December 18, 1905 [Life of an American Policeman, Police Chasing a Scorching Auto]

At home and on duty, risking his life and saving others', the American Policeman emerges as a particularly cinematic hero: ordinary—his heroism played out before us, just up the street, in the burglarized building, at the river's edge. Maybe this is the American cinematic hero, then, the democratic savior, family man and bold, even heedless, rescuer of runaway horses and would-be suicides.

My father's cousin, Stanley (always "Uncle" to me) was a policeman, an affable man who, in over twenty years, never encountered any violence—he was a doorknob-rattler checking shops, nodding to late passers-by. He would half-grin when I'd ask him if he were ever afraid. "Of what?" he'd ask me quietly. "Well, the possibility, you know, of something happening," I'd offer. He would tell me a policeman was often afraid; that's what made it dangerous—for everyone. "A frightened man," he'd tell me, "is a dangerous man. He'll jump the wrong way—right on your head, mostly—if you spook him. Never," he'd advise, his grin falling away, "scare a copper."

The "scorching auto" sequence, left over from the American policeman's Life, takes us with the lawmen as they pursue anonymous miscreants, the scene an excuse (welcome, I will add) to run us all down the street with the auto, as in Bitzer's New York subway. It looked like a thrilling ride, Coney Island spilling onto the boulevard—and Uncle Stanley's version of things seemed out of place. But as I sat in the dark, I heard his warning. I won't doubt whether our American policemen are heroes (at the least, I know it is an occupation I wouldn't hazard); but, although the staged scenes of the cinema mold the perils of that world into an entertaining homage, I won't forget the shared desperation of both hero and villain as they ply their at-odds trades.


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