The New Centurions

THE NEW CENTURIONS was Joseph Wambaugh’s first novel, the acclaimed 1971 book written while he was active as a detective on the L.A.P.D.  Gripping, funny and moving, 384 pages followed the lives of several Los Angeles policemen over a five-year period, 1960-65: it spent 32 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. While not a patch on the epic book, which had depth and breadth going for it, the episodic 1972 movie adaptation feels rushed and truncated, but it remains worthwhile thanks mainly to the strong performances from George C. Scott and Stacy Keach. A gross of $21,600,000 made it the 17th most popular film of the year. *

Three young officers learn the ropes over a few years patrolling the meaner streets of Los Angeles. Idealistic law student ‘Roy Fehler’ (Stacy Keach, 30) is lucky to be partnered with no-nonsense veteran ‘Andy Kilvinski’ (George C. Scott, 44).  Family man ‘Gus Plebesy’ (Scott Wilson) just hopes to be good at the job. Up from the streets himself, ‘Sergio Duran’ (Erik Estrada) has to prove he’s really made it. Everyone finds out things they don’t want to know, but need to. Mistakes are costly. The career consumes.

Stirling Silliphant wrote the script, then fast-rising Robert Towne nabbed an extra two hundred grand to polish it up uncredited. Richard Fleischer directs with proficiency but little passion. What seemed gritty & fairly realistic back in ’72 has been dated to near nostalgia by decades of worsening conditions and attitudes, from every direction. Some episodes retain clout: Scott laying down “Kilvinski’s Law” to a scummy slumlord for his treatment of helpless migrants, Andy & Roy battling a crazed woman who’d been abusing her baby, Kilvinski’s phone call farewell.  Scott is glove-fit.

Others slices are flat: Sergio’s raging outburst after chasing some gang bangers is empty showiness, and the paddy wagon sequence with a group of booze-plied African-American hookers is cringe-worthy enough to make you leave the room. Roy’s personal issues with his neglected wife (Jane Alexander) and later with a life-worn girlfriend (Rosalind Cash) are competently played but as written & directed lack sufficient emotional impact. The big letdown for fans of the book is that by updating the material to the early 70s the script jettisoned the centerpiece of the novel, the Watts riot of 1964: either too costly to put over or just too much of a potato to heat up. The stories of Gus and Sergio, meaty in the book, are incidental in the film. Credit is deserved for the then-rare interracial romance between Keach & Cash, here accepted straight with no chaser. Ms. Cash had drawn similar barrier-break duty a year before, with Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.

Quincy Jones score has the standard urban-cop-cruising sound recognizable from dozens of the era’s movies and an army of TV episodes. All in, no great shakes, but not bad, thanks to the cast. With Clifton James (always welcome), Ed Lauter, James B. Sikking, Dolph Sweet, Isabel Sanford, Roger E. Mosley, Gerald S. O’Laughlin, Pepe Serna, William Atherton (debut), Anne Ramsey. 103 minutes.

* Other job-beset cinema cops from ’72, in various temperaments and assorted jurisdictions: Fuzz, Hickey & Boggs, They Only Kill Their Masters, The Offence (British detectives, with a powerhouse Sean Connery), Come Back Charleston Blue, Shaft’s Big Score, Across 110th Street.

After 14 years, Wambaugh left the force in 1974 to write full-time. Between 1972 and 2012 he wrote another twenty books, both novels and non-fiction. Those adapted for the big screen or TV, by others or by Wambaugh himself: The Blue Knight, The Choirboys, The Onion Field, The Black Marble, The Glitter Dome, Echoes In The Darkness, Fugitive Nights.

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