Saturday, July 26, 2014

N.Y.P.D. 1968

Two films from 1968 - Madigan, directed by Don Siegel and The Detective, directed by Gordon Douglas - are Hollywood offerings that paint a city in decay, one in which the police department must mete out their special kind of justice. Their work is difficult, both mentally and morally and if they aren't exactly on the up and up, well, that's a by-product of living among the filth.

Today and for the past decade or so, New York City has enjoyed a positive public relations message - the city is vibrant, dynamic and beautiful. We know this wasn't always the case. Having never lived in New York City, I'm not someone who can tell anyone about the situation of the Big Apple back in the 1960s. My opinion was formed by newspaper articles, television reports and yes, films of that day. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Now of course, these films were meant to entertain, so the bad guys aren't just criminals, they're rather warped. In fact, most of the city dwellers in these films are a bit off kilter. Madigan tells a lieutenant that the criminal he is after "has peculiar sexual habits, to put it mildly." "Well so has half the population," notes the lieutenant. Speaking about a teenage girl who's a drug addict, Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) in The Detective tells his superior, "The whole town is crawling with kids just like her. Same age, all going the same route. Part of the great society."

Naturally these kids that Leland refers to aren't growing up in a paradise. Both films depict urban decay with streets cluttered with dingy tenement buildings, the insides of which are dominated by tiny apartments and dimly lit corridors. The police headquarters aren't much better; the offices are highlighted by dull green walls, often with peeling paint, while the oak desks and drab filing cabinets add little to brighten the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the rare instances of handsome living and working quarters are places where the ordinary city dweller is not seen. The opening sequence of The Detective happens in a posh apartment, complete with numerous art treasures, of a homosexual who has been beaten to death. In Madigan, the look of the police commissioner's office with its plush carpeting and expensive wood paneling is in stark contrast to the depressing nature of the working environment of the detectives.

But much in the way that the upscale apartment in The Detective is the scene of a variant lifestyle - and a brutal murder - so too the office of commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) in Madigan is often the site for conduct unbecoming. Investigations of wire taps and slush funds are discussed here, away from the detectives. The deals that are made here, many of which are not by the book, are further signs of how the police do their job in the big city.

Is it any wonder then that the personal lives of these officers are screwed up? In The Detective, Leland meets Karen (Lee Remick), a beautiful woman who is at home at the theater as she is at a football game. Initially, their relationship is something out of a fairy tale, but it soon disintregates, as Karen starts to see other men. Likewise in Madigan, the title character has less than a storybook relationship, as he rarely sees his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who endlessly complains about this to her husband. Later in the film, she herself will become passionate with one of her husband's colleagues as he's off chasing a criminal. Even commissioner Russell is not the upscale citizen he seems; he is carrying on an affair with a married woman.

Time spent at home for the policemen is very brief, as generally, it's to have a cocktail, sex or a nap (rarely do they have time to get several hours of sleep). In Madigan, there is one brief scene where we view Madigan and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) use the cots installed in a small room upstairs from their offices. The police are constantly on edge here, as there is a new crime every day, so rest from their daily chores must be brief. Not surprisingly, the one good night's sleep that Madigan gets in this film is at the apartment of a lounge singer he accompanies home. Although he doesn't have sex with her, no doubt his sleep is peaceful, as he doesn't have to argue with his wife, at least for one evening.

Given this restless lifestyle, the detectives have little patience for the varied criminals they encounter. During a scene in a bar, Madigan accuses a man who looks like the criminal his partner and he are after. He looks a bit like him, but when Madigan realizes his mistake, he apologizes. The man is outraged and shouts at the detective, who immediately thrusts the man back into his seat. Watching this, you have to imagine that lack of sleep or not, Madigan has done something similar countless times. No one winds up getting hurt - except for their sense of pride - so in the end, Madigan and his colleagues can do what they want.

In The Detective, Leland does have the moral standards to question some of the police behavior, as in a scene where he tells another detective who is pushing around a suspect who is a homosexual to take it easy, saying, "these people are not murderers." In another scene, Leland tells a fellow detective to stop his interrogation of a suspect who has been forced to remove his clothes at the police department. "You son of a bitch. What kind of department do you think we're running here?" His attitude is at odds with his fellow lawmen, giving him the identity of a loner. Solving three homicides in one week, as is detailed in this story, may earn him a promotion, but his sense of trying to do the right thing drives a wedge between his colleagues and him.

At the end of The Detective, Leland has quit the police force, stating to his captain that "there are things worth fighting for and I can't fight them here." The last scene of Madigan has commissioner Russell and chief inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) discussing tomorrow's problems just minutes after the death of one of their detectives. Two conclusions that are different, but in reality, the message is the same - individuals will come and go through the ranks of the police department, but the questionable code that defines this body will remain intact. "If you bust me," Detective Curran (Ralph Meeker) tells Leland, "you'll have to bust half the department for being on the take." In this urban jungle that was New York City in 1968, the beat goes on.

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