FILM / How to arrest your attention: A police film from Canada plays on themes of reality and illusion, but still delivers an uncompromising message. Sheila Johnston reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF THERE is anyone still out there who believes that the best way to find out the time is to ask a friendly policeman, they might do well to cast an eye over David Wellington's I Love a Man in Uniform. Its central figure is a mild- mannered bank clerk who moonlights as an actor, with little success, until he lands a role as a policeman on a TV series called Crimewave. This is the cruddy cop show to end them all. It consists, says Wellington, of 'lots of blue light and wet streets' and dog- eared dialogue of the 'Freeze, asshole' variety. The character is called Flanagan: an Irish cop.

Alas, our hero falls in love with his shiny new leather uniform and the miserable cliches he practises daily in front of the mirror; it is a short step to strutting his stuff on the streets. As his fantasy blossoms, Flanagan takes to apprehending innocent bystanders; (even though he doesn't does not have the nerve actually to arrest them); he becomes involved with a ring of corrupt cops; life imitates pulp.

The comedy of people blinded by external appearances is an old one. But the issue became sadly topical again while the film was still in pre- production, when four LA cops felt licensed by their uniforms to beat up a motorist.

Wellington believes that the Rodney King case helped him clinch the finance for his project, but the original idea had already sprung from elsewhere. 'There had been some stuff in the newspapers about people pretending to be cops and committing crimes in police uniforms - Ted Bundy, the Florida serial killer, used to dress up as one, and it was a sexy thing, because he's very handsome and articulate; he had all these serial killer groupies around the courtroom.

'The real inspiration, though, comes out of my fear of police. We have lots of cop shows on television and the portrayal of policemen I've usually found a little frightening. Lots of guns and shooting and good guys killing bad guys and everybody else being happy about it.'

Wellington, who is Canadian, set his story there, although the cops in his film are rather more stylish than anything one is likely to see in downtown Toronto. 'There are Ontario plates on the cars and the city is very identifiable. We have to change the uniforms for aesthetic reasons. We were making a film about a guy who becomes fetishistically obsessed with wearing this uniform, and the Toronto police uniforms are ugly - sort of blue polyester, not the kind of thing you'd want to put on. So we looked through all these books of police outfits - the one we chose was modelled on policemen in Fifties Rome - they had beautiful uniforms. Someone recently told me Giorgio Armani designed the new Italian police uniforms, so they're looking very sharp down there (in fact it seems he created a special tropical uniform for Italian troops in Beirut, but the principle remains). And Chicago policemen look really scary because they have leather jackets, which shine at night like metal, and these black and white checks on the hats. I don't think you could set this story in London.

'We thought that the actors getting the uniform from a TV show was reasonably credible. Actual policemen, as I understand it, aren't supposed to take their own uniforms home, so that they don't 'freelance', though if they're tired they do occasionally drive home in it. It's a real licence to do a lot of things that you can't do if you're wearing a cardigan.'

Some may doubt that a fake tin badge could allow anyone to get away with all this stuff, but Wellington tells the story of something that happened early in the shoot which convinced him it could happen. 'The first scene in the story is of a policeman spinning a nightstick. We were shooting with no budget, so we went to a very busy street in downtown Toronto and just positioned this guy on a street corner, in uniform.

'We shot five takes from way, way, way back with a 400mm lens. All these people walked past and nobody gave him a second look. He doesn't even look like a Toronto cop. I don't think it's really feasible that someone could pretend he was a policeman around other policemen, but that doesn't undermine what the film's about.'

I Love A Man In Uniform is not exactly flattering in its portrayal of real policemen: in the film, they are just as crooked and brutal as their TV alter egos; and perhaps real-life cops, like any other minority group, will be monitoring the film for political correctness. But it is too early yet to know whether p c PCs will be picketing the picture for cop-ism.

'We had to have policemen around during the shoot, to direct traffic and stuff. But we always tried to keep them fairly well away from the action.

'They liked the title of the film and they liked the hats. But, since our cars looked different, I think they thought we were doing an American movie. I don't think any real cops have seen the finished film; I don't expect that they'll like it very much. In fact, every policeman in North America is potentially my enemy now. I'm a little concerned about getting pulled over in my car. They're gonna pop up my name on the data base: 'David Wellington, so you're that guy. Come with me, I have a surprise for you: dollars 6,000 outstanding in parking tickets'. . . '

'I Love A Man in Uniform' plays at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, tomorrow at 8.30 and at the Cameo on Friday at 2.00. Details from the Filmhouse, 88 Lothian Road (031-228 2688).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments