Greetings all and sundry!
While in the midst of adapting to and breaking in my new digs. I’ve some time to peruse and opine upon others work. While slowly coaxing a slowly expanding fresh idea from the depths of my cranium to the fore.
A topic rarely and not touched upon, due to its contemporary rarity. Though was close to a given during the plethora of films of the 1970s and early 1980s.. Often focused an unformed officer (Serpico). A lone precinct deep in the middle of “Injun Country” (Fort Apache: The Bronx). The off-duty sighting of several major drug dealers sharing a table with a nobody at an after hours nightclub. And the ensuing “Cat & Mouse” game of catching a large shipment of heroin (The French Connection). The teaming of familiar African American detective with a hot-headed Italian American Detective Lieutenant (Across 110th Street). An elite squad whose targets are high-ranking “Family Members”, heist, hijack and stick up crews. And those whose arrest and prosecution (Seven years and up!) would be worth the overtime assigned (The Seven Ups).
Along with this lineage stands a much grittier presentation of The City and its connected, related boroughs. During a time when featured stomping grounds were far more rain shed, dirtier, noisier and more crowded than what is presented today.
To that end. Allow me a few moments of your time to wax poetic and critical at one of best. Though, least seen tales of the NYPD in mid developing crisis:
Uncredited Actor: The Five Boroughs in : Report To The Commissioner (1975)
Which begins with two uniformed officers responding to a complaint from an upscale Mid Town hotel. The room has been trashed. Shots have been fired. Blood is upon the walls. And a dead young woman is dead on the carpeted floor.
Detectives are assigned. Questions are asked and answered. Clues are revealed. And a potentially embarrassing problem arises. The dead young woman if found to be an NYPD officer, Patty Butler. Pulled from her Academy graduating class and placed on undercover assignment. To get close to, live with and gather evidence on a very slick and mobile drug dealer, Thomas “Stick” Henderson (Tony King. Delivering the goods with sly aplomb!)
One of those undercovers that simmer and slowly produces results. Where the primary investigator is given some room and an unwritten “Hands Off!” policy is in effect. Until something happens. The Point of Diminishing Returns is hit. And the officer is pulled out. Hopefully, none the worse for wear.
That point arrives obliquely through a telephone call from “Chicklet” (Officer Butler) to higher-ups. Who decide to pull an out of regulation rookie, uniformed officer, Beauregard “Bo” Lockley (Michael Moriarty) in. Place him in a plain clothes, off the books, missing person assignment to find Chicklet. Hopefully, adding credence to her story of being a runaway and further cement her relationship with Stick. While telling Bo nothing of Chicklet’s undercover.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bo proves to have better than average skills. Working from out in the seamier boroughs of Bedford~Stuyvesant, Queens and Harlem. Before finally spotting who he thinks is Chicklet. And a run in with a just debuting Richard Gere as small time pimp, Billy.
Bo reports back to Lt. Seidensticker (Vic Tayback) and Bo’s immediate supervisor, Richard “Crunch” Blackstone (Always dependable Yaphet Kotto). Who smile and don’t tell Bo to drop it. Though, not to carry on, either. Bo continues. Narrowing his search through a several night’s walking tour of the grimy dives and glitzy after hours spots of up, down and mid-town.
Chicklet spots Bo, Makes an excuse to powder her nose. And makes a call to her immediate higher-ups that her cover man be blown. By someone she thinks is a cop!
Wanting a change of scenery before anything worse happens. Chicklet leaves in Stick’s company. With Bo only moments behind. Slightly worse for the wear. Though with a string of leads to follow as he watches them fade into the night life. The future bodes well for Bo. As he interviews and enlists street people, hustlers and forgotten of society to tighten his search.
Chicklet is getting nervous waiting for any message regarding her assignment, possible extraction and another run in with Bo. Which happens far too soon and unexpectedly. As Bo finds Stick’s apartment and kicks in the door. A gunfight ensues with Chicklet stuck in the middle. Bullets fly. Several hit Chicklet as Stick bolts to the roof. Barefoot and in boxer shorts. Creating the grist for one of the most fluid and well-edited foot chases on film.
Roof top. To lower roof top. To the roofs of cars and taxis. Then along sidewalks. Strewing any and everything to slow down Bo. As Stick dashes into an upscale mid-town Sak’s Fifth Avenue department store. Stick runs into an elevator. with Bo close behind. The car’s doors close and Bo and Stick are locked in a Mexican Standoff in very close quarters.
As dozens of cops evacuate the store. Set up a perimeter. And aim lights and weapons as the first steps of a hostage situation. As the Police Commissioner, finally filled in on Officer Butler’s undercover and her death. Demands not an investigation, but a “Report”. To be reviewed and decided upon by the Commissioner, (Stephen Elliot). Politically savvy Assistant District Attorney, Jackson (William Devane).
I’ll leave it right here for Spoliers’ sake.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
The unique way this “Story Within A Story” is masterfully told with well-timed and executed Flash Back. As Bo is placed on Administrative Leave and Psychiatric Evaluation in the cellars of some long forgotten precinct. Caught in the middle of events he has no control of. Proclaiming his innocence as circumstantial evidence accumulates (long before Forensic Studies and DNA) that could go either way.
Large segments of the tale are told from Bo’s point of view. Recalling going over earlier trails with “Crunch” close at hand. As they explore sidewalks, alley ways and unattractively overflowing dumpsters. Looking for spoor as Mr. Kotto makes delightful fun of “Bo”. His string bean height. Pastiness and inability to blend in amongst Blacks, Hispanics, Sikhs and Asians.
It is in these scenes when the Uncredited Actor comes out in all of its unattended dirtiness and disrepair. Offset by the covering, shadowy night and the glitz and trashy glamor the city offers at night. A neat juxtaposition, well handled. Though cinematography by Mario Tosi. And just the right amount of editing by David Blewitt.
Wrapped around an intriguing and steadfast screenplay from the novel of James Mills. Delivered with shadows, grit and gusto by Ernest Tidyman and fledgling, Abby Mann. And backed up sometimes funkily with a soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein.
What Makes This Film Great?
A neat, concise tale told in oblique angles to straighten out twists and turns as young and lovely Susan Blakely excels as a carefree though careful undercover. Seeing and hearing a lot and remembering most. Until her initial call gets the ball and story rolling. Winding the gears slowly to start. Then more quickly and tightly throughout.
Though, it is Michael Moriarty who is the focus of attention and the “Report”. Delivering the same “Half a step out of it” stunned wonderment that would be visited again as John Converse. In the counter-culture, post Vietnam classic ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’. Awe struck and amazed that the events he set into motion have taken a life of their own. And may turn on him without a moment’s notice. As the walls of his Administrative jail cell seem to close in around diffuse lighting. As he quietly awaits its outcome.
Placed squarely opposite Bo’s fairly decent detective work amongst the noise and throng of New York’s boroughs and city at night. Especially with legless Vietnam veteran, Joey (Bob Balaban. In a very non Bob Balaban role!) . And even more boisterous and crowded sins revealed under direct sunlight. It’s a neat piece of juggling. And Mr. Moriarty pulls it off with a self-deprecating smile. When not sharing time with many familiar. Or soon to be familiar faces. From Hector Elizondo. To Dana Elcar, Sonny Grosso and a repulsively arrogant Richard Gere.
Not exactly a “You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere” film. But one where the cast and crew test limits. Push at the envelope. And make the film better for their efforts!
Set Direction by John A. Kuri excels, reaches and achieves even higher in countless on location scenes, crowded, noisy police precinct bullpens. Enhanced by Stunt Coordinator and Double, Craig Baxley.
I have Michael to thank for recollecting this not often seen gem. Through his recent review of another off beat black comedy/action film, ‘High Risk’. Though, not of the same lineage, ‘Report To The Commissioner’ stands alongside some of the best New York City based crime dramas from that era.