Monday, March 14, 2011

Cop (1988)

I’m going to go way out on a limb here, and say that in my opinion the relatively unknown movie Cop may just be the best adaptation of a James Ellroy book to hit the screen.

Cop is not a dense, labyrinthine crime epic in the vein of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia (both of which failed, Black Dahlia much more so, in the almost Herculean task of transposing Ellroy’s words onto the screen). Cop combines elements of the rogue cop, police procedural and serial killer genres into an uncut little gem of a neo noir crime film.

The other reason it works so well is the casting of James Woods, who in the eighties had the market covered for hard-boiled sleazy burnt-outs, as the central character, Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins.

Cop is based on Blood on the Moon, the first of three books featuring the character of Hopkins Ellroy wrote in the mid eighties. It’s been a while since I’ve read Blood on the Moon so I’ve forgotten many of the differences. Certainly, I recall the ending of the film is different to Ellroy’s book.

The film opens with the discovery of a mutilated body in an LA apartment building. Hopkins is first on the scene and the only clues are a blood-smeared book of radical feminist poetry called Rage in the Womb and a stack of newspapers with the same advertisement for a swinger party circled in red.

The newspaper adverts lead him to blonde bombshell, Joanie Pratt, “former actress, model, singer, dancer and what usually follows”, who admits she was helping the murdered woman, Julie Niemeyer, research the swinger scene.

When a letter written in human blood turns up in Niemeyer’s PO Box, Hopkins pulls the files on all unsolved LA homicides going back several years. It’s not long before he deduces he’s dealing with a serial killer. The link between his victims: they were all innocent.

It’s the one thing his born again Christian commander does not want to hear. Serial killers “panic the public and embarrasses the department” he tells Hopkins. There’s also the matter of Hopkins’ well-known reputation for having “a hair up his arse” about murdered women.

Hopkins demands additional men and resources to find the killer or he’ll go to the media, then storms out of the commander's office. Undeterred, Hopkins fronts a Sheriff’s deputy, Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines, who discovered two of the bodies Hopkins suspects were victims of the serial killer.

Hopkins creeps Haines’ pad and finds marijuana, S&M gear, guns, and a wire that someone has been using to secretly tape Haines and his attempts to extort gay hustlers, including one called Birdman, for drugs and money.

Next he checks out women’s bookstores for leads on the bloodstained tome of feminist poetry found at scene of the Nieymeyer killing. Despite their obvious differences, he and the owner of one of these stores, ‘Ms’ Kathleen McCarthy, a tense, chain-smoking anti-police feminist strike up a rapport.


He takes her to a party full of LAPD brass instead of his wife (who has left him by now) and talking to her later that night discovers that she is still recovering from a rape that occurred in the last year of her high school.

She also tells him since that time fifteen years ago, someone has been anonymously sending her flowers. When Hopkins notices photos of Haines and another student nick named Birdman in McCarthy’s senior Year Book, his suspicions are further raised. He breaks into McCarthy’s house and finds that the flowers, which she has kept pressed in glass, correspond to the dates on the women he suspects were victims of the serial killer were murdered.

From here the body and sleaze count ratchets up considerably. The killer murders Pratt, sending Hopkins’ commander incriminating photos of Hopkins and the woman having sex in the kitchen.

Birdman is the next to be murdered, after we see him get in a car after soliciting the driver for sex, and Hopkins shoots Haines after forcing a confession from him that and Birdman were responsible for raping McCarthy.

Watching Cop now is like viewing a primer on how to do an eighties crime film. The look is washed out, the sound track comprises heavy synthesiser interspersed with wailing sax, and there’s lots of badly dressed cops in houndstooth jackets. The studio behind Cop were reportedly concerned that it would be seen as a slasher movie when what they wanted was something more like Dirty Harry. They ended up with both.

Cop came before Silence of the Lambs had made serial killers acceptable for mainstream audiences (although Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a far better film, was released in 1986), and the plot was one of the earlier iterations of the ‘cop-goes-AWOL-in-order-to-hunt-down-serial-killer-no-else-believes-exists’ story. The material is well handled, the film managing to capture the frenetic pace of Ellroy’s writing and the great dialogue.

Salvador, Once Upon a Time in America, Videodrome and much under-rated Best Seller, were all under Wood’s belt when he did Cop, and he’s at his reptilian best as Hopkins, a womanising sociopath who doesn’t just cut corners to get what he wants; he’ll smash down the entire building.

He’s the kind of policeman that, completely unprovoked, kills a suspect and gets his partner, Dutch, (Charles Durning) to deal with the consequences while he hits on the dead guy’s girlfriend. “You blow away a broad’s date, the least you can do is drive her home,” Hopkins tells Dutch.

Indeed, director James B Harris, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t baulk at depicting Hopkins at his worst. This includes showing the Hopkins’ barely constrained boredom, snatching glances at his watch, as McCarthy opens up to him about her life.

Assisting Woods is a great cast of supporting actors, including Charles Haid as Sheriff Delbert Whitey Haines, Durning and Lesley Ann Warren as the feminist bookstore owner, Kathleen McCarthy, who makes her otherwise stero-typed character almost believable.

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Written by Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne writer. His blog, Pulp Curry examines crime fiction and film, with a focus on Asia and Australia.



3 comments:

  1. Cop better than LA Confidential lol... even Ellroy doesn't agree with you. There is a reason this film is forgotten.

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  2. Hi, I love this film. But I DO feel I need to correct an inaccurate statement made by the Australian author Mr. Nette. He wrote:

    "He’s the kind of policeman that, completely unprovoked, kills a suspect and gets his partner, Dutch, (Charles Durning) to deal with the consequences while he hits on the dead guy’s girlfriend."

    He didn't kill the suspect "completely unprovoked" - Dutch identified himself as police, then the suspect rammed the door against him, knocking him to the ground, and exited the vehicle with a handgun. In US law that would be a justified shooting and certainly not "completely unprovoked."

    Just to clarify - otherwise this is an excellent blog.

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  3. I'm not sure I'd join you on that way-out limb. Cop is a fun genre movie, hyped up on 80s excess, but it comes across primarily as a Woods star vehicle (dig that poster), while LA Confidential is THE American film of the 1990s. It's also fair to say that Cop translates Ellroy more familiarly because it's not remotely as large or sophisticated as Confidential. Blood on the Moon is no more herculean than any other pulp novel. Besides, LA Confidential the film captures the spirit of the source text perfectly — and that was challenge enough.

    I agree with you that Best Seller is underrated, but I'm not clear as to which film you believe Manhunter is better than - Cop or The Silence of the Lambs? I'll happily give you the former, but not the latter - unless we are thinking of the films merely terms of style.

    I love that you are championing this film, but I wish your post dug deeper into understanding the character and how he fits into the ethos of 80s crime pictures, with a little less plot summary. Thanks though, for bringing Cop into the conversation!

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