Tuesday, June 30, 2015

DVR Diary: THE SUPER COPS (1974)

Gordon Parks's cop movie -- the pioneer black photojournalist turned director's follow up to Shaft and Shaft's Big Score -- is a kind of missing link between Batman and Batman. Consider: the screenplay, based on a book glorifying the exploits of two New York City cops supposedly nicknamed "Batman and Robin," was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., one of the key creators of the 1966 Batman TV series and the screenwriter of the follow-up feature film. And as if pointing toward the future, Pat Hingle, Tim Burton's Commissioner Gordon in the 1989 Batman film, joins the show late as a hardcase Internal Affairs inspector. Did Hingle's performance here as an buttheaded bureaucrat going after the wrong targets influence Burton's casting of him a generation later? Hard to know, unless Burton has spoken on the subject, but it'd be interesting to make a short subject using his scenes in Super Cops in a Gotham-style prequel to Burton's Batman. Super Cops itself is a curious hybrid of two seemingly contradictory Seventies genres: the tough-cop picture and the vigilante film. Dave "Batman" Greenberg (Ron Leibman) and Robert "Robin" Hantz (David Selby) were vigilante cops. While the TV ads I remember from childhood gave me the impression that they were "Batman and Robin" because of their acrobatic stunts, they probably earned the epithets at least in part because they did much of their crimefighting on their own time, after uniform hours, because they were impatient with the minutiae of police training and the tedium of rookie assignments. New to their neighborhood, the run-down 21st Precinct, Greenberg and Hantz went undercover at night to make citizens' arrests of drug pushers, working their way toward the local kingpins, the Hayes brothers. In their naive enthusiasm they don't realize how their activities make them look like shakedown artists, drawing the attention of Internal Affairs while earning the hostility of most of their co-workers who don't like to be made to look bad by their aggressive arrest record. All of this proves less provocative than many other cop or vigilante movies, largely because the film foregrounds the police bureaucracy, not the local criminals, as our heroes' primary antagonists. Super Cops has no political or cultural axe to grind. In fact -- and one would like to credit Parks with this, but why not Semple if he deserves it? -- the protagonists feel pity rather than hate for the ghetto underworld they patrol. An early sequence establishes the impoverished squalor of the precinct as our rookies see it for the first time. Their conclusion: if people can't make it out of places like this, why wouldn't they turn to crime? That one modest observation may have put audiences on their side even where we might have expected hostility to two Jewish hero cops.

The Super Cops story was too good to be true to some extent. Neither "Batman" nor "Robin" proved as incorruptible in later life as they were shown here. Wikipedia reports that Greenberg, after leaving the force for politics, did time twice for fraud, while Hantz quit the force after getting busted for pot possession in the Bahamas. All of this was in the future when the film came out, however, and Super Cops can be accepted as unapologetic entertainment. Leibman earnest aggression dominates the film, leaving Selby (the erstwhile werewolf of Dark Shadows) even more of a second banana than Burt Ward was to Adam West. Greenberg reveals himself a comic hero from the beginning, when he raises himself on tiptoe to justify his place in the front row of a graduation ceremony after the tallest men -- "Batman" is shorter than his "Robin" here -- to the front. His confrontations with the Hayes brothers and other foes are more comical in their banter than menacing. Parks directs the action with admirable clarity and with almost swashbuckling gusto during the climactic chase through a building that's falling apart all around them under the wrecking ball. And in a way the film itself acknowledges that its story may be too good to be true by showing us that the initial official story of "Batman and Robin" was too good to be true. Parks opens the picture with documentary footage of the real Greenberg and Hantz being honored for their conquests. He closes with a recreation of that scene with his cast of actors, having shown us in the meantime how the police establishment had to be brought kicking and screaming to acknowledge the officers' achievements. There may well have been further layers to peel away, but Super Cops is content to stop here. Audiences were presumably content to be entertained by an ideal of crimefighting too rarely lived up to in the real world of the time, or since.

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