September 2-13 at Film Forum
On September 11, 2001, New York moviegoers were tragically prevented from seeing a revived Cruising because of a terrorist attack downtown that shuttered Film Forum for a few days. William Friedkin’s hysterical 1980 thriller, about cop Al Pacino undercover and unrepressed in a heavy leather gay New York underworld with an at-large serial killer, would get its day at future screenings and with the cautious reappraisal that accompanied its DVD release in 2007. It was one of 49 films in an expansive, nearly two month long series devoted to cinematic depictions of the NYPD. Obviously programmed before 9/11, the series was no sentimental tribute to New York’s “finest”—the buyable plainclothesmen and bad lieutenants onscreen likely outnumbered the heroic by-the-bookers. I wasn’t there for them, but I like to think that the ethical variety and complex range of motivations in the selected cop movies provided an instructive contrast with the (understandable) black-and-white suspension of irony and moral gray areas that temporarily followed 9/11.
If we’re being honest, this new NYPD Festival, marking the first’s tenth anniversary, is a shrunken imitation with no new additions (Cry of the City, playing September 13, was scheduled but cancelled last time) besides the rather baffling one of Kurosawa’s great High and Low, Japanese and set there, though included because it was based on an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. But even if the series isn’t on the level of an “NYC Noir” or “The Newspaper Picture,” the movies are made no less watchable by the fact.
Mostly attitude, spoken borough names, and the geography of the Manhattan street grid unify the films here. The basic template of the “New York cop” has proved as mythical and malleable as the screen cowboy or housewife, so no two are precisely the same. This is less true in the noir selections, in which the main male is generally conflicted and doomed regardless of profession. In Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) hears all about the murdered (?) title ad exec (Gene Tierney) from her mentor, arrogant, prissy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and eventually falls in necrophilic love with the idea of Laura. Webb gets the best lines, as do the bitchy cultural columnist Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and tar-hearted publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a better fit in the newspaper series but at home here thanks to yogurty, mush-mouthed character actor Emile Meyer’s venal, perhaps closeted cop Harry Kello. Meyer talks like a toothless baby, making it all the more unsettling when he calls Sidney “snooks” and says he has “a face like ice cream.” “I like Harry,” says Hunsecker, “but I can’t deny he sweats a little.”
Preminger reteamed with Andrews and Tierney for 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. It lacks Laura‘s magical quality, but it’s the more thoroughly New York movie, and Andrews is even better as the rogue 16th Precinct detective who accidentally kills a suspect and immediately embarks on an excruciating cover-up. Andrews’ Det. Dixon hates criminals so much because his father was one, the same factor that motivates Kirk Douglas’s mortal rage toward that class in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951). An adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s play set largely in one precinct, it’s filmed theater, but the interlocking plotlines and fanged dialogue (“you must’ve been kissed in the crib by a vulture”) keep you from getting antsy. Lee Grant won a Cannes award and was Oscar-nominated for her annoyingly affected turn as a dopey prostitute, but it’s Douglas’s bigger-than-life righteousness that dominates.
In Cop Hater (1958), a serial murderer in a barely disguised New York is smoking policemen at an alarming rate. It’s up to Robert Loggia’s Det. Steve Carelli to find him. One-man B factory William A. Berke adapted McBain’s first 87th Precinct novel, and the result is angrily acted, surreally claustrophobic pulp. There are sweaty forehead character turns from Vincent Gardenia and a young Jerry Orbach, and Ellen Parker is adorable as Carelli’s deaf-mute girlfriend, whom he “tucks in” nightly. The pleasures of a young Loggia turn out to be great—the handsome, curly-haired Staten Island native has a stiff-shouldered, James Caan-like coiled energy that’s mesmerizing.
If Harvey Keitel’s crack-smoking, car-defiling “Lieutenant” in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film shows NYC cops at their lowest, Pay or Die (1960) and Serpico (1973) even the scale with their portrayals of two real-life heroes. Richard Wilson’s film is plodding and anonymous, but it tells the important story of Little Italy crimefighter Joseph Petrosino (Ernest Borgnine), who pioneered the battle against Black Hand extortion rackets that would eventually morph into the Mafia in the States. His efforts took him to Sicily, where he was murdered. If Al Pacino’s Christ act as Frank Serpico seems cartoonish and self-important, the fact remains that the whistleblowing cop, depressed and outraged by the entrenched payola system, was a messiah of integrity, in his way. Sidney Lumet’s usual “styleless” style skirts that fine line between “gritty” and “disgusting looking,” but combined with some very untraditional city location scouting, the result is an “iconic” New York cop movie with very little recognizable New York architecture.
The 2001 series supplemented the classics with newer tries like Cop Land and Romeo is Bleeding. A new comprehensive look would make room for movies like We Own the Night and the underrated Brooklyn’s Finest. But Film Forum’s truncated version of their accidentally poignant series is a reminder that a pithy descriptor like “NYPD film” only limits the action’s location, and sometimes not even that.