Threaded throughout Film Forum’s encyclopedic 50-film “NYPD” series are broad hints that the cops-‘n’-crooks genre adores what it means to stamp out. Though policing ostensibly aims to reinstitute civic rectitude, film cop and film viewer alike crave temptation—the daily ethical battle of every urbanite is the policeman’s struggle with the lure of graft, the enveloping gravity of sleaze. Every iteration of the city offers endless chances to misread one’s moral compass: the immigrants-and-machines metropolis of the Depression; the noir nightworld of the ’40s; the decaying, toothless giant of the ’70s; even the Disneyfied glamorama of today. It’s not the solution we cherish; it’s the tools we discover along the way that enable us to render city life legible by laying bare its central challenges.
Perhaps the urtext here is Jules Dassin’s 1948 policier The Naked City, narrated with full Winchellian snarl by Mark Hellinger. The film diligently follows its detective protagonists’ every fit and start as they unravel the killing of a young woman. But the real hero is the camera itself, which is set free to wander Gotham and enjoy the varied sights it comes upon: It winds down city streets, looks in on wrestlers in training, visits the morgue and Roosevelt Hospital, and makes its way to the Williamsburg Bridge for the climax. The subgenre of sleaze pix wrings a similar jolt from the sheer abundance of places to go wrong. In the luridly psychopathological Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), the underrated 1980 Cruising (which, in this company, offers the provocative argument that legal trouble and gender trouble make comfortable bedfellows), and, most famously, the gleefully vitriolic Sweet Smell of Success (1957), with its lovingly cruel vistas of an emptied Times Square (the blank spaciousness of which suggests De Chirico), the city is a cornucopia of pleasurable self-destruction.
Or maybe the root story lies in Walter Hill’s once controversial The Warriors (1979), whose assortment of lightly armed but well-accessorized gangs now seems almost quaint. For the beleaguered Warriors, doing their best to fight their way back home to Coney Island, urban space suddenly decays from an orderly and marked set of territories into a carnivalesque and almost incoherent series of scrawls. Allies become enemies, seduction suddenly warps into violence. In its endearingly meatheaded way, the film inherits the almost Western ethos of chase films like Side Street (1949), Cry of the City (1948), and Phantom Lady (1944), with skyscrapers (“concrete canyons,” as Herman Melville called them) filling in for Monument Valley as the archetypal backdrop for the combat between right and wrong.
Indeed, this series distributes its pleasures widely—almost no Manhattan intersection misses its chance to sample corruption. (The other boroughs tend to be slighted, though both Romeo Is Bleeding and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man make it out to Queens.) Watch chronologically and you can see crime migrate, from The Bowery (1933) to midtown (seemingly the entire New York noir genre of the ’40s is set between 34th and 59th streets) to the wreckage of post-Robert Moses Harlem and the South Bronx (Across 110th Street, Cotton Comes to Harlem), then thin out and spread almost everywhere. For ’90s cop films like Q & A (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992), corruption is nearly an atmospheric condition.
Which is not to say that inertia wins the day. One of the most important functions of the police film is to offer solace by calling at least a temporary halt to what threatens us, whether it’s externalized in rackets (Bullets or Ballots, Rogue Cop), organized crime (Pay or Die!, Beast of the City), or drug pushers (The French Connection, in a new widescreen print, or Shaft), or internalized in crooked cops (Copland, Serpico). Yet even in these films, chaos gets in a word at the end. In The French Connection (1971), the head of the syndicate weasels his way out of the grasp of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and makes it back to France (where, in the much inferior sequel, he will get Popeye hooked on heroin out of sheer perversity). In The Big Heat (1953), Glenn Ford avenges the loss of his wife to mob boss Alexander Scourby, then heads out on a hit-and-run as the film ends.
But the best summary of these attractions comes in my single favorite shot in any of these films: the freeze-frame on Walter Matthau’s transit authority cop at the very end of The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974). That hangdog, wearily cheerful countenance, wryly nailing the last of the gang of hijackers when his cold gives him away, is one of cinema’s great markers of contingent victory—a respite, if only for a few minutes, from the parade of civic wrongdoing that we want to continue every bit as much as we need it to end.