Police Story (1): Real to Reel

Police Story (1): Real to Reel

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 5th 2018

The 81-year-old crime fiction laureate Joseph Wambaugh lists on his website two particularly influential reviews of his first, breakthrough 1971 book about the lives and challenges rank-and-file Los Angeles law enforcers. From The New York Times Book Review comes: “Do you like cops? Read The New Centurions. Do you hate cops? Read The New Centurions. This novel performs one of the essential and enduring functions the novel can perform. It takes us into the minds and hearts, into the nerves and (sometimes literally) into the guts of other human beings.” The home city critic of the Los Angeles Times offered: “An unsparing and powerful novel which takes us right to the front line of the police experience…The novel takes its power from the same sources which illuminated the works of such important American writers as Crane and Dos Passos, Faulkner and Hemingway.” When LAPD Sgt. Wambaugh sold the film rights, would Hollywood, lately content to offer on television screens the more rigidly professional, department-sanctioned image of workaday officers and detectives on the Jack Webb-produced series Dragnet (1967-1970) and Adam-12 (1968-1975), truly capture the grit, gravity, ribald humor, genuine danger and life-altering pressures of the job on the silver screen? Duly deputized producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (at the same time working on the Charles Bronson thriller The Mechanic), In the Heat of the Night’s (1967) Oscar®-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Richard Fleischer (lately of the two Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray crime stories The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971)) caught the duty and made a reasonably tough, jagged and affecting R-rated movie of The New Centurions (1972). 

While the novel’s density of detail would be somewhat reduced and character interplay somewhat shifted, the storytelling remained firmly anchored in the real and fallibly human world of street policing, chronicled through a several-years period of veteran hands and rookie training academy graduates sharing wisdom, making occasional costly mistakes and through it all doing good work maintaining a shaky order through a series of incidents involving theft, armed robberies, nocturnal hooker roundups, an illegal immigrant/slum landlord clash, an abused infant rescue, and a nerve-jangling street gang foot pursuit. Marquee star George C. Scott headed the world-weary, cynical but street-savvy veteran contingent (along with always welcome character favorites Clifton James, Dolph Sweet and Ed Lauter). The neophyte boys in blue are incarnated by amazing talents like Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Erik Estrada and William Atherton, with future Hill Street Blues co-star James B. Sikking thrown in as an officious vice squad commander. Playing women who alternately offer support and heartache to Keach’s conflicted character are actresses of distinction – Jane Alexander as his initially patient but later despairing wife and Rosalind Cash as a nurse with whom he kindles a hopeful new relationship – and other female talents whose star would shine brighter in future years, like Isabel Sanford and Anne Ramsey. 

Every70sMovie reviewer Peter Hanson analyzes the film’s value: “This erratic but nervy film was released at a time when popular portrayals of policemen were mostly limited to extremes – the sanitized, such as the 1968-1975 TV series Adam-12, and the scandalous, such as the 1971 feature Dirty Harry. Based on the first novel by real-life former LAPD cop Joseph Wambaugh, The New Centurions occupies an unsettling place between these approaches. Characterizing policemen as victims of physical and psychological violence who are lucky to reach retirement alive – and sane – the movie is melodramatic and occasionally overwrought. Yet, when viewed as either an intense character drama or as a historical corrective to one-sided narratives about law enforcement, The New Centurions gains a certain degree of validity. It’s also quite well made, with excellent long-lens [widescreen Panavision] photography by Ralph Woolsey capturing the soulless textures of Los Angeles in a way that accentuates the desensitizing grind of police patrols.” Wambaugh, who would also write such powerful tales as The Blue Knight and The Onion Field, talked to The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg in October 2016 about what he intended his book to convey; read his lively and often funny recollections here: Featuring an Isolated Music Track of Quincy Jones’s propulsive score, plus two Audio Commentary tracks – one with co-star Scott Wilson and TT’s Nick Redman, the other with Cinema Retro film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo, TT’s Blu-ray of The New Centurions goes out on hi-def patrol March 20. Preorders open this coming Wednesday March 7.