Review: Cops and Robbers

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Cops and Robbers is another of those teddibly clever caper comedies whose subject and bid for commercial success are both safely swaddled in kuntemperairy muhlayz. It’s more enjoyable than most, enough so that the casual moviegoer looking to drop out of reality for a couple hours will be reasonably satisfied. The opening is amusing, and stylistically a harbinger of things to come: seen as if from across the street, in the gritty-spongy color cinematography that has become a certification of authenticity (and, frequently, an excuse for sloppy direction and framing), a policeman enters a New York liquor store one evening and holds it up: leaving in his customary, just-walking-my-beat,-putting-in-a-day’s-work saunter, he disappears around the corner while the frantic storeowner hesitantly calls “Police!” and tries to communicate his complete perplexity to a bored derelict who’s been leaning against the store window the whole time. Days later, the cop (Joseph Bologna) delightedly confesses the deed to his neighbor and fellow officer (Cliff Gorman), adding that since it happened he and his wife have had fantastic rapport in the sack. Eventually the two decide to try one together—but no liquor store, no coupla hundred bucks—something big. Before long they have agreed to grab $10 million in bearer bonds and sell them, for 20 percent of value, to the Mafia. And they do it.

Aram Avakian and Donald Westlake cover themselves and pad the scenario with plenty of leisure-time and on-the-job scenes that all demonstrate the rampant viability of crime, petty and otherwise (another suburbanite, who manages a supermarket, takes home free groceries as “fringe benefits”; Bologna, trying to stop a holdup agent who has wounded his accomplice, can’t shoot because too many benumbed citizens are wandering in and out of his line of fire), while an irritatingly blithe and pretentiously inaudible theme song tinkles along to the effect that “it’s a world of cops and robbers.” The big job itself is moderately suspenseful and very much to the comedic point: On the verge of success, our guys have to put the bonds through a paper-shredder and feed the end-product out the window into a skyscraper canyon already a-clog with confetti—a parade honoring some returning astronauts is passing below. The robbery has already been accomplished, the papers will report the theft, and just maybe the Mafia will pay “for a headline” before anyone figures out the truth. The counterpoint of two brands of Nixonian heroes—one group passing in state, the other gleefully realizing their version of the American Dream several hundred feet overhead with the aid of Watergate technology—is subsequently supplemented and enhanced by a further coup: the ripped-off broker and his secretary (Shepperd Strudwick and Ellen Holly) report a $12 million theft to the police and split the difference in a perfect crime essentially carried off by someone else!

This deft sequence and defter twist aside, the film is disappointingly formulaic and lacking in any particular urgency. Bologna and Gorman simply don’t have enough personal charm, behavioral grace, or sheer peculiarity going for them, and after a while their scenes pall. As to the film as a whole, there’s something insufferably complacent about its salable cynicism: far from being subversive, it simply substitutes one brand of slimy self-satisfaction for another. In this it recalls Avakian’s debut as a director, the hamhanded adaptation of John Barth’s fine novel The End of the Road, which John P. Ryan’s customarily mannered portrait of a Mafia boss also brings to mind. Avakian’s real and original talent, as a film editor (cf. Penn’s The Miracle Worker), shows through in the paper-shredding scene, and there’s also a satisfyingly fluid nighttime car chase photographed in one precisely wrought helicopter take. But in retrospect these serve to measure the limpness of the rest of the film.

RTJ

COPS AND ROBBERS
Direction: Aram Avakian. Story and Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake. Music: Michel Legrand.
The Players: Cliff Gorman, Joseph Bologna, John P. Ryan, Shepperd Strudwick, Ellen Holly.

Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson