Good Cop Bad Cop: The Seven Five and The Police Tapes (1977)

by |
05/06/2015 5:54 AM |
photo courtesy of Alan and Susan Raymond

The Seven Five
Directed by Tiller Russell
Opens May 8

The Police Tapes (1977)
Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond
May 12 at IFC Center

You can extrapolate how staggering the contents of The Police Tapes were for WNET’s audience in 1977 from the amount of screentime filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond give over to the sociological mini-lectures of police commander Tony Bouza, who reassures liberal viewers about the systemic causes of urban crime rates in language that will make you wonder why MSNBC hosts don’t have him on speed-dial.

Over three months of ridealongs in the 44th precinct—one of multiple station houses nicknamed “Fort Apache” during the Bronx-is-burning era—the Raymonds gathered footage of little old ladies brought in for axe assaults, the splayed-out victims of unsolvable shootings, strung-out rapists and all manner of tweakers. It’s indeed enough to stretch the empathy of others than the exhausted, mustached Nixon voters in blue—whose responses range from bemusement or callousness, to an aggravated “Aw, shaddup” at the crowd gathered at the scene of a stabbing, or a sinister “Nobody did nothing” when a detainee’s boyfriend asks about her bruises. When the cops describe the “animals who are out there,” their sense of their own worldliness, and the suggestion of nobody-understands ranks-closing, makes the film timely all over again.

The Police Tapes, photo courtesy of Sundance Selects

A more emotionally involved heir to Wiseman’s Direct Cinema masterwork Law and Order, The Police Tapes traded 16mm for Portapak—it was a pioneer of the rough-and-ready digital look that would become shorthand for immediacy and trustworthiness in subsequent nonfiction and “reality” media. As another effect of the technology at its disposal, the movie straddles the watershed when unmediated image capture transformed from an undertaking and a revelation into a cultural and cinematic presumption. The new doc The Seven Five is not a pure compilation film, but its scene-setting relies on plentiful archival footage, taken with slightly more advanced cameras than those used by the Raymonds, of another recent urban “war zone”: this time, East New York during the crack epidemic.

In the interviews conducted for the film, disgraced ex-NYPD officer Michael Dowd comes off as another Jordan Belfort, someone who takes his nominal rehabilitation as license to dine out on tall tales from his more debauched days, when he graduated from lifting drug money off crime scenes to selling intel to dealers. (The time he pulled up to the station house in a red Porsche, shit, man!) Director Tiller Russell gives plenty of rope to digressive, self-mythologizing anecdotes from Dowd, his former partners (in uniform, in crime), and sleazy-funny former dope kingpin Adam Diaz. They’re good enough storytellers that Russell thinks he’s making Goodfellas, complete with classic-rock cues, cocaine paranoia, temptation, and masculine codes of friendship and omerta. But Russell (who actually layers canned gunshot sounds over Diaz’s smirking nonresponse to a question about a disappeared adversary) misses the big picture: not just about the era’s widespread police corruption, but about its significance. In Dowd’s testimony before Mayor Dinkins’s Mollen Commission, intercut throughout the film, he emphasized that cops, who have to trust each other when venturing out together in areas the cops of The Police Tapes would agree are jungles, don’t rat on other cops. That’s not a homily about personal honor, it’s the mindset of an institutional culture that looks after its own at all costs. A title card emphasizes that Dowd didn’t name names, not that multiple international investigations into him were dropped before his eventual arrest. For a documentary about the lack of accountability within a hermetic urban police force, this feels pretty irrelevant to the current context.