Thursday, June 16, 2022

More Important Than Power

Films of the ‘70s are often filled with so much darkness and cynicism that it can be almost impossible not to romanticize them out of proportion. Sometimes that’s just the sort of thing I need to watch late at night, maybe now more than ever. In that scrappy, old-school, shot-on-celluloid way those films put us right in there in the middle of what the mood was and the best of them can reflect those times in a way that feels like it would be impossible to do now. Even genre films of that time manage to face the uncertainty in the air head on and that’s why they remain potent today, whether classics like THE FRENCH CONNECTION, or less reputable titles along the lines of DEATH WISH as well as some that have achieved latter day appreciation such as the great NIGHT MOVES or THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, but there are others that have continued to slip through the cracks. Maybe that’s also part of what I’m looking for late at night when I put these things on. Even the ones that have happy endings, and there aren’t many of them, can be upsetting. In a strange way that uncertainty helps get me to sleep, as a reminder that things haven’t changed very much.
There’s also something about films released around 1974-75 that can feel like they reflect a society nearing the breaking point during the time of Watergate as if to see how far they could go in reflecting that cynicism in the air. Even JAWS, which turned up in the summer of ’75 and famously changed everything, offers the aura of conspiracy and cover-up to balance out the brilliance of its popcorn thrills. Released earlier that year, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER is all about conspiracy and cover-up leading to the individual damage that irrevocably causes, and even if it doesn’t live up to the best cop films of the era still has moments that contain a punch in its look at the intensity of city life in the mid ‘70s. This isn’t a very well-known film now and the file folder nature of the title could be the reason or maybe it didn’t make enough of an impression when it was new but maybe it’s also missing something that makes it stand out from the crowd, the way even something like the strictly so-so THE SEVEN-UPS still contains one of the best car chases ever smack in the middle. In fairness, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER has a few particularly memorable sequences but maybe the most interesting aspects are found after digging a little further into it, some of them documentary in nature even when the action kicks into gear along with some sharp character work throughout. Plus the film definitely offers the feel of what it was really like to stand on a Manhattan street corner back in the ‘70s, a reminder of how messed up things were in those days and maybe how messed up they are now too, more than I want to think about sometimes. It’s also interesting because of what it focuses on and what it doesn’t. The right decisions don’t always get made, after all. That’s the way it was then, that’s the way it is now.
The shooting death of a female NYPD undercover officer has the commissioner insist on an official investigation with a full report to be delivered to him without any cover-up. The case focuses on Detective Bo Lockley (Michael Moriarty) who as seen in flashbacks has recently begun his job at the NYPD as an undercover detective. The son of a former detective, it immediately becomes clear how wrong he is for the job while he is shown around the Times Square area by his partner, the much more seasoned Richard ‘Crunch’ Blackstone (Yaphet Kotto). What Lockley doesn’t know is that one of the young girls he spots out on the street is ambitious undercover cop Patty Butler (Susan Blakely) going by the name Chicklet out on the street, with a particular interest in a heroin dealer named Stick (Tony King) and looking to move in with him to get closer to his operation. But when the department has Bo look for Chicklet as a missing person to keep her cover going without being told who she really is, the two worlds collide, leading to the disaster we know is coming.
The flashback structure of REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER that largely makes up the first half lends a complexity to the storytelling but even when things feel unclear or a little too familiar after so many other ‘70s cop movies there is often an energy and sense of seriousness to the approach. The film was directed by Milton Katselas whose other films include 1972’s BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE but he also worked on the stage, with credits that include the original off-Broadway production of Edward Albee’s THE ZOO STORY and later was a somewhat renowned acting teacher who founded the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Maybe appropriate for a theater director, here he often seems largely interested in both behavior and the physical presence of people in relation to each other, along with at times making a close study of people’s faces as they absorb information the very point of certain scenes. BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE was an adaptation of a Broadway play he also directed, largely set in a single apartment, and there’s a similarity felt to the blocking here during certain interiors like in crowded squad rooms that feels covered in a standard, if not restrictive, way as if some of these scenes would be played exactly the same on the stage but at times feels too constricted within the frame.
In comparison, some of the location shooting in the heart of Times Square features handheld camerawork that is downright aggressive at times (cinematography by Mario Tosi who also shot CARRIE and THE STUNT MAN, as well as the KOJAK pilot THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS), as if parts were ghost-directed on the run by Larry Cohen or somebody else who knew how to shoot in the middle of crowds and traffic without anyone realizing. Other scenes, particularly one foot chase that moves from the roof of the Winter Garden Theatre down into Broadway traffic, feature crowds of people in full view on both sides of the street presumably watching the filming since they couldn’t close off the street entirely, but it still helps add to the immediacy and verisimilitude of shots, giving the impression of a city so crowded that it’s practically about to burst. It may not be the point but the visual is so intense that it’s not even a bad thing. This comes a year before TAXI DRIVER which shot in some of the same locations but unlike that film which through its brilliance shows us all the depravity through Travis Bickle’s eyes this one puts us right down there in the middle of the sidewalk, not quite documentary style but still very intense in its more straightforward way, with handheld camerawork that gives it a much more frenetic feel as if someone might knock us over and take our wallet at any moment. It’s a look at a New York that appears to always be on the brink with enough great footage of Times Square that makes me dream of hanging out at the Howard Johnson’s for a while but there’s also glimpses at some of the movies that were playing—CLAUDINE and BLAZING SADDLES are prominently spotted on marquees in a number of shots along with THE GREAT GATSBY which also has two separate giant ads overhead; looking up release dates I’m guessing the location filming happened around April-May 1974. All of this is completely incidental to the actual film, of course, but it’s a good indication of how naturalistic parts of this film are yet still totally alien to what we think of as New York these days. It would be too dismissive to say that one of the most appealing things about this film is the look at the way Times Square was but it’s hard not to dwell on it a little.
With a screenplay by Abby Mann and Ernest Tidyman based on the novel by James Mills, the fairly complex flashback structure of the first half makes it a little difficult to keep track of things but maybe it’s the sense of familiarity how some of this feels like ‘just another cop movie’ that’s the bigger issue. The focus is more or less on Michael Moriarty’s new undercover detective Bo Lockley who enters the movie frazzled and never entirely settles down making it hard not to imagine the part played in more of a low-key Pacino mode. It’s tough to take at times but to his credit the actor never makes it about vanity or turning this into a star role, as if the body language coming from the performance is saying that even he’s not quite sure what he’s doing in this movie. His backstory comes with guilt over a brother who died in Vietnam and a father, never seen, who was once on the force but it never quite registers as much as it should and neither does talk of how he’s meant to be a modern cop placed out there on the streets by the department, contrasted with his older, wiser partner played by Yaphet Kotto who has no compunctions of smacking down a pimp right out there on the street. There’s just enough of the pairing to make me wish there was more, each talking around the other and not hearing what they’re saying but some sort of mutual admiration thing happening between the two regardless. In a way Moriarty’s performance comes off as so unhinged and out of place that it becomes the very point so Kotto looking at him in disbelief that response makes perfect sense.
All of this is well-played by the actors but just a little too familiar at times which means when the narrative moves over to the undercover cop Chicklet played by Susan Blakely, the switch hits the film like a shot of adrenaline. Right away there’s an additional energy and she’s a stronger, more compelling character. Blakely isn’t the lead of the film and the way the story plays out unfortunately she can’t be but it’s hard not to wish there could be more of her. She knows what she’s doing and why, a woman with clear-cut motivation as well as a cop who just wants to do her job and under the most dangerous circumstances imaginable if necessary. Maybe there isn’t much more to it beyond a sense of pure and total ambition but she has agency and is one of the few characters in the film who never seems conflicted. She wants to do the job no one else wants to do and she wants to do it better than anyone which means the men around her are all completely baffled by this independent woman. Even after everything has gone wrong though no fault of her own they still can’t think of portraying Butler as anything more than a girl who might have been caught between two guys, using her to cover their own ass. It’s a drawback of the film that in the end she feels more like a plot device than a character but Blakely brings enough to the performance to help overcome this, revealing multiple layers particularly in those moments when she’s suddenly forced to drop the act so we know she’s not kidding around. Even the way she’s framed at times with the color red lighting her face that signifies the danger she’s seeking out becomes one of the films most striking visual flourishes, setting her apart from all the other cops who are unwilling to take this sort of chance. It’s a character at once unknowable and more than anyone else in the film a figure of strength even if she has her own seemingly unfathomable reasons.
The skeezy, dirty vibe feels grounded in a way that sets it apart from the delirium of TAXI DRIVER and the the investigation plotline of the middle section offers tangents that pop up frequently including a sequence with Richard Gere, in what appears to be his first film role, playing a confident pimp that gets in Lockley’s way as well as a completely unrecognizable appearance by the great Bob (credited as “Robert”) Balaban as a homeless double amputee who wheels himself around, leading to an extended scene where he wheels himself out into traffic tailing someone in a cab that looks genuinely dangerous in a few shots; this is one of those places where the plot beats don’t quite add up but it’s still fascinating to watch. The nightclub scene where Lockley tracks down Chicklet also has a propulsive nature with the Vernon Birch’s “Changes (Messin’ with My Mind)” on the soundtrack that gives an ominous feel. It’s in some of these moments that helps REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER stand out with a unique approach that always adds to the seriousness.
That feeling largely holds throughout but the film possibly needs more juice when the points are being made and some of the energy coming from that camerawork out on the streets could maybe have been applied to the interiors as well. At least some of this is grounded by the strength of Yaphet Kotto’s presence and though the script’s reason for why Crunch is so fond and protective of Lockley never feels fully developed beyond once knowing his father the actor sells it even if he disappears a little too long from the middle section. Between the close quarters interrogations probing the coverup plotline and all the Times Square footage it feels like the directorial approach wants to be the illegitimate child of a Lumet procedural (SERPICO is spotted on another marquee in Times Square) and Friedkin intensity but can’t find the middle ground so there’s a level of energy missing that doesn’t quite connect the two tones. The big foot chase through the streets with Moriarty pursuing Tony King clad in nothing but his underwear which finally ends in a Saks Fifth Avenue elevator is exciting, faulty geography aside, and, once again all the signs of New York life around them is definitely part of that. But the blaxploitation-type funk riffs in the Elmer Bernstein score feel like they’re in the wrong movie, ignoring the weight of the moment and another sign that the film is not quite hitting what the grounded mood should be.
Much of the final third is made up of the standoff between cop and drug dealer, trapped together in a Saks elevator which is effectively filmed to emphasize the close quarters aspect. The suspense is presented as soberly as possible with no TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE wisecracks to be found, instead focusing on the big speech by Tony King as Stick which lays it all out. “It’s them and us,” is the big statement he makes, that the two of them trapped there together places them against all the cops on “their own side” who are really in charge. This is pretty much the only part of the film where this character so many people have been talking about gets any substantial dialogue and he’s given more strength to his actions than the nominal lead gets here, another reminder that this is a film without a typical hero which is both admirable and yet keeps the audience at a certain distance; to use our modern-day parlance it’s not really a movie with an identifiable lead for us to latch onto. Moriarty’s character is too unstable, Kotto is too cynical, Blakely too out on a limb for the men in charge to know what to do with. In the middle of all this it’s the drug dealer (along with indications that he’s some sort of black militant gun runner which are never made clear), who in other films would be portrayed as more of an outright bad guy, is the one who seems the most level-headed of anyone one of the most daring ideas in the entire film. Naturally, there’s only one thing the cops in charge know to do with someone like that.
The plot feels overly dense and a little undernourished all at once but still runs on too long in the second half with the department store standoff’s tension diffusing past a certain point. The flashback structure (presumably taken after the book which I haven’t read but apparently told its fictional story in the form of police reports and interview transcripts detailing the case) feels necessary in order to lay things out in a clear and concise fashion but it also causes what is likely the most dramatic event of the film to be brushed over quick so the tragedy is barely registered in the moment it occurs. All the men around Blakely’s Pat Butler seem to be intimidated by this woman, her commander talking more about her good looks than anything else, and even Lockley can’t quite explain why he was so determined to rescue her. But the film seems more intent on the overall nature of the Watergate-era cover-up which is at the heart of it, the cops in charge willing to give Bo up as a sacrificial lamb, even when he still has no idea what really happened, and when the right decision does get made near the end it’s too late. The way the plot is laid out forces the aftermath to wind down rather than build to a real dramatic conclusion so the last few scenes sputter out as the investigation fizzles. In a nutshell, stuff gets fucked up thanks to people who are trying to cover their own asses and there’s nothing anybody can do. There’s been no real point to any of it and nothing can even really come up the titular report since it would cause too much of a stir. When the end finally comes, the shock doesn’t register as much as it should and it feels like all we can do is shrug. It feels like the movie does too. That’s how defeated the final moment is. There aren’t any answers left for it to offer so maybe the somewhat sensationalistic credit in the end crawl (which seems to use the GODFATHER font, oddly enough) acknowledging “all the men and women of the New York City Police Department whose names cannot be revealed” says all that it needs to.
But through all that messaging are standout moments that stick in the brain afterwards. There’s a skill to the direction that lets the tension build in individual moments like Susan Blakely facing the camera/interviewer so sure in what she’s doing, Michael Moriarty tapping on the glass of the phone booth as she makes a call, Bob Balaban desperately holding onto the back of the taxicab, the close quarters feel of that elevator. These are the moments that tell the story in a way that hold the suspense together even if the larger details get somewhat lost in the moment. REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER frustrates but it’s still fascinating in what it presents whether the character detail or the look at the city at that point in time and it has moments that are even better than that, a well-made film that has the courage of its convictions even when things get somewhat muddled. Frankly, anyone who is always looking for that other ‘70s movie would want to see this for the genre for the tone, for its look at dirty old fun city New York. It’s a cynical worldview that has aged in a way that makes sense. Those in power can do whatever they want which we knew all along. In the end, it’s not about making a difference or even being the one in charge. It’s just about filing the paperwork to move onto the next thing.
At times Michael Moriarty (do not, under any circumstances, take a drink every time he says “Chicklet”) seems genuinely unhinged and the very idea of underplaying a moment has never occurred to him but his strongest work comes near the end when his confusion becomes palpable during official questioning and he realizes that no one is going to help him, as if the actor has been in his own world the whole time and is just now realizing what movie he’s in with that jittery method thing feeling more like the actor responding to the more confident stylings of all the other actors he’s playing scenes with. This includes Yaphet Kotto who plays each moment totally confident with his body language which doesn’t ignore the cruelty he’s capable of but just the way he walks brings a lived-in feel to his every movement. Susan Blakely is particularly effective as the undercover cop so much of the plot swirls around, showing several sides of her character at once. Her performance is as fearless as her character, making me wish the plot could somehow revolve around her more, or at the least getting me to imagine the nonexistent movie where she gets to be the lead.
Playing The Stick, Tony King doesn’t have a long list of credits (formerly of the Buffalo Bills but also in films like SHAFT and SHARKY’S MACHINE; later he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malik Farrakhan) but he’s imposing in just the right ways particularly during his scenes with Moriarty. He is the one who gets the film's big speech, after all, and for these few minutes it all just about comes together. It’s particularly amazing to watch Bob Balaban as the legless Joey Egan, not just because he’s totally unlike any other performance by him but he seems downright possessed at times, a madness present in his eyes that for whatever reason makes helping Lockley the most important thing in the world when he’s asked. Richard Gere offers some nasty cockiness as the pimp who gets on Lockley’s bad side while even the middle management cops played by the likes of Hector Elizondo and Michael McGuire (lots of credits but maybe most recognizable as Sumner Sloan, the professor who abandons Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers in the pilot of CHEERS) are well drawn in their own levels of pettiness. The likes of William Devane (just like in McCABE & MRS. MILLER, he’s a lawyer who turns up for one scene during the last half hour), Stephen Elliott as the titular commissioner (he was later the police chief in BEVERLY HILLS COP but also played the commissioner in the previous year’s DEATH WISH) and Vic Tayback are in there as well. And, let’s face it, this is exactly the sort of movie that needs Vic Tayback’s sweaty combover.
At one point Bo Lockley recalls his father telling him that responsibility is more important than power but this is a film where almost no one takes responsibility, or at least not the people who need to. All of this seems very familiar in the world we live in right now. Maybe one of the more surprising things about REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER is the PG rating complete with language that includes the n-word, plenty of violence and even some brief, if distant, nudity. But things were different in the ‘70s. And this is a film that’s worth seeing, so here’s a look at the trailer. There are echoes of neo-noir found in all this fatalism but it also feels like a natural part of the ‘70s weariness. And now, in 2022, the theme of cops fucking up, especially the ones in charge, seems more timely than ever. But this is just one of those things I’m looking for late at night. At least films like this don’t pretend things are better than they are. And that’s one way to get to sleep.