Wednesday, November 17, 2010

REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER (1975) - sometimes a fine line separates a hero from a fool

Michael Moriarty plays a detective fresh out of the academy. He is partnered with a well worn N.Y cop (Yaphet Kotto) who immediately finds him amusing, joking that he looks like a hippie. This bemusement quickly turns into confusion, tinged with a sliver of sorrow. Yaphet guides Moriarty through times square, a parade of “scum” plowing ahead to rhythms of urban disaffection, lamenting in voice over that "the problem was that he never should have been a cop...someone should have told him right at the start 'hey man, this shit's not for you'. But no one told him." As it turns out, Moriarty’s father was a cop, and his brother may have been next to follow in his father’s footsteps had he not been killed in Vietnam. Michael found himself wearing his brother’s shoes, ill-fitting as they were. While he may have been helped down this path by a sense of duty or parental pressure, he does say at one point that “I was gonna be what a modern cop should be. Enlightened. Humanistic.” Maybe he wasn’t cut out to be a cop, but he figured he might as well make the best of it by injecting a bit of idealism into a particularly cynical branch of the profession. Yaphet sees Moriarty walk through the precinct door, quickly pegging him as a naive soul who’s completely out of his element. Sometimes first glances can be dead on.

We quickly notice that Yaphet is totally in his element within this "jungle", as he puts it, exhibiting a sense of humor and an odd sense of joy. His brand of street justice is completely removed from any sense of idealism or even proper police procedure. Yaphet roughs up a black criminal (a pimp maybe) whom he had previously warned to stay out of his precinct, and Moriarty later asks "how can you be disrespectful to your own people?" Yaphet retorts "I'm not a black man. Those Panther muthas, they're black men." In other words, he became “the man” when he agreed to be a part of this faceless hierarchy of “justice”, at which point his blackness was forgiven, so to speak. They later come across a legless homeless man (possibly a Vietnam vet) who is raving about two dogs and their owners, causing a big scene. While Yaphet yells at the man, warning him once again and eventually kicking him down the street after the homeless man bites him on the leg, Moriarty humorously concentrates his efforts on consoling the dogs. Yaphet dumps the homeless man’s wheeled board into a dumpster to teach him a lesson, but Moriarty rescues it and helps the man back onto his threadbare wheelchair of sorts. As they continue to patrol times square, Yaphet reflects in voice over "I've never seen anything like the way they took advantage of him. He loaned some of them money when they were hard up. He wouldn't arrest them when he got an assignment. He hated that. He kept trying to do what he could for those scum. Some cop." Yeah, a helpful soul maybe, but a terrible cop.

They break up a drug deal, and Yaphet stops Moriarty from arresting one of the perps. After the apparent criminals run away, Yaphet explains that one of them was actually an undercover cop. He adds “you’ve got to know who the actors are, and never move until you know that.” Moriarty then notices a young girl standing on the sidewalk conversing with some shady characters, and he worries that her parents may be looking for her. Yaphet dismisses her as a “junkie whore” and tells him to leave her alone. Ironically, she is also an undercover cop (Susan Blakely), and apparently an effective one at that, as even street smart Kotto doesn’t notice. His lesson to Michael about not trusting the character surfaces proves worthless, as he just can’t seem to let go of his faith and trust in humanity.

Michael, lowest on the totem pole, is given a “bullshit assignment”, ordered to locate a times square runaway who happens to the daughter of a politician. His superior officer tells him to “file a report and go through the motions, and don’t pick her up if you find her”. He quickly ignores these orders, becoming obsessed with finding this girl and saving her from the streets. As luck would have it, this “runaway” and Susan Blakely are one in the same, and the case is merely a ruse to lend credibility to her undercover identity, but Moriarty remains oblivious of this until it is too late. He is doggedly committed to a futile quest that only exists in his mind, not realizing that he is a pawn in a façade, and this confluence of misjudged surfaces ends in heartbreaking tragedy.

Oddly, Moriarty’s quest ultimately leads him into a department store elevator with a black militant drug dealer, pointing guns at one another, deadlocked. A tense hostage situation ensues as police and media trickle in, including Yaphet, who attempts to negotiate with the criminal. You would normally expect to see Yaphet set up to be the hero, the grizzled cop that eventually warms up to the naïve rookie and saves him in the end, but instead, his attempts to do the right thing in the third act prove feeble. He’s present during most of this long and pivotal hostage scene but, after the initial dialogue with the drug dealer, he is forced into a bystander role, helpless to affect the situation. He barely even speaks, and neither does Moriarty, who is paralyzed with fear. Whether on the inside looking out or the outside looking in, these two heroes are impotent in the face of oncoming catastrophe. Ironically, it is the criminal that wisely comments on the situation, saying “you probably didn’t want to be a cop anymore than I wanted to be what I am. You noticed it’s ‘them’ and ‘us’. They’ve already stopped worrying about you. They are gonna blow this elevator up, and it’s gonna solve their whole problem. And you think they’re on your side.” Michael foolishly thought be could become one of “them”, but in order to do so, he would’ve had to adopt their principles and ways of thinking, trading his “humanism” for a much more cynical view of the world.

Report to the Commissioner is unique among it’s mid 70’s NY crime movie peers (like Dog Day Afternoon, for example), a social parable that eschews action scenes while maintaining that unmistakable street grit. Adapted from a book (which I haven’t read), it maintains the structure of a novel, what with the jumps in time and voice over from different characters. It is easy to view Michael as representing a disillusioned faction of post-Vietnam youth. This is not a story of villains being brought to justice or good triumphing over evil, but a tragic tale where moral codes are rendered useless within a system built on deception, identities both unclear and ever changing. The film that most comes to mind is Taxi Driver, released a year later. Both protagonists become obsessed with rescuing an apparent young prostitute from the horrors of time square. Travis Bickle’s quest is entirely invented in his own mind, but Moriarty’s goal is a complete farce that he is ordered to complete, a futile quest mired in bureaucracy (Kafka-esque, it would seem). They are both anti-heros disgusted with the immorality they see around them, but Bickle eventually externalizes this anger and frustration as violence, while the much gentler Moriarty internalizes it as anguish and sadness.

In my opinion, this movie is Michael Moriarty’s greatest showcase, a NY method actor who some may find hammy (or a complete nut altogether). Here he is perfectly cast as a man whose internalized turmoil can’t help but externalize itself in some form, a reservoir of emotion he doesn’t quite understand and can’t control. Along with a host of great NY character actors from the period, we also have the criminally underrated Yaphet Kotto in a crucial supporting role. While his character could have been a total cliché, the requisite “grizzled cop on the edge”, he manages to bring his unique blend of humor and emotional gravitas to the role. For example, during the hostage scene, even standing there seemingly doing nothing, Yaphet’s always expressive eyes convey a man who is used to being in control of the situation, always having an answer for the chaos around him, but suddenly finding himself in a situation that lacks any sort of rational solution. His street logic is no match for this widespread social dynamic, a disease invisible to even the trained eye of a detective. His character transitions from a cynical but fun loving cop that seems to enjoy his job (despite being mired in a cesspool) to a man that goes on a quest of his own, hoping to “rescue” Moriarty when he is eventually brought up on murder charges. When they were working together, Yaphet would make fun of him, puzzled at this odd bird. However, he can’t help but be affected by Michael’s humanity amidst this hopeless situation, and tries to do what he can to save this man before he is coldly crushed by a tangled bureaucracy to which he remained oblivious.

some of the audio is out of sync, btw

P.S. This was written as part of Lost Video Archive's "Week of Yaphet Kotto" blogathon. Here are the other pieces. Check 'em out!

Monday Nov. 15th
Unflinching Eye - Alien
Raculfright 13's Blogo Trasho - Truck Turner
Tuesday Nov. 16th
Lost Video Archive - Raid on Entebbe
Manchester Morgue - Friday Foster
Wednesday Nov. 17th
Booksteve's Library - Live and Let Die
Thursday Nov. 18th
Mondo 70 - Drum
B Movies and Beyond - The Monkey Hu$tle
Cinema Gonzo - Report to the Commissioner
Friday Nov. 19th
Illogical Contraption - Eye of the Tiger
Ninja Dixon - Across 110th St.
Lines That Make Things - The A Team (TV episode)
Things That Don't Suck - Blue Collar
Saturday Nov. 20th
Breakfast In the Ruins - Bone
Lost Video Archive - The Park Is Mine


  1. This is one I've never even heard of that looks well worth a watch. Nice write up...

  2. Yeah, another underrated great only released on VHS. I got a suspicion that this will end up on one of the DVD burn on demand programs (maybe MGM still has the rights).

    If you dig it like the Warriors dig it, feel free to subscribe or follow. I got some more rarities to discuss coming up. Anyways...thanks!

  3. I LOVE this movie and I don't think I've ever seen a review of it online. I saw it years ago on TNT or TBS and I have the grainy vhs somewhere. It really captures NYC for me, and it's the first movie I saw Susan Blakely in (well, second. I should say first good movie) and she was so beautiful. Still is.

    Very cool review!

  4. @Amanda
    Yeah, I've only seen it on VHS. The audio is also in and out of sync for the last third.

    Susan IS very beautiful, but suffered from some horrible hairstyles in the 80's. They should just left her hair natural like it is in REPORT.