Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Cop an attitude
Robert Duvall stars as a suspended NYPD detective who embarks on a mission to avenge his murdered partner in BADGE 373, a 70s crime thriller that languishes somewhat in The French Connection's shadow. Slarek is not a big fan of the film, but has no problems at all with Indicator's Blu-ray.
 
"There is, somewhere beneath Badge 373's ungainly flab, a good film."
Film critic Michael Pattison in the booklet that accompanies this Blu-ray release

 

The key word in that above quote for me is "somewhere."

It's been noted that we tend to mainly cover films that we like here at Outsider. This is largely because it takes time to write reviews of the length we have become known for, and as this is our hobby rather than our profession, the prospect of explaining at length why we didn't get on with a film that others might be enthusiastic fans of is not exactly a tantalising one. Take the independent distributor Indicator as an example. We'd planned from the moment they came into being to cover every one of their releases, yet sometimes have been forced to let titles slip due to time constraints, family issues and a shortage of writers willing to work for no income. More rarely we might pass on a title just because we didn't get on at all with the film in question (and no, I'm not going to start naming titles here). Our reviews are written in those small windows of free time that pop up between the demands of our day jobs and those of our families, and given the choice between griping about a film we disliked or enthusing about one that we are keen for others to see, we tend to plump for the latter. And be assured, there are always enough review discs screaming for our attention for there to be a choice in this matter.

As you might guess from that intro, I'm not the world's biggest fan of Badge 373, a 1973 crime thriller directed by producer Howard W. Koch, yet there are a couple of sound reasons why this disc was the first of Indicator's October releases to make its way into my Blu-ray player. The first is the simple fact that it is a 70s American crime thriller, as this was a golden period for a genre I'm fond of and I have no doubt that there are a few minor gems from that time that I have yet to discover. Could this be one of them? The second reason is that the film is based on the exploits of former New York City detective Eddie Egan, whose most famous case was the basis for another 70s crime thriller you may have heard of titled The French Connection. And as it was with that title, Egan was not just technical advisor on Badge 373 but also appears in the film as the boss of the lead character, who here is played by the excellent Robert Duvall. How could I not love this? I'll get to that after a quick plot summary.

Ryan attempts the scene of his ex-partner's murder

Following the death of a suspect during an undercover bust, New York City detective Eddie Ryan is suspended from duty, but when his former partner is murdered he sets out to find and punish his killer, launching a one-man investigation that brings him into conflict with a Puerto Rican crime syndicate run by a man named Sweet Willie (Henry Darrow). Coincidentally, the suspect who died after falling from a roof during a tussle with Ryan was also Puerto Rican, and Sweet Willie is somehow tied up with a group of Puerto Rican independence fighters. And Ryan doesn't seem to like Puerto Ricans, or "spics" as he calls them. He doesn't seem keen on African-Americans either. And I'm supposed to somehow connect with this guy?

Badge 373 was one of a cycle of crime films from the 1970s that saw a rogue individual wage a one-man war on violent criminals who have often robbed them of a friend or a family member but have evaded justice, often due to what is painted as liberal restrictions or legal technicalities. Many were law enforcement officers, as with Dirty Harry or Walking Tall, but some were Vietnam veterans (Rolling Thunder, Taxi Driver) or ordinary members of the public (Death Wish). The key influence here, however, is the aforementioned The French Connection, but just about everything that made that film special trips and stumbles in Badge 373.

At the root of the problem is Pete Hamill's often plodding screenplay, one whose structure lacks urgency and much of whose dialogue lacks the street-smart realism of the banter between Popeye Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo in William Friedkin's standard-setter. Just occasionally, as when Ryan's put-upon girlfriend Maureen (Verna Bloom) complains that, "You spend more time playing with that gun than with me," I caught myself involuntarily wincing. Director Howard Koch was also no William Friedkin  (then again, who else was at this point in Friedkin's career?), and while he does keep the story ticking over, when the action scenes come they don't have a fraction of the white-knuckle tension and excitement of those in The French Connection. This is perhaps most evident in the film's showpiece chase sequence, when Ryan hijacks a bus as he attempts to flee a gang of gun-wielding and car-driving hoodlums (Puerto Ricans, of course), a conscious attempt to top the legendary chase scene in Friedkin's film that frankly doesn't come close. J.J. Jackson's dates-the-film jazz-funk score feels particularly inappropriate here. And that flabbiness suggested by the opening quote really is an issue elsewhere, giving rise to a near two-hour movie that some prudent pace-tightening could have comfortably been shortened by a good fifteen to twenty minutes.

Puerto Rican drug kingpin Sweet Willie

In his first credited leading role, Robert Duvall does a solid job as Ryan, but still somehow lacks the spark that always made him such a great supporting player, a spark that was on vibrant display later that same year when he played vengeful bank robber Earl Macklin in John Flynn's superb crime thriller The Outfit (now that's a film I'd love to see the good people at Indicator get their hands on). There is engaging work from some of the supporting players, and while Eddie Egan's limited range does tend to show in his dialogue scenes with the more expressive Duvall, when he's urgently directing his fellow policemen during the film's climax, his years of experience on the job really help to sell this as real.

More problematic are the film's racial politics, which while a product of their time have aged painfully and even back in 1973 saw the film catch some serious flack (a Puerto Rican pressure group even tried to get it pulled from distribution). Now I'm not going to claim for a second that there weren't Puerto Rican gangs active in New York in the early 1970s, and the revolutionary independentistas were a very real group. But when seemingly every Puerto Rican in the film is portrayed as either a criminal or naively misguided and the nominal good guys and girls are all white, this narrowness of focus and a lack of nuance make the story fell like one that has been pulled from the headlines of a right-wing tabloid. And where Popeye Doyle's surface racism was employed as a method of intimidation (I'm not excusing it, just noting that it had narrative purpose), with Ryan it comes across as worryingly heartfelt and an aspect of his personality that makes it nigh-on impossible to like him even as a vengeful antihero. Intriguingly, one character who does effectively kick against a bigotry that some have accused the film itself of embracing is Puerto Rican freedom fighter Ruben Garcia (Felipe Luciano), whose impassioned speech to a crowd of protestors about the prejudice that he and his fellow countrymen suffer on a daily basis is given enough screen time to register as more than background action.

So is there a good movie hiding underneath the flab as suggested by Mr. Pattison in the above quote? Quite possibly, yes. We have definitive proof that the experiences of Eddie Egan could become the basis for an absolute cracker of a crime thriller, and the concept of a detective avenging a murdered partner was also the basis for the same year's The Seven-Ups, a superior film whose story was written by Egan's former partner, Sonny Grosso. The potential is all there in Badge 373 (Eddie Egan's actual badge number, in case you were wondering), but for my money what was needed was a serious rewrite and a director with a sharper eye and ear for action, pacing and dialogue. I feel sure that others will get more out of the film than I did and I'm happy about that, and I'll freely admit that there are some unexpected pleasures in the character detail and Arthur J. Ornitz's handsome night-time street cinematography, and there's a late story twist that really caught me by surprise. For the most part, however, Badge 373 serves as a useful reminder that not every film made during this fertile period for the American crime drama was quite as great and groundbreaking as we sometimes like to remember they were.

sound and vision

Indicator's Blu-ray sports a typically fine 1080p 1.85:1 transfer from a Paramount HD remaster, one that shines in every respect in the daylight scenes but also does a robust job with sequences shot on the New York streets at night, where the black levels are solid and colour vibrant when needed (neon signs, paintwork on cars, etc.). There's no trace of damage, precious few dust spots, and a fine film grain that doesn't coarsen in darker scenes.

Ruben Garcia gives an impassioned speech

The Linear PCM 1.0 mono  soundtrack is in good shape, having a clarity and dynamic range typical for American studio films of the pre-Dolby 70s.

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are available.

extra features

Randy Jurgensen: Welcome to Fear City(24:39)
A welcome interview with former NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, who along with Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso made a name for himself in the 1970s as a technical advisor and bit-part actor on police-centric crime movies, including an uncredited role in Badge 373. He reveals that The French Connection catapulted him and his colleagues to an almost rock star level of fame, and has quite a bit to say about aspects of the making of that film, including a claim that Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle was considerably more reserved than Egan, on whom he was based. More reserved? Wow. He admits up front that Badge 373 was always going to be based around a car chase, and that the restrictions placed on the filmmakers when shooting this sequence prevented them from taking the sort of mad but thrilling risks that defined the chase in Friedkin's film. He praises Duvall as an actor and paints a grim picture of the New York of the day, which he assures us is accurately reflected in the film.

Glenn Kenny: Lethal Enforcers (28:34)
Here film critic Glenn Kenny provides an overview of the featurette itself calls "the causes and effects of 70s American cop movies," citing and often examining a range of key examples, including Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Walking Tall, The Stone Killer and The Super Cops, to name but a few. Having thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Kenny's breakdown of the soundtrack on Arrow's FM Blu-ray, I was really looking forward to this and it didn't disappoint, covering every film I had made of mental note of in advance and even a couple I've yet to see. Kenny breaks down the ideology that drives many of these movies, discusses the cathartic rewards they offer and even how they are subdivided by the cities in which they are primarily set. I really enjoyed this.

Theatrical Trailer (3:04)
A messily structured trailer that's typical of the period and packs in footage from every action sequence in the film, which makes it look a lot livelier than it is. "Now he's the best ex-cop in the business," we are assured.

A gang chases Ryan in a hijacked bus

Radio Spots (2:57)
There are two radio ads here, each in two versions, one running for 60 seconds, the other for 30. In the first, Eddie Egan introduces and sells the film and assures us that "in Badge 373, everyone goes when the whistle blows," while the second is a more regular, narrator-driven pitch. All four play under a photo of the 45rpm record on which the ads were presumably provided for radio broadcast.

Image Gallery
24 screens of promotional images, posters (some of which are rather good) and press book pages.

Booklet
The lead essay here is the one by Michael Pattison from which I cherry-picked the quote that fronts this review, but there is a great deal more than that. He initially focusses on Eddie Egan and his screen incarnation as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, before moving onto a thoughtful look at Badge 373, Egan's involvement in it, the controversy surrounding its racial politics and what he sees as its more positive qualities. Following this there is a diary kept by New York Sunday reporter Bob Lardine of his visit to the production of Badge 373, one peppered with interesting observations and conversations with cast and crew members. Bringing up the rear are three extracts from contemporary reviews that differ markedly in their opinions of the film's qualities. As ever, the booklet is illustrated with promotional imagery and includes full credits for the film.

summary

It's great that Indicator are resurrecting some lesser-known American films from the 1970s and giving them a makeover, but try as I might, I just couldn't get excited by this one. As I suggested above, I have little doubt that others will enjoy it more than I did, and for them this disc will be a must-have. I certainly enjoyed the special features and the transfer is top-notch. Not for me, perhaps, but a fine job all round.

Badge 373 Blu-ray cover
Badge 373

USA 1973
116 mins
directed by
Howard W. Koch
produced by
Howard W. Koch
written by
Pete Hamill
cinematography
Arthur J. Ornitz
editing
John Woodcock
music
J.J. Jackson
art director
Philip Rosenberg
starring
Robert Duvall
Verna Bloom
Henry Darrow
Eddie Egan
Felipe Luciano
Tina Cristiani
Marina Durell
Chico Martínez

disc details
region 0
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Randy Jurgensen interview
Glenn Kenny on 1970s cop movies
Trailer
Radio spots
Image gallery
Booklet

distributor
Indicator – Powerhouse Films
release date
28 October 2019
review posted
24 October 2019

See all of Slarek's reviews