Very loosely adapted from former LAPD cop Joseph Wambaugh's novel about three rookie officers in the early-1960s, their years of on-the-job training and reunion during the 1965 Watts Riots, the (new to DVD) movie of The New Centurions (1972) is only partially successful, but earnest and well-acted. The movie is grittier and more naturalistic, more graphically violent and certainly more cynical about police life than concurrent TV shows like Jack Webb's documentary-styled Adam-12 and Dragnet, but the results aren't all that dissimilar.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has made the bewildering decision to market this as part of a larger line of "Martini Movies," complete with baffling "Martini Minute" featurettes. What might have fit just fine with a Dean Martin/Matt Helm spy film seems rather tasteless in a movie about alcoholic, suicidal cops.
Though George C. Scott gets top billing, the film is more an ensemble piece that, if anything, revolves around second-billed Stacy Keach's character, Roy Fehler, whose story follows the novel fairly closely. Scott's older, wiser cop, Kivinsky, is like a father figure to his precinct, but his role is not much larger than the other leads and he's out of the picture for the entire last half-hour. He frequently breaks the rules and follows his instincts to maintain community order and catch the bad guys, but his experience serves him well (though it wouldn't pass muster on Adam-12, to be sure). On vice duty he rounds up a gaggle of cheap hookers (including The Jeffersons' Isabel Sanford: Ewwww!) but rather than haul them in he simply buys them some booze, gets 'em drunk and releases them.
Fehler comes to love his job, predictably just as his marriage to wife Dorothy (Jane Alexander) begins to unravel. Other colleagues run into problems: Gus (Scott Wilson), who in the novel was partnered with Scott's character, is full of self-doubt which is accentuated when he accidentally shoots an innocent man. And so on.
There's virtually no linear story to speak of in The New Centurions, other than it follows the disintegration of Fehler's marriage (well acted, but clichéd and not interesting) and his fall from grace after being shot and turning to the bottle for what little relief it provides. In the last act a new romance blossoms between Fehler and robbery victim Rosalind Cash, the underutilized, talented black actress. These scenes are much more interesting than anything with Alexander (no slouch herself, mind you) and the film could have used more of this.
Directed by Richard Fleischer during a minor career rebound peaking with 10 Rillington Place (1971), The New Centurions looks and feels authentic, one of a short list of shuch films he made during this time. Ralph Woosley, primarily a cameraman on TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip does a fine job capturing the lonely urban jungle of East LA in the wee hours of the morning. About 80% of the film takes place at night, and even for daytime scenes he tends to bathe his actors in greens and ugly fluorescents that add enormously to the atmosphere. It lacks the antiseptic air mandated by TV's Standards & Practices; one scene involving an abused infant is still hard to watch.
The film's authentic feel is further accentuated by the appearance, mostly in small roles, of myriad actors who'd eventually become associated with television and movie cop roles: Erik Estrada, Clifton James, James Sikking (with trademark pipe), Ed Lauter, Dolph Sweet.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision and 16:9 enhanced widescreen here, The New Centurions looks great; visually at least, with its dark, smooth palette of deep blacks and blues it would have made a better candidate for Blu-ray than, say, Dirty Harry. The color holds up and the English mono track (Dolby Digital) are just fine; an optional French track is included, along with subtitles in both languages.
The only real supplement is a complete 16:9 enhanced trailer, complete with text and narration. It doesn't know how to sell the film any better than the Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm-like one-sheet (see above). Two "Martini Minutes": "How to Pull Off a Heist" and "How to Hold Your Liquor" left this reviewer nonplussed. To quote Milton Berle, "It just sailed right out there."
The New Centurions is neither great nor disappointing. It accomplishes, pretty much, what it sets out to do, creating a portrait of sometimes troubled, well-meaning officers working under extremely stressful situations that can have a ruinous impact on one's person life. It's been done better since but maybe not so before and is still recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.