The early-to-mid 1970s was the heyday of grungy cop thrillers. Films exploring the seamier side of police work arguably got its biggest boost from the 1968 release of "Bullitt", which dared to show cops intertwined with ethically-challenged politicians in their common quest for career advancement. With the release of "The French Connection" and "Dirty Harry" in 1971, the genre kicked into high gear. In these films, the anti-hero disregards constitutional protections to take the law into his own hands. With America reeling from soaring crime rates, audiences cheered on these dubious symbols of our justice system. It's safe to say that watching these films from today's standpoint, one might have a different reaction to the tactics used by Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan. However, there were more nuanced looks at modern urban police departments in films that explored corruption without the benefit of an superhuman anti-hero. Sidney Lumet's "Serpico" certainly exemplifies this type of film, with the protagonist being an every day cop who suffers terribly for calling out the blatantly criminal acts being committed by his peers. Similarly, a lesser-known film dealing the same subject matter- "Report to the Commissioner"- took a cynical look at the NYPD and found a nest of bribery, payoffs and other illegal methods used by many cops. This was not just some left-wing fantasy. The experience of Frank Serpico and fellow whistle-blower cop David Durk had blown the lid off massive corruption in the NYPD. The result was the formation of the Knapp Commission which uncovered widespread graft in the department and instituted radical changes to clean up the NYPD. A number of criminal indictments were handed down. "Report to the Commissioner" was released in 1975, well after the Knapp Commission had released its findings but during a period when faith in the NYPD remained weak among the citizens, who were shocked at the level of corruption unveiled in the Knapp probe. Adding to the public paranoia was the recent Watergate scandal. The film went into production shortly after President Nixon resigned in disgrace just two years after being re-elected in the biggest landslide in American history.
The story centers on the experiences of rookie undercover cop Bo Lockley (Michael Moriarty), who from the get-go seems too naive and sensitive to fit in with the hard-boiled detectives he's been assigned to work with. They cruelly subject him to hazing and never stop mocking him for looking like a hippie, even though he's not supposed to look like a cop since he works undercover. Lockley is shown the ropes around the Times Square district by fellow officer "Crunch" Blackstone (Yaphet Kotto), a hard-bitten veteran who strolls through the grimy neighborhood like a king, routinely abusing its denizens by words and physical actions. Lockley is appalled but Crunch warns him that survival in this part of the city depends on being feared, not being admired. The script introduces a parallel story line in which a young female undercover cop, Patty Butler (Susan Blakely) comes up with a dangerous plan to bring down local crime kingpin "Stick" Henderson (Tony King), who has evaded being arrested despite being the area's most feared pimp and drug dealer. Patty requests permission to pose a teenage runaway, seduce Stick and ultimately become his "old lady" with the intent of being able to witness his day-to-day operations and gather enough evidence to arrest him. The plan obviously violates departmental regulations but both Patty and her two superiors are eager for the promotions that would result from bringing Stick to justice so they approve her plan. Patty makes good on reeling in Stick and before long she's shacking up with him. Lockley, doggedly trying to find and rescue her on the assumption she is a runaway in distress, manages to trace her to Stick's apartment where the two men engage in a gun battle. Patty is tragically killed in the incident, and Lockley pursues Stick in a wild foot chase that includes Times Square before culminating in the men encountering each other inside an elevator in Saks Fifth Avenue. This is the most suspenseful sequence in the film. The police shut the power off, stranding Lockley and his prey in a sweltering, confined space with both men pointing guns at each other. Over time, they engage in a conversation in which Stick tries to persuade Lockley that they are both doomed because if they are allowed to live, their stories will bring disgrace to higher-ups in the NYPD. The conspiracy aspects of the script reflect the mood of the era. Nobody in the film is a traditional good guy except Lockley and he's treated like a fish-out-of-water.
"Report to the Commissioner" succeeds in presenting a gritty, realistic view of New York City during its decline in an era when crime was soaring, the streets were dirty and the future looked grim. Anyone visiting Gotham today would surely pronounce the city's turn-around as a miracle but there is no doubt that New York went through some difficult years and these were reflected in the movies of the era. However, the film is flawed in some key areas. Director Milton Katselas, who was revered as a playwright and academic more than a filmmaker (he directed only a handful of movies), is saddled with an erratic script by old pros Ernest Tidyman and Abby Mann, based on a novel by James Mills. The story isn't told in a linear fashion and instead jumps back and forth from present to past and vice-versa, making for an occasionally confusing experience for the viewer. Consequently, while some scenes are highly engaging, the film never gels satisfactorily as a whole. Not helping matters is the performance of Michael Moriarty as Lockley. We know he is supposed to be a naive rookie but at times Moriarty plays the part like he just stepped off a turnip truck and is seeing New York for the first time. His wide-eyed innocence often strains credibility. More convincing is Yaphet Kotto, who commands the screen in every scene in which he appears. Sadly, he vanishes from the middle section of the film, much to its detriment. Tony King is excellent as "Stick" and young Bob Balaban excels as a double-amputee who acts as a police informant. The scene in which he uses his crude, wooden wheeled "dolly" to hitch a ride on a speeding car makes for a thrilling experience. However, certain other cast members over-act and dilute the impact of their scenes. Even the great Elmer Bernstein's score seems unusually mediocre.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a very fine transfer that captures the glitter and the gutters of New York during this period. The Blu-ray includes the original theatrical trailer.