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Cops & Robbers
(1973)

Director: Aram Avakian   
Cast:
Cliff Gorman, Joseph Bologna, Dick Ward


When I was a kid, having a wild imagination and time on my hands, I would often think up extreme situations and place myself in them, asking myself, "What would I do if this actually happened?" My subsequent pondering on and off across long periods of time about these things usually resulted in some eventual dead-set plans should the unlikely ever happen. One of my finest plans was what I would do if there ever was a plague that wiped out pretty much all of mankind but me. The first thing I would do would be to head to police precincts and gun stores to get guns and bullet-proof vests. Then I would get a large truck, fill it up with food and various supplies, and drive out of town far into the countryside before the stink from the decaying bodies got too much. Finding some isolated cabin, I would stay put for the next few months learning to shoot and reading various survival guides. Then I would head back to town, and settle somewhere strategic (for defence and reaching certain stores), and start planting vegetable gardens near bodies of fresh water. I would always carry a gun with me, and a knife strapped near my ankle. And I would gather and plant guns and ammo in hidden places all over the area... should I ever get into a moving gun battle with some enemy. Another plan I had was if I was to ever stumble across a large amount of money a la A Simple Plan. Even back then I knew the pitfalls of serial numbers, though I came up with a plan so I could keep my wealth... which I won't tell you, since there's always a chance that someday I will come across a lot of money.

When it came to illegal scenarios of a more frowned-upon nature - like armed robbery or murder - I didn't do any real serious thinking about them. For one reason, my value system regarded such things as simply being morally repellent. Another reason was that I couldn't possibly see myself ever being in the situation where I had to do such things, at least in the kind of world I was currently living in. Come to think about it, I believe I simply didn't want to imagine myself having to do those kind of things. While those were the main reason my mind didn't dabble much into hard-core crime, there was also another reason, less major but always nagging in the back of my mind: I believed that if I ever was to partake of these activities, I would get caught. Oh sure, I knew a lot more of the so-called tricks of the trade than probably other kids my age, being a voracious reader among other things. I knew countless dumb things criminals had done to get themselves captured, plus I knew countless ways law enforcers had tracked down even the smarter criminals. Yet the idea of committing crime still scared me off, not just for the reasons I discussed at the beginning of this paragraph. I knew that the world is not perfect - the human mind can slip despite careful planning, and the forces of chance are always at work, and can come into play no matter how careful you may plan.

I was reminded of those facts of chance and human ability again while watching Cops & Robbers, a movie that illustrated just what Robert Burns meant when he wrote, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." "You over there, MGM DVD people! You forgot to show us in widescreen!"The movie didn't just seem content to leave anything resembling a "message" at just that, though. Other things I got from the movie: Nothing in life comes easy; Not only is life is tough, but it often gets a lot tougher when you try to improve your lot; And you can't trust anyone 100%. Looking back at what I just wrote, I realize that I am making this movie sound much harsh and cynical, which it really isn't. For one thing, it's based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, who has written a number of comic caper novels, some of which have also been brought to the big screen like The Hot Rock and What's The Worst That Could Happen? In fact, Westlake himself wrote the screenplay adaptation for this movie. The events of the movie center around the characters of Tom (Gorman, Angel) and Joe (Bologna, My Favorite Year), two friends and policemen in New York who are getting tired and burned out by their thankless profession. One day, Joe confesses to Tom that he robbed a liquor store while in uniform - out of boredom, frustration, money-problems, Joe himself is not sure. It doesn't matter- what matters was that it was so easy. Tom's impressed, so impressed that not long afterwards he suggests to Joe that they use their uniforms with their knowledge of police procedure and criminal behavior to pull off something big. It takes them no time at all to locate mobster "Patsy" O'Neil (played by John P. Ryan, Death Wish 4), who regularly handles stolen merchandise. He tells them to get him untraceable bearer bonds, which he'll pay 20% of their value for. Now it should be just as easy for Tom and Joe to find the place with the right kind of bonds, rob the place, and make the exchange with Patsy and his boys - right?

What will probably surprise most viewers of Cops & Robbers is the manner of which this premise is played out. There are funny moments in the movie, and there are other moments of a more serious nature (even to the point where people's lives are being threatened), but in the end you can't either call what you've watched a laugh-filled comedy or a gritty drama. Instead, Aram Avakin directed each of the various events in a way that in the end may even be considered a new genre: "Realistic". There are hilarious things that are done and said, and the characters commit acts that result in suspense, but all these things feel as if they very well could really happen. There is nothing about the movie that feels especially exaggerated or artificial, right down to the locations. In someone else's hands, we would probably see the characters primarily outside and in the heart of the city. But Avakin shows us another side of the New York district. We see the grass-and-tree shouldered freeways miles away from the skyscrapers. Not far from there, we're shown the suburban neighborhood Tom and Joe live in, a jungle of chain-link fences and older houses crammed unbelievably tight together. We do get a scene in Central Park, though mostly we just glimpse almost-hidden nooks that most people (and other movie productions) pass by. When we actually get scenes in the streets of the big city, more often than not we are taken to districts that still have small corner grocery stores, and only the occasional building in the block looks especially run-down and needing of demolition.

We're not used to seeing New York this way, after seeing so many other movies showcasing New York's skyscrapers or multi-blocks of rubble and abandoned buildings. Even though I've never been to New York - recently or in the era this movie was filmed in - this portrayal all the same somehow feels very authentic. The feeling extends to whenever we are taken indoors, which is in fact where a lot of the movie actually takes place. It seems accurate that Tom and Joe's worn-out precinct shows inefficient design for its day and age, and nothing about the gigantic multi-section brokerage firm that the two ultimately decide to rob rings false as well. But it's not only that the locations have been very well chosen, it's also the manner of which they have been filmed. More often than not, the camera takes some extra steps backwards so we are not just Good guys wear black, soooo......focused in on the characters in the particular scene. We don't just get a feeling of the action that's happening, we get a feeling of the surrounding environment as well. And this actually gets us more involved in the action, believe it or not. When two characters are talking far in the background down a hall, for example, there's an almost eerie feeling like we are eavesdropping, that we are actually there. Avakin uses several other neat little techniques to ensure this feeling is maintained. For example, aside from several reprises of the gentle and non-jarring title song sung by Grady Tate, there is very little musical scoring in the movie. If there's anything playing the background, you can almost be sure it will be radio chatter from the police or from a commercial broadcaster - again, more like in real life.

Then there are the things the various characters in the movie do and say - which too have that ring of authenticity to them. Take how Tom and Joe work up to committing the robbery. It doesn't come quickly - the idea first comes across more as a "What if..." wonderment than anything else. Then there's a long time afterwards when they casually toss back and forth with no progress as to what on earth they could do. In fact, it's only by pure luck that they learn of O'Neil and where they can contact him. Then there's the meeting with O'Neil, and then the subsequent robbery after their careful planning. Both sequences are presented without pretension or flash, getting right to what the characters have to do with nothing distracting from the tension that inevitably starts to build. In both of these scenes, things inevitably happen that these two characters weren't expecting, things that could get them caught or even killed. When these things happen, you can't help but squirm in your seat, getting the feeling that these guys are starting to get seriously over their heads. But although Tom and Joe are obviously not geniuses, they aren't stupid as well. They're cops, for goodness sake, so they have obviously seen and learned a lot in their profession. They make some mistakes, but we see that they have also planned for some things other people in their shoes might miss. We see them use their skills learned in their occupation to get them out of trouble or nip it in the bud before it can go any further. They have a chance... but so do the various people and obstacles they encounter, and we are never allowed to forget it.

I should also add that much of this tension that comes up comes from Ryan's excellent performance as O'Neil. (By the way, Ryan hasn't made a new movie for eight years now - what happened to him?) He actually doesn't appear in that much of the movie, but he makes the most of his limited time. He gives his character a double-edged casualness, portraying not only a seen-it-all and don't-try-to-trick me attitude, but also what seems to be a thinly veiled utter contempt to these amateurs who are trying to make a deal with him. Any way you look at it, he's one dangerous individual, and even when he isn't around you know that he's just around the corner waiting to act. While it would be tough for anybody else in the cast to match this performance, even under these circumstances Gorman and Bologna seem to be underperforming. It's not that either of them are downright bad, it's more that there's nothing about their performances that is really memorable, or even seriously differentiate one from the other. It also doesn't help that they have some resemblance in their facial characteristics, nor that we learn very little about their characters' personal lives. Though we learn both men are married, their wives barely get mentioned despite all their planning, and are actually onscreen for even less time

The screenplay does attempt to try and explain what pushes these previously law-abiding men into committing crime, giving both fellows a Yeah yeah, Village People and YMCA... oh, you're so good at thinking up your own captions before reading mine!scene or two experiencing various work-related agonies while on the beat. But these scenes are too few, too rushed; to understand their eventual decision, we need to get some idea that these kind of things happens day after day, never easing in their harshness. Perhaps Westlake was afraid of making the movie too cynical, considering there was already a good amount of serious subject matter. He does lighten the mood on several occasions with some welcome comic relief, with citizens making wacky (yet believable) complaints to the police, as well as a very funny sequence where the brokerage firm's security guards are interviewed after the robbery - which I could see happening in real life as well. It's that realistic touch again. About the only thing viewers may object to about Cops & Robbers' realistic viewpoint is with how it handles the climax. As plausible as it may be shown, I can still see some people may fell a little let down by it, not getting as big and elaborate a "payoff" for their 90 minutes invested as they would get from watching another movie. But isn't life like that sometimes? Oh, let me stop spouting this philosophical crap - yeah, I wanted to see some juicy action here! But I can suppose I can live without it, seeing how good the movie is most of the other times.

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Check Amazon for Donald E. Westlake's novel "Cops & Robbers"

See also: Busting, Route 9, Special Delivery

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