There’s nothing more breezy than a 70’s heist movie, or so Steven Soderbergh would attest; his Oceans 11 franchise is largely build on the appeal of films like The Hot Rock or 1973’s Cops and Robbers, which sets a high bench-mark in terms of tense, ingenious plotting. Aram Avakian, an editor who branched out with 1970’s controversial End of the Road, would go on to direct the stylish caper 11 Harrowhouse, but their earlier effort is every bit as good, constantly flipping our expectations and featuring characters who are smarter than you’d guess.
Tom and Joe (Cliff Gorman and Joe Bologna) are two NYC cops who struggle to make ends meet; the opening sequence is a long shot which features Tom casually hold up a grocery store in uniform. The result is surprising; since no-one imagines a policeman would be so brazen, it’s assumed that the culprit is disguised as a cop, and no accusations are made. Tom shares his story with Joe while stuck in a traffic jam, and the two come up with a plan to steal and fence bonds to local mafia contacts. But Tom and Joe have thought this through, and there’s some truly ingenious twists to savour that won’t be explored here.
Corruption and immorality are explored here; the writer is Donald E Westlake, whose The Hot Rock made a terrific heist film for Robert Redford, William Goldman and Sydney Pollack. Westlake later went on to cannibalise this material for a novel, and no wonder; for once, the twists don’t feel forced, and spring from Tom and Joe’s characters. Joe Spinell also makes a memorable debut as a hood, and the final show-down in Central Park is a breathtakingly thorough use of the famous location.
There’s plenty of other striking moments here, including a one-shot aerial car-chase that’s quite remarkable, even in the days when location was king. Cops and Robbers would be prime territory for a remake; Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg could easily top-line this without too much reworking, and it would still be a novel story, forty years on. For now, Cops and Robbers is well worth seeking out for fans of heist films, cop dramas and clever, satisfying endings.