Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Super Cops (1974)

Director: Gordon Parks                                 Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Film Score: Jerry Fielding                             Cinematography: Richard C. Kratina
Starring: Ron Liebman, David Selby, Sheila Frazier and Pat Hingle

Is this where Starsky and Hutch came from? Even if it wasn’t it’s pretty clear that the idea for this film was inspired by the success of Serpico from the year before. That film was based on the true story of Frank Serpico who refused to take bribes and wound up on the wrong side of the entire New York police force who wanted him gone. The Super Cops treads the same territory as it’s based on the book by L.H. Whittemore subtitled The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin. But where Serpico had a major star in involved, Al Pacino, and still has an outstanding popular reputation, the later film seems like little more than a TV movie when seen today. Even the soundtrack by the great Jerry Fielding doesn't really lift the production. Gordon Parks, who had directed the first two Shaft films with Richard Roundtree decided to move on to legitimate crime drama and possibly more upward mobility in the industry. Unfortunately, while the low-budget style of Blaxploitation films worked in that genre, he wasn’t able to gain much traction with this film and did very little after this.

The film opens with real-life documentary footage of New York police officers David Greenberg and Robert Hantz receiving a commendation from the police commissioner for their large number of weapons and drug arrests. After the credits roll over footage from the film, the stars playing those officers, Ron Liebman and David Selby, are shown being sworn in as rookie cops and going through police academy training. They naturally gravitate to one another, Liebman the arrogant risk taker, Selby the strong silent type. Though they are initially stuck directing traffic and giving out parking violations, the two clearly want to circumvent the system and wear plainclothes and make real arrests without becoming detectives, so they wind up making busts on their off hours. No one in the department, however, can figure out why they’re doing it. The simple fact of the matter is the crime is everywhere, and they don’t have to work very hard to find it. It just takes someone who wants to do the work, and the rookies volunteer themselves. Once they’re finished with their probationary work, the captain punishes them by sending them to the worst precinct in the city, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the second-largest black community in New York after Harlem.

Liebman and Selby ask to be teamed together and begin immediately to make an impression on the neighborhood. The arrests they make are almost comical because of their inexperience and exuberance. But on their first day, when they make a big drug bust and show up the detectives in the precinct, they get stuck manning the switchboard and doing inventory of office supplies, and are forced to continue doing their real police work on their time off which includes making themselves seen at many of the black clubs where drugs are sold. At the same time Liebman has it bad for a beautiful prostitute, Sheila Frazier, and can’t stop himself from trying to get to know her. To what end even he doesn’t know. Soon the duo is christened “Batman and Robin” by the people in the neighborhood, but while they continue to make arrests they are hampered at every turn by the men in their own department. What keeps them going is the support of their captain, Dan Frazer, who hopes their exploits will gain some recognition and in the process help get him reassigned. Pat Hingle doesn’t make his appearance until the very end, as the police commissioner who gives them their commendations . . . against his will.

By far the biggest flaw with the film is the acting, or lack thereof. Neither Liebman nor Selby exude any kind of physical toughness or agility and it strains credulity right from the start. They have a goofy TV quality that is almost painful to watch. Ron Liebman has done a lot of television work since and is a fairly recognizable face. David Selby, however, is less familiar having appeared primarily in prime-time soaps and guest spots on television. Police captain Dan Frazer had come out of the Kojak series while the prostitute Sheila Frazier had first appeared in Super Fly, which was directed by Gordon Parks’ son the previous year. The most unique aspect of the film is probably the partnership angle. Films like Dirty Harry or Shaft had focused on a lone outsider, while the partnership of the two cops in this film is the obvious precursor to Starsky and Hutch. Despite its numerous flaws, The Super Cops is not a bad film. And if one looks at it in historical perspective, it can actually be seen to hold an important place in the crime dramas of the seventies as the progenitor of buddy cop films and TV shows to this day.

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