Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Super Cops (MGM, St. Regis Films, Tom Ward Enterprises, 1974)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Super Cops, a 1974 production from MGM based on the real-life stories of two New York police officers, David Greenberg (Ron Leibman) and Robert Hantz (David Selby, whose credit appears against the backdrop of the naked back of a Black man and led me to wonder if he were Black — he’s white and that naked Black back belonged to someone whom the “super cops” busted for drugs early on in the film), who chafed at assignment to the traffic detail during their stint in the Police Academy, started hanging out at locations like Coney Island and busting drug dealers while they were officially off duty, and ultimately for their screw-ups were sent to the largely Black Bedford-Stuyvesant district, where they went off on a holy war against the Hayes brothers (Charles Turner and Ralph Wilcox) who controlled drug distribution in the area. It’s a fascinating movie because the heroes — whose devil-may-care exploits and in particular their penchant for doing rope-climbs up buildings to chase after crooks earn them the nicknames “Batman” and “Robin” from the locals — seem to be up against it from everybody: not only the crooks but also their fellow cops, the ones who want to see the department run “by the book” as well as the ones who are on the “take” and the ones who aren’t on the take themselves but believe Greenberg and Hantz themselves are. It’s a movie that in some ways could only have been made in the early 1970’s, partly because it was a high-crime era and police officers like Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle (of Dirty Harry and The French Connection, respectively — the latter also based on a true story) were movie heroes precisely because they went after criminals whole-hog and ignored anything that stood in their way, from the police bureaucracy to the Constitution. The film begins and ends with ceremonies in which Greenberg and Hantz are promoted out of uniform-wearing patrolmen into plainclothes detectives — in the opening ceremony Greenberg and Hantz play themselves and in the later one Liebman and Selby have taken over. The Super Cops began life as a 1973 book about the real “super cops” by L. H. Whittemore, and MGM won out over three other studios which were also bidding on the same material.

They assigned Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to do the script — ironically he had also written the pilot and the theatrical film script for the ABC-TV Batman series in 1966, the one that took such a campy approach to the material more recent Batman mavens have denounced it even though it was an enormous hit at the time and drew a lot of new fans to the character (including Yours Truly). In some respects it’s a film that could only have been made at its time — the haircuts of the men in the New York Police Academy’s Class of 1974 would be enough to give it away — though in others one could imagine it being made in the 1930’s, or for that matter today. The basic concept of rambunctious individualists joining highly hierarchical organizations like the military and police or fire services and screwing things up was the stuff of which a thousand movies were made — indeed, if The Super Cops had been filmed in 1934 instead of 1974, it would probably have been a Warner Bros. vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and the payoff would have been that they would ultimately learn to follow the institutional rules implicitly and become better officers for it. Instead, after a series of picaresque adventures in which they scale buildings and, at one point. start looking for a squad of (white) hired killers who’ve been brought in from Detroit to target them, they’re trapped in a building, along with the crook they’ve been tailing and have provoked into a shootout, just when a large crane with a wrecking ball attached comes along and starts demolishing the building. They signal to the driver and literally ride the wrecking ball out of the building and use it to get back to the street. The other oddity about The Super Cops is the director, Gordon Parks, who became the first African-American ever hired as a photographer for Life magazine and, in that capacity, shot the iconic photograph of Malcolm X speaking that he later used in his film Shaft to decorate the walls of “The Lummumbas,” a group of thug-like but socially respectable and even appealing young men anxious to do what they could to cut down the level of Black-on-Black violence in their communities. Parks’ previous films, The Learning Tree and Shaft, hardly prepared one for a film in which, while Black people figure prominently in the dramatis personae, the two leads are white. One reviewer said it wasn’t as exciting as Parks’s Shaft — and apparently Parks thought so himself — but I liked this one considerably better than Shaft, I suspect at least partly because Parks had in the meantime “found” himself as a suspense and action director.

The Super Cops is full of big, exciting, rambunctious action scenes that not only entertain in themselves but also project the characters: everything we see Greenberg and Hantz do fits into who and what we’ve been told they are. The film is also quite remarkable in depicting the edgy relationship between the police (it’s an indication of the time period that we don’t see any women or Blacks in Greenberg’s and Hantz’s class at the Academy, though one Black police official later appears and plays an important role in the film’s denouement) and the communities they’re supposed to be “protecting and serving.” The mutual level of mistrust is shown in a scene in which the cops have busted the Hayeses, or at least some of their lower-level minions, and a group of Black locals forms at the door of the building and say they’re not going to let the cops take the “brothers” into custody. It’s also shown in the movie’s most fascinatingly multidimensional character, Sara (Sheila E. Frazier), who’s introduced standing in a doorway, wearing a revealing red dress, looking delectable and every inch the prostitute, whom the cops accost not for sexual services but information about the local gang and drug scenes — and she becomes a reluctant informer but her disgust both with the situation in the ghetto and with the cops themselves, and with the impossible bind it puts her in (inform and risk the opprobrium of her own people, or don’t inform and thereby do nothing while the ghetto sinks ever deeper into the trap of mass drug abuse), makes her a wonderful character and easily the most deeply and richly drawn person in the movie. The Super Cops is a marvelously picaresque movie, benefiting over Dirty Harry and The French Connection in actually having a sense of humor, and it owes its recent rediscovery to a writer-director named Edgar Wright, who quoted a line from it in his own film Hot Fuzz and lobbied Warner Home Video to issue it on DVD as part of thier Warner Archive Collection, as well as appearing as last night’s “guest programmer” on TCM and showing it as part of an oddly assorted bunch of four films: the 1934 Busby Berkeley musical Dames, the 1970’s Hollywood-themed murder mystery The Last of Sheila, and Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 O Lucky Man!, his second film with Malcolm MacDowell.