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The title Cops and Robbers (1973) refers not to two opposing sides in a law-and-order battle, but to a pair of New York City police officers who decide to be both cops and robbers, if only for one time, in order to make a killing outside the law they're sworn to uphold. Tom and Joe have been plugging away at their jobs for years with little reward or satisfaction, so they try to go for the gold with one big caper they hope will set them up for life. The key for them is bearer bonds, an unregistered stock whose ownership or transactions can't be traced, making them an attractive buy for the local Mob boss. The film wrings both excitement and humor from the execution of their crazy and not-so-foolproof scheme.
The movie was the first starring role for Cliff Gorman, a respected New York stage actor who prior to this project won a Tony Award for his powerhouse performance as comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny, which ran from 1971 to 1972. On screen, Gorman had already captured the attention of film critics and audiences with his turn as a flamboyant gay man in The Boys in the Band (1970). The positive notices he received for his lead role in Cops and Robbers might have set him on the path to movie stardom, but he was passed over for Bob Fosse's film version of Lenny (1974) in favor of Dustin Hoffman who was a bigger box office draw. Fosse did, however, give Gorman a consolation prize by casting him in a fictionalized version of the bio film in a key segment of Fosse's autobiographical movie musical All That Jazz (1979). But although he did noteworthy work in such films as Night and the City (1992) with Robert De Niro, Hoffa (1992), and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), major roles eluded Gorman for the remainder of his career (he died in 2002).
Joseph Bologna was another New York actor, who like Gorman, was relatively new to filmmaking at this time. His only other feature credit as an actor was Made for Each Other (1971), a quirky romantic comedy he co-wrote and acted in with his wife Rene Taylor. The two had also previously made their mark as writers of the comedy Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), adapted from their play. Bologna also earned good notices for Cops and Robbers, although his best work was still to come, most notably his 1950s TV star, who was based on Sid Caesar, in My Favorite Year (1982).
The script for Cops and Robbers was adapted by Donald Westlake from his novel. Once described by the New York Times Book Review as "the Neil Simon of the crime novel," for his prolificness and frequent humor in his stories, Westlake has written under a number of pseudonyms. Under his own real name, Westlake turns out mostly comic crime capers, such as the previous film adaptation to Cops and Robbers, The Hot Rock (1972), starring Robert Redford and George Segal. Under the pen name Richard Stark, he created the cold-hearted master thief Parker in a number of books. One of these, The Hunter, became the basis for the acclaimed John Boorman drama Point Blank (1967), in which Lee Marvin played the lead (his name inexplicably changed to Walker for the film). The story was later remade as Payback (1999), with Mel Gibson, this time using the character name Porter. Westlake received an Academy Award nomination for his screen adaptation of Jim Thompson's thriller novel The Grifters (1990). That screenplay also earned Westlake a Writers Guild of America nomination and an Edgar Allen Poe Award.
Cops and Robbers was directed by Aram Avakian, who, with Bert Stern, made the legendary documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Avakian and cinematographer David L. Quaid shot Cops and Robbers on location in New York, capturing the gritty, rough feel of the streets before the city's "Giuliani-fication" two decades later. Avakian's only other directorial credit after this was another crime caper, 11 Harrowhouse (1974). He then took the job as head of the film studies program at the State University of New York at Purchase from 1983 until his death in 1987.
Director: Aram Avakian
Producer: Elliott Kastner
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake, based on his novel
Cinematography: David L. Quaid
Editing: Barry Malkin
Original Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Cliff Gorman (Tom), Joseph Bologna (Joe), John P. Ryan (Patsy O'Neill), Charlene Dallas (Secretary), James Ferguson (Liquor Store Clerk), Frances Foster (Bleeding Lady).
by Rob Nixon