The Cohen Case Files: Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Ice (1996)

Teleplay by Larry Cohen

There is something inherently comforting about the police procedural. Maybe it’s because most audiences feel secure when watching or reading a narrative that has a formula? Maybe it’s deeper than that? Maybe when we are constantly confronted with news stories of unsolved crimes, police incompetence or corruption, and (usually inflated) statistics about violent crime, it’s nice to get lost in a world where hard-working, honest cops are methodically tracking down the bad guys?

Whatever the reason may be, the police procedural as entertainment has endured for decades. Nowhere has it been more successful than on television. Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, Kojak, the numerous CSI and Law & Order franchises, and many other successful TV shows over the years have relied on the tried-and-true formula of a weekly crime and the ensuing investigation by dogged police detectives. It makes sense that the 87th Precinct series of crime novels by Ed McBain would eventually make their way to television as a string of made-for-TV movies in the mid-’90s on NBC.

For those of you who are unaware, Ed McBain was the pseudonym (one of at least six!) for writer Salvatore Lombino. Writing as McBain, Lombino cranked out somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty 87th Precinct novels set in the fictional city of Isola. With their police procedural formula that only altered slightly from book to book, the same decent, blue-collar characters populating the precinct year after year, and McBain’s interest in giving a little more shading to his police officer characters than was normal (meaning he actually acknowledged they had a life outside of their jobs) it’s safe to say that the novels inspired slightly more expansive police procedurals on TV. Barney Miller, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue all owe a debt to McBain’s novels that injected a slice of life atmosphere to the precinct house.

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Ice, plays like an extended episode of Law & Order with more complicated plotting and Toronto providing the urban location shooting. That is to say, it’s ninety minutes of police procedural comfort food and, despite running the length of a feature, is plotted out like an episode of a TV series with an “A” and a “B” story.

In the “A” story, two homicides occur in different parts of the city. The first victim is a pimp and a drug dealer. The second victim is a chorus member in a smash hit musical. The only connection between the two is that both victims were shot with the same gun. On the case are detectives Carella (Dale Midkiff) and Meyer (Joe Pantoliano). Potential suspects include the chorus member’s boyfriend (Dean McDermott), an obsessed fan of the chorus member (Tim Koetting), the shady producer of the musical (Judah Katz), and any number of unsavory characters the pimp/drug dealer did business with.

The death of the drug dealer has ramifications in the criminal world as Brother Anthony (Nigel Bennett) and Emma (Diane Douglass), a pair of grotesque, low-rent crooks, see an opportunity to sell to his clientele if they can just get their hand’s on his missing inventory. Of course, they are not afraid to leave behind some extra bodies if that is what it takes.

In the “B” story, a detective named Burke (Andrea Parker) helps with two other investigations by placing herself in harm’s way as bait for potentially violent criminals and begins a tentative romance with Kling (Paul Johansson), another detective.

One of the nicer surprises about Ice is that the subplot about Burke is never forced to dovetail into the main story. It just exists to provide a little texture to the film and acknowledge that all those officers working in the background of any given shot are embroiled in their own cases. And while it is subtle, the implication is made that—at least in 1996—the best way for a woman to get ahead as a detective in this world made up predominantly of men, is to pose as bait. Thankfully, Cohen and director Bradford May present Burke as simply a pragmatist in taking on these cases and not as someone who is power hungry or too ambitious for her own good.

The plotting of the main story is also refreshingly shaggy. Carella and Meyer are never made out to be super cops. They follow leads to dead ends, miss connections the first time around, and are a little too quick to make cynical assumptions about people. There is not the smooth, one clue/interview revelation leads to another until the killer confesses formula that is expected. Instead, a trial and error approach is the way the detectives go about their business, which feels more realistic.

The downside to this style of plotting is that attempts to fill in the lives of Carella and Meyer are shallow at best, hokey at worst. Character development for the two men consists of Carella having a deaf girlfriend and Meyer weighing whether or not to be godfather to the baby of a former prostitute to whom he talked through her emergency delivery.

The job of giving some personality to the characters beyond their police work falls to the solid cast. Midkiff looks and sounds like a poor man’s Nathan Fillion (that’s not a criticism) and gives off the same sense of decency, Pantoliano adjusts his personality from the sleazeball he’s played so often to a slightly more charismatic version of the character he played in The Fugitive, Parker gives a wry sense of humor to the otherwise serious Burke, and Michael Gross is Mr. Reliable as the precinct’s hard-nosed lieutenant.

Despite the better-than-average cast and some good roving camerawork, May is unable to hide the project’s low budget TV movie roots. Street scenes are under-populated; Gross clearly shot his part in one or two days, since his character never leaves his office; and Cohen’s teleplay is overly talky, with reams of expositional dialogue needed to take the place of an action scene or location shooting.

Budget issues aside, Ice is actually a little moodier and darker than most made-for-TV movies of that time. A sympathetic character get slashed to death with a straight razor, stick-up guys rob women at the laundromat of their money and their panties, and no one is actually as innocent as they seem. Don’t get me wrong, we are not talking David Fincher levels of darkness and cynicism, but for the year and the network on which it aired, it shows a little more willingness to challenge viewers than most of the other programming targeting the Law & Order audience.

I have not read the novel on which the film is based, so I cannot comment on how faithful it is. My guess is that is very similar to the book just because it does not feel like a Larry Cohen script. With the exception of a slightly nutty ending and the bizarre wildcard characters of Brother Anthony and Emma, the film feels rather straight forward and lacking his willingness to explore social issues or deconstruct the masculinity of its alpha male lead. It’s also too serious for its own good at times. A little more of Cohen’s subversive sense of humor would have been welcome.

As far as I can tell, it appears that NBC only made three of these adaptations. They aired from 1995-1997 with some cast members carrying over while other roles were re-cast. It’s a shame they didn’t make more of them. They were at least on par with the best early seasons of NYPD Blue and outpaced the drab show Law & Order became after the departure of Michael Moriarty.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com, read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter, and keep up with all of my viewing habits by following me on Letterboxd.

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