Fuzz ★★½

The film of Fuzz is a promising but flat conflation of a number of influences in popular culture in the early 1970s. It is the first script by Evan Hunter, better known as novelist Ed McBain, and was the first film made of his popular series of books. McBain created a police precinct full of characters, set in the fictional city of Isola, in 1956 with the novel Cop Hater. He would develop these characters, and the form of the police procedural narrative, in many subsequent novels over the next decades. Collectively, these works would be known as Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct. Although they have subsequently been adapted for television, Fuzz remains their primary film treatment and must bear the burden for the failure of any lasting series of film adaptations to eventuate. Whilst the movie has interest for McBain’s fans, as a film it is too influenced by the popularity of Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H to really take on a presence of its own. Likewise it seems unsure of how to use star Burt Reynolds. Indeed, it arguably seeks to do for the police force what Altman’s film did to the military and although interesting ultimately falls short of the subversive spirit of the not dissimilar Robert Aldrich film of Joseph Wambaugh’s popular police novel The Choirboys.

As a narrative, Fuzz is structured rather loosely, concerning itself with a cross-section of detectives working at the 87th Precinct. These undercover operatives consist of Burt Reynolds, Tom Skerritt and Jack Weston although it is only Reynolds who has any personal life away from the force. New in their midst is Raquel Welch, assigned to their division as a decoy to lure out a serial rapist. In the midst of renovations to the Precinct, the cops get a call from a mad extortionist, who soon becomes known as “the Deaf Man” threatening to kill a major public official if his ransom demands are not met. The call is not taken seriously although that changes when the extortionist makes a second demand and seems capable of following through on his threats. Each of the detectives take turns following potential suspects and learn of something in the offing. Meanwhile, the Deaf Man (Yul Brynner) sets in motion a most ambitious plan, intending to infiltrate the mayor’s mansion, a daring ploy far in advance of the petty criminality which dominates and distracts police work at this precinct. He believes that the police force is inept and intends to use this to see his plot carry through and attest to his superiority.

Although there are moments of sly humor in the film, it sorely lacks the sense of inter-woven fabric, of tapestry, that characterized the film it most aspires to – M.A.S.H. Although Fuzz can be judged alongside a number of comedies about the frustrations of police work (the most notable perhaps being Busting) it is a leisurely hit and miss affair. What it seems to address is the acquisition in these police officers of a sense of urgency and consequence almost as a begrudging awareness of their own responsibility. Their sly attitude recalls the dismissive people in Altman’s film, in which Skerritt also starred in a similar performance. But despite their struggles, these characters are easily manipulated and are never really in charge of their own destinies – perhaps they think that being police officers elevates them in the struggle against destiny, but beneath the comedy is an undeveloped subtext of the futility of their belief in their own abilities in light of their apparent trivialization. Indeed, throughout the film they seem constantly in strife and at times barely aware of what they are doing, forced to cater to barely coherent misfits who wander into the precinct. The film doesn’t pursue this line as much as warranted: however, the ending turns a rather unmemorable comedy headlong into a resonant despair.

What is most intriguing about Fuzz is its discussion of luck and ineptitude. Brynner considers the police force to be totally inept – indeed Skerritt isn’t even sure what the word means at one point. Although they endeavor to find out what is going on, it is through something akin to blind luck that these policemen are able to solve anything. Sadly, this cynicism is rather underplayed until the most engaging final sequence of the film, which really brings out the sense of the film as a descent into confusion. The film never makes the cops into outright bumbling fools but hints at their reliance on chance as much as police-work. The resulting sense of police bewilderment underscores the film’s main point – the idea of a frustrated society unable to contain its assorted criminals, whether small time operators or masterminds, and breaking into criminal rebellion or petty madness out of malaise alone. Although this subtext is there it is only in the latter stages that it assumes full force and by then it is too late to redeem the flatness of what has gone before. The final undermining of police authority is a bold statement but the film flubs its development, never fully aware of the needed sense of a descent into comical despair. This is a wasted opportunity.