COPS AND CLICHES
IT was known as the English cosy school of detective fiction — perfected by the likes of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. The police were invariably polite, conscientious and incorruptible, and their equivalent could be seen in the police dramas in the early years of British television. I have warm memories of Dixon of Dock Green, a long-running TV series from the 1950s in which an avuncular London bobby (played by Jack Warner) began each episode with a salute to the audience and a friendly ‘‘ Evening all’’. It wasn’t until Z Cars in the 60s that the vogue for tough, realistic police drama took hold on British TV, followed in the 80s and 90s by The Bill, perhaps the most successful police procedural of them all.
British cop movies underwent a similar transition. Who remembers The Blue Lamp (1950), the first British film made with the cooperation of the London Metropolitan Police, which lent stations and patrol cars to the filmmakers and even some of its officers for small roles? The cops in those days could do no wrong. In an unlikely plot, police and underworld figures joined forces to catch a neurotic young spiv (Dirk Bogarde) who had killed a policeman. But it wasn’t long before British police thrillers got down and dirty. The filmmakers seemed determined to prove they could make cop and gangster films as ugly and violent as anything coming out of Hollywood. Michael Caine played a vicious hit man in Get Carter — a groundbreaking work — and there’s a scene in the 1972 Sidney Lumet film The Offence in which Sean Connery, playing a frustrated cop, beats a suspect to death.
The Sweeney, directed by Nick Love, with a screenplay by John Hodge (who wrote those two low-life classics Trainspotting and Shallow Grave), is based on the 70s TV series of the same name. And, needless to say, it belongs in the blood-and-guts school of British police drama. Detective Inspector Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) is an angry cop in the Dirty Harry tradition, not averse to breaking rules to get his man. What sort of rules? Well, minor ones against purloining stolen goods, bribing informers with the proceeds of robberies and carrying on an affair with a police colleague (Hayley Atwell), the wife of a senior officer. Regan’s outfit the Sweeney (Sweeney Todd being rhyming slang for Flying Squad) likes to get to the scene of a crime before the bad guys have got away. This usually entails reckless driving through public streets and the indiscriminate use of firearms in public places. After a slam-bang action opening sequence in a warehouse, where bullion robbers are caught loading gold ingots into a van, we move to a slam-bang sex scene in a police toilet. We’re a long way from Dixon of Dock Green.
Winstone, familiar in English hard-guy roles, is a well cast as Regan, but his character feels empty and offensive. He’s your typical ruthless bully-cop, foul-mouthed and belligerent, with an equally disagreeable young sidekick, Detective Sergeant George Carter (Ben Drew). Between them they cause more mayhem, with attendant threats to life and limb, than the crims they are chasing. Regan also has made an enemy of Detective Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), the head of internal affairs, who suspects him of shady tactics and bears a personal grudge as well. I think we are meant to despise Lewis as a cold and vindictive creep, but he behaves a good deal more honourably than Jack Regan.
The violence is well orchestrated in the well-oiled, well-edited manner of the modern action film, but the car chases look pretty routine and suspense sequences set in underground carparks are surely a movie cliche. The climactic shootout in Trafalgar Square, involving more bullets than Django Unchained,
destroys any semblance of the gritty realism for which Love may have been striving. After wreaking havoc on various public monuments, the gunfire moves indoors. Where are we now? The National Gallery? This sedate, book-lined chamber must be the reading room at White’s, the gentlemen’s club, whose shelves and walls take a battering. We know it’s White’s because it gets a mention in the credits. I wish I could say the inclusion of a scene in a gentlemen’s
club raises The Sweeney’s tone. No such luck. It’s a silly, nasty film.
ROMAN Polanski: A Film Memoir is an admiring documentary about the great Polish filmmaker who gave us masterpieces such as
Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist. Most of it consists of a conversation between Polanski and his old friend and former producer Andrew Braunsberg, conducted across a table in a house near Zurich where, for seven months in 2009, Polanski was held under house arrest by the Swiss authorities. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, it is an enjoyable and well-crafted film that manages to tell us little we didn’t know. Polanski has been the subject of at least three biographies and published his autobiography, Roman, in 1984. Those looking for fresh revelations and scandalous confessions may be disappointed.
But the film is worth seeing for its insights into Polanski’s personality and his attitudes to film making. (It is surprising to be told, for example, that he disliked Repulsion, the psychological horror film that made his name in Britain in 1965.) Braunsberg’s interview, supplemented by archival footage and clips from the films, takes us through Polanski’s childhood in the Warsaw ghetto, the loss of his mother in the Holocaust, the grisly murder in 1969 of his wife, Sharon Tate, by followers of Charles Manson, his arrest in Los Angeles in 1977 on a charge of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl (to which he pleaded guilty), and his flight to Europe to avoid sentencing by a US judge. And I must say that for one whose life has been scarred by much anguish and tragedy, the 79-year-old Polanski looks remarkably relaxed before the camera — his face fresh and unlined, his voice firm, his eyes alert and clear.
But it is hard to warm to him. One senses no genuine contrition for his crime and, as if to relieve him of any sense of guilt, Bouzereau includes a clip from the victim of the 1977 assault, who offers her forgiveness (and indeed pleaded in the Swiss courts against Polanski’s extradition to the US, a request granted in 2010). The best parts of the film deal with his recollections of the Holocaust and his experiences as a small boy in Europe after the war. He became fascinated with the cinema while watching German B-grade movies and taught himself to read by following the subtitles on foreign films. How much of his experience shaped the agonies depicted in his work isn’t clear and Braunsberg never probes for a connection. But we can draw our own conclusions.
Polanski is on record as saying: ‘‘ Nothing is too shocking for me. When you tell the story of a man who loses his head, you have to show the head being cut off. Otherwise it’s just a dirty joke without a punchline.’’ This seems to me a very dubious proposition, and I can’t remember a Polanski film in which someone’s head is cut off, unless it was his bloodthirsty version of Macbeth in 1971.
His last film was the black comedy Carnage, made with Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet in 2011. One would have liked some incisive questioning on what new projects might attract him. As he tells his interviewer, he’s eager to be back at work and making films is his one joy in life. How odd that so few of his films convey a sense of life’s joy.
He once said: ‘‘ I know in my heart of hearts that the spirit of laughter has deserted me.’’ No doubt he was right.
Ray Winstone and Ben Drew in