Norman Mailer, the Literary Lion, Leftist Leader, and rumored candidate for Mayor of New York, has made a film. Two films, to be precise. The first, by all accounts which reached my ears, was a disaster. The second, Beyond the Law is something else again. But what?
The film is a diary of one night in the life of an unnumbered New York City precinct station, and of its boss, a crusty cop named Francis X. Pope (played by Mailer, who also co-produced and directed the film). The story is nothing much: an odd lot of criminal types is assembled at the station house for interrogation by Pope, his lieutenant Rocky Gibraltar (played by co-producer Buzz Farbar), and other old hands. The only other basic scene in the film shows Pope, Rocky, and another vice-squad detective in their off-duty hours that night in a bar.
The production wasn't much either. Shot in four days (or nights: shooting began at midnight and persisted until dawn) on a budget of $60,000, the production schedule bears faint resemblance even to that of the film's cinematic cousins. John Cassavetes' picture Faces, for example, took four years and $400,000 to produce, in part because of the freedom given to the actors to improvise on the script. Yet Mailer's picture is wholly improvisational as well. According to Rip Torn, one of a very few professional actors to appear in the credits, Mailer simply asked him to come on as a motorcycle bum. The rest was left to the genius of the moment. So it was with the other parts.
What possible artistic good can come out of such a haphazard aesthetic technique? To answer that question, and to discover the point of the film, it is helpful to compare it to another picture of the cop-genre, Frank Sinatra's recent The Detective. Now here is a film you might expect something of. Big screen, color, big stars, careful script, location shots, the works. Yet, as a film, it was one of the most upsetting and appalling cinematic perversions I've ever witnessed. But I think I didn't understand why I reacted so negatively to The Detective until I saw Mailer's version of the same basic stuff.
For Mailer has captured an important truth about cops and criminals—or, if you will, about the law and society—which Sinatra explicitly denies. Mailer sees, and shows us, that outside of the narrow and finally artificial confines of the law and its procedures there is not as much difference between cop and criminal as we like to suppose. For that matter, there is not as much difference between the best and the worst of our citizens—ourselves—as we might like to think there is. Indeed, Mailer suggests that there is no difference, apart from the fact that one man is on one side of a dividing line, and another man is on the other side. That, plus the suggestion that dividing lines are altogether arbitrary, shows that all men are brothers under the skin, and that what is one man's meat is meat as well for everyman.
Sinatra, on the other hand, never gets beyond the law, and hence says nothing very important about the nature of man—and indeed, if what he does say is taken as articulating the nature of man, says what is simply false. And not only false, but injurious. For if a man be told to comfort himself in the fact that he is not as other men are, what will be the limit to his arrogance, and eventually to the harm he will do his brethren? The mistakes of thought and policy which issue from this source can affect even the most humble and well-meaning men. Was it not some such habit of thought as this which allowed Dwight Eisenhower, a good man and a great general, to turn over the foreign policy of a country to a man who, as an instrument of policy, fostered programs which have led the world to teeter on the brink of nuclear disaster, and to refuse to recognize the festering plight of millions of his countrymen until it was nearly too late? If your cap is set for the Grand Aggressor, the Embodiment of Evil, you can fall into a good many of your own horrors while retaining your righteous pose.
What is the difference between cop and criminal? However you state the difference, the similarities are worth attending to, as we should all recognize in the aftermath of Chicago. If Mailer's film had only uncovered that truth and put it before us, it would be worth its $60,000 and more. But as a parable of the realities which underlie so many of the distinctions we commonly impose upon the world, the picture suggests an even profounder point. That all of this could be done in four loose nights of even looser shooting is surprising and revealing. What it suggests is that if the thought is right, it will find its way out of even the most flawed execution. But if the thought is wrong, no amount of gloss laid on in Universal City will do the trick.
Now a lot can and needs to be said in defense of the distinctions we impose on the world. I have not said that these distinctions serve no purpose, or even that value determinations made in accordance with them are bound to be (somewhat) mistaken. What we need to do, of course, is bear in mind what purpose is served by a given distinction, and take care lest we operate with distinctions in disregard of the purposes they serve. Failure to do so can result in more than mere philosophical muddles. It can bring guilt, fear, despair, and just plain evil. Checking our thoughts and beliefs—at root—is not an easy matter. But can thinking and believing beings be obligated to do less?