Joseph Wambaugh’s breakthrough novel went through a blender to fit George C. Scott into the narrative, but it’s still a great cop show with terrific work from Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson, not to mention Jane Alexander and Rosalind Cash. The pro-cop agenda has a definite tone of personal experience, and the grim finish is anything but feel-good puffery.
The New Centurions
1972 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date March 20, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander, Scott Wilson, Rosalind Cash, Erik Estrada, Clifton James, James Sikking, Isabel Sanford, Carol Speed, William Atherton, Ed Lauter, Dolph Sweet, Stefan Gierasch, Roger E. Mosley, Pepe Serna, Kitten Natividad.
Cinematography: Ralph Woolsey
Film Editor: Robert C. Jones
Production Design: Boris Leven
Original Music: Quincy Jones
Written by Stirling Silliphant, Robert Towne (uncredited) from the book by Joseph Wambaugh
Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Movies and TV shows about the lives of ordinary policemen have always had a hard time being realistic in any sense of the word. What one viewer might call outright corruption to another would be practical police necessity. The average crime drama in the Production Code years centered on detectives doing glamorous work on the streets. Uniformed cops did clean-up work, took occasional bullets and ‘pounded a beat’ as if they were unfit for anything else. Jack Webb and Dragnet raised the profile of police work but still followed a pair of detectives who dispensed wordy speeches about the ingratitude shown the brave men doing society’s most thankless job.
Then came Joseph Wambaugh, whose best sellers tried to convey the reality of policing as he saw it. The best movie from his work is probably the non-fiction The Onion Field, filmed in 1979. But his first hit The New Centurions turned out to be very influential. Its episodic approach to police patrol work as an endless grind that fascinates cops but ruins their family lives, became the formula that sticks to cop movies to this day. Direct Wambaugh efforts were the TV movie and later TV series The Blue Knight, and the movies The Choirboys, The Black Marble and The Glitter Dome. I’d say that the TV cop shows Police Woman and Hill Street Blues were cut from the same cloth as well.
Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay changed the book considerably, to secure a role for the bankable star George C. Scott. The tale was basically ‘3 Coins in the Fountain’ for a trio of rookies, with a veteran cop mostly talked about in dialogue. For the film, two of the rookies’ parts were trimmed considerably, which Scott’s role was built up.
L.A.P.D. academy graduates Roy, Gus and Sergio (Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson and Erik Estrada) learn the ropes on their early assignments. Roy rides with Kilvinski (George C. Scott), a wise street veteran with a personal code of conduct that doesn’t always agree with the rigid departmental rules. Old-timer Whitey (Clifton James) makes up his own procedures as well. Desk Sergeant Runyon (Dolph Sweet) doesn’t even pretend that he understands the legal hair-splitting of the new edicts that filter down from upstairs. Roy does; he’s actually a pre-law student working to pay his way through college. Life on the night shift is irregular at best. Rather than put up with the pointless hassle of arresting streetwalkers, Kilvinski rounds them up and drives them around all night so they can’t work. The domestic dispute calls are the worst. Whitey calms down one angry couple by administering a bogus ‘field divorce’ on the spot. Sergio is amused that he’s working back in the community where he was a gang member just a few years before. Gus just wants to be an honest cop and is traumatized when he accidentally shoots the wrong man in a robbery call. Roy becomes so hooked on his job that he drops out of school, a choice that estranges his wife Dorothy (Jane Alexander). Nearing retirement, Kilvinski doesn’t face up to the truth of his existence: all he knows is cop work, so what is he going to do with himself?
With a cast this good The New Centurions can’t help but be entertaining; the competent director Richard Fleischer balances the performances with good location shooting in the poorer sections of Los Angeles. The cast really shines. George C. Scott likely took the picture because he got on well with Fleischer on their Portugal-shot The Last Run. Scott plays Kilvinski as the wise man behind the billy club, who dispenses practical advice to his charges that he calls Kilvinski’s Laws. Everyone remembers the law that overturns previous cop show assumptions. Suspects resisting arrest are not to be given unnecessary leeway or offered a fair fight. “If he comes at you with his fists use a club, if he comes at you with a knife use your gun.” Kilvinski doesn’t even recommend that cops always be courteous to the public, as that only invites abuse.
Actor Stacy Keach was a hot prospect from the stage, but some of his early roles were ‘out there’ experiments not likely to make him a movie star: End of the Road, The Traveling Executioner, Brewster McCloud, Doc, even the critically praised Fat City. His character arc is the one we follow. He suffers a massive injury and bounces back only to see his marriage falter; later on he questions his commitment to police work, starts drinking and takes a sweetheart, nurse Lorrie (Rosalind Cash). Scott Wilson’s character is reduced to his accidental shooting, while Erik Estrada’s cop is so abbreviated that his destructive rampage against a car seems to come out of nowhere.
The film also has excellent support turns from Jane Alexander and Rosalind Cash, although they come under the heading of thankless roles. It’s a cop movie, and we all know cops wives and girlfriends are never happy. Ask Inger Stevens in Madigan.
The episodes are definitely exciting, and more realistic than one would expect. Roy and Kilvinski verbally defuse dangerous situations with tricks that the department would probably not condone. A response to a silent alarm call at a bank indeed drops them into an armed robbery. Roy is already drunk on the job when a suspect drags him away, hanging onto her car, and almost kills him in a wild chase. The time frame of events isn’t clearly established but it looks as if several years pass during the course of the movie, at a minimum. Roy definitely looks different by the finish.
The film records the 1972 opinions of a fairly reasonable police officer to the hot-button issues involving police work. The killing of a black man in an alley is presented as purely accidental, and the complex aftermath of an officer-involved shooting is skipped entirely. There is little or no police over-reaction, and we see no internal cliques or groups of cops exacting unofficial violence, either personal or race-based. The cops seem to have a tough-love relationship with the prostitutes, and the (even in 1971) issue of L.A. gangs never becomes a major factor either.
The attitude toward the vice squad’s trawling MacArthur Park for ‘fruits’ isn’t played entirely for humor as in the later, offensive The Choirboys; Roy feels humiliated by the assignment but also sympathizes with the perpetrators. At one point Scott’s Kilvinski violently takes the side of persecuted illegal immigrant workers (including Pepe Serna) against a venal landlord (Stefan Gierasch), which for this viewer marked the first time that the reality of the undocumented worker issue really hit home in a feature film.
Just a year later James Bond would be sleeping with a black girlfriend (Gloria Hendry), but the relationship between Keach’s Roy and Rosalind Cash’s Lorrie is still ‘in transition.’ The race barrier is crossed naturally enough, yet the issue never develops — Roy doesn’t run up against peer objections. If we heard the honest reaction of Roy’s pals, we’d get a much more accurate image of L.A.P.D. attitudes toward race. Chief Davis was in command then, just as political tensions were forcing police departments across America to become more militant. He introduced the community policing policy, but also applied special gang control and SWAT team deployments.
The ultimate downer ending finishes Centurions with a composition that might be a visual variation on the Pietà. Joseph Wambaugh would frequently make his police heroes martyrs for justice, but he also shows them as being naturally as flawed as anybody else, and susceptible to the sometimes absurd demands of a job fraught with frustration and danger. The firsthand knowledge of the turf, along with the very fine acting of the cast, push the show far into plus territory.
This was William Atherton’s first movie. Erik Estrada eventually reached his career high on the TV show CHIPs, while actor James Sikking had a long run on the Hill Street Blues TV show.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The New Centurions is an attractive transfer of a show that I had previously seen only on television, pan-scanned in colorless, grainy prints. The Panavision image is quite attractive. I don’t see much of a demand for art direction in this docu-like show, so perhaps designer Boris Leven’s contribution was to design sequences and storyboard angles?
The clear audio reveals only a few uses of profanity that nevertheless earn the film an R rating. I also didn’t notice any distinctive themes in Quincy Jones’ soundtrack. It was reportedly written in three days after a score by Don Ellis was rejected.
The show has two new commentaries, one by Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo, and a second with Twilight Time’s Nick Redman and actor Scott Wilson. Wilson’s memory is sharp on the picture, and he fills in a lot of fascinating information. He confirms that script doctor Robert Towne rewrote the screenplay during filming. This led to a problem Wilson had with his part being cut down, and his character being chosen to be the one to accidentally shoot a black man. Wilson objected because there were no scenes written to show the consequences, either departmental or with his character.
Wilson also remarks on how youthful the cast now seems. At the beginning of the picture Stacy Keach looks like he’s never had a drink in his life. When William Atherton appears on screen, we’d think he was sixteen years old. Even George C. Scott looks pretty chipper . . . actually, he was only 44 or 45 during filming.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The New Centurions
Supplements: Isolated Music Track / Audio Commentary with Actor Scott Wilson and Film Historian Nick Redman / Audio Commentary with Film Historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 25, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson