Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Laughing Policeman

The Action Mutant…
is waiting for the term “fruiter” to make a comeback.

The Laughing Policeman

review by Joe Burrows

It’s a bit ironic that my viewing of this film coincided with the release of the latest Gus Van Sant film Milk, with Sean Penn already garnering Oscar buzz by playing the first openly gay politician. Needless to say, the handling of the subject of homosexuals between the release of these two films has varied greatly as time has gone on. And yet California, the free wheeling, hippie cousin that rarely gets invited to the party, recently voted AGAINST gay marriage! C-mon, your frat party attending, annoying, goofball cousin Massachusetts beat you to the punch! Even Da Gubenator thinks your wrong & thinks the “fruity pants” should have their rights as well. Cali, I thought I knew you better! Don’t worry; this is about as political as I will get on here. You know, other than talking about the Russkies & the Cold War and how it can all be settled with one boxing match. HEARTS…ON…FIRE! STRONG…DE…SI…RE! Sorry…reflex.

The Plot, as it was:
Walter Matthau (Charley Varrick, Grumpy Old Men) stars as Sgt. Jake Martin, a San Francisco detective that has discovered his partner Dave Evans (Anthony Costello) dead amongst a bus full of slain patrons. Under the impression that Evans was on vacation, Martin begins to realize that his partner was working on a case that Martin failed to close two years previously. Angry and determined to find the bus shooter & tie up loose ends, Martin is reluctantly paired with Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern), a flippant, laid back Inspector that’s the oil to Martin’s very sour water. The clues lead the two down some very lurid paths within a city that has changed before them.

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
There are two brilliant sequences within the first 30 minutes of The Laughing Policeman (based on the 1968 Swedish novel) that are just a marvel to watch. After a gunman has bloodily gunned down nine people on a public bus, the police start to slowly file onto the scene’s aftermath. Bit by bit, every detail is broken down; every angle is batted about to try to make sense of what has happened. The crime scene is busted right down to the removal of the bodies and (finally) the bus itself, with the detectives trying to form some sort of foundation as to why each victim was on the bus & a possible target of the killer’s rage. Later, the detectives are talking over the case while in the morgue, their dialogue overlapping with one of the attendants reading off the bodies’ stats with an unrelenting terseness. If the remainder of TLP was equal to these two parts, it would no doubt be a seminal classic in the genre. And while the rest of the flick is engrossing & entertaining, it does have a few faults. While it’s a given that the film is going to be somewhat dated, the scenes where Lou Gossett Jr. (as Insp. James Larrimore) talks “street” with a black pimp & a militant respectively come off forced & foolish (in comparison to the rest of the tale). Fans of political correctness won’t be pleased at how the subject of homosexuality is handled, as it comes off as some sort of sickness that makes bad people worse & more homicidal and/or outlandish (one of the many jaded views that came about before the late 80s). This leads to another “mad, homosexual serial killer” portrayal and while it’s not as insulting as, say Cruising, it does leave one slightly disappointed to learn there’s no real internal motive to the madness. It does give Martin & Larsen an added layer of characterization, as they have a hard time adjusting to the rapidly progressive lifestyle that is becoming of San Fran (though it’s more taciturn Martin showing his disapproval than the more freewheeling Larsen). Matthau is the usual portrait of glumness, doggedly determined while beaten down at the same time (his character’s moments of isolation come across as some of the movie’s better moments). He doesn’t come off as hard as an Eastwood or Bronson but it is a fine departure from cracking dick jokes at Jack Lemmon (not saying that act wasn’t fun, though). However, Dern manages to steal the film outright with his laconic demeanor & dry inflection toward even the smallest dialogue. He’s seemingly the court jester amongst all of the grim realities set before us and he & Matthau have some great back-and-forths in the “cop/buddy” tradition. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) and cinematographer David M. Walsh (Silver Streak, Johnny Dangerously) capture the allure & seamy underbelly of the city well and the supporting cast (including Anthony Zerbe as the surly police chief) adds to the hard boiled nature of the story. By the end of The Laughing Policeman, you feel like you have been along for the detail and (depending on your tolerance for the “by the book”, no frills portrayal of the police work & un-PC views) it proves to be quite the interesting ride.

Body Count/Violence: 18. While not a thrill-ride a minute as far as Action is concerned, TLP has some fine set pieces that include some gory shooting. A fight or two is accompanied by a decent car chase & a woman jumping out of a window.

Sexuality/Nudity: There’s a shot of a topless stripper, as well as a shot of a topless performance artist whose…very rotund. The subject matter tends to be fairly lurid, tackling homosexuality, S&M, prostitution, etc.

Language/Dialogue: With a few F words, the language gets salty on occasion. Let it be known I would follow Dern around & pay him $5 every time he would call someone a “fruiter”.

How bad was it?:
The reviews regard it generally well but its degrees of greatness vary. Some latter day critics were more turned off by some of the takes on homosexuality or felt it was just too slowly paced as compared to others in the genre (Dirty Harry, The French Connection, etc.)

Did it make the studio’s day?:
No box office or budget records are public for this 20th Century Fox distributed film, which saw its premiere in New York on 12/20/73. Since this was the only noted release date of the film in America, it’s likely it wasn’t very widely distributed in its debut.

Film: ***1/2/*****
Entertainment value: ****/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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