The procedural is probably as old as narrative cinema itself, with the crime film's prominence never having waned. As early as 1915, French director Louis Feuillade immortalized the genre with his groundbreaking, scandalous serial LES VAMPIRES (worth checking out for a hot-mama Irma Vep, played by Musidora, a popular performer at the time; the term "vamp" was also coined because of this character, coincidentally.) So, here are three of my favorite procedurals, old and new, murderous and scandalous, and altogether quite thrilling, gripping, and - in the words of Peter Travers - "mesmerizing."
1) THE NAKED CITY
Jules Dassin’s brilliant film THE NAKED CITY is an achievement in police drama that stands heads-and-tails above any other in its influence on the genre’s plots and detached structure. Telling the story of the investigation into Jean Dexter’s murder, the film follows the detectives of the 10th Precinct as they methodically follow all the leads and search for clues in a city of 8 million people (in 1948.)
The mystery is engaging, but thanks to the film’s narration and loose, go-with-the-flow storytelling and commentary, it’s the detectives that we eventually care so much for - when they get awfully close to catching Garzah in a back-alley chase, or when they’re in mortal danger, or even when they’re just plodding through the repetitive nature of the job. And the final chase through the Lower East Side to the Williamsburg bridge is still riveting to this day. Framed as just one of many stories to be told in New York (the actual murder of Ms. Dexter is shown in the beginning montage discussing all the things going on throughout the city), and told by and commented on by an omniscient narrator (with occasional interjections from the thoughts of on-lookers or general citizens), THE NAKED CITY is a remarkable film; still the crown jewel of Jules Dassion’s career.
ZODIAC, one of the best films of 2007, is an amazing case study, serial killer, police procedural, investigative journalism, character study hybrid that can only be described as mesmerizing (apologies to Peter Travers for using one of his overused go-to phrases.) Pulling together all of the pieces of the 40-year-old, unsolved Zodiac killings and making an utterly compelling drama from them, the film succeeds immeasurably. No doubt fans of Se7en were salivating when David Fincher announced he was working on a film based on the serial killer, and I bet a lot of those fans were somewhat disappointed with ZODIAC.
Over the course of nearly three hours, Fincher methodically plugs in all the puzzle pieces, from the first murder to the end in the early 90's when the prime suspect dies and the case is seemingly put to rest by a definitive book by the film’s main character, Robert Graysmith. The effect is one of mesmerizing the audience with a whirlwind of information, placing them front-and-center in the investigation, and really it may be the most boring movie I’ve ever been so completely enthralled in. From scene one, in which we are shown the killer’s first victims through the first letters mailed to the newspapers, and on through to the journalists and detectives who sort out the facts, the movie layers on detail after detail after detail, dwindling in minutiae for the sheer enjoyment of it, and it’s wonderfully refreshing.
Maybe the single best thing about the film is the way in which all of the clues ultimately prove fruitless, as much for circumstantial reasons as for practical ones, like time. And it’s maddening. The film follows the characters all the way through the investigation, and it’s left open-ended, with only the consolation that the main suspect - never convicted, and never even arrested - died in the 1990's. The order isn’t restored to the lives of the people who are investigating this crime as it is in something like THE NAKED CITY. This crime isn’t just an episode; it’s the overriding event of these peoples’ lives, and it rips them apart like a disease, starting with their internal thoughts and obsessions until it spills out and destroys families, reputations and careers. It’s fascinating in every sense, and it may be the best police procedural ever made. And dear lord, Robert Downey, Jr.'s good.
3) ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
Not all great procedurals are crime stories dealing with killers and the detectives chasing them down; 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN proves that beyond the shadow of doubt. A thrilling exposè of how two newspaper reporters broke the story on Watergate, the film operates on a level of savvy dialogue and exposition (and style, in spades - when the overhead camera kicks in for a menacing top-down trip to a meeting in a parking garage with insider Deep Throat...) that is still considered rare. The chemistry between Redford and Hoffman is electrifying as they plod through layers and layers of red tape, government roadblocks, and eventually uncover the truth about Tricky Dick’s less-than-honorable business relationships.
Playing on some similar ground as ZODIAC, which obviously took a lot from ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, the movie questions authority while showing how dangerous the questioning of authority can be, professionally and privately. There are no lost lives here, no opening-sequence murders, but the murder of a reputation, either by snooping through files of rivals, or by making your enemies in the media seem like kooks, proves to be just as merciless an undertaking.