Saturday, September 25, 2010

NEWMAN'S LAW -- a less obvious SERPICO

"The life of a cop is not healthy," is a line of cautionary wisdom uttered in the tough (and tough-to-find) 1974 cop film NEWMAN'S LAW. And while it may not be healthy, the life of a certain Los Angeles narc played by George Peppard is certainly interesting enough for a little bit of the ol' reviewin'.

First, the genre. There are, basically speaking, two types of cop pictures from the 1970s: plot driven and character driven. (Yeah, yeah -- I know this dichotomy applies to more than just policiers [and is a little obvious to boot], but it serves our discussion okay.)

Plot driven. The first type includes such films as THE STONE KILLER, THE SEVEN-UPS, and the original FRENCH CONNECTION. These films feature cops exposing complex, sometimes international crime rackets. Each movie has a large cast of characters -- cops, prosecutors, mobsters, hoods -- and the number of names and faces is overwhelming in an initial viewing. The many plot developments (which break only for an extended car chase) come at the expense of showing the complex motivations of the central cop figures.

Character driven. The second variety includes such films as DIRTY HARRY and, ironically, THE FRENCH CONNECTION II. And these movies are almost exclusively concerned with the personality of the lead cop. Plot is secondary, as these films feature simple stories (catching a rooftop killer, in the case of HARRY) that don’t infringe much on characterization.

NEWMAN’S LAW would, at first, seem to be of the complex former type, plot driven. It centers around an American/European drug operation, has copious plot developments (Newman is suspended from the force, then on probation, then fired outright), and boasts a large number of characters (cops, former cops, the D.A.’s office, Lo Falcone’s mob, the Dellanzia family).

But closer inspection of NEWMAN'S LAW reveals that the film’s real interest lies in the character of Vince Newman, not the plot.

So what's so interesting about Newman? The answer has surprisingly little to do with nailing the European drug lord (the plot), but with whether an honest cop can survive on the force (the subplots). All the film's money-related secondary stories add up to offer a more interesting side of the cop than just the "hellbent to bust the villain" protagonist. See, Newman can’t afford to keep his father in a nursing facility, and yet he doesn’t take dirty money or “go private,” as do many of the film's other cops. NEWMAN’S LAW works best as a tale of a good cop surrounded by police corruption.

NEWMAN'S LAW may sound a bit like SERPICO, but the viewer really has to look for the connection. Both the writing and Peppard’s subtle, understated performance keep the subplots from drawing attention to themselves. But if you think about the film (as your humble narrator obviously has -- though not to the exclusion of a social life), these are the story's best moments.

But even though it's of less interest than Newman's personal story, let's take a look at the criminal plot. (In other words: I watched the film multiple times and took careful notes, so you should feel obligated to read the below synopsis.)

While searching a drug house, narcotics cop Vince Newman (Peppard) answers a ringing telephone only to hear the voice of never-convicted gangster Frank Lo Falcone (Louis Zorich) on the other end. Not realizing that Newman is listening, Lo Falcone takes credit for the shipment of 75 kilos. of hashish in the house, and the cop knows he has enough evidence for a conviction.

Lo Falcone is extradited from Naples, Italy, but before Newman can testify against the drug kingpin, the honest cop is discredited and suspended from the force when planted narcotics are discovered in his apartment. Charges are dropped against Lo Falcone, and it begins to look as if the gangster had planned his extradition all along to guarantee legal entry to the United States.

(spoiler city below!)

Furious, and now acting as a private citizen, Newman buys a rifle and fills Lo Falcone’s fancy home full of holes. A retaliatory attempt on the ex-cop’s life only manages to kill Newman’s former partner (Roger Robinson).

Resolved to a suicide mission, Newman infiltrates the gangster’s stronghold, where he kills Lo Falcone and a corrupt cop -- Newman’s former chief -- before being killed himself.

A downbeat ending is typical of the '70s. What's atypical -- and what makes Vince Newman's cop tale worth tracking down -- is the fact that all the scenes that make it so great don't even show up in a typical plot synopsis.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My weird thing about DONATO AND DAUGHTER

I just found the Netherlands disc of the 1993 Charles Bronson television movie DONATO AND DAUGHTER online, and after a few clicks (and shipping days later), I had added it to my "official" DVD collection. For those who've never had the privilege, that part of my collection is what I keep out on display, neatly shelved and alphabetized. These are the films that are supposed to, ahem, "say something about Mike Malloy."

But why DONATO & D.? Am I really so desperate for new additions to my official collection, now that I've acquired such holy grails as the Canadian release of 1979's THE HARD WAY, the German dvd of 1978's RITUALS, or the Swedish disc of 1973's THE STONE KILLER? Should my ultra-cool DVD collection be watered down with a tepid made-for-TV cop film starring a tired Charlie Bronson?

Here's my justification.

DONATO AND DAUGHTER was broadcast on CBS-TV in 1993, and it was the very first new bit of Bronson to debut after my teenaged self had become a rabid mega-fan of Charlie's '60s/'70s glory period (films like RIDER ON THE RAIN and HARD TIMES). That alone -- the fact that I was discovering this new Bronson film along with the rest of the world, and for once, not after the fact -- was enough to give it a special spot in my heart (and now, my DVD collection).

I taped it during its original airing and watched it a number of times that year. Even then, I knew it was no great shakes. The material was sanitized for television. The identity of the serial killer (Xander Berkeley) is revealed way too early. The plotting is improbable ("All the victims look just like you, Dena!"). Some of the music (I'm looking at you, synth-and-muted-trumpet schmaltz) became instantly dated.

But some of the score is decent cop tension music. Further, there are some good supporting performances, and tough-guy film fans will find some interesting connections: Actress Kim Weeks would later become Bronson's real-life wife. Michael Cavanaugh had been a regular supporting player in the films of Bronson's big '70s competitor, Clint Eastwood. And Berkeley would go on to pay homage to Lee Van Cleef in SHANGHAI NOON as the character of, well, Marshal Van Cleef.

And then there's Bronson. I won't go as far as to say this is his last great performance, because it's not a great performance. I do however think that his last great moments -- however brief and isolated -- appear in this movie. There's a fiery little gleam in his eye when he tells off the head nun at the Catholic school. Stuff like that.

But between this '93 television airing and my recent purchase of the dvd, there was more.

In the mid-90s, while your humble narrator was in college, DONATO AND DAUGHTER started popping up again.

First, I found it for rent at my neighborhood mom-and-pop vid shop, under the vhs title DEAD TO RIGHTS. I wasn't planning on renting it (I had taped it off the telly, remember), but then I noticed that the MPAA had slapped an R-rating on this version. "Oh, the film must have had an alternate cut full of gore and nudity for home video and European theatrical release," I thought and happily took it home.

I shoved DEAD TO RIGHTS into my vcr. It was the exact same cut as the TV version of DONATO AND DAUGHTER, leading me to believe the MPAA didn't even watch it. They probably had a standing rule at the time to rubber stamp all Bronson cop films with an R (based off his 1980s schlock for Cannon like KINJITE and 10 TO MIDNIGHT). Fact is, neither DONATO AND DAUGHTER nor DEAD TO RIGHTS had anything worse than a severed finger (which wasn't even shown in close-up) and one utterance of the B-word.

Then, Bronson did his next TV cop film, the uber-bland FAMILY OF COPS (1995). I remember reading an interview with Charlie at the time (in TV GUIDE, I think) where he asserted that FAMILY OF COPS was the first time he had played a father of grown, adult children. What an oversight! That statement neglected his recent role in DONATO AND DAUGHTER (which friggin' mentions his grown daughter in the title, no less!) and his best work of the whole decade, the Sean Penn-directed indie THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991).

(Coincidentally, DONATO AND DAUGHTER is itself about a "family of cops," as Bronson plays an L.A. detective whose daughter is -- and dead son was -- also a cop.)

But although FAMILY OF COPS, which somehow spawned two sequels, became the big success story of Bronson's TV-movie work in the 1990s, it was DONATO AND DAUGHTER which was his best in that category for the decade.

And now, a dvd sits in my official collection to prove I feel that way.