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But No One Knew She Was An Undercover Policewoman.
Including the Detective Who Killed Her.
Coming late in the 1970s crime-and-grit police drama trend started by The French Connection, Milton Katselas' Report to the Commissioner didn't make much of a splash at the box office. Yet it persists as one of the better shows about police corruption -- not the sensational, dishonest kind of corruption, but the sort of careerism that puts people in jeopardy and leads to unnecessary tragedies. Veteran writers Abby Mann and Ernest Tidyman worked on the screenplay, which captures the seedy Time Square area more realistically than Martin Scorsese's more stylized Taxi Driver.
The trouble starts with a good cop becoming a detective for the wrong reason -- to follow in his family's line of work. Teased as a hippie, a space case and a general liability, new detective Beauregard "Bo" Lockley (Michael Moriarty) seems wide-eyed, innocent and completely unsuited to work on the streets with prostitutes, pimps, dopers and pushers. His partner Richard "Crunch" Blackstone (Yaphet Kotto) does what he can to smarten-up the rookie, but Bo remains an idealist and a softie, 'making nice' with the lowlifes and indigents, lending them money and to a degree letting himself be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, the higher-ups are amazed, and somewhat intimidated by undercover agent Patty Butler (Susan Blakely), who is radically gung-ho about her job. To get the goods on gun dealer Stick Henderson (Tony King) she's willing to enter into a 'relationship' with him, sexual and otherwise. Captain D'Angelo (Hector Elizondo) is so keen for advancement that he lets Patty go ahead and take this risk, but keeps it a total secret. To enhance Patty's cover identity as a young runaway, D'Angelo has a subordinate assign Bo to find her, without telling him that she's a cop. They fully expect Bo to fail; nobody thinks the rookie can tie his shoelaces. The surprise comes when a street contacts Bo has befriended, the double amputee Joey Egan (Robert Balaban), helps Bo trace Patty in record time. When Bo reports in, he's told to drop the case -- yet still isn't told what's going on. Being the Boy Scout that he is, Bo decides to 'rescue' Patty on his own.
Report to the Commissioner has realism to spare -- many scenes, including an impressive foot chase with one man wearing only his underwear, take place right on the grungy sidewalks of New York. Times Square is a shambles, twenty years before it was reclaimed as a late-night place for tourists to stroll. Yaphet Kotto's Crunch pushes, shoves and knocks heads together to get the attention of the local miscreants. He also gives the amputee Joey Egan a tough time. Beauregard Lockley is a joke the moment he walks in the door. Open-faced and gentle, nobody in the office can believe he's been put on this beat, and nobody takes him seriously. Bo feels the intense ridicule, and is motivated to be a super cop, but on his own terms.
Never a big star, Michael Moriarty may have hoped this would be his breakthrough role, the one to move him up the ladder. He's truly great in pictures like this one, Who'll Stop the Rain? and even Q, The Winged Serpent. But Moriarty's characters are always passive, low-key and slightly neurotic, not the stuff that inspires fan clubs. He makes every show he's in twice as good, but most of the praise flowing in his direction comes from other actors. This may be Moriarty's best role. Bo struggles through his feelings of inadequacy, and continues to hit the streets like a social worker instead of a tough cop. It pays off when little Joey Egan risks his life just to give him an assist.
Yaphet Kotto is engaging and bluff, a cruel teaser and joker, who has almost learned to respect Bo before the roof caves in. Susan Blakely is another 100% engaged cop. She takes undercover work as a way of life, not a job - and is willing to sleep with a guy to gain major crime evidence. That extreme, maverick approach ought to be turned down right away. But Patty Butler's scummy superiors are more than happy to see her risk her neck -- and prostitute herself -- for their gain.
It's a perfect storm of lies. Elizondo's D'Angelo hides the truth, and when things go wrong the lies snowball up the chain of command, from Chief Perna (Dan Elcar) right to the Police Commissioner (Stephen Elliott), who knows darn well that nobody will tell him the damn truth because they're all covering their tails. The tragedy comes when D'Angelo grossly underestimates Bo's competence and tenacity. Convinced that the force doesn't care about a poor lost girl, and that he can make the difference, Bo throws himself into tracing her. His triumph is a disaster, one so utterly confounding that he can't handle it. When things go bad, none of the S.O.B.'s that set him up will explain to him what it was all about. They instead try to throw him under the bus.
Report to the Commissioner isn't exactly an upbeat story -- anybody who has experienced a great opportunity, but when they were too young or too unprepared to do the right thing, will understand Bo's lament. From the moment he goes on his Ethan Edwards-like quest Bo does everything beautifully, including soldier on when told to lay off. What happens is painful to watch.
The show is told in a slightly odd order, as testimony and flashbacks from the aftermath of what could be sticky political debacle for the police. Thus the changes in POV and narrators can be frustrating; the structure may have put off some viewers unwilling to pay close attention. A death that occurs at the beginning of the last act kicks the fun out of the final action scenes -- the worst has already happened. Bo is stuck way out on a limb, with the department apparently not caring what happens to him.
Director Milton Katselas directed Butterflies Are Free on Broadway and then directed the film version; Report to the Commissioner is his best movie. It has a great New York look, with fluid action on the gritty sidewalks and nothing phony around the edges. The small parts are well cast, with a girl named Noelle North making as believable a teen prostitute as did Jodie Foster. Tony King is excellent as the investigation target that leads Bo on a wild rooftop chase, which ends in an elevator in a fancy department store. Among the cops are Vic Tayback and Sonny Grosso, one of the original detectives in the real French Connection case. As an assistant D.A., William Devane is the only actor who doesn't shake the feeling that we're looking at an actor. In his first feature, Richard Gere is an excellent, believable scummy pimp.
And a final word on Susan Blakely, an actress who did well but deserved much more. The woman was fearless at a time when every new starlet was expected to play nudity and crudity as a basic part of the job -- I'm thinking of her work in Steve Carver's Capone. Patty Butler doesn't have that much screen time, but Blakely makes her bravery almost incandescent. These inspired 'young' law officers are willing to lay their lives on the line, and the system just uses them up.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Report to the Commissioner looks good, far better than prints I saw in 1975. The color is excellent, and where there were once pools swimming grain, the picture is deep and sharp. Perhaps director Katselas had a crack crew to handle all the action blocking, but the street scenes and chase finish are more than convincing ... you believe that Tony King is sprinting all over the trash-littered roofs and streets in his bare feet. 1
There are no extras. Believe it or not, Report to the Commissioner maintains its feeling of the sordid, seamy streets of Manhattan '75 without any profanity -- the movie received a 'PG' rating.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.