Friday, August 19, 2016
Spent a lazy afternoon recently enjoying some classic movies, which much to my surprise had some exceedingly similar themes, police corruption. Much is discussed in the media today as we yet again find ourselves as citizens called upon to choose between the police and the folks they are hired to protect and serve. All too often abuse by police is swept away, hidden in plain sight, as the majority of folks go on about their daily doings. When crisis points are struck, the choice is often suggested that you either support your local sheriff or you side with the barbarians who want to reduce civilization to rubble. It's a false choice, designed to evade tough questions and hard bargains. We usually as a society want order, we generally tend to need law, but we will always have a tension with those we hire specifically to bring us to account, especially if there is evidence in some quarters that those so selected are sometimes dangers to that order we originally desired.
Serpico is a 1973 flick which follows the travails of a New York City police of that name (Al Pacino) who begins as a raw recruit in the early 60's and becomes over the next decade a dedicated and iconoclastic detective who rankles his comrades because he refuses to take bribes. We presented in this movie with a culture of law enforcement in which bribery is a normal order of things and the relationship between the law and the lawbreakers seems to be one of mutual financial reward. The graft is so ingrained in the culture that many of the cops don't even seem aware of the conflict of interest to their duties that it presents. From small favors of free meals to large bribes of thousands of dollars from drug interests, the gamut of corruption is on display as Frank Serpico tries to find a precinct in which he can just do his job and not fall under the suspicions of his fellow officers for being honest. While Serpico is presented as a sometimes emotional fellow with significant failings he is clearly a guy who just wants to do his work and his bosses are shown quite often to be deaf to his complaints. There are some, but by and large the film is an indictment of a large system which tolerates corruption, so much so that it fails to see that it is corruption any longer.
The Beast of the City from 1932 has ironically enough pretty much the same theme, though with a much more direct and moralistic approach. This is a pretty rough and tough shoot 'em up movie with some surprisingly brisk car chases and a finale which is violent by any era's standard.
The movie stars Walter Huston as "Fightin' Jim Fitzpatrick, a police man who wants to take a hard approach to crime in general and the local mob boss Sam Belmonte in particular. He's presented as a man of standard family values who loves his wife and dotes on his kids but who marches without qualm into the dens of crime which seem to percolate across the unnamed city. His brother Ed (Wallace Ford) is a man of less stern character who falls under the sway of the vivacious moll played by the totally sexy Jean Harlow. We see the system try to fight back against crime but see also that society becomes squishy when that enforcement begins to hit home. We all want cops when we need them, but rarely do we like cops in our business when we don't feel threatened. It's the nature of the role sadly, but human nature is what it is. This flick ends with a rather strange statement on the nature of man and society when it is shown that law fails and the vigilante is needed to quell the threat of crime.
In a strange way 1973's Serpico paints a less bleak picture of society than does the seemingly more moralistic 1932 The Beast of the City. At least in Serpico, despite the fact that he himself withdraws from his job as a cop the reforms he fights for do seem to find purchase. In the Walter Huston movie, the system seems unable to cope with the challenge it is confronted with. Both films though suggest that it is less about systems and more about individual integrity and that those traits are what will in the final analysis win the day, despite the costs.