Back in my college days, when I lived in Manhattan, I was friendly with an NYPD homicide detective who was also a movie buff, and he hipped me to this little-seen drama, praising it as one of the most accurate depictions he’d ever seen about how ugly the gamesmanship within a police force can get. And, indeed, even though Report to the Commissioner is fictional—it’s based on a novel by James Mills—the picture radiates authenticity. Extensive location photography captures the dirty heat of summertime New York City; intense performances burst with streetwise attitude; and the vicious storyline is driven by cynicism, duplicity, and politics. Told in flashback following some sort of terrible clusterfuck of a shootout at Saks Fifth Avenue, the picture reveals how an ambitious undercover detective and a rookie investigator cross paths, with tragic results.
Michael Moriarty, appearing near the beginning of his long career, stars as hapless Detective Bo Lockley, a newcomer to the NYPD investigative squad who gets paired with a seen-it-all partner, African-American Richard “Crunch” Blackstone (Yaphet Kott0). In a telling early sequence, Lockley watches Blackstone lean on black suspects, even going so far as to spew racial epithets, which clues Lockley into the level of moral compromise required of NYPD lifers. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lockley, undercover narcotics cop Patty Butler (Susan Blakley), a pretty blonde WASP who uses her looks to undercut suspicions that she’s a police officer, gets a lead on a well-connected dealer named Thomas “Stick” Henderson (Tony King). Smelling an opportunity for a high-profile bust that will help his career, Butler’s commanding officer, Captain D’Angelo (Hector Elizondo), approves a dangerous plan for spying on Stick. Soon afterward, Lockley gets pulled into the situation—without being given crucial information—and things go to hell. The movie climaxes with a tense hostage situation inside Saks, during which high-ranking cops put more energy into covering their asses than saving innocent victims.
This is dark stuff, making Report to the Commissioner a fine companion piece to Sidney Lumet’s various ’70s pictures about cops and criminals in New York City. And while Report to the Commissioner is far from perfect—the script meanders into subplots and some of the characters could have been consolidated for the purpose of clarity—the movie has myriad virtues. The atmosphere sizzles, with cinematographer Mario Tosi using haze filters and wide lenses to depict grungy exteriors and sweaty interiors. Director Milton Katselas, best known as an acting teacher, demonstrates a real gift for integrating actors into spaces and thereby creating verisimilitude. Best of all, though, are the film’s potent performances. Blakely’s sharp in a smallish role, King is physically and verbally impressive, and Moriarty’s weirdly twitchy energy is compelling. Furthermore, it’s hard to beat the roster of eclectic supporting players—beyond Elizondo and Kotto, the picture features Bob Balaban, William Devane, Dana Elcar, Richard Gere (in his first film role), and Vic Tayback. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
Report to the Commissioner: RIGHT ON