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The Lurid Beginnings of the Cop/Buddy Movie

Dirty Harry may have had eight partners scattered across five films, but none could be considered his buddy, despite a couple having saved his life. He preferred to work the crime-infested landscape of San Francisco on his own, reluctantly taking partners only as ordered. But around the same time, down in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City, a pair of seasoned detectives, obviously inspired by Inspector Callahan, became friends with their new partners in a couple of 1973 exploitation features that weren’t seen outside of drive-ins or grindhouses until the home video revolution. As Callahan became a blueprint for the cop on the edge loner, these four gentlemen arguably laid the groundwork for the cop/buddy films that exploded in the eighties.

While undoubtedly produced for an exploitation market, A Scream in the Streets, amid its endless scenes of near-X rated sex and trashy LA locations, features officers Ed Haskell (Joshua Bryant) and Bob Streeker (Frank Bannon) looking for a lunatic who has been stabbing young women to death. The first time they meet, Bob picks Ed up at his home. Ed isn’t crazy about Bob being a “litterbug,” which is determined after Bob throws a cigarette butt onto the street, and he gives Bob a cold time, perhaps not wanting to bond with his new partner so soon. We get to see a bit of Ed’s married home life, and how the still-single Bob is assimilated into his new detective position. Ed eventually warms up to his new partner when he realizes Bob is dedicated to keeping the scum off the streets and his respect for the law, despite going slightly above it at times to make an arrest. The film suffers from atrocious acting and a barely-there script, yet we still feel the men connect in a few quick sequences, and by the time the finale gets underway, we can almost sympathize as one dies in the line of duty. Over the course of only a couple days, we feel a true friendship and respect form between these two detectives and can easily imagine them spending time together off the clock had the ending not been so tragic.

Meanwhile in NYC, veteran detective Rizotti (George Spencer) and newbie O’Mara (John Moser) are attempting to track down a psycho who is offing massage parlor workers, and the only clue leads them to an astrologer (played by legendary cult icon Brother Theodore). Like A Scream in the Streets, Massage Parlor Murders features a veteran detective showing the ropes to a rookie, and while it takes some time, the vet eventually treats the newbie as an equal, and we feel a friendship form, especially in the wake of a personal loss in the newbie’s life. Rizotti, like Ed Haskell, is a married man, but we first meet him in a massage parlor being serviced by a masseuse who turns out to be a future victim. Off the clock, Rizotti doesn’t seem too happy taking his wife to movies and church, while his new partner O’Mara begins dating a masseuse who swears she’s only about “the massage” and none of the shady stuff, and we see their romantic relationship grow in the short time they’re together.

It’s not until Rizotti has a revelation (in church of all places) of what is causing the killer to tick when we really feel the detectives grow close. Rizotti immediately shares this info with O’Mara, speeding to his house and showing him a strong work ethic by continuing their investigation off the clock on a Sunday. As the storyline in Murders takes on a spiritual tone, the final minutes find our detectives bonding over an almost supernatural situation that lets them know the universe is a lot bigger than the seedy massage parlors of midtown Manhattan. The audience can only assume, as the credits role, that cracking this difficult case has united these men in ways other cops seldom are.

The veteran detectives in A Scream in the Streets and Massage Parlor Murders have that certain Inspector Callahan vibe, men who are growing weary of the job and their surroundings yet are still willing, even if reluctantly, to deal with the fact they’ve been called to train partners new to the force. The younger cops in these films show a desire to emulate their seasoned partners, Bob Streeker by attempting to live up to detective Haskell’s impressive record (as he tells Haskell’s wife), and detective O’Mara by going out on a limb to catch even the slightest suspect (in one sequence he chases a perp from a health club through the streets of Manhattan wearing nothing but a towel). While we eventually feel and can assume the tightness these partners attain, we also get the sense of friendship that would become more prevalent years later in films such as 48 Hrs (1982), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Lethal Weapon (1987).

These much higher grossing blockbusters also featured veteran cops dealing with new or wilder partners, and focused on the friendships formed between them. The term “Cop/Buddy Movie” meant big box office at that time, but it wasn’t a new thing. Its foundations were laid out in two of the sleaziest films released in the seventies, the directors and stars of those films never to be credited. I’m not sure if they’d take the credit had it been offered considering it was the sex and violence at the forefront of those features, not the friendships of the detectives.

The cop/buddy thing existed on TV shows such as Dragnet and Barney Miller, even as far back as Kurosawa’s noir thriller Stray Dogs (1949). But the popular eighties subgenre owes much of its existence, even if it was intentional, to these two seldom seen seventies oddities, at least on a latent level. These cops are thrown into situations that became common in eighties cop/buddy films and continued beyond and up to features such as Bad Boys (1995), Hot Fuzz (2007), and even The Nice Guys (2016).

As an end note, upon revisiting Massage Parlor Murders for this article, it hit me—the 1995 blockbuster Seven features a killer who uses the same motive as our massage parlor lunatic … and in a way Seven’s detectives, in the end, could be considered buddies.

And after an experience like that, who wouldn’t?

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About Nick Cato

NICK CATO is the author of one novel, seven novellas, and two short story collections. His debut film book, Suburban Grindhouse, is available from Headpress Publishing. Two more film books are currently in the works, as well as his second novel. Visit him on all the usual sites.

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