I will resist dipping into the noir imagination for an overview of Elliot Lavine’s latest Poverty Row marathon, ending tomorrow at the Roxie—Brecht Andersch has already done so with his usual panache at the MoMA blog. Instead, I’d like to offer modest tribute to the programmer I took in this past Saturday. The noir retros always feature plenty of fun dross, and after two or three such double-features, I’ve refigured my expectations towards the appreciation of the steamy silver of a nice print or the way a particular actor wears his hat. But then something like Cop Hater comes along that strikes me as better than good, no handicapping necessary.
Cop Hater is an undertow movie. Hardly any scenes are memorable in themselves, but cumulatively they tunnel us into the plainclothes detective’s unremarkable existence. Before taking my seat, I was expecting one of those semi-fascistic, J. Edgar Hoover-approved long arm of the law pictures in which I occasionally find disreputable pleasure—the kind that makes perverse spectacle of the criminal act only to burnish the violent extension of justice with hypnotic moral authority (see Foucault’s Discipline & Punish for more on this particular thematic). Cop Hater promises low-rent titilation at the outset, with an undershirt-wearing lug coming to in his tenement. The title flashes with a lurid musical sting, but it’s not the cop killer we see. It’s the cop, a marked man. He’s gunned down in the street, and the chase is on—only it’s a peculiarly fatigued pursuit, free of the saber-rattling we expect from Hoover’s Hollywood yes men. The Irish lieutenant drones a bit about the sacred trust of law and order, but he’s talking to a squad well short of a dozen (it’s up to you whether this signals the limited resources of the department or Barbizon Productions) and basicallys seems to be going through the motions.
Maybe it’s the weather. Cop Hater makes great economic use of a sultry heatwave as a narrative hook—it’s certainly as important a framework here as in Do the Right Thing. The characters keep talking about the heat, for one thing, with the request for an “ice cold beer” floating up as a musical refrain throughout. More intriguing is the way the sweltering temperature lends lends the film a physicality of a kind quite different from the typical action film: characters slouch, trail off, mop slick brows, and unsexily strip down as soon as they cross the threshold of their flats. Notably for a police procedural film of this make, there are few exteriors in Cop Hater. The film unfolds in shade-drawn, drowsy rooms like Psycho’s Phoenix afternoon: the department, the bar, and detectives Carelli (Robert Loggia) and Maguire’s (Gerald O’Loughlin) apartments. We linger over the two men’s tender, argumentative flirtations with their wives, even though Maguire’s Alice (a deliciously bored Shirley Ballard) ends up playing the villain. Before you cry “spoiler,” allow me to point out that the poster (pictured above) gives away the nominal whodunit, and that the movie itself plainly doesn’t invest much energy in the withhold-and-reveal logic of the thriller. The script gives the detectives bum leads until the anticlimactic finish; Cop Hater is a crime film about waiting, and in this it’s curiously aligned with Zodiac.
It’s not the first time I’ve been struck by the weird narrative latitude of a 60-80 minute Hollywood programmer that only needed to fulfill the basic outline of a well-oiled genre to fit the bottom half of the double-bill. Untroubled by the work of showcasing (a star, a set), the filmmakers are free to indulge all sorts of dead time. In the case of Cop Hater, this inordiniate focus on the way Maguire and Carelli come home and their subtle expressions of camaraderie at work. The film’s dual tracks—titular mystery and mundane routine—are nicely refracted in the unusual double ending. First, we get the lamebrain payoff of oversexed Alice’s desperate confession. She gets off a good line (“Let’s just see how well my legs stand up for a jury”) before the badges drag her away. They don’t light up any cigars, nor do they savor explanations of how and why. Instead, Carelli takes a call, oblivious that the end credits have begun to roll. We can tell it’s strictly routine by his neutral tone and practiced questions (“You know the guy?”). Even in its closing moments, Cop Hater hustles the climax out of the door to get back at the workaday. The serious lack of pretension makes me wonder if these apparently unremarkable, no-frills filmmakers weren’t especially well-suited to appreciate the actual rhythm of the cop’s beat. Cop Hater’s final impression is more empathic than vicarious, and this alone sets it apart from most of its ilk.
And one last surprise: you can watch it right now on Hulu.