The New Centurions (1972) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander, Clifton James, Scott Wilson, Erik Estrada, Rosalind Cash, Isabel Sanford, James Sikking and William Atherton
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
It’s always a pleasure to extol the considerable virtues of Richard Fleischer, one of the most overlooked and underrated American directors, even when the picture in question is not one of his best works. “The New Centurions” is a movie that, at least for me, plops squarely into the category of work I loved as a kid that sadly, has not held up as well as I’d hoped. It’s certainly not awful, though, and it has much going on to recommend it – most notably, another truly great George C. Scott performance and a generally fine first two-thirds (save for some obvious clunky bits). If there are major problems with the film, they probably lie with the original source material, Joseph Wambaugh’s groundbreaking, best-selling novel and Stirling Silliphant’s less-than-stellar screenplay adaptation.
Wambaugh is, of course, the former L.A.P.D. cop-turned-novelist whose books attempted to truly capture the day-to-day grind of police life without the usual glorification inherent in so much of our popular culture – a dramatic, but realistic front-lines approach to a world that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. Fleischer’s movie version, from a stylistic standpoint, often does an excellent job taking us from the graduation of rookie cop Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach) and his on-the-job training under the tutelage of grand, old man of the force, the wizened, cynical Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott) who regales the young man with all manner of crusty wisdom and gallows humour. With the dark grainy lighting and camerawork of Ralph Woolsey, Fleischer gets us through the nightly grind of patrol cops with an almost documentary-like flavour.
For the most part, this is no standard-issue genre fare as we follow the cops on a series of almost mundane adventures – domestic disputes, child abuse cases, petty theft, grifting and in one of the movie’s more amusing segments, the rounding up of streetwalkers, shoving them into the back of a paddy wagon and getting them boozed up so they can’t ply their trade. The film also focuses on the cops’ bouts with alcoholism and marital strife. For 1972, this was certainly groundbreaking material.
My first helping of the picture was at the tender age of 12 and I saw it with my ex-cop Dad. As a movie, it was definitely unlike the usual father-and-son fare in the de-glamorization of the cops’ lives and I also recall my own father responding very positively to the movie in that it had “less bullshit” than other cop pictures. Seen now, though, it’s a movie that scores points for being the first of its kind in the mainstream, but alas, loses considerable steam as Silliphant’s script maintains the flawed episodic structure of Wambaugh’s book and adds, all on its own, a lot of clunky and clichéd dialogue. This seems especially odd since Silliphant did such a fine job with adapting the classic cop novel on which Norman Jewison’s “In The Heat of the Night” is based. With that film, Silliphant was able to deftly sift what was best and cinematic in the original source material while adding the proper connective tissue to make the picture a cohesive whole. “The New Centurions” in comparison is a bit of a mess, lurching from one episode to another and never quite ably capturing the sense of time passing in a smooth manner.
There are other problems with the picture as well. When the character of Kilvinski tragically departs from the story, the rest of the movie can’t quite rise to Scott’s level of performance and his presence, or lack thereof in the latter half, is so powerful it almost seems like movie’s only raison d'être. As well, the marital difficulties portrayed border on soap opera and it doesn’t help that Jane Alexander portrays Stacy Keach’s wife with such ramrod-like seriousness that she comes off like a harridan on lithium. Finally, the rather interesting cast of supporting characters is introduced, them dropped and no attempt is ever made to fully integrate them into the whole.
All this said, though, Fleischer keeps the action moving with his typical efficiency and he works overtime against the plodding nature of the script. There are still scenes and sequences that work in spite of the screenplay and some moments that are simply unforgettable: Scott’s amusing rendition of “Kilvinski’s Law” which is the character’s off-the-book sage advice, a terrifying scene where the cops rescue a baby from being burned and beaten by its neglectful mother, some of the banter of the cops themselves (both on patrol and in the stationhouse), an especially hilarious sequence involving the entrapment of a seven-foot lumberjack “fruit” and George C. Scott’s final monologue which is not only heartbreakingly performed, but one of the few moments that achieves what the whole movie should have aspired to.
Everyone involved with the picture has obviously done better work elsewhere, but it’s still an entertaining and engaging way to spend a couple of hours in front of the television.
Besides, where else is one going to see Mrs. Jefferson herself (Isabel Sanford) playing a foul-mouthed, fat-assed, soul-infused street whore?
That gal definitely was “a movin’ on up”.
“The New Centurions” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures in their new series Martini Movies.