Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lumet's Cops (originally published 3/03)

In an uncertain and sometimes frightening world, we look to the police to shield us from those who would prey upon their fellow citizens. But what happens when the police themselves feel compelled to adopt the same practices as those whom they are paid to contain? Whether out of simple venality or out of a sincere desire to put the career criminals out of business in the most expeditious manner, criminal practices within the ranks of the police force pose a serious societal problem. Naturally, it therefore makes for good drama.

In the recently released "Dark Blue," director Ron Shelton successfully captializes on the theme of police malfeasance. Shelton is, however, by no means the first filmmaker to tap into this subject matter. In fact, there is one director who seems to return to it regularly. If you want to see how one of Hollywood's top talents has explored the theme over the last quarter century, look for these titles from the work of Sidney Lumet on home video.

"The Offence" (1973). Lumet's fascination with police corruption begins with this disturbing study of the moral collapse of a single cop. Sean Connery stars as London Detective Sergeant Johnson, a tortured man who has seen more human misery and depravity than he can bear. One day, while interrogating a suspected child molester, something snaps inside Johnson. He beats the man, savagely and mercilessly, nearly killing him. The departmental inquiry into this violent act reveals that Johnson was motivated as much by his own latent guilt feelings as by his conviction that the suspect was guilty. It's not an easy film to watch, but it lays an important foundation for Lumet's susequent police corruption dramas.

"Serpico" (1973). Al Pacino received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who bucked the trend of systemic corruption in the New York police force. The film follows Serpico's brief police career as he transfers from division to division like a modern day Diogenes looking for an honest man. In each case, when he is pressured to accept his cut of the precinct's bribe money, he goes to his superiors to report what he believes to be an aberration. Gradually he realizes that what he's seeing is not an aberration at all; it's standard operating procedure.

"Prince of the City" (1981). Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption with this exhaustive and exhausting drama. Like "Serpico," it is based on a true story, but it is bigger in almost every way than the earlier film. Its protagonist, Detective Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), is a narcotics cop, a member of the elite Special Investigation Unit. Because the S.I.U. regularly deals with some of society's worst vermin, they are given great latitude in their methods on the theory that the end justifies the means. The result is that they have become the very thing that they are supposedly working to clean up. They routinely break as many laws as the criminals they investigate, and with complete impunity. Detective Ciello allows himself to be persuaded to inform on some of these dirty cops, with the proviso that he will not rat on his own partners. Ciello, however, is no saintly innocent like Serpico. He has been a willing participant in the corrupt system for too long to stand apart from it at this late date.

"Q&A" (1990). Lumet's first American police corruption drama not based on factual material stars Nick Nolte as Lt. Mike Brennan. Despite his reputation on the force as one of the department's finest, Brennan is actually as dirty as they come. Lumet weaves an alarming tapestry of turpitude, casual racism, and general moral bankruptcy around Brennan's cold blooded murder of a Latino drug dealer. In an effort to whitewash the investigation of the killing, a green, inexperienced assistant District Attorney is assigned to question Brennan about the incident. By the time Lumet allows the doomed investigation to play itself out, you'll feel as if you need a bath.

Lumet's meditations on New York police corruption have followed an interesting trajectory. They began on a micro level, with the dissolution of a single troubled cop, and have progressed to a macro level, where the distinctions between the police force and the criminal subculture blur and vanish. We can only hope that real life police work is not following a similar progression.

No comments: