Friday, November 21, 2008

Cop Hater (United Artists, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran him Cop Hater, a quite interesting 1957 thriller ( dates it as 1958, but the copyright date is a year earlier) based on the first Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel and produced independently by its director, William Berke — mostly a director of “B” Westerns who made the 1945 RKO Dick Tracy and The Falcon’s Alibi, the last in the RKO Falcon series, among his few previous forays into contemporary crime. Who would have thought a “B” director like Berke had such an intense, grungy, grittily realistic movie in him? McBain’s book, as adapted by screenwriter Henry Kane, really brought out the best in him even though the entire movie sometimes seems to take place inside police stations, seedy apartment buildings and bars (or in the streets outside of bars).

It drove me nuts that the central character of Detective Steve Carella (Robert Loggia) was called “Carelli” in the film (was that, like a number of other name changes between book and film, to give the actors something easier to pronounce?), and a reference to Staten Island “outed” the locale as New York City (McBain kept the city carefully anonymous; it was clearly based on New York but the five boroughs were given fictitious names to keep us guessing — Manhattan became “Isola,” as in “island”), but otherwise the film was quite tight, faithful to the McBain mythos and the utter lack of sentimentality inherent in his writing. The plot deals with the mysterious murders on two days of 87th Precinct detectives Bill Riordan (Alan Bergnan) and his African-American partner Dave Foster (Lincoln Kilpatrick in his film debut), followed a week later by the killing of detective Mike Maguire (Gerald S. O’Loughlin).

Naturally the cops assume the killings are the work of either a recently released convict whom one or more of the cop victims had been instrumental in catching in the first place, or a psychopath targeting police officers for the fun of it — though none of the cops are killed while on duty and the opening scene plays a neat trick on us: we see Riordan getting up from his bed (topless, and showing a nice expanse of chest hair — when this movie came out there was a lot of fuss about the amount of female flesh it showed barely clothed, including the blonde-bimbo wife of one suspect who gets out of the shower and appears before the cops wrapped in a towel and nothing else while they question her husband and he tells them how impatient he is for them to get lost so he and the blonde can have connubial bliss on their wedding night — but in fact there’s as much beefcake as cheesecake here) and putting on street clothes and packing a gun, and at first we assume he’s the cop-hating killer and it’s only later we find out he’s actually going to become the first cop victim.

The film is quite well acted by a pretty no-name cast — Loggia, Vince Gardenia (who plays a police informant who fingers a junkie as a possible lead in the killings) and a young and almost unrecognizable Jerry Orbach as the head of the Grovers, a street gang with beatnik pretensions suspected of involvement in the murders, were the only names I recognized. (It’s interesting that Orbach began his career appearing in a series about police work in New York City and ended it playing the lead detective on Law and Order, a series about police work in New York City.) But the best performance in the film is turned in by Shirley Ballard as Maguire’s wife Alice, who’s depicted as a slatternly figure much like Marie Windsor’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and who turns out — surprise! — to be the mastermind of the killings, having hooked up with Mumzer (Jerry Orbach), the leader of the Grovers, to kill not only her own husband (it’s not that there’s anyone else: she’s just tired of being married to a cop and he won’t give her a divorce) but two other cops to make it look like a psychopathic cop killer is on the loose.

Cop Hater is a quite impressive movie, pushing the sexual envelope for 1957 and also making actual New York locations work at least as well as the studio sets on which most of the great noirs were shot; its dramatis personae include drug addicts (still a relative novelty in American film then) and other human flotsam, and the men of the 87th Precinct look properly proletarian themselves (Carella/Carelli and his deaf-mute girlfriend Teddy Franklin — they’d be married in later McBain novels and McBain’s understanding of how the deaf communicate improved by leaps and bounds: in the early books in the series she’s confined to reading lips but in later books she and Carella talk through American Sign Language — live in an apartment little better than the abodes of the crooks he goes after) — and Berke turns out to be quite a good little atmospherist, getting the overall ambience triumphantly right and eschewing cheap thrills in favor of a reasonably accurate depiction of the long hours of tedium broken only by short bursts of panic that every real cop I’ve talked to or read about tells me police work is like. Berke made at least one more film of a McBain novel, The Mugging, and made a movie called The Lost Missile before suddenly dying in 1958 at the age of only 54 — which is a real pity; apparently he croaked just when it seemed he was hitting his stride as a filmmaker!