An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #3: The New Centurions (1972)

Sucks to be a cop, man.

That's the not-terribly-nuanced thesis statement of this aggressively pessimistic police drama, an adaptation of the first novel by L.A. cop-turned-author Joseph Waumbaugh. Or at least by its last half-hour or so.

One of the first things I observed when I started exploring this period of American cinema was how pessimism and cynicism were so fashionable, almost the status quo. Even otherwise innocuous or generic movies seemed to take narrative turns that support a stiflingly bleak view of human nature and society. In its home stretch, The New Centurions takes several such turns that I just didn't buy. A key character commits suicide for no discernible reason other than sentence one of this blog post, which I felt was horribly misguided; suicide is a trump card that dramatists should basically never, ever pull unless it's abso-fucking-lutely the necessary and best choice for the character. After that, the other main character's life goes into a similarly unconvincing tailspin and the movie becomes a lot less interesting to me.

Which is a shame, because for a while there in the early going, it's pretty great. One of the fascinating things about this era is that movie clichés as we know them didn't really exist yet. Sure, there were clichés and tropes of Hollywood v1.0, but when those were discarded in the late sixties following the collapse of the Hays Code and the sea change in American culture, the slate was suddenly blank. New forms and ideas would eventually ossify into cliché, but for a brief, thrilling period everything was up for grabs. So here, you have a situation—innocent rookie cop (Stacy Keach) shown the ropes by cynical, near-retirement older cop (George C. Scott, wonderful even in an underwritten role)—that sounds clichéd now, but plays fresh in the film. In fact, what the early scenes feel like—as directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, one of those guys who was around in the old days but adapted well to the New H.—is an episode of Law & Order as directed by Robert Altman. There is that sense of free-floating possibility that I associate with Altman. Fleischer avoids a strict narrative, opting for a collage of seedy Los Angeles ghetto activity: a hooker roust (Scott just gets them drunk, drives them around and deposits them back on the street), an intense domestic disturbance, dealings with various shady crooks and lowlifes. Fleischer decorates these scenes with plenty of location ambiance, and the funky Quincy Jones score helps make everything feel very '70s and cool.

The movie spends a lot of time showing how policework destroys a cop's personal life. Nowadays, this is about as banal and clichéd an observation as you can make about cops. There's nothing wrong, exactly, with how the scenes of Stacy Keach's troubled home life are handled, and I liked Jane Alexander's performance as the wife, but they feel boilerplate compared to the gritty, funky rhythms of the cops' late-night rounds. Then the aforementioned suicide happens, and the Altman-esque sense of possibility is replaced by a banal fatalism. Still, if you have any sort of fondness for crime fiction and/or the '70s, it's impossible not to be delighted by at least some parts of this film.

Postscript: What the fuck is going on in that poster? Just look at it. It is hilariously awful. "Hey, this movie is based on a book, so let's put a GIANT BOOK on the poster and have characters from the movie climbing—stairs? a ladder?—into the pages of the book," or something. What.

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