Police in the Movies

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Gordon
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#1 Post by Gordon » Sat Nov 25, 2006 6:21 pm

An interesting aspect of the history of Cinema, is the presentation of the police at attitudes of the characters towards them. I have been trying to work out which film was the first to present a police officer in a wholly negative manner, ie. as a completely immoral person or even as a psychopath and where justice isn't served in the end, ie. the bad cop isn't caught, punished, etc. Dirty Harry is the obvious touchstone for the general public, though he wasn't completely immoral, but there has to be a pre-cursor to it. Corruption within the police force has been a theme of quite a few films - The Godfather and Serpico being notable examples - but I have been wondering when and why it was brought into mainstream Cinema. Also, is it right to paint such pictures of the police in art? Has it perhaps have a detrimental effect on public opinion over time? The idea that the police are corrupt and even sadistic may be true, but when it is dramatized visually, it surely plants fertile seeds of doubt in the minds of the gullible.

A great example of a film that follows the exploits of a bad cop - actually a highway patrolman - is Robert Harmon's (The Hitcher) 1983 short film - shot in Panavision - China Lake, featuring a terrifying performance by Charles Napier, one of the great unheralded Americans actors, I feel.

So: Cops in the movies.

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gubbelsj
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#2 Post by gubbelsj » Sat Nov 25, 2006 6:37 pm

Yeah, I wouldn't say Dirty Harry is in any way a movie about a bad cop or even a flawed one. Instead, Callahan is supposed to be viewed as the source of light in a world increasingly skewed towards favoring the criminal and his "rights". He's the hero who must operate outside the limitations of the liberal world view in order to re-introduce justice to San Francisco. I call this fascism, but I don't think that was the attempt of the film, which makes it one of the great, if troubling, right-wing propaganda pieces of American cinema. Sorry, I guess this really doesn't help with your question.....

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#3 Post by Travis » Sat Nov 25, 2006 6:43 pm

The French Connection did come out the very same year...

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#4 Post by David Ehrenstein » Sat Nov 25, 2006 7:11 pm

Don't forget Bad Lieutenant

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flyonthewall2983
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#5 Post by flyonthewall2983 » Sat Nov 25, 2006 7:48 pm

gubbelsj wrote:Yeah, I wouldn't say Dirty Harry is in any way a movie about a bad cop or even a flawed one. Instead, Callahan is supposed to be viewed as the source of light in a world increasingly skewed towards favoring the criminal and his "rights". He's the hero who must operate outside the limitations of the liberal world view in order to re-introduce justice to San Francisco. I call this fascism, but I don't think that was the attempt of the film, which makes it one of the great, if troubling, right-wing propaganda pieces of American cinema. Sorry, I guess this really doesn't help with your question.....
Magnum Force, the film that followed really shows the other side of the coin, and in a way, answers the critics of the first film. Harry is shown as a more complex character with an adversary (played wonderfully by Hal Holbrook) who would be a great sympathizer to the Harry Callahan in the first film.

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Mr Sausage
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#6 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Nov 25, 2006 10:45 pm

Gordon wrote:Also, is it right to paint such pictures of the police in art? Has it perhaps have a detrimental effect on public opinion over time? The idea that the police are corrupt and even sadistic may be true, but when it is dramatized visually, it surely plants fertile seeds of doubt in the minds of the gullible
I certainly wouldn't say it is wrong. If what is being depicted is true, which is to say the depiction does not commit any falsehoods, as opposed to mere errors, or if it approaches some truth concerning the matter, then I would have a hard time being convinced that said depiction is wrongly made since we cannot reasonably ask an artist to leave certain true parts of life out of his work. If, however, the public react wrongly to said depiction despite its truth, should we not then hold the viewers responsible for their own misguided notions since it is their duty to read what they see rightly? Are they not more to blame for their lack of sight, when they should reasonably have it, than the artist for depicting some truth?

I guess I'm not opposed to it at all. I can't account for what other people will do, nor will I ever base my opinions on some supposition on what an unknowable mass might think. So I leave them more or less out of the equation. What they think or not is not my concern; what the movie thinks, however, is, and I'll judge it on each basis as it comes. If the depiction is gratuitous nonsense or outright falsehood then the work is definitely at fault and I'll reject it. I won't however reject the depiction of police corruption if I don't sense it is untrue--besides, it can make for some damn fine filmaking (The Departed?).

I think the best recent depiction of police corruption is the tv show The Shield, not just because it's a riveting show, but because it squeezes the situation for every moral ambiguity possible. The central character is a huge problem for the audience, and the show thrives on that.

But then how often are the police depicted as heroes in film? I would say to an equal or greater degree than the opposite. Surely you would think that would have something of a reverse impact.

More morally problematic is the frequent portrayal of gangsters and criminals as heroes and icons. As much as I love watching Bonny and Clyde, for instance, there is always that niggle at the back of the brain.

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#7 Post by Cinesimilitude » Sat Nov 25, 2006 11:10 pm

David Ehrenstein wrote:Don't forget Bad Lieutenant
Keitel is fearless, I loved Bad Lieutenant.
SpoilerShow
When the lieutenant is killed, I can't believe he fell backwards into his seat. He should have laid right into the horn and then the final shot could be 3 minutes of the horn sounding with people gathering around him, instead of silence.

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#8 Post by Greathinker » Sat Nov 25, 2006 11:16 pm

Gordon wrote: Also, is it right to paint such pictures of the police in art? Has it perhaps have a detrimental effect on public opinion over time? The idea that the police are corrupt and even sadistic may be true, but when it is dramatized visually, it surely plants fertile seeds of doubt in the minds of the gullible.
I'd like to think that movies paint so many pictures of cops, from bumbling idiots, to heroes, psychopaths, regular people, symbols of balance and order, etc. that those with gullible minds are going to be influenced elsewhere. It probably has the most to do with how you were brought up and in what kind of neighborhood.

The Departed is an interesting film because of its angle on "good guys" and "bad guys". The good become the bad and the bad the good and so on until in the end you see that its pointless to categorize them, and all that's left are characters trying to enforce their will. I thought it could be viewed as an interesting analogy to big corporate business\politics-- the way we tend to put labels on groups when in reality they support or are supported by something that makes us think twice. Take the USDA for example and their image of food saftey and general good will, when anybody who knows a thing or two about the beef industry can tell you that they repeatedly and unnecessarily sacrifice safety practices in order to compete in the global marketplace. It's as if the good and bad are simply melding together into something that is unpleasant. Maybe its a trend that's starting to reach the public consciousness--because so many new sources of information are opening up to us,like the internet, and the increased interaction of different views, that we are moving away from such labels.

In a concise way, the more interpretations we see of cops, the more the general public will be compelled to form a better or more objective opinion of them. At least that's my theory.

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Gordon
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#9 Post by Gordon » Sun Nov 26, 2006 5:19 pm

I agree that seeing various personalities and interpretations of cops is right and proper, but objective presentations of the police is not something that we have seen throughout the history of Cinema and television. Codes and censorship prevented negative portrayals in a film. This is what I am trying to figure out: when did negative (immoral) presentations of the police begin? And what prompted those portrayals? In Westerns, there had been many corrupt sheriffs, but the illusory distancing of History allowed these presentations to pass censorship, but the characters and situations are always more or less the same. From what I can gather, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) features corrupt cops, but do they get their comeuppance at the end?

The glamorization of mobsters/gangsters is also quite woeful. In the early days of Hollywood, they always met with justice or death, but later, with The Godfather, audiences were presented with a more realistic portrayal of organized crime, but I have never felt that Coppola's film glamorizes the Mafia. De Palma's ridiculous, but vastly entertaining remake of Scarface certainly does and this is even recognized or "bigged up" by American "Gangsta" rappers, who themselves are ridiculous, but vastly entertaining.

The presentation of prisons in movies has also evolved over time, to the point where it could even be romanticized within the context of a brutal drama - The Shawshank Redemption, one of the most popular films of all time, but one which I cannot bear to watch any more, as it just seems unbelievable. The death-row in The Green Mile is also strangely homey and chummy, not what I would imagine a 1930s, Deep South death-row block to be like. A curious film indeed, as it contrasts detailed, shocking electrocution scenes with whimsical fantasy and sentimentality, while trying to remain rigorously believable. The idea that there could be any positive aspects to a prison holding murders and rapists is something that I find almost impossible to swallow. The prison in Brubaker has an authenticity to it that I found very impressive. Not that I have been in prison to known authenticity when I see it!

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Fletch F. Fletch
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#10 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Tue Nov 28, 2006 10:24 am

Gordon wrote:So: Cops in the movies.
I would vote for a Sidney Lumet triple bill: Serpico, Prince of the City and Q&A which all deal brilliantly with police corruption within the New York City police department. Lumet really has a great eye for not only detail but dialogue and how the system works (and more importantly doesn't). Great stuff.

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Gordon
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#11 Post by Gordon » Wed Nov 29, 2006 3:54 am

I have wanted to see Prince of the City for some time and I see that Warner will be releasing the film in the UK in March: Amazon listing.

Also, don't pass over Lumet's riveting and disturbing 1972 psychological police thriller, The Offense, filmed in England with Sean Connery as a detective tracking down and interrogating a child rapist-muderer. Moody, naturalistic lighting by the great Gerry Fisher, eerie scoring by classical and avant garde maestro, Harrison Birtwistle (his only film score) and for my money, Connery's best performance; Ian Bannen is also incredible and Trevor Howard, as always is totally believable in a role of authority. Intense, uncompromising, with highly effective, almost subliminal flashbacks and of an overall high standard, it is one of the great underappreciated films of the 70s and it really is hard to understand why it is so undervalued. There's no R1 DVD, but there is a British disc with an excellent anamorphic transfer: Amazon listing (reviewed here with small screen caps).

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jt
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#12 Post by jt » Fri Dec 01, 2006 8:39 am

I think my favourite depiction of cops in movies is in Michael Mann's Heat, specifically the Al Pacino character (despite him being in his 'shouty' period).

The way that his character and that of his nemesis (DeNiro) are laid out for us totally equally, letting us decide who is good and who is bad is not seen often enough in my opinion.

Both are flawed characters but Mann makes no excuses for either of them and in making their motivations and drive so similar, he deftly shows how blurred the line between the good and bad can be.

I can't recall any other mainstream films where at the end, not only do you not know who will win but you don't know who you're rooting for either..?

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Fletch F. Fletch
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#13 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Fri Dec 01, 2006 10:21 am

Gordon wrote:I have wanted to see Prince of the City for some time and I see that Warner will be releasing the film in the UK in March: Amazon listing.
I also read that, I believe, it is getting a release on Region 1 next year as well. I think Lumet has also recorded a commentary track for it as well.
Also, don't pass over Lumet's riveting and disturbing 1972 psychological police thriller, The Offense, filmed in England with Sean Connery as a detective tracking down and interrogating a child rapist-muderer. Moody, naturalistic lighting by the great Gerry Fisher, eerie scoring by classical and avant garde maestro, Harrison Birtwistle (his only film score) and for my money, Connery's best performance; Ian Bannen is also incredible and Trevor Howard, as always is totally believable in a role of authority. Intense, uncompromising, with highly effective, almost subliminal flashbacks and of an overall high standard, it is one of the great underappreciated films of the 70s and it really is hard to understand why it is so undervalued.
Oh, I know! Yeah, I love this film as well. Strange, how it has been largely ignored by critics. I guess, the unflinching approach to the material and Connery's generally unsympathetic portrayal probably left a lot of people cold. But you're right, it is among his finest roles if not his best.

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#14 Post by David Ehrenstein » Fri Dec 01, 2006 10:28 am

Another vote for The Offense. The problem is this great film didn't get much of a release. It's a career high for both Connery and Lumt, yet few people know it.

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david hare
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#15 Post by david hare » Fri Dec 01, 2006 4:56 pm

Also forgotten and unsung is David Greene's superb British film, The Strange Affair (1968) with Michael York and Jeremy Kemp.

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HerrSchreck
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#16 Post by HerrSchreck » Fri Dec 01, 2006 5:57 pm

Roland West didn't seem too awful crazy about cops-- check out his original 1925 silent THE BAT.. as well as his super freaky early talkie ALIBI from 1929 for United Artists (with the caveat that both of these films are extremely difficult to see, BAT right now only has a shitbones analoguey release from Alpha.. ALIBI has a decent enough release from Kino but only on VHS. I don't think a 35mm print exists on ALIBI which is probably the reason we'll never get a dvd.

SPOILER BELOW**
the bat, who West begged the public to not reveal his identity, was, if mem serves, the cop assigned to catch him.

And in ALIBI, the cops are relentlessly described corrupt, hang-anyone-to-close-the-case, innocent-man-beating, gun-planting, mind-fucking & perp-beating scum. Though to be fair, at the end, the cops are revealed to be innocent of the crime the plot turns around.

The detective in I WAKE UP SCREAMING was a serious scumheap.

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Len
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#17 Post by Len » Fri Dec 01, 2006 8:39 pm

gubbelsj wrote:Yeah, I wouldn't say Dirty Harry is in any way a movie about a bad cop or even a flawed one. Instead, Callahan is supposed to be viewed as the source of light in a world increasingly skewed towards favoring the criminal and his "rights". He's the hero who must operate outside the limitations of the liberal world view in order to re-introduce justice to San Francisco. I call this fascism, but I don't think that was the attempt of the film, which makes it one of the great, if troubling, right-wing propaganda pieces of American cinema. Sorry, I guess this really doesn't help with your question.....
I don't think Dirty Harry is that simplistic as a film. I mean Milius did has his hands on the script, but as far as I know, Siegel was always a democrat and I think the film has more faces than the one it immediately shows to the viewer. I think a big point of the film is that it actually does show everything as this paranoid right-wing fantasy, where the ultimate evil is represented by a twisted, murderous hippie who at times looks almost like an transsexual (it's been ages since I've seen the film, but wasn't there an element like this?). The film removes any and all traits of humanity from the killer, so it's basically impossible for the viewer to feel anything except pure hate and disgust for him.

Thus the whole film encourages the viewer to go along with Harry's murderous impulses, basically forcing the viewer to take pleasure in the scenes where Harry goes over the line, torturing the killer. I don't think Harry is seen in an entirely positive light, and it's obvious that he's got his very own sadistic streak. To me it seems that Harry almost sees something of himself in Scorpio, and that further drives him. I see how the film could be seen simply as a celebration of fascism, but I see it more as Siegel criticizing the kind of paranoid mentality of people like Milius, who saw hippies and such as the worst threat the american way of life has ever encountered. As far as I know, Siegel has never explained the film or his intentions with it, but I don't think this theory is too far out.

As for bad cops, my thoughs immediately turn to VANISHING POINT. Goddamn what a film and one where the whole police force is still seen as an twisted arm of a corrupt political system, only designed to keep the people in line. I'd love to see a contemporary road movie where police are referred to as "nazi cars".
And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape...the last beautiful free soul on this planet.

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Fletch F. Fletch
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#18 Post by Fletch F. Fletch » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:28 am

Great movie! One of my faves. I also love the flashbacks that allude to Kowalski's troubled past, providing a bit of insight into what is motivating him to do what he does. And with such an incredible, nihilistic ending too. This movie certainly embodies the "live free or die" belief to the extreme... it's no wonder that bands like Primal Scream love this movie so much.

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blindside8zao
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#19 Post by blindside8zao » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:44 pm

I always wanted a big poster of Cassavettes and Reagan dressed up as cops.

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