Tom Jolliffe on the well-worn but effective cop on the edge trope…
Cinema can often be pretty simple. Good guys are often morally upstanding. Bad guys often irredeemably corrupt. Your good guy might be a cop, your bad guy a crook. The hero might have a foible or two, but is generally psychologically on an equilibrium. Meanwhile, you know the bad guy is more likely to have gone loco. The beauty of cinema though, lies in that ability to shake things up. To throw in moral ambiguity or psychological imbalance to a person who should be on the side of law and order as one example. It’s now become well worn, but the cop on the edge trope still remains popular. It became increasingly popular through the 60’s onward in American cinema, where prior, particularly during the Hays code, your protagonist lawman would have to be whiter than white. Any cop that might have been morally obtuse would have been strictly painted as a villain and almost certainly get his comeuppance.
Orson Welles wrote and directed the iconic Touch of Evil, also co-starring as a corrupt lawman, eventually bested by the more moralistic, Charlton Heston. As usual with Welles the film pushed some limits with the censors, but certainly, things were just easing in 1958 until the Hayes code died off a decade later (which ushered in a near decade of grimy, degenerate and pessimistic American cinema). The idea of the lawman bending rules wasn’t new, and was particularly popular, but we would begin to see more distinctly dark tales of cops getting their results, at whatever cost. Dirty Harry would certainly tread that line between being the ill-disciplined rogue, or the being close to lawlessness himself. He’s pretty trigger happy with his magnum that’s for sure, but this barely scratched the surface other cops on the edge would. Later on, Russell Crowe excelled in a more ramped up, and perhaps grittier alternative to the Dirty Harry type, in LA Confidential. Morally he was certainly righteous, but he crossed many a line.
One of the most interesting depictions of a cop on the edge was in Michael Mann’s eternally underrated Manhunter. Will Graham (William Peterson) has only just psychologically recovered from a total psychological breakdown, compounded by his interactions with Hannibal Lecktor previously. His working process left him open to infliction, and Lecktor was completely skilled in cutting those fraying strings. So when Graham is brought tentatively into the fold to track ‘the Tooth Fairy’ there’s a hesitance from himself, his family and his closest colleagues in going back. Inevitably, Graham has to tunnel deep within to try to understand how the killer thinks and increasingly takes a front seat in the investigating as his mind begins dangerously unravelling again. He’s even compelled to seek counsel with the man who nearly killed him previously, Lecktor. Whilst Graham is ultimately moral, he’s taking his mind to dangerous places and opening doors which potentially may never be closed again. Mann’s film as a whole piece certainly delves into very interesting psychological caveats with its hero and villain. We’re to become fearful of Graham’s descent. To question his obsessions that bring risk to his own sanity and family. At the same time, there’s a sympathy to be felt for Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) as the villain. He’s complex, tortured and fascinating. Silence of the Lambs is of course superb and the more polished perhaps, but Mann’s raw, stylish and dark thriller delves deeper into its cop and killer.
If Graham is almost tipping over, but keeping a moral core, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant shows another cop whose morality has also disintegrated. Harvey Keitel as the titular bad cop is astonishing in a role where he lets loose of all restraint. It’s a repugnant character, whose hedonistic and corrupt pursuits have left him with a bulls-eye on his back. He scrapes together the last semblance of good to try and find some kind of retribution. Nic Cage would later do his own incarnation in Warner Hertzog’s more outlandish and surreal take in the concept, but Ferrara/Keitel remains the best version. Keitel’s grotesque monster is the audience’s last hope to find justice for a nun who was raped. Still, the fact there’s a reward on offer further clouds his motivations, but ultimately there’s something fatalistic about Ferrera’s film, and the nuance of Keitel’s moments of clarity. He knows he’s done for, but he suddenly fears his place beyond. He needs some kind of retribution, some penitence.
Martin Scorsese has had a predilection for gangsters, but found himself delving into a couple of cops on the edge in The Departed. There’s still the gangster crossover as Matt Damon plays a gangster crony turned cop (and then informant for his old boss, played by Jack Nicholson). Meanwhile Leonardo DiCaprio is a cop, fresh out of Academy who then becomes an undercover agent, infiltrating Nicholson’s gang. Both Damon and DiCaprio descend into their own respective problems, unknowingly becoming two of a love triangle with Vera Farmiga too. There’s a faint moral line that Leo is just about clutching, but it soon becomes a will to finish before he’s driven to madness and/or corrupted irrevocably.
Another fascinating portrayal sees Ethan Hawke have a hell of first day on the force as a Narc partnered with Denzel Washington. We increasingly realises that Alonzo (Washington) has drifted so far past the law that he’ll never come back to the light. Hawke is played, set up to becomes a fall guy. He’s tipped increasingly to the edge as he reacts to each new situation that Denzel has put him in. Still, the more distinctly unbalanced cop on the edge is Alonzo, and Denzel revels in the role of the irredeemably corrupt cop. He’s lost in his own position of power he created illegally and has tipped right over the edge by the end as Alonzo realises he’s made himself an open target.
What’s your favourite film with a cop on the edge? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/