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A gritty police saga made in the wake of William Friedkin's The French Connection, Badge 373 is another project inspired by, advised by, and featuring NYPD detective Eddie Egan. Instead of Popeye Doyle we follow a smart but crude loner cop named Eddie Ryan, played by the remarkable Robert Duvall in the middle of his first peak as a dynamite leading/character actor. Badge 373 garnered some unhappy reviews on the basis of Eddie Ryan's barrage of racial insults and crude sex talk. But that serves to make his dialogue 100% credible as the real thing. Had Pete Hamill's script remained low-key, and not dragged in quite so many cop-show clichés, this would be a better regarded feature.
Detective Lt. Eddie Ryan (Duvall) and his team infiltrate a Puerto Rican club to nab some hoodlums carrying dope. Eddie chases one onto the roof, and in the ensuing struggle, the man falls to his death. Because of Eddie's anti-PR sentiments, the press and politicians come down hard, and he's put on suspension. No sooner is Eddie working as a bartender than an old partner is murdered. Eddie goes on the prowl after retrieving an unregistered gun from his attic. Hounded by thugs and killers, he locates prostitute Rita Garcia (Marina Durell), and finds out that his partner had a scam going with a major crook named Sweet William (Henry Darrow). William is procuring a large shipment of machine guns for Rita's brother, activist Ruben Garcia (Felipe Luciano), for use in a revolution in Puerto Rico. As the pressure mounts, Eddie puts everyone he knows at risk, including his new girlfriend Maureen (Verna Bloom). He's an uncommunicative and vindictive revenger.
I've written about Badge 373's producer-director before, in conjunction with films he made for United Artists and Allied Artists in the 1950s -- The Black Sleep, The Pharaoh's Curse. Koch directed from the beginning, doing quite well with titles like Shield for Murder and The Last Mile; Badge 373 was one of his last outings. Paramount's release had the benefit of a crack New York crew, that one would think made cop films like this in their sleep. The show conveys a convincing feeling of the cruddy, sordid streets of the poorest boroughs. The action scenes are well covered, especially a midnight chase in which Eddie commandeers a city bus to escape from a gang of toughs, who pursue in several vehicles. The sight of auto parts being scattered every which way, is pretty hairy.
Robert Duvall makes his character pretty unlikeable. Eddie Ryan is a pal to his fellow cops but universally rough on the rest of the world, even his predictably super-loyal girl friend, the slightly over-the-hill Maureen. The Puerto Rican population seems high on his hate list, and he wastes no time hurling gross and vile insults at the creeps he encounters. The "real" Eddie Egan is Ryan's supervisor Scanlon, who tries as best he can to look the other way while Ryan tracks down the "big machine gun score".
The movie would be intolerable if it did not humanize and motivate the revolutionary Ruben Garcia, a sincere radical who thinks a violent rebellion will free his island from U.S. oppression. Ruben believes that an intentional economic policy keep his countrymen a powerless class, and explains why his sister is a prostitute and so many of his fellows are criminals. Less engaging is the big cheese crook Sweet William, who seems too unstable to run an empire of crime. William is almost a comic-book bad guy, coming out with learned quotes and taking the existential viewpoint on all matters. But he's practical too. He asks Ruben if he can have a machine gun as a memento, but he really wants it in case the deal goes down twisted.
Duvall's Ryan is threatened, chased and pummeled but he keeps bouncing back, better armed and ready to take on all comers. That's where the movie gets out of hand, action-wise. Eddie's game of bumper cars with a bus is original enough to earn our applause, but other generic cop show events begin to pile up. Witnesses are killed right after Eddie talks to them. He's trapped like a rat in Sweet William's waterfront apartment (why would such a rich guy live in such an ugly place?) while the entire bad-guy plan is explained to him, for no logical reason. Eddie then escapes by crashing through a bay window, without knowing for sure what lies below. It's all comic book stuff, except for some of Eddie's brutal actions, like slugging a night watchman so hard the man might die of a brain hemorrhage. And of course, he comes out ahead when battling the bad guys on the docks ... armed with a pistol and a shotgun against machine guns.
Were it not for the cornball action touches, Badge 373 might have been a big winner. If you watch it for the economy and daring of Robert Duvall's performance, it still is a winner.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Badge 373 looks and sounds terrific. The print I saw in 1974 was a grainy mess with little color and bad contrast -- I think it had been baked in too many grindhouse screenings. I've only seen parts of it again on the "Z" Channel in the 1980s, where it looked even worse. Heck, even the official stills from the movie look grainy and ugly. Paramount's new transfer is sharp and has a normal granularity. Colors are still clammy (appropriately so) but the interiors of the bars look invitingly warm. Best of all, we can now see what's happening in the night scenes. Cop movie fans, provided they can take the crude jokes aimed at minorities and gays, will find this show an companion to pictures like The Seven-Ups, Across 110th Street and Report to the Commissioner.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Badge 373 Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.