02 February 2009

Anything List Universe Can Do I Can Do Better (Or About as Good, Anyway) 10 Great Movie and TV Cops

One of the world's most greatest fantasticist websites is List Universe. A new list everyday! Today's list was Top Ten Best TV and Movie Cops.

They actually did a great job. If you haven't clicked on the above link yet...oh hell, just do it already then resume reading here. (Pause while my readers check the List Universe list.) See, I told you they did good. The pick of Fargo's Marge Gunderson as number one was inspired. Many of the others on the list were deserving as well.

At this point you're probably wondering if I think I could do better. Wonder no more. Here is my top ten. The criteria being that they had to be cops -- no FBI, private eyes, etc. As usual they are offered in no particular order.

Al Pacino as Frank Serpico in Serpico (1973). The cop as rebel. Serpico was the honest cop in a den of police as thieves. Based on the actual Frank Serpico and inspired by actual events, Serpico was bold enough to portray cops as grafting, swindling bad guys. They represented a crooked establishment and Serpico was the Hippie Cop who exposed their corruption. The film's timing couldn't have been any better with U.S. involvement in Vietnam winding down and the realization that our government didn't play fair winding up. Pacino, not surprisingly, was brilliant not restraining his himself one iota.

Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle in Foyle's War (2002-2007). (Pictured above.) Tell me you haven't heard of this British TV drama and I'll be extremely jealous. Because if you're smart you'll start renting the DVDs. The missus and I finished the lot of them a fortnight ago and we're going through withdrawals. The show is set in England during World War II. Not only is the laconic but lovable Foyle a master cop who always gets his man, history lessons about the British home front abound. Kitchen is a wonderful actor who does more with a slow upturn of the mouth than most actors do by ranting and raving. Think of him as the anti-Pacino. Foyle's war is simply the best cop show ever to be on TV and the character of Foyle is largely why. Two outstanding supporting players, intriguing story lines, no false heroics or silly chase scenes, plots that twist and turn but always end up making sense. Like the preceding sentence I could go on and on.

Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion in The Big Heat (1953). What happens to this police sergeant you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Though tragedy befalls our hero he is relentless (most good film cops are) in the pursuit of justice no matter where his investigation takes him. The Big Heat is one of the best of the noirs. It is a brutal and uncompromising film replete with family tragedy and torture. Bannion is wise to a suspicious looking suicide and is not afraid of the politically connected cages he must rattle in pursuit of the truth.

Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi in Zodiac (2007). Another portrayal based on a real person and a real case. This time we have the pursuit of a one of the most infamous serial killers of modern times, the boastful and slippery Zodiac killer. Ruffalo plays Toschi as the driven cop who combines personal flamboyance with a by-the-book pursuit of his man. His opening investigation of a just slain cab driver is a study in precise detective work and the consumption of animal crackers. Ruffalo would seem an unconventional choice for the part of cop but he brought a unique sensibility to the role.

Otto Wenicke as Inspector Karl Lohmann in M (1931). Weincke actually to got to play Lohmann twice, the other time being in another Fritz Lang film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). In M he pursues perhaps the most despicable criminal type of all -- the child murderer. Physically Lohmann seems the stereotypical bloated donut-eating lazy cop. He's not. Sure he'll sit back, but usually in an effort to concentrate. This cop's a thinker and you can tell when his excellent mind has conjured something by the snapping of his fingers.

Michael Douglas as Steve Keller in the Streets of San Francisco (1972). Okay an assist needs to go to Keller's partner, Mike Stone played by Karl Malden. They were actually notable as a tag team. But I'm singling out Douglas for bringing the matinee idol look to the police beat. He was also one of the first fictional cops to have come out of college. Young, dashing and educated though he was, he respected his elders, even in the act of doing his own thing. The show itself was just a cut above the usual TV police fare and the Malden/Douglas combo was the principal reason why. I believe the word panache is in order.

Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt in Bullit (1968). What's this another San Francisco cop? (Me thinks this is a rich vein to tap in another post). Okay when I was young lad (yeah, yeah and dinosaur's roamed the Earth, very funny) Steve McQueen was the coolest person EVER. Maybe he still is. Other than perhaps The Great Escape (1963) I don't think he was ever cooler than in Bullitt. But here's the thing, it was a damn good movie and he made a perfectly believable policeman. Maybe, just maybe, the car chase was over the top (didn't you just love it, anyway?) but his relationship with Jacqueline Bisset rang true as did his unemotional/emotional reaction to his work. McQueen had a natural cool, that never seemed affected and he could work into a character like Frank Bullitt. (Note, in preparing for the role McQueen studied the same Dave Toschi who Ruffalo later played.)

Sidney Poiter as Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night (1967). Finally! An African American cop. There have been many since played by the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Wesley Snipes. Poiter was the trail blazer. He wasn't just the first major Black cop in a film, he was a damn good one. Heading into the ugly segregated south of the Sixties, Tibbs did not back down from anything, including Rod Steiger's racist cop, Bill Gillespie. He was smooth, handsome and, most of all,damn smart. A great performance.

Al Pacino (again) as Vincent Hanna in Heat (1995). This proves beyond a doubt that Pacino could play cops as well as the gangsters they pursued. Hmmm, are the two that different? In Heat the similarities between the good guys and the bad guys are more striking than the differences. Pacino is the cop who puts duty above all else, let marriage be damned. He also brings an emotion to his police officer rarely seen. Robert DeNiro as the criminal he pursues is the stoic one and Pacino’s Lieutenant Hanna is the character prone to broad emotions worn right on the sleeve.

Don Knotts as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). If the question is: who has been television's greatest character, Bernard P. Fife has to enter the discussion. Was he particularly smart? No. Was he exceptionally brave? No. Was he physically strong? No. Was he a good cop? There have been worse (I assume). So nobody's perfect...right? Fife was funny and some of that humor comes from the fact that he was so sincere. There was a total devotion to duty and an unflagging belief in self. When Sheriff Taylor covered for Barney's bumbling but deflected the credit back to him, he took it with pride. It wasn't hubris, it was a belief that it must be so. He must have caught those crooks single handedly. Maybe you see him as delusional, I see him as a man of great faith.


Jody said...

What about Gene Hackman as Jimmy Doyle in The French Connection? How is he not on either list?

Richard Hourula said...

If I were to add one more to my list, I'd add Hackman in French Connection.

The Hat said...

Not having Andy Sipowicz on this list is a travesty. Of course I love NYPD Blue so I am a bit biased.

List Universe includes Horatio Cane on their list though and that is also very much a travesty. Nothing David Caruso has ever done should be mentioned on any best list.

jakstyx said...

Longtime reader of your excellent blog, but am not one to usually respond. Only complaint I have concerns the photo of Ludivine Sagnier; you must remove it. It is too distracting. I get halfway through your post and have to stare at her for half an hour.

Jess said...

Just to add a more modern choice (not that you choices aren't terrific) I love Mark Wahlberg's police officer in The Departed.

Richard Hourula said...

With a slightly longer list Whalberg would have made it for sure. He was excellent.

Megan said...

if the list was in particular order, barney fife would be number 1.

Colt said...

I would have listed Frank Pembleton from Homicide:Life on the Streets. Another would be Joe Friday from Dragnet.