Tiller Russell's The Seven Five lets the most corrupt (convicted) NYC cop of the '80s tell his own story. He relishes the chance. Here's Michael Dowd, of Brooklyn's 75th Precinct, describing early relations with his new partner, Kenneth Eurell: "We started to get a little bit of comfortability workin' together. He would take me to Joe's bodega for some fuckin' Heinekens." Dowd's better-than-a-screenwriter cop-talk powers this stellar crime flick, which shares a structure with Goodfellas and the like: the heady first scores, the hubristic highs, the coke-fueled betrayals, the humblings, and the inevitable wire-wearing. It's familiar and infuriating but always enthralling, especially as it allows us to stare dead-on into the eyes of someone we see too rarely — a police officer who has abused our trust and been convicted for it.
Dowd is a hell of a storyteller, perhaps to a fault. Even years later, as he regales Russell's camera, he comes across as too eager, too proud, too into the telling of his misdeeds. He seems pleased that he demanded 24 grand upfront from a drug lord simply to talk about how teaming up could benefit all parties. He expresses remorse about the crimes he committed — thieving evidence, demanding protection money, serving as a police escort when that drug lord deposited cash — the way a reformed fool-around might recall, in great erotic detail, the dalliances he insists he's ashamed of. Dowd even has a go at implicating all of us in his corruption, presenting the first time he shook down a suspect as a natural consequence of the public's ambivalence toward cops: "You feel a little bit underappreciated, you feel like nobody cares, you feel like you're not stemming the flow of crime like you thought you were gonna — and all of a sudden you see an opportunity come along." Then he shrugs. Nobody gave him a hero's parade, so of course he started pocketing guns and money.
Dowd portrays himself as somewhat superhuman and as an Everyman. Offscreen he goes even further than in the film. Last fall, when The Seven Five played at DOC NYC, Dowd proclaimed to the Daily News: "Everybody I've ever spoken to wishes they had been there and probably would have done worse." Everybody he's ever spoken to should feel insulted.
So The Seven Five makes for a fascinating character study, but the doc's drama is also compelling. Here are all the close calls, showdowns, and betrayals you would want from a full season of some antihero cop show. Here also is a wealth of details, telling and absurd, that even the best crime novelists might not hit on: the 100 mph drunk-driving party he, his partner, and their wives took off on after an early score. The new '87 Corvette Dowd treated himself to despite officially making only $600 a week. The ferocious loyalty between Dowd and Eurell and the rest of their department: "We were the best back-up team in the precinct," Dowd says. "If shit went down, and you saw Kenny and me show up, your life came back into your hands. The blood started to flow back into your body."
That loyalty gets tested in the end, of course. It's Dowd's anger at the betrayal that, at last, is the most terrifying thing about this harrowing, illuminating doc: He spent years perverting all that a cop owes the public, yet what seems to him unconscionable today is that Eurell turned rat. Believing that police officers owe more to one another than they do the public might be the greatest of all his moral crimes.