The New Centurions
Respected author Joseph Wambaugh explained in an interview that he had little time for the police procedural. The intention with his book, The New Centurions, was to instead explore how working on the frontline impacts the lives of Officers through the physical and psychological stresses of the role. Wambaugh already had plenty of experience to draw upon when he started writing in the sixties, being a serving LAPD Officer at that time and working his way up to Detective Sergeant over a 14 year career.
The New Centurions follows the experiences of 3 rookie cops from their induction at the police academy in 1960, through several years patrolling the streets of downtown LA up until the infamous Watts riots of August 1965. While the book may have fleshed out all 3 of the principal characters in much more detail, Sterling Silliphant’s screenplay for the 1972 movie places more of an emphasis on only one of them, Officer Roy Fehler (an excellent Stacy Keach). His two classmates, Mexican-American recruit Serge Duran (Erik Estrada) and edgy Gus Plebesly (Scott Wilson) are afforded far less screen time.
Roy Fehler starts out as an ambitious young recruit who is studying law in his spare time and has joined the LAPD as a way of making ends meet. He’s initially partnered with seasoned veteran Andy Kilvinsky (a magnificent George C. Scott) who mentors him on the ways of the street. Fehler finds his older colleague ever keen to dispense words of wisdom - “Kilvinksy’s Law”, which doesn’t necessarily follow official police procedure but still gets results. There is an instant rapport between Fehler and Kilvinsky and the film works best as we follow them on their many routine calls. This includes them coming to the aid of a baby in peril, a shoot-out in a parking lot and an amusing sequence where the Officers have to coerce a bunch of boisterous prostitutes into the back of a police van.
The movie shows the Officers becoming more cynical over time. Kilvinsky bemoans “the don’ts are dying”, in other words the laws are changing - but not always for the better. In what seems to be obligatory in cop movies, Kilvinsky is counting the days to his retirement. When he does depart, mid-way through the film, it’s clear that Fehler is going to greatly miss his wiser partner. This is not so much conveyed in dialogue, but the expression on Fehler’s face says it all. The camaraderie between them works so well on screen, that the film suffers too when they part company. We later learn that far from enjoying his retirement, Kilvinsky had become so married to the job that upon leaving the role his life seems to have lost a sense of purpose.
The focus of the film then shifts to Fehler, where the pressures of the job are taking their toll on him. His marriage has already crumbled through working arduous hours and continual night duties. Furthermore he has become despondent with assignments given to him whilst posted to the Vice Squad, gradually descending into alcoholism and depression. Keach really gets an opportunity to shine in the role as his character changes through the course of the film and makes some serious errors of judgement. The tense scenes between Fehler and his wife are nicely played, as are the later moments where he desperately reaches out for help to a kind-hearted nurse (Rosalind Cash).
The sporadic tough action sequences are adeptly handled by veteran director Richard Fleischer, including a climatic riot that reunites the 3 former classmates and the riveting chase that follows. In fact Fleischer proved to be highly versatile in a career spanning several decades, working on movies across several genres and was equally comfortable directing gargantuan scale productions such as Tora! Tora! Tora! as he was making smaller character driven dramas like 10 Rillington Place.
After a zillion gritty cop shows on televison over the years, the New Centurions may not seem particularly groundbreaking now. Even if some of the dialogue hasn't aged well, many of the issues raised will still resonate with a modern audience. The episodic structure of the film does mean that there is not sufficient time to fully develop all the multiple storylines, which is possible in a television series. This often causes some large jumps in the narrative. For example, Officer Plebesly accidentally shoots dead an innocent man during a call, but we don't see the full repercussions of this event as the film swiftly moves on to the next incident. Similarly Fehler seems to make a very rapid recovery from a near fatal gunshot wound early in the film, though many weeks have actually passed.
Sticklers to the conventions of seventies cop shows will be pleased to see that the New Centurions features a sequence where a car speeds down an alleyway and ploughs through a pile of conveniently placed cardboard boxes. Trivia fans should also note that Erik Estrada, who has a small role here, would go on to become a household name a few years later. This would be again playing an LA cop, this time in the long running hit TV show CHiPs.
The New Centurions is a dual format release from new British label Powerhouse Films, under their limited editon Indicator range (only 3000 copies have been produced). The film hasn't been available in the UK since it had a release on VHS over 30 years ago, where the scope photography had been badly cropped, as was the norm at that time. The New Centurions was released on region 1 DVD in the US a number of years ago, under Sony's bizarre "Martini Movies" range.
The region free blu-ray from Powerhouse Films, sourced from an HD master provided by Sony, is the best that the movie has ever looked. Shot in Panavision, it's presented in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no discernible signs of damage. A large proportion of the New Centurions was shot at night, often with low-level lighting. Fortunately contrast levels are generally good, with detail in the dark police uniforms still visible during many of the night scenes. Only when there are dialogue sequences inside the patrol cars at night that much of the interior detail is lost, although the characters faces are still clearly visible. There is a fine level of grain throughout and this is more noticeable in some scenes more than others. This does provide the movie with a gritty seventies feel. The daylight scenes are bright and show significantly more detail here than in Sony's previous R1 DVD release. The opening training scene at the police academy is a good example, with the surroundings looking much sharper on the blu-ray.
There are no issues with the audio and dialogue is consistenly clear throughout. Music is used quite sparingly, but whenever there is an action sequence the funky score by Quincy Jones suddenly bursts to life.
An excellent 44 minute documentary from Robert Fischer's Fiction Factory provides a considerable amount of insight into the film, featuring interviews with Joseph Wambaugh, Stacy Keach, technical advisor Richard E. Kalk and assistant cameraman Ronald Vidor. The author is full of anecdotes, explaining his police background and the origins of the movie. Keach explains that this was an early role in his career and he was eager to work with screen veteran Scott who had recently won an Oscar for Patton. Some of the technical challenges of the film are also discussed, including having to achieve difficult shots with bulky Panavision equipment and a dolly, before the days of Steadicam or lightweight digital cameras. It's also interesting to learn that no sets were used for the movie, with filming taking place mainly on location and interiors shot in a real former police station that was no longer operational.
A truncated 17 minute super 8 version of the film is also included for the purposes of nostalgia . It's rather faded and worn, but interesting to see how the film would have been watched at home prior to the days of videocassette.
A 20 page booklet rounds off this excellent package, featuring a new essay by Nick Pinkerton and includes a number of stills taken from the film.
The New Centurions is a compelling seventies cop drama, showcasing two brilliant performances from George C. Scott and Stacy Keach. New label Powerhouse Films are proving to be a name to watch for collectors, with a great presentation of the film on blu-ray combined with generous extras.