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Although I had no idea at the time, the early 1970s was a lean period for film distribution. I was an usher and assistant manager at the new and lavish National Theater in Westwood in 1972-'73, a flagship house so beautiful that its design was copied for the Academy's big theater in Beverly Hills. The National cleaned up after I left with The Exorcist but also hosted many flops, starting with the highly anticipated Catch-22. Whenever a picture died it was replaced with a smaller picture, a show with little chance of filling that big, 1800-seat house. I decided to review Aram Avakian's Cops and Robbers because it was technically one of the losers, yet we at the theater loved it. I think it played two weeks, to what Mann Theaters would call, 'light attendance.'
Aram Avakian has become a somewhat legendary figure. He knew Jack Kerouac, edited important docus for TV, and then important '60s movies. As a director he shocked or outraged just about everybody with his X-rated John Barth and Terry Southern-written The End of the Road. Out of sight for decades, that movie must have impressed somebody at Warner Home Video, for they put out a deluxe DVD in 2012, when studio outlets had all but abandoned cult movies as regular releases.
End of the Road was practically un-releasable, yet Avakian's reputation saw him again behind the cameras just three years later, for the far more conventional, if forgettably titled, Cops and Robbers. The show can be pigeonholed into the 'New York' crime subgenre, despite its being neither gritty nor noirish. It's consistently amusing yet not an intentional farce, like Avakian's next and last-directed picture, 11 Harrowhouse. In the summer of '72 I remember that movie patrons exiting Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway all said the same thing: "I can't believe the thieves got away with it." Cops and Robbers plays with that same theme.
The author and screenwriter is the great Donald Westlake, who wrote great crime fiction under both that name and Richard Stark, including Point Blank. NYC motor patrol cops Tom and Joe (Cliff Gorman & Joseph Bologna) hate their jobs and believe it's only a matter of time before their luck runs out and they're wounded on the job, like their colleague Paul (Richard Ward of Black Like Me). One day Joe tells Tom that he just walked in and robbed a liquor store one night, and got away with it. They decide that with their experience, they should try something big, really big. They contact Mafia chieftain Patsy O'Neill (John P. Ryan) to ask what they can do to 'earn' $2 million dollars, and Patsy tells them to steal $10 million in bearer bonds. 1 The mob will fence them and pay out the 20% on delivery. Tom and Joe do their research and follow through with their daring plan to hit a Wall Street brokerage firm on the day of the Apollo 11 ticker tape parade, when the celebration disrupts every office on the parade route. Their cop uniforms get them inside. Successfully getting away may be just the start of their problems -- as anybody knows, the Mafia will try to take what they've stolen, and maybe kill them, too.
Cops and Robbers is a small movie but not a cheap one; somebody filmed a real ticker tape parade for ace editor Barry Malkin to intercut during the robbery sequence. The picture is realistic at all times, in the precinct, on the streets, in the cops' working class neighborhood. There are no real jokes, just the fun of watching two amusing guys deal with absurd situations. As cops, they mostly protect money and property. Rich folk consider them nobodies, as with a lady art collector (Delphi Lawrence) who has $40,000 knick-knacks on her shelves. Meanwhile, Joe must arrest a poor woman (Frances Foster) covered with blood and screaming; she's killed her husband because he raped her daughter. Joe all but loses it, enraged that the woman is surely going to prison. Cops and Robbers never says so, but the assumption is that life is so fundamentally unfair that 'getting yours' is the name of the game. Morality is no longer an issue. If they can steal millions and get away with it, well, the sooner the better. They're scared, but no more scared than when some thief is shooting at them with a shotgun.
The middle sequence is the audacious robbery, an act that looks too easy. Their victim is Mr. Eastpoole (Shepperd Strudwick), a stockbroker with a permanent smirk on his face; only later do we find out why Eastpoole and his (shapely, gorgeous, wow!) assistant Ms. Wells (Ellen Holly) cooperate so readily. Joe and Tom know just how to behave in various circumstances with security guards, other employees, etc. 2
The best part is seeing how our boys in blue deal with Patsy O'Niell. Tom manages to make the deal without revealing his identity. That's crucial, for if the Mafia finds out who they are, their goose is surely cooked. Partnering with organized criminals is like asymmetrical warfare, because the mobsters hold all the cards and outmatch them in manpower and muscle. The handoff is set for Central Park on 'bicycle day', when no autos are allowed. What seems like a battalion of armed hoodlums descends on the park. They're led by Patsy's main torpedo Marty (Joe Spinell, fresh from The Godfather). Spinell gets to say the film's funniest line, purring to his cohorts over a walkie-talkie that EGBOK: "It's alright, it's alright..." In reality, the mob's whole plan is falling apart.
Cops and Robbers has no stars. Cliff Gorman was respected for his stage work as Lenny Bruce and for the film The Boys in the Band; he's an ethnic chameleon who makes Tom seem completely credible. Joe Bologna had co-written Lovers and Other Strangers and was not having a great deal of success making his comedic pairing with Renée Taylor translate to the screen.
Bologna's character Joe is already 'crazy' when the show starts; the first shot shows him calmly walking into the liquor store he's going to rob. In an earlier movie era, this conversion to criminal activity would require 30 minutes of preparation. Not here. Cops and Robbers is a light comedy-drama, but it's also about breaking taboos. The underlying message seems to be that nothing is sacred any more. Nobody really worries about punishment in the afterlife - Tom and Joe even talk about it.
The low-key Cops and Robbers is peppered with fun characterizations, all those little walk-ons and small parts that bring a New York movie to life. The cops' families are kept in the background, but we get good little vignettes from people like Dolph Sweet, Martin Kove, Arthur Pierce and Burt Harris. The show has convincing street action and a realistic car chase. These were probably arranged by Randy Jurgensen, the real NYPD detective who helped William Friedkin pull off all kinds of quasi-legal mayhem on the city's streets, starting with The French Connection. Randy has his own clever acting bit, for a moment looking like a piece of Delphi Lawrence's modern art.
Aram Avakian's film is subversive, but in a quite subtle way. Mr. Eastpoole and Ms. Wells must have anticipated being robbed one day, for they already have a contingency plan worked out and waiting. Even if he's willing to risk his life, a workingman can't make a buck without some rich person figuring out a way to profit from it, while risking nothing. Cops and Robbers may be a 'minor' entertainment, but it's also a distinctive and rewarding one.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Cops and Robbers is a snappy, perfect HD rendering of this United Artists programmer that probably lived most of its short theatrical life as a supporting picture for double bills. The print we had in Westwood looked great, and the colors, clarity and audio here are fine too. Michel Legrand's music is sparse, and may consist of just two songs, "Sleep, Dream a Dream" and "It's a World of Cops and Robbers." Neither is a major keeper; I wonder if Legrand composed the snippets of incidental music heard on radios, etc., throughout the film.
Kino is beginning to grace their Blu-rays with extras where possible. A new featurette called Mug Shot is an extended reminiscence by the multi-talented Joe Bologna, who tells the story of the making of the film, and of the rest of his career, from a personal perspective. We remember Bologna fondly from The Big Bus ("All I ate was one lousy foot!") and My Favorite Year.
I don't think that the good trailer provided by Kino Lorber is the one we showed. Every usher at the National heard the phrase, "It's alright, it's alright..." in the trailer we saw, and for a few nights it became the automatic response to every question behind the popcorn counter. Our trailer did feature the cop car crashing through the fence just like this one, so maybe my memory is faulty.
The poster totally misrepresents Cops and Robbers -- was UA hoping that Cliff Gorman would be mistaken for Al Pacino? I couldn't locate any decent color images for this picture. The postage stamp image above was
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Savant is now accepting all bearer bonds from readers, no questions asked. From that Wikipedia description, bearer bonds seem both legal and tender. I'll even pay postage, 'cause that's the kind of guy I am.
2. We do wonder what's to stop everybody from identifying our NYPD thieves after the robbery, despite the fact that there's no closed-circuit TV security in this office holding zillions in loose moolah. The script short-circuits that problem by having the image-conscious police establishment assert from the start that no real cops would do such a dishonest thing... the investigation doesn't even check into that angle. Of course, it doesn't make sense that Tom and Joe could count on that decision, so there's a plot loophole for you. Don't try this at home, kids, stick to dependable, safe online identity theft.
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T'was Ever Thus.