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.

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