Anthology Film Archives celebrated a handful of films directed by Richard Fleischer for the appropriately titled ‘Overdue’ series. Fleischer’s filmography is a steady oeuvre, spanning four decades, shaping American pop culture. Along with well-known spectacles (20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Doctor Doolittle, Soylent Green), Fleischer was familiar to a B-movie community (See No Evil, Armed Car Robbery, Trapped). The New Centurions (1972) is somewhere between the seventies excitement with cop-protagonists and the unforgiving environment of film noir.
Indeed, it is convenient to place New Centurions in relation to the earlier Dirty Harry, Bullitt or The French Connection. One of the glaring tensions in this comparison is that New Centurions lacks a hero. The story is based on a novel by Joseph Wambaugh, who was a cop for the LAPD, and follows multiple recruits as they are initiated into the late-shift in East Los Angeles. Fleischer shoots on location not to reinvent the car chase or create urban superheroes, but to identify the viewer with the routine violence of a modern city. George C. Scott plays ethical veteran, Kilvinski, who trains the rookie Roy Fehler, played by Stacy Keach. Fehler is optimistic that policing will support him as he studies for law school. Fehler’s late-night shift exhausts his wife who become bored in his absence and eventually leaves for San Francisco with their daughter. On the streets, Fehler’s beat is eventful, but lacks the landmark hunt that motivates ‘Popeye’ Doyle or Bullitt. Kilvinski introduces Fehler to the pragmatism of their job when they have to wrangle prostitutes onto a police van. Kilvinski picks out a enough women to fill the bus, buys them liquor and drives around until they’re too drunk to finish the night stroll.
Fleischer is not staging the Los Angeles that exists in film noir. The film follows the cops as they eat junk food in the early morning and argue politics in strip bars. New Centurions is remarkable for allowing us to view cops just hanging out. Fleischer rests the camera in the van with the prostitutes, absorbing the viewer in their language. Moreover, when Kilvinski and Sergio, a young Erik Estrada, investigate a landlord exploiting immigrants, Sergio must translate the spanish for Kilvinski as well as the spectator. Fleischer’s subtle naturalism shows a respect for the supposed criminals of 1972 Los Angeles. Likewise, the police are abstract figures who only exist in the routine of their job.
Kilvinski and Fehler are not vigilantes with badges, nor corrupt pigs. They can maintain order and hope for a daily act of justice. “Be civil to everyone, courteous to nobody,” is Kilvinski’s philosophy. New Centurions is somberly aware that cops are not society’s problem-solvers. Max Weber defined the State by its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The LAPD is a world of men who bond as the collective arm of the state. Yet they register the futility in their work. Fehler compares the LAPD to Roman Centurions who were not liked by the citizens, but necessary for keeping the peace. Of course, Rome’s reign was temporary. Kilvinski retires unable to realize an ideal good: “Fighting crime is getting very easy. Let the assholes change the laws and get rid of crime, they can’t get rid of evil. Laws change, people don’t. Never get rid of evil, never.” Fleischer’s camera upholds the legitimacy of the cops, by staying intimate with their everyday surroundings. The camera stays in the car during confessions between officers or shoot out the windshield for a view of the urban landscape illuminated by headlights and storefront windows.
The city is a turbulent burden for these men. Late in the film, Fehler chases a gangbanger down a black tunnel towards a small, white escape in the corner of the frame. Fehler exits into an ostensible slum. “[I]t sounds like all these years you’ve been trying to bust the devil,” Fehler initially mocks Kilvinski’s ideology, but the city eventually dominates Fehler and Kilvinski. In a final moment of camaraderie, Kilvinski recites a rookie story of his own to Fehler over the phone. Fleischer slowly tracks the camera toward Kilvinski, who forgets the intended lesson of his call, finally resting on the gun Kilvinski fatally sticks in his mouth. From Kilvinski’s balcony, Los Angeles appears as it would in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), covered in a warm, haze where the harsh heat is palpable.
Many movies since New Centurions have assumed the perspective of the American metropolis as a burrow of crime, which can only be regulated, never cured. The film is certainly sympathetic of police if viewed as a survey of cops in America. At the time, Hollywood was fascinated with the super-cop. New Centurions are suspended in a world that pales in comparison to the blunt hatred in Colors, Training Day or End of Watch. (Indeed, for all his violence, Harry Callahan was not above punishing police corruption.) Since Dirty Harry, the violence has grown more vivid and more readily portrayed as a necessary evil. Police are still a sacred entity in America politics, but they are chronicled in cinema as grotesque individuals. The fall of Kilvinski and Fehler is a tragic narration of conviction to false ethics; they are metropolitan objects in orbit.
The stylish spirit of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris has reestablished the American, police myth. More than a bad-cop, Alonzo is a vision of urban authority. Alonzo’s braggadocio is a lot of fun to watch, but obscures his identity as a cop in relation to a democracy. Reaching beyond his job description toward social recognition, he will make a kingdom out of his small plot of the city: “I’ma get that gun and then I’ma get that money…” This contemporary brutality has exceeded the conservative authority of centurions. Fleischer’s cops are prescient of the growing division between the formal equality of the law and arbitrary rule. My viewing of The New Centurions caused an unfamiliar sympathy for the struggle to preserve sanctioned violence.