DIR/WRI: Tiller Russell • PRO: Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Sheldon Yellen • DOP: Igor Martinovic • ED: Chad Beck, James Carroll • MUS: Amy Marie Beauchamp, Jose Cancela CAST: Michael Dowd, Ken Eurell, Walter Yurkiw
There is something strangely alluring about the New York of the ’70s and ’80s, and much of that is down to cinema. The city was not just an instantly-recognisable backdrop for countless films – it was more like a character itself, an ominous presence that seeped into the very fabric of movies like The French Connection, Death Wish and Taxi Driver. For those of us growing up thousands of miles away it also seeped into our imagination, and we couldn’t help but be enthralled by this steaming cauldron of grime, graffiti and incredibly loud people.
Of course it’s easy to be sentimental about a place when you never actually had to live there. In reality, much of the Big Apple was genuinely anarchic at this time, gripped by a crack and crime epidemic that claimed thousands of lives and made vast chunks of the city perilously unsafe. A Most Violent Year recently examined the mayhem of the era, and now Tiller Russell’s Precinct Seven Five throws a non-fictional spotlight on the police venality that helped perpetuate that mayhem.
The film focuses on the infamous story of Michael Dowd, a corrupt NYPD officer who spent most of the decade working within ‘The Seven Five’ – a tough part of Brooklyn notorious for its murder rate and drug gangs. Dowd tells how he progressed from low-level bribery (200 dollars for a ‘lobster lunch’ in order to tear up a traffic ticket) to burglary, racketeering, and protecting ruthless high-level criminals. It’s a staggering slide into moral oblivion, and while tales of police corruption may not exactly shock us to the core these days, the scale, severity and span of Dowd’s crimes will surely astound even the most hardened cynic.
Russell’s achievement in getting most of the main players to participate in the film gives him some excellent raw material, and he expertly weaves these disparate voices – gang bosses, politicians, good cops, bad cops – into a coherent, compelling narrative. The testimonies are spliced with footage from the time (including Dowd’s 1993 grilling by an anti-corruption commission), police documents and recordings, as well as a slightly-unhealthy dose of stock New York imagery. Ominous music underpins much of the film, and the whole thing rattles along like a gangster movie – the characters often sounding as if they were speaking straight from a Scorsese script, with all the recalled-hedonism, hubris and betrayal such stories entail.
Those hoping for a socio-political exploration of police corruption may be disappointed. The poverty-blasted, decaying streets of East New York are evoked early in the film, but only really to set the scene, and the ordinary victims of this unspoken complicity between criminals and cops are almost entirely absent. Likewise, there are hints of an interesting subtext in the tension between the ‘establishment’ line (Dowd is labelled ‘a once-in-a-generation corrupt cop’) and the testimony of the officers themselves, who talk about a more institutionalised, pervasive rule-breaking within the NYPD. But again, the idea of Dowd as a symptom rather than an aberration is only briefly touched upon, and you feel Russell has deliberately skimped on intellectual depth in order to prioritise the drama of the story. And you could hardly blame him, because it’s quite a story.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Precinct Seven Five – Official Website