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Report to the Commissioner (DVD Review)

4 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
$19.98 DVD,
Rated ‘R’
Stars Michael Moriarty, Yaphet Kotto, Susan Blakely, Hector Elizondo.

With the exception of Susan Blakely (which is, in a way, a key plot point), even the cast needs a serious dose of urban renewal in the relentlessly grimy screen version of James Mills’ NYPD bestseller. A penetrating time capsule of the Apple’s cosmetics during the Abe Beame Administration, Commissioner also showcases a spare tire around the stomach of Yaphet Kotto that’s so pronounced that you almost wonder if he was wearing a prosthetic.

Kotto plays a cop — and for that matter, so does Blakely. In fact, just about every principal in the movie is on the force except for Bob Balaban as a street person, Richard Gere (his big-screen debut) as a dandy-in-his-own-eyes pimp, and William Devane, who shows up at the end in one of those assistant DA roles he and his arching eyebrows were born to play. Even a major off-camera character has put in his 30 years: a tough-guy police veteran whose younger son has also just become an ill-cast detective via a) nepotism; and b) the department’s desire to recruit officers who look something like the wayward youths they’re placing under arrest in those turbulent early ‘70s.

In playing this not exactly tough guy with occasionally unconvincing flashes of macho, Michael Moriarty has received his share of critical drubs over the years for not simply letting well enough alone after being pretty well cast (on paper). Moriarty is certainly the right “idea” to play this kid — yet the actor is so over the top in terms of his basketcase emotions that you wonder how far he’d gave gotten in any in-house psychological test. It’s tough, in fact, to think of anyone you’d rather less have share your foxhole. Noam Chomsky, maybe.

Working with street veteran Kotto, who doesn’t want to be babysitting at this stage of his career, Moriarty gets fixated on Blakely — who has the persona of the fashion model Blakely was in real life combined with her character’s instinctive savvy as the precinct’s most successful undercover agent. Thus, it’s a major screw-up when Moriarty is asked to follow her around as part of a departmental smokescreen — a plot turn that I won’t divulge because it gets into spoiler territory. But it’s a key part of the narrative (though slightly under the surface) that several of these desk-bound cop officials seem to be getting a little more hot and bothered than is professionally wise over the fact that blonde Blakely has taken to living with a (handsome) black drug dealer (Tony King) in a loft as part of her job. The movie hits exactly the right note of ambiguity in terms of whether she secretly digs this aspect of the assignment or not, perhaps rising to the level of 60% affirmative.

Speaking strictly chronologically, Commissioner arrived around the middle of the great cycle of NYPD dramas that spanned Madigan (1968) to Prince of the City (1981) — but in reality most of the really good ones had come earlier (think The French Connection, Serpico or the first and far superior version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). This one has the feel of a movie that’s coming near a cycle’s end, and director Milton Katselas (the famed acting teacher) isn’t as good at setting up a seamless A-to-B-to-C narrative the way Don Siegel, William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet were.

On the other hand, we also get some of the most impressive (and certainly most bountiful) New York location footage of the entire era, including one incredible scene where Balaban’s legless derelict is smack in the middle of some serious traffic. The TV showings I’ve seen of the film have all been panned-and scanned, and this disc’s 1.85 presentation definitely rights some wrongs. It’s especially true in the panoramic scene where King chases a naked Blakely (in frolic mode) around their loft just before tragedy strikes. And, by the way, Report came out just two months before Blakely’s almost folkloric appearance in Capone — probably the most notorious sexually oriented shot of any Hollywood actress ever in a major studio release. Hollywood was much more casual about sex in those days, enough so that one can almost hear some representative of the leering demographic cuing up Sinatra and Gordon Jenkins for all four minutes and 25 seconds of “It Was a Very Good Year.”

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