A history of how law enforcement was portrayed on the big screen in the first half of the 20th century had never been written — until now.
A Palisades Park police veteran who’s also a prolific author has just released his fifth book, “Law Enforcement in American Cinema, 1894-1952,” which examines the history of police and policing on the big screen during that period.
“Film is a site where public sentiments toward the police are both created and reflected,” Sgt. George Beck wrote.
Cineastes have often focused on the way gangsters and other criminals are romanticized in movies — or film, if you prefer. But how has the perception of police evolved reel by reel?
Beck examines that question as he traces the progression of law enforcement through cinema — from American cities to the ever-growing suburbs — as well as the progression of big-screen storytelling from stereotypical to layered and nuanced.
“Widespread law enforcement or formal policing outside of cities appeared in the early 20th century around the same time the early film industry was developing,” he wrote. “The two evolved in tandem, intersecting in meaningful ways.”
Beck cites a host of examples — among them, a memorable work by silent film’s greatest star, Charlie Chaplin.
In the 1917’s “Easy Street,” Chaplin’s “Tramp” is appointed as a police officer in a troubled neighborhood.
The work, Beck says, “emphasizes how police are often on the front lines of societal change, tasked with the responsibility of fighting social issues and cultural blight, in addition to enforcing laws and caring for the community.”
Other examples show how depictions of film heroes pivoted in the mid-1930s from sentimentalized hoodlums to effective enforcers, as actors who’d previously played bad guys “were now starring as heroic lawmen in pursuit of despicable villains.”
There was perhaps no better example than James Cagney, the notorious tough guy turned FBI “G man.”
No examination of law enforcement can ignore the “hard-boiled” detectives who dominated the film noir period from the mid-40s through the turn of the decade. Beck dives as deeply into the subject as private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) pursued the jewel-encrusted statuette in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941).
He brings his exhaustive study to a close with a look at the growing onscreen strength during the 1950s of “strong-willed defenders of the universe” — among them, former marshal Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) in “High Noon” — who reflected a time of booming confidence in and respect for American institutions.
Beck, who grew up in Palisades Park, has had a distinguished career as a police officer, adjunct professor and author, previously publishing “The Killer Among Us,” “Trounce: A Suspense Thriller” and “Images of America: Palisades Park.”
He holds a Ph.D. in History & Culture from Drew University, a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University, master’s in Administrative Science and a bachelor’s from FDU, and an associate’s degree in Criminal Justice from Bergen Community College.
He’s also editor-in-chief of The Blue Magazine.
“Law Enforcement in American Cinema, 1894-1952” is available on Amazon.
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