Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Chasing movie cops through the years

Few characters in the movies have gone through as many stages in their evolution over the years as the film cop.

For years, it was the bad guys - the Cagneys, the Bogarts, the De Niros - who were of most interest to audiences, and the cops who chased them were secondary characters at best. But eventually the cop characters began to take on more complexity and depth, they became more interesting, and they often assumed center stage.

A one-hour documentary premiering at 10 p.m. Monday on AMC cable channel called Precinct Hollywood explores the evolution of movie cop stereotypes over four decades, showing how the on-screen depictions of police officers reflected the tenor of the times and the way that society looked at the men and women in blue.

Precinct Hollywood is part of AMC's "Crime & Crime Again Festival," which runs from Saturday through Monday and includes films such as The French Connection (1971), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), and the network television premiere of Narc (2002).

One of the first indelible characters to emerge in 1971 was Dirty Harry's rogue cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood). Some critics complained that the character was a right-wing call for vigilante justice, but audiences didn't care; they loved Harry's simple moral code, and were glad to have somebody like that on their side.

William Friedkin, director of The French Connection (1971), says in the documentary that people didn't mind if Harry Callahan cut a few corners in bringing down the bad guys.

"The audience was ready for that type of character, a cop who would take the law into his own hands and hold court in the street," said Friedkin, who created his own iconic character in The French Connection's Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).

Whether Harry Callahan bore much resemblance to reality was, of course, another question. Sonny Grosso, a retired New York City detective, says Callahan's approach probably wouldn't work in real life.

"I just couldn't see myself in the middle of Harlem saying 'Make my day' and the next day, I'd be down seeing the chief of detectives."

It wasn't a great leap from the rogue cop to the maverick cop, which showed up as characters like Nick Nolte's Jack Cates in 48 Hours (1982) and Eddie Murphy's Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

Both movies also helped launch the era of the "cop comedy," which dealt with hot-button issues such as race and class, but defused them with laughs along the way.

The combination worked exceptionally well with audiences, as evidenced by the box office receipts. Beverly Hills Cop, for example, brought in more than $200 million in domestic theaters alone, and both it and 48 Hours spawned sequels.

Later in the '80s, another type of screen cop emerged. This one was bulletproof and untouchable, almost a cartoon character. Prime examples were Bruce Willis' character, John McClain, the central figure in Die Hard and its sequels, and Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon movies.

By the '90s, real-life events were intruding on the Hollywood fantasies of heroic cops. The Rodney King case in Los Angeles, in which a black motorist was beaten by officers after a traffic stop, as well as other scandals elsewhere, prompted script writers to incorporate more unsavory aspects into their cop characters.

David Ayer, who wrote Training Day - which focused on a crooked Los Angeles cop - shopped his script around for years in the '90s before it was finally made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and released in 2001.

Retired New York City homicide detective Randy Jurgenson neatly sums up the continually changing portrayal of cops in the movies: "Police films have replaced Westerns, and have become a way for [audiences] to address conflicting feelings about power and authority."

Most movie buffs have heard of Greta Garbo, but it's a safe bet that not too many have seen her work - no great surprise, given that her final movie was released in 1941. All that many people know about the actress is that she was beautiful, mysterious, and uttered the famous line "I want to be alone" - which, by the way, she never actually said.

That's why the new documentary Garbo, premiering at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Turner Classic Movies, offers a great opportunity to get a rare glimpse of the legendary star. With September marking the 100th anniversary of Garbo's birth, TCM is featuring a monthlong retrospective of her movies.

Each Tuesday during the month, the cable channel will run back-to-back Garbo films, from her first, Flesh and the Devil (1926), through Mata Hari (1931), Anna Karenina (1935), Ninotchka (1939), and others, to her final movie, 1941's Two-Faced Woman. That Garbo quit the business at age 36 after only 24 films only added to the mystique of the woman that some called "the Swedish Sphinx."

The documentary, narrated by actress Julie Christie, includes interviews with Garbo biographers, friends such as Gore Vidal, and people with whom she worked, as well as footage from some of her movies.

The portrait painted of the reclusive star, who died in 1990, shows that she was more than just an extraordinarily beautiful woman. In her short, 17-year career, she demonstrated a screen presence that few in her era - or ours - could match.

Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade

or 419-724-6131.

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