Culture Through Cop Flicks

Cop’s work is where the rubber hits the road and state bumps into citizen.  These movies show the perception of this meeting between state and citizen changing in the United states over the last sixty or so years. They are certainly not the only movies I might have chosen, but I think the public felt that these movies struck a cultural nerve.

In the pilot for Dragnet in 1951 a man threatens to blow up city hall. Thad Brown (Ramond Burr), the chief of detectives, calls in Friday (Jack Webb) and his partner Ben, two of his men. There is no friction between Brown and the two policemen. He tells them the problem and what he wants them to do. They discuss plans but there is no disagreement. The man with the bomb wants them to release his brother, a convicted criminal. Everybody has already been evacuated from the building and the whole area. The threat is to the state itself and its responsibility to keep criminals locked up, not to human life. If the state gives way to this pressure it will be giving way to intimidation. The cops risk their lives, tiptoeing along a ledge to come through the window. They disarm the criminal and save the building and the state. All is well. You can sleep soundly.

The series ran from 1951-59 and then Jack Webb revived it in 1967 with another bomb episode. This time the mad bomber was a neo-Nazi who threatens to blow up a school because it is about to be integrated. It is an anti-prejudice episode. Since civil rights was big then and integration state policy this episode too is in support of the goodness of the state. Here, as in the earlier episode, Friday and his partner, now Bill Gannon, are beyond reproach, unquestionably agents of good. With the usual hopscotch structure of detective stories, they find the culprit and save the school.

But of course the second episode is political, and branded those opposed to the civil rights movement as Nazis. The bad guys motive is political, not personal. It reflects a rift in the polity itself. The police still remain the embodiment of good, but not to the bad guy. Unlike in the first episode, where even the bad guy knew he was bad, what is good is questioned, albeit by a character branded as a Nazi, beyond the pale, which tells us unmistakably which side is good, the one the state approved of.

Dirty Harry came out in 1971. A girl is killed by a sniper. Callahan (Clint Eastwood) investigates. Then there is the obligatory scene with the higher up, in this case the mayor. From the moment Callahan walks into the Mayor’s office they are at war. The mayor offers his plan and Callahan says it might get someone killed. The mayor warns Harry about his violations of procedure. Harry explains that in that earlier case he was stopping a rape.

Bressler, Callahan’s police higher-up saddles Harry with a new partner, Gonzales, who embodies the drag the state is on justice. The state is transformed into a hindrance because of all the rules that tie Harry up in procedures. Gonzales is more concerned with the right procedure than getting Scorpio. Gonzales wants to know why Callahan is called “Dirty Harry”. Harry says it’s because he does dirty jobs, but surely it is also because he breaks rules.

When police in a helicopter spot Scorpio about to kill again, they thwart the crime but lose the criminal, reinforcing the bumbling character of the state.

When Scorpio kidnaps a little girl Callahan, against his better judgment, takes the job of bagman and Bressler orders him to deliver the ransom he thinks shouldn’t be paid. The state is playing Scorpio’s game and Callahan is humiliated as he is made to run all over town. Gonzales, against the rules, backs him up. It all goes wrong. Callahan is nearly killed at the base of a giant cross, crucified on the incompetence of the state. After this harrowing experience that threatens his position in the department, Gonzales backs out. He, as a representative of the state procedures, chooses not to risk his position rather than to do good.

When Callahan captures Scorpio the gap between the good and the rules becomes huge. Callahan tries, through torture, to find out about the suffocating kidnap victim but Scorpio demands a lawyer. The rules of the state are in direct opposition to justice, life, and the good. Callahan tortures Scorpio and finds the girl, dead, but for his trouble, because of his flouting of the rules, Scorpio will walk. The state is not actively evil, but its rules allow evil to flourish. Harry employs the “ticking bomb” justification for torture and in the movie is right to do so.

In stages Callahan is exiled from the state, and when he finally kills Scorpio in the famous scene he throws away his badge. The good cannot exist within the state, but only because the state’s rules paralyze it. In Dirty Harry the state no longer embodies the good, but on the contrary hinders its realization. Dirty Harry is a movie about how the legal cop procedures get in the way of justice. A cop violates the states procedures to do what is right. Strangely, he is our Socrates, a citizen who can justly violate the law for a higher good. This higher good is, as always, justice.

Harry is in conflict not only with the criminal, but with the state as well. But he is on the side of the angels. There is never any question that what Harry wants, the destruction of Scorpio, Scorpio deserves. The state is clumsy and stupid, but not evil even if the mayor is thinking most of all about reelection. This is chump-change in a world that harbors Scorpio. Harry objects to the restrictive rules, indeed to the rule of law, not the moral probity of the state. Not corruption but stupidity is the problem and the good is above the law.

Serpico came two years later. Serpico, an honest cop, finds that all his colleagues are dirty. He is ostracized because he is clean. The bad guys are the police themselves. The state is threatened by it’s own corruption. Serpico testifies before the Knapp Commission and is exonerated. Here higher ups do not merely hinder justice by being hide-bound, but are evil themselves. It is not the law that hinders Serpico, but cops who are really criminals. However, at an even higher level, the Knapp commission, the authorities are still honest. The corruption is within the state, but has not reached the top.

Witness (1985) completes the elimination of all value in the state. It opens in a Amish community in the midst of a funeral. None of the characters are yet individualized. Visually, the community emerges from the fields of grain– they are of the earth. The sense of community as they gather for the wake is overpowering. The talk is that of people who know one another well and are very comfortable. The food is abundant and good. There is a feeling of warmth and security. The community is pointedly outside the American mainstream and wants to stay that way.

Samuel, a child of this community, and his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), leave the community to go to the city where Samuel witnesses a murder in a train station, the intersection of the two communities. His having witnessed the murder forces Samuel and Rachel to remain in limbo. Samuel says the murderer is a black man. When John Book (Harrison Ford), the cop sent to investigate the murder, takes Samuel and Rachel into the ghetto to identify a man he suspects, Samuel denies he is the man and Rachel, horrified by Book’s treatment of the suspect, wants nothing more to do with the laws that are not those of her community.

It is soon revealed that McFee (Danny Glover), another police officer, is the killer. Book tells his superior, Schaeffer, but Schaeffer is secretly the big bad guy. When Book discovers Schaeffer’s true colors he rescues Samuel and Rachel and escapes to hide in the Amish pastoral. As in Serpico the police are a community that has turned on one of it’s own because of his honesty. Book is betrayed by his community and forced to enter the other, pastoral community. He is safe there precisely because the Amish reject the modern world and refuse even to have telephones.

A love affair between Book and Rachel blooms but is abortive. Book and Rachel’s doomed love reveals the impossibility of integrating the two worlds. Book’s gun is hidden behind food on a shelf and without bullets. Book, if he became part of the community would become something similar, an impotent, domesticated tool of violence. And we can’t help but think that Book’s violence is fueling Rachel’s passion which blooms right after Book defends the Amish from a boorish gang of townies or tourists with his fists. Perhaps the love affair is corrupting Rachel, as the community suspects. Book, just by being there, brings the world of violence into the Amish community when the three rogue cops, loaded for bear, come to kill him.

No higher-up-where-goodness-still-resides defeats Schaeffer. In the end, he has the gun, but the pastoral Amish community defeats him simply by presenting itself as a community. Schaeffer just collapses in the face of the community. The last scene, where Book drives away and Daniel, Rachel’s other suitor, waves good-bye as he passes him, marks the failure to find some compromise between the “English” and the Amish. Not only the state, but the community that generated it, must be rejected in toto, even if it thwarts love. Only the pastoral community can defeat evil. Book, of that other world, cannot stay in it. Earlier, during the gunfight, Book told Samuel to run to Daniel’s house where he would be safe. That is where safety lies. But Samuel doesn’t go. Instead he rings the bell that calls the community to the rescue. Sanuel chooses his responsibility to the community over his personal safety. Book’s instincts, even when they are “good”, are those of the “English”. The corrupt society, in the person of Book, has only the eradication of the evil it brought with it to offer the pastoral community.

Se7en came out in 1995. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is retiring. His last case is the murder of a grossly fat man. His partner is Mills, (Brad Pitt.) Somerset sees Mills naiveté as a disqualification and gets him taken off the case, but Mill’s new case turns out to be the second murder by the same killer. Somerset, named after W. Somerset Maughm for no good reason I can see except to embody culture, is the educated one and Mills, the bumpkin. While Mills sifts through gruesome pictures of crime scenes, Somerset goes to the graceful library to research the deadly sins in the great works of Western civilization. Se7en is all ugliness except for this library. They are working at the same case from different directions.

The killer is John Doe (Kevin Spacey) who indeed was killing people he judged indulged one of the seven deadly sins. The movie indicts Western Civilization itself since the clues to the murders are found in its highest expression. The source of John Doe’s madness is the Bible. That his reading of the Bible led to these horrors guarantees, we think, that his reading is insane. But we have no grounds for saying so. When Mills tells John Doe he is insane, John Doe responds that it is convenient for Mills to think so. The same applies to the audience.

Somerset articulates a cynicism about the system. The world is terrible and what they are doing is pointless. All they are doing is “picking up the pieces,” that is, going through the motions. They should have no illusions about actually doing good. Later John Doe, the serial killer, will declare universal apathy about sinners the main problem. Somerset, the cultured one, certainly exhibits this apathy. Mills yearns with manic energy to get John Doe, but he doesn’t have the mental equipment to handle this hell, and he cares nothing for the evil that John Doe envisions. For Mills, John Doe’s motive in the deadly sins is nothing more than a clue to help find and catch him. He is in over his pastoral head. Together the cops pursue John Doe more because of the ugliness of his crime scenes than anything else. The crime scenes are all torture chambers. But Somerset searches them for messages. John Doe forced each sinner to sin in the extreme, resulting in a horrible death and scene after scene of movie gore. But then he used these scenes to plant messages that furthered his plan. For the policemen there is the goad of this horror and for Somerset, a need, on principle, to do his job well however nasty it becomes, but more importantly, a need to understand. To do good is beyond their powers and they know it. The horror is beyond their ability to even diminish. But they might be able to solve the puzzle.

Tracy (Gweneth Paltrow), Mills’ wife, has come with him from “upstate.” They are a transplant from the pastoral, now too far away to see. She is pregnant. The third-act frisson is that John Doe beheads her and delivers her head to Mills. Then Mills executes John Doe. When Mills kills John Doe he is killing a false messiah, who says he has been called to his task, not someone who thinks of himself as a criminal. . But Mills’s execution of Doe is the culmination of Doe’s plan, making him, at least a real prophet.

Doe’s judgment of the people he killed was not wrong, however psychotic his reaction. They were fat, vain, and so on. Everybody in the movie agrees that the world is bad. This is Doe’s analysis of why. In this grim and miserable world Tracy, from upstate and pregnant and thus a hope for renewed life, hates it and wants to escape. When John Doe beheads her it is the whole miserqble world of the movie that rejects life. It is hard not to think of John Doe’s brand of Christianity as this world’s product. And although his reading of the Bible seems to us a grotesque misreading, let’s face it, in such a world nobody knows anymore.

The bad guy, John Doe, the notorious everyman, thinks he is doing something good. Crimes that arise from the Bible show a corruption that has penetrated into the culture itself, infecting even its loftiest heights. For these heights are now somehow inspiring these horrendous crimes. Evil has become hard to distinguish from good. Evil has gone beyond the state and infects the culture itself, while the state is powerless to retard it.

Se7en is beyond deciding who is good and bad and instead asks what is good and what bad. Mills calls John Doe crazy, but Doe responds that it is convenient for Mills to think so. The whole question of good and bad cops, corruption and idealism, does not come up in Se7en. Everything, except for Tracy, is bad. Mills failure to protect his wife marks the failure of the whole cop enterprise. While failing to protect what should be protected, they fail in their efforts to protect what is not worth protecting. Se7en is the tragedy of the good cop. The cop is an employee of an institution that cannot fulfill its function. For the society that created it can no longer articulate that function. The cop’s life is pointless. All agree that the world is corrupt, and only John Doe offers a cure for the corruption, but Mills (and we) think him mad because his solution violates the norms of the humanist world that no longer exists, if it ever did. John Doe is right about one thing: it is simply convenient for us to think him mad. When Mills executes John Doe he is completing John Doe’s plan, and so Mills is actually working for John Doe.

These movies and shows each struck a chord when they appeared. They form a history of sorts, a history of a growing sense of corruption within the state and finally within the culture itself as all norms of good and evil dissolve. At first, as we saw the decay happening, we could make ourselves believe that somehow, somewhere, higher-up, justice still reigned. But soon we could no longer accept that illusion. Then we could no longer even identify that good, let alone know whether the state embodied it. Finally, not only the state, but the whole Potemkin-village of a culture came apart like a bit of sofa-stuffing.

One more movie, Boy Wonder, (2010) did not make the kind of splash the others did, but is a cult classic. Again it is a story of a police detective hunting for a serial killer. The policewoman this time, Teresa Ames (Zulay Henao), like Mills in Se7en, has been recently transfered to the squad. As usual, she immediately encounters hostility from the other cops for having done her job too well. Against regulations, mingling with all the police at the station, is a young boy, Sean (Caleb Steinmeyer). The police feel sorry for him because when he was a child, nine years ago, his mother was murdered right beside him in the car. Ostensibly, he is on a fruitless search through the files for the murderer. They feel sorry for him and give him access to the computer. We soon discover that he is the criminal Teresa is looking for. The other police jump to the wrong conclusions. Their procedures, and perhaps even more their sloth, lead them astray.

After the second murder, that of a pimp, Teresa interviews the hooker Sean saved by killing him. At that point Teresa doesn’t know Sean is the killer. The whore articulates the theme, that it was the vigilante who was doing good and the police attempt to capture him doing harm. The pimp had earlier gotten away with another murder through some quirk in legal procedure, and would soon have killed her. So in Boy Wonder the criminal is good, the police, if not evil, aid evil with their procedures.

Sean’s father is seen doing the mundane tasks of being a single dad, but from the very beginning he is banal and somehow false. His simmering violence is revealed early, and in a flashback, child Sean displays a large bruise on his cheek. We will find out that the father engineered the whole murder of his wife, Sean’s mother, for money. By the end we realize that his day-to-day life, the whole struggle of the single dad– shopping for food, visiting his wife’s grave with flowers, trying to solve his son’s problems,– is the evidence for his insanity. What else could his solicitous concern for Sean be after he arranged to brutally kill his mother right in front of him! The everyday life of the family is madness. Sean shares this madness for he had to grow up treating as sane his father’s ordinary everyday life, when he knew from his own experience that is was insane. For from the very beginning Sean identified the criminal and the father insisted he was wrong. Sean’s life within the family required him to be insane, that is, assert the falsehood of the evidence of his eyes. He had to live his childhood as a farce.

Two threads come together when Larry Childs, a criminal it cost Teresa her marriage and her son to catch, is about to walk because of deals within the system. For Childs, having been hired by Sean’s father, turns out to be the murderer of Sean’s mother as well. Sean sets out to kill both Childs and his father. Although the plan is Sean’s, Teresa, because of her own mistreatment by the law, is convinced Sean is right to despise the legal mechanism. She throws a gun Sean used into the river, thus becoming an accomplice and taking her place outside the procedures of the state while retaining her commitment to good. So Boy Wonder takes the further step of the criminal’s teaching the cops about the good.

Of course Sean is unlike any of the other criminals. He is, as the title suggests, a super-hero. He is young, good looking, powerful, and hot. The serial killer, once the creepy Scorpio, is now the nicest kid on the block. He, like John Doe, thinks, like all super heroes, that he works outside the law for good. But, unlike John Doe’s victims, his victims are very bad guys, child murderers, not merely fat or vain people. These people are indubitably bad. Bad, bad, bad. For Sean can only detect evil that’s way past the red line. Strangely, he lets his victims beat him for awhile before he rears up and destroys them. This seems to be a reflection of the beatings his father gave him as a child. But it also seems to be a need to feel the depths of their evil before he can erupt. His is finally a passionate vengeance taken in Homeric wrath. It is not so easy to call Sean’s vigilantism insane what with the court releasing these very bad criminals on deals.

But Sean is damaged. Through flashbacks that sputter and spark like old flashbulbs we glimpse his mind. It is filled with unforgettable glimpses of that horrible night his mother was murdered. When Sean kills his father, he says, “I’m sorry.” The father, thinking he has once again successfully spun his mind games, smiles, only to have Sean continue, “I’m sorry I can’t believe you,” and blow him away. This, combined with the insanity of everyday life, is a rejection of the entire inherited culture in which the father’s monstrousness has destroyed the mother’s refinement and replaced it with farce.

The super-hero tights and the super powers are gone, but Sean can, when he chooses, destroy all evil. He is an abused child’s dream, an escape into semi-believeable fantasy of protective super-heroism. With this super-strength he can say good-bye to community. He dishes out justice according to his own lights which are better than those of the entire world. He is the whole community. He is also a serial killer, as are all super heroes and all cops. The demented Scorpio, and the soul-dead John Doe have morphed into the boy next door. The lone madman acting alone is a darn nice kid, and the good he thinks he is doing is really good.

Seeking denial in dreams of super-heroism is the last stage in the disintegration of a “culture”. For a “culture” is the articulation of a way of life, and to live only in dream is to enter death’s portico. A super-hero is, after all, a serial killer, a serial killer, to be sure, of bad guys. He defeats evil with evil but isn’t real. The present plague of movie super-heroes is a mass dream escape from the void revealed by a dissolving culture. In retrospect American “culture” will be hard to find. It is a country founded on ideals whose ideals were apparently sham. The cop movies articulate a gradual revelation of this truth. America was the “shop” in The Sting. The guys who were supposed to preserve the ideals we exist for were really subverting them. Even the last refuge, the family, is but a stage set to seduce you to collaborate in your own destruction. As in Boy Wonder it turns out to be a cauldron of madness, of forced collaboration in monstrous lies. America betrayed its ideals through an embrace of the clever double-cross, leaving its citizenry lost in confusion and its history in a muddle.

What, in the end, was it? What in the end is a country founded on an idea when that idea turns out to have been the cover up for a con? Will its history continue to present the cover story as truth? The idea that the victor writes history and can so make it up is wrong. Victory is brief, the historian’s gaze long. One need only contemplate the crumbling reputations of Jefferson, Columbus, FDR, and other American heroes to see how a drop of truth spoils the whole stew pot of propaganda until one doubts the entire fabric of the past. What America truly is is now known in all the world… with the exception of here where the ostrich has come home to roost.

When the hot flame of events dies down, the historian will pick what’s left apart with his tweezers. Those who would remake history have no idea of the truly awesome powers of a good scholar free of prejudice. Perhaps they don’t care. But what is a victory over ones own better self worth?

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: