The resulting eighteen minutes are a thrilling chase sequence with plenty of trademark stunts and dead pan.
One of the joys of this film is that Keaton never actually does anything wrong. In the first instance he finds a wallet on the ground and tries to return it before being accused of stealing. On the second occasion he sees a crying man and tries to save him and his family from starvation, despite the man in actual fact being a con man while the final brush with the law is due to someone throwing a bomb which lands next to him. This begins a chase sequence which despite creating some memorable turns was a little long in the tooth for my liking. It is said that the plot was conceived as a response to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal during which Keaton’s friend and collaborator Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder and victimised in the press (in part due to his ‘scary’ size) even though there was no evidence to tie him to the crime. (Incidentally the dead woman was found to have died due to a botched abortion). In this case all charges were dropped but it ruined Arbuckle’s career. In Cops Keaton’s character similarly does no wrong but just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One of Keaton’s most enduring images is from this film and is as follows. While being chased by twenty or so Cops, Buster exits an alley, turns 180 degrees and faces them. As he does this a car goes speeding past behind him. Without flinching, Keaton puts out his arm and grabs on to the back of the car, being thrown up into the air until horizontal but away from the chasing police. It’s an incredibly gutsy and dangerous manoeuvre as well as being shocking and funny. Another joke I liked was in the opening scene when Keaton is seen talking to his girlfriend from behind bars. With a title like Cops and Keaton’s never changing stoicism you expect to find that he is in jail but when the camera pulls out it reveals that he is in fact just on the other side of a park gate. This gets the film off to a great start.
Comedy wise this film isn’t up there with the likes of The The Goat or One Week and in terms of story it isn’t in the same league as The The General or Steamboat Bill Jr but the film manages to combine both comedy and plot in a satisfying manner while not leaving you short of either. The prolonged chase may give it a bit of an unsophisticated feel but when you add in Keaton’s subtle humour and basis for the plot what you actually get is a funny and interesting film, laced with satire and poignancy.