Cop: is it the best movie ever made of a James Ellroy novel?

CopI’m going to go way out on a limb here, and say that in my opinion the relatively unknown movie Cop may just be the best adaptation of a James Ellroy book to hit the screen.

When I opened my recent review of the 1988 film Cop for Back Alley Noir’s Film Noir of the Week with that statement the response was interesting.

Some disagreed with the merits of my choice. Others felt the need to refer back to what the man himself, Ellroy, had said about the merits of the movies made of his books.

I did a quick search on what Ellroy has said on the subject before submitting the review. There’s a lot of contradictory quotes out there. Whether this is because he’s changed his mind a lot or he’s out for a headline, well, I’ll let you all be the judge of that.

For me, the debate raised the interesting question of what value we should give to the opinion of an artist in one area (writing), when their work is translated into another (film).

I am a huge Ellroy fan and I think Cop works as a movie precisely because the book is not a dense, labyrinthine crime epic in the vein of LA Confidential and the Black Dahlia (both of which failed, Black Dahlia much more so, in the almost Herculean task of transposing Ellroy’s words onto the screen).

Cop is a guilty pleasure, combining elements of the rogue cop, police procedural and serial killer genres into an uncut little gem of a neo noir. The other reason it works so well is the casting of one of my favourite actors, James Woods, as the central character, Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins.

Cop is based on Blood on the Moon, the first of three books featuring the character of Hopkins Ellroy wrote in the mid eighties.

The film opens with the discovery of a mutilated body in an LA apartment building. Hopkins is first on the scene and the only clues are a blood-smeared book of radical feminist poetry called Rage in the Womb and a stack of newspapers with the same advertisement for a swinger party circled in red.

The newspaper adverts lead him to blonde bombshell, Joanie Pratt, “former actress, model, singer, dancer and what usually follows”, who admits she was helping the murdered woman, Julie Niemeyer, research the swinger scene.

When a letter written in human blood turns up in Niemeyer’s PO Box, Hopkins pulls the files on all unsolved LA homicides going back several years. It’s not long before he thinks he’s dealing with a serial killer.

It’s the one thing his uptight, rightwing, born again Christian commander does not want to hear. Serial killers “panic the public and embarrasses the department” he tells Hopkins. There’s also the matter of Hopkins’ well-known reputation for having “a hair up his arse” about murdered women.

Undeterred, Hopkins fronts a Sheriff’s deputy, Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines, who discovered two of the bodies Hopkins suspects were victims of the serial killer. Hopkins creeps Haines’ pad and finds marijuana, S&M gear, guns, and a wire that someone has been using to secretly tape Haines and his attempts to extort gay hustlers, including one called Birdman, for drugs and money.

Next he checks out women’s bookstores for leads on the bloodstained tome of feminist poetry found at scene of the Nieymeyer killing. Despite their obvious differences, he and the owner of one of these stores, Kathleen McCarthy, a tense, chain-smoking anti-police feminist strike up a rapport.

He takes her to a party full of LAPD brass instead of his wife and talking to her later that night discovers that she is still recovering from a rape that occurred in the last year of her high school.

She also tells him since that time fifteen years ago, someone has been anonymously sending her flowers. When Hopkins notices photos of Haines and another student nick named Birdman in McCarthy’s senior Year Book, his suspicions are further raised. He breaks into McCarthy’s house and finds that the flowers, which she has kept pressed in glass, correspond to the dates on the women he suspects were victims of the serial killer were murdered.

From here the body and sleaze count ratchets up considerably. The killer murders Pratt, sending Hopkins’ commander incriminating photos of Hopkins and the woman having sex in the kitchen.

Birdman is the next to be murdered, after we see him get in a car after soliciting the driver for sex, and Hopkins shoots Haines after forcing a confession from him that and Birdman were responsible for raping McCarthy.

Watching Cop now is like viewing a primer on how to do an eighties crime film. The look is washed out, the sound track comprises heavy synthesiser interspersed with wailing sax, and there’s lots of badly dressed cops in houndstooth jackets.

The studio behind Cop were reportedly concerned that it would be seen as a slasher movie when what they wanted was something more like Dirty Harry. They ended up with both.

Cop was before Silence of the Lambs made serial killers acceptable for mainstream audiences (although Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a far better serial killer flick than Silence was released in 1986), and the plot was one of the earlier iterations of the ‘cop-goes-AWOL-in-order-to-hunt-down-serial-killer-no-else-believes-exists’ story. The material is well handled, the film managing to capture the frenetic pace of Ellroy’s writing and the great dialogue.

Salvador, Once Upon a Time in America, Videodrome and much under rated Best Seller, were all under Wood’s belt when he did Cop, and he’s at his reptilian best as Hopkins, a womanising sociopath who doesn’t just cut corners to get what he wants; he’ll smash down the entire building.

He’s the kind of policeman that kills a suspect and gets his partner, Dutch, (Charles Durning) to deal with the consequences while he hits on the dead guy’s girlfriend. “You blow away a broad’s date, the least you can do is drive her home,” Hopkins tells Dutch.

Indeed, director James B Harris, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t baulk at depicting Hopkins at his worst. This includes showing the Hopkins’ barely constrained boredom, snatching glances at his watch, as McCarthy opens up to him about her life.

Assisting Woods is a great cast of supporting actors, including Charles Haid as Sheriff Delbert Whitey Haines, Durning and Lesley Ann Warren as the feminist bookstore owner, Kathleen McCarthy, who makes her otherwise stero-typed character almost believable.

But it’s Woods, the original bad lieutenant, who in the eighties had the market covered for hard-boiled sleazy burnt-outs, that makes the film.

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  1. Pingback: Fast Walking: James Woods and how to do sleaze | Pulp Curry

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