"so i get thrown off the force! what kind of job is this, anyway? garbage...that's all we handle. garbage!" - robert ryan, on dangerous ground (1952)
and with that inspiring sentiment from nicholas ray's brilliant, dark portrait of a cop on the edge we delve into the world of the men and women behind the badge. first stop - new york city, for bruce malmuth's nighthawks (1981).
time hasn't exactly been kind to this movie, though the beard is a good look. i remembered it as much better than it actually is, probably because i haven't seen it since i was about twelve. sylvester stallone and billy dee williams are a pair of new york cops who engage in a war of nerves with terrorist bomber rutger hauer. it's just a few years on from the new york of pelham that we encountered just a few movies ago, and already it's lost its luster for me. disco ruined everything. the filmmaking style is also already edging toward the impatience that makes most modern thrillers so unappealing. i guess a pleasant side effect of that is that it at least has the decency to not stretch things out unnecessarily. on the down side, you end up with a product that is sloppy and unfocused, hoping that the flaws aren't so obvious if it just keeps moving. rutger hauer is the highlight of the film, exuding a menace that was probably somewhat amplified in 1981 by his still being an unknown quantity to most american filmgoers. the cold precision and cruel logic of his character balances everything else that goes on in the film and his assertion that he is sending his victims to a better place is believable both because of his conviction and the fact that anywhere out of this movie is probably a better place. if you have a nostalgic fondness for this one, i recommend you leave it that way.
next, sly gets better with age in james mangold's cop land (1997).
it's a look at an insular and dangerous group of corrupt new york cops that build themselves a dirty utopia across the river thanks to shady mob ties. the laundry list of bad business they engage in to protect their lifestyle and their fouled fraternity goes all the way up to arson and murder. stallone is in good company here, with ray liotta, harvey keitel and robert de niro, and he acquits himself admirably in what was a return to more serious roles after a decade plus in the wilderness of mindless action films and needless sequels. overall, the film doesn't quite succeed, but only because it tries to do so much. it has a complexity to it that most corrupt cop films don't have. unfortunately, the resolution of a couple of the threads is just a little less than satisfactory. it's a much better experience when viewed as a collection of individual moments instead, as there are some real standout interactions and delicate notes that take you by surprise. who would have ever guessed that a brief interaction between stallone and de niro would have been every bit the equal of, maybe even superior to, the long-awaited showdown between pacino and de niro in heat (1995)? not me, and yet, i think so now. there's also a beautiful moment when stallone is ambushed in his car and warned that the path he is on can only lead to ruin. for emphasis, the cop doing the warning cocks the hammer on his revolver and in that split second an almost imperceptible look crosses stallone's face. it's just a subtle flicker of terror at being caught at a disadvantage by someone who he knows means business. it's subtle and perfect. throughout the film, there are a number of equally great moments, a tribute to both the writing and performances. i just wish the whole was the sum of its parts.
the best part of the day was a chance to re-visit errol morris' stylistically innovative documentary, the thin blue line (1988).
in 1976, a dallas police officer was killed during a routine traffic stop. unreliable eyewitness testimony, including condemnation from what turned out to be the likely killer, put randall adams on death row in texas for eleven years. morris combines a series of eerie re-creations with his now-trademark interview technique to produce a film that raised enough questions to see the case re-opened and adams eventually exonerated. this was the first errol morris film i ever saw and it made a huge impression on me. the legacy of the film over the ensuing twenty-odd years only confirms that i was right to feel that way. the stylistic chances he took have become de rigueur in the presentation of criminal investigative journalism, the importance of the film in anti-death penalty advocacy circles cannot be underestimated and it continues to resonate as a meditation on cruel, capricious fate. if adams had changed any one of a series of seemingly inconsequential decisions, all of this might never have happened. the one thing that has changed for me since that initial viewing is the conflict i feel about the probable killer, david harris. i can't get a fix on the guy. is he a dead-eyed and plainly stupid sociopath? is he a kid that never had a chance? he hung adams out to dry but a frightened sixteen year-old kid doesn't typically make the decisions he would make as an adult. the film raises any number of questions about punishment versus rehabilitation, the questionable tactics employed by police when a quick resolution to a case is desirable, even the power of the medium itself and the sometimes hazy boundaries between documentation and interpretation. it was a vital film when i saw it the first time and adams' fate was uncertain and it's still vital.
we end up the day with richard tuggle's twisted police procedural, tightrope (1984).
clint eastwood plays a flinty new orleans detective on the trail of a serial killer. familiar territory, it would seem. not so fast, though. did i mention that clint has a predilection for kinky sex with prostitutes? things become even more complicated when the two worlds collide and the hookers that clint chokes for fun in his down time start to turn up dead, done in by someone who obviously has no respect for a safe word. this is one peculiar film. it incorporates all sorts of sleazy exploitation elements, twisted sex and downright giallo touches while balancing all that with subplots about how clint is an excellent father (of daughters - no accident) who struggles on in the wake of being left by a woman who no longer wanted to be a wife or mother and a budding relationship with a rape counselor/self defense teacher. the legwork of the murder investigation is handled well enough, aided in particular by an excellent dan hedaya, who keeps his more exaggerated tendencies under control. the rest of it though? it's a radical departure for eastwood, that much is certain. a family man who likes to choke and handcuff hookers is a far cry from the right-wing avenging angel he usually plays in the dirty harry series. there is even a moment when the killer invades his home and we discover the eldest daughter, a child, bound on a bed in what is an obviously sexualized context. this is such a bizarre mix of progressive and exploitative elements that i don't know what to do with it. that's good for me, though. i'll take a slightly subversive and kinky, if confused, puzzle over the usual any day.
tomorrow, we continue our odyssey of crime and punishment and concern ourselves with matters of jurisprudence.
i plead no contest.