I watched some old films about cops and robbers in America.
We start in a black & white world presented in 1961.
Underworld USA takes us back to a dark alley on New Year’s Eve 20 years earlier. “Auld Lang Syne” is the background music, and it recurs several times during the saga of Tolly Devlin. We meet him first of all trying to get his first break into crime by stealing from a drunk who had passed-out.
The kid soon gets robbed and beat up himself, so he goes to the Elite Club, run by Sandy, his stand-in mum since his actual mum died years ago and his dad is too busy hustling to see the boy who idolises him.
Note the calendar puts this in 1939, when he’s 14 – so most of the later events of the film, when Tolly is 32, will be in 1957. The background history makes no difference, as there are no references to any current affairs or world events in the course of this history, other than the federal drive against organised crime rackets in the 50s.
Tolly and Sandy hear a fight outside and they see a gang beating a guy to death. As the killers run away, they catch a glimpse of one of them: local hoodlum Vince Farrar. But the big shock is that the killer is… Tolly’s dad. An FBI guy called Driscoll is hanging around, but Tolly won’t deal with him because he “ain’t no fink” and don’t talk to the cops. He’ll fix the gang his own way… but it turns out that Farrar gets sent to prison on another charge and is out of circulation.
Tolly drifts into ever more serious crime and by the time he’s 27 he’s a safecracker who gets caught and put away for 5 years.
He knows he’s in the same joint as Farrar and needs to get to him. But Vince is an old sick man now, confined to the infirmary and not likely to leave it alive. The only way to get in is to volunteer as a blood donor and then ask the Doc if there are any orderly roles available. The medic is suspicious of whether he just wants to get access to narcotics, but takes him on to sterilise equipment and check the ward. And so it is that he’s around when Farrar and is dying. As the old guy begs for forgiveness he gets him to give up the names of the other 3 hoods who killed his father.
Out of prison, he goes back to stay with Sandy, who has now sold the Elite Club. It’s been turned into the Elite Espresso coffee bar, and like a lot of these new coffee bars it’s a front for selling dope. Tolly gets in the office and overhears a girl getting threatened for her failure to collect a consignment of dope. He knocks out the bad guy and gets the girl away to safety.
Cuddles (that’s the only name she ever has) is a bit unstable at first, since she knows a lot of secrets from the big bad guys and the rackets they run. By some shrewd scheming, Tolly manages to get himself taken on as a new employee of the Syndicate, where the 3 other killers are now leading divisional commanders for the overall national chief, who holds meetings by the poolside at a fancy new modern apartment block.
I don’t know if this the first time we ever see a Crime Lord living in the same manner as the respectable robber barons of America, instead of crawling around in a smoky basement, but this is certainly the model modern audiences are familiar with from The Godfather, The Sopranos and about a dozen other productions in which the supply and demand for dope, guns and girls are treated like any other market sectors to be dominated by a major corporation. Driscoll has now risen to be a big hitter at the FBI but he can’t get very far when no one will fink on these guys, either on principle or out of fear for reprisals on themselves and their families. We see a young girl run down as revenge on an informer; a police chief shoots himself when his corruption is exposed. Devlin, despite being a lifelong nobody who couldn’t get far busting safes, turns out to be a master-strategist at playing both sides and orchestrating a bloody end for the men he thinks deserve it.
A greater complication in his life is his relationship with Cuddles, and her gradual evolution into someone with a sense of self-worth and a desire to completely escape the world of violence and exploitation now that a doorway is opened. When Tolly suggests he can get her a flat, she hears that as a proposal he becomes her pimp, and they fall out; the scene seems to suggest a degree of innocence in Tolly at odds with the ultra-hardboiled guy he is in every other respect.
“Sentiment” is a bad word in the Underworld, where the gangsters were suspicious of Tolly’s feigning of respect for the men who worked with his father, simply because he attached it to the idea that he would pass up 50,000 dollars because of it. Like the bad guys, he understands human psychology as a set of levers to be used to make the human machine jerk around in different directions, but not how to deal in finer adjustments, or to understand that the interior may not all be a simple mechanism. Cuddles poses the challenge to him to find a goal in life beyond the simple pattern of revenge, perhaps to grow in to a dad better than the one that he knew only in part. There is no sentimental resolution; the story ends where it began, with a dead body in an alleyway (perhaps the same one?) with “Auld Lang Syne” audible in the distance.
Let’s go forward to a new decade, where there is more colour, in every respect. Some tough-looking guys are doing some tough training exercises.
It’s The New Centurions (1972), and these tough guys are passing out of Police Academy to go deal with crime on the streets of California. Whether any scenes from this film were parodically homaged in any Police Academy film is not known.
Our main man is young Roy (played by Stacey Keach), a law student who joined up in order to get some money and also see the other side of the criminal system. His background causes him to occasionally speak out of turn by pointing out what practices constitute entrapment or are inadmissible.
Roy’s buddy is usually Kilvinski (played by George C.Scott), who’s been around and seen it all, seen enough of all this human garbage on the streets youknowwhatimsayin?
Kilvinski has a big heart – when they round up all the hookers in the wagon, he stops off to pick up some food and liquor for the girls in the back of van, before they drop them off home again.
Also, when some scumbag landlord wants the cops to kick out some Mexicans who have missed the rent, Kilvinski gives the guy a slap and refuses to have anything to do with the situation… that’s about as liberal as he goes. The core of the film is in the centre, when he retires and goes for a final drinking session with Roy at a strip club.
KILVINSKI: I’m glad I’m out of it. We’re through, we’re finished, you know what?…We can’t hold the line anymore.
ROY: Things change, people change. Last year everyone’s screaming about lack of freedom, they’re screaming about the lack of control.
KILVINSKI: Something else is happening this time. The “don’ts” are dying. First the vice laws are dying, then the misdemeanours and then the felonies. Easy to get rid of crime, you just change the laws… well let the assholes change the laws and get rid of crime, they can’t get rid of evil. Laws change, people don’t. Never get rid of evil, ever.
Roy muses that maybe we could achieve some headway against evil with some better social welfare plans, a tune that can be heard playing later in seasons of The Wire.
ROY: Even the Romans had centurions to keep the peace, and they were unsupported, unhonoured, disliked just like us, but they held the line, for a while. Until Rome was finally overrun by barbarians.
KILVINSKI [drinking]: Here’s to the new centurions. Let’s hope they do a better job than the old ones.
Roy’s marriage breaks down from the stress of the job and his abandonment of law studies, though from the perspective of 2021 him and his wife are living pretty well on the wages of a cop and a secretary.
Roy also has a turn in the Vice Squad where the guys dress undercover in outfits that absolutely no one else we have seen on these streets looks like.
As well as rummaging in garbage these boys will also patrol the parks at night o check out reports they’ve heard about “fruits” being active. “You know what the average fruit gets? About a fifty dollar fine.”
Roy isn’t happy about being used as bait in what is, as he points out again, an entrapment. “If he makes a move to honk you, just grab his hand.”
Let’s move back to the East Coast. There’s a lot of angry stuff going on over there, in Badge 373 (1973). Some people are celebrating and talking Spanish, but soon the cops turn up to arrest them all.
In charge of the bust is officer Eddie Ryan (played by Robert Duvall), who has brilliantly disguised himself as a Puerto Rican by slicking his hair and putting on a fake moustache and frilly shirt. The operation went off the rails when one of the gangsters noticed one of the undercover men was completely unable to speak Spanish. But things go even worse when Eddie chases a guy on to the roof. After a lot of racist and homophobic chitchat, which I am not typing out because it was completely witless and tedious (the question of “wokeness” does not arise, it was pre-empted by aesthetics) the chap falls off the edge and gets killed.
Of course all the bleeding heart liberals at City Hall and the New York Times won’t let this go, and Eddie has to hand in his badge until the investigation is over. Jesus, what’s going on, used to be that a cop just got transferred if he killed a guy by accident.
So a few weeks later he’s working as a barman and his old partner GiGi drops by to see him with his new partner, they got him a Spanish guy. Lots of minorities are enrolling in the force these days, just like they were doing over in California.
But then GiGi gets killed and Eddie goes off to follow the trail unofficially on his own, poking around in places, and running into these angry young kids who wear berets and spout off a lot of left-wing stuff about socialism and freeing Puerto Rica. Jesus, why can’t these guys just accept that they were nothing until America did them a favour and brought them into history.
Of course that new guy Diaz doesn’t like it when Eddie starts pressuring him about “your people” and assuming he knew about lots of shady deals that GiGi must have run up against.
Jesus, the whole goddamn world’s gone crazy and an angry white guy can hardly get a break anymore. After a thoroughly mad car chase in which Eddie seized control of a bus and ran his opponents off into the river, he goes off for a break in the countryside for a while with his girlfriend. But she can’t accept a guy has to have his moods, yknow, and anyway he gets a tip-off to go back in to the action. That angry young kid Ruben is speaking at a big rally, doing his thing about how bad America is and how Puerto Rico needs a socialist revolution so its people won’t be treated as an inferior class anymore by the ones who have stolen and exploited their country.
Despite being right in the middle of the crowd, Eddie pays as much attention to this version of the same message he’s been getting regularly from minority groups throughout the film as he does on every other occasion he hears it. But in any case now he’s getting picked up and taken to meet the top gangster Sweet William, in his expensive lair. Of course he’s one of those well-spoken, well-dressed and highly educated (“I was the 3rd Puerto Rican to go to Harvard”) gangsters.
I expect the definite description “the 3rd Puerto Rican to attend Harvard” has a reference in our domain of discourse, so I wonder what that individual thought of their portrayal in this film.
Nothing that is said changes Eddie’s direction this time either, and we end in the big finale at Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and some guy falls to his death with Eddie nearby, again.
Presumably because he’s an Ivy League cynic with only a dilettante interest in liberation movements, Sweet William’s closing speech denouncing the evils of Anglo-Saxon imperialism misses the obvious point that Eddie Ryan must have Irish heritage and thus belongs to another group that knows colonial oppression, and thus make a late move to turn him to the anti-colonial cause. What a schoolboy error. He could also have pointed out that he was present at the bust right at the start of the film and the cops didn’t figure out who he was.
Watching all these old school tough guys in action makes it harder than ever to understand some of the modern “culture war” themes. I can understand why anyone would appreciate the tradition of American Warrior males represented in General Patton as portrayed by George C.Scott (the actual Patton had a privileged background and his accent reflected it, he wasn’t a rough gruff bar-brawler). Washington, Grant, Sherman, Pershing… I suppose you want to put Robert E.Lee in the pantheon regardless of which flag he fought for, but the guy lost in the end and losers don’t win wars. The thing I don’t get is why anyone thinks characters like Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh have any connection with that world. Trump is just a whiny guy in a suit who might provide a comic interlude in a 70s Clint Eastwood film; unless you can see John Wayne or Gary Cooper breaking off to complain on Twitter for hours he aint in any real tough guy movies. So when I see things like this:
I just don’t get it at all. You’re right – people like me don’t understand you. Anyway, “Hotwire My Heart” was the first single by Crime, the San Francisco punk band who dressed like cops, as you can see in the banner image. Of course like a lot of people I got to know it from the cover version by Sonic Youth. Ironically that version makes it more like a regular pop-punk song than the original. Fun fact: Crime were playing gigs in costume at prisons in the 80s.