes him into engineering the theft of a valuable diamond politically important to a pair of warring African countries. Aiding and abetting in the effort are gearhead getaway driver Ron Liebman and explosives expert Paul Sand.
So, they steal the diamond. And lose it. And steal it, again. And lose it. And steal it — … You get the picture. As their increasingly exasperated sponsor (Moses Gunn) says, “I’ve heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I’d become involved with the habitual crime.”
It’s not a yuk-yuk comedy caper. The humor is low-key, often dry, and sometimes oh-so-New York, but it’s that tough, terse, play-it-straight approach that makes it work. At one point, Liebman, who claims he can drive anything, pilots the crew’s helicopter to a raid on a police station (don’t ask). As the chopper touches down on the roof, the other three leap out and begin to take their positions. Redford sees some senior citizens in garden chairs and realizes they’re on the wrong roof. “Well, don’t just stand there!” Liebman yells. “Go ask directions!” Redford comes back from the seniors with the news they’ve missed the police station by three blocks. “Hell, three blocks,” Liebman shrugs, “that ain’t bad.”
7- The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)
Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Howard Browne.
One of King of the B’s Corman’s few films for a major studio, Corman’s express train-paced docudrama about the events leading up to and including one of the bloodiest events in Prohibition-era criminality is an energetic, colorful, and surprisingly accurate (more or less) picture of the Chicago gang wars of the 1920s-30s.
If there’s a weak spot, it’s Jason Robards heading the large cast as Al Capone. Robards doesn’t have the former bouncer’s heft or youth (Capone was a shockingly young 29 when he virtually ruled Chicago), and Robards seems to be trying to compensate by chewing every bit of scenery in sight.
But the rest of the cast is fun, Corman moves it all along so fast you don’t notice the missing amenities you’d see in bigger-budgeted movies (there’s no music score; just a piano-and-percussion main theme repeated at the close of the movie), and his staging of the regularly-spaced shoot-‘em-up scenes is perfection. It ain’t Road to Perdition (2002)…and that’s a good thing.
8- After the Fox (1966)
Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Adapted from Neil Simon’s play by Neil Simon and Cesare Zavattini.
If you’re looking at those directing and writing credits and shaking your heads at such an odd marriage, it only gets odder. Burt Bacharach does the music, the cast is headed up by Peter Sellers playing an Italian master criminal, and the rest are a mix of veteran actors and – true to the nature of de Sica, the pioneering postwar neo-realist — Italian amateurs.
Sellers takes on the job of sneaking the loot from an Egyptian gold robbery into Italy, masking the effort by passing himself off as a famed de Sica-like director shooting a film in a sleepy seaside village. While the movie has a few big laughs, it’s mostly a warm-hearted, gentle poke in the ribs at movie star egos, celebrity hunger (and the hunger for celebritydom), and the pretentions of certain, ahem, artsy-fartsy directors. After the Fox is a movie of small charms, but so many of them it’s almost a crime (I had to get that in this post it at least once).
9- A Step Out of Line (1971)
Directed by Bernard McEveety. Written by Albert Ruben, S. S. Schweitzer, and Steve Shagan.
Peter Falk, Vic Morrow, and Peter Lawford are three long-time buddies in this made-for-TV movie who regularly get together at the local stadium to watch the home team play. But it’s hard times for all three: Falk can’t figure out how to pay his father’s medical bills, Morrow’s lost his job as a defense contractor, and Lawford is dealing with some midlife appraisal of the difference between his young aspirations and his current doldrums. Falk comes up with the idea of a single bank robbery to put them right. Only it doesn’t.
It’s depressing how timely this movie about three Everymen victimized by circumstance remains. Narrow the lapels and it might just as well be set today.
The hook here is the very opposite of what’s usually the hook in a caper film. There’s nothing exceptional about these guys, their abilities, their problems, and even the robbery itself is a rather mundane affair. The hook here is the very average-ness of three men; the fact that three guys who look and sound and live just like the guys on the barstools next to you, or in line with you at Dairy Queen getting ice cream for their kids, or who have the seats next to you at, yes, the ballgame, can be so up-against-the-wall that they have to try something desperate.
In the years since, the capers have gotten more elaborate, the criminals more colorful, and car chases and gunplay have replaced the grind of daily police work. Mean Streets gave way to Pulp Fiction (1994); The French Connection to Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). The crime and cop movies from that fantastically fertile period used to reflect something about us. Now, we seem to prefer a fancier frame to the mirror…and no reflected image at all.