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The Super Cops

The success of Shaft (1971) and its cash-in sequel Shaft's Big Score! (1972) obliged photographer-turned-film director Gordon Parks to cut short his honeymoon with third wife Genevieve Young to rush right into his next project, The Super Cops (1974). The New York setting was a more custom fit for Parks than the movie's subject matter: the real life story of two white NYPD rookies (and later plain clothes detectives) whose unorthodox methods of keeping the peace and running down drug peddlers in Brooklyn's crime-plagued Bedford-Stuyvesant section (660 arrests in four years and a 97% conviction rate) had earned them the nicknames Batman and Robin by 1970. L. H. Whittemore's account of the exploits of Dave Greenberg and Bob Hantz was published in 1973 by Stein & Day, following a highly-publicized New York Magazine profile of the dynamic duo that immortalized them as "two copyright cops in a state of imminent fame with four studios budding for the rights." Hired by winning bidder Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to adapt the Whittemore book for the screen was Lorenzo Semple, Jr., a former writer and script consultant for the 20th Century Fox/ABC series Batman.

Derided by Time magazine as "a loud and clumsy film" and by The New York Times as "rather silly," The Super Cops has nonetheless endured as an artifact of seminal 70s cinema. Part of this pedigree is due to the connection with Parks, although the film remains the least-discussed or critically-heralded of his five features. Another reason for its currency with moviegoers is the cross pollination casting. Supporting leads Ron Leibman and David Selby are Dan Frazer (from John Avildsen's The Stoolie [1972] and the Kojak TV series), Shelia Frazier (from Super Fly [1972], directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.), Al Fann (from Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970), stage actor Pat Corley (in his feature film debut) and Hollywood veteran Pat Hingle, as a Brooklyn squad commander. Greenberg and Hantz also snagged cameos as corrupt precinct cops. As Dave Greenberg, "Batman" of The Super Cops, Ron Leibman was varying only slightly the brand of manic performance he had brought to supporting roles in Carl Reiner's Where's Poppa? (1970), Peter Yates' The Hot Rock (1972) and George Roy Hill's Slaughterhouse-Five (1972); but "Robin" was a shot at mainstream stardom for David Selby, formerly the benighted werewolf Quentin Collins of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows.

If The Super Cops seems at first glance to be Gordon Parks' least substantial film, it is worth remembering that the groundbreaking Shaft was, for all its historic importance, far from cinema verité; for that film's big finish, star Richard Roundtree even swung through a window on a rope, à la the Caped Crusader, to rescue a gangster's kidnapped daughter. Its focus squarely on velocity and wit rather than suspense or violence, The Super Cops helped to split the crime genre down the middle, dividing the territory between lone wolf cop films such as Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) and Phil Karlson's Walking Tall (1973) and buddy cop adventures on the order of Richard Rush's Freebie and the Bean (1974), Peter Hyams' Busting (1974) and the ABC-TV series Starsky and Hutch. Location shooting by cinematographer Richard Kratina (who had worked the camera on the set of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, 1969) also puts The Super Cops in the gritty company of such revered pre-economic recovery New York City films as Barry Shear's Across 110th Street (1972) and Milton Katselas' Report to the Commissioner (1975). If in its day The Super Cops was a lighthearted distraction from Gotham's native financial crises and boiling racial tensions, today it stands as a bittersweet reminder of a city that no longer exists... except at the movies.

Director: Gordon Parks
Producer: William Belasco
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (based on the book by L. H. Whittemore)
Photography: Richard Kratina
Music: Jerry Fielding
Editing: Harry Howard
Cast: Ron Leibman (Dave Greenberg, aka Batman), David Selby (Bob Hantz, aka Robin), Pat Hingle (Novick), Sheila Frazier (Sara), Dan Frazer (Krasna), Joseph Sirola (O'Shaughnessy), Arny Freeman (Barry Kellner), Bernard Kates (Heller), Alex Colon (Carlos), Charles Turner (Joe Hayes), Al Fann (Frank Hayes), Pat Corley (Captain Bush), Barton Heyman (Lt. Stratton), David Greenberg (Det. Basoff), Robert Hantz (Det. Neel).

by Richard Harland Smith

A Hungry Heart: A Memoir by Gordon Parks (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
"Batman and Robin: Jumping into Fame" by Julie Baumgold, New York Magazine, June 26, 1972
Toms, Coons, Mulatoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002)
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (W.W. Norton & Company, 1980)



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