Patrolman P: Film Review

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True crime doc offers gritty 1970s mood but no major revelations.

Director Ido Mizrahy and "New York" magazine reporter Geoffrey Gray dig into a Serpico-era scandal.

The story of a dirty cop who may be a bit less terrible than the world believes him to be, Ido Mizrahy's Patrolman P asks if Bill Phillips, an NYC police detective who served three decades in prison for murder, was really just a run-of-the-mill shakedown thug who was framed when he ratted on his fellow cops. Fans of true crime and Serpico-era New York will take interest at fests, but in the end, the film can neither prove nor disprove Phillips' claims of innocence. The result is an atmospheric but underwhelming tour through one of the NYPD's darkest periods.

New York magazine reporter Geoffrey Gray is our guide, narrating his pursuit of answers in the case. We understand why Gray came to believe Phillips' claims: He certainly made plenty of powerful enemies and has maintained that he didn't kill anyone even during parole hearings, where showing remorse would have set him free. Finding most former cops unwilling to speak to him, Gray hires a husband-and-wife team of ex-cop private investigators. Though they produce interviews with some targets of Phillips' intimidation (including famed hooker Xaviera Hollander), nobody can give them anything definitive about the killings.

What Gray and Mizrahy can do is show where Phillips fit in a scandal the movies have depicted many times before. The Knapp Commission, established to investigate corruption after the accusations made by Frank Serpico, caught Phillips taking bribes and pressured him into wearing a wire. With his help, dozens of cops were indicted. Phillips, naturally, became persona non grata in precinct houses.

In present-day interviews, Phillips describes an environment in which taking bribes was what separated rookies from real cops, a practice that was essential to earning the trust of one's peers. But he was far from reluctant once he got started: He lived a lavish lifestyle with his stolen money, spending whole weekends away from his wife "working" while actually going on trips with a mistress. (As we see how well he sets himself up after his eventual release from prison, we wonder what the movie fails to ask: Did he stash a ton of that dirty money away for retirement while he exposed his fellow crooks?)

The film recounts the 1968 Christmas Eve murders Phillips was accused of and the two trials that followed -- F. Lee Bailey nearly got him acquitted the first time around, but the second sent him to jail. There's plenty of room for doubt here and to believe the theory that Phillips was convicted on false testimony. But Gray's pursuit of the truth fizzles after a polygraph test is inconclusive. The film, deflated, isn't sure how to present the abandonment of a mystery it can't solve.

Production Company: Motherlode Productions

Director: Ido Mizrahy

Screenwriters: Ido Mizrahy, Geoffrey Gray, Ilan Benatar

Producers: Ido Mizrahy, Geoffrey Gray

Executive producers: Josh Braun, Dan Braun

Director of photography: Boaz Freund

Music: John Beasley, Lawrence Shragge

Editors: Jeremy Cohan, Ilan Benatar

Sales: Submarine

No rating, 90 minutes