Charlie Chaplin’s penultimate film for Essanay is regarded as amongst the best of his output for the company. The film was actually released after his first film for the Mutual Film Corporation The Floorwalker, over five months after his previous Essanay film Burlesque on Carmen. Another interesting release related fact is that Police released over two years before his finally Essanay film Triple Trouble which was created in part by Chaplin regular Leo White by piecing together unused shots from other Chaplin films including this and the unfinished feature Life.
Police stars Chaplin as a recently released convict trying to make it in a cruel and hostile world. The initial plot follows along the same lines as much of Chaplin’s work. There were portions of Police that reminded me of Modern Times and the idea of the Tramp struggling to survive was used by Chaplin time and time again. It has been suggested that Chaplin borrowed the plot from Broncho Billy’s His Regeneration for which he had an uncredited cameo and I agree that the character development at least is shared between the two.
Having been swindled by a dodgy God botherer and having no money to pay for a bed for the night, the ex-con is held up at gunpoint by a man who turns out to be his ex-cell mate (Wesley Ruggles). The thief convinces the Tramp to assist him in robbing a nearby house and the two set about breaking in. Once inside they are confronted by the Daughter of the House (Edna Purviance) and chased by a number of Cops (Leo White, John Rand & Fred Goodwins). The Tramp manages to become the hero of the piece late on when he saves the Daughter of the House from a nasty attack.
Police begins very promisingly with some wonderful comic business early on. A highlight came when Chaplin visited a fruit seller and tried numerous apples, taking a bit and putting them back until he found one to his liking. The first time he put an apple back I actually snorted with laughter. I also enjoyed the scene in which Chaplin meets his ex-cell mate and sneakily robs him while the man is searching Chaplin for money. It’s subtle and clever.
On a technical level the film is very good. I liked the scene in which Chaplin and Ruggles were shown only in shadow. This isn’t something I remember seeing from Chaplin before and felt a bit German expressionist. I also thought that the use of filters was very accomplished. Filters are one of my least favourite aspects of early cinema but here Chaplin uses them well, leaving you in no doubt as to the time or setting of a scene.
I felt that the second half didn’t quite live up to the first and certainly wasn’t as funny. That being said it was actually more reminiscent of later Chaplin, forsaking jokes in favour of plot and character development. Unfortunately the romantic element just doesn’t live up to the likes of City Lights and the film’s ending is a little flat.