I’m blazing through Ed McBain’s (really Evan Hunter’s) 87th Precinct novels of late, and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did several of them become feature films, but two are also on Netflix streaming. Score! Movie execs weren’t ones to let grass grow on their feet, and bought up the licenses to McBain’s first few novels in 1958, McBain having published the first 8-7 novel in 1956. So, here they are, in all their glory: Cop Hater and The Mugger. First up:
Cop Hater (1958) – MGM
On the hottest, steamiest summer in the City’s recent memory, somebody is out killing cops. Detectives of the 87th Precinct are getting gunned down while off duty. One murder is problematic and depressing; two is an endemic. The rest of the 8-7 cops are uneasy, on edge, unsure how or when this cop hater will strike again. Detectives Steve Carelli (Robert Loggia) and Mike Maguire (Gerald O’Loughlin) are put on the case, and are racing against the clock before another cop dies. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter is trying to uncover dirt to blow this story wide open, and rookie detective Bert Kling has a rough few days on the job.
McBain’s novels have a strong character-driven, humanist approach as their centerpiece: these are average, everyday guys, blue-collar-workers with guns kind of thing. They’re not the super-exaggerated detectives of most noir fiction; combined with McBain’s inclusion of real technique, procedures, and documents, it gives his 87th a very realistic feel.
That’s important to realize since the film follows the same approach. We see Maguire and Carelli hanging out and drinking, going for a night on the town with their wives; we see their two respective home lives, which have a major impact later on the plot. They’re also an interesting parallel. Carelli’s engaged to Teddy, a deaf-mute; two young lovers kind of thing. Maguire is the older cop, with a slightly burnt-out home life; you get the feeling his wife Alice (Shirley Ballard) really wants something more in her marriage now that the spark is flickering out.
The film deals with some very heavy adult themes for the ’50s; the deaths have a lot of weight and grit—murder, after all, of the protagonists’ figurative brothers—and we see a lot of sexual tension and implications without any real detail. Alice dresses quite provocatively—at one point she models her new swimsuit—and Teddy’s later caught in nothing more than a bath towel. Meanwhile, we have a trip to a brothel, and a large subplot about a youth gang who might include suspects, and who are antagonized by the reporter’s grilling. (Juvie gangs are so nostalgically ’50s, when the corruption of our youths’ innocence to violence and drugs was the second greatest threat to our civilization, behind Communism.)
I haven’t read the novel yet, but from what I can tell most of the pieces are there. Aside from Carella becoming Carelli, all the big-name characters still here; “Carelli’s” wife Teddy is still a deaf-mute; the City is no longer McBain’s nameless amalgam but is more clearly New York. Many of the huge cast of detectives with bit-parts in the series are rolled into faceless characters here; that’s understandable, given the difference between the two forms of media, and there’s a large cast of nameless actors in the Precinct’s offices to create the illusion of a large, overworked police squad. Everything I see is accurate enough, though I don’t remember seeing Maguire in any of the book reviews or synopsis I’ve read, so there’s that.
So what we end up with is a good, well-rounded film, yet one that’s overall unexceptional, not much more than drive-in fare; it’s a little too short, and it feels rushed when its credits are rolling over the action to save time—seriously, people are talking and running around while names, and later The End, fill up the screen. It looks like a B-movie, and feels like a B-movie, even as it sticks to the rigorous authenticity of life as a detective. That said, I thought it was very enjoyable for what it was, and is worth checking out for the noir/crime/detective movie fan. I liked it well enough.