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Monday, September 05, 2016

Giving Badges A Bad Name

Bad Cop Contagion Of 1954

No doubt it was a random thing, but how to account for 1954's avalanche of crooked cop pics? Seemed for all the world that Hollywood was on joint attack against law enforcement, badges depicted as front for larceny, collusion with mobs, cold-blood murder of both suspects and witnesses ... what had men in blue done to deserve this? Rap sheet of offenders read thus: Rogue Cop, Shield For Murder, Private Hell 36, Pushover, The Long Wait, all '54-released and slaps to the face of those who'd serve and protect. Reaction came fast and furious, New York's finest asking theatres to shun hate-cop crop that would "discredit the profession of police officer unjustly and without reason." General lawlessness and uptick in juve delinquency was urgent reason not to undermine a public's confidence in law enforcement, yet here was deluge of depiction of "cops as criminals," said Variety.  Bad enough that police were portrayed as "dumb flat-foots or Keystone-Kop types" --- this was plain libel of every man/woman wearing a uniform.

A Production Code still in force nixed "ridicule" of law, whether "natural or human," no-no's also including police "dying at the hands of criminals unless such scenes are absolutely necessary to the development of the plot." The only pic-maker to play fair, said critics, was Jack Webb in Dragnet capacity, his feature adapt of the hit vid series a helping hand to police otherwise attacked on all Hollywood fronts. Year-end tab saw Webb in victory lane, his feature Dragnet by far a biggest grosser of the messy lot. Were police as straight-arrows what a public preferred? Of course, Dragnet via Warner Bros. got bookings and publicity the dirty cops missed, except for Rogue Cop, which was Metro with major name Robert Taylor, good for a million in worldwide profit, less than a third of Dragnet's ultimate gain, but still good by hard-tack measure of features vs. TV, latter keeping most customers home. Cheaper product had to push boundaries to compete, so never mind who you defame, said independents, and go for whatever dates and coin could be had.

Shield For Murder was that sort of venture, a Schenck/Koch sledge-hammer where Aubrey produced, Howard directed (with star Edmond O'Brien megging in part). Schenck had bought the source novel by William P. McGivern three years before, after which McGivern sold The Big Heat to Columbia and Rogue Cop to MGM, putting him at head of class for brass-knuck fiction. Shield For Murder ads were like front of paperbacks children were discouraged to look at, but didn't shrink from O'Brien ferocity as psycho-fuzz who's called as much by fed-up Emile Meyer, whose precinct chief gives the policy speech on how one bad cop reflects on all of rest who are honest and steadfast. John McIntire had spoke as much for his squad in 1950's The Asphalt Jungle when detective Barry Kelly goes corrupt. At least Schenck, in fact all the exploiters, gave assurance that bad fruit wasn't indicative of rest in the basket. Fred MacMurray's murderous detective in Pushover is balanced by ramrod-straight E.G. Marshall and boy scout Phil Carey, both them almost too virtuous for belief.

Bad cop yarns never impugned the system, in fact worked double-time to show police as true-blue but for foul apples shook off otherwise healthy trees. What alarmed law enforcement was volume of perceived attacks. Movies seem to have instituted a Bad-Cop-Of-The-Month Club for 1954. Conservative voice Pete Harrison, of weekly and widely trade-read Harrison's Reports, threw down gauntlet in September, accusing films of "Inviting Trouble" (his column title) for embark upon "a program of vilifying the police." He drew comparison to the gangster cycle of long-yore, except this was worse, because crooked cops were presented here as "brave, fearless, and resourceful," in other words, a bad example for youth. How too, would such pictures reflect on our nation's prestige, already under assault? It was all a flat misrepresentation, and needed to stop, said Harrison. Two-week later response came from MGM's New York office. General Sales Manager Charles M. Reagan cited Leo's past two year output to assert that Rogue Cop was very much an exception to rule, just like crook police it dramatized: "42 dramas, 13 musicals, 6 musicals, 6 westerns, 4 war pictures, 3 spectacles ... and 1 Rogue Cop. One picture in 75 of this type does not seem out of line when the public taste for this kind of entertainment is considered."

Such reaction seems to us strange, what with crooked law rampant since in films. From at least the 70's forward, it's gone from lone bad cop to lone good cop, several generations of Serpicos battling embedded corruption. Honest police as loneliest wolves has become flip-side cliché to upright cops we sneer at from the Classic Era. Meanwhile, the contested lot from 1954 merge into broad base of noir, a few achieving belated cult if not classic status. Shield For Murder is celebrated thanks to Blu-Ray release, all of reviewers rightly singing praise, while Private Hell 36 has been out awhile and benefits too from Don Siegel guidance. Pushover is on a Sony noir set; as down-market Double Indemnity it still compels. The Long Wait seems gone, or at least I haven't come across it, Rogue Cop pretty much the same outside TCM broadcasts. Latter is especially good, a noir sleeper still asleep till Warner Archive hopefully gets it out on proper widescreen DVD.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Love the still of Roy Barcroft and Bob Taylor. Quite a change for Roy after years of staring at Rocky Lane and Roy Rogers.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

This would be just long enough after the revelations of the Kefauver Crime Commission hearings for Hollywood to gear up, I suspect.

6:57 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

So much for the idea the Hollywood only produced complacent dross in the 50s.

9:46 PM  
Blogger anne mccormick said...

I really love your articles and your usually correct. But to take offense at a few cop movies and say movies are libelous towards police is a joke. Acting like cops are gods and we are not to criticize or put in a bad light is ridiculous. I personally am tired of cops being worshipped in EVERY newscast, every newspaper story etc. Even when the cop is in the wrong so obviously, the reporter or announcer will still say the cop is right. They are not gods and they do get paid to face danger and are equipped for danger. Even in my local newscast there are such stories often.

3:31 AM  

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