' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Report to the Commissioner (1975)

Friday, November 01, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Report to the Commissioner (1975)

“Report to the Commissioner” ends with the beginning, or close to it, with an undercover detective, Patty Butler (Susan Blakeley), shot dead, not least because of her commanding officers’ reckless decision-making, leading to the possibility of a cover-up, one the Commissioner (Stephen Elliot) senses even as his heedless underlings are lying to his face. As such, he assigns a Detective from Internal Affairs to investigate and file a report, hence the title, leading to several voiceovers in which various characters explain how everything went wrong. If it’s a device suggesting 1940s noir, director Milton Katselas’s film is nevertheless strictly 1970s. In the occasional wah-wah guitar and horns on the soundtrack, yes, though “Report to the Commissioner” opens, in the scene where Patty’s body is discovered, sans music, a visceral vibe that is much more Katsela’s jam. Indeed, in one of the voiceovers, Detective Crunch Blakstone (Yaphet Kotto) explains he warned his rookie partner Bo Lockley (Michael Moriarty) of the jungle that is 1970s New York. And in the superbly seedy location work, half the movie, if not more, seeming to take place on the actual streets of NYC – in the actual streets of NYC, in fact, with a car chase re-imagined by skateboard, as if Marty McFly’s excursions by bumper were an acid trip – that jungle frightfully, effectively comes to life, making it seem as if Lockley is virtually drowning amidst all the scuzz.

Lockley is a cop’s kid, though this isn’t the only reason he yearns to be one, a do-gooder’s nature seeming to stem from his days as a peace-loving hippie, and who Moriarty gives the ring of still being in a post-drug daze, like it all warped his mind, his line readings frequently emitting the air of a kid who wants to leave the table but doesn’t want to finish his vegetables first. “Moriarty makes these so obvious,” writes the late great Roger Ebert, “that we wonder why Lockley isn't sent in for observation,” a quote I do not pick to dismantle as a straw man because the late great Ebert dismantles it himself, writing later in the review “but plausibility is not exactly the point here.” Well, yeah. So why…never mind. Moriarty’s performance might make you question why exactly the force let this kid get all the way up to detective, true, where Crunch can see in five seconds he’s not cut out for it, but it’s better just to roll with Moriarty on his own terms. In some weird way he’s sort of evoking those scenes in “Grizzly Man” where you couldn’t quite believe that Timothy Treadwell was acting like that with bears in the wild, idealism rendered as an illusion.

Patty, it turns out, has more of a cop’s appetite than him, which is why, as the movie flashes back, she is so insistent to her superiors that she go deep cover to bring down The Stick (Tony King), a dope dealer in and around Times Square, by shacking up with him. That’s the plausibility which concerned Ebert, and which concerned me less, frankly, than the movie’s disinterest in how going this deep under cover would work and what it might mean. No, she mostly just exists to wait around to die, a victim of mismanagement and the over-enthusiasm of the rookie cop who can’t read between the lines and goes too far in the wrong way even after he’s told in no uncertain terms to back off.

Despite orders not to, Lockley, who thinks Patty’s a runaway, tracks her to The Stick’s apartment, and gets into a shootout with him, Moriarty’s own stray bullet striking Patty dead, before giving chase in a sequence stretching across roofs and down fire escapes and through the street. The Stick might only be wearing his draws but this lends desperation more than comedy, like he really is down to his last, while the cuts to Moriarty running make him look less like a confident pursuer than an absolute sweaty freaking mess, and he gets sweatier when the chase ends with both men stuck in a department store elevator pointing guns at each other. Katselas lets this scene go on longer than you might think, and if the seediness of the streets is palpable, so is the stench inside this elevator, which might well symbolize the cops outside, the ones debating whether to kill their own just to kill The Stick. That’s bleak, and “Report to the Commissioner” tries on both a bleak ending and a hopeful one, summarized much better in Moriarty’s countenance throughout this standoff, as if he’s not sure who to trust, maybe because he can’t trust anyone, the rule of law melting into every man for himself. 

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