(directed by William Friedkin) (1971)
We were reminded of this terrific cops-and-robbers film recently in another context. That film genre came into vogue in the early part of the 20th century, as a modernist complement to the penny-dreadful western. The world’s first full-length narrative feature film was about cops-and-robbers, the Australian-made Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). In the 1930s and 1940s the genre came of age (often courtesy of Warner Bros.) – notably, Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), The Petrified Forest (1936), The Roaring Twenties (1939) Double Indemnity (1944) and White Heat (1949).
Friedkin’s insistence on gritty realism pays off nicely here, as cops and robbers play cat-and-mouse over a scheme to smuggle gold-standard horse from Marseilles to New York City. Various locations in those two cities have starring roles and are beautifully filmed. There isn’t any moralizing on offer (thank goodness) – it’s all about the chase, which plays out, layer by layer, at different speeds, and in ingenious ways (ranging from police-procedural scenes through criminal manoeuvres to wheel-spinning action – the car-tails-train and hide-and-seek sequences are justly celebrated).
Despite the amorality, there are some lovely moments that remind you of what is at stake for the protagonists. One of our favourites occurs when narcotics police officer ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) stands on a freezing cold city street, from where he has the two French suspects (Fernando Rey and Marcel Bozzuffi) under surveillance. While he stamps his feet, sips some filthy coffee from a plastic cup and wolfs a slice of pizza in a vain attempt to keep out the winter chill, the villains are over the road at a fancy restaurant, dallying over a splendid three course lunch (wines, liqueurs and proper coffee included, naturellement).
Hackman is grand as the relentless flatfoot who’d rather spend a night tailing a suspect on a hunch than go home to bed, an obnoxious, quick-tempered, bigoted and lonely character who lives for the thrill of the hunt. He is nicely balanced by Roy Scheider as Doyle’s grounded partner. Rey is perfect as the smooth criminal with the glamourous wife old enough to be his daughter (we’ll let that pass – after all, he is French) and we particularly enjoyed some colourful supporting roles: Harold Gary as the oleaginous Joel Weinstock, the middle-man for the contraband; Al Fann as Doyle’s informant who has to get socked in order to keep-up appearances (“Where do you want it?”), and Pat McDermott as Howard the chemist, verifying the quality of the merchandise (a slimy and devious customer, kind of cousin to the gun-salesman in Taxi Driver) – “If the rest is like this, you’ll be dealing on this load for two years.”
The score is a little slurpy but it sets off the rawness of the action adequately. And we could have done without the entire version of “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” by The Three Degrees, but, all in all, it’s a marvellously compact and rich piece of work, wonderfully photographed and scripted without annoying flourishes or undue exposition.