Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood

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In the Washington Post Alyssa Rosenberg continues her excellent series on movies and law enforcement.

About the series: Police influence played a powerful role in shaping early Hollywood. The entertainment industry has since spent decades advancing ideas about policing that play out in some of our most agonized public debates.

PART I: How police censorship shaped Hollywood

PART II: How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

PART III: In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings

PART V: Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops (Oct. 28)

The current part begins:

Santa Claus is running down the street, arms pumping, hat lost, beard blowing back over his shoulder. But he’s not in a hurry to deliver overdue toys — he’s on the hunt. His quarry trips and falls in an abandoned lot. Santa pulls a gun from an ankle holster and begins to pistol-whip the man.

This scene, early in “The French Connection,” perfectly captures not only the film’s grim, sardonic attitude but also a bitter national mood. Just a few months before the movie’s October 1971 release, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy Number One” and vowed an “all-out offensive” against the scourge. “The French Connection’s” tough-cop protagonist, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who battled a French heroin cartel, was one of the first cinematic foot soldiers in a war that would stretch on for decades.

Doyle shared a pessimistic outlook, a propensity for violence and racist views with Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who would follow Doyle to the big screen just two months later. Both men saw themselves as warriors rather than as civil servants. Yet where “Dirty Harry” pitted Callahan against a counterculture that was already beginning to fade even without police intervention, “The French Connection” pitted Doyle against the cultural and political enemy of the future.

Just as Jack Webb’s partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department on “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” benefited both Hollywood and the police, the drug war united pop culture and real law enforcement agencies in a new common purpose. The prospect of foreign drug traffickers invading American shores gave pop-culture cops a new and more dangerous enemy to fight, one that justified fast driving, explosive shootouts and all sorts of audience-thrilling rule-breaking. In return, Hollywood promoted the idea that drugs posed a grave threat that justified new, frightening police tactics and the erosion of basic rights.

Now, at a moment when the United States is attempting to reckon with the consequences of a militarized style of policing that has turned some American neighborhoods into occupied zones and normalized the idea that police officers might burst into private homes without warning, the rise of the action cop looks less entertaining and more sinister. In fighting narcotics, real police departments and the entertainment industry developed a damaging habit of their own, glamorizing gun-slinging cops who treat the citizens they serve like a dangerous enemy.

Even before “Popeye” Doyle started chasing down French drug dealers, police stories were already including the kinds of action scenes that Sheriff Andy Taylor would have seen as unnecessary and that would have given Joe Friday an unaccustomed dose of adrenaline. Most famously, in 1968’s “Bullitt,” the titular hero (Steve McQueen) pursued a mob hit man through the winding streets of San Francisco in one of movie history’s defining car chases.

The rise of the blockbuster era in Hollywood storytelling provided a strong incentive to continue this action-oriented trajectory. “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie about a great white shark terrorizing a New England beach town, shook up the movie business. Previously, movies tended to debut in just a few markets and then roll out across the country, propelled by word of mouth. “Jaws” was bolstered by what was then a huge advertising campaign and opened in more than 400 theaters simultaneously. The movie proved that Hollywood could turn out huge audiences on an opening weekend. Often the best way to do that was with violent spectacle, whether a killer shark chewing up a whole boat or the intergalactic clash of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” two years later.

The rise of the blockbuster era in Hollywood storytelling provided a strong incentive to continue this action-oriented trajectory. “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie about a great white shark terrorizing a New England beach town, shook up the movie business. Previously, movies tended to debut in just a few markets and then roll out across the country, propelled by word of mouth. “Jaws” was bolstered by what was then a huge advertising campaign and opened in more than 400 theaters simultaneously. The movie proved that Hollywood could turn out huge audiences on an opening weekend. Often the best way to do that was with violent spectacle, whether a killer shark chewing up a whole boat or the intergalactic clash of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” two years later.

International drug traffickers proved to be the perfect villains for police stories that aimed to match the stakes and action of blockbusters such as “Jaws” and for network executives who wanted their fictional cops to have someone worth beating. Drug kingpins’ crimes had a corrosive impact on society — one of the drug dealers in “The French Connection” describes the cartel’s heroin as “Grade A poison” — and they ran their syndicates like corporations, operating for profit. And traffickers were often foreign, or in some way traitors to the United States, which allowed movies and television to set aside concerns about the police prosecuting a war against American citizens.

“The French Connection,” for example, was advertised with the tag line “Doyle is bad news — but a good cop.” Doyle’s antagonists were smart and frightening. They hid heroin in secret compartments in cars and also hijacked subway trains. The movie treated Doyle’s inclination to beat suspects, and even a scene in which he shot a fleeing French drug dealer in the back, as evils necessary to combat those who wanted to flood New York with $32 million worth of heroin. If the French drug dealers were going to kill New York cops, then at least one cop was going to fire back. . .

Continue reading.

This also might be of interest:

Syllabus: A complete guide to the movies, television and books this project explores.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 October 2016 at 8:47 pm

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