The New Centurions (1972) Blu Ray & DVD (Powerhouse/Indicator)
This adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s novel takes a slice-of-life look at the trials and tribulations of a group of Los Angeles cops. The central protagonist is Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach), a rookie officer who lives with wife Dorothy (Jane Alexander) and daughter Rebecca. He is attempting to complete a law degree in between his night-time patrols of the city’s seedy streets in the company of veteran Kilvinski (George C. Scott). Amongst their colleagues are Sergio (Erik Estrada) - a Latino ex-gang member, his partner Galloway (Ed Lauter), Gus (Scott Wilson) - a rookie who struggles with the pressures of his role, and Whitey (Clifton James).
The film chronicles their escapades as they deal with hooker round-ups, gunpoint store robberies, domestic disturbances, gangland brawls and more. Meanwhile, Roy’s marriage is visibly suffering the strains of his absence from family life, and Kilvinski has to face the daunting prospect of retirement.
Watch a trailer:
The New Centurions is very much a product of its time. A typically solid Richard Fleischer film (from the time before he sank into hackwork such as Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja) it’s well-made, well-acted and entertaining, but ultimately rather depressing. We get the impression here that the life of an L.A. cop is (to put it mildly) tough and dangerous, but at the same time provides an undeniable adrenaline rush that takes an inexorable hold on those who step into the role.
It generally works well thanks in no small part due to the excellent cast and keen ear for dialogue. Needless to say, it’s Oscar winner George C. Scott who puts in the finest work here as a tough, cynical yet fundamentally decent veteran on the city’s ugly front lines. Stacy Keach isn’t far behind however as his younger partner, who mixes dry humour with rage in a demeanour that initially seems granite-tough, but starts to fall apart under the circumstances that occur over the course of the picture. More importantly, they click well together onscreen in a relationship that moves from father-son, through close friendship, to near-comedic double act during their creative attempts to haul various suspects into their police vehicle.
As well as the main stars there is a solid supporting cast list, several of whom became better known in their later careers. Erik Estrada is a charismatic and engaging presence here, and it’s no wonder he got picked for the role of highway cop Ponch in the popular 1977-1983 TV series CHiPs. Clifton James was a known character actor for some time before The New Centurions but is arguably most famous for playing the hick Sheriff J. W. Pepper in the Bond movies Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Ed Lauter became a prolific character actor in films and TV. William Atherton, playing a rather uptight rookie who appears later on in the film, became best known for portraying such similarly uptight characters as health and safety inspector Walter Peck in Ghostbusters (1984) and reporter Richard Thornburg in Die Hard (1988)/Die Hard 2 (1990). The female characters are pretty much sidelined in this overtly male-orientated police drama, but Jane Alexander as Roy’s wife and Rosalind Cash as a black nurse do the best they can with their somewhat one-note roles.
One modern criticism of The New Centurions is that many of the peripheral characters tend to fall back on un-PC stereotypes. Most of the blacks here (bar Rosalind Cash’s character) are hookers, gun-toting crooks or quickly passed over victims. There’s a scene where a cruising homosexual is entrapped and apprehended. Bar the well-rounded character of Sergio the main look-in for Latinos is via seeing a whole group of illegal immigrants overcrowded into a dilapidated house. On the other hand, the film does try to deal with racial issues using some critical distance as an officer accidentally shoots a black man chasing a store robber rather than the suspect himself, or a crooked landlord gets roughed up for housing the aforementioned Latinos in such poor conditions. It’s clear however that it’s from a white, male, heterosexual perspective even if it is from one that strives to be relatively progressive for the period.
The direction by Fleischer is as fine as it usually is. He has often been termed a journeyman director due to his constant butterflying between various genres and lack of any obvious signature style a la Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick or Sam Peckinpah. However, his directorial talent is more subtle and unselfconscious. It comes out in his soaking up of the nighttime street atmosphere where all sorts of colourfully sleazy characters come out to inhabit L.A.’s sidewalks, or in his skilful execution of the action sequences (in particular a pursuit of a gang member through a long underpass which he progressively shrouds in complete darkness by breaking every ceiling light as he passes, and a frantic dangle from an escaping car as it smashes through a long succession of white picket fences). There’s one moment later in the film involving George C. Scott’s character which is slow, serene and sunlit. It’s undramatic in itself (at least, until its conclusion) but is so at odds with the fast, brutal and dark feel of the bulk of the film that it, quite deliberately, feels “all wrong”.
The New Centurions is a decent and involving movie mixing action, downbeat drama and even some humour. At the end of the day however it doesn’t really say anything apart from “don’t take up employment in the LAPD - it’ll mess up your life”. Still, if you like this sort of episodic police story and can cope with less-than-positive story outcome then it’s definitely worth a watch.
Runtime: 103 mins
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Script: Stirling Silliphant, Robert Towne, from a novel by Joseph Wambaugh
Starring: George C. Scott, Stacy Keach, Jane Alexander, Scott Wilson, Rosalind Cash, Erik Estrada, Clifton James, James Sikking, Ed Lauter, William Atherton
This HD remaster looks fabulous with rich 1970s colour and textures that almost imbue a “being there” feeling. The lens flare in the nighttime shots is particularly striking.
The 70s-tastic soundtrack and the actors’ lines of dialogue are clear and pristine. A great job.
We get an enclosed booklet featuring two essays plus production notes. The first essay, “The New Centurions” by Nick Pinkerton, takes a look at the novel’s writer Joseph Wambaugh, and the similarities and differences between book and film. The second, “The New Centurions - Critical response: from page to screen” features snippets and examinations of various contemporary reviews pertaining to both the 1971 book and the 1972 film. It is revealed that in the U.K. (where the original novel was less successful than in the U.S.) the film went by the title “Precinct 45 - Los Angeles Police”. We also get a snippet from an article where Jean-Pierre Gorin is interviewed and he describes The New Centurions as being a “casual fascist white movie”, a proclamation that seems, in retrospect, to be on the extreme side. The supplied original U.K. production notes are interesting in that they assert (though it is hard to confirm the veracity of these claims) that a couple of actual crimes took place during or a day before filming staged criminal incidents at the same locations.
On the disc itself we get the following:
Cop Stories: The Making of Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions
Interviews with Stacy Keach, Joseph Wambaugh, technical adviser Richard E. Falk and assistant cameraman Ronald Vidor. Wambaugh reveals how he was a closet writer during his early days, scribbling on hamburger wrappers while out on the beat. Despite his newfound fame, he remained in the LAPD until 4 years after the New Centurions film was made, and only left when he could no longer stand the deference his fellow cops showed him as a result of his reputation. Technical adviser Richard E. Falk was his partner in the LAPD at the time and helped to ensure the authenticity even down to the movie being filmed entirely on actual gangland locations. It is also revealed that, during the sequence where Keach hangs from the escaping car, a shot where it dashes sideways to avoid oncoming traffic was all-too-real as the police forgot to cordon off the filming area. It’s an outstanding doc and well worth watching after the film (not before mind you, since there are spoilers).
Super 8 Version
A 16-minute version in the Super 8 home cinema format. A curiosity (if nothing else) from a pre-video player time when this truncated home viewing format was the only option bar catching films when they were transmitted on TV.
A trailer rounds out the extras.
If you’re after a well-made, downbeat 1970s police drama this is a good purchase. Powerhouse/Indicator have, once again, provided a classy package.