Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE NEW CENTURIONS

Joseph Wambaugh


"...they know things, basic things about strength and weakness, courage and fear, good and evil, especially good and evil."

Jeezcram but do I love Joseph Wambaugh. Ten years on the Los Angeles Police Department and he decides America's bookshelves are overdue for an authentic depiction of pavement-pounding cop life. He was absolutely correct, and in 1971 the first of his (so far) sixteen novels appeared. In what would become a trend, the book shot up the New York Times Bestseller List and garnered a plethora of praise from literary critics of varying size and influence. Beyond the miseries and delights of maintaining the peace, Wambaugh exposed the banalities of law and order, bestowing a misunderstood profession with a brutish dignity foreign to readers of the era. His first three novels are absolutely essential in any crime fiction lovers library (especially The Choirboys, which kicked off this review series).

The New Centurions follows three cops from their time at the police academy in the summer of 1960 to their participation in the Watts Riots of 1965.

Sergio Duran is a fair-featured Chicano who downplays his ethnicity. This tactic plays out as well as the first time I ever tried cooking on a gas stove.

Roy Fehler is a vain college boy whose "hobby" is the object of scorn and ridicule from those closest to him. Compared to his fellow brothers in blue, Roy fancies himself intellectual and open-minded, sensitive to the plight of the Negro and just better than his big-bellied, epithet-spewing partner.

Last and (in his mind) least is Gus Plebesly, a slightly-built 22-year-old with a wife and three kids. He doubts his ability to excel on the street before he even sets foot one onto it, but he lucks out when he's assigned to share a patrol car with 20-year vet Andy Kilvinsky. A "radio car philosopher" with flawless instincts, he warns Gus of change on the horizon, a societal shift that will present an unprecedented challenge to the keepers of the relative peace.

Readers get to know these men on and off their beats. Serge coasts until he falls in love with a young Mexican waitress (their moments together are alternately tender and cornball; Wambaugh never has written romance very effectively). Roy gets a divorce, a shotgun blast to the stomach, and a drinking problem that earns him a suspension. Then he too falls in love, with a black woman named Laura.

Then there's Gus. Oh Gus. He spent all that time worried about making a good cop when he should have worried about making a good husband, father, and chooser of role models. Andy Kilvinsky out of uniform is a lost, lonely man. He knew how to be one thing and one thing only. His post-retirement fate is less sad for being so shamefully predictable.

The three men find themselves together in the same patrol car after the Watts Riots, catching up and making plans to reconnect. Each of them are basically happy with the men they've become, and there's nothing like surviving flying bricks, bombs and bullets.

But if you expect a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention.

The New Centurions is plotless and timeless. The story is three stories, each stressing the importance of the little things: sufficient suspect descriptions, proper handing of evidence, etc. Gunfights and high-speed chases are more rare in the average cop's career than Hollywood leads us to believe, which is what made Wambaugh's stuff so refreshing.

Being a debut novel, there is a barrage of digression, but a bit of the old superfluous reminiscence never hurt anyone. Faint genius is evident throughout, and things would only get better

Director-Richard Fleischer
Writer-Sterling Silliphant

"Laws change, people don't."

Hollywood didn't wait to bring Wambaugh's cops to the big screen, resulting in a loosely based adaptation that...wait...loosely based…loosely based….Lucy Bates? I really hafta watch some Season 3 Hill Street Blues after this review's finished.

Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach), Gus Plebesly (Scott Wilson) and Serge Duran (Erik Estrada) are still here, but whereas each man was given essentially equal time to shine within the covers, the frames didn't play fair. The movie version of The New Centurions is basically the Roy Story. It's he fortunate enough to learn at the hip of 23-year vet Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott, whose performance justifies the entire production), while Gus is saddled with affable fat-ass Whitey (Clifton James, in a rare non-Sheriff role).

Roy is also the only character given a life outside of the job, specifically a wife (played by a popsicle-smuggling Jane Alexander) who resents his decision to drop out of law school and pursue a policing career. She's pushed over the edge when he refuses to quit the force even after stopping a bullet with his solar plexus.

Gus accidentally shoots and kills a robbery victim (done so much better on Hill Street Blues, incidentally), a harrowing event which is never referred to afterwards.

Serge is angry at being transferred to East L.A. And that's pretty much the extent of what he does.

Anyway, back to Roy! He's so handsome and clever. And he actually undergoes character development, or at least I think that's what the mustache signifies. When Andy Kilvinski takes a break from retirement to visit the old stomping grounds, he regales his old partner not with stories of children and grandchildren, or time spent on a fishing boat with a name that gives away the owner's former profession, choosing rather to pontificate on the country's inevasible hurtle towards anarchy. Vices will one by one become, well, not virtues, but simply no longer vices. Society will grow more and more lenient. Excuses and explanations will become preferable to punishments and penalties. The cop--the new centurion--is under siege. He can do little but what he's been trained to do, even as he frets for the future.

The retired cop? Eats his gun.

Roy responds to life's vagaries by sneaking booze breaks on the beat, which nearly costs him life when he picks the wrong prostitute to roust. The resulting suspension gives him ample time to pursue a relationship with a sweet, pretty black woman named Lorrie. Lorrie provides common sense and uncommon compassion, and gradually, Roy begins to pick up the pieces.

With eleven minutes of movie left, the call finally comes in: a "major 415," which is CA cop code for a riot. I blame the 90s for failing to feel impressed.

Well, you know the old trope. Survive a riot, die on the steps of some tacky apartment complex. Congrats Roy, all that character development for nuthin'.

So what we have here is a TV movie with a feature film budget. A solid slate of performances and a moderately funky Quincy Jones soundtrack doesn't cover for the insipidity of the script. This is a facile, haphazard misunderstanding of a great novel and things would only get worse.

Well, let's see…one is a a vivid series of glimpses into a world either much-maligned or exaggeratedly venerated and the other one is oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Having two Oscar winners at the reins only compounds the disappointment I feel. Blowing the ending--a conclusion which left both Roy and myself in the same position, prone from a blast to the midsection, gaping in disbelief--was just the blood clot on top.

I understand the need to focus on just the one character, and who better than the only tragic figure of the three. From bookish, arrogant pest to bitter, arrogant alcoholic, he loses nearly everything before getting a second chance, only to die after making peace with his demons.

This creative decision relegates Serge and Gus, who become moons of Planet Fehler, so forget about seeing Gus's vaunted athleticism or Serge's illuminating inner conflicts (Erik Estrada will never ever be mistaken for a white guy, and he speaks fluent Spanish). The script not only transfers Gus's partner to Roy, but also the near-deadly joyride on a hooker's vehicle.

Fleischer and Silliphant were more concerned with events than people, prioritizing action over emotion. Scott Wilson (who I loved in In Cold Blood) blows the aftermath of his character's big moment by underplaying every second. He's a rookie, he's in shock, okay, but he doesn't say anything. I don't know how I'd react were I too shoot anyone, much less an innocent person, but the odds are strong that I would fucking say something. But not Gus Plebesly. Not a peep in his own defense, no words of comfort for the man's distraught son, just staring, until finally Gus hyperventilates a safe distance from the scene.

Andy Kilvinksy states, "Police work is seventy percent common sense." Which explains quite a bit. Indeed, when you remember the adage, "Common sense is not so common, " it's impossible to react to police misbehaviors with anything resembling surprise. Police brutality is many things, in many scenarios: reprehensible, commendable, unfortunate, inevitable. Rarely is it unfathomable. Cops rarely come across the best of us, or us at our best. It's part of the job description. (Lest you think me an apologist, I readily admit that many police officers themselves are not among the best of us, and this is both more troublesome and socially injurious.)

"Niggers are driving me crazy. Sometimes I think I'll kill one someday when he does what that bastard in the tow truck did." Yeah, that quote didn't make the movie. But a remake of The New Centurions would be incomplete without it.

The frequent thought that I'd rather be watching Hill Street Blues was not shooed away by the brief appearance of James B. Sikking as a vice squad supervisor. He was even smoking a pipe!

George C. Scott is one of the few genuinely great actors to appear in a Wambaugh adaptation. (If The Blue Knight had been saved from TV hell and given its day in theaters, he would have made an excellent Bumper Morgan.) Hearing him tell a hooker, "Baby, I gots more soul than I can control," is everything right with the world.

"Scotch and milk is the best muthafuckin' drink in the world." I'd sooner sip Schlitz and vinegar.

It's pretty awesome when Roy shows up to Vice, the department where cops dress like "the public." Meaning, red leather jackets, wide-collared shirts, and hair mama hair.

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